A Wild Duck

07 12 george e ohrSometimes, I just have to see someone’s portrait to know that they are the person I want to write about. Today is the birthday of George E Ohr who was born in 1857 in Biloxi, Mississippi. His father was a blacksmith, his mother ran a grocery store. As you can see from the photo, he was an unusual looking fellow. George was a potter and he used to tie the ends of his eighteen inch long moustache behind his head while he worked. As you might guess from looking at him, his pots were quite unusual too. They were deliberately misshapen and he used bright glazes in unusual combinations at a time when everyone expected their pots to be brown. His boast was that he never made two things that were alike. Mostly he made his living by turning our chimney pots, planters, inkwells and little clay coins with rude messages on them. But he barely sold any of his more creative pieces. This was partly because he asked such a high price for them. People didn’t want to pay $25 for a pot that just looked as though it had gone a bit wrong. But it was also because George couldn’t bear to part with them. He was so fond of them that he called them ‘mud babies’. If he did manage to sell one, he would often chase his customer down the street and try to talk them out of their recent purchase.

George Ohr was one of five children. He described them as “a rooster, three hens and a duck”, he was the duck. At first George was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith. But he was a restless individual and, at fourteen, he moved to New Orleans. By the time he was twenty-two, he had tried nineteen different jobs, including sailor, which he gave up after only one voyage. But then a friend offered to teach him how to make pots. He knew immediately it was the thing for him. He said “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” which is lovely because it shows how excited he was about it. After that, he went on a two year tour of the United States, visiting potteries in sixteen states to learn all he could. In 1883, he returned to Biloxi and built his own studio, his own wheel, his own kiln, he even dug his own clay. It was pretty good clay, red in colour and he was able to use it to make pots that were wafer thin in places.

In 1884, a fire swept through the town, destroying twenty businesses including his mother’s grocery store and his studio. George raked through the ashes and recovered his pots, he kept most of them for the rest of his life, and referred to them as his ‘burned babies’. Then, he built himself a new studio. What he built was a five storey pagoda, which he painted bright pink. George knew how to draw attention to himself. He styled himself ‘The Greatest Art Potter on the Earth.’ and the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. He was great at self publicity, he just wasn’t very good at selling pots.

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By the turn of the century, he was gaining respect for his work. People were beginning to enjoy his colourful glazes. It was around this time that he decided to stop glazing his pots. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he won a silver medal for his work. He didn’t sell a single pot. He later tried to sell the whole collection but no one would come up with the thousands of dollars he was asking. In 1906, he sent fifty unsolicited pieces to a museum in New Orleans and when they would only accept a dozen of them, he insisted that they were all sent back immediately. Once, he took a bag of his pots, a shovel and a lantern and buried them deep in the woods. He also made a treasure map showing their location but it has since been lost. Possibly because after he died, his son, Leo, burned all of his papers, including all his recipes for beautiful glazes, many of which cannot now be replicated. The buried pots are probably still out there somewhere.

George and his wife, Josephine, had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The first two, Ella and Asa, both died young. But then George noticed that his initials. G E O, also spelled the first three letters of his first name. For some reason, he then decided to name his subsequent children: Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo.

In 1910, he closed his pottery and he devoted the rest of his life to becoming even more eccentric. He grew his beard long as well as his moustache and would appear at the Biloxi Mardi Gras as ‘Father Time’, in long flowing robes. Or you might find him racing his motorcycle along the beach with long white hair and beard flying out behind him. His unusual demeanour and self-aggrandizing make him a sort of Dali before Dali. When interviewed in 1901 he said ‘I have a notion….that I am a mistake.’ but predicted that his work would be cherished when he was gone. He died in 1918.

He had packed away around seven thousand of his pots and his sons turned the pottery into an auto-repair shop. After languishing in his sons’ shop for around eighty years, they were discovered, quite by accident, in 1968 by a man called James Carpenter. He wanted to buy them all, but the sons wouldn’t sell. After years of negotiation, he finally persuaded them to part with them for an unknown sum, but possibly around $50,000. Gradually, Carpenter began to sell them. Artists loved them. Andy Warhol bought them,so did Jasper Johns, they appeared in his paintings. Now his work commands very high prices. Jack Nicholson and Stephen Spielberg both own pieces by Ohr. George Ohr was once asked to put a price on his work, he replied that they were “worth their weight in gold”. Now they’re probably worth more that that.

