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Leonardo Da Vinci: A High Renaissance Master, Term Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1937

Term Paper

Born on April 15, 1452 in the village of Vinci near the city of Florence, Italy, then under the patronage of the de Medici family, Leonardo grew up in a home filled with books and “scholarly texts owned by family and friends” (“Renaissance Man”). When he was about fifteen, Leonardo became an apprentice in the workshop of Andre del Verrochio and soon evolved into his most accomplished student painter. Between 1470 when Leonardo was eighteen and 1475, his enormous genius for painting “seeped into a number of pieces produced by Verrocchio’s workshop,” such as the Baptism of Christ in which Leonardo painted an angel that was so overwhelming “Verrochio allegedly resolved never to paint again” (“Renaissance Man”). Two years later, Leonardo started his own workshop in Florence that served as the beginning of his extraordinary output of artistic masterpieces.

In 1481 at the age of twenty-nine, Leonardo left Florence and headed for Milan, where he was hired by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in 1482. Before leaving Florence, Leonardo was putting the finishing touches on a painting called the Adoration of the Magi when he decided to leave the city because as David Franklin relates, “The political situation in Florence in the 1480’s was uncertain, and the neo-Platonism of the great Lorenzo de Medici did not appeal to the empirical and pragmatic Leonardo” (143). In total, da Vinci spend seventeen years under the employment of the Duke of Milan until his fall from power in 1499. Thus, it was during these years that Leonardo “hit his stride, reaching new heights of scientific and artistic achievement” (“Renaissance Man”).

It was also during these years that Leonardo, under the watchful eye of the Duke of Milan, was commissioned to create paintings and sculpture and to design “weapons, buildings and machinery” for the Duke of Milan’s military forces. Between 1485 and 1490, Leonardo created what are known as portfolios on a wide range of topics, such as the natural world, “flying machines, geometry, mechanics, municipal construction, canals and architecture” (“Renaissance Man”) for the churches of Milan and the immense fortress of the Duke of Milan. Da Vinci also created other portfolios on “advanced weapons, including a tank and other war vehicles, various combat devices” and sketches for the first operational submarine (“Renaissance Man”). In addition, da Vinci became interested in human anatomy and would often “have corpses brought into his private studio for dissection” (Franklin, 157) which led to creating a number of studies on how the human body functions long before the beginnings of modern medicine.

Leonardo’s relationship with the Duke of Milan as his artistic patron helped him to become one of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance during the early years of the sixteenth century. In fact, although da Vinci has been described as a lazy artist, meaning that he would start one project, abandon it, start up another project, and then perhaps return to finish the first project years later, he did manage to complete circa 1485 one of his most celebrated paintings–The Virgin of the Rocks.

Some fifteen years later, da Vinci returned to another abandoned project but finished it this time–the famous Mona Lisa. After 1513, Leonardo’s reputation as the finest artist in Italy, alongside his contemporary Michelangelo, spread throughout Europe, and when his new patron Giuliano de Medici died in 1516, he was “offered the title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect” by French King Francis I (“Renaissance Man”). For the remainder of his life, da Vinci devoted himself to art and on May 2, 1519, died at the age of sixty-seven and was ceremoniously buried near the royal chateau at Amboise.

As one of da Vinci’s undisputed High Renaissance masterpieces, The Virgin of the Rocks, painted circa 1485 in Milan as an oil on wood panel, demonstrates da Vinci’s skill at presenting images in three dimensions and his connections to European tradition via the “old triangular composition” with the virgin’s head at the apex of a pyramid that slopes down to form the base (Chastel, 173). Also, the traditional use of “undulating contours and crisp edges” is nowhere to be seen and has been replaced by chiaroscuro or the “subtle play of lights and darks that embodies physicality as well as human psychology” (Chastel, 174).

The figures in this painting are bound together as not only a pyramidal group but also as figures occupying the same space and environment. The Madonna or virgin (i.e., the mother of Jesus) sitting almost directly in the center, the Christ child on the far left near the base, the infant John the Baptist on the far right near the base, and the clothed angel sitting behind John the Baptist, are all enshrouded in subtle differences of light and shade because of being placed inside what appears to be a dimly-lit cavern.

As Chastel points out, these differences “conceal and reveal the shapes of things and objects, immersed in an atmosphere” between the viewer and the figures (175). Also, the figures in this painting are idealistic renderings of real human beings, meaning that their faces are stylized or as da Vinci once noted, the figures are experiencing “a melting mood of tenderness enhanced by the caressing light. What the eye sees are the states of their souls or their intentions” (Franklin, 225) as religiously centered icons of the church and Christianity.

The qualities found in The Virgin of the Rocks represent grandeur, order, and balance, and all of the figures are very much alive; however, there is a sense of sadness or perhaps grace in their faces, especially that of the virgin who appears not so much happy but spiritually content with her right hand on the shoulder of the baby Jesus. This painting is quite similar to other works of art from the High Renaissance but is more closely linked to what is known as a triptych, a three-paneled altarpiece usually found in cathedrals like Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris with their Gothic arches and flying buttresses.

