Italian painter, sculptor, architect, designer, theorist, engineer and scientist. He was the founding father of what is called the High Renaissance style and exercised an enormous influence on contemporary and later artists. His writings on art helped establish the ideals of representation and expression that were to dominate European academies for the next 400 years. The standards he set in figure draughtsmanship, handling of space, depiction of light and shade, representation of landscape, evocation of character and techniques of narrative radically transformed the range of art. A number of his inventions in architecture and in various fields of decoration entered the general currency of 16th-century design.
Although he brought relatively few works to completion, and even fewer have survived, Leonardo was responsible for some of the most influential images in the history of art. The ‘Mona Lisa’ (Paris, Louvre) may fairly be described as the world’s most famous painting. When the extent of his writings on many branches of science became increasingly apparent during the 19th century, he appeared to epitomize the idea of the universal genius and was hailed as one of the prophets of the modern era. More recent assessments of his intellectual achievements have recognized the medieval and Classical framework on which his theories were constructed but have done nothing to detract from the awesome range and intensity of his thought.
Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero da Vinci (d 1504), came from a family of property owners and notaries in the Tuscan hill-town of Vinci. Leonardo was the illegitimate first child of Ser Piero and Caterina, who later married a local man. His father subsequently married four times. Tax returns and other references indicate that Leonardo was brought up in his paternal grandfather’s house, as a member of an extended family, and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his uncle Francesco da Vinci. His father pursued a successful career as a notary and from 1469 appears to have been more or less permanently based in Florence with a flourishing legal practice, including work for the Florentine government.
First Florentine period, 1472–c. 1482.
The first reference to Leonardo as an artist occurs in 1472, when he was required to pay his dues to the painters’ Compagnia di S Luca in Florence. His apprenticeship in the studio of the sculptor Andrea Verrocchio is recorded by Vasari and confirmed by a reference in 1476 to his continued residence there, but the date at which this apprenticeship started is unknown. Verrocchio’s workshop, which undertook a wide range of commissions, including sculpture in bronze, stone and terracotta, decorative work in metals and various stones, paintings and at least one major feat of engineering (the orb on the top of the lantern of Florence Cathedral), provided a solid grounding for Leonardo’s subsequent versatility. Verrocchio was himself an inventive artist, particularly in figure sculpture, in which he pioneered a freedom of movement and viewpoint.
The first dated indication of Leonardo’s ability as an artist is a remarkable pen-and-ink drawing of a Tuscan Landscape dated 5 August 1473 (Florence, Uffizi), which already signals an exceptional talent and mind at work. The subsequent record of his activities before his move to Milan c. 1482 is sparse. In 1476 he was accused anonymously of sodomy, but no prosecution was sustained. His receipt of an official commission in January 1478 for an altarpiece in the chapel of S Bernardo in the Palazzo della Signoria indicates his growing reputation. The altarpiece was not executed by Leonardo and was eventually supplied by Filippino Lippi (Florence, Uffizi). The note on one of his drawings, the Studies of Heads and Machines (1478; Florence, Uffizi), saying that he ‘began two Virgin Marys’, probably refers to small panels rather than the altarpiece. A year later he made an annotated drawing of the Hanged Body of Bernardo Baroncelli (Bayonne, Mus. Bonnat), the murderer of Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, which may have been connected with a project to depict the traitors on the outside of the Palazzo del Podestà in the customary manner. The second recorded commission from this period was in March 1481 for an altarpiece in S Donato a Scopeto. Although the subject is not recorded, the unfinished panel of the Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Uffizi) was almost certainly intended for this destination. Filippino Lippi subsequently provided a completed altarpiece of the same subject (Florence, Uffizi).
The visual record of Leonardo’s work from this first Florentine period includes a remarkable group of inventive drawings for varied artistic projects. These, together with notes and an inventory of works completed just before or after his arrival in Milan , also show the first signs of the broadening range of his interests. The surviving drawings illustrate machinery (including the precise gearing of scientific instruments), aspects of military engineering, as well as optical phenomena and geometry, and the inventory lists studies made from nature, detailed representations of surface anatomy, portrait and compositional drawings, together with ‘some machines for ships’ and ‘some machines for water’. Besides the drawings, there is a small body of paintings that can be attributed in whole or in part to him (see §II, 1 below).
At some date after the last recorded payment from S Donato for the Adoration of the Magi (Sept 1481), Leonardo left Florence for Milan. He is not firmly documented there until April 1483, but it is likely that he moved during the course of 1482. In the draft of the letter in which he outlined his talents to Ludovico Sforza (‘il Moro’), ruler of Milan and Duke of Bari, he concentrated on his capabilities as a military engineer, promising to ‘apprise you of my secrets’ (Cod. Atlantico, fol. 391r). He listed ten categories of military devices for use on land and sea, ranging from bridges and tunnels to guns and mortars ‘outside the common use’. Only at the end of the letter did he mention that he could ‘undertake sculpture of marble, bronze and clay, similarly in painting whatever can be done, to bear comparison with anyone else, whoever he is’. He also mentions that ‘work on the bronze horse may be taken on’. This refers to the long-standing scheme to erect an equestrian memorial to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s father and the first Sforza Duke of Milan, a project for which initially Antonio Pollaiuolo appears to have been considered. The tone of the letter suggests that Leonardo hoped his move to Milan would provide greater opportunities to develop the full scope of his work than had been possible in Florence. It remained true throughout his life that his activities flourished better within a court and in receipt of a regular income than when he needed to make a living from the completion of commissioned works of art.
The first notice of Leonardo’s activity in Milan occurs in a contract for work on an altarpiece. In company with the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de’ Predis, he agreed to provide the painted decoration and panels for a large sculpted altarpiece by the wood-carver Giacomo di Damiano ( fl 1469–1502) for the Confraternità dell’ Immacolata Concezione in their chapel in S Francesco Grande, Milan. In addition to polychroming and gilding the wooden architecture and sculpture, the painters were expected to provide paintings of the Virgin, prophets and angels to be set in the frame.
The subsequent history of this commission, which went through a series of protracted legal wrangles, involves some of the lengthiest and most confusing documentation for any Renaissance painting. The dispute centred on the confraternity’s claims that the painters had failed to fulfil their obligations and the painters’ assertion that the value of the panel of ‘Our Lady done in oils’ was far greater than the sum the confraternity was offering to pay. By the time a procurator was appointed in 1496 to settle the dispute, Ambrogio de’ Predis and Leonardo had appealed to a higher authority, probably the Duke. By 1503 matters were still not resolved, by which time Leonardo had left Milan. In 1506 arbitrators stipulated that Leonardo had to complete the painting of ‘the most glorious Virgin Mary’ within two years at an agreed price. The painting was finished by August 1508, when Ambrogio, on Leonardo’s behalf, was given permission to remove the painting from its frame to make a copy.
Of the two surviving versions of the painting, now known as the Virgin of the Rocks, one (London, N.G.) is known to have come from the altarpiece in S Francesco Grande, while the early history of the other version (Paris, Louvre; see fig.), stylistically the earlier of the two, is unclear. Attempts have been made to reconcile the written evidence and the two paintings, but none can be confirmed. The two most straightforward hypotheses are either that the Louvre painting was completed but withheld by the artists and sold privately elsewhere, while the London panel was a second version, made to fulfil the legal requirements; or that either the Louvre painting or some other part of the altarpiece was incomplete until 1508, and that the London version was the copy made in that year and substituted for the original. The stylistic evidence marginally favours the former hypothesis, in that the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks appears to be wholly in the style of the 1480s, while the London version exhibits features of Leonardo’s work from the mid-1490s, even if it is not wholly by him.
The nature of Leonardo’s engagements at the Sforza court is unclear in the 1480s. His Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine (Kraków, Czartoryski Col.), presumed to be the portrait of Ludovico Sforza’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani that was celebrated in a Milanese poem, should be dated, on new evidence, to c. 1490–91. In 1487 Leonardo submitted a model for the scheme to design a tiburio (crossing tower) for Milan Cathedral, although he did not undertake the commission. It is also to this period that the Codex Trivulziano (Milan, Castello Sforzesco), the first of his surviving notebooks, can be dated. For the rest of his life he kept notebooks written in mirror handwriting and filled with drawings and diagrams that record various intellectual endeavours and scientific investigations in which he was involved. The Codex Trivulziano contains, among other things, studies for the tiburio, philosophical aphorisms and Latin word lists. A sheet in pen and ink, with Two Studies of a Human Skull (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 19059r), dated 1489, is one of a series of anatomical investigations concerned with the brain, nervous system and senses. Although there had been earlier signs of his interest in a range of scientific and technical matters, sustained explorations of questions lying outside his immediate professional involvements are fully documented only from the late 1480s.
During the 1490s Leonardo was involved with ceremonial activities at the Sforza court, with painting and sculpture and with his own intellectual pursuits in a growing range of natural, physical and mathematical sciences. Typical of his work as a court artist were his admired stage designs for the Festa del paradiso, a spectacle by Ludovico’s leading court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, composed in 1490 as a wedding celebration. The same year he resumed serious work on the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza. In 1497 he is documented as nearing the completion of the Last Supper, begun c. 1495, in the refectory of S Maria delle Grazie, Milan (in situ), and in 1498 he was painting the mural decoration of the Sala delle Asse (Milan, Castello Sforzesco). His notebooks also suggest that he participated in various architectural and engineering projects, including the extensive schemes for canalization, urban planning and decoration in Vigevano, close to Ludovico’s birthplace.
In his scientific work, Leonardo began to embrace a variety of concerns. Anatomy and optics were central among these (see Anatomical studies and Science and art), but he also embarked on detailed investigations of statics and dynamics, with an almost obsessional interest in the complex patterns of motion in water. His notebooks reflect a sustained campaign of self-education in the basic theoretical concepts of Classical and medieval science, and in the elements of mathematics. In this latter ambition he was greatly aided by the arrival of the mathematician Luca Pacioli at the court in 1496, and the following year they collaborated on the illustrations of geometrical bodies in Pacioli’s De divina proportione, which was eventually published in Venice in 1509.
