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Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci seems to present in his own person a resume of all the characteristics of the age in which he lived. He was the miracle of that age of miracles. Ardent and versatile as youth; patient and persevering as age; a most profound and original thinker; the greatest mathematician and most ingenious mechanic of his time; architect, chemist, engineer, musician, poet, painter--we are not only astounded by the variety of his natural gifts and acquired knowledge, but by the practical direction of his amazing powers. The extracts which have been published from MSS. now existing in his own handwriting show him to have anticipated by the force of his own intellect some of the greatest discoveries made since his time. "These fragments," says Mr. Hallam, "are, according to our common estimate of the age in which he lived, more like revelations of physical truths vouchsafed to a single mind than the superstructure of its reasoning upon any established basis. The discoveries which made Galileo, Kepler, Castelli, and other names illustrious; the system of Copernicus, the very theories of recent geologists, are anticipated by Da Vinci within the compass of a few pages, not perhaps in the most precise language, or on the most conclusive reasoning, but so as to strike us with something like the awe of preternatural knowledge. In an age of so much dogmatism he first laid down the grand principle of Bacon, that experiment and observation must be the guides to just theory in the investigation of nature. If any doubt could be harbored, not as to the right of Leonardo da Vinci to stand as the first name of the fifteenth century, which is beyond all doubt, but as to his originality in so many discoveries, which probably no one man, especially in such circumstances, has ever made, it must be by an hypothesis not very untenable, that some parts of physical science had already attained a height which mere books do not record."
Raphael Introduced to Da Vinci.
Leonardo was born at Vinci, near Florence, in the Lower Val d'Arno, on the borders of the territory of Pistoia. His father, Piero da Vinci, was an advocate of Florence--not rich, but in independent circumstances, and possessed of estates in land. The singular talents of his son induced Piero to give him, from an early age, the advantage of the best instructors. As a child he distinguished himself by his proficiency in arithmetic and mathematics. Music he studied early, as a science as well as an art. He invented a species of lyre for himself, and sung his own poetical compositions to his own music, both being frequently extemporaneous. But his favorite pursuit was the art of design in all its branches; he modelled in clay or wax, or attempted to draw every object which struck his fancy. His father sent him to study under Andrea Verrocchio, famous as a sculptor, chaser in metal, and painter. Andrea, who was an excellent and correct designer, but a bad and hard colorist, was soon after engaged to paint a picture of the baptism of our Saviour. He employed Leonardo, then a youth, to execute one of the angels; this he did with so much softness and richness of color, that it far surpassed the rest of the picture; and Verrocchio from that time threw away his palette, and confined himself wholly to his works in sculpture and design, "enraged," says Vessari, "that a child should thus excel him."
The youth of Leonardo thus passed away in the pursuit of science and of art; sometimes he was deeply engaged in astronomical calculations and investigations; sometimes ardent in the study of natural history, botany, and anatomy; sometimes intent on new effects of color, light, shadow, or expression in representing objects animate or inanimate. Versatile, yet persevering, he varied his pursuits, but he never abandoned any. He was quite a young man when he conceived and demonstrated the practicability of two magnificent projects: one was to lift the whole of the church of San Giovanni, by means of immense levers, some feet higher than it now stands, and thus supply the deficient elevation; the other project was to form the Arno into a navigable canal as far as Pisa, which would have added greatly to the commercial advantages of Florence.
It happened about this time that a peasant on the estate of Piero da Vinci brought him a circular piece of wood, cut horizontally from the trunk of a very large old fig-tree, which had been lately felled, and begged to have something painted on it as an ornament for his cottage. The man being an especial favorite, Piero desired his son Leonardo to gratify his request; and Leonardo, inspired by that wildness of fancy which was one of his characteristics, took the panel into his own room, and resolved to astonish his father by a most unlooked-for proof of his art. He determined to compose something which should have an effect similar to that of the Medusa on the shield of Perseus, and almost petrify beholders. Aided by his recent studies in natural history, he collected together from the neighboring swamps and the river-mud all kinds of hideous reptiles, as adders, lizards, toads, serpents: insects, as moths, locusts, and other crawling and flying obscene and obnoxious things; and out of these he composed a sort of monster or chimera, which he represented as about to issue from the shield, with eyes flashing fire, and of an aspect so fearful and abominable that it seemed to infect the very air around. When finished, he led his father into the room in which it was placed, and the terror and horror of Piero proved the success of his attempt. This production, afterward known as the "Rotello del Fico," from the material on which it was painted, was sold by Piero secretly for one hundred ducats to a merchant, who carried it to Milan, and sold it to the duke for three hundred. To the poor peasant, thus cheated of his "Rotello," Piero gave a wooden shield, on which was painted a heart transfixed by a dart, a device better suited to his taste and comprehension. In the subsequent troubles of Milan, Leonardo's picture disappeared, and was probably destroyed as an object of horror by those who did not understand its value as a work of art.
