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Leonardo's signature - Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus) f. 379r / 1054r - Ambrosian Library, Milan

Leonardo's signature - Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus)  f. 379r / 1054r - Ambrosian Library, Milan

Painter, architect, engineer, designer, set designer, musician, inventor, anatomist, and geologist. Leonardo da Vinci is all of it, a universally recognized Italian genius, celebrated this year on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death

We take you on a journey through time and space to discover the genius of the Renaissance. 

THE YOUNG LEONARDO

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born on 15 April 1452 in Anchiano, a hamlet of Vinci, 40 km away from Florence.  His drawing skills became clear at an early age and led his father to send him to a workshop to learn the art of painting and figuration from a good teacher.  

In 1469, at the age of 17, Leonardo entered Verrocchio's Florence workshop for three lire a month. This is how his experience as an aide and labourer began along with other pupils who would later write the history of Renaissance: Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Lorenzo de Credi.  

The "garzoni" of the workshop had to learn through practice and the Master entrusted them with work on the less demanding sections of a painting, from the backdrops to the details of the clothes, to the minor characters.  Verrocchio appreciated Leonardo's style and entrusted him with the creation of the angel on the left of the painting “Il Battesimo di Cristo” (The Baptism of Christ), now housed at the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi gallery) of Florence. 

"Battesimo di Cristo” by Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli - Galleria Degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

The Gabinetto dei disegni e delle stampe (Department of Prints and Drawings) at the Uffizi also houses one of Leonardo's first drawings, created during his training days at the workshop: Paesaggio con fiume (Landscape with River), dated August 5, 1473.

Paesaggio con fiume - Gabinetto dei disegni e delle stampe degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

Paesaggio con fiume - Gabinetto dei disegni e delle stampe degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

The Uffizi also houses one of the very first commissioned works by Leonardo: the Annunciazione (Annunciation).

Annunciazione - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

Annunciazione - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

In 2017, the Galleria degli Uffizi reopened, after a long period of restoration work, and displayed another work by Leonardo da Vinci: the Adorazione dei Magi, (Adoration of the Magi), created between 1481 and 1482.

Adorazione dei Magi - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

Adorazione dei Magi - Galleria degli Uffizi,  Florence - Tuscany 

FLORENCE, LEONARDO AND LORENZO IL MAGNIFICO

At the end of the fifteenth century Florence was ruled by a great ruler who loved the arts and was a great patron:  Lorenzo il Magnifico

Leonardo used to sketch scenes from everyday life in his notebook. He began to draw the faces of Florentine girls who inspired him for his paintings of the Virgin Mary and angels. 

The road was his preferred place where to find inspiration for his work: he observed the characters, the vices and virtues, the beauty and decadence, youth and old age.

Uomo e donna affrontati - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence - Tuscany

In his drawings, he distorted the characters he disliked, highlighting some of their traits and thus inventing, centuries in advance, caricature, or the technique of pointing out a physical characteristic or a detail of the face to obtain a paradoxical and ridiculous result.  Leonardo hated those who sought to acquire power through servility. For this reason, he responded by using caricatures that perhaps represent, more than the external aspect of certain characters, their inner soul.

After 14 years spent in the cradle of the Renaissance, Leonardo thought of leaving Florence to offer his services to powerful figures. 

The Seignories of the time were looking for military technicians. Among them there was the Court of the Sforza, allies of the Medici, sensitive to the prestige deriving from the works of quality artists and even more interested in the tools of war that a fervent mind like Leonardo's could create.

LEONARDO IN MILAN (1ST  MILANESE PERIOD)

Unassailable tanks and light and transportable bridges.  In his letter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza also known as "Il Moro", Leonardo to draw his attention explained some of his most visionary ideas concerning the innovation of war machines.

Leonardo then moved to Milan, one of the few European cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, located in the middle of a populous and productive region. 

The early days were difficult, it was a very different world respect to Florence due to traditions, climate and dialect. Among his papers there are notes for meals to be paid and bills to be settled, which highlight difficulties and concerns related to the most common problems of everyday life.