The visual record of Leonardo’s artistic products during the 1490s is disappointingly meagre. The project for the huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza progressed to the point at which the full-sized clay model could be exhibited in 1494, but the bronze was never cast, and the model seems not to have survived Ludovico’s fall in 1499. The Last Supper was his major completed achievement. Early viewers testify to its extraordinary impact; however, the partly experimental technique led to the wall painting’s rapid deterioration, and it exists today only as a fragmented ghost of its former presence. Although the Duke requested in 1497 that Leonardo start on ‘the other wall’ when he finished the Last Supper, no sign remains of other work by him in the refectory. The portraits of the Duke and Duchess and their Children added to Giovanni Donato da Montofano’s Crucifixion on the opposite end wall are too damaged to permit a definite judgement, but the underdrawings appear too routine to be attributed confidently to Leonardo.
Leonardo’s decorative painting in the Sala delle Asse, depicting trees intertwined as a great bower, also survives in an incomplete and heavily restored form. It seems likely that he was responsible for other work in the suite of rooms in the Castello Sforzesco, which Ludovico was transforming and extending, but no traces survive. Three portraits of more or less autograph quality—the Portrait of a Musician and the Portrait of a Woman in Profile (both Milan, Bib. Ambriosiana) and the Portrait of a Woman, known as ‘La Belle Ferronnière’ (Paris, Louvre)—may also be assigned to his period at the Sforza court. When Ludovico fled Milan in 1499, in the face of the invading armies of the French king Louis XII, Leonardo sent money to Florence for safekeeping. Although he apparently entered into some kind of agreement with the King, he left Milan in December. He stayed briefly in Mantua, where he made a portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este (damaged version, Paris, Louvre; for illustration see Este (i), (6)), and in Venice, where he appears to have given some advice on hydraulic engineering. His visit to Mantua is not surprising in view of the close links between the Sforza and the Este families, and of Isabella’s known interest in Leonardo’s art.
In April 1500 Leonardo returned to Florence, where he was faced with the prospect of re-establishing his career. During the next six years Isabella d’Este endeavoured to obtain a painting from him. She hoped that he would make a painting based on the portrait drawing and subsequently that he would provide a subject painting—at one point she suggested an image of Christ at the age of 12. The correspondence in which Isabella pursued her frustrating quest provides the best evidence for Leonardo’s activities immediately after his return to Florence. Her plenipotentiary in Florence, the Carmelite Fra Pietro da Novellara, wrote to her on 3 and 14 April 1501, mentioning the painter’s obsession with geometry and that his pupils were making copies of his paintings to which he occasionally put his hand. The letters also describe two works by Leonardo. One was a small panel painting for Florimond Robertet, the secretary to the French king, which showed the Virgin and Child contesting the possession of a yarnwinder. Later known as the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the best versions of this much copied painting are in the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection and a New York collection.
The other work was a large-scale cartoon (untraced) of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb, in which the life-sized figures were cunningly compressed into a compact group. The cartoon seems to have been drawn when Leonardo was involved with a commission for an altarpiece for SS Annunziata (later finished by Pietro Perugino), which was apparently ceded to him on his return to Florence by Filippino Lippi. Leonardo was provided with accommodation in the monastery of SS Annunziata, and it was there in 1501 that he exhibited his cartoon to large crowds, though it was probably not intended as the design for the altarpiece.
That Republican Florence did not provide the most appropriate arena for Leonardo’s talents is perhaps indicated by the fact that in 1502 he accepted the appointment as Cesare Borgia’s ‘architect and general engineer’, with responsibilities that took him to Urbino and other Central Italian cities. The most spectacular product of his work for Cesare is the Map of Imola (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12284). In 1503 he was again in Florence and appears to have been one of the engineers involved in Machiavelli’s ill-fated plans to divert the River Arno around Pisa, when Florence was at war with the city.
Later in the same year Leonardo received the highly prestigious commission for a wall painting of the Battle of Anghiari (destr.) in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the great new council hall in the Palazzo della Signoria, which the Republic had erected after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. The subject was to commemorate a Florentine victory over the Milanese in 1440. Leonardo was provided with a room in S Maria Novella in which to make the huge cartoon (destr.), and work seems to have proceeded steadily, although it was interrupted during the autumn of 1504, when the Florentine authorities sent him to Piombino to advise on fortifications. Payments were made for materials during 1504, and one of his own notes (Madrid, Bib. N., MS. II, fol. 2r) provides evidence that he was actually painting on the wall in the summer of 1505. In 1504 Michelangelo received the commission to paint the Battle of Cascina (unexecuted) as a companion piece to the Battle of Anghiari and joined Leonardo as an apparently unsympathetic rival.
However, there were growing signs that Leonardo might eventually fail to complete the commission. His characteristically experimental technique was running into trouble, and his notebooks testify that his diverse intellectual concerns were again coming to the fore, including studies of bird flight and geometry. Finally, in 1506 a train of events marked the abandonment of the project. In May he was granted leave of absence to work in Milan for three months, perhaps in response to the settlement of the litigation surrounding the Virgin of the Rocks. Although he returned to Florence briefly in March 1507, and for a longer period from September to the following spring, his residence in Florence was effectively at an end. The winter of 1506–7 was apparently occupied with the study of anatomy, bird flight and mathematics. The last of his substantial artistic involvements in Florence seems to have been the assistance he provided, according to Vasari, to Giovanni Francesco Rustici, who was making the bronze group of St John the Baptist Preaching between a Pharisee and a Levite (1506–11) for the exterior of the Florentine Baptistery (in situ).
It is difficult to assign a single, finished, wholly autograph painting to the years 1500 to 1508. It is reasonable to assume that the Madonna of the Yarnwinder was completed, but even that might not have been entirely by Leonardo. The incomplete and partly ruined painting of the Battle of Anghiari survived until the remodelling of the council hall in the 1560s, and, although strenuous efforts have been made to discover it under the later paintings by Vasari, it has not so far reappeared. A number of projects for compositions of the Virgin and Child can be dated to these years, as can an innovative design for a painting of an Angel of the Annunciation (untraced), which developed into the later composition of St John the Baptist (Paris, Louvre). He also began work on a composition of Leda and the Swan , experimenting with a kneeling figure of Leda (reflected in versions by followers) and a standing version, the latter known to Raphael in Florence as a developed design, cartoon or unfinished painting. The final version of Leda (untraced) may not have been completed until after 1513.
The painting generally regarded as the central product of these years is the so-called ‘Mona Lisa’ (Paris, Louvre), although even it presents some problems of dating. The identity of the sitter was for many years uncertain, but Vasari’s claim that the lady in the portrait was ‘M[ad]o[n]na Lisa’, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo (hence the alternative name of ‘La Gioconda ’ or ‘La Gioconde’), was confirmed in 1991 with the publication of the 1525 death inventory of Leonardo’s assistant of 30 years, gian giacomo Caprotti, who seems to have been in possession of a number of his master’s works, including this portrait (see Shell and Sironi). In 1495 Lisa Gherardini (b Florence, 1479) married Francesco del Giocondo, an important figure in the Republican government, whose portrait Leonardo is also thought to have painted. Earlier confusion over her identity arose, among other things, from what was previously thought to be the earliest reference to the portrait, written by Ambrogio de’ Beatis on a visit to Leonardo in France in 1517; he described a portrait of ‘a certain Florentine lady made from nature at the instigation of the late Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici’ (the Duc de Nemours), who was Leonardo’s patron in Rome after 1513, and it had long been assumed that he was referring to the ‘Mona Lisa’. (It is now thought likely that the work de’ Beatis saw on this visit was the portrait of another Florentine woman.)
According to Vasari, Leonardo began the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo between his arrival in Florence in 1500 and the commencement of his work on the Battle of Anghiari late in 1503; after four years, however, the work was still unfinished. The appearance of the picture lends support to the idea that it was painted over an extended period, since the craquelure of the face suggests that it was executed at a different time from the hands, which exhibit the thinness of his latest manner of painting.
From the summer of 1508 to September 1513 Leonardo was resident in or near Milan, working initially for the French rulers of the city under the direct supervision of the governor, Charles II d’Amboise, Comte de Chaumont. He appears to have taken up a range of duties broadly equivalent to those he had performed at the Sforza court, including providing designs for ephemeral items of courtly entertainment. He also embarked on designs for another equestrian monument, for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, an Italian general who was serving the French. The scheme progressed as far as a detailed specification and costing of the life-size horse and rider, with a substantial base and secondary sculpture (Cod. Atlantico, fol. 179va). The architectural work Leonardo is known to have undertaken for Charles d’Amboise is not clearly identifiable. Charles’s project may have been for the kind of airy, colonnaded villa with which Leonardo had been experimenting since his first Milanese period (e.g. Cod. Atlantico, fol. 158ra). He may also have been involved in the plans for the church of S Maria alla Fontana, Milan, but the executant of the work is firmly documented as Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. After the reinstatement of the Sforza regime in 1512 under Ludovico’s son Massimiliano, Leonardo remained in Lombardy for more than a year.
Among Leonardo’s scientific endeavours during this second Milanese period is a series of outstanding anatomical drawings of human musculature and the skeletal system. His exploration of certain geometrical questions, particularly problems of transformation of volume and area (e.g. the squaring of the circle), became increasingly obsessive, as did his investigation of the dynamics of fluids, whether in the guise of the motion of water or in such related forms as the turbulent flow of the blood in vessels of the human body.
