Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Three by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Three by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

The thirst for knowledge led him throughout his restless life to be ever concerning himself with new studies and inventions; and though he devoted only a small part of his time and strength to painting, that art owes to him more than to any other man its perfection and disenthralment.

—Wilhelm Lubke

Richly gifted as was Leonardo, he did not trust his natural facility. His patience was no less marvellous than the quickness of his insight. He lived to illustrate the definition of genius as the capacity for taking infinite pains.

—J. A. Symonds

His loss is a grief to everyone, for it is not in the power of nature to produce another such a man.

—Francesco Melzi


Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci


A tall, comely man, with flowing hair, slightly confined by a velvet cap, a rich robe falling in deep folds from his shoulders, studies attentively a lizard which the gardener has just brought him. Quick almost as thought he appends to the creature gauzy wings through which quicksilver courses in fine streams, causing a motion like life. He tames the creature and feeds it, while his friends shiver to look upon it. The fine man, however, glories in his work and passes to a room where warty toads and gloomy bats consort with crawling things, here to fill his soul with the strange lights and changing colors caught from the sparkling eye or chameleon coats of the slimy creatures.

Again, he hurries along the street as if bent on absorbing business, following some beautiful or hideous face until it is indelibly stamped upon his mind. And now he doffs his gorgeous robes and slips into his laboratory, there to make strange mixtures of chemicals or to arrange lenses with which to study more deeply the science of optics. Perhaps he analyzes the plants he has gathered in his marbles or experiments with water to find its pressure under this or that condition.

Anon he goes forth and adds a shaping piece of clay to the model for a wonderful horse and his rider, which he quits suddenly to trace in subtle lines the smile of some sweet-faced woman, the despair of some devoted disciple. Again he is in his library writing wise counsel for artists, penning a sonnet, drawing a map of the country he has recently traversed or a device for changing the course of the Poor lifting the Baptistry of Florence to a proper level. Tiring of these things, he draws engines of war and siege and, for total relief, he turns to his lute and trills a song to its harmonious sounds.

Who is this wonderful man, if man he be at all? It is Leonardo da Vinci, the wizard of his time, and that the greatest of all historic times—the Renaissance, when the world awoke to its present power, to a realization of its rich inheritance from the past and to its golden promise for the future.

Of this wonderful time we have studied the prophet in Michael Angelo, the angel in Raphael, the faun in Correggio and now we come to the magician in the person of Leonardo da Vinci. He was not only one of the greatest Italians but he ranks as one of the most profound minds ever placed in this world.

To have been an interpreter of life in the Renaissance, as were both Angelo and Raphael, was great honor, indeed great glory. To have been the wizard of that time is to hold the interest of men of all ages, not so much by what he accomplished as by the daring of his mind, the power of his personality. Such has been Leonardo's destiny among the renowned men of the world.


Madonna of the Lily

His greatest picture is an indistinguishable wreck, the very outlines of which must be obtained from an engraving. His wonderful statue for the Duke of Milan has been swept from the face of the earth. A few pictures, mostly portraits, and some of these not surely Leonardo's, are all we have by which to remember this master mind, unless, indeed, we turn to his manuscripts and scattered drawings. Here we find, in fragmentary plans for aqueducts, canals, systems of drainage, military engines, drawings of fantastic wings, of hideous grinning faces of animals and men, the merest suggestion of what was in his great mind to accomplish. The fulfilment of this promised work would have been a strange contrast to his fragmentary achievements.

Midway between Florence and Pisa, in the valley of the Arno, stands the ancient fortress of Vinci. Here this strange and wonderful man was born, forty years before Columbus discovered the first land in the new world. His father was Piero Antonio da Vinci, a notary to the signors or council of Florence. He was a scholar and an influential nobleman of his time. Leonardo's mother was a peasant woman named Catarina, of whom we know nothing except that she was buried with great pomp by her son after he had become famous in the world.

