History of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper Painting

Your ads will be inserted here by

Easy Plugin for AdSense.

Please go to the plugin admin page to
Paste your ad code OR
Suppress this ad slot.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting was originally painted starting in 1495 and was completed in 1498. The painting was commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d’Este to be painted as a mural in Milan. The painting itself is a recreation of The Last Supper as described in the Gospel of John regarding the final days of Jesus Christ. The scene Leonardo chooses is the moment at which Jesus reveals that one of his disciples will betray him.

Measuring 15 x 29 Feet, the mural is found in the back of the dining hall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. During the time in which Leonardo painted it, depictions of the Last Supper were very common. It was a challenge to all good Renaissance painters to recreate the Last Supper. However, Leondardo’s depiction garnered so much fame and admiration because it was so much different than the others. Using the sense of realism he infused in many of his paintings, the Last Supper was a wonderful example of his talents. However, some criticism has been leveled due to the consequences of the painting technique Leonardo Da Vinci used in the Last Supper and its rapid deterioration.

The painting itself is rife with important references to his patron, including the Sforzas coats-of-arms, located along the top of the painting beneath the arches of the ceiling. There were also originally figures of the Sforza family added in tempera to the piece, though like the main painting itself, they have rapidly deteriorated over time.

By the time Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, was writing his histories, the painting was already largely ruined by decomposition. It’s believed that such flaking began to occur as early as 1517 and continued for centuries. In 1652 a large doorway was cut through the middle of the painting, which at this point was largely unrecognizable. It was bricked up in time, but an irregular shape in the painting can still be seen today. Numerous copies were made early in the life of the painting which depict different versions, though it is impossible to know what the mural really looked like any longer.

In 1768, a curtain was hung to protect the painting from further deterioration. Unfortunately, the curtain only served cause the build up of moisture. When the curtain was moved, it would flake even more paint free of the wall. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was first restored in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti. He filled in the missing sections with oils and varnished it over. Unfortunately this restoration barely lasted and in 1770 another painter tried again. Giuseppe Mazza removed all of Bellotti’s restoration work and almost completely repainted the mural. The public was unhappy with the repainting though and he was eventually halted.

Only 26 years later, in 1796 French Troops utilized the room for an armory all the while throwing rocks at it and purposely gouging out the eyes of the Apostles. Later, the room was used as a prison and further damage still could have been inflicted. Later, in 1821, Stefano Barezzi was hired to move what everyone thought was a fresco as such work was his specialty. However, because the painting was not a fresco, he damaged the painting severely. He attempted to reattach those sections he had destroyed with glue. Later, in 1901, Luigi Cavenaghi did a full study of the painting and the structure behind it before starting on a full cleaning. Later, in 1924 Oreste Silvestri continued the job of cleaning the painting and restoring the broken bits and pieces.

However, the painting was still not quite safe. On August 15, 1943, the room was hit with a bomb. Though the wall was sandbagged, the vibrations from the bombing may have damaged it even further. After the war, Mauro Pelliccioli attempted another cleaning of the painting.

By the time the 1970s arrived, the painting was largely unrecognizable. So, from 1978 to 1999 Pinin Brambilla Barcilon undertook a massive restoration process, the goal of which was to stabilize the painting for good and remove the damage inflicted over the years. The entire room was turned into a museum, sealed off from the outside world, as the painting could not be moved. The portions of the painting that could not be restored accurately were repainted using careful watercolors while the rest was studied and researched using old drawings and sketches from throughout the world. Upon finishing, Barcilon was able to recreate the first full picture of the Last Supper in hundreds of years. Today, the Last Supper painting sits in its current exhibit in Milan. To view the painting you must sign up for a long waiting list and are only given 15 minutes when you enter the exhibit.

The importance of the Last Supper to pop culture has also seen a recent spike as more and more people find interesting bits and pieces in the painting to discuss. The release of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in 2003 only helped that popularity to spike, while movies and television have been using the famous image for years now to depict the themes of Da Vinci’s painting. For those still interested in learning more, you can find incredibly detailed information on Da Vinci’s Last Supper on Last Supper wikis, as well as excellent Last Supper reprints in most art shops around the world.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Your ads will be inserted here by

Easy Plugin for AdSense.

Please go to the plugin admin page to
Paste your ad code OR
Suppress this ad slot.

The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci is not only one of the most important paintings ever created, it was one of the most important to Leonardo himself, a work he spent more than four years on and carried with him everywhere he went for the remainder of his life. The Importance of the Mona Lisa to Leonardo has caused great deals of speculation as to why he might have painted it and what the painting might be depicting.

When was the Mona Lisa Painted and Why?

The original Mona Lisa was painted in 1503 by Leonardo Da Vinci in his home in Italy. Vasari, the famous Italian biographer, wrote that it was a commission for Francesco del Giacondo and his wife Lisa Ghirardi, the model. Ghirardi would have been a 24 year old recent bride about to give birth to her second child at the time. Other scholars have made connections between Leonardo’s father and Francesco as friends and that Leonardo’s father might have commissioned the painting himself as a gift.

However, none of these facts are sufficient to explaining why the painting held so much value to Leonardo during his life. There are numerous theories recently postulated (in the last 100 years or so) that hope to tackle this question and make sense of the life and work of the world’s most important artist.

Other Models in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Your ads will be inserted here by

Easy Plugin for AdSense.

Please go to the plugin admin page to
Paste your ad code OR
Suppress this ad slot.

With the outstanding theory being that the Mona Lisa is a painting of Lisa Ghirardi and other theories pointing to the possibility that it could be either Constanza d’Avalos or Isabella of Aragon, Duchess of Milan, the question of its importance is still not answered. While the revolutionary style and expression in the portrait have enthralled the art world since it was painted, it doesn’t explain DaVinci’s attachment.

A Self Portrait or His Mother?

There are further theories that the painting might have been a self-portrait, supported by the similarity of the painting to other self-portraits of DaVinci he painted and with other paintings that carry similar facial features. Another theory still postulates that he may have instilled some of the features of his mother in all of these paintings, making the Mona Lisa a portrait not of Lisa Ghirardi in detail, but of his mother Caterina.

The Importance of his Life’s Work

Throughout his life, Leonardo was intrigued by almost everything under the sun. He had a habit of infusing his interests into numerous works, adding touches of his obsession with weather and topography into the Mona Lisa in the background to show humanity’s culmination with nature. For that reason, his artwork was incredibly important to him, not only as art but as an expression of his life’s work. With such a small painting, and four years of work put into it, it could just be that he kept it with him as a representative of that.

With so much time and energy put into his masterpiece, Leonardo may have simply been wary to part way s with it, unable to find a suitable buyer, or lost the commission after the painting was completed. Whatever reason he so loved it though, Mona Lisa by da Vinci is full of the kinds of mystery and importance that has endured for more than 500 years.

The Last Supper Alternative Versions

Other Last Supper Pictures in History

There have been numerous other versions of the Last Supper painted over the years. It was considered a very important piece during the Renaissance and because of that was repeatedly crafted for the sake of proving that an artist could do so. After Leonardo’s famous work, many other artists were influence by the Last Supper. There are numerous different versions. These are a few of the most famous:

Durer’s Last Supper

Durer worked numerous sketches and preliminary drawings for a series of portraits portraying the Passion and the last supper. His drawings, found and dated to the years 1521-1523, in Berlin, Florence, and Frankfurt show his intentions to create a different perspective of the Last Supper, with Christ sitting sideways.