The only documented painting completed on Leonardo’s return to Milan was the Virgin of the Rocks: the style of the second version (London, N.G.) is consistent with its having been begun in the late 1490s and subsequently finished by Leonardo with studio assistants on his return to Milan. By contrast, the only autograph painting that can be wholly assigned with some confidence to this period is the St John the Baptist (Paris, Louvre), which developed from his Florentine Angel of the Annunciation and is reflected in pupils’ drawings datable c. 1509. The Virgin and Child compositions on which he was working for Louis XII cannot be certainly identified with any of the surviving paintings, although it is highly likely that one of them was a variant of the theme of the Virgin and Child with St Anne. Two main types of this composition are known: the version that included the lamb, as in the lost cartoon of 1501 and a surviving painting (Paris, Louvre), and the type in which the young St John is integrated into the narrative, as in the Burlington House Cartoon (London, N.G.). The latter has sometimes been dated to 1490–1500, but the style of its draughtsmanship and of the closest preparatory drawing (pen and ink over black chalk; London, B.M.) is increasingly recognized as belonging to c. 1505–7. The Louvre Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb is not clearly datable by reference to other paintings, but the related drawings (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12527, 12530, 12533), handling of colour and treatment of the landscape suggest a late date, perhaps c. 1515.
In October 1513 Leonardo visited Florence on his way to Rome, where he was accommodated in the Belvedere under the patronage of Giuliano de’ Medici, Duc de Nemours. He appears to have been involved with the military work that Giuliano was undertaking for the Medici pope, Leo X, and worked on the design and manufacture of burning mirrors that could have military and civil uses. The continued intensity and variety of his intellectual endeavours, particularly in anatomy (cardiology and embryology), optics and geometry, coupled with his travels in Giuliano’s service, do much to explain the reported impatience of Pope Leo, who doubted whether Leonardo would ever finish anything.
It is possible that Leonardo was present at Bologna in 1515 at the meeting between Leo X and the new French king, Francis I. His elaborate red chalk drawing of the Allegory of the Wolf and Eagle (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12496) may well refer to the concordat between pope and king. In any event, Francis was as enthusiastic about Leonardo’s work as his predecessor and succeeded in attracting Leonardo to France at some point between August 1516 and May 1517. For the rest of Leonardo’s life, Francis seems to have acted as an ideal patron—actively promoting new projects and keen to exploit the range of Leonardo’s talents, but also understanding of the artist’s character as a natural philosopher or seer. Leonardo was clearly regarded as an ornament of the court and, as such, was visited by Cardinal Louis of Aragon’s party on 10 October 1517, the occasion recorded by Ambrogio de’ Beatis, who was the Cardinal’s secretary. As ‘first painter and engineer’ to the King, Leonardo was provided with accommodation at the manor house of Clos-Lucé, Amboise.
Leonardo’s final years have often been seen as dominated by his geometrical obsessions and a growing sense of pessimism, expressed most vividly in the visions of cataclysmic storms in his series of drawings of A Deluge (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib.). His health was also apparently deteriorating. De’ Beatis reported that some paralysis was affecting his right side, probably as the result of a stroke. However, a study of folios and notebooks datable to the period 1516–19 reveals a remarkable range of continuing activities. There are only occasional signs of physical frailty. His assistants, most prominent among whom was the well-born francesco Melzi from Lombardy, probably played an increasing role in the physical work, but his inventiveness appears undiminished.
As in his two Milanese periods, Leonardo furnished designs for courtly entertainments, including a revised version of his design for the Festa del paradiso of 1490. His most ambitious project was for a huge royal palace at Romorantin, with associated canalization. A scheme was devised for an extensive residence, translating French château design into the language of the Renaissance. Leonardo’s concerns extended from the overall conception to such details as the design of toilet doors with counterweights. Although the project did not materialize, echoes of Leonardo’s ideas can be seen in subsequent French château design.
The evidence of Leonardo’s involvement with painting in France is equivocal, relying on secondary sources from later in the 16th century. It is virtually certain that the ‘Mona Lisa’, the St John the Baptist, the Leda and the Virgin and Child with St Anne were taken by Leonardo to France, where some may have been completed. He probably made an anamorphic painting for Francis I depicting a fight between a dragon and a lion in such a way that it made sense only when viewed from a shallow angle. A composition with a half-length female nude, known as the ‘Monna Vanna’, which exercised a notable influence on a series of erotic paintings from the school of Fontainebleau, may also have depended on a prototype by Leonardo himself, possibly a drawing or cartoon (such as that in Chantilly, Mus. Condé). However, de’ Beatis’s testimony that illness had left Leonardo unable to undertake painting needs to be taken seriously, and it is unlikely that any wholly autograph paintings were initiated and completed in France.
On 23 April 1519 Leonardo drew up his will, bequeathing most of his drawn and written legacy to Melzi. Following Leonardo’s death, Melzi wrote movingly to the painter’s brothers in Florence, one of whom’s son, Pierino da vinci, became a sculptor. Several of Leonardo’s paintings seem to have come into the hands of his assistant Caprotti, who had also travelled with his master to the French court. On 12 August 1519 Leonardo was buried in the church of St Florentin at Amboise, although his remains are thought later to have been transferred to the chapel of St Hubert at the château of Amboise.
Leonardo completed relatively few paintings, and no more than ten surviving works are generally accepted as being finished wholly by him. A further three autograph paintings remain unfinished, while a small group of works may be classified as studio products in which he played a greater or lesser role. Early sources, particularly Vasari and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, refer to a number of paintings now unknown, but there is often no way of telling if these works were indeed by Leonardo himself. Additionally, there is a host of Leonardesque paintings by followers, ranging from presumed copies of original works to free variations on Leonardo’s compositions. Many of the Leonardesque paintings originated from Milan, where artists may have had access to originals brought back from France by Caprotti, whose own copies, as well as those by others, transmitted the conventional image of the ‘Leonardesque’ to later ages.
Besides the documented Adoration of the Magi (1481–2; Florence, Uffizi), left unfinished when Leonardo departed for Milan, there is a reasonable consensus of opinion on the attribution of other surviving paintings to this period, though less agreement about dating. Of the Virgin and Child paintings most closely associated with Leonardo in the 1470s (when, according to his own notes, he had begun ‘two Madonnas’), the Virgin and Child with a Vase of Flowers (c. 1474–6; Munich, Alte Pin.) is the least fluent compositionally and stylistically the closest to works produced in Verrocchio’s studio; the Benois Madonna and Child (c. 1479–81; St Petersburg, Hermitage) is close in conception to the Adoration, while the Virgin and Child known as the ‘Madonna Litta’ (c. 1480–85; St Petersburg, Hermitage) gives a very awkward impression and can at best be seen as painted largely by another hand. Leonardo’s inventory of 1481–2 refers to a Madonna ‘in profile’, but this has not been certainly identified.
Among the elements of the Virgin and Child in Munich recognizable as motifs common in Verrocchio’s studio are the spiral knots of hair, the bunched drapery of the bodice held by a jewel, the precious gesture of the hand holding a carnation and the meticulous observation of the vase of flowers. The composition is assembled by adding one detail to another but is not conceived as a whole, and it is characteristic of such compositions produced in Florence at this period. However, Leonardo endeavoured to imbue the drapery and the motion of the Child with vigour and variety, and the flower buds are about to burst open, imparting a sense of superabundant vitality. The effects of atmospheric perspective in the strange, mountainous landscape are recognizably Leonardesque, and the puckered and wrinkled paint surface also bears witness to his experiments with the oil medium, even at this early date.
The Benois Madonna, by contrast, is a far more integrated composition. The figures are combined in such a way as to forge a new kind of formal and emotional interaction. This is achieved both through the interweaving of the motions and gestures and by the rhythmic interplay of curves in the composition. The emotional vitality of the Virgin reflects Leonardo’s debt to 15th-century Florentine sculpture and may depend directly on the low-relief Madonnas traditionally attributed to Desiderio da Settignano. The light has an unprecedented directness and force, creating an almost exaggerated sense of relief, which is only partly disturbed by the blank (possibly overpainted) view through the window.
The arrangement of the ‘Madonna Litta’ is characteristic of the ambitions that tended to strain Leonardo’s compositions to breaking-point. The Virgin tenderly cradles the Child, who sucks from his mother’s breast and twists restlessly to look at the spectator. It is not easy to recognize the handling of the figures as the work of Leonardo. The generalized surfaces and simplified contours suggest a laboured attempt to emulate Leonardo’s style, though the graded recession of hills in the landscape is captured with a subtlety difficult to attribute to an assistant or follower.
Although the Munich Virgin is the earliest of these three compositions, it is not the earliest painting that can be attributed to Leonardo. The Annunciation (c. 1473; Florence, Uffizi), from the convent of Monte Oliveto, can be seen to an even greater degree as an assemblage of motifs from his earliest experiences of Florentine art. The influence of Verrocchio is paramount, particularly in the antique-style pedestal of the Virgin’s reading-desk and emphatically sculptural draperies. The perspective of the house and tiled pavement on the right has been assembled in an almost mechanical manner over a series of geometrical lines incised in the gesso priming of the panel. The paint handling and conception of form are rather uneven, reflecting the young artist’s search for appropriate ways of capturing a wide variety of natural effects. The depiction of the plants, including the Angel’s lily, and the blue haze of the distant mountains indicate that Netherlandish art was already an important source of inspiration.
An attempt to combine the striking effects of surface naturalism in Netherlandish art with the formal values of the Florentine tradition is also apparent in the only surviving portrait from this period, that of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1476; Washington, DC, N.G.A.). The sitter’s name is indicated by the punning, heraldic device of the juniper bush (It. ginepro) behind her head, while the back of the panel is decorated with a wreath of palm and juniper and the motto virtutem forma decorat (‘beauty adorns virtue’) that appears to have been given to her by Bernardo Bembo. The decorative motif on the reverse confirms that the painting has been cut down by as much as a third at the bottom. It is likely that the sitter’s hands were originally included, as in Verrocchio’s marble bust of a Woman Holding Flowers (Florence, Bargello). (A silverpoint Study of Arms and Hands (c. 1476; Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12558) may indicate Leonardo’s intentions.) The sense of brilliant striving for effects of light and texture in the painting is again reflected in Leonardo’s technical experiments; he softened the modelling of the flesh by pressing his fingers into the wet paint. The wrinkled paint surface in the landscape results from his use of oily glazes to convey a nebulous atmospheric recession equivalent to that in his pen drawing of a Tuscan Landscape dated 1473 (Florence, Uffizi), though the painting probably dates from at least three years later.
