Leonardo /
text by Jack Wasserman.
New York : H. N. Abrams, [1975]
179 p. : illus. ; 34 cm. --
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New York : H. N. Abrams, [1975]
general note
Coloured plates tipped in.
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Bibliography: p. 175-176.
Includes index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Leonardo da Vinci: this name has become legendary, a synonym for greatness and for universal genius. And no wonder, for the man who bore it was proficient in almost every area of intellectual and cultural endeavor--in mathematics and geometry; in physics, engineering, anatomy, geology, botany, and geography; in music, sculpture, architecture, and not the least in painting. The list of his personal attributes is equally impressive: he is said to have been handsome and to have had strength, dexterity, brilliance, eloquence, generosity, charm of disposition, and "spirit and courage that were invariably royal and magnanimous," as one of his contemporaries put it.

Therefore, it matters little that Leonardo had a fallible nature. He was called "capricious and fickle," and complaints about his unreliability and dilatoriness were commonplace in his own day. Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who hired Leonardo to cast a bronze equestrian statue, wrote to Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence asking that Lorenzo send him one or two masters to execute the work, because it did not seem to him that Leonardo would ever finish it. And, years later in Rome, Pope Leo X became so exasperated with Leonardo that he was moved to say: "Alas, this man will do nothing; he starts by thinking of the end of the work before its beginning."

Leonardo was quick to grumble and to worry about petty things. In careful notes he recorded loans of money he had made, complaints about people who disturbed his privacy, and details about obligations he undertook reluctantly. One senses at times in certain cryptic and paradoxical remarks that he felt persecuted: "The Medici made me, but they also destroyed me"; "When I made a Christ Child you put me in prison; now if I represent Him grown up you will treat me worse."

Leonardo was vain and affected. Take his deliberately abstruse and unconventional manner of writing from right to left, or the eccentric way he dressed: at a time when other men wore long robes of sober color, he wore short doublets and tights made of blue and crimson velvet and silver brocade. Or take his way of presenting himself to the world in the famous Self-Portrait (fig. 1), with a long beard and melancholy demeanor--attributes that in the Renaissance signaled a deep intellect. The late sixteenth-century artist and writer Giampaolo Lomazzo was moved to explain, no doubt when confronted by such a portrait, that "Leonardo used to wear his hair and his beard so long and his eyebrows were so bushy that he appeared the very idea of noble wisdom." Did Leonardo fancy himself another Aristotle or Plato? Or, as Lomazzo suggested, did he consider himself the sage Hermes Trismegistus, or perhaps Prometheus, symbol of man's unquenchable thirst for knowledge?

Ultimately, it was the aura of intellectual and personal authority Leonardo exuded that persuaded the great men and women of his age--against all misgivings and despite all of the artist's shortcomings--to seek him out, literally to command and at times even to beg him to paint some small picture for them. It was a high honor in those days for an artist to be so admired and to have the devotion and friendship of no less a personage than the French monarch Francois I. However, the supreme honor paid Leonardo was the unexpected praise he received posthumously from Giorgio Vasari. Himself an artist and the most famous sixteenth-century chronicler of the lives of the painters, sculptors, and architects, Vasari was an intimate friend of Leonardo's archrival, Michelangelo. Yet so compelling were Leonardo's works and reputation that Vasari was moved to rise above partisanship and to describe him in this fashion: "The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, but sometimes they bestow with lavish abundance upon a single individual beauty, grace, and ability, so that whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his greatness is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo." Men still do.

Leonardo was born in 1452 in the small village of Anchiano (near Vinci), the illegitimate son of the Florentine notary Piero da Vinci and Caterina, a peasant woman. About 1469, as a youth of seventeen or so, Leonardo accompanied his father and stepmother (Piero had married another woman by then) to Florence. Vasari notes that Leonardo had demonstrated a talent for drawing and design even as a boy. Recognizing these achievements, Piero persuaded his friend Andrea del Verrocchio to accept his son as an apprentice in what was then one of the foremost studios in Italy.