The Last Supper by Castagno

Castagno’s depiction of the Last Supper predated Leonardo’s by almost 50 years. Originally painted in 1447, the Last Supper was a companion piece to his works depicting the Passion. The room itself is depicted as a rather sober architectural affair and is filled with numerous marble panels in full color, to set a more engaging backdrop to the affair of the painting itself. The painting is famous for many its smaller details, including the halos depicted on each of the characters and the highlights in their hair. While Judas sits, isolated on the other side of the table in this painting, John sleeps casually beside Jesus, two common themes in paintings of these figures.

The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Ghiraldeno’s Last Supper is depicted on the wall of a refectory in Ognissanti. His image is based very much on the architectural style of Castagno while creating a series of vivid animated  lines and angles. He refrains from any emotional or dramatic expression and depicts his figures as rather peaceful and at ease, even Judas. He keeps his Judas postured on the opposite side of the table as Christ though and most of the characters are isolated in their serene gestures.

His lunettes in particular are of note as they depict the vivid gardens and palm-trees that don’t quite fit in but create a rather bourgeois effect on the architecture. A peacock sits on the windowsill and a fine white tablecloth with fancy embroidery graces the table. It appears to be more of an Italian room and table than anything in the time of Christ.

Salvador Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper

Dali’s attempt to create a Last Supper came shortly after he entered what is known as his “classical period” leaving behind much of what made his Surrealist work so engaging. The painting though, is still typical Dali in that it stretches beyond the image itself. After viewing the painting, Salvador Dali’s influence from The Last Supper became very apparent in his work. He himself described his painting as “Arithmetic and philosophical cosmogory based on the paranoiac sublimity of the number twelve…the pentagon contains microman:Christ”.  His images are classical and yet modernized by the removal of triangular shapes to be replaced by five sides and the image of man above the supper.

Tintoretto’s Last Supper

During the years between 1590 and 1600, Tintoretto and his workshop were commissioned to paint numerous paintings to decorate the new Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. He gave many of the works to his coworkers. However, there is no argument that the Tintoretto Last Supper was painted by himself. He had actually painted the scene numerous times throughout his life. This particular version is one in which he has Christ mingling with his followers, an image not common in the time. There is a singular, winged figure in the light around his head in the Tintoretto Last Supper, creating a different kind of painting than any of the other Last Suppers.

The Last Supper of Phillipe de Champagne

Champagne’s Supper at Emmaus has occasionally been attributed to Philippe’s nephew Jean-Baptiste, though there is no way to be sure. The painting itself would have been painted sometime between 1631 and 1684 then depending on which of them pained it. The painting itself is a simple portrait of Jesus and two of his disciples seated with a man, most likely a server, dealing with a cat on the ground and another listening to Jesus’s words. The painting’s style has been attributed to the influence of the Jensenist Monestary near Paris, where much of Champagne’s influence derived.

The Last Supper of Jacopo Bassano

Bassano’s painting of the Last Supper is believed to date to around 1538 and is considered a premier piece in the life of the artist. The painting was likely completed during the years Bassano stayed with Bonifacio da Pitati in his workshop, a painter who himself often painted similar subjects. The painting itself is much more chaotic and crowded than many of the other productions of the Last Supper and much has been made of the manner in which Christ stands in contrast to that of the rough inn-keeper and the dog and cat teasing each other below the table. The disciples are postured in a manner that creates a forced perspective on the table and much of what appears in this painting has been credited for the later works of artists like Tintoretto in the Venetian style

There have been numerous other editions of the painting and no one really knows how many artists have painted the Last Supper. Emil Nolde’s Last Supper as well as the Last Supper of Gebhard are both great examples of fine art. Michelangelo himself was purported to have crafted a Last Supper. A simple look into the Last Supper antique prints available will reveal numerous examples of other artists’ work. You can find numerous Last Supper pictures or information on the Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio or any of the other artists listed on any number of art gallery websites.

Features of the Mona Lisa (Beyond the Smile)

The details of the Mona Lisa style utilized by Leonardo have enthralled and confused historians for centuries. Some of the smallest details have become some of art’s biggest mysteries. Beyond the smile, there are many other aspects deserving of more attention in their relation to the power of the overall painting.

Details of the Mona Lisa – Face

The Mona Lisa’s face is a culmination of numerous different stylistic elements that have the ultimate effect of drawing the observer’s attention directly to that focal point. By surrounding the face with the darkened surfaces of her dress, hair and veil, Leonardo utilized the natural lighting embracing her breast and hands to focus attention on the face.

The face itself is comprised of a numerous very powerful features. Foremost, everyone recognizes the enigmatic smile as an important aspect. Still debated today, the smile is seen differently by everyone who views the painting. It has been noted as innocent, happy, smug, and even a subconscious admission of Oedipal intrigue by Leonardo.

The combination of that almost imperceptible smile and the lighting of the spherical shapes on her face creates an inviting face that draws the viewer in, all the while contrasting with Leonardo’s use of distance and separation in the armrest and columns. Along with the eyes, these features are the most effective of the many lasting effects Leonardo crafts in this painting, a portrait that is so much more than a portrait.

Details of the Mona Lisa – Eyebrows

The face of the Mona Lisa is famously lacking any eyebrows, something many observers immediately note when viewing the painting. The reason for this deficiency is still largely unknown, as the question of whether or not it was purposefully done or not cannot really be known. One theory is that they might have been irretrievably destroyed during an early restoration hundreds of years ago. Another theory is that young women in that era often had their eyebrows plucked or removed as a part of popular fashion.

Details of the Mona Lisa – Eyes

In painting the Mona Lisa, Leonardo manage to create the magnificent effect of distance of closeness at the same time. Buried in the shadow of her brow, Mona Lisa’s eyes are the most piercing and inviting aspect of the entire painting. While the rest of the painting creates a sense of distance and separation, Mona Lisa’s eyes work to bridge that gap and invite the observer ever closer. The eyes focus directly on the observer and despite the simple look they offer, are vital to fully appreciating the dynamic effects of the facial expression. By staring at the eyes, the smile’s effect is amplified in periphery, creating an even more powerful expression. The beauty of this simplistic smile can be compared to the most beautiful of Mona Lisa lillies.

With a smile that is ageless, films, novels, and the ever beautiful Mona Lisa lily named for her elegant simplicity, Mona Lisa’s features are the paramount of artistic talent and expression.

Da Vinci’s Early Paintings (1470-1490)

Early Paintings Leonardo Da Vinci Painted and Info on Them

Many ask the question, How many paintings has Leonardo Da Vinci painted? The answer is: not very many. However, those that he did paint have become worldwide masterpieces recognized everywhere for their incredible talent. Leonardo DaVinci’s paintings first began appearing in the 1470s with the Baptism of Christ, painted in tandem with Verrocchio. During his time spent in Verrocchio’s workshop, two other paintings are believed to have been painted, both Annunciations. The first is a small 59cm long, 14 cm high piece. It is a “predella” for a much larger work, a painting by Lorenzo Di Credi. The second of these Annunciations was a 217 cm long piece, much larger in scale.

Both of these initial paintings were crafted in the very basic Fra Angelico formation, pictures of the Virgin Mary sitting on the right side of the picture with an angel to her left. The angel in both paintings is wearing a flowing gown and has raised wings and a lily. In the smaller, first picture, Mary has her eyes downcast as a submissive gesture toward God. In the second, larger picture however, Mary is not submissive at all. The second picture shows Mary with a finger placed in her bible to mark her place and a hand raised in greeting to the angelic visitor before her. She takes on her position as the Mother of God with confidence. This first of a handful of Leonardo Da Vinci paintings begins his technique of placing a human face on the image of divine figures.

