In 2019 we celebrate the 500 years anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, one of the most famous artist in the world. Painter, inventor, engineer, scientist, humanist, philosopher, he is for many a universal spirit, which fascinates even 500 years later. Between the 15th century and the 16th century, he illustrates, and at times incarnates, the Renaissance, with its advances in the artistic field but also in science and, above all, in the scientific approach.
Leonardo di ser Piero, called Leonardo da Vinci, was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, a small town in Tuscany near Florence, from an illegitimate love affair between a notary, ser Piero, and a peasant. After a diversified school education, he began his adult life as a painter in the workshop of Verrocchio in Florence, surrounded by the greatest artists of his time such as Botticelli and Perugino (the future master of Raphael). At the age of 26, Leonard left his master and had already acquired a fine reputation as a painter.
Judged for sodomy, he was exiled in 1476 and return in 1478 to Florence and even then, he failed to obtain the reputation he considered he was worthy of. It was said thought that Leonard had an unfortunate tendency to not complete what he undertook. Disappointed, he went to Milan in 1482, where he hoped to get the good graces of the Duke Ludovic the More.
The Virgin on the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-1386. Musée du Louvre.
As surprising as it may seem today, it is not as a painter that Leonard was then famous, but as a party organizer. He used all his inventor genius to develop machines and set up shows like no one had ever seen before.
In Milan, Leonardo da Vinci painted the Virgin on the Rocks, the first of his masterpieces. Then Ludovic asks Leonardo to paint the Last Supper for the refectory of the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie. The work was a general success, but a few years later, it began to deteriorate, victim of humidity and of too innovative techniques poorly mastered that the painter wanted to use…
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
In 1499, King Louis XII invaded the Milanese and deposed Ludovic. He met Leonardo da Vinci, whose celebrity already stretched beyond the borders of Italy, and ordered a portrait of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, to honour his wife Anne of Brittany, who had just given him a daughter. Leonardo worked on this paiting until his death, nearly twenty years later, bringing to perfection the technique of the sfumato¹ of which he is the unrivalled master…
Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1519. Musée du Louvre
In the 1500s he returned to Florence and took part in hydraulic works. But painting was still at the centre of his work and in 1503 he began the Portrait of Monna Lisa, a painting that will never leave him. At that time, Leonard was a fan of science, he studied mathematics, animal and human anatomy, as well as bird flying.
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503. Musée du Louvre
Between 1508 and 1510 he carried out several studies, which will be combined in a single document the Codex Leicester. This 72-pages book studies the movement of river water and the resulting erosion and studies the light emitted by the Moon, which would be due to the reflection of sunlight by an ocean covering our satellite.
Extract from the Codex Leicester, 1508-1510. Bill Gates private library
Leonard lived his last Italian years in Rome, at the service of the Medici, who protected the artist for a long time. But the competition between Raphael and Michel-Ange, rising stars of painting and sculpture, was becoming to harsh… In 1515, the Battle of Marignan gave the Milanese country to the french king Francis I, who invited Leonard to come work for the French court. The following year, the artist moved to the Clos-Lucé, in a mansion a few hundred meters from the castle of Amboise in the Loire Valley. He aroused the admiration of the king, who bought La Gioconda from him, and let him free to “do whatever he wants”. His right hand was handicapped thought, the old man could hardly paint anymore. But he organized some beautiful feasts for his protector, drafted the plan of the future castle of Chambord, throwed plans of a new royal capital in Romorantin, but he died from a disease in 1519.
Death of Leonardo da Vinci, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1818. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris
By his genius, Leonardp symbolizes the Italian Renaissance. However, he did not receive extensive training, couldn’t read neither Greek nor Latin, and had little knowledge of antique works.
Only around twenty paintings are today attributed to him and five of them are in the Louvre: The Virgin on the Rocks, Saint John the Baptiste, Mona Lisa and La belle Ferronnière. This fall 2019, the Musée du Louvre will organize an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. A unique gathering of work that only the Louvre Museum could assemble, in addition to its exceptional collection of paintings and drawings by the Italian master.
La Belle Ferronière, 1495-1497. Musée du Louvre
¹ The sfumato (“smoke” in english) characterizes a technique of painting: enveloping the subjects with a vaporous atmosphere, abolishing the contours of the subject, giving an imprecise air, and that’s how we obtain this vaporous atmosphere.