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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Leonardo da Vinci

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About Mr.B

Leonardo da Vinci: Sat. April 15, 1452, 10:30pm-May 2, 1519...Italy

"Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation... even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind."
~Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was the oldest of the three major artists in his time. He was trained in many things and felt that artists should be the most educated people. This belief was largely because artists come in contact with so many different things in the world through their work, they must understand how it works in order to depict it properly. Leonardo was trained in painting, sculpture, botany, ornithology, engineering, cosmology, anatomy, geology, physics, architecture, city planning and music. His explorations of nature and anatomy began at a young age. It is stated by multiple biographers that he understood gravity before Newton, erosion before Culver, explained the twinkle of the stars before Kepler, invented a telescope before Galileo and the trade winds before Halley. It is believed Leonardo wanted to be a doctor, but was not allowed to enter that profession. Because he was an illegitimately conceived, the so called “noble professions” were off limits (as they were also off limits to gravediggers, priests and criminals). He was not even allowed to attend a university. So, he independently studied. In his youth he made figures from clay to study anatomy, and as he got older he began to make more advanced models anatomical parts to understand their workings. For example he made a model of the human heart to understand how blood flows and pumps through it. He was the first person to understand that blood moved through a hart like a vortex. This was several hundred years before the modern medical field understood it.

Leonardo was a passive man that was very handsome in his youth. One example of his outlook was that he would buy birds from the markets in Milan, Italy and set them free because he could not stand that they were put into cages. His charm made him many friends. He was also somewhat careless with his money. Leonardo has employed many artists, musicians, and jesters to keep him entertained. He was always dedicated to his projects and experiments, but his mind was always moving forward and it was difficult for him to complete many of the projects he had started. Truth be told, he rarely finished the works he began. It is thought that he was a dyslexic and if he were alive today, he would have been diagnosed with ADD. He was also known as a generous, athletic, well spoken, and funny man.

Leonardo's works are some of the most known and recognized artworks in the world, however, he needed art training to get his start. This was first developed under Andrea del Verrocchio, who was also known as Andrea di Cione (1435-1488). He was an Early Italian Renaissance Sculptor that also taught Pietro Perugino, Raphael Sanzio, Francesco Botticini, and Lorenzo di Credi. Andrea lived in Florence, Italy most of his life. Di Cione was a one-man art university. He was considered one of the greatest sculptures of all time during his life, but is now over shadowed by his students accomplishments. Leonardo's first known work was made August 5, 1473 when he was twenty-one years old. Although a hard worker known for his many studies, he believed study, like everything, should be in moderation; "Avoid [excessive] study, it will give rise to a work destined to die with the workman."

Although Leonardo created many very important Christian themed works of art, he saw the religion as a superstition the majority of his life. He was rarely personally attached to art as many other artists are. The one exception to this was Mona Lisa. The work was originally titled The Cheerful Woman. In Europe it is still known as La Gioconda or The Joking One. Leonardo work on her quite a lot and carried the work with him much of his life. One theory into the origin of the work was that the duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, hired him to pain his mistress, Cecilia Gallerani. Regardless of who wanted the painting made, it was never delivered. The work was eventually sold to King Francis I of France. Passing down the royal line, the work would find it way into the bedroom of Napoleon Bonaparte, who loved the work and wanted to see her every night before he went to sleep and first thing every morning. The Mona Lisa is the most recognized work of art in the world. Many have asked why she is so famous, but I believe it is her aesthetic beauty that makes her so famous. It is also the most copied artwork in the world. It is an oil painting created on wood. The work was stolen in 1911 and went missing in 1956. Now she is heavily guarded and protected at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Mona Lisa
1503-1506. Oil on poplar wood. 30¼ x 21 inches. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Leonardo kept notebooks of ideas and inventions throughout his life. These notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of his time. He created many drawings to prepare for planned projects. "...take with you a little book with pages...briefly note the gestures of the bystanders and how they are grouped. This will teach you how to compose narrative paintings. When your book is full, put it aside and keep it for later use, then take another book and continue as before." He spent quite some time at the end of his life organizing his notebooks and papers that were left in the care of his apprentice, Salai. Soon the notebooks were given to different people, cut up, lost, and leaders of the Christian church destroyed some as well. Only about 1/5th of his work survives today.

Salai was another unique person in the life of Leonardo. Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno was nicknamed Salai, meaning "Little Satan." When Leonardo took in the 10-year-old he was known to call him "thievish, lying, obstinate, greedy." He really never improved from this observation. Leonardo once saw Salai attempt to steal money from a man who had undressed to try on a jousting costume Leonardo had made. Salai had some ability to paint, but did not become a painter of historical relevance. Despite the problems, Leonardo liked Salai. Leonardo supported him for twenty-five years and gave Salai half of his vineyard in his will and entrusted him with his notebooks. The neglect of the notebook happened soon after he was willed them. Salai appears to have died in 1523, probably of a gunshot wound.