Da Vinci’s Paintings of the 1480s

Beginning with Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings in the 1480s, he received two substantial commissions among a few smaller works. He started a third work that would be groundbreaking in how it was composed. The first of the two commissions was the image of St. Jerome in the Wilderness. It is barely started and Da Vinci never finished it, but what is present is very odd compared to other works of the time. Da Vinci placed the figure of Jerome in the middle of the composition and slightly below the line of sight. He forms a trapezoidal shape and looks in the opposite direction with his signature lion sprawled across the front of the painting. The landscape itself is slightly odd with craggy rock formations around the saint.

Among Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings that were never finished, the unfinished Adoration of the Magi s one of his most famous. It was commissioned by the Monks of San Donato a Scopeto. It is about 250cm square and involved years of preliminary sketches and drawings by Leonardo before he even started. However, he left in 1482 for Milan to win favor with Ludovico il Moro and was never able to finish the work.

The third and final painting from this period that Da Vinci worked on was the Virgin of the Rocks, a commission he took in Milan. The work itself was to cover an altar piece for the Immaculate Conception Church with the help of the de Predis brothers. The painting itself portrayed an image never found in the Bible but in the apocryphal tomes of other writers. It shows a meeting between John the Baptist as an infant in the care of an angel with Jesus’s family as they traveled to Egypt. The infant John sees and worships Jesus and shows them all kneeling before Christ in the midst of a series of rocks and swirling water. These baby pictures of Leonardo Da Vinci are famous throughout the world, largely because there are two completed versions when there are so few of his other works.

The painting by Da Vinci eventually completed was not nearly the commission he was given though. The brothers of the Immaculate Conception had request a much larger painting with upwards of 50 figures and full architectural details. Eventually the painting was finished and another version completed along side it, which Da Vinci took with him to France. However, no one was paid for their work and the church never received what they had asked for.

Da Vinci’s The Last Supper Conspiracy Theories

The Last Supper: A Painting with Mary Magdalene?

There are numerous theories and legends attached to the Last Supper, a painting already rife with symbols. In recent years, many of these theories have appeared in novels and in movies depicting Leonardo’s The Last Supper, controversies that have only been blown up with their inclusion in the huge selling Da Vinci Code.

One of the first legends attached to the painting, not quite a controversy, but an interesting legend regardless, is that the model used to paint Jesus is the same as the one used to paint Judas. It has been said that Leonardo hired a nice young baker, around 19 years of age to be the model for Jesus. A few years later, when finishing the mural, Leonardo hired a criminal to sit as the model for Judas. The legend has it that the model was the same person as the one used for Jesus. However, there is no direct evidence that any of this is true, especially as the mural is believed to have only taken 3 years to complete.

The biggest theory though, and one that has gotten a lot of press and attention in recent novels, is that the figure seated to the left of Jesus is actually Mary Magdalene and not John. These theories describe the figure as having a womanly bosom and the facial features of a woman. The posture is described as feminine and graceful, while Peter appears to be making a threatening gesture toward the throat. In Dan Brown’s famous Da Vinci Code, the correlation between the Last Supper and the picture of the knife were made world famous. The theory of course goes deeper as writers have postulated (and not always in fiction) that Leonardo was the head of a secret society which held such secrets.

The theory itself is subject to much criticism though. First, critics argue that the damage to the painting makes it impossible to know if the figure is male or female. Furthermore, the figure is wearing men’s clothing.

Next, there are only thirteen figures in the painting. If John were replaced by Mary Magdalene it would mean that an apostle was removed altogether. It would have been noted much earlier if an apostle were missing from the painting. The knife itself is pointing towards Bartholomew, a man who is later executed by being flayed. It is largely believed that the knife might allude to Peter’s impulsive acts later in removing a soldier’s ear.

The original sketches do not reveal any of the secrets of the Last Supper either. Originally preserved in Da Vinci’s notebooks they do not show any female faces either nor do they offer any clues that John might in fact be Mary Magdalene.

Another reason why John might look so feminine is that it was common during the time period to paint John as a youthful, feminine looking male. Because he was the youngest of the apostles, he was often shown with long hair and a clean face. He is also shown often as the most devout of the apostles, asleep beside Jesus, a common technique.

Another popular theory is that there is in fact no cup in the painting, despite the directions in which Jesus’ hands point. There are numerous cups located on the table, though the actual location is hard to discern because of the deterioration of the mural. The argument over realism in Leonardo’s paintings though continues. He largely disagreed with the use of methods such as Michelangelo’s showing supernatural forms or embellishments.

Another theory that has been created due to the nature in which the painting was created on a wall, is that a grail like image appears behind the figure of Bartholemew. However, because of the cup that some say is within reach of Jesus (though it’s impossible to be sure), it is hard to know if this is merely an optical illusion or a purposeful representation of the Holy Chalice. The image itself usually only appears in small scale reproductions. On the larger scale, the series of shapes that create the illusion only appear to do so when certain parts are removed, as with what occurs in small scale reproductions. It’s ultimately impossible to know with the deterioration of the painting.

The presence of the number 3 in Da Vinci’s painting, the Last Supper has also created much speculation over the possibilities the painting represents. The disciples are bound in threes, there are three windows behind them and Christ is placed in a pose similar to a triangle.

The Basis for Da Vinci’s Last Supper

Regardless of the reasons for painting it, The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci was a common theme among Renaissance painters. It was considered something of a challenge to the master artist to put together a properly crafted representation of the last meal of Christ. Much has been made of that final meal, not only in art, but in the basic Sacraments of most dominations of Christianity.

When did Jesus celebrate the last supper with his apostles?

The history of the Last Supper itself relates the final meal of Jesus with his twelve disciples, as described in the New Testament of the Christian Bible and though the exact day of the Last Supper is debated, most agree it was the day before Passover began. The location of the Last Supper of Jesus was in the Upper Room on Mount Zion, located near the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls. During the course of the last Supper, Jesus spoke to his disciples while taking the bread and the wine, “Do this in remembrance of Me”. For that reason, the Eucharist was born, a tradition designed to remember that final meal of Christ. The room itself is known traditionally as the Upper Room.

The location of the Upper Room has been derived from the gospels stating that Jesus had a pair of disciples go to the city and meet a man who would lead them to a house where the teacher had a room. The room in question is described as the upper room and they are to prepare the Passover while there.

Because of the Last Supper’s time period, the actual city it takes place in is not known and could be anywhere just outside of Jerusalem. The Last Supper was the source for many of the symbolic actions taken by Christians in churches around the world. Jesus takes and divides the bread among his disciples, saying a prayer over it. He then hands the bread to his disciples and says this is my body. Then he takes his cup of wine and after offering another prayer, passes the cup around and says this is my blood of the everlasting ‘covenant’, which is poured for many. He then makes the instruction to do this in the memory of me.

It was also during this meal that Jesus offered the revelation that one of his apostles would betray him. It was truly the last supper that the disciples would have with Jesus. They each in turn refuse this claim, reasserting their loyalty, but Jesus insists that one of the men present will betray him. In both the gospels of Mark and Luke, the betrayer is not singled out. However Matthew and John specifically single out Judas Iscariot as the betrayer.
After confirming that Peter would deny Christ three times, Jesus finishes the meal with his disciples and begins a sermon, traditionally known as the Farewell Discourse. This final speech to his disciples in considered one of the most important descriptions of Christianity by Christ in the gospels.