During this first period of his life, which was wholly passed in Florence and its neighborhood, Leonardo painted several other pictures of a very different character, and designed some beautiful cartoons of sacred and mythological subjects, which showed that his sense of the beautiful, the elevated, and the graceful was not less a part of his mind than that eccentricity and almost perversion of fancy which made him delight in sketching ugly, exaggerated caricatures, and representing the deformed and the terrible.
Leonardo da Vinci was now about thirty years old, in the prime of his life and talents. His taste for pleasure and expense was, however, equal to his genius and indefatigable industry; and anxious to secure a certain provision for the future, as well as a wider field for the exercise of his various talents, he accepted the invitation of Ludovico Sforza il Moro, then regent, afterward Duke of Milan, to reside in his court, and to execute a colossal equestrian statue of his ancestor, Francesco Sforza. Here begins the second period of his artistic career, which includes his sojourn at Milan, that is from 1483 to 1499.
Vasari says that Leonardo was invited to the court of Milan for the Duke Ludovico's amusement, "as a musician and performer on the lyre, and as the greatest singer and improvisatore of his time;" but this is improbable. Leonardo, in his long letter to that prince, in which he recites his own qualifications for employment, dwells chiefly on his skill in engineering and fortification; and sums up his pretensions as an artist in these few brief words: "I understand the different modes of sculpture in marble, bronze, and terra-cotta. In painting, also, I may esteem myself equal to anyone, let him be who he may." Of his musical talents he makes no mention whatever, though undoubtedly these, as well as his other social accomplishments, his handsome person, his winning address, his wit and eloquence, recommended him to the notice of the prince, by whom he was greatly beloved, and in whose service he remained for about seventeen years. It is not necessary, nor would it be possible here, to give a particular account of all the works in which Leonardo was engaged for his patron, nor of the great political events in which he was involved, more by his position than by his inclination; for instance, the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. of France, and the subsequent invasion of Milan by Louis XII., which ended in the destruction of the Duke Ludovico. The greatest work of all, and by far the grandest picture which, up to that time, had been executed in Italy, was the "Last Supper," painted on the wall of the refectory, or dining-room, of the Dominican convent of the Madonna delle Grazie. It occupied Leonardo about two years, from 1496 to 1498.
The moment selected by the painter is described in the 26th chapter of St. Matthew, 21st and 22d verses: "And as they did eat, he said, Verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me: and they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?" The knowledge of character displayed in the heads of the different apostles is even more wonderful than the skilful arrangement of the figures and the amazing beauty of the workmanship. The space occupied by the picture is a wall twenty-eight feet in length and the figures are larger than life.
Of this magnificent creation of art, only the mouldering remains are now visible. It has been so often repaired that almost every vestige of the original painting is annihilated; but from the multiplicity of descriptions, engravings, and copies that exist, no picture is more universally known and celebrated. Perhaps the best judgment we can now form of its merits is from the fine copy executed by one of Leonardo's best pupils, Marco Uggione, for the Certosa at Pavia, and now in London, in the collection of the Royal Academy. Eleven other copies, by various pupils of Leonardo, painted either during his lifetime or within a few years after his death, while the picture was in perfect preservation, exist in different churches and collections.
While engaged on the Cenacolo, Leonardo painted the portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli, now in the Louvre (No. 483). It has been engraved under the title of La Belle Ferronniere, but later researches leave us no doubt that it represents Lucrezia Crivelli, a beautiful favorite of Ludovico Sforza, and was painted at Milan in 1497. It is, as a work of art, of such extraordinary perfection that all critical admiration is lost in wonder.