A comparable quality can be seen in the landscape background on the left in Verrocchio’s Baptism (Florence, Uffizi), originally from the monastic church of S Salvi outside Florence. Leonardo’s contributions to his master’s picture may also be recognized in the angel on the far left (as testified by Albertini in 1510), in the water and probably in the glazes that model the face and body of Christ. Although it would be natural to assume that these contributions represent Leonardo’s earliest known attempts at painting (i.e. c. 1470), the pose of the angel and delicately vivacious handling of paint suggest a technique at least as advanced as that of the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and thus a date of c. 1476.
None of these examples of Leonardo’s work, ambitious though they are, anticipates fully the extraordinary innovations revealed in the large-scale, unfinished Adoration of the Magi. This was a popular subject for altarpieces in 15th-century Florence, not least as a reflection of the activities of the Compagnia de’ Magi, a lay body responsible for organizing a great procession on the day of Epiphany. Florentine paintings of the subject, taking their cue particularly from Gentile da Fabriano’s Strozzi Altarpiece (1423; Florence, Uffizi), had developed a rich, processional and even clamorous quality. Leonardo’s preparatory studies, including the pen-and-ink compositional sketch (Paris, Louvre), show that he found his starting-point in this tradition. However, he invested every element in his composition with a fresh emotional charge, ranging from the contemplative absorption of the old man on the extreme right, through the intense reverence of the Magi, to the overt violence of the horsemen in the background. The emotional postures, gestures and faces are incorporated into a composition in which unprecedented dynamism is orchestrated within a rigorously controlled structure. The arc of adoring figures and the pyramidal disposition of the Virgin and kneeling Magi are given additional articulation by the trees, while the turbulence of the background takes place in some form of ruined architectural structure that was calculated with the highest degree of perspectival exactitude; this is also evident in the pen-and-ink study of the architectural background (Florence, Uffizi).
Reading the Adoration is not easy. It is not only unfinished in the conventional sense, but many of its forms are still in an emergent state. The fluidity of Leonardo’s preliminary drawings is sustained into the underpainting itself, in a manner exceptional in a 15th-century painting. The identification of the background figures is particularly difficult, although the sense of turmoil and the destruction of the old order—symbolized also in the ruined architecture—are based on Florentine precedents. The retinue accompanying the Magi has been transformed into a series of urgently involved witnesses to the divine mystery, who are far removed from their traditionally supportive, decorative and anecdotal roles. The two flanking figures, one deeply pensive and the other youthfully romantic, may have been inspired by the framing figures on antique sarcophagi (also used by Donatello), but they play an unprecedented psychological role in the drama.
The rich tonal effects in the underpainting are also present in the panel of St Jerome (c. 1481–2; Rome, Vatican, Pin.), also unfinished, in which a foreshortened, contorted kneeling pose complements the sharply characterized expression of penitence in the saint’s face. The physiognomy of the roaring lion, echoing St Jerome’s torment, recalls the drawings in which Leonardo compared human and animal expressions (e.g. Sheet of Studies with the Virgin and Child and Saints, Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12276r), while the saint’s sinewy neck must have been based on the kind of anatomical studies that were listed in his inventory of 1481–2.
The other strongest candidates for autograph paintings by Leonardo of this period are the Virgin and Child, called the Dreyfus Madonna (Washington, DC, N.G.A.), and the predella panel of the Annunciation (Paris, Louvre) from the altarpiece commissioned from Verrocchio but executed by Lorenzo di Credi and representing the Virgin and Child Enthroned with SS John the Baptist and Donatus of Arezzo (1475–80; Pistoia Cathedral). Both attributions have their supporters, but the Dreyfus Madonna may perhaps be better attributed to Verrocchio himself, while the Annunciation displays weaknesses in structure and handling that suggests that it is by another of Verrocchio’s pupils.
The troubled history of the commission in 1483 for the painted sections of the altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception has led a few commentators to assume that the central image, the Virgin of the Rocks (Paris, Louvre), was not wholly completed during the first Milanese period. However, as far as can be judged beneath its layers of darkened varnish, the painting appears, in its delicate characterization of form and vitality of touch, to belong wholly to the 1480s. A devotional image of the Virgin has been translated into a scene of considerable formal, colouristic, iconographical and psychological complexity. The figures in the landscape setting depend distantly on Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece of the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child with SS Romuald and John the Baptist (c. 1459; Berlin, Gemäldegal.), for the chapel in the Palazzo Medici, Florence, but Filippo’s image does not approach the subtle spatial interplays of glance, gesture and directional light. This is the most advanced expression to date of Leonardo’s insistence on the dominance of tone over colour. Only the swathe of yellow lining of the Virgin’s robe is allowed to assert itself independently of the tonal scheme, and even this merges into the substratum of shadow at the edges. The painting’s complex iconography centres on an apocryphal narrative of the meeting of the Virgin and Child with St John and the Angel Uriel in the wilderness. The theme is underscored by botanical symbolism associated with Mary, while the rocky cavern in the distance may be drawn from the ‘dove … in the clefts of rock’ in the Song of Songs (ii.14) and refer to Mary’s virginity. Whatever the intended meaning, the forms bear witness to Leonardo’s intense scrutiny of nature and his recreation of natural forms in imaginative compounds that endow them with an aura of strangeness.
The formal and psychological suavity of the Virgin of the Rocks can also be recognized in the Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, thought to represent Cecilia Gallerani, one of Ludovico Sforza’s mistresses. The animal in her arms appears to be a punning reference to her name (Gr. galé=ermine), as well as standing as an emblem of purity. The implied narrative of the sitter turning to look at an unseen companion gives the portrait an unprecedented freshness and permits a new kind of psychological communication in portraiture, only partly foreshadowed in Verrocchio’s portrait busts. In spite of some inelegant overpainting of the background, which was originally grey, the portrait possesses a remarkable harmony of line, space, light and colour, without compromising the natural observation of forms and textures.
None of the other Milanese portraits associated with Leonardo achieves such a high level of complexity and innovation. Of these, the unfinished Portrait of a Musician (Milan, Pin. Ambrosiana) is the most widely accepted, the head possessing a sense of underlying structure and life characteristic of Leonardo’s documented works. Moreover, the highlit spirals of hair share the febrile energy of Ginevra’s curls. By comparison with the Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, two unidentified female portraits associated with Leonardo appear superficially routine. Yet the head of the Portrait of a Woman in Profile (Milan, Pin. Ambrosiana) has a vibrancy of contour that escaped the best of his associates, and ‘La Belle Ferronnière’ (Paris, Louvre) is more interesting than it might initially appear. Although the parapet in the latter prevents the figure from asserting its full presence, the motif of the glance, almost, but not quite, meeting the spectator’s, is full of Leonardesque ingenuity. The painting of the accessories is more vital than most of the details in the Ambrosiana female portrait and may be substantially by Leonardo himself. The sitter has been tentatively identified as Ludovico’s later mistress Lucrezia Crivelli, whose portrait by Leonardo is also described in a poem. If so, it would date from the mid-1490s, which is consistent with its style.
The most important painting of Leonardo’s first Milanese period was the Last Supper on the end wall in the refectory of S Maria delle Grazie. Hailed originally as a triumph of illusionistic naturalism, it may now be described as the most famous wreck in the history of art. Leonardo’s mediative methods of painting and his insistence on a full range of optical effects led him to seek an alternative to the true fresco technique. Analysis has revealed that he first primed the wall and then painted the mural in a manner resembling tempera painting on panel. Painting a secco (on dry plaster) was far from uncommon, but Leonardo’s layered technique, which appears to have encouraged dampness to accumulate in the underlying plaster, resulted in imperfect adhesion. The restoration campaign begun in 1980 and completed in 1999, devoted to the removal of all later overpainting, has confirmed that in large areas only scattered flakes of original paint remain.
Even in its unhappy state, the grandeur and ingenuity of the conception of the Last Supper remain discernible. Leonardo created a compelling effect of a perspectival space opening off the refectory, but rendered the relationship between the illusionistic and real spaces deeply ambiguous at its margins. The ceiling passes upwards behind the lunettes to an imprecisely defined point, while the planes of the side walls do not precisely coincide with those of the refectory. The crowding and relative heights of the figures also subvert the requirements of strictly naturalistic logic for the sake of narrative effect. However, the restoration has revealed that many details were painted with consummate naturalistic skill and vibrant colour, including the still-life objects on the table—wine glasses, fruit, plates—and the folds of the cloth. The Last Supper is the supreme demonstration of Leonardo’s belief that poses, gestures and facial expressions should reflect the ‘notions of the mind’ in a specific emotional context. Although it is anachronistic to read the painting as a ‘frozen moment’—the gestures are meant to be read cumulatively, and successive moments in the biblical narrative are represented—the dominant intention is to convey the varieties of reaction to the central charge of Christ’s impending betrayal. The theme of the Institution of the Eucharist, signalled by Christ’s gestures towards the wine and bread, would also have been readily understood. The painting presents a rich series of themes for contemplation by the monks dining in the refectory.
The heavily restored remains of the decoration of the Sala delle Asse in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan, provide the most substantial visual indication of the inventiveness with which Leonardo performed his court duties. The motif of the regularly intertwined branches of the trees, interwoven with a meandering gold rope in one of his favourite knot patterns, succeeds superbly as decoration, without losing his characteristic sense of the natural vitality of living forms. The fragmentary underpainting on one of the walls, depicting roots insinuating themselves among rocks, suggests that the whole room was to be transformed into a bower. The heraldic shield of Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d’Este in the central oculus and laudatory inscriptions make obvious dynastic references. The motif of interweaving may itself function as a kind of impresa (heraldic motif) of the union of Ludovico and his wife.