The importance of the event lives on today in the form of the Eucharist of the Roman Catholic Church and the “Inauguration of the New Covenant” by most Christians. As a prophecy related by Jeremiah, this covenant refers to the line in which Christ told his disciples to eat of his body and drink of his blood. Other groups see the Last Supper as a symbol of change to the Passover ceremony, replacing the traditional Jewish practice with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Generally, each of the major branches of Christianity has its own slightly different interpretation of the Last Supper. However, in the end, this final act by Jesus with his disciples is considered one of the most important and inspirational scenes in the Bible and subsequently in all of Renaissance Art.

Leonardo da Vinci Biography

born: April 15, 1452 , Anchiano, near Vinci, Republic of Florence [Italy]
died: May 2, 1519 , Cloux [now Clos-Lucé], France

Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495-98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.

The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day rests largely on his unlimited desire for knowledge, which guided all his thinking and behaviour. An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became thegreat theme of his studies. He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish.

Life and works

Early period: Florence

Leonardo’s parents were unmarried at the time of his birth. His father, Ser Piero, was a Florentine notary and landlord, and his mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married anartisan. Leonardo grew up on his father’s family’s estate, where he was treated as a “legitimate” son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Leonardo did not seriously study Latin, the key language of traditional learning, until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. He also did not apply himself to higher mathematics-advanced geometry and arithmetic-until he was 30 years old, when he began to study it with diligent tenacity.

Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio’s renowned workshop Leonardo received a multifaceted training that included painting and sculpture as well as the technical-mechanical arts.He also worked in the next-door workshop of artist Antonio Pollaiuolo. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted into the painters’ guild of Florence , but he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years, after which time he worked independently in Florence until 1481. There are a great many superb extant pen and pencil drawings from this period, including many technical sketches-for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus-that offer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in and knowledge of technical matters even at the outset of his career.

First Milanese period (1482-99)

In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to work in the service of the city’s duke-a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the unfinished panel painting The Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, whichwas never begun. That he gave up both projects seems to indicate that he had deeper reasons for leaving Florence . It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo’s experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza’s brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan , until Ludovico’s fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”). Leonardo’s gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing were well-received in court circles. Highly esteemed, he was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer. As he would throughout his life, Leonardo set boundless goals for himself; if one traces the outlines of his work for this period, or for his life as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose “unfinished symphony.”

As a painter, Leonardo completed six works in the 17 years in Milan . (According to contemporary sources, Leonardo was commissioned to create three more pictures, but these works have since disappeared or were never done.) From about 1483-86, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks, a project that led to 10 years of litigation between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned it, and Leonardo; for uncertain purposes, this legal dispute led Leonardo to create another version of the work in about 1508. During this first Milanese period he also made one of his most famous works, the monumental wall painting The Last Supper (1495-98) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria del le Grazie (for more analysis of this work, see section The Last Supper , below). Also of note is the decorative ceiling painting (1498) he made for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco.

During this period Leonardo worked on a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason he was invited to Milan : a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo devoted 12 years-with interruptions-to this task. In 1493 the clay model of the horse was put on public display on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, and preparations were made to cast the colossal figure, which was to be 16 feet (5 metres) high. But, because of the imminent danger of war, the metal, ready to be poured, was used to make cannons instead, causing the project to come to a halt. Ludovico’s fall in 1499 sealed the fate of this abortive undertaking, which was perhaps the grandest concept of a monument in the 15th century. The ensuing war left the clay model a heap of ruins.

As a master artist Leonardo maintained an extensive workshop in Milan , employing apprentices and students. Among Leonardo’s pupils at this time were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d’Oggiono, and Salai. The role of most of these associates is unclear, leading to the question of Leonardo’s so-called apocryphal works, on which the master collaborated with his assistants. Scholars have been unable to agree in theirattributions of these works.

Second Florentine period (1500-08)

In December 1499 or, at the latest, January 1500-shortly after the victorious entry of the French into Milan -Leonardo left that city in the company of mathematician Lucas Pacioli. After visiting Mantua in February 1500, in March he proceeded to Venice , where the Signoria (governing council) sought his advice on how to ward off a threatened Turkish incursion in Friuli . Leonardo recommended that they prepare to flood the menaced region. From Venice he returned to Florence , where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. In that same year he was appointed an architectural expert on a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of San Francesco al Monte. A guest of the Servite order in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, Leonardo seems to have been concentrating more on mathematical studies than painting, or so Isabella d’Este, who sought in vain to obtain a painting done by him, was informed by Fra Pietro Nuvolaria, her representative in Florence .

Perhaps because of his omnivorous appetite for life, Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1502 to enter the service of Cesare Borgia as “senior military architect and general engineer.” Borgia, the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, had, as commander in chief of the papal army, sought with unexampled ruthlessness to gain control of the Papal States of Romagna and the Marches . When he enlisted the services of Leonardo, he was at the peak of his power and, at age 27, was undoubtedly the most compelling and most feared person of his time. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his personality. For 10 months Leonardo travelled across the condottiere’s territories and surveyed them. In the course of his activity he sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps, creating early examples of aspects of modern cartography. At the court of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo also met Niccolò Machiavelli, who was temporarily stationed there as a political observer for the city ofFlorence .

In the spring of 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence to make an expert survey of a project that attempted to divert the Arno River behind Pisa , so that the city, then under siege by the Florentines, would be deprived of access to the sea. The plan proved unworkable, but Leonardo’s activity led him to consider a plan, first advanced in the 13th century, to build a large canal that would bypass the unnavigable stretch of the Arno and connect Florence by water with the sea. Leonardo developed his ideas in a series of studies; using his own panoramic views of the river bank, which can be seen as landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and using exact measurements of the terrain, he produced a map in which the route of the canal (with its transit through the mountain pass of Serravalle) was shown. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

Also in 1503 Leonardo received a prized commission to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence ‘s Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions (at 23 × 56 feet [7 × 17 metres], it would have been twice as large as The Last Supper). For three years he worked on this Battle of Anghiari ; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, it remained unfinished. During these same years Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06) (for more analysis of the work, see section The Mona Lisa and other works, below).

The second Florentine period was also a time of intensive scientific study. Leonardo did dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. He made systematic observations of the flight of birds, about which he planned a treatise. Even his hydrological studies, “on the nature and movement of water,” broadened into research on the physical properties of water, especially the laws of currents, which he compared with those pertaining to air. These were also set down in his own collection of data, contained in the so-called Codex Hammer (formerly known as the Leicester Codex, now in the property of software entrepreneur Bill Gates in Seattle , Washington , U.S. ).

Second Milanese period (1508-13)

In May 1506 Charles d’Amboise, the French governor in Milan , asked the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo could travel to Milan . The Signoria let Leonardo go, and the monumental Battle of Anghiari remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural; one cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work. In the winter of 1507-08 Leonardo went to Florence , where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan .

Honoured and admired by his generous patrons in Milan , Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, Leonardo enjoyed his duties, which were limited largely to advice in architectural matters. Tangible evidence of such work exists in plans for a palace-villa for Charles, and it is believed that he made some sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana , which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.

During this second period in Milan , Leonardo created very little as a painter. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new students came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most faithful friend and companion until the artist’s death.

An important commission came Leonardo’s way during this time. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and as a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore . After years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one. This was the second aborted project Leonardo faced as a sculptor.

Leonardo’s scientific activity flourished during this period. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia . Leonardo outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even planned to finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510-11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies. These investigations became increasingly driven by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape. Furthermore, he believed that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.

