Trying to find something new and interesting to write about Leonardo da Vinci is difficult, for me anyway, as I’m attempting to convey information about THE Renaissance man. What could I possibly say about him that hasn’t been said? Nothing, okay? I accept that. But to leave him out feels wholly wrong, so I’m going to attempt to make a few comments mildly interesting, and carry on with my day.
First things first, we refer to him incorrectly, myself included. We should not call him “da Vinci”. His birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci. Translated that roughly means Leonardo son of Piero of Vinci. Most of us are therefore referring to him by the town of his birth, not a family name. It’s as if everyone suddenly started calling me “of Enid”. No, thank you. In his time, he was known either by his full name or simply as “Leonardo”.
Even though he left behind only a handful of paintings and some unfinished sculptures, he’s regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists. His interests included invention, music, architecture, anatomy, cartography, botany, and engineering, to name a few. Most of what we know about Leonardo comes from the 13,000 pages of notebooks he left behind, and through them he can be credited with conceiving of the helicopter, the parachute, and the tank, and many more. The trouble is, he would often get started on a project, then get distracted with something new and abandon it. “Squirrel!” Historically, mental health experts have loved to diagnose historical figures, and if Van Gogh was Manic Depressive, Mozart was Manic Depressive (and had Aspergers’, and had Tourette’s and others), then Leonardo had ADD.
But the guy could paint. And like van Eyck, he brought something new to his paintings. In 1495, Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Last Supper for the wall of a church dining hall. It was typical of medieval artists of the time to paint Jesus and his disciples as serene and carefree. But not Leonardo. In his painting the men are very expressive. They are horrified and argumentative. And they are now peeling away. Leonardo bucked tradition and opted not to paint on wet plaster, as once the plaster dries, the painting cannot be touched up. So he painted on dry plaster, which provided more brilliant colors at first, but which soon started to flake off the wall. Many attempts have been made to try and restore it, but it is a faded blur of what it once was.
Leonardo’s dilly-dallying irritated almost everyone who worked with him, particularly those waiting for him to complete projects. As he made haste slowly on The Last Supper, the prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie complained to the Duke of Milan that work was taking too long. Leonardo explained that he was trying to find a face evil enough to represent Judas, but if he couldn’t find the perfect model he could “always use the head of that tactless and impatient prior.”
There were no more complaints to the duke.
– Elizabeth Lunday, Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About
Now, Google “Mona Lisa” and click on “image” to filter your results. You’ll probably find more parodies of this most famous of paintings than you will images of the original. Most people comment on the faint smile, but it is notable for other reasons. First, her pose. She is turning away from the viewer but shifted her upper body to face the audience, thus providing a sense of movement, whereas most portraits of that era featured no such posture. Also, most portrait paintings of the time had little background, but La Gioconda (aka, The Mona Lisa) had, GASP, a landscape behind her. There is also the question of her eyebrows. Believe it or not, there has been debate over whether Lisa Gherardini, the purported subject of the painting, had plucked her eyebrows, Leonardo forgot to paint them, or some subsequent restorer destroyed them. Maybe Lisa was just a fan of Grace Jones.
Oh, and Lisa hasn’t been immune to medical diagnosis post-mortem. Physicians have claimed she; had an enlarged thyroid, was cross-eyed, grinded her teeth, had Bell’s Palsy and had “an asymmetrical hypofunction of the facial muscles”. Mmmm, pretty.
According to 16th century biographer Vasari, Leonardo died in the arms of King Francis I of France, so beloved was he to the monarch. Leonardo is, to this day, regarded as THE universal genius, and his notebooks are still a source of study and awe.
Next up, Michelangelo.
Footnote: Where do I get my information? The Secret Lives of Great Artists, by Elizabeth Lunday, Tortured Artists, From Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the Twisted Secretes of the World’s Most Creative Minds, by Christopher Zara, and Google (often leading to Wikipedia), naturally.