We are told that he was brought up in his father's castle at Vinci and that he progressed rapidly in his studies. His apt mind early took delight in confounding his teacher with problems too difficult for him to solve. In these early years he loved music dearly. He determined to learn to play on the lute and, so full of beautiful thoughts was his mind and such power and quickness in language did he posses, that he could improvise, or make up, most beautiful songs as he touched the strings of his lute. Just imagine the pleasure to himself and to others of being able to pour out lovely songs whenever he wished on any subject that interested him!

There were other employments which this child of genius loved quite as well as playing on the lute and improvising to its accompaniment. He was early devoted to drawing and modeling in clay. Some of the drawings remain but his clay figures have disappeared. Fortunately for the boy his father had a dear friend in Florence who was one of the greatest artists of his time and city. This was Andrea Verrocchio, a great master in handling bronze. A youthful David in his shepherd's garb and a powerful equestrian statue of Colleoni of Venice are great works from this artist's hand. While he taught, first of all, sculpture, he also gave instruction in painting and undertook works of this sort himself.


Christ Disputing with the Doctors

Such was Verrocchio, the friend of Leonardo's father, and in his studio the young man was placed. Here he remained until he was twenty years old, with evident enjoyment and profit. Other well known artists had learned the elements of their art from Verrocchio. In his studio Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, had worked and here too, Lorenzo Credi had learned the art by which he gave the world his graceful figures.


St. Catherine

One of the things always related to Da Vinci during these youthful years is his part in his teacher's famous picture, "The Baptism of Jesus."  The picture itself, though so much talked about, is not in the least attractive. In the centre is a rather lank figure of our Lord standing in the river, while John pours over his head from a small dish the waters of baptism. On the bank of the river are two angels bearing vestments or clothing. Tradition says that, when Verrocchio had nearly completed his picture, Leonardo, to assist his master, painted in one of the angels. The legend continues that, when Andrea looked upon his pupil's work and saw it so superior to his own, he forever renounced painting, an art in which a mere child could excel him, a master, with years of study and finished work.

It is an interesting story to rehearse and probably has in it as much of truth as is usually to be found in anecdotes of the sort. That there is superior excellence in the angel indicated is true but the accompanying angel is almost as fine. If Leonardo did one he doubtless did the other, which fact need not spoil our story in the least.

Quite early in Leonardo's art student days his father gave him a large piece of wood from the fig tree and begged him to paint something on it for him. He conceived the idea of representing on the wood something terrible that would make all beholders tremble as they gazed upon it. "The Head of Medusa,"  that terrible conception from mythology, by whose use the brave Perseus turned the old king and his court to stone, he selected as best fitted to his purpose.


The Head of Medusa

It was a strange and weird subject, certainly. The face is that of a woman, so beautiful that one cannot help looking upon it, but from its perfect mouth a blue and deadly vapor exhales, while the hair, which poets of all time have delighted to picture as a net to entangle the hearts of unwary admirers, has become, in Leonardo's hands, a thousand writhing, crawling snakes. Such was the old-time embodiment of the sorrowful legend and Da Vinci, with his marvellous imagination and his deft hand, did not fall short in his delineation of the dreadful theme.

While working at this fig tree shield the artist gathered into a room, which he kept for the purpose, every creeping thing that could in any way give him suggestions for color or movement in his strange picture. Early and late he studied the varying colors of coat and eye, or the light that glinted here or was absorbed there in deepest night shade.

What the father said when his son presented him with his uncanny production has not been told us but we can imagine his surprise, his joy and his fear, almost, as he gazed upon the awful thing his boy had created. Some years later he sold it for a goodly sum to the Duke of Milan but today there is no trace of its existence. Once again the artist painted the same weird subject but for some reason he left it incomplete. That too has disappeared and we have nothing left but what is supposed to be a poor copy of this famous shield picture.