Leonardo's artistic education was the one available to all of Verrocchio's young apprentices: grinding and mixing pigments, learning geometry and the chemistry of colors, preparing panels to receive paintings, the act of painting itself, and working clay and casting bronze into finished sculptures. A standard studio procedure was the use of pattern books, which consisted of collections of drawings to which artists could turn for repeated reference. A noteworthy example of Leonardo's reliance on such books, even after he had left Verrocchio's studio, is found on a page of drawings now at Windsor Castle, showing a variety of sketched dragons (fig. 2). They are so spirited and individual in character that one might be inclined to view them as personal inventions. Yet the impression cannot be escaped that Leonardo had before him prototypes from late fifteenth-century pattern books. Leonardo's dragons have in common with these a loose-jointed anatomy, scales on a long, sinuous neck, and a spiraling tail. The more dynamic and convincing anatomy of Leonardo's dragons reveals his greater knowledge of the structure and behavior of animals and his superiority as a draftsman.

There is a second example of Leonardo's reliance on pattern book models. His Christ Child in the Louvre version of the Madonna of the Rocks (colorplate 22) appears to depend, with certain modifications, on three pattern book drawings of nearly identical seated children. These particular drawings of children were probably known to Leonardo, since they seem to have been part of a pattern book that I believe was in circulation at some time in Verrocchio's studio, probably serving Verrocchio or some assistant as sources for the figures of children on the base of the Forteguerri Cenotaph at Pistoia. Leonardo, however, relied on the live model as well, whose pose he made to conform with that of the children in the pattern book drawings. This was a procedure employed by Renaissance artists who sought to emulate ancient sculpture yet wished to retain the realistic character that only the live model could impart to their work.

Leonardo began his training directly in the major arts of painting and sculpture. In this respect, he was relatively unusual among the artists with whom he was associated during his years of apprenticeship: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Antonio Pollaiuolo, and Verrocchio himself had had their earliest training in the craft of goldsmithing, whereas Leonardo lacked this background in the minor arts. For this reason, he did not acquire a highly developed sense of art as a mestiere, or trade. Moreover, from the start he displayed an aloofness toward tempera and fresco painting--craft media that, like goldsmithing, were dignified by tradition.

Leonardo's disdain for these media was in each instance differently motivated. He seems, for example, never to have had the opportunity to learn from Verrocchio the use of fresco for wall paintings. Verrocchio himself had received only one commission for a wall painting in his entire life, and this came prior to Leonardo's arrival in his studio. Leonardo in turn did not undertake to paint a mural until middle age, and then he chose a medium of his own invention. On the other hand, as an apprentice he had certainly learned the use of tempera, since it was Verrocchio's exclusive medium in the execution of altarpieces and other paintings on panel. Yet when we first encounter Leonardo as an artist--in the angel he added on the extreme left of Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ and in his "corrections" elsewhere in the painting (colorplates 1-3)--he was already using some form of oil compound. This is all the more remarkable because Verrocchio had begun the painting in tempera, and Leonardo was then only twenty years old and still under his master's authority. Leonardo's rejection of tempera was, therefore, a considered act, and in choosing oil he revealed a predilection for the effects possible in this medium, first discovered by Flemish artists: transparent and luminous skin surfaces, lustrous jewelry, silken hair, and atmospheric space.

Most of Leonardo's early Florentine years were spent in the comfort and security of Verrocchio's studio. He remained there until at least 1476, although he had joined the painters' guild of St. Luke four years earlier, in 1472. He probably served as Verrocchio's chief assistant, in general charge of the studio's painting section. This may be inferred from an anecdote reported by Vasari, which states that Verrocchio presumably gave up painting entirely when he saw Leonardo's superior achievement in the angel he added to the Baptism. Leonardo, he may have decided, was good enough to look after commissions for paintings that came to the studio, permitting Verrocchio to devote himself chiefly to his beloved sculpture.

Leonardo's managerial role in Verrocchio's studio, if such indeed it was, would account for several paintings from the years between 1472 and 1477 that are regularly attributed to Leonardo (although without unanimous agreement): the two versions of the Annunciation, one in the Uffizi (colorplate 4) and the other in the Louvre; the Ginevra de' Benci (colorplate 7); and the Madonna with the Carnation. All have general affinities with Verrocchio's style and with that of such assistants as Lorenzo di Credi. However, only the Uffizi Annunciation--in its composition, landscape, and atmospheric effects--and the Ginevra--in her compelling facial expression--come close enough to Leonardo's artistic intentions to permit a strong claim to be made for his direct participation in their execution.