Of the grand equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, Leonardo never finished more than the model in clay, which was considered a masterpiece. Some years afterward (in 1499), when Milan was invaded by the French, it was used as a target by the Gascon bowmen, and completely destroyed. The profound anatomical studies which Leonardo made for this work still exist.
In the year 1500, the French being in possession of Milan, his patron Ludovico in captivity, and the affairs of the state in utter confusion, Leonardo returned to his native Florence, where he hoped to re-establish his broken fortunes, and to find employment. Here begins the third period of his artistic life, from 1500 to 1513, that is, from his forty-eighth to his sixtieth year. He found the Medici family in exile, but was received by Pietro Soderini (who governed the city as "Gonfaloniere perpetuo") with great distinction, and a pension was assigned to him as painter in the service of the republic. One of his first works after his return to Florence was the famous portrait of Madonna Lisa del Giocondo, called in French La Joconde, and now in the Louvre (484), which after the death of Leonardo was purchased by Francis I. for 4,000 gold crowns, equal to 45,000 francs or #1,800, an enormous sum in those days; yet who ever thought it too much?
Then began the rivalry between Leonardo and Michael Angelo, which lasted during the remainder of Leonardo's life. The difference of age (for Michael Angelo was twenty-two years younger) ought to have prevented all unseemly jealousy; but Michael Angelo was haughty and impatient of all superiority, or even equality; Leonardo, sensitive, capricious, and naturally disinclined to admit the pretensions of a rival, to whom he could say, and did say, "I was famous before you were born!" With all their admiration of each other's genius, their mutual frailties prevented any real good-will on either side.
Leonardo, during his stay at Florence, painted the portrait of Ginevra Benci, the reigning beauty of her time. We find that in 1502 he was engaged by Caesar Borgia to visit and report on the fortifications of his territories, and in this office he was employed for two years. In 1503 he formed a plan for turning the course of the Arno, and in the following year he lost his father. In 1505 he modelled the group which we now see over the northern door of the San Giovanni, at Florence. In 1514 he was invited to Rome by Leo X., but more in his character of philosopher, mechanic, and alchemist, than as a painter. Here Raphael was at the height of his fame, and engaged in his greatest works, the frescos of the Vatican. The younger artist was introduced to the elder; and two pictures which Leonardo painted while at Rome--the "Madonna of St. Onofrio," and the "Holy Family," painted for Filiberta of Savoy, the pope's sister-in-law (which is now at St. Petersburg)--show that even this veteran in art felt the irresistible influence of the genius of his young rival. They are both Raffaelesque in the subject and treatment.
It appears that Leonardo was ill-satisfied with his sojourn at Rome. He had long been accustomed to hold the first rank as an artist wherever he resided; whereas at Rome he found himself only one among many who, if they acknowledged his greatness, affected to consider his day as past. He was conscious that many of the improvements in the arts which were now brought into use, and which enabled the painters of the day to produce such extraordinary effects, were invented or introduced by himself. If he could no longer assert that measureless superiority over all others which he had done in his younger days, it was because he himself had opened to them new paths to excellence. The arrival of his old competitor, Michael Angelo, and some slight on the part of Leo X., who was annoyed by his speculative and dilatory habits in executing the works intrusted to him, all added to his irritation and disgust. He left Rome, and set out for Pavia, where the French king, Francis I., then held his court. He was received by the young monarch with every mark of respect, loaded with favors, and a pension of 700 gold crowns settled on him for life. At the famous conference between Francis I. and Leo X., at Bologna, Leonardo attended his new patron, and was of essential service to him on that occasion. In the following year, 1516, he returned with Francis I. to France, and was attached to the French court as principal painter. It appears, however, that during his residence in France he did not paint a single picture. His health had begun to decline from the time he left Italy; and feeling his end approach, he prepared himself for it by religious meditation, by acts of charity, and by a most conscientious distribution by will of all his worldly possessions to his relatives and friends. At length, after protracted suffering, this great and most extraordinary man died at Cloux, near Amboise, May 2, 1519, being then in his sixty-seventh year. It is to be regretted that we cannot wholly credit the beautiful story of his dying in the arms of Francis I., who, as it is said, had come to visit him on his death-bed. It would indeed have been, as Fuseli expressed it, "an honor to the king, by which destiny would have atoned to that monarch for his future disaster at Pavia."
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