Leonardo was, first of all, a painter and an artist.
But he was also a great thinker.
There are few people today who have never heard the name Leonardo da Vinci. But it is five hundred years since he died, in a small town in northern France. Why is his name still so well known? Who was he, and what did he give to the world?
Leonardo was, first of all, a painter and an artist who wanted to examine, describe and show through his work the beauty of the natural world. But he was also a great thinker. He hoped to use his understanding of nature to invent and build machines that would improve the world he lived in. Leonardo was admired in his own time as an artist and as an inventor. Today, people still think that his paintings are beautiful, although only a small number of them exist. We also admire the cleverness of his inventions, although we only know these from his writings and his drawings.
In 1994 Bill Gates, then head of Microsoft, bought a book of Leonardo's writings and drawings for $30.8 million. The book is thirty-six pages long and is filled with Leonardo's scientific notes from the years 1508 and 1509. It is the only book of Leonardo's writings owned by a private person in modern times.
Leonardo was born in 1452 and died in 1519. This was during the time that we now call the Renaissance. The word 'renaissance' is French and means 'rebirth'. Renaissance was first used to describe this time in history, and especially Italian history, in the nineteenth century. But the idea of the Renaissance began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At this time, people were looking back to and admiring the literature and art of Greece and Rome from 2,000 or 1,500 years before. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists and writers wanted to copy what they thought was beautiful from that distant time. They also compared the art and books that they were producing with works from the past. Some even thought of it as a competition.
At the same time, a number of people were excited about questioning the world around them. The great thinkers did not want just to accept ideas and facts that were told to them. They wanted to find out for themselves what was and was not true. Leonardo belonged to this group of thinkers, and he was one of the most important. He was always looking at nature and thinking about ideas to help him understand the world better. Many artists and thinkers were interested in science as well as art, but Leonardo was unusual because he was interested in a large number of subjects and he studied them in great detail. He enjoyed the natural world and the wonderful things he saw in it, and he never missed an opportunity to learn. He led the way for others in his studies.
Childhood in Vinci
Leonardo was born on 15 April 1452. His mother was called Caterina and his father was a lawyer called Piero da Vinci. This surname means 'from Vinci', and Vinci is the name of the small country town in the west of Tuscany in Italy where Leonardo was born. We know the day and hour — Saturday at around 10.30 p.m. — because his grandfather wrote it down. His grandfather, who was also a lawyer, lived in Vinci, but Piero worked in the Tuscan capital, Florence. Leonardo's parents were not married, but Leonardo was part of his father's family from his birth.
Leonardo probably spent much of his childhood in Vinci and the countryside around it. You can see from the photograph of Vinci opposite that it is a small town on a hill. It is surrounded by green fields and trees and there are valleys and other low hills. It is certainly clear from Leonardo's drawings and from his writings that he knew and loved countryside, birds and animals. He tells us that his first memory was of a bird.
Leonardo and his family
We do not really know much about Leonardo's relationship with his father, or with his mother, who lived somewhere near Vinci. Leonardo lived with his grandparents in Vinci while he was young, in a house with a large vegetable garden. In 1457 his grandfather, Antonio, recorded that he shared his house with his wife, his son (Leonardo's father), Piero's wife and Leonardo. Leonardo's uncle, Francesco, was twenty-two at the time and sometimes lived with them.
By 1469 Antonio had died and Leonardo, who was then seventeen, was living with his father and other family members in Florence. Leonardo's first stepmother, Albiera, had died and Leonardo's father was now married to Francesca, who was twenty. Uncle Francesco and his wife also lived with them. Francesco did not have any children of his own, so perhaps he thought of Leonardo almost as a son.
By the time Leonardo's father died in 1504, at the age of eighty, Leonardo had nine half-brothers and two half-sisters. Piero did not leave anything to Leonardo when he died, but Francesco left all his property to Leonardo. Piero's younger children were not pleased about this, so there was a legal argument between the brothers led by Giuliano, the eldest. But by late 1514 it seems the anger had gone because Leonardo met Giuliano in Rome and did his best to help him in a business matter. Giuliano's wife wrote to Giuliano from Florence and sent her best wishes to Leonardo, who she said was 'a most excellent and special man'.
Some important dates and events in Leonardo's Life
15 April 1452
Leonardo is born in Vinci, a small country town. Lives there with his grandparents, father and family.
He has moved to Florence. Living with his father and family and learning how to be an artist. Studying with the artist Andrea Verrocchio, who makes both paintings and sculpture.
He becomes an independent painter in Florence, although sometimes still works on paintings with Verrocchio.
By 25 April 1483, to December 1499
He has moved to Milan. Working for the Sforza family, who govern the city. Paints pictures, makes sculpture, works as an engineer and architect, and plans decorations for plays and parties.
The 16 March 1485
He sees the sun completely covered with the earth's shadow. Very interested in understanding the movements of the sun, moon and stars.
The 2 April 1489
He draws the bones of a human head. Studying the human body as a scientist, which also helps him to be a better painter.
He moves away from Milan soon after the Sforza lose control of the government to the French. Travels to Mantua for a short stay, where he is welcomed as an artist. Then goes to Venice, where he gives the government advice on controlling an important river.
By 24 April 1500, to summer 1506
He has returned to Florence. Lives there most of the time — working for the government on a big painting in an important public building and on military jobs.
Summer and winter 1502
He is working for Cesare Borgia, the Pope's son, as a military engineer in central Italy. Travels around looking at the defence of different towns. Also makes notes on all sorts of things that interest him — like the way boats with sails are moved by the wind, or the musical sound of falling water.
June 1506 to September 1513
He returns to live in Milan. Works for the French government there as a painter, engineer and architect. Makes a few visits back to Florence.
December 1513 to summer 1516
He moves to Rome because the Pope's brother, Giuliano de' Medici, has asked him to come there to work for him.
He goes to live in France to work for King Francois I in Amboise. Is much admired by the king and is called 'The King's Painter', which is a sign of his special position.
By 10 October 1517
He is living in a house at Clos Luce, on the edge of Amboise, given to him by the French king.
