Leonardo Da Vinci
A biography written while watching the Documentary “Leonardo da Vinci” by Producer/ Director Robert Gardner for History Channel
Leonardo da Vinci grew up in the countryside by Florence at the time of a new age in the city states of Italy- the Renaissance, a time of discovery.
He was the bastard child of a notary and a poor peasant, and as such had no prospect of an education or inheritance. He could only count on his own talent .
In 1468, at the age of 16 he gets accepted as an apprentice in Andre de Verocchios studio in Florence. Verocchio was a highly regarded artist and his workshop was active in all fields: painting, sculpture in marble and casting in bronze. Here Leonardo also learns the connection between power and art.
He joins the workshop when Verocchio is tackling a technical challenge: the design and completion of a huge copper globe to be placed on top of the Duomo. Through this Leonardo also receives mechanical and engineering training which greatly influences his later inventions.
Leonardo is Verocchios best student. In 1492 at 20 years of age, he has completed his apprenticeship and joins the guild, but chooses to stay in Verocchios workshop.
His reputaion grows and the ruling Medicis take an interest in him.
Leonardo is constantly experimenting, investigating nature, the fall of light, engineering, the human body.
It is a very violent time in Florence with power struggles between the Medicis and the Pazzis. Human bodies and death is all around, war is a constant fact of life. Leonardo starts designing war machines in huge scale and is fascinated by engineering. He only paints rarely.
In 1482 , at the age of 30, he travels to Milan and presents himself to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan as a war engineer. But the Duke commissions a portrait of his wife, “Lady with an Ermine,”
and commissions a statue of his father on a horse in a scale that has never ever been done before, using 60 tonnes of bronze. Leonardo devotes 12 years to this project, studying the proportions and movements of horses.
For all his projects Leonardo writes extensive notebooks with thousands of sketches, often writing from right to left and mirrored.He is avidly studying everything and is especially trying to solve the mystery of flying. He is studying anatomy, performing dissections and his drawings has influenced how anatomy is represented to this day.
War is approaching Milan , and all the bronze set aside for the casting of the Sforza horse statue is melted into cannonballs. Instead Leonardo is given a new commission- a mural of the Last Supper of Christ for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In this painting Leonardo shows his mastery of anatomy, geometry and perspective. He spends three years painting the mural, but pushes the experimentation with paints too far and the painting disintegrates.
France invades Milan, and Leonardo looses the protection of his patron. The French destroy the huge clay model of his Sforza horse. Now starts a time of wandering for the ageing Leonardo da Vinci. He approaches the Duke of Venice with his wardesigns that are centuries ahead of his time, but is met with only suspicion.
Finally he returns to Florence where Michelangelo, only 26 years old has conquered the court with his astonishing talent. A simmering hostility ensues between Michelangelo and Leonardo.
One by one the City states fall to the army of Pope Alexander and his bastard son Cesario Borgia that employ Leonardo as Chief war engineer. He serves them well with various war machines and birds eye maps, but eventually the savagery and cruelty of Cesario Borgia goes too far. Leonardo returns to Florence and to painting.
There he paints the “Mona Lisa”. The painting is made of layers upon layers of transparent paint, the corners of the mouth and eyes are shaded, shrouding the face in mystery. It also remains a mystery who Mona Lisa was.
Finally the King of France invites Leonardo to Cloux, where he dies in 1519.
I enjoyed watching this documentary about Leonardo da Vinci and see some of his works in a new light. It focused a lot on the historical background with wars and political treason and so also on Leonardo’s capacity and interest in war engineering. I remember having seen some of the war machine sketches before, but as they never caught my interest as much as the other inventions related to flying, or the anatomy studies, I was not aware of how much of a focus this was for the artist.
What I admire is the incessant searching and experimenting documented in the thousands of pages of notebooks, I would like to be an avid student of life like Leonardo. But it feels like a pity that so much of his incredible talent was spent on war machines. Also I have always admired his genius as a painter, and was somewhat disappointed to learn through this movie that painting was something he would do rather reluctantly and rarely.
I have seen the Mona Lisa original in the Paris Louvre and of course numerous reproductions all my life. I remember being disturbed by the original being so much smaller than I had imagined, and also so crowded that it was practically impossible to take a close look at. It was interesting to hear about the many layers of paint creating the “smoky” mysterious effect. I look forward to experimenting with paints for the next course module.