There is now a museum in Biloxi dedicated to his work. You can see a little video of it here. The sound isn’t great, but you can see more of what his work looked like. It is so much more beautiful and elegant than I imagined from the descriptions. You can also see more of his amazing portraits.

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Powerful

07 08 artemisia gentileschi self portraitToday I want to tell you about a famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. But before I start, I wanted to warn you that my research today has involved reading through the details of a seventeenth century rape trial, which I will be mentioning. If it’s a subject you find distressing, and frankly, why wouldn’t you? Maybe give this one a miss.

July 8th is the birthday of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593, in Rome. Her father, Orazio, was a painter, her mother, Prudentia, died when she was twelve. She showed much more artistic talent than any of her younger brothers and her father taught her drawing, how to prepare colours and how to paint. Orazio was much influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was his contemporary and both his work and that of Artemisia share his dramatic use of light and dark.

07 08 susannah and the eldersIt couldn’t have been particularly easy for a young girl to make her way in a profession dominated by men. Her first signed painting, here on the left, is dated 1610, when she was only seventeen. It depicts the story of Susannah and the Elders. Susannah was a young married woman who was bathing alone in her garden. Two old and lecherous men were spying on her. As she returned to the house, they accosted her and said that they would tell everyone that she had been planning to meet a young man there, unless she promised to have sex with them. She refused, was arrested and was about to be put to death when Daniel, of Lion’s Den fame, came along and saved her. He questioned the two men separately and their stories did not match, so they were proved to be liars. It has been a popular subject in classical art, but Artemisia’s painting is one of the few that shows it as a traumatic event. Artemisia knew what it was like to be at the mercy of an older man.

In 1611, her father was working with another painter called Argostino Tassi. During that time, he employed Tassi to teach Artemisia about perspective. Tassi forced his attentions on Artemisia and he raped her. There’s no need to dwell too much on the details but she put up a fight. She scratched him, she threw a knife at him, but he was too strong for her. Tassi was fifteen years older than her. He promised Artemisia that they would be married and continued to visit her for the next nine months. Then, it turned out that he wasn’t going to marry her at all. Her father Orazio, accused Tassi of rape, and also of stealing a painting. In 1612, there was a huge and very public trial which lasted for seven months. Tassi at first claimed that he had never touched Artemisia, or even been alone with her. Then he changed his mind and said that he had visited her only to protect her honour. He produced witnesses who swore that the Gentileschi household was practically a brothel, slandered her dead mother and claimed her father had committed incest with her and then sold her for a loaf of bread. They were blatant lies and some of the witnesses were afterwards prosecuted for it. During the trial it transpired that Tassi had been aided by another man called Cosimo Quorlis, who had previously been rejected by Artemisia, and that a woman called Tuzia, who she had previously trusted, had allowed Tassi into the house through her apartment. It was also revealed that Tassi was married, had previously raped his sister-in-law and that his wife was missing and presumed murdered by him. Up until half way through the trial, Artemisia did not even know that he was married. Artemisia was subjected to a gynaecological examination and she was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison. He was forgiven and released after only eight months.

A month after the trial, Artemisia was married off to a friend of the family and moved to Florence. Either during or just after the trial she painted this picture of Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia herself is the model for Judith. It’s a very powerful painting by, I can’t help feeling, a very angry woman.

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Again, the subject of Judith and Holofernes was a popular one. I mentioned it back in January when I wrote about Elisabetta Sirani. Most artists had previously shied away from depicting the beheading part of the story, choosing to show instead, Judith and her maidservant carrying the head away. Probably the closest earlier example is this one by07 08 judith beheading holofernes caravaggio Caravaggio, painted around 1598. Caravaggio’s Judith is filled with revulsion as she slices through the neck of Holofernes and her maidservant stands aside holding a bag. Artemisia’s Judith is very focused, devoid of emotion and her maidservant is helping to hold him down. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that her Holofernes was based on the likeness of Tassi.