The two works on which Leonardo was most immediately engaged in Florence were the lost cartoon of 1501 representing the Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb and the Virgin of the Yarnwinder, of which numerous versions and variants are known. Examination of the versions belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch and another private collection have revealed comparable pentimenti, underdrawings and stylistic characteristics that suggest that Leonardo played a role in their design and perhaps also in their execution. They are probably studio realizations of Leonardo’s invention. Fra Pietro da Novellara described the lost cartoon as showing St Anne rising from her seat to restrain the Virgin from separating the Child from the lamb. The best records of it may be a drawing (Geneva, priv. col., see Clark, 1939, rev. 1988, p. 33), which appears to imitate Leonardo’s graphic style, and the rather wooden painting of the same subject attributed to Brescianino (Berlin, Bodemus.). The importance of these two works by Leonardo was that they demonstrated to the Florentines a dynamic new way of incorporating symbolism into an anecdotal type of Virgin and Child. The meaning of the symbols of the passion—the cross-shaped yarnwinder and the sacrificial lamb—is built in to the physical and psychological aspects of the interaction between the figures.
Documentary records confirm early accounts that Leonardo also used an experimental technique for the Battle of Anghiari, painting a secco on a sealed and primed wall surface, but on this occasion using oil as his chief binding medium. The sources further suggest that the paint proved reluctant to dry, but it is not known if the problems were sufficiently severe in themselves to lead to his abandonment of the project. The one section of his painting—apparently the central portion—that survived until the 1560s, albeit in an unfinished state, was recorded in paintings and drawings, and in an engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia. There are two painted copies of reasonable quality (Florence, Uffizi; Munich, G. Hoffman priv. col.), while the most artistically attractive of the graphic versions is the drawing that appears to have been reworked by Peter Paul Rubens (Paris, Louvre). Together with the preparatory drawings, the copies show that Leonardo’s battle centred on a turbulent fight for a standard, in which rearing horses, elaborately armoured warriors and struggling foot soldiers were compressed into a tight knot of explosive action. Even in the copies the force and conviction of the contorted men and horses, together with their savagely bestial expressions, give an impression of unprecedented power. However, the detailed effects of dust, mingled with blood, rising in the air and the churned-up water in the river can only be envisaged through reading the descriptions in his notebooks. The fragmentary nature of the visual evidence works against a full-scale reconstruction of Leonardo’s scheme for the whole wall and makes it difficult to read the narrative of the central group. However, Neri di Gino Capponi’s manuscript account of the battle indicates that the capture of the Milanese standard was the crucial event, and it may therefore be possible to identify the horsemen to the left as Milanese struggling to retain their grip of the standard in the face of the Florentine assault from the right.
The remarkable power of Leonardo’s second major invention of the period, the ‘Mona Lisa’, results from his exceptional translation of an individual image into an archetype with deliberately universal connotations. None of the elements is unprecedented on its own: a portrait extending below the bust to include the hands had already been used by Verrocchio in his marble Woman Holding Flowers and by Leonardo in Ginevra de’ Benci; the setting of a figure above a distant landscape had been exploited in Piero della Francesca’s portraits of Federigo da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (both Florence, Uffizi), and a comparable directness of expression, with the slight smile, had been developed in portraits by Antonello da Messina. But the effect of the ensemble has no parallel in earlier art.
Yet the novelty of the ‘Mona Lisa’ is partly a matter of form and technique. The monumental amplitude of the figure is emphasized by the sweeping contours of drapery and by the stabilizing devices of the wall behind the figure and framing columns. The form is modelled softly yet insistently in Leonardo’s sfumato (It.: ‘smoked’) manner, in which the contours are rendered elusive under a veil of intervening atmosphere. More profound is the question of the implicit imagery in which woman and landscape together bear witness to the inner life of both human and earthly forms as reflections of cosmic motions. Leonardo was fascinated by the ancient idea of microcosm, in which the human body was regarded as a reflection on a reduced scale of the structures and processes of the world as a whole. In the ‘Mona Lisa’, the analogy is underscored by parallels in the treatment of the curvaceous flow in the hair, draperies, embroidery patterns and rivers and valleys in the landscape. The subtle interplay between universal values and the particularity of the individual woman has been a crucial factor in the enduring fascination of Leonardo’s image.
Leonardo seems to have started to work on his composition of Leda and the Swan at the same time he was planning the Battle of Anghiari. Initially he showed Leda in a complex kneeling pose, probably inspired by an antique statue of Venus, as in a pen drawing (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12337r). Although this idea was taken up by his followers, he apparently abandoned it in favour of a standing Leda, in which a more mellifluous motion could be orchestrated. The basic pose, relying on the sinuous, triple turn of head, torso and hips around the central axis of her body, was established at least in a developed drawing or cartoon during this period in Florence. It was studied by Raphael and set new standards of figural complexity for the younger generation of Italian artists. The painting in its final form, with the four children bursting from the eggs, may not have reached completion until after 1513. The best variants (Florence, Pal. Vecchio; Wilton House, Wilts; London, Hyde priv. col.) suggest that it contained rich allusions to the generative powers of nature as expressed in the human, animal and vegetable kingdoms.
The Angel of the Annunciation (best copy, Basle, Kstsamml.) is an unjustly neglected work. The Angel conveys the message of the Annunciation directly at the viewer, who becomes the privileged recipient standing in the place of the Virgin Annunciate. This remarkable conception may have arisen during Leonardo’s involvement with Rustici’s sculptural group of St John the Baptist Preaching, which exploits a comparably direct communication between saint and spectator. The original painting was recorded in the collection of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century, and a drawing (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12328r) records Leonardo’s initial idea.
The best evidence of Leonardo’s style during his second Milanese period is provided by the St John the Baptist (Paris, Louvre), which represents the extreme development of his ideas on the treatment of light and shade to achieve atmospheric effects and describe three-dimensional objects. The figure emerges from a dark background, with the light, falling from above left, highlighting parts of the saint’s head and shoulders and creating a sense of sculptural volume. The internal modelling and shaded contours are described with an extreme of ambiguous softness, even allowing for the yellowed varnish. The elusiveness of precise form corresponds to the conviction in Leonardo’s optical writings that the mechanisms of vision result in complex ambiguities of space, form and colour. Leonardo also attempted to convey the inner motions of the character’s mind. The saint’s angelic smile had featured in earlier Florentine art, but Leonardo’s exaggerated attempt to make the expression convey a sense of spiritual knowingness has resulted in a presence that many viewers have found enigmatically disturbing. The pointing gesture, here as elsewhere in his art, alludes to the other-worldly source and immaterial power of the creator of the world.
A related project was for a painting of St John the Baptist Seated in a Landscape. A damaged but autograph drawing (ex-Mus. Baroffio, Varese; stolen 1973) shows the fully developed pose of the saint as it appears in a painted version (Paris, Louvre), in which, however, the figure has the attributes of Bacchus, perhaps as a result of a later intervention. Although demonstrably close to Leonardo in composition and spirit, the painting appears to be by an accomplished follower.
Although the St John was at one time assumed to be the last of Leonardo’s surviving paintings, it now seems more likely that the Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb (Paris, Louvre) occupies this place. The forms of the draperies, rocks and landscape and the optical subtleties can best be aligned with his drawings and writings around 1515, when he was in Rome. The composition takes up the experiments of the lost cartoon of 1501; the integration of the three figures and the lamb is achieved by the shaping of their forms into a series of interlocking curves. The fluency of the motion disguises the physical improbability of the pyramidal group. Compared to the 1501 design described by Fra Pietro, St Anne no longer restrains the Christ Child from embracing the sacrificial lamb, but the underlying symbolism remains the same. The painting technique is characterized by the fluid use of translucent glazes of oil paint to create effects of softness, translucency and transparency. Typical of Leonardo’s interests are the translucent veins of coloured minerals in the pebbles near St Anne’s feet. There is a compelling sense of motion and flux, both in the physical forms of the natural world and in the infinite optical variables of mists, refractions and reflections.
No artist ever inspired more copies, variants and pastiches than Leonardo. Fra Pietro’s testimony confirms that copying was practised in Leonardo’s studio, and some of the best versions of his paintings, such as the Angel in Basle, may be studio products, often assumed to be autograph by later owners. The working of variations on Leonardo’s favourite themes appears to have become something of an industry in Milan after his departure in 1513; the precise relationship of many of these pictures to Leonardo’s own paintings and drawings is often obscure. There is a marked tendency among optimistic owners and art historians to hail the more convincing of the Leonardesque paintings as long-lost originals.
Variants that appear to reflect inventions by Leonardo himself include images of Christ the Redeemer, Christ and the Doctors in the Temple, Christ Carrying the Cross, the Christ Child and the Infant St John at Play, and the Kneeling Virgin with the Christ Child and St John and a Lamb. The firm attribution of the majority of the versions and variants of these and other Leonardesque paintings remains impossible, given the present state of knowledge of the minor artists who followed Leonardo. Only the personalities of the more independent masters, Andrea Solario and Bernadino Luini, have been satisfactorily defined. Among those in his immediate orbit, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis and Cesare da Sesto painted in styles that can be characterized to greater or lesser degrees, but the full parameters of their styles have not been established securely, and other followers, including Francesco Melzi and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, remain shadowy, apart from the occasional signed or documented work.
Leonardo was one of the most innovative and fertile draughtsmen of any age (see fig.). In his hands the practice of drawing became a flexible extension of creative thought, not only expressing a series of new ideas in teeming abundance but also becoming, through a rapid confusion of scribbled alternatives superimposed on each other, a way of permitting chance configurations to aid the inventive process. Drawing became a form of visual thinking rather than a merely functional means for the design of a picture.
Leonardo da Vinci: Designs for a Nativity or Adoration of…At the beginning of his career Leonardo achieved mastery of the two most important drawing techniques of the period, metalpoint (see fig.) and pen and ink. The Study of Arms and Hands (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12558) that may have served for the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is drawn in silverpoint with white heightening on pink prepared paper and demonstrates a meticulous control of parallel hatching to suggest graded relief. One of the last instances in which Leonardo used this traditional medium, his Studies of a Standing Horse, seen from the side and front (c. 1490; Windsor Castle, Royal Lib.), probably for the Sforza monument, may be regarded as having taken the potential of silverpoint to its limits.