2 May 1519
He dies at Clos Luce, to the sadness of his assistant and friend, Francesco Melzi, who has been with him for years.
Learning an artist's skills
At some time in the 1460s — certainly before 1469 — Leonardo had moved to Florence. By 1472 he began training as an artist with the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, and sometime within the next four years he was living in Verrocchio's house. It was quite usual at this time for both pupils and skilled assistants to live in the house of their employer and to pay for their living costs — a kind of rent.
Verrocchio was one of the chief artists in Florence at that time and he had a number of other artists working for him. Leonardo learned all the skills of a painter, which included how to make paints. This was an important skill because these could not be bought in shops. Instead, painters had to make paints from careful mixing of rocks and earth with egg or with plant oils. Leonardo probably also learned about sculpture from Verrocchio and his assistants. Verrocchio was a famous sculptor of bronze. Leonardo was taught how to mix and heat metals, how to make the shapes of the sculpture, and then how to clean and shine it when it was cold.
Leonardo had strong ideas about how people should study to be painters. A student needed to study carefully, detail by detail. It was important too to study only with people who shared your desire to learn. If you could not find people like this, you should work alone. Sometimes it was actually good to work alone: you could give your full attention to your study instead of listening to friends talking. But it could also be useful to draw with other people, because you would want to work as hard as they did, and you could learn from their successes and their mistakes.
A good pupil, Leonardo believed, tried to be better than his teacher and should never lose an opportunity to think about art or to learn. He wrote:
I have found it very useful when in bed in the dark to remember the details of the things I have studied; it helps to make them stay in the memory.
A student could imagine landscapes or fights or people's faces and clothes in the marks on a wall or the different stones in a wall.
Leonardo's pupils and assistants
When Leonardo started to work for himself, a number of people came to work for him. Some of them worked with him for a long time and travelled with him when he moved from one city to another to live. Others stayed a much shorter time.
There were two people who came to Leonardo when they were boys, probably as pupils, and then spent many years working and living in his house. The first was Gian Giacomo Caprotti. He came to Leonardo in 1490, aged ten, from a small village near Milan. Leonardo recorded how much he paid for clothes and shoes for Giacomo in the first ten months, but mainly he listed Giacomo's bad behaviour and what and how he stole from Leonardo, Leonardo's friends and others. Around 1494 in one of his notes, Leonardo called him Salai, and this was the name that he always used for him after this.
Salai stayed with Leonardo for many years. In 1497 in Milan Leonardo recorded the cost of a very expensive coat for him, silver in colour with green edges. He gave Salai the money to buy it; but Salai could still behave badly because he stole the change! Salai probably learned to behave better because Leonardo sent him from Florence to Milan as his messenger on business matters, and also, later, a number of times from Rome to Milan. Salai stayed in service with Leonardo when he moved to France in 1516, and was paid 100 ecus' a year by the French government. He was described by them as Leonardo's 'servant', but this amount of money was much more than a house servant was paid, so they probably meant that Salai was an assistant to Leonardo. It is not certain, though, where he was when Leonardo died.
The second person was Giovanni Francesco Melzi, known as Francesco. He was Milanese and probably came to Leonardo aged thirteen or fourteen when Leonardo lived in Milan for the second time. Francesco had been to school but probably learned to paint with Leonardo. But, just as importantly, he helped him with writing things down. In France with Leonardo, Francesco was described as 'the Italian gentleman who is with Leonardo' and he was paid 400 ecus a year by the French — four times as much as Salai. Francesco helped Leonardo in his studies and Leonardo valued him a lot, as we shall see later. Francesco's feelings about Leonardo are clear from the letter he wrote to Leonardo's eldest half-brother on Leonardo's death:
He was like the best father to me,
I cannot say how much pain his death gave me.
As long as I live, I will always be sad.
What was Leonardo like?
We have a number of documents about the life of Leonardo, as well as his own writings. In the late 1520s Paolo Giovio, who perhaps knew Leonardo in Milan or Rome, said that Leonardo was very polite, generous and spoke in a pleasant way; he was also very handsome. Another writer also said that Leonardo was very attractive and that he had beautiful long hair. He tells us that Leonardo normally wore a short rose-pink jacket, at a time when the fashion was for long jackets. In 1550 another writer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was very strong and that he loved horses and riding.
Leonardo was unusual for the time because by 1516 he did not eat meat, although we do not know if this was true all his life. He was also left-handed and his writing almost always ran backwards. This means that his sentences are read from right to left instead of from left to right. You will notice this in some of the pictures in this book. You can read Leonardo's writing by holding it in front of a mirror and then reading it. If you do this, all the letters and words are perfectly formed. He wrote like this because it was the natural way for him to use his pen, but we do not know if he painted only with his left hand.
Perhaps Leonardo described his idea of a perfect life when he wrote:
The painter sits relaxed in front of his work. He holds a very light brush with soft colour on it. He is well dressed in clothes he likes.
His house is clean and full of lovely pictures. He often listens to people playing music for him or reading to him from good books.
'Good books' suggests serious works, and a list of Leonardo's own books tells us that he did have many that were serious. But his idea of enjoyable reading also included popular adventures and humorous stories.
Leonardo's life and travels
Although he was born in Vinci, Leonardo thought of himself as a Florentine; in documents he called himself 'Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine' or even just 'Leonardo Florentine'. He probably lived there for about twenty years of his life, at different times. Florence was famous in Italy and beyond for its artists, and it was the place where he learned his art.
Leonardo lived through times of peace and war in Italy. Florence was mostly peaceful while he lived there. The city, and a large area of Tuscany round it, was governed by a big group of rich businessmen. There was a strong interest in art, literature and learning in Florence and much of Italy at this time. Many rich men and women wanted to spend money on new paintings and sculpture for their houses and for the churches and other buildings where they went to religious services. Leonardo's first paintings were for men and women like these.
We do not know why Leonardo decided to leave Florence, but some time between autumn 1481 and spring 1483 he moved to Milan. Milan was a rich capital city in northern Italy, and one of the biggest cities in Europe — only Paris and London were larger. It was governed by the Sforza family. They wanted good architects, artists, musicians, historians and writers to work in their city because it showed their own importance and the importance of their state: the arts were almost as important as money and military power at that time. When a single family or person governed a city, there was the chance of big jobs because they could spend large sums of money as they wished.