Artemisia got on pretty well in Florence. She painted for the Medicis and for Michaelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, who was building a museum in honour of his famous great uncle. There she painted a second, larger and even more bloody version of Judith beheading Holofernes with an even bigger sword. There is another of Judith and her maidservant escaping with the head in a basket. Not all her 07 08 allegoria dell'inclinazionepaintings deal with such violent subjects, on the left is a painting from Casa Buonarroti. But around ninety percent of those that survive show a female protagonist, or one who is at least the equal of men. It’s not surprising that most of her paintings feature women. As a female artist, she would not have been allowed access to male models. Whilst in Florence, she also became friends with the astronomer Galileo Galilei and became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing. Her new husband did not fair so well. He got them into a horrible amount of debt and, in 1621, she left him and returned to Rome. After Rome, she moved to Venice, then to Naples, where her daughter was married in 1634. In 1638, she went to England, at the request of King Charles I, where her father was already working. She collaborated with him on a large commission at the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

It was probably at the court of Charles I that she painted the self portrait at the top of this post. She has painted herself as an allegory of painting. Abstract concepts like painting were often represented as female figures and, as a female artist, Artemisia was in the unusual position of being able to put herself in the picture. Her father died in England in 1639 and we don’t know much about what happened to her after that. She went to Naples and may have died during a plague there in 1656. What we do know is that the terrible rape case in her early life, and possibly deserting her husband, left her with a tarnished reputation. Artemisia Gentileschi worked as an artist her whole life, overcoming not only the difficulty of being a female in a male dominated profession, but also her reputation as a fallen woman. It seems as though her early experience with Tassi coloured the rest of her life. There is certainly a lot of power and a lot of rage in many of her paintings. I like to think that she might have turned this to her advantage and found herself a rather niche client base who really enjoyed paintings of powerful women.

Shiny Bright

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photo credit: David Rowan licensed under creative commons

On 5th July 2009, a man named Terry Herbert was in a field in Staffordshire which had been recently ploughed. This would not be brilliant, or even newsworthy had he not had his metal detector with him. The farm had been searched previously by metal detectorists, but they hadn’t turned up anything special. But Terry began to find objects made from gold. Over the next five days he had found enough to fill 244 bags and called in the relevant authorities. A proper archaeological excavation was organised and over the summer of 2009 over 3,500 pieces were recovered. It is the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon gold and silver that has ever been found.

Unlike the previous largest discovery at Sutton Hoo, the horde is not part of a burial. All the objects have a military association, there is nothing domestic at all. There are many sword hilts and pommels but no sign of the actual blades. This suggests that the decorative parts of the weapons had been deliberately removed. We know that the Anglo Saxons sometimes did this, because it happens in Beowulf. It’s hard to imagine how such a large amount of beautiful and precious objects ever came to be lost at all. Perhaps they were buried by their owners for safe keeping, maybe they were spoils of war. Or they may just have been stolen. But something must have happened to prevent whoever buried them from returning to recover their treasure.

It was most likely buried somewhere between 650 and 700 AD but many of the pieces are probably heirloom items which are much older. In the seventh century, the site of the find was in the kingdom of Mercia. It is a period of history we don’t know a great deal about. Most people lived in wooden houses and left little evidence of their lives. The best records we have from the time are the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, written by Bede, in Northumbria and the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’, which was composed in Wessex for Alfred the Great. Northumbria and Wessex were both enemies of Mercia, so neither have much useful to say. Only that they were awful and violent, but enemies would say that. We don’t even know that the horde definitely came from Mercia, as it was found right by an major Roman road known as Watling Street, so it could have come from anywhere.