Writers are fond of telling us about all sorts of interesting pictures that Leonardo planned in these early days. The cartoons, that is, the first rough sketches, for them and, in some instances, the completed pictures have disappeared. A sketch for one of these great pictures is still preserved for us in the Uffizi in Florence. It is called "The Adoration of the Magi."  Even in the rough lines of the sketch it is exceedingly attractive, showing that if Leonardo had chosen to finish some of his early sketches they would have been equal, if not superior, to the best work of his time. The central figure is a lovely and characteristic Madonna. Many men kneel about in adoration while others stroke their beards or bend their heads in thought, as they try to explain to themselves the meaning of this wondrous new-born babe. The background teems with figures of men and horses, with trees, mountains and architectural details.

While in Verrocchio's studio Leonardo showed that he could use clay quite as skilfully as brush and paint. Many heads with smiling faces he modelled from terra-cotta but they are gone, alas! with the others of his lost works and we have only the tradition of their making with which to glorify the master's name.

At this time, too, he showed himself a master of architectural drawing, a fair example of which we have in the picture just described. It is good to take a survey of his power along different artistic lines, in order to see how thoroughly he was fitted for his life of an all-round artist when he left the studio of Verrocchio.

A young artist of such rare talents could hardly go unnoticed in Florence in the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. We recall how, some years later, this same Medici took Michael Angelo into his own home and trained him for his chosen art. Lorenzo was quite as kind to Leonardo. It was he who sent the artist, when he was thirty years old, to the Duke of Milan with a most exquisite lute. The lute fashioned by Da Vinci was in form like a horse's head, a shape not only new and fanciful, but also supposed to give greater depth to the tones. It was made of pure silver so it must have been as beautiful to look upon as it was to hear when the fingers of a master stirred among its strings.

Leonardo, who was always a handsome man, must have made a charming picture at the court of Milan, in the very prime of manhood, playing on his unique lute and reciting songs and poetry of his own composition. It is little wonder, too, that the Duke of the northern city was fascinated by the young Florentine.

In 1480, Lodovico Sforza was made regent of Milan in place of his nephew. The fact was, however, that Lodovico, though a regent (one ruling for another) never intended to give up the government to his nephew. To keep the people from complaining of this injustice he gathered around him men learned in science and proficient in art. He thought in this way to deceive the people into forgetting that he was usurping the place of another.

We do not know just the reason why Leonardo was so willing to leave Florence but it is certain that he sought out Lodovico of Milan and offered his services to him in a very remarkable letter. In two respects this letter was unusual, in the unheard of variety of things which the artist claimed he could do and in the fact of his listing them so specifically for the inspection of the Duke. As no other person's words can so well convey the force of this unique letter it seems best to quote it almost entire. Nothing else could so fully and explicitly give this strange man's numerous qualifications to serve a prince in times of war or of peace. Here are the principal paragraphs of the letter:—

"1. I have a way of constructing very light bridges, most easy to carry, by which the enemy may be pursued and put to flight. Others, also, of a stronger kind that resist fire or assault and are easy to place and remove. I know ways, also, for burning and destroying those of the enemy.

"2. In case of investing a place I know how to remove water from ditches, and to make various scaling ladders, and other such instruments.

"3. Item: If, on account of height or strength of position, the place cannot be bombarded I have a way for ruining every fortress which is not on stone foundations.

"4. I can also make a kind of cannon, easy and convenient to transport, that will discharge inflammable matters, causing great injury to the enemy and also great terror from the smoke.

"5. Item: By means of narrow and winding underground passages, made without noise, I can contrive a way for passing under ditches or any stream.

"6. Item: I can construct covered carts, secure and indestructible, bearing artillery, which, entering among the enemy, will break the strongest body of men, and which the infantry can follow without any impediment.

"7. I can construct cannon, mortars and fire engines of beautiful and useful shapes and different from those in common use.

"8. Where the use of cannon is impracticable, I can replace them by catapults, mangonels, and engines for discharging missiles of admirable efficacy, and hitherto unknown—in short, according as the case may be, I can contrive endless means of defense.

"9. And, if the fight should be at sea, I have numerous engines of the utmost activity both for attack and defense; vessels that will resist the heaviest fire, also powders or vapors.

"10. In time of peace I believe I can equal anyone in architecture and in constructing buildings, public or private, and in conducting water from one place to another.

