Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man

external image da-vinci-profile.jpgLeonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, and was the paragon of a “Renaissance man". Gifted of a curious mind and keen intellect, da Vinci became the leading genius and artist in his time, influenced by his studies in many areas specifically in sciences. His ideas and body of work have influenced countless artists and made da Vinci a leading light of the Italian Renaissance. Today, he remains to be best known for his art, including two of the world's most famous paintings the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

Throughout the history, artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, have been inspired by the presence of certain other people in their lives that motivated them to do their masterpieces, these are called muses. They are the source of style and image, who has the power to captivate and influence the artist. They aid the artists in their creation of masterpieces and artists harness energy from them that ultimately results into a magnum opus.external image vitruvian.jpg

Da Vinci has mastered in painting beautiful ladies as his muses, and for some, they are deemed to be very mysterious till to this day. Each of them have different stories, yet they possessed the characteristics of da Vinci's proficient techniques in art. With the help of perspective and other realistic elements, Leonardo da Vinci tried to recreate true presentations of life. He desired to paint realistically, a bold and fresh notion, especially in a culture previously surrounded by highly figurative religious paintings.

external image sfumato_leonardo+3.jpgThis intrepid move became a standard for painters who followed in the 16th Century. Da Vinci also studied light and shadows that aided his paintings. He realized that objects were not composed of outlines but were actually three dimensional bodies that are defined by light and shadows. This technique is called "chiaroscuro," which gave his paintings soft, lifelike appearance compared to older paintings that looked cartoony because of their outlines. Da Vinci also utilized the technique of "sfumato " which was originally developed by Flemish and Venetian painters, but genius da Vinci transformed it into a powerful tool for creating atmospheric depth. The technique of sfumato is rendering the object's color and detail as it receded in distance. Da Vinci additionally turned to science to perfect his paintings.His study of nature and anatomy came in handy for his stunningly realistic paintings and his dissections of the human body helped his accurate depictions of human figure. He was also the first artist to study human physical proportions and used them to determine the "ideal" human figure; unlike many of the artists in his time, such as Michelangelo who painted very muscular figures.

The following feature examines the mastery and the creation process of Leonardo da Vinci's most iconic and influential muses: "Mona Lisa," "Lady with Ermine," and "Portrait of Ginevra de Benci." Each piece illustrates how da Vinci employed his aesthetics and painting techniques in his muses . Moreover, the feature also closely studies the curious cases of their identity, patron, function and context.

Mona Lisa

external image Mona_Lisa_original.jpgArguably the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, is characterized by the enigmatic and timeless smile of the woman in the half-portrait.

Who was Mona Lisa? A burning question that scholars have debated on.

For people, the allure of the Mona Lisa is the mystery surrounding the identity of the subject. There are different theories that are proposed to identify who was really was or who posed for Mona Lisa.

It has been speculated that Princess Isabella of Naples, an unnamed courtesan and da Vinci’s own mother have been put forth as potential muses for the masterpiece. Scholars also speculated that the subject wasn’t a female at all but da Vinci’s longtime apprentice Salai dressed in women’s clothing. Based on accounts from an early biographer, however, the Mona Lisa is a picture of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. The painting’s original Italian name La Gioconda, supports the theory, but it’s far from accuracy. Some art historians believe the merchant commissioned the portrait to celebrate the pending birth of the couple’s next child, which means the subject could have been pregnant at the time of the painting.

If the Giocondo family did indeed commission the painting, they never received it. For da Vinci, the Mona Lisa was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection. Leonardo never parted with the painting. Today, the Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, secured behind bulletproof glass and regarded as a priceless national treasure seen by millions of visitors each year.

Mona Lisa contains transitions between light and shade and sometimes between colors. Da Vinci blended everything without borders, his brush stokes so subtle, it's invisble to the naked eye. Mona Lisa's veil, hair and her skin are created with layers of transparent color making the lady's face glow.

According to Louvre Curator Jean Pierre Cuzin, "Art critics call attention to the painting's mystery and harmony,""But the first art historians to describe it emphasized its striking realism, pointing out 'the lips that smile' and 'the eyes that shine.'" Giorgio Vasari, for example, wrote in his early biography of da Vinci, Lives of the Painters: "As art may imitate nature, she does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating."

