Leonardo da Vinci


I. DEVELOPMENT: 1452–1482

THE most fascinating figure of the Renaissance was born on April 15, 1452 near the village of Vinci, some sixty miles from Florence. His mother was a peasant girl, Caterina, who had not bothered to marry his father. Her seducer, Piero d’Antonio, was a Florentine attorney of some means. In the year of Leonardo’s birth Piero married a woman of his own rank. Caterina had to be content with a peasant husband; she yielded her pretty love child to Piero and his wife; and Leonardo was brought up in semiaristocratic comfort without maternal love. Perhaps in that early environment he acquired his taste for fine clothing, and his aversion to women.

He went to a neighborhood school, took fondly to mathematics, music, and drawing, and delighted his father by his singing and his playing of the lute. In order to draw well he studied all things in nature with curiosity, patience, and care; science and art, so remarkably united in his mind, had there one origin—detailed observation. When he was turning fifteen his father took him to Verrocchio’s studio in Florence, and persuaded that versatile artist to accept him as an apprentice. All the educated world knows Vasari’s story of how Leonardo painted the angel at the left in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, and how the master was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the figure that he gave up painting and devoted himself to sculpture. Probably this abdication is a post-mortem legend; Verrocchio made several pictures after the Baptism. Perhaps in these apprentice days Leonardo painted the Annunciation in the Louvre, with its awkward angel and its startled maid. He could hardly have learned grace from Verrocchio.

Meanwhile Ser Piero prospered, bought several properties, moved his family to Florence (1469), and married four wives in turn. The second was only ten years older than Leonardo. When the third presented Piero with a child Leonardo eased the congestion by going to live with Verrocchio. In that year (1472) he was admitted to membership in the Company of St. Luke. This guild, composed chiefly of apothecaries, physicians, and artists, had its headquarters in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Presumably Leonardo found there some opportunities to study internal as well as external anatomy. Perhaps in those years he—or was it he?—painted the gaunt anatomical St. Jerome ascribed to him in the Vatican Gallery. And it was probably he who, toward 1474, painted the colorful and immature Annunciation of the Uffizi.

A week before his twenty-fourth birthday Leonardo and three other youths were summoned before a committee of the Florentine Signory to answer a charge of having had homosexual relations. The result of this summons is unknown. On June 7, 1476, the accusation was repeated; the committee imprisoned Leonardo briefly, released him, and dismissed the charge as unproved.1 Unquestionably he was a homosexual. As soon as he could afford to have his own studio he gathered handsome young men about him; he took some of them with him on his migrations from city to city; he referred to one or another of them in his manuscripts as amantissimo or carissimo— “most beloved,” “dearest.”2 What his intimate relations with these youths were we do not know; some passages in his notes suggest a distaste for sexual congress in any form.* Leonardo might reasonably doubt why he and a few others had been singled out for public accusation when homosexuality was so widespread in the Italy of the time. He never forgave Florence for the indignity of his arrest.

Apparently he took the matter more seriously than the city did. A year after the accusation he was invited, and agreed, to accept a studio in the Medici gardens; and in 1478 the Signory itself asked him to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio. For some reason he did not carry out the assignment; Ghirlandaio took it over; Filippino Lippi completed it. Nevertheless the Signory soon gave him—and Botticelli—another commission: to paint—we cannot say to the life-full-length portraits of two men hanged for the conspiracy of the Pazzi against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Leonardo, with his half-morbid interest in human deformity and suffering, may have felt some fascination in the gruesome task.

But indeed he was interested in everything. All postures and actions of the human body, all expressions of the face in young and old, all the organs and movements of animals and plants from the waving of wheat in the field to the flight of birds in the air, all the cyclical erosion and elevation of mountains, all the currents and eddies of water and wind, the moods of the weather, the shades of the atmosphere, and the inexhaustible kaleidoscope of the sky—all these seemed endlessly wonderful to him; repetition never dulled for him their marvel and mystery; he filled thousands of pages with observations concerning them, and drawings of their myriad forms. When the monks of San Scopeto asked him to paint a picture for their chapel (1481), he made so many sketches for so many features and forms of it that he lost himself in the details, and never finished The Adoration of the Magi.

Nevertheless it is one of his greatest paintings. The plan from which he developed it was drawn on a strictly geometrical pattern of perspective, with the whole space divided into diminishing squares; the mathematician in Leonardo always competed— often co-operated—with the artist. But the artist was already developed; the Virgin had the pose and features that she would keep in Leonardo’s work to the end; the Magi were drawn with a remarkable understanding—for a youth—of character and expression in old men; and the “Philosopher” at the left was literally a brown study of half-skeptical meditation, as if the painter had so soon come to view the Christian story with a spirit unwillingly incredulous and still devout. And around these figures half a hundred others gathered, as if every kind of man and woman had hurried to this crib seeking hungrily the meaning of life and some Light of the World, and finding the answer in a stream of births.

The unfinished masterpiece, almost erased by time, hangs in the Uffizi at Florence, but it was Filippino Lippi who executed the painting accepted by the Scopetini brotherhood. To begin, to conceive too richly, to lose himself in experimenting with details; to see beyond his subject a boundless perspective of human, animal, plant, and architectural forms, of rocks and mountains, streams and clouds and trees, in a mystic chiaroscuro light; to be absorbed in the philosophy of the picture rather than in its technical accomplishment; to leave to others the lesser task of coloring the figures so drawn and placed for revealing significance; to turn in despair, after long labor of mind and body, from the imperfection with which the hand and the materials had embodied the dream: this was to be Leonardo’s character and fate, with a few exceptions, to the end.

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