"Then, I can execute sculpture whether in marble, bronze or terra-cotta, also in painting I can do as much as any other, be he who he may."

To us, who are in the habit of looking upon Da Vinci first of all as a painter, it seems strange that he himself seems merely to append his art qualifications, laying most stress upon his power to erect fortifications, conduct sieges, etc.

That the Duke was favorably impressed with Leonardo's letter is certain from the fact that the artist went to Milan and lived at the court for nearly twenty years. It was a shining jewel that the northern city drew away from its Florentine setting but it shone in undimmed lustre at Milan. Here he not only attended to all sorts of engineering to further the Duke's schemes of conquest and defense, but he painted pictures to conciliate the Emperor, whose friendship the Duke wanted, and modeled a bronze statue in honor of Lodovico's father.

Further than this, he was master of ceremonies on all state occasions and there were many of these at Milan. It was he who planned the festivals, arranging arches and other decorations for the city on gala days. It was a full life, surely, and one not adapted to incite him to that close and indefatigable effort which produces the finished work.

A person may know little, indeed, of Da Vinci, but two things he is bound to know even as he does his own name—that the two great works executed by Da Vinci while at Milan were "The Last Supper"  and the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, the father of the reigning Duke. The latter of these has disappeared entirely, while the former, although probably the best known picture in the world, is a sorry wreck.

This picture, "The Last Supper,"  about which so much has been written and of which so many reproductions have been made, occupied one entire side of the small refectory or dining hall in the convent dedicated to the Madonna delle Grazie. At the other side of the room was the real table of the monks, so that this pictured table seemed a sort of reflection of the real one. The artist must have had this in mind, for he has copied the linen and table ware of the convent carefully. The arrangement is very simple and at the same time it is exceedingly attractive.


The Last Supper

In the centre of the further side of a long straight table sits Christ, who is evidently delivering himself of the thrilling information, “One of you shall betray me.” On either side are two groups of three disciples each, discussing with decided animation the astounding news. Every possible sentiment is expressed by facial expression and by vigorous movement of the hands, from the broken-hearted silence of John to the menace which it seems Peter would offer to any one who should dare such an inhuman thing. In the band of offended and shocked followers the sinister Judas, who clutches the money-bag more tightly while he unconsciously overturns the salt in his trepidation, is a strangely contrasted figure. Whatever doubt one may feel in identifying the other disciples in the picture, one never mistakes the wily Judas nor the loving and beloved John.


Christ — Detail from the Last Supper

This had been a popular subject with the contemporaries and fore-runners of Leonardo but there is no other representation of the subject that so completely satisfies us as this. The difficulty in painting this scene seemed to be this—a company of thirteen men seated at a table for refreshment is a prosaic thing to represent—there is no dramatic nor picturesque thing to portray and so, although other artists had done their best to bring the scene before the people, they had practically failed, great artists though they were. Da Vinci too perhaps recognized this difficulty of his subject and so he gave the opportunity for action and variety of expression by representing the moment when Christ makes his startling declaration.


Andrew, James Minor and Bartholomew — Detail from the Last Supper

While so perfectly simple, we yet feel that the picture is a triumph of art in the use it makes of the simplest devices. Here the hands speak as in other pictures countenances do not. It is stated that Da Vinci was twenty months in completing the work and most of that time was spent in apparently idle contemplation. When he worked, he did so with fury, forgetting food, exercise and even light, until darkness brought him to himself again. Then he would spend days strolling in the cloister shades, evidently getting himself into the proper mental attitude for the great work.


John, Judas and Peter —Detail from the Last Supper

Over and over again he blotted out some of the heads to do them anew when his thought should be more full, more adequate to the work, for he reasoned, "Is not our art the servant of our thought?" Long he worked and thought over the head of our Lord and even then he left it incomplete. William Story has beautifully expressed the difficulty with which the artist was oppressed while working on this part of the picture:

"And say if 'tis an easy task to find,

Even among the best that walk this earth,

The fittest type of that divinest worth,

That has its image solely in the mind.

Vainly my pencil struggles to express

The sorrowing grandeur of such holiness.