Leonardo was able, however, to enter the court of Ludovico il Moro, obtaining important assignments and exciting commissioned works. He was asked to fresco the Sala delle Asse (Room of the Wooden Boards) in the Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle), and the Tuscan artist transformed it into a fantastic small forest by painting trees that interlace their branches on the ceiling.

Sala delle Asse - Castello Sforzesco, Milan - Lombardy

Sala delle Asse - Castello Sforzesco, Milan - Lombardy

At the Court, Leonardo met Cecilia Gallerani, a 16-year-old girl of great charm.  In Leonardo's life there are no love relationships, but it seems that Cecilia's beauty and intelligence impressed the Master.  

This is probably why Leonardo used the Duke's mistress as a model for one of his most famous paintings "La dama con l’ermellino (Lady with an Ermine)" (National Museum of Krakow - Poland).

Dama con l'ermellino - National Museum, Krakow - Poland

Dama con l'ermellino - National Museum, Krakow - Poland

The ability to design machines and mechanisms revealed another one of Leonardo's great talents: his stagecrafting ability. 

For Ludovico il Moro, he designed and staged one of the greatest shows that the Duchy ever saw: the Festa del Paradiso, a theatrical performance in which the sun, moon and planets move on stage with the help of machines of his own invention.  

Leonardo thus discovered himself to be a director, set designer, inventor of theatrical machines and even a stylist.  His obsession for detail led him to take care of the production of stage clothes.  

He was a careful observer and was very interested in automation, an element often present in his projects.  He was interested in the economic advantages of automated production in terms of efficiency and speed (the textile industry was flourishing in Milan and Leonardo's projects included, for example, machines for producing sequins for evening dresses and mechanical looms for weaving).

Mechanical loom for weaving designed by Leonardo - Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci - Milan - Lombardy

The practical application of his ideas at the service of the military, economic or artistic wishes of his clients was also the result of the need to find jobs for himself and his assistants. 

During his stay in Milan, Leonardo created some of his greatest masterpieces. 

The Vergine delle Rocce (Virgin of the Rocks, now displayed at the Louvre Museum) in which he demonstrates his deep knowledge of geology and botany. 

It is also interesting to know that Leonardo was one of the first to understand the nature and origin of marine fossils found in the gullies of hills and inland valleys. 

Vergine delle Rocce - Louvre Museum, Paris - France

Vergine delle Rocce - Louvre Museum, Paris - France

Milan preserves one of Leonardo da Vinci's most amazing masterpieces: The Last Supper (named a UNESCO site in 1980 with the Dominican Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie).

The Last Supper - Dominican Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan - Lombardy

The Last Supper - Dominican Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan - Lombardy

Leonardo spent a lot of time thinking about the layout of the masterpiece, with which he represented the last encounter of Jesus with his disciples. 

Contrary to what one might think, the approach to the creation of his works was for Leonardo a long and discontinuous process. 

Writer Matteo Tambello, the prior's nephew, tells that Leonardo sometimes painted without stopping, other times he arrived at noon and after one or two brush-strokes he left. 

When the work was completed, Leonardo was aware of the limits and defects of the technique used for frescoeing, and the inexorable process of disintegration that followed.  

The work immediately began to deteriorate because of the materials used by the artist: instead of the traditional "buon fresco", which Leonardo did not like because it required the painting to be executed too quickly, he spread several layers of greasy tempera on two different preparations, a coarser one, placed in contact with the wall, and a chalky one on which colors would adhere.  This type of experimentation, which gave him the opportunity to operate several times to change and adjust the details of the image, did not, however, have a good result in terms of conservation, immediately causing the detachment and loss of the painted layer.

A restoration that lasted 17 years (from 1982 to 1999) returned us one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art.