Last years (1513-19)

In 1513 political events-the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan -caused the now 60-year-oldLeonardo to move again. At the end of the year he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican. He also gave Leonardo a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions followed. For three years Leonardo remained in Rome at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius, and many younger artists such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma were also active. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master, who kept a low profile while he worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city. Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome . A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.

Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young king Francis I to enter his service in France . At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire . He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin , which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.

Leonardo did little painting while in France , spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World, or Deluge, series (c. 1514-15), he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.

Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.

Art and accomplishment

Painting and drawing

Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works-the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed-have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.

The many testimonials to Leonardo, ranging from Vasari to Peter Paul Rubens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Eugène Delacroix, praise in particular the artist’s gift for expression-his ability to move beyond technique and narrative to convey an underlying sense of emotion. The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472-75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it anenigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed. In Leonardo’s landscape segment in the same picture, he also found a new expression for what he called “nature experienced”: he reproduced the background forms in a hazy fashion as if through a veil of mist.

In the Benois Madonna (1475-78) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In his Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1480) Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; begun 1480) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.

The interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture-“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words-is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481). Never finished, the painting nonetheless affords rich insight into the master’s subtle methods. The various aspects of the scene are built up from the base with very delicate, paper-thin layers of paint in sfumato (the smooth transition from light to shadow) relief. The main treatment of the Virgin and Child group and the secondary treatment of the surrounding groups are clearly set apart with a masterful sense of composition-the pyramid of the Virgin Mary and Magi is demarcated from the arc of the adoring followers. Yet thematically they are closely interconnected: the bearing and expression of the figures-most striking in the group of praying shepherds-depict many levels of profound amazement.

The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483-86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt . The secret of the picture’s effect lies in Leonardo’s use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity-all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.

The Last Supper

Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495-98) is among the most famous paintings in the world. In its monumental simplicity, the composition of the scene is masterful; the power of its effect comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the 12 disciples as counter posed to Christ. Leonardo portrayed a moment of high tension when, surrounded by the Apostles as they share Passover, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me.” All the Apostles-as human beings who do not understand what is about to occur-are agitated, whereas Christ alone, conscious of his divine mission, sits in lonely, transfigured serenity. Only one other being shares the secret knowledge: Judas, who is both part of and yet excluded from the movement of his companions. In this isolation he becomes the second lonely figure-the guilty one-of the company.

In the profound conception of his theme, in the perfect yet seemingly simple arrangement of the individuals, in the temperaments of the Apostles highlighted by gesture, facial expressions, and poses, in the drama and at the same time the sublimity of the treatment, Leonardo attained a height of expression that has remained a model of its kind. Countless painters in succeeding generations, among them great masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, marvelled at Leonardo’s composition and were influenced by it and by the painting’s narrative quality. The work also inspired some of Goethe’s finest pages of descriptive prose. It has become widely known through countless reproductions and prints, the most important being that produced by Raffaello Morghen in 1800. Thus, The Last Supper has become part of humanity’s common heritage and remains today one of the world’s outstanding paintings.

Technical deficiencies in the execution of the work have not lessened its fame. Leonardo was uncertain about the technique he should use. He bypassed traditional fresco painting, which, because it is executed on fresh plaster, demands quick and uninterrupted painting, in favour of another technique he had developed: tempera on a base, which he mixed himself, on the stone wall. This procedure proved unsuccessful, inasmuch as the base soon began to loosen from the wall. Damage appeared by the beginning of the 16th century, and deterioration soon set in. By the middle of the century the work was called a ruin. Later, inadequate attempts at restoration only aggravated the situation, and not until the most modern restoration techniques were applied after World War II was the process of decay halted. A major restoration campaign begun in 1980 and completed in 1999 restored the work to brilliance but also revealed that very little of the original paint remains.

Art and science: the notebooks

In the years between 1490 and 1495, the great program of Leonardo the writer (author of treatises) began. During this period, his interest in two fields-the artistic and the scientific-developed and shaped his future work, building toward a kind of creative dualism that sparked his inventiveness in both fields. He gradually gave shape to four main themes that were to occupy him for the rest of his life: a treatise on painting, a treatise on architecture, a book on the elements of mechanics, and a broadly outlined work on human anatomy. His geophysical, botanical, hydrological, and aero logical researches also began in this period and constitute parts of the “visible cosmology” that loomed before him as a distant goal. He scorned speculative book knowledge, favouring instead the irrefutable facts gained from experience-from saper vedere.

From this approach came Leonardo’s far-reaching concept of a “science of painting.” Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca had already offered proof of the mathematical basis of painting in their analysis of the laws of perspective and proportion, thereby buttressing his claim of painting being a science. But Leonardo’s claims went much further: he believed that the painter, doubly endowed with subtle powers of perception and the complete ability to pictorialise them, was the person best qualified to achieve true knowledge, as he could closely observe and then carefully reproduce the world around him. Hence, Leonardo conceived the staggering plan of observing all objects in the visible world, recognizing their form and structure, and pictorially describing them exactly as they are.

It was during his first years in Milan that Leonardo began the earliest of his notebooks. He would first make quick sketches of his observations on loose sheets or on tiny paper pads he kept in his belt; then he would arrange them according to theme and enter them in order in the notebook. Surviving in notebooks from throughout his career are a first collection of material for a painting treatise, a model book of sketches for sacred and profane architecture, a treatise on elementary theory of mechanics, and the first sections of a treatise on the human body.

Leonardo’s notebooks add up to thousands of closely written pages abundantly illustrated with sketches-the most voluminous literary legacy any painter has ever left behind. Of more than 40 codices mentioned-sometimes inaccurately-in contemporary sources, 21 have survived; these in turn sometimes contain notebooks originally separate but now bound so that 32 in all have been preserved. To these should be added several large bundles of documents: an omnibus volume in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, called Codex Atlanticus because of its size, was collected by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni at the end of the 16th century; after a roundabout journey, its companion volume fell into the possession of the English crown in the 17th century and was placed in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. Finally, the Arundel Manuscript in the British Museum in London contains a number of Leonardo’s fascicles on various themes.

One special feature that makes Leonardo’s notes and sketches unusual is his use of mirror writing. Leonardo was left-handed, so mirror writing came easily and naturally to him-although it is uncertain why he chose to do so. While somewhat unusual, his script can be read clearly and without difficulty with the help of a mirror-as his contemporaries testified-and should not be looked on as a secret handwriting. But the fact that Leonardo used mirror writing throughout the notebooks, even in his copies drawn up with painstaking calligraphy, forces one to conclude that, although he constantly addressed an imaginary reader in his writings, he never felt the need to achieve easy communication by using conventional handwriting. His writings must be interpreted as preliminary stages of works destined for eventual publication that Leonardo never got around to completing. In a sentence in the margin of one of his late anatomy sketches, he implores his followers to see that his works are printed.

Another unusual feature in Leonardo’s writings is the relationship between word and picture in the notebooks. Leonardo strove passionately for a language that was clear yet expressive. The vividness and wealth of his vocabulary were the result of intense independent study and represented a significant contribution to the evolution of scientific prose in the Italian vernacular. Despite his articulateness, Leonardo gave absolute precedence to the illustration over the written word in his teaching method. Hence, in his notebooks, the drawing does not illustrate the text; rather, the text serves to explain the picture. In formulating his own principle of graphic representations-which he called dimostrazione (“demonstrations”)-Leonardo’s work was a precursor of modern scientific illustration.