In patient thought, in ever-seeking prayer,

I strive to shape that glorious face within,

But the soul's mirror, dulled and dimmed by sin,

Reflects not yet the perfect image there."

His perplexity in representing Judas was almost as great and here again Story expresses Leonardo's thought:

"And Judas too—the basest face I see

Will not contain his utter infamy;

Among the dregs and offal of mankind,

Vainly I seek an utter wretch to find.

He who for thirty silver coins would sell

His Lord must be the Devil's miracle."

It is said that the Padre or father of the convent grew very irritable because Da Vinci was so slow and he complained bitterly to the Duke. It is further related that the artist, growing tired of the Padre's inappreciative nagging, used him as a model for the head of Judas.


James, Thomas and Philip

The picture was twenty-eight feet long and its figures larger than life. When it was finished it was a marvel of beauty. In the first days of its glory Louis XII. of France, then engaged against the Duke of Milan, paid a visit to the convent to see the great picture. There were in his train the dukes of Ferrara and Mantua, both great lovers of art, Cæsar Borgia, and representatives from Venice and Genoa. They were all deeply impressed with the beauty and power of the picture, the king so much so that he advised a plan for hewing out the plaster on which it was painted and removing it to France.


Mathew, Thaddeus and Simon — Detail of the Last Supper

He did not carry out the plan, however, and it was left to a more pitiful fate, it seems, as we look at it now after centuries of repainting and misuse—hardly suggesting, in its blurred faces and marred figures, the outline of, perhaps, the most perfectly executed picture in the world.

Leonardo himself sowed the seeds of its destruction in the process he used in painting the picture. We have often compared the rather faded coloring of frescoes with the brilliancy of oil colors. Our artist was thoroughly in love with the latter, as who should not be, and in spite of all rules to the contrary he used them on the plaster of the convent wall in making his picture. As might have been expected, even in the artist's lifetime, the paint had begun to scale off, and if fifty years it was practically ruined.

Then came the men who have spoiled more pictures than Father Time himself, the so-called restorers, and painted the precious work over as if they, mere tinkers in the art of painting, could reproduce the wondrous thought of Leonardo's master mind or the fine work of his skilled hand. Once a century, at least, this painful process was gone through with.

Then came Napoleon with his conquering soldiers. Among other desecrations, they turned the refectory where this picture was painted into a stable. In idle moments the soldiers entertained themselves by throwing bricks at the heads of the disciples.

Our knowledge of the painting comes through the fine engraving made by Raphael Morghen at the beginning of the present century. Much as we prize this engraving, however, it must have been taken largely from reproductions of the picture it represents, for the original certainly was in a dilapidated condition when the engraving appeared.

While "The Last Supper"  was slowly progressing, as the Padre thought, Leonardo's other great work at Milan was going forward also. This was the bronze statue of the Duke's father. Of course he worked at the cast for it first, building it up slowly and with the same minute care that he put upon his great picture. The horse in the statue was no minor matter to Leonardo, for in all the drawings left by him we find quite as much attention given to the anatomy of the horse as to that of the man. Then, too, it was the fashion of the time to represent great heroes on horseback,—this even in Venice where horses were almost unknown. One of the last works that left Verrocchio's studio was the equestrian statue of Colleoni, a famous leader of the Venetian people. This statue is still one of the wonders of the island city.

From the records we find that Leonardo's statue was never cast and that the model for it, which was temporarily set up, was totally destroyed when the French entered Milan, a few years later. It would have been an immense statue if it had been cast, for the artist required a hundred thousand pounds of bronze for the work. Unfinished though the statue remained yet we may look back to it, even in the beginning state of a model, as the father of all those late equestrian statues which are so familiar in the cities of Europe and America.

It is probable that Leonardo, while in the service of the Duke of Milan, gave more of his attention to engineering and fantastic decorations than to art work. It is known, however, that during this time he made several portraits and drew many ideal heads.