Leonardo’s work in pen exhibited from the first an exceptional vitality of touch, as in the Tuscan Landscape (1473; Florence, Uffizi), which is characterized by an extraordinary suggestion of life and atmosphere. In the drawings for the Adoration of the Magi and various Virgin and Child compositions of the 1480s and early 1490s he evolved a graphic style of unprecedented rapidity and suggestiveness. Other Renaissance draughtsmen, including Verrocchio, had used pen and ink for quick sketches, but no one had approached Leonardo’s bold and dynamic method of ‘brainstorming’, in which alternative forms emerge from a tangled confusion of lines. The rapid pen studies of the Virgin and Child with a Cat (c. 1478–81; London, BM) show the complex interweavings of bodies in motion that become possible with this approach. On the verso of this sheet, the design was traced through in reverse, becoming the starting-point for a further series of variations that were clarified by the addition of an ink wash. Such paintings as the Benois Madonna reflect the way in which complex motions can be orchestrated through this manner of sketching.
Leonardo da Vinci: Head of a Man in Profile Facing…Throughout Leonardo’s career, pen and ink remained the technique he most regularly used, not only for preliminary sketches but also for scientific illustrations and representations of machinery and architecture. During the late 1490s his system of shading with pen underwent an important and influential change: the use of diagonal parallel hatching, which moved from top left to bottom right (he was left-handed; see fig.), was progressively replaced by curved pen strokes that follow the forms. The drawings for the Leda from 1506 onwards, such as the Study for the Kneeling Leda (pen and ink over black chalk; Chatsworth, Derbys) represent the extreme development of this graphic style.
Leonardo da Vinci: Head of the Virgin., black chalk, red…
For the study of the component parts of compositions, Leonardo often turned to other media. Early in his career he seems to have made studies of draperies arranged on lay figures using a fine brush and white heightening on linen (Paris, Louvre, and elsewhere) in the manner of his master, Verrocchio, and contemporaries such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, but he progressively used the softer and more flexible media of red and black chalk during the 1490s, above all in the studies for the Last Supper. The red-chalk drawings for Apostles’ heads, sometimes on reddish prepared paper, such as the Head of Judas (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12547), make subtle interplay between softly luminous shading, rhythmic contours and selective areas of dense shadow. The heads of shouting warriors for the Battle of Anghiari (e.g. Budapest, Mus. F.A.; see fig.) represent the high-point of this technique. The softer and grainier black chalk was particularly suited to creating effects of sfumato modelling (see fig.). When combined with white heightening, as in a Study of a Sleeve for St Peter in the Last Supper (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12546), or with heightening and wash, as in studies of drapery (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12530; Paris, Louvre) for the Louvre St Anne, extraordinarily rich effects of light and shade could be attained. Comparable effects were achieved with charcoal and white heightening in the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with SS Anne and John the Baptist (London, N.G.), which retains a far greater degree of fluidity and lack of resolution than would have been normal in a full-scale drawing. Black chalk was also the favoured medium for his drawings of A Deluge (e.g. Windsor Castle, Royal Lib.), where its sombre, atmospheric qualities were ideally suited to such dark expressions of cosmic violence.
Leonardo da Vinci: Studies of the Heads of Shouting Warriors for the Battle of Anghiari (facsimile), black and red chalk, 191×188 mm, c. 1504–5 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Leonardo was also an innovator in the use of colour in drawings. His geographical studies use coloured washes to distinguish forms in flat maps according to a convention or colour code, and also for more naturalistically descriptive purposes, as in the Bird’s-eye View of Arezzo, Borgo San Sepolcro, Perugia, Chiusi and Siena (1502; Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12680). His use of coloured pastels (see Pastel, §1), mentioned in 16th-century sources, cannot be demonstrated in fully autograph drawings, but artists in his circle, most notably Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, certainly exploited the technique.
In his scientific and technical drawing Leonardo experimented with many of the illustrative techniques used in later textbooks, including various forms of solid section, transparency of overlying parts and exploded diagrams of components (see fig.). He pushed the descriptive potential of static drawing on a flat surface towards its ultimate limits.
Leonardo da Vinci: Embryo in the Womb, pen and ink, 304×215 mmc. 1510 (Windsor Castle, Royal Library); photo credit: HIP/Art Resource, NY
That Leonardo practised as a sculptor is not in doubt, but attempts to attribute surviving sculpture to him have met with generally unsatisfactory results. Vasari was probably correct in saying that Leonardo made terracotta heads of women and children (perhaps of the infant Christ or the infant St John) early in his career, since such heads were part of the stock-in-trade of a sculptor’s studio in the 1470s. When he advertised his services to Ludovico ‘il Moro’, he claimed proficiency in ‘sculpture, in marble, bronze and clay’, but the subsequent records of his sculptural activity suggest that he worked as a modeller rather than as a carver.
Leonardo’s most substantial sculptural undertaking was the great equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza that was intended to be cast in bronze in Milan. The first record of his direct involvement occurs only in 1489, when the Duke expressed doubts about Leonardo’s ability to complete the work. In April 1490 Leonardo himself noted that he ‘restarted the horse’ (Paris, Inst. France, MS. C, fol. 15v). By this time it is likely that he had set aside his technically impractical scheme for a rider on a rearing horse and reverted to the more traditional walking pose, as in Donatello’s Gattamelata (c. 1447–53; Padua, Piazza del Santo) and Verrocchio’s Bartolommeo Colleoni (c. 1479–92; Venice, Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo), but on a scale of three times life size. In 1491 and 1492 he worked on the full-scale clay model, which made a great impact when it was shown as part of the marriage celebrations of Bianca Maria Sforza and Emperor Maximilian. The surviving records of Leonardo’s project in his drawings and manuscripts are far from complete, but include beautiful studies of horses from life, proportional studies, for instance the silverpoint measured drawing of a Horse in Profile to the Left (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12319) and elaborate schemes for the casting of the colossus mainly in the second Madrid codex (Madrid, Bib. N., MS. 8936). The drawings show his concern to capture the nervous vitality of a highly bred horse, both in its overall motion and in the rhythmic grace of individual parts. There is little indication of the intended pose of the rider, who may not even have been included in the clay model that was exhibited. The bronze was never cast, and the model was destroyed.
Leonardo’s plans for the equestrian monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio are recorded in a series of pen drawings (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12353, 12355, 12356), which show that an energetically striding horse and gesturing rider were to have been mounted on an elaborate architectural base. The base was to have contained a recumbent image of Trivulzio on his sarcophagus, and a series of eight ‘captives’ (bound nude male figures) were to have been attached around its margins in a manner comparable to Michelangelo’s projected scheme for the tomb of Pope Julius II (see fig.). Leonardo’s project was destined not to reach even the stage of a full-scale model, although some later drawings, such as the black-chalk study showing a fallen soldier trampled beneath his horse’s hooves (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12354) which may date from 1511, show that he continued to meditate on the possibility of reviving his earlier idea for a rearing horse.
The most tangible surviving evidence of Leonardo’s qualities as a sculptor occurs in Rustici’s bronze group of St John the Baptist Preaching. Although there is no direct documentation of Leonardo’s involvement with this group, Vasari’s account of Leonardo’s participation is supported by the visual evidence. The complex yet monumentally graceful poses, the individual characterizations and contrasted expressions speak the language pioneered by Leonardo in the Last Supper, while the intricate communication between the figures and the spectator on the ground below can be seen as the realization of ideas with which Leonardo had long been experimenting. The precise roles of Rustici and Leonardo are impossible to disentangle, but it is clear that Leonardo’s presence resulted in Rustici working on a higher plane than in any of his wholly independent works.
The high probability that Leonardo worked on smaller-scale sculpture in his studio, either in terracotta or wax, has encouraged a search for surviving examples or, more realistically, bronzes dependent on his models. The surviving terracotta that deserves the most serious consideration is a bust of the Infant Christ (ex-Galludt priv. col.; see Pedretti, 1957, and Kemp, 1981), but, in the absence of any direct evidence of Leonardo’s handling of terracotta, the attribution remains provisional. Among the bronzes that bear some resemblance to Leonardo’s designs, the best contenders are a series of small-scale rearing horses with riders. Two versions (Budapest, N. Mus.; Louisville, KY, Speed A. Mus.), the latter probably representing Marcus Curtius, can be related to drawings of rearing horses of the Battle of Anghiari type, such as the sheet of studies of Horses, a Cat and St George and the Dragon (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12331). However, the generalized anatomy of the Budapest horse suggests that it is at best a later variant of a Leonardo design, while the Marcus Curtius has an awkwardness in proportion and balance that points to a follower, possibly Rustici.
The topic of Leonardo and sculpture, if examined through the master’s surviving work, is not encouraging, but it would be wrong to underestimate its importance. Sculptural values, particularly those of Verrocchio, exercised a notable impact on Leonardo’s vision of form and communication in space, and some of his own ideas were absorbed into the sculptural tradition.
Discussion of Leonardo’s contribution to architecture is as problematic as that of his contribution to sculpture. Although he may never have built anything, documents and drawings contain tantalizing glimpses of unrealized projects and brilliant inventions, and in his letter to Ludovico Sforza he claimed to be the equal of anyone in architecture, capable of designing public and private buildings. His architecture may be described as being in the spirit of Brunelleschi, combining a reverence for the proportional principles of antique buildings (as expounded by Vitruvius) with a relatively undogmatic use of the Classical vocabulary and an inventive ingenuity in matters of engineering.
Leonardo’s architectural projects were of two kinds. The first were practical, completing or renovating extant buildings and working as a military architect; the second were theoretical and included schemes for ideal cities and plans for many types of building. It is possible that the designs in Codex B (Paris, Inst. France; see fig.) were intended to initiate a treatise on architectural building types, while the first Madrid manuscript (Madrid, Bib. N.) deals with principles of construction. The treatment of churches in Codex B, consisting of illustrations with only a minimal commentary, may have influenced later writers on architecture, particularly Serlio. Leonardo’s architectural drawings, together with those of Francesco di Giorgio Martini (one of whose architectural manuscripts Leonardo owned) and of Giuliano da Sangallo, are among the earliest known. Since no drawings of this date survive by Bramante (who worked in Milan as court architect alongside Leonardo for 19 years), they are crucial in illustrating the evolution of the High Renaissance style.
