On 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 weapons. 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.
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.
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.