The most powerful man in Milan was Ludovico Sforza, although he did not officially govern the city until 1495. Leonardo wrote about himself around 1483 in a letter to Ludovico:
In times of peace I believe I can give complete satisfaction, equal to any other man, in architecture in the planning of both public and private buildings, and in guiding water from one place to another. Also I can make sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and in painting I can do everything that it is possible to do, as well as any other man.
Ludovico and Milan therefore offered Leonardo exciting opportunities. He painted pictures and staged theatrical events. He began work on some big bronze sculptures. He gave his opinions on building and engineering problems. He surveyed land and he advised how to control rivers and water. In the 1490s he was listed as one of Ludovico's top four engineers.
In 1499, though, Ludovico Sforza lost control of Milan and all its land to the French army. Leonardo moved a large sum of money from Milan to a bank in Florence and left the city soon afterwards.
Mantua, Venice and return to Florence
Leonardo did not go straight back to Florence. Instead he went east to Mantua to paint for Isabella d'Este, the wife of the man who governed there. He then continued to Venice for a short time. Leonardo probably had not been to Florence for many years, but a few months after leaving Milan he was back in the city. A man called Pietro Novellara later reported from Florence that Leonardo had only done one, unfinished drawing; 'His mind is filled with geometry. He is not pleased by painting.' Leonardo was also probably advising on a number of architectural and engineering jobs during this time.
From the summer to the winter of 1502, Leonardo was out of Florence working in central Italy for Cesare Borgia, the son of the Pope, as a military engineer and architect. He did the same kind of job for the Florentines six months later near the city of Pisa and the Tuscan coast.
Back in Florence after this, Leonardo started making drawings for a large painting in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was the main public building in Florence. Leonardo, with several assistants, continued working on this job for three years but only finished some of it. During this time he did a number of other jobs as well. For example, in early 1504 he was in an official group of Florentines — mostly artists — who had to decide where to place the marble sculpture of David that Michelangelo had sculpted for the government.
Milan and Rome
In June 1506 Leonardo returned to Milan. He was welcomed by the French, who now governed the city. Leonardo was paid well by the French to work for them in Milan as an artist, engineer and architect. But the Sforza family wanted Milan back and Leonardo was there in December 1511 when Swiss soldiers, fighting for the Sforza family, attacked the area. Leonardo drew pictures of a village called Desio near Milan as it burned. There was more fighting in the area around Milan all through the next year. We are not sure where Leonardo was, but he stayed in or near Milan for much of the following year after the French had lost control of the city. In the autumn, though, Leonardo left Milan for Rome, where he lived for about three years as a guest of the Pope. Leonardo was sixty-one when he left Milan this time. He had spent about twenty-three years of his life there and it was a very important place to him.
But Leonardo had not been forgotten by the French. In the autumn of 1516 Leonardo accepted an invitation to go to France to the court of King Francois I in Amboise in the Loire Valley. Leonardo was much admired by Francois and was paid very well by him. He was given the title of 'The King's Painter'. The king also gave him a large house at Clos Luce, on the edge of Amboise. In October 1517 it was reported that Leonardo had a weak right hand so he could not paint easily, but that he was still drawing and teaching.
Ten days before he died, Leonardo recorded what he would like to happen to his property after his death. He asked for his body to lie at the church of St Florentin in Amboise. Leonardo never married and there is no record that he had any children. He left all his books, painting equipment, portraits, his clothes and his money in France to Francesco Melzi. He gave a servant half of a garden on the edge of Milan, all the furniture from his house at Clos Luce and money collected from boats using a canal in Milan. The other half of the Milanese garden Leonardo gave to Salai; Salai had already built a house there and Leonardo gave him that as well. He gave Maturina, a female servant, a good quality black coat with fur on the inside and two ducats. To his brothers in Florence, Leonardo gave quite a large sum of money that was in a bank in Florence. From Melzi's letter we know they also got a farm at Fiesole, just north of Florence.
Leonardo died in his house at Clos Luce on Monday, 2 May 1519.
Leonardo and Nature
'Nature has kindly given us things everywhere to copy', wrote Leonardo. In all his activities, Leonardo was trying to discover the rules that control nature.
In the modern world, art and science are two very separate activities, but in Leonardo's time they were closely connected. Science meant mathematics and medical studies. How could these be connected with art? Mathematics included practical work like surveying land for making maps as well as measuring the movements of the stars in the sky. An artist might need to measure the different parts of the body. He could also use mathematics to place things in relationship to each other in a drawing or painting so the scene looked correct. You will see a good example in the painting of The Last Supper in the next chapter.
Mathematics was also connected to music because musical sounds have a fixed relationship with each other that can be described in numbers. Leonardo himself was a very good musician and liked to play an instrument and sing.
More than this, though, Leonardo believed that numbers were a part of all things in the world and he said that 'without them nothing can be done.'
'Nature has kindly given us things everywhere to copy', wrote Leonardo. In all his activities, Leonardo was trying to discover the rules that control nature.
In his search for those rules, he looked very carefully at a lot of examples and details. Actual experience was more important to him than opinion, and he worked from facts to ideas. Above all, Leonardo wanted to understand how and why things worked. His purpose was to examine the world so he could copy it in beautiful paintings and sculptures. But he also wanted to learn from the clever solutions of nature.
Leonardo was always drawing — quick little drawings to catch a movement or a shape, or more careful drawings done at a desk with a pen and ruler.
In July 2001 a small drawing by Leonardo was sold for $12 million.
It was the most expensive drawing in the world.
Leonardo was a painter, and a painter needs to know about light and the effects of light. Your view of a hand or a rock or a tree is affected by the way light falls on them. Light and shadow help to bring them into view or make them disappear. Colour is affected by the brightness of light and the darkness of shadows. The effects of light also change at different times of day and even at different times of the year. Leonardo noted that the outside leaves of a tree take some blue from the colour of the air; the ones in the middle look more green because of all the other green leaves around them.