The Mona Lisa and other works

In the Florence years between 1500 and 1506, Leonardo began three great works that confirmed and heightened his fame: Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1502-16), Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06), and Battle of Anghiari (unfinished; begun 1503). Even before it was completed, the Virgin and Child with St. Annewon the critical acclaim of the Florentines; the monumental, three-dimensional quality of the group and the calculated effects of dynamism and tension in the composition made it a model that inspired Classicists and Mannerists in equal measure.

The Mona Lisa set the standard for all future portraits. The painting presents a woman believed to have been the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a prominent figure in Florentine government-hence, the alternative title to the work, “La Gioconda.” The portrait presents the subject from just above the bust, with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop. Although utilizing a seemingly simple formula for portraiture, the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape has placed this work in the canon of the most popular and most analyzed paintings of all time. The sensuous curves of the woman’s hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating valleys and rivers behind her. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting-especially apparent in the sitter’s faint smile-reflects Leonardo’s idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo’s vision and genius. The young Raphael sketched the work in progress, and it served as a model for his Portrait of Maddalena Doni (c. 1506).

Leonardo’s art of expression reached another high point in the unfinished Battle of Anghiari. The preliminary drawings-many of which have been preserved-reveal Leonardo’s lofty conception of the “science of painting”; he put to artistic use the laws of equilibrium that he had probed in his studies of mechanics. The “centre of gravity” in the work lies in the group of flags fought for by all the horsemen. For a moment the intense and expanding movement of the swirl of riders seems frozen. Leonardo’s studies in anatomy and physiology influenced his representation of human and animal bodies, particularly when they are in a state of excitement. He studied and described extensively the baring of teeth and puffing of lips as signs of animal and human anger. On the painted canvas, rider and horse, their features distorted, are remarkably similar in expression.

The highly imaginative trappings of the painting take the event out of the sphere of the historical and put it into a timeless realm. The cartoon and the copies showing the main scene of the battle were for a long time influential to other artists; to quote the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the works became “the school of the world.” Its composition has influenced many painters: from Rubens in the 17th century, who made the most impressive copy of the scene from Leonardo’s now-lost cartoon, to Delacroix in the 19th century.

Later painting and drawing

After 1507-in Milan , Rome , and France -Leonardo did very little painting. During his years in Milan he returned to the Leda theme-which had been occupying him for a decade-and probably finished a standing version of Leda about 1513 (the work survives only through copies). This painting became a model of the figura serpentinata (“sinuous figure”)-that is, a figure built up from several intertwining views. It influenced classical artists such as Raphael, who drew it, but it had an equally strong effect on Mannerists such as Jacopo da Pontormo. The drawings he prepared-revealing examples of his late style-have a curious, enigmatic sensuality. Perhaps in Rome he began the painting St. John the Baptist, which he completed in France . Leonardo radically used light and shade to achieve sculptural volume and atmosphere; John emerges from darkness into light and seems to emanate light and goodness. Moreover, in painting the saint’s enigmatic smile, he presented Christ’s forerunner as the herald of a mystic oracle. Leonardo’s was an art of expression that seemed to strive consciously to bring out the hidden ambiguity of the theme. Consummate drawings from this period, such as the Pointing Lady (c. 1516), also are testaments to his undiminished genius.

The last manifestation of Leonardo’s art of expression was in his series of pictorial sketches Visions of the End of the World (c. 1514-15). There Leonardo’s power of imagination-born of reason and fantasy-attained its highest level. Leonardo suggested that the immaterial forces in the cosmos, invisible in themselves, appear in the material things they set in motion. What he had observed in the swirling of water and eddying of air, in the shape of a mountain boulder and in the growth of plants, now assumed gigantic shape in cloud formations and rainstorms. He depicted the framework of the world as splitting asunder, but even in its destruction there occurs-as the monstrously “beautiful” forms of the unleashed elements show-the self-same laws of order, harmony, and proportion that presided at the world’s creation. These rules govern the life and death of every created thing in nature. Without any precedent, these “visions” are the last and most original expressions of Leonardo’s art-an art in which his perception based on saper vedere seems to have come to fruition.


Leonardo worked as a sculptor from his youth on, as shown in his own statements and those of other sources. A small group of generals’ heads in marble and plaster, works of Verrocchio’s followers, are sometimes linked with Leonardo because a lovely drawing attributed to him that is on the same theme suggests such a connection. But the inferior quality of this group of sculpture rules out an attribution to the master. No trace has remained of the heads of women and children that, according to Vasari, Leonardo modelled in clay in his youth.

The two great sculptural projects to which Leonardo devoted himself wholeheartedly were not realized; neither the huge, bronze equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, on which he worked from about 1489 to 1494, nor the monument for Marshal Trivulzio, on which he was busy in the years 1506-11, were brought to completion. Many sketches of the work exist, but the most impressive were found in 1965 when two of Leonardo’s notebooks-the so-called Madrid Codices-were discovered in the National Library of Madrid. These notebooks reveal the sublimity but also the almost unreal boldness of his conception. Text and drawings both show Leonardo’s wide experience in the technique of bronze casting, but at the same time they reveal the almost utopian nature of the project. He wanted to cast the horse in a single piece, but the gigantic dimensions of the steed presented insurmountable technical problems. Indeed, Leonardo remained uncertain of the problem’s solution to the very end.

The drawings for these two monuments reveal the greatness of Leonardo’s vision of sculpture. Exact studies of the anatomy, movement, and proportions of a live horse preceded the sketches for the monuments; Leonardo even seems to have thought of writing a treatise on the horse. He pondered the merits of two positions for the horse-galloping or trotting-and in both commissions decided in favour of the latter. These sketches, superior in the suppressed tension of horse and rider to the achievements of Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata and Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni, are among the most beautiful and significant examples of Leonardo’s art. Unquestionably-as ideas-they exerted a very strong influence on the development of equestrian statues in the 16th century.

A small bronze statue of a galloping horseman in Budapest is so close to Leonardo’s style that, if not from his own hand, it must have been done under his immediate influence (perhaps by Giovanni Francesco Rustici). Rustici, according to Vasari, was Leonardo’s zealous student and enjoyed his master’s help in sculpting his large group in bronze, St. John the Baptist Teaching, over the north door of the Baptistery in Florence . There are, indeed, discernible traces of Leonardo’s influence in John’s stance, with the unusual gesture of his upward pointing hand, and in the figure of the bald-headed Levite. While there are few extant examples to study of Leonardo’s sculptural work, the elements of motion and volume he explored in the medium no doubt influenced his drawing and painting, and vice versa.


Applying for service in a letter to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo described himself as an experienced architect, military engineer, and hydraulic engineer; indeed, he was concerned with architectural matters all his life. But his effectiveness was essentially limited to the role of an adviser. Only once-in the competition for the cupola of the Milan cathedral (1487-90)-did he actually consider personal participation, but he gave up this idea when the model he had submitted was returned to him. In other instances, his claim to being a practicing architect was based on sketches for representative secular buildings: for the palace of a Milanese nobleman (about 1490), for the villa of the French governor in Milan (1507-08), and for the Medici residence in Florence (1515). Finally, there was his big project for the palace and garden of Romorantin in France (1517-19). Especially in this last project, Leonardo’s pencil sketches clearly reveal his mastery of technical as well as artistic architectural problems; the view in perspective gives an idea of the magnificence of the site.