The first independent commission Leonardo is known to have received, in 1478, was for an altarpiece for the chapel of S. Bernardo in the Palazzo Vecchio, the civic palace of Florence. However, nothing came of it. At about the same time, Leonardo painted the charming and youthful Benois Madonna (colorplate 8). His work in these years and in his previous period of apprenticeship is delicate and intimate. Moreover, it reveals the stamp of Verrocchio's influence, notably in the full and boneless physiognomy of the angel he added to the master's Baptism (colorplate 2).

Around the years 1481 and 1482, when Leonardo undertook to paint the Adoration of the Magi (colorplate 10), his largest painting to date, and the penitent St. Jerome (colorplate 14), his mood changed and his emotional range deepened perceptibly and seemingly without warning. He had become intensely responsive to the immense complexities of human nature, to its superficial manifestations, and to the hidden ways the mind functions in moments of great physical and spiritual stress. Both paintings show how well he has understood the anatomy of man and the impassioned and troubled human psyche, bringing them together in reciprocal interaction. Leonardo's interest is in visual truth; it is also in narrative truth, insofar as he attempts, where possible, to return to such primary Christian sources as the Bible and the Apocrypha for his religious themes, in much the same way the humanists were then doing when, as Andre Chastel says, they attempted "to return to the beginnings, to the Scriptures," in order "to rediscover everything." And so, in the Adoration of the Magi we are witness to an unfolding drama of the acquiescence and humility of three mortal kings to the divine and universal King, and to the awe of all mankind before the spiritual self-revelation of the Son of God. This is the mystical act of the Epiphany that occurred in the biblical Adoration.

This change in Leonardo's mood as revealed in the Adoration and in the St. Jerome was the result of an independent intellectual and spiritual development. Nevertheless, one may detect in these paintings Leonardo's familiarity with the procedures and works of Donatello and Pollaiuolo. From the latter he learned the value of dissection, of the isolation of the human skeleton beneath a taut membrane. However, he painted it with a more consummate understanding of observed reality, for whereas Pollaiuolo and others of his generation almost invariably revised parts of the human anatomy so that they became stylized shapes within a larger decorative pattern, Leonardo chose to lay bare the scientific truth of what he had observed without alteration. Still, he went beyond mere realism and used the emaciated anatomy to convey in the most intense way possible the suffering, self-denial, and spiritual ecstasy of St. Jerome.

At this point, in 1482 or 1483, Leonardo left Florence for Milan, where he remained in self-imposed exile for nearly eighteen years. He thereby exchanged the competitive and upper middle-class society of Florence under the elegant, intellectual, and somewhat patrician leadership of Lorenzo de' Medici for the autocratic and dynastic government of Lodovico Sforza (popularly known as Il Moro, the Moor, because of his swarthy complexion), under whose rule the people of Milan were considered subjects, not citizens. Artistically, Leonardo left an atmosphere that was modern and progressive for one that was peripheral to the mainstream and rather old-fashioned, exchanging the invigorating and exemplary company of Botticelli, Pollaiuolo, and Verrocchio for that of Foppa, Butinone, and Ambrogio de' Predis--artists of good but not commanding talents. In compensation Leonardo entered the very center of Milanese artistic and social life and was accepted at court as a favorite of Il Moro, who gave him an apartment in one of the official residences and later a vineyard.

As court retainer Leonardo assumed a variety of duties and also enlarged his activities as an artist. In Florence he had been essentially a painter; in Milan, although he continued as a painter, one of his most important artistic efforts was in sculpture (the Sforza equestrian monument). In addition, he devoted much of his time to military engineering, and designed architectural projects for Milan Cathedral and for various other churches. Actually, however, he seems to have built nothing. These duties were all within the purview of Leonardo's intellectual, professional, and artistic interests. Others appealed to his sense of fancy and theatricality: he designed sets for theater performances, festivals, marriages, and miscellaneous celebrations. Still other courtly duties distressed him: "It vexes me greatly," he wrote to Il Moro, "that having to earn my living has forced me to attend to small matters."