Amongst the horde were three gold crosses, so at least some of the objects must have belonged to Christians. The crosses had been folded up though. Perhaps as they bent when they were torn from their mountings in some sort of looting incident, maybe were just folded so they would take up less space in a bag or box. This might imply that they were taken by an opposing army who were pagans, but it could be that they just weren’t that fussy about religious objects. There is also a strip of gold with this inscription:

SURGE DNE DISEPENTUR INIMICI TUI ET FUGENT QUI ODERUNT TE A FACIE TUA.

If it were spelled properly, this would read: ‘Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ which means ‘Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face.’ It is a quote from the Bible which appears in the story of Saint Guthlac, who I mentioned back in April, when he predicted that a man named Æthelbald would become king of Mercia. He predicted that Æthelbald’s enemies would ‘flee from his face’. Æthelbald did become king, in 716. But it would appear that God, on this occasion, did not oblige.

As well as giving us thousands of truly beautifully crafted pieces of Anglo Saxon metalwork, the hoard has also revealed another secret. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths knew how to cheat. They could make twelve to eighteen carat gold look like much purer gold, between twenty-one and twenty-three carats. Tests have shown that it is only the gold on the surface of the object that is pure. They had must have found a way of removing the impurities from the surface. In order to do this, they would have needed to know how to make ferric chloride. Probably they heated water, salt and iron rich clay. When painted onto the gold it would have removed the silver content from the surface and made it look much more shiny. So, even though we don’t know much about what happened in our country in the few hundred years after the Romans left, we should stop calling them the Dark Ages, because those people were pretty bright.

Welcome

06 17 meester van de sint joriskermis - olifantWhat has a nose four and a half feet long, a mouth three feet wide and weighs just over 200 tonnes? Sadly, it isn’t one of these, but it’s a good picture, so I thought I’d show it to you. No, it’s the Statue of Liberty. She sailed into New York harbour, from France, on this day in 1885. She was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.

Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, really wanted to build a statue of a giant woman that doubled as a lighthouse. It’s an odd sort of ambition, but he was thinking of the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, a hundred foot high figure that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He had originally wanted it to be an Egyptian peasant woman, clad in loose robes and holding a torch aloft. She was to stand at the northern end of the newly built Suez Canal, at Port Said, Sketches and models were made, but it was never built.

06 17 bartholdiThen, Bartholdi and his friends, who had been avid supporters of the Unionists in the American Civil War, thought the statue would be a great thing to celebrate their victory and the abolition of slavery. The sculptor travelled the US in 1871, to try to locate a site for his statue and to find funding. Bedloe’s Island was an excellent choice, because all the ships coming into New York harbour sailed past it. Plus, it belonged to the United States Government. Unfortunately times were hard and there was no government funding forthcoming in either America or France. So, after years of struggle, the project was largely funded by private individuals.

At first, Bartholdi only had sufficient funds to build the arm holding the torch. It was taken to America and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia, to arouse interest and generate funds. People paid to climb up into the torch. The money raised from that was sufficient for the artist to build the head. He was so grateful that he almost gave the statue to Philadelphia instead of New York. The head was exhibited at Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and models of the statue were sold to help raise funds. It was also possible to buy a ticket to visit the workshop at Gaget, Gauthier and Co. where the statue was being constructed.

06 17 liberty 2

Meanwhile, in America, a group of people were trying to raise enough money to build the plinth that the statue would stand on. Things were not going well. Some people thought a statue celebrating America should be built in America, by an American. Others thought that, if the French wanted to give a statue, they should jolly well give a plinth to go with it. Then, in 1882, it was discovered that the city of Boston was making a play for the statue. That was when New Yorkers decided that they really wanted it. The New York Times announced: “that great light-house statue will be smashed into… fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.” Then, Joseph Pulitzer had a brilliant idea. He would publish, in his newspaper, the name of anyone who made a donation to the project, however small. That was how they raised just over $100,000 and also a massive rise in sales of his paper. There were more than 120,000 contributors, with most people giving less than a dollar. Over 200,000 turned out to welcome the statue on June 17th. Its parts were packed into crates to be reassembled on site.

