In Memoriam Leonardo da Vinci: Pure Genius

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo ('Mona Lisa') (detail) (1503-06), oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by C2RMF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today we remember the death five hundred years ago of one of the most brilliant of all the figures in the Renaissance: the polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Over the last few weeks, I have looked at his few surviving paintings. In this concluding article, I will cast my net a bit wider and consider some of his many other accomplishments, but only after looking at what are six of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance, and among the very greatest paintings in the whole Western canon.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Ginevra de’ Benci (c 1478-80), oil and tempera on poplar, 38.8 x 36.7 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The first is his superb portrait of the Florentine beauty, Ginevra de’ Benci, from about 1478-80, which he painted in his early career when in Florence. If you can get to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. go for no other reason.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) (c 1489-90), oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Czartoryskich w Krakowie, Kraków, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Next another portrait of a lady, this time the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in whose court Leonardo rose to fame. Anyone passing through central or eastern Europe should make a beeline for Kraków, where it is in the National Museum.

Giampietrino (1495–1549), copy after Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Last Supper (c 1520), oil on canvas, 298 x 770 cm, The Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Then comes one of the greatest religious works of all time, now in a tragic state despite sustained and expert conservation work: The Last Supper, seen here in a full-size copy by Giampietrino. For many years, this was on loan to Magdalen College in Oxford, but two years ago returned to the Royal Academy in London, where you should go to experience its grandeur. The original remains in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’) (Panel from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan) (c 1491-1508), oil on poplar, thinned and cradled, 189.5 x 120 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1880), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

When you’re in London to view that copy of the Last Supper, go the the National Gallery there and look at one of Leonardo’s two Virgins of the Rocks. The London version is the later, probably from as late as 1506, and is in better condition than the earlier version in the Louvre.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (‘Mona Lisa’) (1503-06), oil on poplar wood, 77 x 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by C2RMF, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the last two masterpieces, though, you must go to the Louvre in Paris, and fight your way through the crowds for the Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting, and the third of Leonardo’s magnificent portraits of women.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), St. John the Baptist (c 1513-16), oil on panel, 69 x 57 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t miss Leonardo’s ultimate demonstration of sfumato, though, in his late painting of St. John the Baptist, made when he was living in the Belvedere of the Vatican, between 1513-16. This is also in the Louvre.

Leonardo was not only interested in so much else, but his genius took him to the forefront and beyond of subjects as diverse as human anatomy, optics, engineering, and cartography. His notebooks are packed with these explorations which still inspire the modern mind.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Studies of a Foetus (c 1510-13), pen and ink over red chalk on paper, dimensions and location not known. Image by Luc Viatour /, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo’s Studies of a Foetus made in about 1510-13 transcend mere anatomy and look at the structure of the uterine wall a century before the first microscope.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Air Screw (c 1486-90), pen and ink on paper, Ms B 83v, dimensions and location not known. Image by Luc Viatour /, via Wikimedia Commons.

His famous design for a helicopter, in this drawing of an Air Screw from about 1486-90, was never a feasible invention, but given a suitable source of power it’s fascinating to speculate how far he might have got had he lived over three hundred years later.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Plan of Imola (1502), pen and ink, with coloured washes, and stylus lines, over black chalk, 44 x 60.2 cm, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom. Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo’s finely detailed Plan of Imola from 1502 reflects his advisory role to a succession of the great courts of Italy. It’s the first map to adopt this imaginary bird’s eye view, and was made when Leonardo was military engineer to Cesare Borgia. We now take for granted similar images made from satellites; this appears to have been the first, and constructed by survey and projection.

You can read more about his artistic career and paintings in this series of articles:
Leonardo the Apprentice: Verrocchio and his Studio
Leonardo the Apprentice: Verrocchio’s pupils
1452-1478, Annunciation, Ginevra de’ Benci, Madonna of the Carnation
1478-1490, Madonna with a Flower, Adoration of the Magi, Virgin of the Rocks (Paris), Lady with an Ermine
1490-1503, Last Supper, Burlington House Cartoon, Virgin of the Rocks (London)
1503-1505, Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Mona Lisa
1505-1513, Battle of Anghiari, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, (Leda?)
1513-1519, St. John the Baptist, Salvator Mundi

I hope that they do justice to one of the greatest artists, a polymath and genius, the true Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.