The immediate circumstances surrounding Leonardo's departure from Florence are not known, but he was in all likelihood prompted essentially by practical considerations. At this time Lodovico Sforza was seeking a sculptor who could cast in bronze an equestrian statue to memorialize his father, Francesco. In all of Italy only two studios had developed a high capacity and reputation for bronze casting--those of Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio. Fate contrived to disqualify Pollaiuolo for this task: he had in fact been offered the commission but, according to Vasari, had succeeded in making only two drawings for it. Verrocchio, for his part, was busy at that time designing the Colleoni equestrian monument for the Venetian republic. Only Leonardo, Verrocchio's most gifted pupil, was both qualified by training and available. On arriving in Milan, however, he may have found Lodovico too absorbed in affairs of state to give much attention to him or to the project for the statue. Conditions in Italy were unstable, and the war Lodovico was waging against Venice was going badly. The war was settled in 1484; but Milan was then struck by a plague that lasted into 1485 and that killed 50,000 people. This was obviously no time to sponsor a costly statue. These factors may explain why when we first hear of Leonardo in Milan he is working on an altarpiece instead of on the Sforza monument. They may also account for the famous letter he wrote to Lodovico, in which he itemized the many ways he could serve him, stressing his talent as a military engineer and concluding with a reference to the equestrian monument, no doubt as a reminder of his purpose in coming to Milan in the first place.

Leonardo probably set to work on the Sforza equestrian monument soon after the plague had subsided in Milan. At first he conceived the horse in the unusual and dynamic rearing position, but later he turned to the traditional striding pose (fig. 3). He then proceeded to make a clay model of the horse that was widely admired for its great size and came to be known, colloquially, as the "colosso." A contemporary account by the mathematician Luca Pacioli records that the model measured approximately twenty-three feet from hoof to mane, or about twice the size of the other equestrian statues of the fifteenth century (Donatello's Gattamelata and Verrocchio's Colleoni, for example, stood eleven and thirteen feet high, respectively, including their riders). Leonardo could not have been motivated by a personal preference when he chose the colossal scale for his monument, since there is nothing in his earlier work that anticipates such great size. We must, therefore, seek the reasons in the statue itself and in the character of the commission. Chief among them no doubt was a desire, or perhaps even a requirement of the contract (which is unfortunately lost), that the statue embody the absolute power and authority of the Sforza dynasty and that it express these qualities by means of a dominant and grandiose image of its founder.

The Sforza equestrian monument was not the first over-lifesize statue of the Renaissance: early in the fifteenth century, Donatello had made a colossal figure of the prophet Joshua, and even before that, in 1394, Jacopo della Quercia had erected a large equestrian statue of the Sienese condottiere Gian Tedesco. But Donatello's work was modeled in terra cotta and Della Quercia's was constructed in wood, straw, tow, hemp, and clay; both were painted to simulate marble. It was not until Michelangelo's David that a statue of colossal proportions, measuring over thirteen feet, was carved in marble. Leonardo might have anticipated Michelangelo in producing a colossal statue in permanent materials had he actually finished the Sforza monument. His task, which was to cast a gigantic group using many tons of bronze, was a formidable one in those days. It is impossible to say whether he would have been successful, since the project was abandoned and it seems that Lodovico sent the bronze to his brother-in-law Ercole d'Este in Ferrara in 1494 to make cannons for war. The clay model of the "colosso" was soon seriously damaged by French military archers, who used it as a target. Later still, it was destroyed, probably through decay and neglect.

The "colosso" was the only major work of sculpture known to occupy Leonardo during these Milanese years. For the rest, he was busy with commissions for buildings and especially for paintings, practically all of the latter carried out under court patronage. The most famous painting, of course, is the Last Supper (colorplate 23), still miraculously preserved after centuries of decay and near destruction during World War II. Leonardo also executed portraits of Lodovico Sforza, his wife, and two mistresses. Only one of the latter, the Cecilia Gallerani (colorplate 29), has survived. Finally, Leonardo decorated two rooms in the Castello Sforzesco; only the so-called Sala delle Asse still faintly reveals its former splendor, with a trompe-l'oeil canopy of intertwined tree branches covering its walls and ceiling.

The first work Leonardo executed in Milan is the version of the Madonna of the Rock today in the Louvre (colorplate 16), which was commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. It is in many ways a pivotal painting, especially in the treatment of light and nature: one is not prepared for the tense equilibrium of serrated and stalagmitic boulders that compose the grotto in the background or for the intrusion of vaporous mists that inundate it. The light that illuminates the four figures is no longer the relatively shadowless one that was so popular in fifteenth-century Florence, but the one Leonardo himself recommended to artists after he arrived in Milan. It enters the painting from the side at a forty-five-degree angle and is softened into an evening glow that seems to become a positive force, dispelling the dimness of the cave's interior to reveal a scene of devotional enchantment.