Lady with Ermine

The painting, Lady With The Ermine, is thought to date from Leonardo's early years in Milan (c. 1482-1483). Like all of his portraits (with the exception of the Mona Lisa), there is some disagreement about this painting. Some historians consider that the sitter is Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza ,the Duke of Milan. Renaissance women tried to look middle-aged before they were twenty and if it is her she would only have been about seventeen at the time. Another suggestion is that the painting is from a little later, around 1491, and that the woman is Ludovico's wife, Beatrice d'Este.external image The_Lady_with_an_Ermine.jpg

The third theory is that the subject may have been La Belle Ferronniere, a nickname given to the mistress of Francis I of France. Though some support for this idea came from an inscription in the upper left-hand corner which reads LA BELE FERONIERE LEONARD DA VINCI, most experts now consider this to be incorrect. The inscription is not original, but is a later addition.

Speculation also exists over whether this painting is partially or entirely by Leonardo, or possibly by Ambrogio da Predis or Boltraffio.

Lady with The Ermine has been heavily over painted. The entire background was darkened, her dress below the ermine was retouched and a transparent veil being worn by the woman was repainted to match the color of her hair. The result of this last retouching has been to give the appearance that her hair reaches down and underneath her chin. Yet another change was the addition of dark shadows between the fingers of her right hand, a close look at the bottom two fingers shows they are quite inferior to the others after an unknown restorer repainted them. An x-ray of this painting revealed the presence of a door in the original background.

There are a number of things to support the idea this is Cecilia Gallerani, and that it was painted by Leonardo himself. First, the ermine was used as a heraldic figure by Ludovico, it appeared on his coat of arms. Secondly, despite the heavy retouching of the painting the woman's face and the animal are intact, and the colors used were those Leonardo favored during his first years in Milan. Despite her young age at the time of this portrait, Cecilia had already been seduced by Lodovico, had borne him a son and held a very commanding position at court.

Ginevra de' Benci

Flawless chalk-white skin, porcelain-fine features, and a reserved, somewhat impenetrable expression reflect the refinement of the 16-year-old Ginevra de' Benci. Like most portrait subjects of the Renaissance, she was from a wealthy family, and educated. She was also known as a poet and learned conversationalist.

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Young women of the time were expected to comport themselves with dignity and modesty. Virtue was prized and guarded, and a girl’s beauty was thought to be a sign of goodness. Portraitists were expected to enhance,as needed, a woman’s attractiveness according to the period's standards of beauty.

Why was this young woman’s likeness painted? One possibility is that the commission was occasioned by her betrothal. Ginevra married Luigi Niccolini in 1474. Another likelihood reflects a cultural phenomenon of the Italian Renaissance period—platonic love affairs between well-mannered gentlemen and ladies. Such affairs, often conducted from afar, focused on effusive literary expressions that displayed the courtier’s and lady’s sophistication.

Ginevra is known to have had several admirers who composed poetry in her honor and entreated her to share own verse with them. Among them was Lorenzo de’Medici, whose elite family was known for its art patronage. Even more significant to Ginevra was Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence. It may have been he who commissioned her portrait to celebrate, and substitute for, the object of his admiration and esteem. The painting’s reverse side, Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper with a Scroll inscribed Virtutem Forma Decorat, is an image of Ginevra’s emblem or impresa and offers another kind of “portrait.” The central juniper, ginepro in Italian, a cognate of Ginevra’s name and thus her symbol, also represents chastity. The palm (right) stands for moral virtue, while the laurel (left) indicated artistic or literary inclinations. Palm and laurel also appear in Bembo’s emblem, and infrared examination of the painting’s layers has also revealed Bembo’s motto, Virtus et honor (virtue and honor), painted beneath Ginevra’s scrolling motto which encircles all three elements and means “Beauty adorns virtue.”

An early work, completed when Leonardo was 21, the painting shows an incipient genius and was revolutionary in the history of painting. One of Leonardo’s contemporaries wrote that he “painted Ginevra d’Amerigo Benci with such perfection that it seemed to be not a portrait but Ginevra herself.” Its lifelike and forthright portrayal broke with conventions of earlier Renaissance portraiture of women, including a preference for the more detached profile view. Ginevra de’ Benci is one of the first known three-quarter-view portraits in Italian art. She eyes the viewer directly. The planes of her face subtly modeled, she may have “come to life” before viewers in a fashion more vivid than any other painting they had seen before.

1. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/230334