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Leonardo, Master Genius

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, ca.1510

Yesterday was the 560th birthday of history's greatest artistic genius and polymath, the legend that intrigues and astonishes half a millenium after his time. Leonardo da Vinci. It is difficult to understate the influence this single human being had on art and the world itself, and to still fascinate scientists and artists (and Dan Brown) alike after such a period of time is obviously a testament to his very unique greatness. I want to talk here about why the hype of a centuries old artist is still amazing. (The Dan Brown theories you can read about elsewhere.)

His name alone is interesting in itself. Born in a modest farmhouse actually a couple of miles away from the small comune of Vinci, east of Florence— at a time when surnames were already being used for a few centuries— it is indeed interesting that his father and Leonardo's grandfather lived in Vinci all their lives, hence the namesake. Leonardo was the bastard son of his father, Piero who was actually married four times. A big deal, especially for the fifteenth century! From this very humble beginning one does not imagine the origins of the greatest Renaissance Man. However, Piero was a fairly important and wealthy man with connections to the Medici in Florence, and to the beginning of the Rinascimento.

My earliest memories of Leonardo as a kid were when I had my mother read to me a book in Italian of Leonardo's life and accomplishments, to which she read aloud in Italian and translated into English. The idea of someone who could not just be good at more than one thing, but excel at it, was a mind-boggling concept—and still is. Many years later, when I saw his Virgin of the Rocks in London I was hypnotized. The baby Christ soft shadows and knowing facial expression, along with the details of the rocks and flowers, were something I had never seen before. Weeks later I was standing in the dark hall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan looking up at The Last Supper, speechless that something in such a poor state of disrepair was greater than most artists' flawless works. Leonardo hits you right in the stomach every time. He left nothing to chance at all. For him, art was a visual, cerebral and visceral impact.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne pictured above was the last Leonardo of my Europe trip, this one in Paris at the Louvre. When everyone else was clamouring to gape at Mona Lisa, I got tired of craning my neck over people's heads and studied this amazing masterpiece. It is reassuring that even in his early sixties—when most artists wonder if their best work was behind them— he created this and the Mona Lisa only a few years apart. Compositionally, the figures are in a triangular shape yet the faces of all three are in a nearly straight diagonal line but looking in different directions. Despite a surreal background of cool-colored jagged mountains amidst a foreground of warm earth and rocks, the painting works because of Leonardo's knowledge of geology, anatomy and light, namely sfumato, which his intensive study of shadows changed painting forever. Leonardo gives atmosphere to his figures, not merely the background. Nature and humanity are harmonious. Telling a story and giving them presence overrules color. A painting is not a representation of facts but a marriage of realism and fantasy, dreamlike, inspired from the subconscious...real and natural, yet unreal at the same time. If you have a fast computer, you can try looking at this very high-res image here.

There are countless essays and articles on the Last Supper, and it needs no introduction. What is curious about this work, besides the flawed technique that he tried to enable him to paint slower and in layers, is the use of color. It is one of his only paintings that contains figures with very colorful robes. Also is his use of one point empty room open to the viewer with nature through three windows. In previous versions by other artists, the apostles and Christ sit against a wall with Judas sitting on the opposite side of the table. What is more interesting is how he grouped the twelve apostles in groups of three, and the left side shows a very rational reaction as compared to the right side, which has apostles using vigorous hand and arm action— possibly to show the duality of the mind itself, half-rational, half emotional.

From an instructional standpoint, the technique of Leonardo is very important here. Not the flawed use of tempera and oils on gesso. What is unique about The Last Supper is that Leonardo had an observer who was a novelist and friend, Matteo Bandello, who observed the duality of Leonardo himself. On some days Leonardo painted from sunrise to sunset without a break, even forgetting to eat or drink...while on other days he would not paint at all but merely observe and study his own painting for an hour or two, while other times he would pop in for a bit, take the brush on one area, and leave. Now this may sound fickle and somewhat crazy, but it summarizes the rhythm of painting. When work is to be done, there should be no hesitation when you're on a roll. When major portions are done it is very important to analyse the whole work, making sure what works remains and making note of what doesn't. The interesting last part Bandello notes, of painting only one small area and leaving may have been merely Leonardo observing a particular facial expression, interesting midtone color, or anatomical detail he may not have noticed before and hurried in to capture before forgetting this information. Remember, this was a time without camera or any reference except for sketches.

The observation of the whole work, taking it all in...this may seem like a waste of time for some but for the sake of posterity can be extremely important. Sometimes only in observation, with no brushes in hand, can we really see what is happening. Rushing is foolish. However, in Leonardo's case he took this a little too far and as a result his curiousity usually got the best of him, leading to scientific distractions. And pissed off patrons. And artists who were very, very intimidated by his genius.

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