Leonardo da Vinci: design for a church, pen, brown ink and black chalk, c. 1490 (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France); photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY
Leonardo’s series of structural studies for the tiburio over the crossing of Milan Cathedral (1487–8; e.g. Cod. Atlantico, fol. 310rb; Cod. Trivulziano) show that he attempted to devise an architectural ‘skeleton’ that had more affinities with the principles of Gothic ribs than with Roman structures, while the shape of his dome pays obvious homage to Brunelleschi’s at Florence Cathedral (see fig.).
The fundamental principle behind Leonardo’s schemes of urban planning, developed in connection with schemes for Milan and Vigevano, was to devise a functioning ‘body’ in which canals, roads and pavements would permit an efficient and healthy environment, with a highly organized stratification of social activities. The designs in Codex B (fols 16r, 37v) illustrate ideal schemes for raised pedestrian precincts and a subterranean canal system that had little hope of realization, but the planning undertaken by Ludovico Sforza at Vigevano in the 1490s appears to reflect the translation of Leonardo’s ideas into reality.
The most impressive and coherent set of Leonardo’s architectural drawings is the series of church designs in Codex B (fols 17v, 18v, 21r) and Ashburnham I (Paris, Inst. France, MS. B.N. 2037), which show his variations on centralized and Latin cross plans. Some represent free experiments with a variety of geometrical schemes, while a few (e.g. Ashburnham I, fol. 5v) depict relatively resolved structures in which complex aggregations of plastic form are erected over intricate geometrical ground-plans. The more compact of the centralized structures, relating to Brunelleschi’s unfinished S Maria degli Angeli in Florence, may have been intended as a Sforza mausoleum on a limited scale rather than as a full-sized church.
Leonardo’s inventiveness as a military architect was given full expression when he was in service with Cesare Borgia in 1502–3. His mission to Piombino on behalf of the Florentine government appears to have stimulated some remarkable schemes for fortified structures, ranging from projects for specific locations to great, ideal schemes for impregnable fortresses (e.g. Cod. Atlantico, fol. 41va, 48rb). Massive, block-like structures, with curved or slanting profiles to deflect bombardments, are disposed around circular or polygonal plans, with elaborate passages for the internal circulation of forces. Although the grander schemes inevitably remained unrealized, it is reasonable to think that Leonardo’s advice on modifications to existing structures were taken in hand by his patrons.
The grandest of Leonardo’s plans for a residential structure dates from the last years of his career, when he was in France. His scheme for the château at Romorantin, involving a large rectangular palace block, formal gardens and a rectangular network of canals, has been reconstructed by Pedretti (1972) from a group of sketches (especially Cod. Atlantico, fol. 76vb; London, BL, MS. Arundel, fol. 270r). The style appears to marry indigenous French elements, such as the round corner towers, with Italian Renaissance elements in a way that is typical of Leonardo’s undogmatic exploitation of Classical vocabulary. His sense of form and function ultimately took precedence over strict allegiance to Classical rules.
A significant factor in Leonardo’s value to his courtly patrons was his ability to organize visual entertainments, particularly those connected with celebrations. His involvement with the design of courtly ephemera is relatively well documented, but the visual record is meagre. Only a few drawings in his surviving notebooks relate directly to known schemes. The most substantial autograph record relates to a pageant on the occasion of the weddings of Ludovico and Anna Sforza to Beatrice and Alfonso d’Este in 1491. A drawing of a richly caparisoned horse is accompanied by a note that explains an astonishingly rich series of symbolic allusions involving peacock feathers, a wheel of fortune and the Cardinal Virtues (MS. Arundel, fol. 250r). His drawings for allegorical compositions illustrating the Sforzas’ reign show a comparable elaboration of arcane allusions, extreme even by Renaissance standards.
Leonardo was also involved in theatrical design, specializing in effects that required large-scale machinery. His drawings for ‘Pluto’s Paradise’ (MS. Arundel, fol. 231v) show a scheme for the opening of a mountain to reveal Pluto and his attendants who play harsh percussion instruments. As a musician of some reputation himself (he played the lira di braccio), Leonardo was well placed to design effects that would work in concert with instrumental and vocal compositions. Contemporary accounts survive of his most famed design for Bellincioni’s Festa del paradiso, which involved a great, glowing celestial hemisphere adorned with stars and planets. A slight drawing (Cod. Atlantico, fol. 385vb), apparently dating from this late period in Milan in the 1490s, suggests that he should also be credited with the invention of the shallow, perspectival stage set normally associated with Baldassare Peruzzi and illustrated in Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise on architecture (1537–51).
Evidence of his more general work as a designer of courtly diversions is fragmentary. His notebooks contain designs for pictograms (picture writing), portable pavilions, festive architecture, automata, fountains and written outlines for amusing contrivances. Such employment was both advantageous and irksome for Leonardo: advantageous in that it helped to justify his salary at court, but irksome in that it occupied considerable amounts of time with no enduring result.
No one was ever more insistent than Leonardo on the intellectual nature of the visual arts. Painting was defined as ‘the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature’ and as ‘a subtle invention which with subtle speculation considers the nature of all forms’ (Rome, Vatican, Bib. Apostolica, MS. Urb. lat. fol. 4v). His aspiration was that the artist should be able to construct a created world on the basis of a comprehensive understanding of causes and effects in the natural world. Given his belief in painting as the ultimate end of science, it is impossible to draw any strict line between his art theory and his scientific work as a whole.
There is no rounded or fully coherent collection of Leonardo’s views on painting. The so-called Trattato della pittura by Leonardo is a posthumous selection from his manuscripts (some surviving but the majority untraced) probably compiled by Francesco Melzi. Although it contains some sustained and relatively well-organized sections—most notably that concerning the paragone, the comparison of the arts—it is on the whole a patchy, repetitive and sometimes contradictory anthology of notes from various dates. Questions of Light and Colour, motion, Gesture and botany are relatively well represented, while his more mathematical concerns (particularly Perspective) are treated in a misleadingly cursory manner, and the detailed science of human anatomy is not represented at all.
Leonardo’s concerns in the earliest of his surviving theoretical writings are closely aligned with those of his Florentine predecessors. He believed that the artist should master the kind of disciplines recommended by Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Ghiberti: orthodox perspective construction, anatomy, proportion (see Human proportion), the depiction of light and shade and the use of motion and gesture in narrative compositions. However, his exhaustive and inventive explorations not only led him to points of greater elaboration than his predecessors but also undermined the certainties on which Alberti’s theory of imitation was founded.
Leonardo’s optical researches, increasingly undertaken within the framework of the medieval geometry of vision, convinced him that the simple perspective used by painters corresponded only in a highly schematized manner to the way in which forms in space are actually seen by the eye. His investigation of the anomalies of orthodox perspective, particularly with respect to wide-angle vision, led him to consider methods of portrayal that involved lateral recession, but he did not develop a fully consistent alternative system. In his paintings following the Last Supper, he relied increasingly on creating effects of atmospheric perspective by means of deliberately blurring the clarity of detail and form in the distance, and progressively modifying colour. Although he became increasingly aware of the myriad variables and transitory effects of visual phenomena, he did not surrender his view that all the causes should be wholly codified and the full variety of effects mastered. The laborious and repetitive analyses of light and colour that survive in unfinished form in his notebooks testify to a heroic, if doomed, effort to construct a comprehensive visual science of painting.
Central to Leonardo’s ambitions as an artist, as it had been to the Florentine tradition, was the portrayal of the human figure as a communicative vehicle of action, thought and emotion. His researches into the structure and functioning of the human body went far deeper than those of earlier artists, and indeed far deeper than those of Michelangelo in the next generation. To some extent this is a reflection of his fascination with anatomy and physiology in their own right, but it also relates to his conviction that the artist must understand the deepest causes of motion and emotion if he is to create figures that can function adequately as imitations of nature.
The most famous and sustained passages of art theory are contained in those earlier sections of the Trattato devoted to the Paragone. The general thrust of Leonardo’s arguments is to demonstrate the superiority of painting over the arts of the ear, poetry and music, and over sculpture, the other major visual art. Since he seemed to identify poetry as a form of visual description, he had little difficulty in demonstrating the superior representational power of painting, and since he regarded the simultaneous perception of a harmonious composition as preferable to a sequential progression of effects, he was able to claim its superiority over music. His chief argument against sculpture was that it involved the mastery of only a limited number of visual variables with which the painter must grapple. The true end of his paragone is to prove that painting must be considered as a liberal art, indeed, the supreme liberal art, rather than as a manual craft.
Reading Leonardo’s theory, it might be assumed that his own creations would appear more obviously naturalistic or ‘photographic’ in their representation of nature than they actually are. In his paintings and drawn compositions a sense of imagination and free invention is openly apparent, and not infrequently the effect involves elements of mystery, ambiguity and fantasy. His fascination with the demonic and grotesque, most notably expressed in his series of caricatured heads, for instance the pen drawing of Five Grotesque Heads (Windsor Castle, Royal Lib., 12495), stands in marked contrast to his rational search for the principles of beauty in nature. To some extent the fantastic properties in his creations can be explained in his own terms, in that he acknowledged the merits of the faculty of fantasia (imagination) and the necessity for invenzione in the creation of his own world of forms, but in the final analysis there were qualities in his imaginative life as expressed in his art that eluded his own rational definitions of the means and ends of painting.