An important point in the history of art was the founding by Leonardo of an art academy in Milan. The pupils who gathered here were quick to catch the master's style and scatter it broadcast. There is a certain smile on the faces of Leonardo's women that one who knows pictures at all almost instantly recognizes. His best known pupil and imitator is Bernardino Luini.

Da Vinci's work in Milan, however, was now drawing to a close, for things were darkening about the Duke, who had already been imprisoned. In 1500, he came back to his dukedom for three short months, and then the French came and completed the conquest they had begun. The Milanese duke, after an imprisonment of ten years, died as miserably as if he had not brought glory to Milan, even as Pericles of old had brought it to Athens. With the downfall of Lodovico, Leonardo's career at Milan closed and he sought his fortunes in new fields.

He made a short visit to Venice. He then went to Mantua where he made a portrait of Isabella Gonzaga, the famous literary princess who was such a help to Correggio and Titian. This portrait is still to be seen in the Louvre with the title of "La Belle Ferronniere."  In his wanderings he went again to Florence for a time, but evidently with no settled purpose.

In 1502, we find him in the service of the meanest prince of his time, Cæsar Borgia, who had joined with Louis XII. to conquer northern Italy. Just why a man of so exalted and gifted a mind should choose to follow a prince so ruthless in his seizures, so despicable in all his relations of life, we cannot tell, unless the opportunity which it gave for travel and for putting in operation pet schemes of engineering made him overlook the character of the man he served. It is certain that he visited all the principal cities of central Italy while in the service of Cæsar Borgia. At Urbino he drew details of the fine castle of which his patron had so unjustly taken possession. At Rimini he noted the system of the water supply. At Ravenna he made a drawing of the harbor near at hand.

He passed through Chiusi, Perugia and Foligno. He was interested in a giant bell at Siena and in the marvellous cathedral at Orvieto. Of all this country he drew correct maps, giving special attention to the water systems everywhere. It is likely, though not certain, that in his travels at this time he visited Rome, for he would hardly have come near enough to the ancient city to make a map of the Volscian hills and the Pontine marshes, and not visit the city itself.

Although the artist passed over so much territory, it is likely that he remained in the service of Cæsar Borgia only about thirteen months. At the end of that time Cæsar was stripped of his ill-gotten gains by Julius II. and sent to Spain where, shortly after, he died in battle. We next find Leonardo in Florence. Here he soon obtained congenial employment. Some monks commissioned him to make an altar-piece for a chapel in their church of the Annunciation.

He selected as a subject St. Anne, as she gazes in pride upon Mary and Jesus, while she points to heaven as if indicating that the child is distinctly a part of the great overshadowing blessedness. The monks were rejoiced that they were to have a picture by so great an artist, but they were doomed to the disappointment that most of Leonardo's patrons experienced, for we have only a cartoon to show what were the artist's notions for his subject.

To this period belongs that contest always noted by anyone who studies the lives of Da Vinci and Angelo, when these two men, the greatest artists and minds of the time, drew cartoons to decorate the principal room of the Palazzo Vecchio, or town hall, of Florence. On the whole the contest was friendly, but Da Vinci is known to have criticised his great contemporary's style by likening his rugged figures to "sacks of walnuts."

We know how Angelo, glorying in his power to represent the nude human form in all sorts of difficult positions, chose for a subject some soldiers suddenly called to battle while bathing in the Arno. The excited scramble to get from the water and to pull clothing on their wet bodies gave Angelo just the sort of a subject he craved.

Da Vinci selected "The Battle of Anghiera."  This was an engagement in which the Florentines took great pride, for here they had beaten the Milanese.

When the cartoons were completed they were hung on either side of the great hall. The artists of the time came from far and near to admire these master works and learn from them. But, alas! nothing further was done, and after a while even the cartoons disappeared. Years later, in Rubens' time, a fragrant of Da Vinci's work was found which the Flemish master reproduced and called "The Battle of the Standard."  This is all we have to-day of another mighty work of our wizard master. Like the equestrian statue at Milan, this battle piece was the forerunner of the long line of battle pieces which great artists have since given to the world. Indeed, one part of Leonardo's wonderful book on painting is taken up with directions for painting battle scenes.