In his paintings, Leonardo wanted to copy the way that humans see light and colour, so his pictures would make you imagine real experience. When you look into the distance, for example from a hill out over the countryside, light affects how and what you see. Things get bluer but also less sharp if they are farther away from you. In the next chapter you can see this in some of the landscapes in his paintings.
Leonardo did not just look at things out in the world; he also positioned things so he could examine them in a controlled way. You can see this in the drawing below, where Leonardo is showing how light makes shadows as it comes through a window and falls on a ball. Leonardo drew and recorded studies like this carefully in a book.
Light on a ball. The ball is seen from above, with the window at the top of the page; the light from the window is shown as lines. Leonardo shows how the shadows fall behind the ball when light comes from slightly different directions through the window — as the sun moves during the day, for example.
The shadow is always darkest where no light reaches it from the window.
Leonardo also looked at and thought about the sun, the moon and the stars. He discussed how light and heat come from the sun. He noted how the moon sends back light from the sun instead of having its own light. He talked about the size and measurements of the sun, moon and stars, and also how things can appear larger or smaller than they really are because of the effects of curves and distance. He did tests to prove these ideas; he did not just repeat what other people had said.
From his study of light, Leonardo wanted to understand sight. He examined human eyes, and even animals' eyes. Some animals and birds are awake at night and need to be able to see in the dark, and Leonardo noted that the centres of their eyes got larger when there was less light. He wrote that if you shone a light at a cat's eye in the dark, the eye looked like fire. We now know that this is because the back of a cat's eye is almost like a mirror. When light falls on it, it shines back. This helps the cat to see better at night. But Leonardo noticed that even a cat could not see if it was totally dark; then, he said, they used their excellent sense of smell to find their way around.
There are all kinds of drawings by Leonardo of animals. Sometimes these are careful drawings with measurements of the different parts of an animal — a dog's head, a horse's leg. But opposite you can see an example of the way that he also tries to catch the character of an animal. In these quick drawings of a child with a cat we can see how interested he was in forms, movement and emotion.
In the top drawing the child holds the cat with love and the cat pushes its head against the child. The cat's tail sticks up and its back legs move forwards as it climbs onto the child's legs. In the next drawing the child bends forward and runs his hand along the cat's back. You can almost hear the happy sound the cat makes. Then in the third picture the child holds the cat so tightly that the cat's body is bent out of shape. It looks less happy. Looking at these drawings you can imagine how the child and the cat feel, and they probably remind you of cats and children that you have seen yourself.
Landscape, rocks, plants and trees
Leonardo filled pages and pages of paper with drawings and notes of the things that he saw and thought about. He wrote about types of rocks and how water moved, he recorded the plants that he saw growing in the countryside, and he studied the shapes of the land. For him the world was full of energy and natural forces; sometimes he even talked about the world as a living body.
When giving advice on painting, Leonardo told other painters:
You must leave your home in the town, and leave your family and friends, and go over the mountains and valleys into the country.
He also wrote that you needed to be alone to experience and study nature in the fullest way. Leonardo tells us about some of his own experiences alone in the country and the effect they had on him. One day, pulled by my enthusiastic desire to see different and strange shapes made by nature, I walked some distance among dark rocks until I came to the entrance of a big hole in the side of a hill. I stood in front of this for some time shocked, not understanding it. Suddenly there were two emotions inside me: fear and desire. Fear of the heavy darkness and desire to see if there was anything wonderful inside the hill.
Emotions themselves interested him because as an artist Leonardo wanted to be able to understand how they affected people's faces and movements. He wanted to show feelings and thoughts in his paintings and sculpture.
Leonardo wanted to know about the smallest detail, and what was usual or unusual, so he wanted to see lots of examples of the same things as well as lots of different kinds of things. Leonardo showed many kinds of plants in his drawings and paintings, and his work is admired by scientists who study plants. When you look at the paintings in the next chapter, see how many different plants you can find and recognise.
Leonardo was very interested in water, from the smallest drops and streams to great rivers and seas. At least two of his books of notes are only about water. The Codex Leicester, as we call it now, which he wrote around 1507 to 1510, is all about the forms and power of water. In Milan from September to October 1508 Leonardo filled another book with notes under the title Of the world and waters.
Leonardo wanted to use these studies in two ways — first for his painting and second to control the movement of water and to make machines powered by water. He wanted to be able to paint not just rivers and seas but the way that water in the air changes the colour of the sky and affects how you see a distant view. He describes how he saw a storm on the River Arno:
The wind coming back hit the water and lifted it up, making a big hollow.
The water was lifted straight up into the air. The colour was similar to that of a cloud. I saw this on the sand in the river. The sand was hollowed out deeper than the height of a man, and the sand and little stones were thrown around over a wide area. It appeared in the air like a really tall building and the top spread out like the branches of a really tall tree.
A number of Leonardo's later drawings show enormous storms. He wrote:
I have seen movements of air so angry that they have picked up the largest trees of the forests and whole roofs of big houses as they went. This same anger made a deep hollow and moved stones, sand and water a great distance through the air.
These notes and drawings are reminders of the terrible power of nature to destroy. But for Leonardo there was also beauty in the forms and movements.
His other drawings of water show this double character of water: great energy and very attractive and pleasing shapes.
The curves and movements of water were, said Leonardo, 'like hair'. He was also interested in making drawings of women's long hair, which was put up on their heads in complicated styles. These styles were very popular among young women in the fifteenth century. His interest in complicated curved forms also included drawings of knots. He used these ideas in interesting ways. He painted a room in the castle in Milan for Ludovico Sforza, and in it trees seemed to be growing up on all sides of the room. He painted the branches of the trees as the ceiling of the room, with all their green leaves. He wanted you to imagine that you were in a little wood in a garden. If you looked up through the branches, you could just see the blue sky above. Then a golden line of connected and complicated knots ran through and around the branches and leaves. So it seemed almost to be a garden building made of living wood.