But what really characterizes and immortalized Leonardo’s architectural studies is their comprehensiveness; they range far afield and embrace every type of building problem of his time and even involve urban planning. Furthermore, there frequently appears evidence of Leonardo’s impulse to teach: he wanted to collect his writings on this theme in a theory of architecture. This treatise on architecture-the initial lines of which are in Codex B in the Institut de France in Paris, amodel book of the types of sacred and profane buildings-was to deal with the entire field of architecture as well as with the theories of forms and construction and was to include such items as urbanism, sacred and profane buildings, and a compendium of important individual elements (for example, domes, steps, portals, and windows).

In the fullness and richness of their ideas, Leonardo’s architectural studies offer an unusually wide-ranging insight into the architectural achievements of his epoch. Like a seismograph, his observations sensitively register all themes and problems. For almost 20 years he was associated with Bramante at the court of Milan and again met him in Rome in 1513-14; he was closely associated with other distinguished architects such as Francesco di Giorgio, Giuliano da Sangallo, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, and Luca Fancelli. Thus, he was brought in closest touch with all of the most significant building undertakings of the time. Since Leonardo’s architectural drawings extend over his whole life, they span precisely that developmentally crucial period-from the 1480s to the second decade of the 16th century-in which the principles of the High Renaissance style were formulated and came to maturity. That this genetic process can be followed in the ideas of one of the greatest men of the period lends Leonardo’s studies their distinctive artistic value and their outstanding historical significance.


Science of painting

Leonardo’s advocacy of a science of painting is best displayed in his notebook writings under the general heading “On Painting.” The notebooks provide evidence that, among many projects he planned, he intended to write a treatise discussing painting. After inheriting Leonardo’s vast manuscript legacy in 1519, it is believed that, sometime before 1542, Melzi extracted passages from them and organized them into the Trattato della pittura (“Treatise on Painting”) that is attributed to Leonardo. Only about a quarter of the sources for Melzi’s manuscript-known as the Codex Urbinas, in the Vatican Library-have been identified and located in the extant notebooks, and it is impossible to assess how closely Melzi’s presentation of the material reflected Leonardo’s specific intentions.

Abridged copies of Melzi’s manuscript appeared in Italy during the late 16th century, and in 1651 the first printed editions were published in French and Italian in Paris by Raffaelo du Fresne, with illustrations after drawings by Nicolas Poussin. The first complete edition of Melzi’s text did not appear until 1817, published in Rome . The two standard modern editions are those of Emil Ludwig (1882; in 3 vol. with German translation) and A. Philip McMahon (1956; in 2 vol., a facsimile of the Codex Urbinas with English translation).

Despite the uncertainties surrounding Melzi’s presentation of Leonardo’s ideas, the passages in Leonardo’s extant notebooks identified with the heading “On Painting” offer an indication of the treatise Leonardo had in mind. As was customary in treatises of the time, Leonardo planned to combine theoretical exposition with practical information, in this case offering practical career advice to other artists. But his primary concern in the treatise was to argue that painting is a science, raising its status as a discipline from the mechanical arts to the liberal arts. By defining painting as “the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature,” Leonardo gave essential significance to the authority of the eye, believing firmly in the importance of saper vedere. This was the informing idea behind his defence of painting as a science.

In his notebooks Leonardo pursues this defence through the form of the paragone (“comparison”),a disputation that advances the supremacy of painting over the other arts. He roots his case in the function of the senses, asserting that “the eye deludes itself less than any of the other senses,” and thereby suggests that the direct observation inherent in creating a painting has a truthful, scientific quality. After asserting that the useful results of science are “communicable,” he states that painting is similarly clear: unlike poetry, he argues, painting presents its results as a “matter for the visual faculty,” giving “immediate satisfaction to human beings in no other way than the things produced by nature herself.” Leonardo also distinguishes between painting and sculpture, claiming that the manual labour involved in sculpting detracts from its intellectual aspects, and that the illusionistic challenge of painting (working in two rather than three dimensions) requires that the painter possess a better grasp of mathematical and optical principles than the sculptor.

In defining painting as a science, Leonardo also emphasizes its mathematical basis. In the notebooks he explains that the 10 optical functions of the eye (“darkness, light, body and colour, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest”) are all essential components of painting. He addresses these functions through detailed discourses on perspective that include explanations of perspectival systems based on geometry, proportion, and the modulation of light and shade. He differentiates between types of perspective, including the conventional form based on a single vanishing point, the use of multiple vanishing points, and aerial perspective. In addition to these orthodox systems, he explores-via words and geometric and analytic drawings-the concepts of wide-angle vision, lateral recession, and atmospheric perspective, through which the blurring of clarity and progressive lightening of tone is used to create the illusion of deep spatial recession. He further offers practical advice-again through words and sketches-about how to paint optical effects such as light, shadow, distance, atmosphere, smoke, and water, as well as how to portray aspects of human anatomy, such as human proportion and facial expressions.

Anatomical studies and drawings

Leonardo’s fascination with anatomical studies reveals a prevailing artistic interest of the time. In his own treatise Della pittura (1435; “On Painting”), theorist Leon Battista Alberti urged painters to construct the human figure as it exists in nature, supported by the skeleton and musculature, and only then clothed in skin. Although the date of Leonardo’s initial involvement with anatomical study is not known, it is sound to speculate that his anatomical interest was sparked during his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop, either in response to his master’s interest or to that of Verrocchio’s neighbour Pollaiuolo, who was renowned for his fascination with the workings of the human body. It cannot be determined exactly when Leonardo began to perform dissections, but it might have been several years after he first moved to Milan , at the time a centre of medical investigation. His study of anatomy, originally pursued for his training as an artist, had grown by the 1490s into an independent area of research. As his sharp eye uncovered the structure of the human body, Leonardo became fascinated by the figura istrumentale dell’ omo (“man’s instrumental figure”), and he sought to comprehend its physical working as a creation of nature. Over the following two decades, he did practical work in anatomy on the dissection table in Milan , then at hospitals in Florence and Rome , and in Pavia , where he collaborated with the physician-anatomist Marcantonio della Torre. By his own count Leonardo dissected 30 corpses in his lifetime.

Leonardo’s early anatomical studies dealt chiefly with the skeleton and muscles; yet even at the outset, Leonardo combined anatomical with physiological research. From observing the static structure of the body, Leonardo proceeded to study the role of individual parts of the body in mechanical activity. This led him finally to the study of the internal organs; among them he probed most deeply into the brain, heart, and lungs as the “motors” of the senses and of life. His findings from these studies were recorded in the famous anatomical drawings, which are among the most significant achievements of Renaissance science. The drawings are based on a connection between natural and abstract representation; he represented parts of the body in transparent layers that afford an “insight” into the organ by using sections in perspective, reproducing muscles as “strings,” indicating hidden parts by dotted lines, and devising a hatching system. The genuine value of these dimostrazione lay in their ability to synthesize a multiplicity of individual experiences at the dissecting table and make the data immediately and accurately visible; as Leonardo proudly emphasized, these drawings were superior to descriptive words. The wealth of Leonardo’s anatomical studies that have survived forged the basic principles of modern scientific illustration. It is worth noting, however, that during his lifetime, Leonardo’s medical investigations remained private. He did not consider himself a professional in the field of anatomy, and he neither taught nor published his findings.

Although he kept his anatomical studies to himself, Leonardo did publish some of his observations on human proportion. Working with the mathematician Luca Pacioli, Leonardo considered the proportional theories of Vitruvius, the 1st-century BC Roman architect, as presented in his treatise De architectura (“On Architecture”). Imposing the principles of geometry on the configuration of the human body, Leonardo demonstrated that the ideal proportion of the human figure corresponds with the forms of the circle and the square. In his illustration of this theory, the so-called Vitruvian Man, Leonardo demonstrated that when a man places his feet firmly on the ground and stretches out his arms, he can be contained within the four lines of a square, but when in a spread-eagle position, he can be inscribed in a circle.