Battle of the Standard

About the time of the cartoon contest we learn of the death of Leonardo's father and of his mother. The latter was in a hospital where he was in the habit of visiting her and ministering to her wants. The honorable, indeed sumptuous, funeral which he arranged for her, was only following up to completion the attention he gave her while she lived.

The perfect "Mona Lisa,"  the best preserved of all his pictures, was produced about this time. It is a portrait of his friend Giocondo's wife, and is sometimes called on this account "La Gioconde."  It is a half length portrait of a comely woman who rests her hands on the arm of her chair. There is a fine mountain background, but the great beauty of the picture is the smile that irradiates her face and fairly steals down to her exquisite neck. In the hair and the delicate folds of the rich drapery there is a minuteness of execution that would do credit to the most painstaking Dutch painter.


Mona Lisa

It took Da Vinci four years to complete this work and even then he was quite unwilling to give it up lest, by retouching it, he could improve it. Francis I. of France bought it for nine thousand dollars and we may see it to-day in the gem-room of the Louvre, a jewel beside other jewels, not lessened in its beauty by its proximity to masterpieces by Raphael, Correggio, Dow and Veronese.

Two other works by Leonardo are in the Louvre. They are "Saint Anne"  and "The Madonna of the Rocks."  The first of these is unfinished but it has the marks of Da Vinci's great work. The Virgin sits in the lap of St. Anne and holds the child, who is trying to mount a lamb just in front. There is the same rocky background and something of the same smile illuminates the face of St. Anne as that we find in "Mona Lisa."

In "The Madonna of the Rocks"  we have a more finished picture. Mary sits with two children, John and the Christ Child, in a rocky grotto while an angel, very much resembling the one he painted long ago in Verrocchio's picture, converses with her, evidently about the divine child. The details of draperies, hair, flowers and rocks are worked out as minutely as in the "Mona Lisa."

When Francis I. came to the throne of France he was ambitious for the glory of his country and his own name. He linked himself with the Venetian republic against the Pope and Milan. The Duke Lodovico was expelled from Milan and Leonardo came into direct contact with Francis. From this time our artist was evidently in the service of the luxurious French king, returning with him to France in 1516.

Everything that a king could do for a gifted servant Francis did for Da Vinci. He made him a present of a commodious chateau near Amboise, where he lived in the elegance that his luxurious nature demanded, and where he worked at commissions given him by the king. These pictures, "Leda and the Swan"  and "Pomona"  have perished but we have distinct record that they were painted for the king. Such subjects selected by Francis show what his taste was for luxury and the merely decorative, even if we cannot judge of the pictures themselves.

It would seem that our artist was now settled very much to his liking, but the three years of life left to him were years of illness and homesickness. The art advancement of Italy was unknown in France and Leonardo must have missed bitterly what he had become so accustomed to at home. Art legend relates that the painter died in the arms of Francis, but the fact seems to be that the news of Leonardo's death was conveyed to the king by another, who tells us that "Sore wept King Francis when he heard that Leonardo was dead, who, when living, painted "The Last Supper,"  a picture which excels every other.

Unlike many of the great masters we have studied Leonardo left no fortune. Indeed, whoever writes of this great man must note his poverty at the time of his death, even though he had been in the service of royalty a large part of his life.

It is a singular thing about Da Vinci that, in spite of the fact that he left no palace, no great fortune, few finished works and most of these in a state of dilapidation, he is one of the best known among the great men of the world. This is what it means to possess a great personality and such was the richest possession of Leonardo da Vinci. The beauty of his person was matched by the range of his wonderful mind and to whatever city he went he carried a glory which, it seems, has never passed away.

Though he left few pictures, he has bequeathed to posterity a style of painting that is beautiful and unique. His great work on painting is a valuable guide to painters to-day, living in the full glare of matured science. Like the lute he carried to Milan to charm an erratic prince, so was his life and work—beautiful, but higher still, breathing forth the very spirit of science and utility.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Michael Angelo Buonarroti  |  Next: Venice, the City of Titian
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.