People were as much the subject of Leonardo's study as landscapes, animals and plants. To make a person in a painting or sculpture look real and alive, an artist needs to understand how a real body moves or how a living man or woman stands or sits. Artists, therefore, have to look very carefully at people. Their drawings record what they have seen. We have already seen an example of this in Leonardo's drawings of the child with a cat. Many of his other drawings are also of people and animals in movement.
He drew, for example, figures doing different activities. None of the figures wore clothes because he wanted to show clearly what happened to their arms, backs and legs as they worked. One drawing shows four men — or one man from different sides — who are digging. In another drawing, on the same sheet of paper, men are carrying packages and holding them in different positions. Drawings like these give a real sense of people's actions and activities.
If you were painting pictures of people, he said, you needed to know how they behaved — were they male, female, young, old? Were they rich or poor and what did they do? You needed to separate them into types and then separate them again so 'the men do not all appear to be brothers'. A friend of Leonardo in Milan wrote:
When Leonardo wanted to draw or paint a figure, he first thought about what kind of person they were. Then, when he had decided, he went to the places where he knew people of that kind could be found. He looked closely at their faces, their clothes, and the way they moved their bodies. He watched how they behaved. When he saw anything that he was looking for, he recorded it with a pencil in a little book which was always hanging from his belt. Sometimes, it seems, Leonardo went one more step. When he wanted to draw laughing country men, we are told, he chose some and arranged a party for them. Then he told them stories until they laughed so much that they almost fell on the floor. He carefully watched their movements, and later made a drawing of them. This drawing had the same effect on people as his stories had.
Leonardo did not want to make his paintings of people so perfect that they were not real or they all looked the same: 'Beauty of the face may be equal in different people, but it never takes the same form,' he said. When you look at some of the paintings of young women in the next chapter, you can think about how Leonardo makes each of them different and recognisable. It is now very hard to see the details of his painting The Last Supper, but there too Leonardo wanted each of Christ's pupils to look different and to act differently from each other. This is because in his opinion every person feels emotion differently, and not everyone is going to have the same emotions either.
Leonardo also wanted to draw and paint correctly the clothes that people wore. As a young man he spent many hours practising drawing how real cloth fell around a body. He wanted to understand the forms and get the shadows right to make his art look real. Later he also wrote detailed descriptions of the forms of clothes and how they moved and lay differently as they fell over the body or over other clothes.
Because doctors had to understand how all the parts of the human body worked, anatomy was also of interest to artists. In the fifteenth century, close examination of real bodies was only just beginning. Leonardo played a very important part in this study. In the beginning his drawings were of the way that bodies moved and the shapes and forms that were made when a body stood or sat, for example. Then Leonardo became more interested in examining the details of bodies and what lies under the skin.
In Florence, perhaps in 1507 or 1508, Leonardo was able to cut up some bodies of people who had just died. He said around this time that he had cut up more than ten bodies. This was hundreds of years before fridges were invented so bodies did not stay fresh for long. So when he wanted to understand all the veins of the body Leonardo had to cut up two bodies, one after the other, because it took some time to do his examination. He made drawings and detailed notes about what he saw.
One of the bodies was of an old man in Florence. Leonardo had met him just before he died:
This old man, a few hours before his death, told me that he had lived one hundred years and that he had no diseases but was just weak. And so, sitting on a bed in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, without any movement or sign of pain, he passed from this life. And I cut up his body to see what had made his death so kind.
In the drawing opposite of a man's arm, we can see how Leonardo shows all the veins. Leonardo's study here centre on the movement of blood around the body, especially the veins. He compared the way blood moved through the body and the forms of veins with the movement of water and the shapes that streams and rivers make. He called the shapes of the veins in the body a 'tree'. So he was connecting his studies of the body with his studies of other parts of the natural world. To understand how the body worked, Leonardo was also interested in changes over time and the effects and signs of those changes. He was looking for reasons, not just at appearance or how things worked.
In spring 1510 Leonardo wrote that he believed he would finish all his work on anatomy. Perhaps he had a plan to produce a book on the subject. Leonardo thought, though, that his drawings showed things more clearly than words:
Oh writer, what words can you find to describe the whole arrangement as perfectly as in this drawing?
But one drawing or view was not enough. To understand the body you needed to see it from different sides; for example, from the top, from below, and from each side of an arm or a leg. For the bone of an arm or leg you needed five views, because you had to cut through it. Often, though, Leonardo made even more drawings than this of a single body part.
For Leonardo the natural world was always interesting and always full of rich ideas. The natural world was at the centre of his studies. In his opinion,
Although clever humans make different inventions, they can never find any inventions more beautiful, better matched to their purpose or clearer than nature's. In nature's inventions there is never too little or too much.
To understand the natural world and to learn from it you had to keep studying. This was at the heart of Leonardo's art, his thinking and his inventions. But to understand the big picture, he said, you also had to study everything in the smallest detail.
Leonardo the Painter
'You can see all sides of a sculpture, but painting has to give you the idea of something round when really you are looking at a flat surface.'
Leonardo thought that a painter could tell a story more easily and immediately than a writer by showing exactly how things looked. He also compared painting with sculpture:
I myself have worked as much on sculpture as painting. Sculpture needs light and shadow to look good but a painting has its own light and shadow. Painting also uses and shows colour and distance in ways that sculpture cannot. You can see all sides of a sculpture, but painting has to give you the idea of something round when really you are looking at a flat surface.
So he thought painting was better than sculpture and needed more skill. He also thought it was important for a painter to show his work to others and to listen to their opinions on it. He did not just mean other painters; everybody, he said, is able to judge how natural things look and can see whether a painting looks right or not.
Leonardo was able to work as an independent painter in Florence from at least 1472, but he also continued to paint for Verrocchio and he was still living in Verrocchio's house in 1476. Two years later, Leonardo was asked to paint a religious picture for the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. We do not know why, but it is believed that he did not complete this painting, although he was given some money for it. All through his life, Leonardo failed to finish paintings.