As an artistic event, The Virgin of the Rocks clearly demonstrates the Christian belief related to the virgin (Mary in Roman Catholicism) and the Christ child as divine individuals. It is also interesting to note that da Vinci, due to placing the figures inside of a cavern, may be harking back to descriptions found in the New Testament concerning the birth of Jesus occurring in a manger or possibly a cave somewhere in the vicinity of Bethlehem. But since there appears to be a pond of some kind at the base, the setting might be outside of a cavern or just within its opening.

Most certainly, this painting is a great success, due to representing Leonardo da Vinci at the height of his creativity as an artist. It is also similar to another da Vinci painting created circa 1498 called The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John which is known as a cartoon or a preparatory sketch for a major painting, thus making it much more rough and undefined. Others will probably judge The Virgin of the Rocks in a similar way, but in order to appreciate its beauty and magnificence, one should consult a portfolio of da Vinci’s paintings or perhaps visit “Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Works” on the Internet which contains all of da Vinci’s known paintings numbering about fifteen which can be explained by da Vinci’s “constant and frequently disastrous experimentation with new techniques and his chronic procrastination” (2012).

Perhaps the most famous painting in the world, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, painted between 1503 and 1505 as an oil on panel and currently on exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, continues to fascinate the viewer, due to the figure’s enigmatic expression or the slight smile upon her lips. According to most art historians, Mona Lisa was rendered after Leonardo returned from Milan to Florence and represents La Gioconda, the wife of banker Zanobi del Gioconda; however, recent evidence shows that the figure is a nun from a small nunnery in Florence (Franklin, 245). This aristocratic-looking woman is shown seated inside what is known as a loggia or a gallery with an open arcade on either one side or both sides (Chastel, 176) in half-length view or from the waist up with her delicate hands folded neatly across her lap and staring directly at the viewer, almost as if da Vinci had in mind a photograph.

The figure’s enigmatic smile has been attributed to da Vinci’s ability to use chiaroscura which is also present in The Virgin of the Rocks. Thus, with the aid of subtle lighting that seems to be coming from a source on the left side of the panel with the figure turned slightly toward the right side, Leonardo achieved a sort of illusion based on tricks of light and shadow. In the background, one can see a river or stream that appears to be running through a forest. As Paul Roazen points out, this may be the Arno River which between 1503 and 1506 was being diverted by the Florentines “in order to turn Florence into a seaport and cause the rival city of Pisa to lose its water supply.” Roazen also mentions that an unidentified art historian of the nineteenth century believed that the background of this painting “contains not only a river but a fort outside of Pisa which may indicate that the figure was from the city of Pisa” (142).

With the Mona Lisa, da Vinci allegedly enjoyed the curious effect he had created via the figure’s elusive smile and once admitted that it was his favorite composition and did not wish to sell it (Chastel, 257). But as a work of art, the Mona Lisa with its “fleeting shadows is a triumph in its rendering of both the head and the hands” (Franklin, 217) and illustrates da Vinci’s mastery over lights and darks via his chiaroscura technique which he learned from observing the natural world about him in places like Florence and Milan. Clearly, the Mona Lisa, like all of his other magnificent works of art, demonstrates da Vinci’s artistic ability to render true human qualities through painting and as a permanent part of the Louvre Museum collection continues to fascinate people, perhaps because of its almost photographic appearance. Also, anyone who might take the time to visit the Louvre to admire this painting will surely experience the awe and majesty of da Vinci’s great talent.

The main reason for choosing da Vinci is due to the fact that many art historians, scholars, and philosophers consider him as “one of the greatest thinkers in Western history, with interests and talents in many disciplines,” such as art, architecture, science, engineering, human anatomy, optics, aerodynamics, and related artistic and scientific endeavors (“Renaissance Futurist,” 25). Also, unlike many of his contemporaries, da Vinci as a skilled observer of the natural world, “rejected what was then the primary mode of seeking knowledge–studying the Bible and the writings of the ancient Greeks.” Thus, as a supreme and gifted master of the High Renaissance, da Vinci “sought answers through careful observation, reasoning, and experimentation” (“Renaissance Futurist,” 25) and helped to set the stage for the next three hundred years of Western art.

Bibliography

Chastel, Andre. The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Orion Press, 1961. Print.

Franklin, David. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

“Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Works.” 2012. Web. 21 August 2012.

“Renaissance Futurist: Leonardo da Vinci.” The Futurist May-June 1997: 25-26. Print. “Rennaissance Man.” The Museum of Science. 2012. Web. 21 August, 2012.

Roazen, Paul. “A Partnership of Geniuses?” The American Scholar July 1998: 141-144. Print.

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