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The framework inside the Statue of Liberty was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). The outer skin is made of copper and is less that two and a half millimetres thick. It was originally a dull brown colour but within five years it had begun to turn green. By 1906 the whole statue was covered with verdigris. Many were concerned that it was evidence of 06 17 statue of libertycorrosion. But when it was investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, they concluded that the patina protected the skin and also that it “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.” Which was probably uncharacteristically sentimental of them.

Despite best efforts, engineers were unable to make the statue work as a lighthouse, much to the consternation of Bartholdi. It was not his only disappointment, if he had got his way, the entire 151 foot high statue would have been covered with gold leaf. Luckily there wasn’t enough money to do that, because I think it would have looked awful. Thomas Edison also had a rather disturbing idea. He wanted to build a giant phonograph and put it inside the statue so that it could talk. Fortunately, that didn’t happen either.

One of Three

05 04 Saint_quiricoToday is the feast day of Saint Judas Cyriacus, bishop of Ancona, who was martyred in 360 AD. There are loads of saints and some of them have similar names, or even the same name. There is also a Saint Judas Cyriacus, bishop of Jerusalem, who died around 133 AD, who was the great-great grandson of one of Jesus’s brothers. Then the ‘Cyriacus’ part gets variously translated as: Quiriacus, Quiricus, Kyriakos, Ciriaco and Quirico. The picture on the left is the main one on his wikipedia and appears on pretty much every post I’ve seen about him. It’s certainly a good one, but I don’t think it’s him. I think it’s someone completely different from both of them. More of that in a minute though, I’ll tell you about him first.

He appears in a story about Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. She was sent to Jerusalem by her son, to search for the cross that Jesus was crucified on. There is a poem in old English called ‘Elene’ that you could look at, which will tell you the whole of this story. But it is extremely heroic and long, so probably don’t. Anyway Judas helped her, but only after he had been imprisoned in a dry well for seven days without food. Judas showed her where to find Golgotha, the site of the Crucifixion. Then there was a sort of earthquake and a smell of perfume and Judas was immediately converted to Christianity. He began to dig and, underneath three hundred years worth of debris, he unearthed three crosses. But how were they to tell which one Jesus was crucified on? This is how they found out: They brought out a dead man and held over him each of the crosses in turn. When they came to the third one, the man was miraculously restored to life. Then, the devil appeared. He was angry because he had been cheated out of a soul. But Judas argued with him until he disappeared. After some more digging, he also found the nails that had pinned Jesus to the cross. Helena sent these nails to her son Constantine who had them fashioned into a bit for his horse.

The cross was soon broken up into smaller and smaller pieces and could be found in churches throughout the Christian world. Even in the year 348, the world was said to be full of relics of the cross of Jesus. By the sixteenth century, there were so many pieces of the ‘true cross’ that a man named John Calvin said there were enough to fill a large ship. Some theologians responded to this by explaining that wood from the true cross could miraculously multiply itself, thereby creating whatever amount was required to meet the need. You can’t really argue with that.

Judas was made bishop of Ancona, which is in Italy, and was martyred during the reign of Julian the Apostate who was the last non-Christian emperor of Rome. Which brings me to this painting. According to the story of his martyrdom, he had molten lead poured into his mouth and was roasted over a fire, whilst tied to an iron bedstead. After that, he was thrown in a well full of poisonous snakes which died as soon as they touched him. Then, the emperor prepared a cauldron of boiling oil. But Judas was so happy as he got ready for his ‘bath’ that the Emperor grew angry and killed him with his sword.

Yet, the picture above is the one that wikipedia has chosen to show us. I can find no mention of a massive saw in any of his martyrdom stories. Also, the caption underneath reads ‘St Quirico’ which could be just a translation of Cyriacus into Spanish. There is a Saint Quirico, but he was martyred at the age of three, so it can’t be him either. This painting is part of a twelfth century Catalan altarpiece that definitely shows Saint Quirico in the middle, with his mum. As well as the guy being sawn in half, it also features two people waving in a cauldron, a guy being sliced with swords and another guy having nails hammered into his head. I have no idea who any of them are. If you do, please tell me…

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Ghostly

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image credit: art jarka. licensed under creative commons

Even though it is almost May, here it seems to be suddenly Winter again, so it seems like a good time for another ghost story. Today is the feast day of Saint Mark, and if you had been sitting outside your church since eleven o’clock last night until around one o’clock this morning, you might have been treated to a pretty ghoulish spectacle. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, many believed that if you sat in the porch of your church during the night before Saint Mark’s Day you would see a ghostly procession of all the people that would die in your parish during the following year. The ghost of a living person is called a doppelgänger, which means double walker, and it’s rarely a good thing to see one.