MANTUA, VENICE AND ROMAGNA

With the conquest of Milan by the French, in 1500 Leonardo decided to leave the city and moved to Mantua, at the Court of Isabella d'Este Gonzaga, where major artists produced important works, such as Mantegna who frescoed the Chamber of the spouses

Isabella was a cultured woman, a lover of the arts and a great admirer of Leonardo.  She commissioned him a portrait, but the Master only produced a preparatory sketch on cardboard.  Isabella's concern to damage her position in the relation with the French by protecting Leonardo, one of Ludovico il Moro's most important artists, was great, therefore she ordered Leonardo to leave.

Isabella d'Este - Preparatory sketch on Cardboard

Isabella d'Este - Preparatory sketch on Cardboard

Leonardo moved to Venice where he designed a plan for the city's defense against the Turks, which consisted of a series of dams over the Isonzo river that would have allowed the plain to be flooded, preventing access to the city.  

This ingenious and imposing work was never carried out, but the evidence left by Leonardo at the Serenissima are all there. The Gallerie dell'Accademia in fact houses one of his most famous works: the Uomo vitruviano (the Vitruvian Man).

This precious drawing was inspired by the model proposed in ancient times by the mathematician Vitruvius, who identified the human body and its parts as a unit of measure for architectural design.  

In his notes, Leonardo states that he discovered the mathematical solution of quadrature of the circle, going beyond the solutions proposed by Archimedes (of whom he was a great admirer).  However, no evidence of this work remains.

Uomo Vitruviano - Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice - Veneto Region

Uomo Vitruviano - Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice - Veneto Region

After Venice, the Master returned for a short period to Florence, and in 1502 he moved to Romagna together with Cesare Borgia (a man of arms and power, a controversial figure of the Renaissance, who inspired Nicolò Machiavelli in writing his treatise "Il Principe" (The Prince).

Leonardo began an adventurous period alongside Valentino (aka Cesare Borgia) for whom he was a military consultant and "Architetto et Ingegnero Generale" (Architect and General Engineer).  Borgia had a great project: to create a strong and modern state that prefigured the unification of Italy by bringing together under his rule the Romagna, part of the Marche and Tuscany. 

Leonardo did not appreciate Cesare Borgia's unscrupulousness, but admired his determination.  He began to travel frequently among the fortresses of the Duchy to strengthen their defenses.  He visited Urbino, Rimini, Cesena, Pesaro, Cesenatico and other cities in the Marche and Romagna regions.  Leonardo deepened his studies on hydraulics and designed fortifications, but after Borgia had four of his opponents strangled through deception, including a friend of his, Leonardo decided to leave.

Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), f. 117 recto Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosian Gallery), Milan - Lombardy

Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), f. 117 recto Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosian Gallery), Milan - Lombardy

Not much evidence of Leonardo's passage through Emilia-Romagna remains, but since 1839, the Galleria Nazionale di Parma has been housing one of his most refined works: the Testa di Fanciulla (the Head of a Woman) also known as La Scapigliata.

La Scapigliata - Galleria Nazionale di Parma - Emilia Romagna region

La Scapigliata - Galleria Nazionale di Parma - Emilia Romagna region

Leonardo did not like war, which he described as "a bestial madness" but at the same time his work is full of military inventions.  It is a strange contradiction, which led Leonardo to keep secret the projects of some weapons (such as submarines), for fear that they may be used for "murders at the bottom of the seas".  A military engineer, but, at the same time, as a brilliant military engineer, he believed that it was  permissible to use deadly war instruments to defend oneself and fight enemies.

Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), f. 33 recto Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombardy

Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus), f. 33 recto Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombardy

Leonardo invented many war machines and today, at the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, it is possible to admire deatiled models of his inventions. 

From the ramming ship to eight and even thirty-three barrel cannons, ogival bullets, all the way to tanks and devices for breaking through the ship bottoms for naval battles, and much more.  The museum also houses a splendid collection of models taken from Leonardo's studies of flight

Leonardo designed machines that imitated the flight of birds and thought that mechanisms and levers were needed to amplify the movement of the arms and legs.

Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan - Lombardy 

He designed several models, but we do not know if any of them were ever made.  Among them there is the "screw instrument that is made female with air", that is the ancestor of the modern helicopter

Screw instrument that is made female with air, Leonardo da Vinci - Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan - Lombardy

Leonardo believed that the dominant culture used the wrong method in the search for the truth. Instead of experimenting, it merely thinks, while according to Leonardo's beliefs no knowledge can exist without verification. A concept that anticipated Galileo's ideas on the experimental method by more than a century.  It deemed that small truths that were ascertained are preferable to large truths that could not be demonstrated. 

He wrote in his notes:  "You consider me a man without culture, but you are fools because my considerations are taken from experience, not from words". 

Leonardo always questioned the literary-philosophical culture that deemed dishonorable working with one's hands and carrying out research and experimentation.

Leonardo's desire for knowledge was insatiable and led him to explore areas previously unimaginable, such as the human anatomy. This perfect machine fascinated him: he wanted to know what it contained, how it worked and what happened when it stopped.  Anatomy was still in its early stages and Leonardo was the first to represent the human body with a series of amazing drawings.  He invented anatomical illustration, still used today by modern designers. 

He investigated muscles, bones, tendons, capillary veins, arteries, invented exploded images - which serve to understand the relationship between two organs - but he was unable to understand the function of the heart. 

His studies of botany took him in the wrong direction, and lead him to think that the circulation of blood was regulated as that of the lymph of the plants (an ascending and a descending lymph).  He did not consider the heart to be a motor muscle, but rather a stove that heated the blood.

Anatomical studies, Leonardo da Vinci

Anatomical studies, Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo's contribution to many scientific disciplines was fundamental. Even in astronomy he had fundamental intuitions: the heat of the sun, the twinkling of the stars, the earth as a planet, the moon, the centrality of the sun (a heretical thesis, which for many years caused contrasts and oppositions).  

At that time science did not yet know the laws of gravitation, but Leonardo already compared the planets to magnets that attracted each other, explaining the concept of gravitational attraction.

THE RETURN TO FLORENCE

Leonardo met the great protagonists of the Renaissance:  Lorenzo il Magnifico, Ludovico il Moro, Cesare Borgia, and Nicolò Machiavelli. But also artists such as Botticelli, Perugino, Raffaello - who is one of his great admirers. He had excellent relations with everyone except Michelangelo, another great protagonist of the Renaissance. 

The two artists faced each other in the field of art and paintings. In 1503 in Florence they were commissioned to fresco two large walls of the Sala dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio. Both had to represent a battle: Leonardo that of Anghiari, Michelangelo that of Cascina

Leonardo had to test himself again (as for the Last Supper) against the fresco technique.

This was a familiar technique for Michelangelo, who created his works with great speed and confidence, but not for Leonardo, who needed longer time and possibly the chance of redoing or retouching painted parts.  

Leonardo decided to use a different technique, also to providing longer lasting colors: the so-called encaustic technique used by the Romans and described by Pliny. The result was a disaster. Due to the lack of the necessary heat source to fix the color on the wall, the work soon began to deteriorate.  

The Battaglia di Anghiari (Battle of Anghiari) was visible for about 50 years, before being covered by Vasari's frescoes, in charge of restructuring and decorating the hall.

Sala dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence - Tuscany

Thanks to replicas of artists like Rubens, we now have the opportunity to get an idea of what the fresco looked like.  The comparison with Michelangelo was not possible because Buonarroti did not create any frescoes there.

Battaglia di Anghiari - Rubens

Battaglia di Anghiari - Rubens 

The Gioconda (Mona Lisa), an immense work that the History of Art simply defines as "Il Quadro" (The Picture) was created in the same period.  As far as we know, it is the portrait of a gentle Florentine woman, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.  It seems that Leonardo also had to do the portrait of her husband.  What is certain is that the work was never delivered.  After 4 years of work, as always occasional, Leonardo kept it for himself.   That face and smile stirred all sorts of interpretations: that it was the portrait of a pregnant woman, even that it was the portrait of a man, or that Leonardo represented himself in a female version.