Very few of Leonardo's inventions have been created. However, in 2004, two of his most repeated ideas were tested. A large crossbow and glider were created and the builds were documented on a PBS documentary, "Leonardo's Dream Machines."

In 1485, at the age of 33, Leonardo developed an idea for an 80-foot wide crossbow that would shoot cannonballs. The cannon was the weapon of choice. The development was a way to use old technology of the crossbow in a large weapon that would produce no smoke, less recoil, more accurate, and not have the danger associated with unstable gunpowder. Leonardo was a pacifist and hated war. But strangely, this is not a design for war. This is a study exploring the ideas of size and force relationships. This idea was tested in Warwickshire, England using only materials that would have been available in 15th century Italy. The weapon was built with 10-tons of iron. The design first used a modified bow made from hickory and elm, however, this failed to produce a forceful weapon. It shot a cannonball 50 yards. The design went back to the one previously dismissed, but developed by Leonardo using a bow carved from a single ash tree. With this design at half draw, it shot the cannonball 60 yards.

Ludovico Sforza, aka Ludovico il Moro (the Moor), the duke of Milan from1494 through 1499, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful princes of Renaissance Italy before his eventual imprisonment in France. He was known for his investment large sums of money to further the arts and sciences in Italy. Ludovico put up the money that allowed Leonardo to develop his ideas and research. One of those ideas was a human glider with a 30-foot wingspan. His study of the mechanics of bird flight (ornithology) allowed him to understant how to manipulate air that makes flight possible. The modern engineers that built this glider stuck with materials that were available during Leonardo's life. The 95-pound glider was built from black poplar wood, canvas, and leather in Yorkshire, England. Duding this study of Leonardo's designs, it was discovered that he understood and designed the glider to create an airfoil in the front of the wing. This is a "modern" idea used to lift an airplane. Diagnostic testing prove this glider would have flown 400 years before the 1902 Wright brother's gliders. In physical testing, this Leonardo designed glider flew higher and longer than the Wright's 1902 "first flight." The only issue with the Leonardo glider was its inclination to roll in flight, which is a major problem with gliders and was the cause of many deaths.

The most famous Last Supper ever executed, reshaped the worlds thought about and the way artists depicted the last supper forever after. It was painted on the wall of the dining hall in the Santa Maria delle Garzie in Milan, Italy. Always attempting new things, da Vinci painted this with his newly invented fresco media. As a matter of fact it was the test of this paint. Fresco paint is a water-based paint that is mixed into wet plaster. He thought he would create an oil-based paint fresco that went over the dry plaster. It didn’t work. As a matter of fact, it so didn’t work that the painting was pealing off the wall in his own lifetime and he retouched some of the work. Modern restoration began in the 1970s and was finished in 1997. It has been retouched so many timed that none of what we see in this was actually painted by the hand of Leonardo. Deterioration of the work was not the only potential problem for the work. It was nearly destroyed on August 16, 1943 when an air raid destroyed part of the monastery, but the painting was unharmed.

It is the paintings formal balance; his concept to depict this moment that is most important. This moment is the moment that most artists would also create after da Vinci, but none created before him. This moment when Jesus reveals that a disciple will betray him (Luke 22.21). Leonardo wants to give us clues to who it is. We notice that Judas is the only disciple with a shadow. He also has the lowest head and, the major clue, he is reaching for a dish that Jesus is reaching out to. Another trend that this set was that this was the first time that all disciples are placed on the same side of the table. Before this Judas was always on the other side, but da Vinci places them all on one side. He worked very slowly on the project. Taking time that angered the church that was paying the commission. The Prior of the church reported that Leonardo would enter in the morning, look around for a half an hour, place a few brush strokes on the wall, and call it a days work. It took a year to find the face model for Judas. He walked the streets for months to find that someone that looked like what he thought Judas would look like. This frustrated the Prior, so Leonardo make an ultimatum: let me take time to look for the evil face of Judas or I'll use the likeness of the Prior and finish the work now. He was allowed all the time needed. The work, although extremely well known since its creation, has risen in modern popularity after Dan Brown released his novel, The Da Vinci Code. Fact. Historical fiction. Fiction. Regardless of your belief on this book, the important thing is that we are looking at, examining, and analyzing works of art that some might not do without this book’s prompting.

Last Supper

1495-1498. Oil and tempera on plaster. 15 feet 1 inch x 28 feet 10½ inches. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.

Another of Da Vinci's great works was his Virgin of the Rocks.
Virgin of the Rocks
1495-1508. Oil on panel. 6 feet 3 inches x 4 feet. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

Although the great works of Leonardo live on, he passed at the age of 67. But he still has much to teach those that seek out his wisdom. At one of the most respected painters in the world, painters should keep in mind that "Contours are the least important feature...Therefore, dear painter, do not define your figures with a line."


Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063