Leonardo daVinci
 The surprising thing about Leonardo (1452-1519) was that his first and official position was that of a military engineer for the Duke of Milan. Painting, architecture and sculpture were only of secondary importance, although he thoroughly enjoyed discussing the philosophy of aesthetics. Anyway, Leonardo's painting shown above, The Last Supper (c. 1495-98), is widly considered the first masterpiece of the High Renaissance because of the relationship between the figures and the visual space of the painting. (I'm sure you've all seen this work before, as it is quite common in reproduction.........especially in the living rooms of Grandmothers.) You should notice how the perspective leads one's eye to the vanishing point located on the head of Jesus, and also how the window in the background creates a halo effect that is striking. You might even notice how the disciples are grouped in threes, evenly on either side of Christ. This is all very nice........but the truly amazing thing about this painting is that the figures and the space work together and are dependent on each other. Try covering up the top half of the fresco with you hand........notice how the figures look like a mere line-up or a frieze. When we take our hand away, the fresco regains its power. Yes, the perspective pulls you in.......and yes, there is triangular composition, but The Last Supper is more that the sum of these Renaissance tools.........it creates a spirituality that is quite remarkable. (Unfortunately, the building in Milan where the fresco hangs was severly bombed during WWII, weakening the wall surface. This, along with the fact that Leonardo experimented with new and unproven paint mixtures, has left the fresco in not so good shape. Just imagine what it must have looked like 500 years ago!)

 You wouldn't be a Renaissance painter if you didn't paint at least a couple Madonna's.......and Leonardo was no exception. The painting on the left, Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1485) show us a splendid example of the power of chairoscuro. The figures are illuminated and shine against the dark, rocky background. But the effect isn't at all stark or too great in contrast because of the careful blending into the shadows. In the painting, Mary, with her arm around the baby St. John, sits across from the baby Jesus and an angel. The subject matter seems beautifully balanced, probably because there is a circle implied by the movement and direction of their gestures. This painting emits a sort of calm, as does the work on the right, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1510). The misty effect of the sfumato softens the figures, which helps create the calming effect. In the background, the atmospheric perspective (the lightening and hazing of images as they go back into space) is both monumental, yet subdued........giving the work a feeling of controled strength. Also, I can't resist mentioning the pyramidal composition of this work. Click on the image to see a diagram if you find it difficult to see for yourself.)

 We all know the title of this painting, but who was this woman? She is obviously not the platonic "ideal" woman, yet she's presented as ideal. What emotions are going through her head? Is she smiling or smirking at us? Why do her eyes follow us as we walk from one position to another? Why has she remained so mysterious for 500 years?

The answers lie in the way in which Leonardo painted her. (Her name, by the way, was Genevra di Benci, the wealthy wife of a Florentine banker.) The parts of the face that portray emotion (the corners of the eyes and the corners of the mouth), are left deliberately vague by the effect of sfumato. Because of the soft and gradual blending of dark to light, we can't see what's going on......so we must guess, which is why The Mona Lisa (c. 1505) seems so mysterious and so different each time we see her. Leonardo plays with our minds as we gaze upon her, and forces us to bring our own baggage into the viewing experience. So yes, this painting deserves all the hype.

 Before Quincy Jones, before Thomas Jefferson, there was Leonardo.......the original Renaissance man. (Of course, we should mention that even before Leonardo, there was Hildegard Von Bingen, the first Renaissance woman, who beat him out by 400 years.) Leonardo's interest and expertise in engineering, medicine, music, art and philosophy make him more than deserving of such a title. Pictured below and to the right are some of Leonardo's anatomical drawings, which launched the field of medical illustration.

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