Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be one of the greatest minds of all times. His genius was driven by his insatiable curiosity, and his intuitive sense of the laws of nature. At age 17, Leonardo and his father moved to Florence where he had contact with other great Florentine artists including Michelangelo. In 1481 Leonardo left Florence for Milan to offer his service to the local Duke. During this period he painted the Virgin of the Rocks and the Last Supper. In 1499 Leonardo left Milan, traveling through Mantua, to the court of Isabella d'Este; to Venice, where he consulted on architecture from 1495 to 1499; and in 1502 and 1503 he was military engineer for Cesare Borgia.
After his service to the Borgias, Leonardo returned to Florence. It was during the period between 1503 and 1506, while working primarily in Florence, that he had his greatest following and painted such classics as the 'Mona Lisa'. After the death of Giuliano dei Medici, Leonardo accepted an invitation from French friends and moved to the castle of Cloux near Amboise, where he stayed with his faithful pupil Melzi until the end of his life. Leonardo helped set an ignorant and superstitious world on a course of reason, science, learning, and tolerance.
"Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind."
"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death."
"You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand."
"Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold."
"In order to observe the nature of the planets, open the roof."
Maybe the greatest genius ever?
The Adoration of the Magi was commissioned for the altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. Leonardo agreed to paint it within two-and-a-half years, on the understanding that he would receive nothing if the work was delivered late. However, he abandoned the project in 1482, tempted away by the Duke of Milan and the promise of a regular income.
Although the painting is unfinished, it is considered one of Leonardo's most important early works. The subject of the painting - the worship of the infant Christ by the three wise men (or Magi)- was a popular one in the early Renaissance.
The ruins and the sparring knights in the background signify the decline of pagan culture in the face of a new Christian era. Look For - In the bottom right of the drawing, facing away from the crowd, is a young shepherd boy. It is believed this may have been a self portrait. The Madonna and Child are arranged in a pyramid shape, and the gaze of the central characters is focussed on the pyramid's side. Leonardo used this composition technique in many of his later paintings.
Location:Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
For many hundreds of years the notebooks lay hidden from the world, forgotten. This was written strangely backward, from right to left, in outmoded Tuscan dialect, often in small-abbreviated script, unknown except to a fortunate few.
The pages offer notes and illustrations of mechanical inventions, designs for military machinery, architectural devices, flying machines, maps and sketches as well as botanical studies.
The original of this painting may have been lost. Leonardo mentions the painting in a letter dated 1501. The composition is based around the geometric figures of triangles and ellipses. An excellent red chalk drawing of the Madonna's head and shoulders also exists in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.
This work, intended for Florimond Robertet, Secretary to the King of France, shows the winder as shaped like a cross; this symbolises the Passion of Christ and His future death. It appears that Mary wants to pull the Child away from the symbol of His future, but even she is powerless to prevent the Crucifixion which is part of His destiny. Of the two works one is very green whilst the other is quite blue; the landscapes also differ significantly with one showing a vicious mountain range beneath a vivid blue sky while the other runs down to the sea.
Location:The Louvre, France.
The Mona Lisa was one of Leonardo's favourite paintings, and he carried it with him until he died. Today, it is regarded as the most famous painting in the world, and is visited by many thousands of people every year.
Who is this familiar figure? Many suggestions have been made, but the most likely candidate is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. Another more unlikely - but popular - theory is that the painting was a self portrait.
There are certainly similarities between the facial features of the Mona Lisa and of the artist's self portrait painted many years later. Could this be why Leonardo gave the subject such an enigmatic smile? Today, the Mona Lisa looks rather sombre, in dull shades of brown and yellow. This is due to a layer of varnish covering the paint, which has yellowed over the years. It is possible that the painting was once brighter and more colourful than it is now.
The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, by a former employee who believed the painting belonged in Italy. The thief walked out of the gallery with the picture underneath his painter's smock. He was apprehended by police two years later, and the painting safely returned. (BBC)
Location:Louvre, Paris, France
This image of St John the Baptist was the last painting that Leonardo produced, and it was in his possession when he died. It is one of only a few that we can be absolutely certain the master painted. Leonardo's version is strikingly different to other paintings of the Saint, who is normally portrayed as gaunt, and scraping a living in the desert on locusts and honey.
It captures four recurring themes of Leonardo's figures; an enigmatic smile, flowing curly hair, and a finger pointing to heaven, all defined by dense shadows.
Many copies of this painting have been made, particularly by Leonardo's pupils. Look For - The figure is wearing animal skins, and holding a reed cross. Experts believe these were added by a later painter. (BBC)
Location:Czartoryski Museum, Cracow, Poland
This is probably the best painting Leonardo ever made. This is the most compelling and seems the embodiment of artistic perfection, partly because the painting is in better condition than many of his other works.
The woman is painted on a jet black background that is unique in Leonardo's oeuvre. At first glance the woman seems the epitome of beauty, chastity, and modesty. But the more one looks, the woman nor the ermine is a sweet, cuddly creature. They both give the impression that they have turned to look for some object of prey.
Learning art through great artists and their paintings is fun and exciting. Our friend and resident artist Stefan Mager has kindly given this introduction to the art world.