Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, the great Florentine artist of the Italian Renaissance brought a new understanding of the capacity of painting to give the viewer an experience of an artistic reality based on the principles of nature and human perception. He was a pioneering visual thinker whose extant drawings and paintings show how his creative approach was rooted in fifteenth century artisanal tradition while fused with his remarkable philosophical imagination and intellectual curiosity. While he was a painter who transformed our understanding of the potential of art, his ongoing engagement with the various disciplines within Natural Philosophy bore a deep analysis of human perception and the structure, fabric and geometric principles of physical reality. His diverse visual and intellectual projects – spanning from sculpture, painting, military engineering and hydraulics to the mechanics of flight – ought to be seen as assimilated and reciprocally enhancing of one another; they each contributed to Leonardo’s enquiry into the principles of how natural processes worked and how painting could create a visual illusion based on these principles. For an artist born in the mid fifteenth century, it is remarkable that he would count among the artists who brought the High Renaissance into existence as well as devoting so much of his life to theoretical writing as a Natural Philosopher. No less is it remarkable that as a draughtsman, he would transform both the role and status of drawing as well as that of artists themselves. Even though his theoretical and philosophical insights remained isolated from the development of science, the  contribution of his artistic output to the development of Western art and Culture is difficult to overstate.

Of all artists among the first rank of great creative pioneers, geniuses and inventive prodigies, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), the Florentine artist of the Renaissance, has perhaps the strongest claim of being the most widely recognised today as the greatest artistic genius of all time. Born in the mid fifteenth century in Vinci, a small town in the Tuscan Countryside outside of Florence, Leonardo grew up in a rapidly transforming Early Modern Europe in which Florence took primacy in the incubation and development of artistic and philosophical ideas. It is difficult to overstate the impact that Leonardo and his creative and intellectual output has had on the development of Western art and culture. There is no other figure that comes to my mind who occupies such a significant place which is so firmly embedded in the popular consciousness in the Western Mind. This is an introductory page on Leonardo which will discuss and explore who he was and why he is so important in the history of art. We will explore his early years and the Renaissance world in which he was born and then discuss his artistic apprenticeship in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1433-1488), one of the most influential and masterly draughtsmen of the entire Renaissance. We will then uncover the main periods of his life and the most significant events therein before summarising the reasons why he is one of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci, Landscape of the Arno River and Valley (recto) Pen and two tones of ink over charcoal or black chalk on paper, 195 x 286 mm. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi. Dated 5 August 1473 in the hand of Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci, Landscape of the Arno River and Valley (recto) Pen and two tones of ink over charcoal or black chalk on paper, 195 x 286 mm. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi. Dated 5 August 1473 in the hand of Leonardo

That Leonardo’s father belonged to the new class of educated urban professionals is of great significance to understanding how Leonardo’s creative life began. Leonardo was born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci on the 15th April 1452. He was the son of a educated, successful and well connected notary (Notaio: a legal professional who drafted legal documents for, and advised private clients) called Ser Piero da Vinci (Ser Piero di Antonio di Ser Peiro di Ser Guido da Vinci, 1427-1504), and a young woman called Caterina di Meo Lippi about whom we know significantly less because she was not involved to as great a degree in the urban life of Renaissance Florence (for more on Catarina see Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti, Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, Oxford, 2017). While Leonardo’s father was an educated, literate professional, he still did not rank among the nobility. During the Early Modern Period, the vast majority of people belonged to the peasant class whose lives were characterised by a rural setting and agricultural labour. While Ser Piero was not of noble birth it would not be appropriate to consider him a peasant either as he was successful as an educated urban professional. While peasants usually lived in a rural setting, there was a new class of people emerging in the High Middle Ages and into the Early Renaissance who had peasant backgrounds but who were settling in the increasingly developed and populous urban settings to occupy various roles and professions, some of which required literacy and a range of other communication based skills unrelated to a traditional peasant life. That Leonardo’s father belonged to this class of educated city-dwellers meant that the young Leonardo, while born illegitimately and therefore unable to attain a formal education like his father, his father’s social network in Florence enabled him to attain an apprenticeship to one of the most important and sought after artists in Renaissance Florence: Verrocchio.

While Ser Piero may have desired that Leonardo would become a notary in the family tradition even though Leonardo was an illegitimate child, Leonardo seems to have rejected his father’s profession and sought to become an artist (The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Renascimento, G. Ruggiero, Cambridge, 2015, p 348). According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the artist, architect, historian and biographer of many artists of and before his time, writes in his Life of Leonardo of he became an apprentice of Verrocchio when his father, Ser Piero “one day took some of Leonardo’s drawings along to Andrea del Verrocchio (who was a close friend of his) and earnestly begged him to say whether it would be profitable for the boy to study design. Andrea was amazed to see what extraordinary beginnings Leonardo had made and he urged Piero to make him study the subject. So Piero arranged for Leonardo to enter Andrea’s workshop. The boy was delighted with this decision, and began to practice not only one branch of the arts but all branches in which design plays a part” (Vasari, Life of Leonardo).

Leonardo da Vinci, Possible Self-Portrait. Red Chalk over Blind Stylus on paper, 333 x 213 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin.
Leonardo da Vinci, Possible Self-Portrait. Red Chalk over Blind Stylus on paper, 333 x 213 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin.

Leonardo da Vinci, Bust of a Warrior, Silverpoint on warm off-white preparation. 285 x 208 mm. British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Leonardo da Vinci, Bust of a Warrior, Silverpoint on warm off-white preparation. 285 x 208 mm. British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Young Woman's Face, Silverpoint over leadpoint with lead white highlights on light ochre prepared paper, 181 x 159 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin
Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Young Woman’s Face, Silverpoint over leadpoint with lead white highlights on light ochre prepared paper, 181 x 159 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin
Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery Study, Ink Wash and Lead White Heightening on linen, 283 x 192 mm. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery Study, Ink Wash and Lead White Heightening on linen, 283 x 192 mm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A Drapery Study from c. 1475 during the time Leonardo was a member of Verrocchio’s workshop although already recognised as a master. This is a remarkable survival from Leonardo’s formative years and shows his development towards a deeper naturalism and formal plasticity in representing three dimensional objects in space. This is from a particularly transformative epoch in Renaissance drawing in Florence because and shows how drawing practice and experimentation was orientated towards the production of evermore visually effective paintings. The materials and support used are approximations of painting in tempera and the process of applying layers of material to model the depth of form is close to tempera painting technique. Drawing as a means to learn to design forms and to prepare for painting is one of the reason s Renaissance drawings have their distinctive aesthetic. One can take Fra Filippo Lippi’s study of the Virgin as another example of using tempera painting methods in the process of design and preparation for paintings.

Workshop of Verrocchio, Study of an angel relating to "Baptism of Christ", Silverpoint (over leadpoint), pen and ink, wash, lead white heightening on warm off-white ochre prepared paper, 231 x 171 mm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin
Workshop of Verrocchio, Study of an angel relating to “Baptism of Christ”, Silverpoint (over leadpoint), pen and ink, wash, lead white heightening on warm off-white ochre prepared paper, 231 x 171 mm.Biblioteca Reale, Turin

This incredible survival from around the same time as the above study c. 1475 is not attributed to Leonardo with certainty but was made at the time in which Leonardo was an active collaborator within Verrocchio’s workshop environment. This piece could wither be a preparatory design for the left hand angel in the Baptism or a workshop copy made from the painting itself.

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