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote: “Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire . this body of the earth is similar.” He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.

Mechanics and cosmology

According to Leonardo’s observations, the study of mechanics, with which he became quite familiar as an architect and engineer, also reflected the workings of nature. Throughout his life Leonardo was an inventive builder; he thoroughly understood the principles of mechanics of his time and contributed in many ways to advancing them. The two Madrid notebooks deal extensively with his theory of mechanics; the first was written in the 1490s, and the second was written between 1503 and 1505. Their importance lay less in their description of specific machines or work tools than in their use of demonstration models to explain the basic mechanical principles and functions employed in building machinery. As in his anatomical drawings, Leonardo developed definite principles of graphic representation-stylization, patterns, and diagrams-that offer a precise demonstration of the object in question.

Leonardo was also quite active as a military engineer, beginning with his stay in Milan . But no definitive examples of his work can be adduced. The Madrid notebooks revealed that, in 1504, probably sent by the Florentine governing council, he stood at the side of the lord of Piombino when the city’s fortifications system was repaired and suggested a detailed plan for overhauling it. His studies for large-scale canal projects in the Arno region and in Lombardy show that he was also an expert in hydraulic engineering.Leonardo was especially intrigued by problems of friction and resistance, and with each of the mechanical elements he presented-such as screw threads, gears, hydraulic jacks, swivelling devices, and transmission gears-drawings took precedence over the written word. Throughout his career he also was intrigued by the mechanical potential of motion. This led him to design a machine with a differential transmission, a moving fortress that resembles a modern tank, and a flying machine. His “helical airscrew” (c. 1487) almost seems a prototype for the modern helicopter, but, like the other vehicles Leonardo designed, it presented a singular problem: it lacked an adequate source of power to provide propulsion and lift.

Wherever Leonardo probed the phenomena of nature, he recognized the existence of primal mechanical forces that govern the shape and function of the universe. This is seen in his studies of the flight of birds, in which his youthful idea of the feasibility of a flying apparatus took shape and that led to exhaustive research into the element of air; in his studies of water, the vetturale della natura (“conveyor of nature”), in which he was as much concerned with the physical properties of water as with its laws of motion and currents; in his research on the laws of growth of plants and trees, as well as the geologic structure of earth and hill formations; and finally in his observation of air currents, which evoked the image of the flame of a candle or the picture of a wisp of cloud and smoke. In his drawings based on the numerous experiments he undertook, Leonardo found a stylized form of representation that was uniquely his own, especially in his studies of whirlpools. He managed to break down a phenomenon into its component parts-the traces of water or eddies of the whirlpool-yet at the same time preserve the total picture, creating both an analytic and a synthetic vision.

Leonardo as artist-scientist

As the 15th century expired, Scholastic doctrines were in decline, and humanistic scholarship was on the rise. Leonardo, however, was part of an intellectual circle that developed a third, specifically modern, form of cognition. In his view, the artist-as transmitter of the true and accurate data of experience acquired by visual observation-played a significant part. In an era that often compared the process of divine creation to the activity of an artist, Leonardo reversed the analogy, using art as his own means to approximate the mysteries of creation, asserting that, through the science of painting, “the mind of the painter is transformed into a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countryside, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.” With this sense of the artist’s high calling, Leonardo approached the vast realm of nature to probe its secrets. His utopian idea of transmitting in encyclopaedic form the knowledge thus won was still bound up with medieval Scholastic conceptions; however, the results of his research were among the first great achievements of the forthcoming age’s thinking because they were based to an unprecedented degree on the principle of experience.

Finally, although he made strenuous efforts to become erudite in languages, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and history, as a mere listing of the wide-ranging contents of his library demonstrates, Leonardo remained an empiricist of visual observation. It is precisely through this observation-and his own genius-that he developed a unique “theory of knowledge” in which art and science form a synthesis. In the face of his overall achievements, therefore, the question of how much he finished or did not finish becomes pointless. The crux of the matter is his intellectual force-self-contained and inherent in every one of his creations-a force that continues to spark scholarly interest today. In fact, debate has spilled over into the personal realm of his life-over his sexuality, religious beliefs, and even possible vegetarianism, for example-which only confirms and reflects what has long been obvious: whether the subject is his life, his ideas, or his artistic legacy, Leonardo’s influence shows little sign of abating.

Da Vinci’s Later Paintings (1490-1516)

Paintings of the 1490s

In the 1490s, the most widely known and popular of Leonardo Di Vinci’s paintings is the Last Supper. Started in 1495, the painting depicts the final meal between Jesus and his disciples shortly before he was captured and executed. This piece of Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork in particular relays the exact the moment when Jesus announces that he will be betrayed.

The painting shows an entire story with each disciple reacting in their own manner. Vasari’s biography goes into great detail in the methods Leonardo took in painting the mural, and the time it took him. Some days he would paint for hours and other days he would simply stare at the wall for hours and eventually spent days walking through the city trying to find a suitable face for Judas.

The painting was finished in three years and immediately hailed as a masterpiece. However, the problem with the painting was the fact that it could not remain on the wall for longer than a decade or so before it began to flake free. Leonardo, in a rare instance of failed experimentation, tried to use new binding agents for his painting instead of the reliable old method of Fresco. It quickly molded and flaked off. However it has remained one of the most reproduced works of art on earth. How many other paintings did Leonardo da Vinci paint in his latter years though?

Paintings of the 1500s

After finishing the Last Supper, the art of Leonardo Da Vinci actually became more impressive as he took to another masterpiece that the world has been fawning over ever since. This work, the Mona Lisa, has become one of the most enduring works of art, with the knowing smile that has captivated five centuries of fans. This particular painting first utilized Leonardo’s sfumato technique, or the use of blending shadows for ambiguous lines. When Leonardo Da Vinci created the painting, female head perspective was still quite underdeveloped. Located in the Louvre today, the Mona Lisa is also one of Leonardo’s best surviving works of art and a pinnacle in understanding the subtleties of human emotion.

Many consider The Virgin and Child with St. Ann Da Vinci’s most underrated work. It is another famous composition set in landscape during these later years of his career. The figures are once more set at odd angles, much like the earlier unfinished St. Jerome piece. The painting is slightly different as Mary is seated on the knee of her mother and leans forward to support Christ as he plays with a lamb. This painting introduced numerous trends of superimposition into the landscapes that Venetian painters such as Tintoretto would pick up in later years.

In 1508, Da Vinci painted the famously lost composition of Leda and the Swan, depicting the mythical woman standing naked beside her swan, overlooking two sets of twins below, recently hatched from egg shells. Today, only copies and no original of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings survive to relay the image, similar to the fate of Michelangelo’s famous Leda and the Swan painting, depicting the two in the throws of love making.

Another painting that has been disputed from this era is the famously multi-credited St. John in the Wilderness painting, depicting St. John holding a stick in the wilderness with a laurel and fruit. It is unknown who painted this exactly, but its discovery has been attributed to Da Vinci’s workshop.

Completed in 1516, St. John the Baptist is considered to be Da Vinci’s last known painting. Only recently attributed to him, the painting depicts a lightly smiling St. John pointing heavenward. Heavy comparisons have been made between this painting and that of the Mona Lisa as well as the self portraits of Da Vinci to which both sets of facial features compare so readily.