There is a second version of this painting in London's National Gallery (colorplate 17). In its initial conception, it was based on designs by Leonardo, but it was probably executed by Ambrogio de' Predis. Leonardo's style is here changed. The ethereal mood and fragility of the figures of the earlier painting are gone, replaced by an increase in scale and by monumental forms. The change, occurring in all probability between 1485 and 1490, could have been brought on by Leonardo's concurrent work on the colossal Sforza equestrian monument.

Leonardo's career in Milan took a turn away from the visual arts when he began his lifelong habit of recording his odyssean search for knowledge in notebooks. It is appropriate at this point to interrupt our discussion of his strictly artistic evolution and to examine this aspect of Leonardo's career, because in so doing we may better understand certain of the changes in his art after he arrived in Milan.

The notebooks contain extensive notes on a large variety of subjects, including those relating to science and engineering, to which Leonardo was to devote considerable energy for the rest of his life, even at the expense of his activities as an artist. "He is entirely occupied with geometry and has no patience for painting," wrote an eyewitness to his activities in 1501. Leonardo's notebooks reveal a mind in which naturalism and the rule of reason predominate. "All true sciences are the result of experience which has passed through our senses," he wrote, adding that "the eye is the universal judge of all objects." However, he sensibly qualifies this stress on observation: "It seems to me that those sciences are vain and full of error which do not spring from experiment, the source of all certainty." The key words in Leonardo's vocabulary are "science," "eye," "experience," "experimentation." He adds mathematics to his pantheon of intellectual and empirical methodology when he admonishes: "Let no man who is not a mathematician read the elements of my work."

Leonardo fared well as an engineer, since the times were quite propitious for the development and application of this aspect of his talent. Accelerating geographic explorations, industrial and commercial expansion, and increasingly frequent wars all required new and improved navigational devices, machinery of various kinds, military fortifications, and weapons. Leonardo exploited the climate of the times on a typically universal scale by drawing plans to improve health and transportation in cities (fig. 4) and by making sketches of war machines. His talent in these areas did not go unnoticed, and he received as many commissions for works of engineering as he did for works of art. At one point, we hear that Leonardo is actually casting bronze cannons in Milan. In 1502, he served the ruthless and ambitious Cesare Borgia for nearly a year as military engineer, inspecting fortifications for him in northern Italy. Finally, in 1503, Leonardo was able to persuade the Florentine government to engage him for the improbable--and what was for that age surely the impossible--task of diverting the flow of the Arno River in order to cut off access to the sea by Pisa, with which Florence was then at war.

Leonardo's drawings of military and industrial machines, some four hundred in all, are of incalculable importance because they form the most extensive corpus of this sort of mechanical technology to come down to us from the Renaissance. They are also among the most accurate drawings of machines in this period: perspective and chiaroscuro are employed to give the images naturalistic form and to make their mechanisms explicit enough so that they could be reconstructed and actually manufactured.

To what extent were Leonardo's designs for machines original? It cannot be substantiated that he actually invented any of those we find drawn in his notebooks. Nor can we take his famous letter to Lodovico Sforza, in which he boasted about all the war machines he could make, as evidence of his originality. The fact is that there already existed on Leonardo's arrival in Milan more than a thousand such contraptions in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco. We would like to think that the famous flying machines he drew (fig. 6) were his own inventions, yet Giovanni Battista Danti of Perugia had already tested a flying machine with movable wings a generation before.

The general belief among specialists is that Leonardo copied machines he saw in factories, in armories, and in manuscripts by other engineers and artists as part of his usual learning process, and that in so doing he refined and improved on many of them. This is the lesson to be derived from the marginal notes he made in a notebook of mechanical drawings by his friend Francesco di Giorgio now in the Laurentian Library in Florence. In making his improvements, Leonardo not only used a more advanced knowledge of physics, but an infinitely keener sense of observation. This was coupled with a very exceptional and miraculous ability to capture instantaneously in drawings all the things he observed, as in his incredibly detailed and comprehensive studies of birds in flight (fig. 7). Leonardo literally trained himself in this difficult task by using prepared paper for his sketches so that, as he put it, mistakes could not be erased but another drawing made to affect corrections. Thus, the hand and eye had to work rapidly and in unison.

Copyright © 1984 Harry N. Abrams. All rights reserved.

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