There is an account from Lincolnshire in the parish of Burton which dates from 1631. It is given by a Gervase Hollis, a colonel in the service of Charles I. He was later made Mayor of Grimsby and also an MP, so presumably he was not given to flights of fancy. He had the story from a Mr Rampaine, who was minister to Great Grimsby, but had once been household chaplain to Sir Thomas Monson in Burton. Two men had decided to carry out the St. Mark’s Eve vigil. It was a bright moonlit night and by around midnight they had seen nothing and were thinking of giving up.

But suddenly, all light vanished and they found they could not move. Then, they saw the approaching light of a torch. Then the minister appeared, followed by a figure in a winding sheet moving towards them. They recognised the figure as one of their neighbours. As they drew closer, the church doors flew open, the two figures went inside and the doors slammed shut behind them. The two men, who were still rooted to the spot, heard the muffled sounds of a funeral service, followed by the rattling of bones and a noise like earth being shovelled into a grave. Then all was silent. But suddenly, the figure of the minister came again, with another of their neighbours and the whole scene played over exactly as before. This happened five times. When it was all over, the moon reappeared and they found they were free to move again, which they did, quite quickly.

The next day they were both quite ill and stayed at home, but when they met up again, they compared notes. Both agreed on the identity of the first three figures, but neither recognised the infant and neither had ever seen the old man before. Their three neighbours died that year in the order that they had predicted. Then, soon after, a woman in the town gave birth to a child who died. That just left the old man. That Winter, Sir John Monson was sent a message from his friends in Cheshire. The old man who carried the message had travelled on foot over the Pennines. The weather had been terrible and he was in a bad way when he arrived. The two men immediately recognised him as the stranger they had seen at the church. After two days, he was dead.

Of course, this is a terrible superstition to have. If you had a grudge against someone, it would be really easy to just pretend you’d seen them in a Saint Mark’s Eve procession. But there is one thing that might stop you ever trying it in the first place. Once you’ve taken part in the vigil, you have to carry on doing it. Every year. For the rest of your life. If you ever fall asleep while you’re keeping watch, that will be the year that you die.

The photo above, if you’re curious, is from an installation by an art student in the Czech Republic called Jakub Hadrava. Ghosts made from plaster sitting in the pews of an abandoned church. The church was closed up in 1968, after part of the roof collapsed during a funeral service. The installation has created worldwide interest and raised enough money to have the medieval church restored to its former glory. If you want to see more, there are some lovely ones here and also a video.

Gifted

04 15 leonardo de vinciOn this day in 1452 Leonardo da Vinci was born, in the town of Vinci in the Florentine Republic. I truly love Leonardo. He is a person for whom the term ‘Renaissance Man’ might have been invented. He was interested in painting, sculpture, architecture, invention, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. With such a wide range of interests, he seems to have been easily distracted and rarely finished any of his projects. Even his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was with him until he died because he didn’t think it was finished.

His interests were so wide-ranging that I can’t possibly do justice to him in a single blog post. So I mainly want to talk about some of his lost projects and what he might have been like as a person. Of course, that’s going to make it rather hard to illustrate, but let’s see what happens…

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a wealthy legal notary called Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman called Caterina. He showed an early talent for art and his father sent him to study with an artist called Andrea del Verroccio in Florence. At some point his father was given a shield made by a local peasant. The man wanted Ser Piero to find someone in Florence to paint it for him. Ser Piero took the shield to his son. It was quite roughly made so Leonardo had it fixed up and made smooth, then started to think about something scary to paint on it. He collected together specimens of slow worms, lizards, crickets, snakes, moths, grasshoppers and bats. Then he devised a horrifying imaginary creature made up from bits of all of them. He painted it breathing fire and smoke. It was so terrifying and so good that his father never gave it back to the peasant. He bought him another with a heart pierced by an arrow on it and sold Leonardo’s shield to a Florentine merchant for a hundred ducats. The Duke of Milan later paid three hundred for it.

