Vinci, Leonardo Da
Vinci, Leonardo da
an illustrious Italian artist, was born in Lower Valdarno, at the Castle of Vinci, in 1452. He was the natural son of Pietro da Vinci, but his mother is not known. At an early age he evinced rare abilities for everything he turned his attention to, but more particularly for arithmetic, music, and drawing. His drawings appeared something wonderful to his father, who showed them to Andrea Verocchio (q.v.), and that master, greatly surprised at the merit displayed in so young a hand, willingly took Leonardo as his pupil. His astonishment was greatly increased when he saw the progress made by his pupil; he felt his own inferiority, and, when he saw how far he was surpassed by young Da Vinci, relinquished painting entirely. The first original work by Leonardo was the Rotella del Fico (round board of a fig-tree), upon which his father requested him to paint something for one of his tenants. Leonardo wished to astonish his father, and determined to paint something extraordinary, that should represent the head of Medusa. Accordingly, having prepared the rotella and covered it with plaster, he collected almost every kind of reptile, and composed a monster of most horrible aspect; it seemed alive, its eyes flashed fire, and it appeared to breathe destruction from its open mouth. His father was indeed astonished, and carried the picture to a dealer in Florence, sold it for a hundred ducats, and bought an ordinary piece for a trifle to give to his tenant. His talents soon attracted attention at Florence. He was possessed of remarkable intellectual powers. He was a diligent and successful student of painting, sculpture, architecture, mathematics, mechanics, hydrostatics, music, poetry, botany, and astronomy, besides numerous manly sports. To this intellectual power he joined elegance of features and manners. He was affable with strangers, with citizens, with private individuals, and with princes. Such a combination of qualities in a single individual soon gained him a reputation, throughout all Italy.
Da Vinci's life is divided by Lanzi into four periods, the first of which includes the time he remained at Florence, until 1494. He was a diligent student of his art, and endeavored to perfect his design rather than to multiply his pictures. By his knowledge of sculpture he gave that perfect relief and roundness then wanting in the art of painting, and he imparted such grace and spirit to all his works that he fairly earned the title of Father of Modern Painting. To this period may be referred the Medusa; the Magdalen, in the Florentine Gallery; some Madonnas and Holy Families, in the Giustiniani and Borghese galleries; and others. He also executed several important sculptures, among which are the statue of St. Tommaso, in Orsan Michele, at Florence; the Horse, in the Church of Sts. Giovanni and Paolo, at Venice; besides other important models.
The second period commences with Da Vinci's residence at Milan, which began by invitation of the duke, Lodovico Sforza, in 1494. He was appointed director of the Academy of Painting, which had lately been revived. In this capacity he banished all the dry Gothic principles formerly established, and introduced the beautiful simplicity and purity of the Grecian and Roman style. The duke engaged him in the stupendous project of conducting the waters of the Adda from Mortesana, through the Valteline and the valley of the Chiaenna, to the walls of Milan, a distance of nearly two hundred miles. He applied himself with such diligence to the preparation for and execution of the work that it was accomplished, greatly to the astonishment of all Italy. He executed the model for a colossal bronze equestrian statue of the duke's father, Francesco Sforza, but could not complete it on account of the financial embarrassment of the duke, two hundred thousand pounds of metal being required. It was here, also, that he executed his celebrated painting, the Last Supper, on a wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan. This has been considered the masterpiece, not only of Leonardo, but of all masters. Unfortunately it was executed in fresco with a new combination of materials, so that in half a century after its execution it was greatly defaced. Numerous copies have been made which retain much of the spirit of the original. In 1500 Lodovico Sforza was overthrown in battle by the French, and made prisoner. Leonardo was, on this account, obliged to abandon all his possessions and take refuge in Florence.
The third period of Da Vinci's life begins with this return to Florence. Pietro Soderini, the gonfaloniere, now had him enrolled among the artists in the employ of the government, and procured him a pension. In 1502 Cesare Borgia, captain-general of the pope's army, appointed him his chief architect and engineer, and Da Vinci visited many parts of the Roman states in his official capacity. In 1503 he was employed to paint one side of the council-hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, while Michael Angelo was to paint the other side. Leonardo drew upon his side the cartoon of the Battle of the Standard, which has received much praise from the old Italian critics. In 1507 he again visited Milan, where he painted a large Madonna and Child. During this period Leonardo produced his best paintings. He was less occupied with other pursuits than at any other period, and gave his almost undivided attention to the art. Among his productions about this time may be mentioned a Holy Family, which found its way to the court of Russia; his own portrait, in the ducal gallery at Florence; a portrait of Raphael; Christ Disputing in the Temple, in one of the collections at Rome; the portrait of Queen Giovanna, in the Doria Palace; the portrait of Mona Lisa, now in the Louvre, at Paris; and the cartoon of St. Anna, drawn for the Church of the Servi, at Florence. In 1512 he visited Milan, and painted two portraits of the duke, Maximilian, son of Lodovico Sforza. In 1514 he again returned to Florence. About this time he went to Rome, drawn thither by the encouragement given to art by the new pope. Leo X.
He was introduced to the pontiff, who signified his intention to employ his services; but, on account of a want of courtesy on the part of the pope, or because of the rising of Buonarroti and Raphael, he left Rome in disgust.
Now begins the fourth period of Da Vinci's life, which is marked by his relinquishment of the art of painting. By invitation of Fraicis I of France, he went to Pavia, where he was received with the greatest kindness by that monarch, taken into his service, and granted a salary of seven hundred crowns annually. He went with the king to Bologna to meet Leo X. and afterwards, about the beginning of 1516, accompanied him to France. After he left Italy, on account of enfeebled health he executed little or nothing. The king could not prevail, on him to color his cartoon of St. Anna, which he had taken with him; nor was he at all disposed to commence any new work. He gradually grew worse during the next five years, during which time he still received marks of the esteem and favor of the king, and died at Clon, near Amboise, May 2,1519. aged sixty seven, and not seventy-five, as Vasari has stated. Vasari relates that he died in the arms of Francis I, who happened to be in a visit to his chamber at the time that he was seized with the paroxysm.
Da Vinci achieved distinction in the field of letters as well as in that of art. He wrote several treatises on various subjects, the principal of which was a treatise on painting, Tratfato della Pittura (Paris, 1651). Very few of his other works have been published, but in 1797 Venturi collected numerous extracts from his unpublished writings, and published them in an essay entitled Essai sur les Ouvrages Physico-Mathematiques de Leonard de Vinci, etc., "Which," says Hallam, "according, at least, to our common estimate of the age in which he lived, are more like revelations of physical truths vouchsafed to a single mind than the superstructure of its reasoning upon any established basis. The discoveries which made Galileo and Kepler, and Maestlin, and Maurolicls, and Castelli; and other names illustrious, the systems of Copernicus, the very theories of recent geologers, are anticipated by Da Vinci within the compass of a few pages not, perhaps, in the most precise language, or on the most conclusive reasoning, but so as to strike us with something like the awe of supernatural knowledge. In an age of so much dogmatism, he first laid down the grand principle of Bacon, that experiment and observation must be the guides to just theory in the investigation of nature." Da Vinci's life has been written: in Italian by Vasari (1550), Amoretti (1784), Bossi (1814); in French, by St. Germain (1803), Delecluze (1844), Dumensil (1850), Rio (1855), Clement (1861), Houssaye (1867); in German by Braun (1819); in English by Hawkins (1802), Brown (1828), and others.