Leonardo never wanted just to copy what had been done in the past. For example, he tried new methods and new ways of using paint in his paintings. It was traditional in Italy to make paints with egg — this is called tempera in Italian. These paints dried very quickly, which meant that you could not make changes easily. But Leonardo, like other Italian artists, was interested in learning how to make paint with oil instead of egg. This method had been invented by artists in Northern Europe and was coming into fashion in Italy in the 1470s. It made paintings much brighter because of the way light and colour shone through the oil. Painters could build very thin coats of one or more colours to add to the effects. The oil paint also dried more slowly, which meant that you could spend a longer time working on getting a painting as you wanted it. In his portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, Leonardo used a mix of oil and egg, so he was learning how to use this new way of painting.
This picture, like all Leonardo's paintings that can be moved, was painted onto a wooden board. But the last paintings in this chapter — The Last Supper and The Battle of Anghiari — were painted onto walls. Artists used a different method for this kind of painting. It was important that the paint stuck to the wall, almost becoming part of the wall — this is called fresco in Italian. So you had to paint while the surface of the wall was slightly wet and this meant that you painted the picture a little at a time, day by day. But when the surface was dry, some artists then painted on top of what they had already painted, adding details or changing things.
Leonardo was one of these painters. But this paint did not stick to the wall in the same way as the paint on a wet surface, so these additions could disappear as time passed. This may be why The Last Supper is in such bad condition and lots of details have disappeared. Although it was painted in the middle of the 1490s, it was already damaged by 1517.
The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is a painting that many people think is by Leonardo. It shows the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus holding a stick onto which wool is placed. It was stolen from a Scottish castle in 2003, where it had been for over 200 years. It was found again by police in October 2007. The painting was valued at $65 million. This high value is because people think Leonardo is a great painter, and also because there are very few paintings by him.
Leonardo was very interested in painting pictures of real people, especially their faces. This was a type of painting that was becoming popular during the fifteenth century. It was a time before cameras were invented, so it was rare and special to have a portrait made. Sometimes it was because of a special occasion; for example, around the time of marriage of a young woman or man. But the rich could afford to have such paintings made because they wanted to — as a sign of their importance, or to record the face of someone they loved. Leonardo was famous for making portraits that people recognised. In 1503 one Florentine, Luca Ugolini, wrote to another, Niccolo Machiavelli, on the birth of Machiavelli's son: 'Congratulations! Your son looks just like you. Leonardo da Vinci could not do a better portrait.'
We have about five portraits by Leonardo; four of them are of young, rich women. We can name nearly all of the women shown and in some cases we know why their portraits were painted and who they were painted for. In other cases we have to do some detective work to try to discover their secrets, although there are still unanswered questions.
One of Leonardo's earliest portraits, of Ginevra de' Benci, was painted in Florence when Leonardo was in his twenties. In the landscape in the background, we can see Leonardo putting into practice his wish to give you the sense of looking far out over countryside. The browns and greens disappear into the distance and become blue, which meets the light from the sky. These distant parts of the landscape are painted in a method called, in Italian, sfumato. This is an effect almost like looking through smoke, where colours and lines disappear into each other.
Leonardo gives us help in guessing who the subject of the portrait is. The name Ginevra is very close to the Italian word ginepro, which means juniper, and we can see lots of this plant behind Ginevra's head. So Leonardo was making a play on words in the painting. Ginevra was a Florentine and the daughter of a very rich man. Some people think that Leonardo painted this portrait in 1474 when, aged sixteen or seventeen, she married an important man in government. Ginevra looks at us out of the painting and in the fifteenth century this kind of behaviour suited a wife more than an unmarried girl. But Ginevra was not a woman who lived a completely private and hidden life; a number of men wrote poems about her. They wrote about what a good and intelligent person she was and said how beautiful her golden hair and brown eyes were.
It has been argued, though, that in the painting Ginevra looks older than seventeen. On the back there are also some signs that Leonardo painted it not for Ginevra's husband or for her or her family, but for an admirer. Leonardo painted a branch of juniper between branches of two other plants; the branches are connected by painted words which say 'beauty decorates goodness'. The plants also had symbolic meanings. So Leonardo used both pictures and words to tell us that Ginevra was beautiful, good and pure. He was also perhaps showing that she loved somebody or that somebody loved her.
It was common for men, who lived in a hard world of war and business, to talk about love for a special woman as a way to show their gentler emotions, often in the artistic form of poems or songs. The woman was often not their wife, but it did not always mean that there was any hope of such love being physical and sexual.
Not all love was nonphysical or found only in marriage. We can see this in Leonardo's painting of The Lady with an Ermine. This painting shows Cecilia Gallerani, who was the lover of Ludovico Sforza, the most powerful man in Milan. Leonardo painted this picture in Milan, perhaps for Ludovico or maybe for Cecilia herself, because she owned the painting by 1498.
Leonardo had been in Milan at the Sforza court for six or seven years when he painted this portrait. Perhaps he already knew Cecilia, but his skill in this portrait was to bring her to life for us. She turns to her left. Has she heard or seen someone or something? Her position is natural and her rich clothes also have natural forms. This sense of life in a painting was something that Leonardo thought was really important. Around this time he wrote that a good painting of a person is one where 'the behaviour of the person in the picture shows the energy that is inside them.'
In 1492 Bernardo Bellincioni wrote a poem about Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia in which he praised the painting for those same qualities. He tells nature not to feel that she has lost a competition with Leonardo as Cecilia's portrait is so good; nature, of course, made both Leonardo and Cecilia.
Bellincioni's 1492 poem
Oh Nature, what has annoyed you? Who are you jealous of?
Of Vinci, who has painted a portrait of one of your stars, Cecilia, who is so beautiful today that in comparison with her beautiful eyes the sun seems a dark shadow?
The praise is for you if in his painting he makes her seem to listen, and almost speak.
Think how you will get more praise in the future if she looks more alive and beautiful.
Therefore now you can thank Ludovico and the skill and hand of Leonardo who wish to give her to the future.
Whoever sees her like this, even too late to see her alive, will say this is enough now for us to understand both nature and art.
The animal in Cecilia's arms is an ermine. Leonardo wrote that the ermine: prefers to let itself be caught by hunters instead of entering a dirty place to save itself This is because it does not want to mark its pure nature.