La Gioconda - Leonardo Da Vinci

La Gioconda - Leonardo Da Vinci 

THE RETURN TO MILAN AND THE PAUSE IN ROME

In 1505 Leonardo was back in Milan.  He lived in San Babila, now a district with big buildings and shops.

After 7 years, he returned to see his Last Supper painting and, with surprise, noted that many young painters were inspired by his painting and had copied it. 

During short trips to Como, he reached the slopes of Monte Rosa and Vaprio d'Adda.

San Girolamo penitente (St. Jerome in the Wilderness) - Vatican Gallery, Vatican City

In 1513, Leonardo left for Rome, as a guest of Giuliano de' Medici at the apartments of the Belvedere al Vaticano.  

In the Pinacoteca Vaticana (Vatican Gallery) it is now possible to admire "San Girolamo penitente", an unfinished work dated 1480 circa. 

In Rome, Leonardo dedicated himself to studies in mechanics, optics and geometry, but his passion for anatomical studies led him to continue his research in morgues. 

An anonymous letter accused him of witchcraft and with the death of his protector Giuliano de' Medici Leonardo was forced to leave Rome.  

The latest information on his stay in the Eternal City tells us that he was dealing with the measurement of the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

THE TRANSFER TO FRANCE

Leonardo was old and had lived an adventurous life, and he was looking for a quite place and some peace.  Therefore, he accepted the hospitality of King Francis I of France, who offered him a home (the small castle of Clos-Lucé) in Amboise, 225 km away from Paris.  Leonardo left for his last trip, from which he  never returned. 

The Italian genius was 65 years old.

Self-portrait of Leonardo - Royal Library of Turin, Piedmont

At the Royal Library of Turin it is possible to get an idea of Leonardo's appearance when he was approximately 60 years old, thanks to his famous self-portrait. The Royal Library now houses 13 drawings by Leonardo plus another 6 by Leonardo's pupils.

Leonardo made all his drawings, including sketches, taking good care of every detail.  Every hair strand, beard strand is painted with exceptional precision, yet the face was unfinished: the top of the forehead and part of the beard are missing yet one has the impression of seeing them.  

This self-portrait rather than being picture-like is an interpretation that Leonardo gave to his face using refined games of light. 

Leonardo's artistic production was not large but the number of writings and drawings is enormous and perhaps represents the most important work he left us.

The Royal Library of Turin houses his Codice sul volo degli uccelli (Codex on the flight of birds), while the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of Milan houses the largest collection of drawings and writings of Leonardo: the Codice Atlantico (Codex Atlanticus).

Codex Atlanticus, f. 26 recto, Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombard

Codex Atlanticus, f. 26 recto, Leonardo da Vinci - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombardy

It includes 1119 sheets covering 40 years of studies ranging from anatomy, astronomy, chemistry, geography, botany, mechanics, to flight studies and architecture projects. 

In addition to the Codice Atlantico, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana also houses a pictorial work by Leonardo: the Ritratto di musico (Portrait of a Musician), which was housed in the museum in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Ritratto di musico - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombardy

Ritratto di musico - Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan - Lombardy

Also in Milan it is possible to find the Codice Trivulziano (Codex Trivulzianus) 2162: fifty-one charts, dated between 1478 and 1493, housed in the Trivulzian Library of the Sforza Castle.

Despite the onset of a stroke that paralyzed his right hand, Leonardo expanded the collection of his Codexes. A year before his death among his writings there is an important sentence: "I will continue”. 

On 2 May 1519, at the age of 67, Leonardo died.

Ten years later, the church of Saint-Florentin in Amboise where he was buried was devastated and his tomb destroyed.  His bones were dispersed and the remains buried in a mass grave. 

In 1984, the bones found and attributed to Leonardo were placed in the chapel of Saint-Hubert at the castle of Amboise. 

This is how the human story of Leonardo ends and the myth begins.

«Sì come una giornata bene spesa dà lieto dormire, così una vita bene usata dà lieto morire.» ("Just as a day well spent gives joyful sleep, so a life well used gives joyful death.")

Leonardo da Vinci