Sunday, 22 February 2015

ART SUNDAY - LEONARDO

“It's particularly hard to take being stabbed in the back close to home. There's always a feeling of betrayal when people of your own group oppose you.” -  Catharine MacKinnon

Leonardo da Vinci, was born in 1452, in the little town of Vinci (his name means Leonard from Vinci!), situated in the heart of Tuscany, only a few kilometres from Florence and Pistoia, a stone’s throw from Pisa, and within an hour’s drive from Lucca and Siena. Leonardo had a keen eye and a quick mind that led him to make important scientific discoveries, yet he never published his ideas. Instead he kept diaries and meticulous notebooks where he soliloquised about his thousands of ideas, recorded hundreds of his inventions and countless sketches.

He was a gentle vegetarian who loved animals and despised war, yet he worked as a military engineer to invent advanced and deadly weapons, some of which were used very successfully in the internecine wars that ravaged the Italy of his time. He was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance, yet he left only a handful of completed paintings, but each one of them universally admired as a true masterpiece.

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant girl, Caterina. After a tranquil childhood in Vinci where is talent for drawing became apparent, he was sent to Florence, as an apprentice in the studio of Verrocchio (1469). His talent was acknowledged and he became a member of the corporation of painters in 1472. In 1473, he completed his first known drawing, “La valle dell'Arno” (The Arno Valley). He painted an angel in Verrocchio's "Baptism of Christ" (1475) and then “The Annunciation” in 1477. This is followed by the famous “Portrait of Ginevra de'Benci” in 1478.

He painted “San Gerolamo” and “The Adoration of the Magi” in 1481, but both of these remain unfinished. In 1482-3 leaves Florence for Milan, in the service of Ludovico Sforza. He paints the “Virgin of the Rocks” (1483-6) and begins to explore human flight (1486). His anatomical drawings in the manuscripts are drawn between 1488 and 1489. He designs a flying machine in 1492 and this is followed by work on the giant equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza (1493). He paints the second “Virgin of the Rocks” (1494) and “The Last Supper” (1495).

In 1496, he meets mathematician Luca Pacioli, with whom he studies Euclid and paints "Madonna and Child with St. Anne" in 1499.  In the same year he leaves Milan to return to Florence, stopping in Mantua and Venice (1500). Cesare Borgia assumes Leonardo as military engineer in 1502 and Leonardo designs war machines and draws topographical maps (1502-3). He draws studies for "The Battle of Anghiari" (1503-6), followed by the famous “Mona Lisa” in 1504.

He studies the flight of birds, designs flying machines, and tries to square the circle in 1505.  He studies fluid elements: Water, air and fire in 1506-8, returning to Milan in 1508. He paints "St. Anne" in 1509 and undertakes detailed anatomical research the following year. He goes to Rome seeking the patronage of the new pope, Leo X in 1513. In 1515, Leonardo constructs a mechanical lion for the coronation of Francis I, King of France and also draws the famous “Self-Portrait”.  In 1516, he goes to the court of Francis I, Amboise and designs a palace in Romorantin in 1517. He died in Amboise, May 2, 1519.

“The Last Supper” (above) is in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is one of the world's most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinised, and satirised. The work is presumed to have been commenced around 1495 and was commissioned as part of a scheme of renovations to the church and its convent buildings by Leonardo's patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting represents the scene of The Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, as it is told in the Gospel of John, 13:21. Leonardo has depicted the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. Due to the methods used, and a variety of environmental factors, very little of the original painting remains today, despite numerous restoration attempts, the last being completed in 1999.

For this work, Leonardo sought a greater detail and luminosity than could be achieved with traditional fresco. He painted “The Last Supper” on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, so it is not a true fresco. Because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead chose to seal the stone wall with a double layer of dried plaster. Then, borrowing from panel painting, he added an undercoat of white lead to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that was applied on top.

This was a method that had been described previously, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. However, Cennini had recommended the use of secco for the final touches alone. These techniques were important for Leonardo's desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style. Unfortunately, this was to the detriment of the painting and it succumbed to the humidity and the water seepage…

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