The whiteness of the ermine's fur is symbolic of purity, so the ermine here shows that Cecilia had a clean and perfect character. But Leonardo had not finished playing games with words. The Greek for ermine was gale, so he was making a clever joke on Cecilia's surname — Gallerani. The ermine also reminds us of Cecilia's lover, Ludovico, who was made a member of an organisation called the Order of the Ermine in 1488 by the king of Naples. It had only twenty-seven members, who were heads of governments or top soldiers.
Cecilia's portrait by Leonardo was famous and in April 1498 Isabella d'Este, the sister of Ludovico Sforza's wife Beatrice, wrote to Cecilia to ask her if she would lend it to her. Isabella had just seen some beautiful portraits by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, and wanted to compare his work with Leonardo's.
Cecilia sent the painting immediately. She wrote, though, that she would be happier to send the painting if it looked more like her:
But this is not because of any fault in the great painter himself-I truly believe there is no painter equal to him — but only because the portrait was painted when I was very young. I have changed completely since then.
The letters, and Bellincioni's poem of 1492, show us how famous Leonardo was as a painter and how people wanted to see his works.
The Mona Lisa
Leonardo's Mona Lisa or La Gioconda is perhaps the most famous painting in the world today. The painting, though, contains many mysteries. We are not certain who the portrait is of, and maybe it was not a real woman. The name Mona Lisa appeared first in 1550, when Giorgio Vasari wrote about Leonardo's life in a book describing the lives and works of Italian artists. Vasari said that in Florence Leonardo started a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, who was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Mona is a short way of saying Madonna — 'my woman', which in Italian was a polite title for a wife — so Mona Lisa means Mrs Lisa. The other name for the painting, La Gioconda, can be understood in two ways: Mrs del Giocondo, or the 'happy' or playful woman'.
We are not sure when Leonardo painted the portrait, but it was probably when he was in Florence between 1503 and 1506. Lisa was born in 1479 and married the rich businessman Francesco in 1495, so she was about twenty-four to twenty-seven when Leonardo was in Florence. The colour of the painting now is rather yellow. This was not what Leonardo intended — Lisa's skin should be paler and whiter, more like the skin of Ginevra de' Benci or Cecilia Gallerani. Light and dirt have affected the painting and made it look darker.
Leonardo painted the woman sitting on a chair. She is in front of a window or an opening to the landscape beyond. In the distance water and sky meet, but on the left we can see a clear path through rocky hills to the lake or river, and on the right-hand side there is a bridge across a valley. So Leonardo is telling us with these signs of man's presence that this landscape is not completely empty; it has been made and is lived in by people. It reminds us of Leonardo's interest in natural forms as well as useful human inventions.
The woman sits calmly with her hands crossed. She is separate from the landscape, but the softness and darkness of her hair and clothes connect her with it. This is a famous example of Leonardo's use of sfumato and the way that it gives a feeling of mystery for us looking at the picture. But Leonardo also included clear details, like the decoration at the top of her dress. She seems to look straight at us — Leonardo wanted to make people think that in a portrait they were looking at a living person.
Is Mona Lisa smiling? If she is, what is she smiling at? What does her smile mean? These are questions that almost every visitor to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre asks. Is the smile just a play on her name? Or was Leonardo trying to show an imaginary woman whose smile symbolised the peace inside her?
Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris, France
This painting has belonged to the French government from soon after Leonardo's death. On 21 August
1911 the picture was stolen, but it was found again in 1913. Since then it has only left the Louvre in
Paris twice. This painting is so famous that it is protected from attack by thick glass. On some days thousands of people come to see it; even more since the book and film The Da Vinci Code.
Leonardo began a number of religious paintings that people asked him to make for churches. He did not always manage to complete them. Sometimes we know about such paintings partly or totally from drawings that he made when he was preparing them.
The Virgin of the Rocks
The Virgin of the Rocks is a picture that Leonardo painted twice. One painting is in the Louvre in Paris, France, and the other is in the National Gallery in London, England. For a long time it was believed that the London painting was by another painter and not by Leonardo himself, but many people now believe that the London painting is by Leonardo. But why did Leonardo paint this picture again, almost exactly the same? In 1483, probably very soon after he had arrived in Milan from Florence, Leonardo agreed to paint a picture of the baby Christ with his mother (the Virgin Mary) a baby St John the Baptist and an angel for the church of San Francesco. The painting was perhaps completed by 1485. But this was not the end of the story. We do not know if it did not please the people who had asked for it, or if there was a problem about money — possibly both.
There are legal documents from the early 1490s in which Leonardo said he had not received enough money for the painting, and that someone else wanted to buy the painting
The Virgin or the Rocks, National Gallery, London, England for more. Leonardo did sell it, we believe — perhaps to this person. This is the painting in the Louvre. Then, sometime between 1491 and 1508, Leonardo painted the second one for the church. This is the one in the National Gallery.
The Virgin of the Rocks shows how Leonardo used his interest in plants and rock forms to give us a sense of the Virgin, Christ, St John and the angel in the natural world, with mountains and water in the background. Leonardo painted the plants carefully, so you can see the leaves and flowers of the different kinds of plants. He did this partly because of the symbolic meanings of these plants; for example, the white flowers in the front on the left remind us of the purity of the Virgin. The wings of the angel look like the wings of a bird, and therefore help to make us think that the angel really can fly. Leonardo brought together the real, symbolic and imaginary worlds to make the picture believable; this was his skill.
We know that people in the sixteenth century admired both paintings of The Virgin of the Rocks because at least twelve copies were made by other artists of the first picture and there were also twelve copies made of the second one.
The Last Supper, Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
In 1494 or 1495, Leonardo was asked by Ludovico Sforza to paint one of his most famous pictures. Ludovico wanted him to finish it quickly and it was probably completed in February 1498. But, as usual, Leonardo did not paint fast. Matteo Bandello was a young man at Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie when Leonardo was painting. Later he wrote:
Leonardo arrived early, climbed up to the picture and started to work Sometimes he stayed there from sunrise to sunset, never putting his brush down, forgetting to eat or drink. Other times he spent two, three or four days without touching a brush, but each day he spent several hours in front of the work looking, examining and criticising the figures to himself. I also saw him, as the wish or desire took him, leave another job at midday — when the sun is highest — and come to Santa Maria delle Grazie. Climbing up to the picture, he took a brush, added a little to one of the figures, then immediately left.