In 1482, he was sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to work for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He brought with him a letter detailing all his skills of building fortifications and siege 04 15 horseweapons. He also mentions, almost as an afterthought, that he also does painting and sculpture. Leonardo also brought his lyre with him. He played very well and had built the instrument himself out of silver, in the shape of a horse’s skull. He also designed floats for the Duke’s pageants and planned to build a huge equestrian monument in honour of Ludovico’s father, Francesco.  It would have been the biggest in the world and seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. He worked on it on and off for sixteen years but unfortunately, when he had finished the life-size clay model, Michaelangelo rudely suggested that he wouldn’t be able to cast it. This put the Duke off and he gave away the bronze to make cannons instead. The cannons didn’t do the Duke much good though, as soon after he was overthrown by the French. They also destroyed Leonardo’s clay horse, their archers used it for target practice.

At the same time as he was working on the giant horse, Leonardo was also painting his famous ‘Last Supper’. This also took a very long time and the Prior who had commissioned him started to worry about it. He sent the Duke of Milan round to try and hurry him up a bit. Leonardo was having trouble with two of the faces. Jesus, because he couldn’t imagine anything holy enough, and also the face of Judas, because he couldn’t find a model who looked evil enough. Leonardo loved interesting faces, but more of that in a moment. He told the Duke that he was looking really hard for a suitable face for Judas, but if he couldn’t find one, he would just use the face of the Prior instead.
 04 15 last supper

I don’t think he was terribly fond of the Clergy in general. Once, at Easter, he was visited by a Priest who went round his studio sprinkling his paintings with Holy Water. Leonardo asked the priest why he’d done this. The priest replied that he was doing a good thing and that his actions would be rewarded a hundred times over in heaven. Leonardo watched from his window as the man left and threw a bucket of water down on him, shouting ‘There’s your gift from on high, you’ve ruined half my paintings.’

I’m very fond of  his drawings, So I thought, as we’re short on pictures of his lost works, I’d show you a couple of them. He’s so clearly fascinated by people and it seems that the more unusual looking they were, the more he liked them. An early biographer, Vasari, tells us that if he saw someone with an interesting face he would follow them around all day, observing them. Then he would go home and draw them. But his interest in people wasn’t only skin deep. Working with a doctor called Marcantonio della Torre, he made loads of very detailed anatomical drawings that would probably have been massively useful if he’d ever got around to finishing them and getting them published. He studied not only the skeleton and muscles, but also the internal organs. He was the first to draw a foetus in utero and he also made a glass model of the aorta which he filled with water and grass seed to watch how liquid flowed through it.

04 15 warrior04 15 portrait


Leonardo loved animals. He was a vegetarian, which was unusual at the time. Also he would buy caged birds in the market just so he could let them go. But in contrast to this, he also dissected animals, and he did some pretty strange things with them. He seems to have enjoyed filling them with air and flying them round like a balloon. His favourite trick was to get hold of some intestines from a sheep or a bullock. Wash them out, then invite his friends round. He showed them how small the intestines were. You could hold them in the palm of your hand. Then he would attach them to a pair of bellows and inflate them so that they filled the whole room. Everyone had to hide in the corners to get away from the ballooning innards.

I think my favourite story though, I like it even more than the Priest and the bucket of water, is about a lizard. He was at the Vatican working for Pope Leo X. A vine-dresser brought him an unusual looking lizard. Leonardo was delighted. He made it a pair of wings from the scales of other lizards and mercury. They trembled when the lizard walked around. He also gave it some false eyes, horns and a beard. Then he tamed it and kept it in a box. What he liked to do then was suddenly show it to people.