Contemporary accounts testify to the attractiveness of Leonardo and of the care with which he presented himself to the world. Together with the more personal aspects of the notebooks, they convey the picture of someone who was gentle, with a great respect for living things (he was probably a vegetarian), fastidious in personal habits, self-conscious in dress, gracious in manner, yet retaining a core of remoteness, reserve and impersonality. He fitted well into the courtly milieu of Milan under the Sforzas, appearing at ease within the court’s ambience of snobbish refinement. Against this image of gentility must be set his continued involvement with the violent machinery of war, which appears to have fascinated him emotionally as well as presenting him with an irresistible series of technical challenges. Much has been made of his supposed homosexuality, and such evidence as is available suggests homosexual rather than heterosexual inclinations, but it is doubtful whether the notebooks and other documents provide sufficient material for a full-scale psychoanalysis in the Freudian manner.
Leonardo showed signs of secrecy and protectiveness towards his own inventions. He noted that he should test the wing of his flying machine out of sight of others, and he accused a German colleague in Rome of stealing one of his inventions. His notebooks are written in mirror writing, but this eccentricity may be explained in part by the fact that he was left-handed. The general impression is that he was ready to share his views with others, and that the organization of his studio facilitated the transmission of his ideas and inventions into a wider domain.
The traditional portrait image of Leonardo in old age, as a handsome, bearded and long-haired seer, originated at a time when people still recalled his appearance, but the so-called Self-portrait drawing in red chalk (Turin, Bib. Reale) cannot be taken unquestionably as representing the painter himself. Although the case for dismissing it as a forgery (Ost, 1980) is weak, it may have originated considerably earlier than its customary date of c. 1512 and could not therefore be a portrait of the artist himself as an aged man. None of the supposed portraits of the young Leonardo in his own works or those of others (such as Verrocchio’s bronze statue of David; Florence, Bargello) possesses a secure foundation in fact.
There has never been a period in which Leonardo’s greatness has not been acknowledged, though perceptions of the nature of his achievements have differed widely and have often not been founded on a secure sense of what he actually accomplished. Some of the most famous accounts, such as that by Walter Pater (1869), were based on an image of the Leonardesque rather than a clear conception of his actual oeuvre.
There was virtually no major aspect of the visual arts in 16th-century Italy (and to some degree in Europe) that remained untouched directly or indirectly by Leonardo’s innovations. Each of his major narrative paintings made a significant contribution to the tradition of history painting. The complex orchestration of a crowd in his Adoration of the Magi was adopted in such works by Raphael as the Disputa and School of Athens (both Rome, Vatican, Stanza della Segnatura); the Last Supper, as much through engravings as the original, continued to influence artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Rubens; and the Battle of Anghiari, with Michelangelo’s Cascina cartoon for its companion piece, became the ‘school’ for young artists who wished to achieve complex interlocking spatial patterns of figures in motion. The pyramidal yet fluent groups of his Virgin and Child compositions set the norm for younger artists, most notably Raphael. His portraits established the ambition to evoke the inner life of sitters, at the same time as setting new goals in formal sophistication for portrait painters such as Bronzino. A large number of his formal motifs were transmitted across Europe through copies, variants and pastiches of his compositions. Even major northern masters such as Quinten Metsys and Hans Holbein the younger proved susceptible to the seductiveness of Leonardo’s inventions.
Leonardo’s technique of making free sketches also exercised a profound influence on Italian creative methods, most radically those of the young Raphael, but also of Michelangelo. His revelation of the descriptive and evocative powers of red and black chalk inspired generations of figure draughtsmen in Italy, and, through them, in France and elsewhere. Although only a few of his drawings were directly engraved before the 18th century, a number of his characteristic obsessions, such as proportional studies and caricatured physiognomy, stimulated direct imitation.
None of Leonardo’s major successors adopted his softly shadowed style of painting precisely, but his emphasis on tonal modelling and the principles of his sfumato ensured the passing of what Vasari regarded as the ‘dry’ manner of the Quattrocento. His technique has sometimes been credited with laying the foundations for the soft handling of form by Giorgione, but the Venetian colouristic blurring of contour is very different from Leonardo’s shadow-based system. More obvious heirs may be seen in Antonio Correggio (particularly the early work) and Caravaggio at the end of the 16th century.
In sculpture, architecture and stage design Leonardo’s influence is harder to define, in the absence of certainly autograph surviving works. His clearest impact was on the architecture of Donato Bramante, who responded to the complex spatial geometry of his colleague’s schemes for centralized churches in his designs for the east end of S Maria della Grazie, Milan, and his plan for St Peter’s in Rome. Contemporaries testify to the impact of Leonardo’s various designs for theatrical spectacles and festivities, and it appears likely that he played a crucial role in the invention of the perspectival stage design.
The range, diversity and depth of Leonardo’s scientific interests lay beyond most of his contemporaries and successors in the world of art, but his theories of art did seep into general circulation, although none was directly published before 1651. Perhaps the most significant impact was on Albrecht Dürer, whose ambitions in the theories of proportion and physiognomy come closest in spirit to those of Leonardo. The anthology of Leonardo’s writings, the Trattato della pittura, circulated in various abridged manuscripts in the 16th century and the early 17th, particularly in Italian academic circles. The new generation of academically minded artists in early 17th-century Italy welcomed Leonardo’s insistence on controlled expression in figure style and rational analysis of the forms of nature. One painter–theorist in the orbit of Domenichino, Matteo Zaccolini, compiled four manuscript treatises in a consciously Leonardesque vein, but they were never published, and their impact was limited.
Leonardo’s enduring reputation as the founder of the High Renaissance was ensured by his position at the start of the third part of Vasari’s Vite, and Vasari’s portrait—including his reservations about the erratic variety of Leonardo’s obsessions—dominated interpretations of Leonardo well into the 19th century. The earlier life by Paolo Giovio and the perceptive comments by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo exercised less impact. The first serious attempt to come to terms with the range of Leonardo’s legacy was undertaken by the great patron, antiquarian and arbiter of taste in 17th-century Rome, Cassiano dal Pozzo. Although Cassiano and his collaborator, Conte galeazzo Arconati, did not succeed in their aim of bringing Leonardo’s manuscripts to publication, Cassiano was responsible for providing the manuscript, albeit abridged, of the Trattato della pittura, illustrated by Nicolas Poussin, that Paul Fréart Sieur de Chambray took to France and that was used in Raphael Trichet du Fresne’s first edition of the Trattato (1651). The treatise appeared in France at a crucial stage in the development of the Académie Française and was welcomed by Charles Lebrun as providing an authentic pedigree for his ideas of rhetorical expression in academic painting.
Leonardo’s reputation during the 17th and 18th centuries was not based on clearly defined knowledge of his actual oeuvre. Versions and pastiches were paraded as Leonardo’s own work in the absence of a substantial body of surviving paintings by the master, although a few artists of the highest sensitivity, such as Antoine Watteau, do seem to have responded perceptively to the few autograph works available. By the late 18th century the situation was changing. The ‘rediscovery’ of the drawings in the British Royal Collection, some of which were subsequently engraved, gave a clearer idea of his draughtsmanship. Giovanni Battista Venturi’s transcription of some of his notes on water and other matters evinced a renewed interest in his manuscripts, and Giuseppe Bossi’s publication on the Last Supper in 1810, reviewed so tellingly by Goethe, represented a pioneering attempt to subject Leonardo’s career to scholarly examination.
Great advances were made around 1900 in two main directions. First came the systematic scrutiny and publication of Leonardo’s scattered and diminished (if still extensive) legacy of manuscripts. Jean Paul Richter’s anthology, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (1883), is still a standard point of reference, particularly in conjunction with Carlo Pedretti’s Commentary (1977). A wave of facsimiles, transcriptions and translations of the manuscripts in various European locations (most notably Milan and Paris), under the guidance of such scholars as Gerolamo Calvi, Giovanni Piumati and Charles Ravaisson-Mollien, brought the range of Leonardo’s mind into the public domain. Gabriel Séailles (1892) and Paul Valéry (1895) made the first attempts to grapple with this new, ‘universal’ Leonardo. Second came the establishment of a firmly documented chronology for Leonardo’s career. Eugene Müntz, Francesco Malaguzzi Valeri, Waldemar von Seidlitz, Giovanni Poggi and Paul Müller-Walde played significant roles, but the most lasting contribution was made by Luca Beltrami, whose Documenti e memorie riguardanti la vita e le opere di Leonardo da Vinci (1919) remains the basic source for Leonardo’s biography. Calvi’s book on the dating of the manuscripts was equally fundamental in laying down the groundwork for a chronological understanding of Leonardo’s mind and graphic style.
Since the beginning of the 20th century an enormous body of literature on Leonardo has been published, much of it valueless, but a certain proportion contains material that has clarified his historical position and artistic stature. The study of the manuscripts has been substantially advanced by Edmondo Solmi’s researches into the sources for Leonardo’s opinions, while the more recent studies by Augusto Marinoni and Carlo Pedretti (the latter of whom has scrutinized Leonardo’s legacy in considerable detail) have revealed that meticulous scholarship can still lead to new discoveries.
The greatest contribution to the picture of Leonardo as an artist was made by Kenneth Clark. His catalogue of Leonardo’s artistic drawings at Windsor (1935) established an authoritative chronology, continuing the pioneer work of Anny Popp, and provided a compelling critical assessment of Leonardo as a draughtsman. He used this scholarly foundation as the basis for his relatively brief monograph (1939), which remains the most elegantly evocative account of the artist’s creative personality.
Full-scale monographs continue to appear in large numbers. Among the most regularly cited in English are those by Ludwig Heydenreich (1954), Cecil Gould (1975), Carlo Pedretti (1973), Jack Wasserman (1975) and Martin Kemp (1981). Studies devoted to particular aspects of Leonardo’s work include those by A. E. Popham on his drawings, Vasilij Zubov (particularly valuable on his scientific thought), E. H. Gombrich on his water studies, Kenneth Keele on anatomy, Pedretti on architecture, Pietro Marani on fortifications, Ladislao Reti on the Madrid manuscripts and Kim Veltman on perspective. The literature on Leonardo is now so discouragingly vast that it can only be mastered as a whole by a full-time ‘Leonardista’.