In fact Leonardo did not work alone on the painting as this suggests; pupils and assistants helped.
This painting is The Last Supper, which shows Christ eating with his pupils the night before his death. It was painted on one complete wall of the real dining-room of the monastery: as the monks ate their food, they could see and be reminded of Christ and his pupils as models for their own life and behaviour.
Leonardo wanted the monks to imagine the thoughts of each of the men sitting at the table: Christ has just told these men that one of them will do him harm. Only one of the thirteen pupils — Judas Iscariot — knows who that person is. The others wonder, and some are afraid that it might be them. Leonardo has tried to show us this situation by making each of the figures look and act differently. Leonardo wrote around this time that 'the movements of men are different because of the thoughts in their minds.'
The Last Supper was repaired between 1977 and 1999. The repairs cost over $9 million. Only 400 people a day are allowed to see the painting. They can visit in groups of not more than twenty-five for just fifteen minutes. This is to control the quality of the air in the room.
Leonardo used his mathematical abilities to make it seem that the dining room continues. He wanted to place everything in relationship to each other so it would look correct to us. This is very clear from the strong lines of the ceiling, windows and doors of the room where the supper takes place. Leonardo wanted us to imagine that the event was happening in front of our eyes. Christ sits, almost alone, in the centre of the painting and the table. Behind his head and to each side we can see a distant landscape through the open windows, so we see Christ not only in relationship to the men around him but also to the natural world beyond.
A competition with Michelangelo?
Leonardo had become famous in Milan, but he was also famous in his home city, Florence. There, in 1503 he was asked to paint a very large painting on a wall in one of the main public rooms of the Palazzo della Signoria. The Battle of Anghiari would show a great fight which the Florentines had won against Milan in 1440. It was an important point in Florentine history.
Leonardo finished a part of the drawing for the painting in 1505. It was taken to the Palazzo della Signoria and used to mark on the wall where the figures of the horses and men would be placed. Leonardo then began work on painting the picture on the wall. At the same time, Michelangelo Buonarroti was asked to paint another scene from Florentine history in the same room in the palace. Michelangelo was a younger Florentine sculptor and painter who was also much admired at this time. So the Florentine government had chosen two of its greatest living artists to celebrate its history with two important military and political wins against enemy states. Leonardo and Michelangelo probably did not work in the same room at the same time, but it was impossible not to see the work of the two artists as a competition.
You will perhaps not be surprised to know that Leonardo had not finished his painting when he left Florence in June 1506 to go back to Milan. Michelangelo had left Florence a year earlier to go to Rome to work for the Pope. He later returned to Florence for a short time, but he never did more than parts of his very large drawing. But although neither work was finished, other painters came to study and copy them. Michelangelo's drawing was destroyed in 1516, but Leonardo's painting could be seen until the 1550s.
An Artist at Court
'I see that rightly he is already famous for painting, but he has not been praised enough for his many other very great abilities.'
From 1483 until his death, Leonardo worked for a number of very powerful men and women in Italy and France. Leonardo made things that pleased his employers and many people admired his work. Some of them were also happy to support his studies. In this chapter we will look at some of the things that he did and some of the relationships that he had with his rich employers over the years.
Leonardo lived in Milan for sixteen or seventeen years, working at the Sforza court, and then, after a few years in Florence, he moved back to Milan for about four or five years and worked for the French government there. Then he was in Rome for three years, where the Pope's brother gave him a place to live and money for himself and his assistants. Finally, Leonardo moved to the royal court of Francois I in France.
Leonardo at work in Milan
In Milan Leonardo had the opportunity to work on a number of special theatrical events. Plays were performed privately, and only for the richest and most important people in a city. There were no theatres at this time, so a large room in a big house was turned into a theatre for a day. This kind of event usually happened to celebrate a wedding or sometimes if a really important person, like a king or the head of government of another state, came to visit.
The hosts wanted to show that the city and state was rich and that its artists and writers were skilled. This is another reminder of how much art and literature were valued at this time.
Leonardo planned the stage for a play that took place on 13 January 1490 to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of the king of Naples to the man who governed Milan. The play was specially written by Bernardo Bellincioni and it was called Il Paradiso, which means 'Heaven'. Leonardo made 'heaven' in the form of half of a big egg covered with gold on the inside and with lots of lights as stars. At the top were twelve pictures of groups of stars — one for each month of a year — lit with flames behind glass. Around 'heaven', seven men moved in a circle — probably on some kind of hidden moving platform. Each man was dressed in wonderful clothes to look like a god who governed each of the seven main stars — the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Leonardo made a 'heaven' again a few years later for another play, Danae, with 'Jove and the other gods lit by a great number of lamps like stars.' All this took place to the sound of music. Many of the figures in the play appeared from above and hung in the air to make their speeches or to sing.
Leonardo worked on a different kind of event for a double celebration in January 1491, when Ludovico Sforza married Beatrice d'Este, a daughter of the man who governed Ferrara. Ludovico was thirty-nine and Beatrice was sixteen and it was a political marriage. At the same time her brother married Ludovico's niece. Leonardo's job was to plan the clothes and the theatrical part of a formal military event. In this event two men on horses rode towards each other fast, each holding a long, sharp piece of wood. The purpose was to knock the other person off their horse. Riders fought a number of times against different people. They needed great skill and bravery as they could easily get very badly hurt or die. The riders were dressed in beautiful clothes and the horses were covered in expensive cloths.
The Sforza horse
One of Leonardo's biggest jobs while he was in Milan was to make an enormous bronze sculpture of Ludovico Sforza's father, Francesco Sforza. Francesco had been a great soldier and had taken control of Milan in 1450. He died in 1466. The sculpture would show Francesco dressed as a soldier on a horse. The Sforza family had wanted to find someone to make this sculpture for years. Leonardo knew this and when he wrote to Ludovico in 1483 he finished the letter: 'It will be possible to make the bronze horse.'</