We have adopted the traditional 10 of Sagittarius ascendant for a wandering mind, as the Maestro did not physically travel far. Its symbol is “a teacher giving new forms for old symbols, ” and hearkens to the higher faculties of human understanding with the keyword of “acuteness.”
Life of da Vinci
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519) is the great Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer and natural philosopher. He was the bastard son of a Florentine lawyer (Piero), by a young girl of a merchant family Catarina (Catherine). He was born in Vinci, a castello or fortified hill village in the Florentine territory near Empoli, from which his father’s family derived its name.
Upon birth of her son, Catarina was married to one Accattabriga di Piero del Vacca, of Vinci. Ser Piero on his part was four times married, and had by his last two wives nine sons and two daughters; but he had from the first acknowledged the boy Leonardo and brought him up in his own house, principally, at Florence. Ser Piero was successful first as notary to many of the chief families in the city, including the Medici, and afterwards to the signory or governing council of the state.
The youth grew up with shining promise and inexhaustible intellectual energy. Among his multifarious pursuits to were music, drawing and modelling. His father showed some of his drawings to an acquaintance, Andrea del Verrocchio who at once recognized the boy’s artistic vocation, and was selected by Ser Piero to be his master.
Verrocchio, although hardly one of the great creative or inventive forces in the art of his age, was a first-rate goldsmith, sculptor and painter, and is particularly distinguished as a teacher. In his studio Leonardo worked for several years (about 1470-1477) in the company of Lorenzo di Credi and other less celebrated pupils.
Baptism of Christ
Among his contemporaries he formed special ties of friendship with the painters Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino. He had soon learnt all that Verrocchio had to teach – more than all, if we are to believe the oft-told tale of the figure, or figures, executed by the pupil in the picture of Christ’s Baptism designed by the master for the monks of Vallombrosa. The work in question is now in the Academy at Florence.
According to Vasari the angel kneeling on the left, with a drapery over the right arm, was put ire by Leonardo, and when Verrocchio saw it his sense of its superiority to his own work caused him to forswear painting for ever after. The latter part of the story is certainly false. The picture, originally painted in tempera, has suffered much from later repaints in oil, rendering exact judgment difficult. The most competent opinion inclines to acknowledge the hand of Leonardo, not only in the face of the angel, but also in parts of the drapery and of the landscape background. The work was probably done in or about 1470, when Leonardo was eighteen years old.
Leonardo was not one of those artists of the Renaissance who sought the means of reviving the ancient glories of art mainly in the imitation of ancient models. The antiques of the Medici gardens seem to have had little influence on him beyond that of generally stimulating his passion for perfection. By his own instincts he was an exclusive student of nature.
From his earliest days he had flung himself upon that study with an unprecedented ardour of delight and curiosity. In drawing from life he had early found the way to unite precision with freedom and fire – the subtlest accuracy of expressive definition with vital movement and rhythm of line – as no draughtsman had been able to unite them before.
Shadow and light in painting
Leonardo was the first painter to recognize the play of light and shade as among the most significant and attractive of the world’s appearances, the earlier schools having subordinated light and shade to colour and outline. Nor was he a student of the broad, usual, patent appearances only of the world; its fugitive, fantastic, unaccustomed appearances attracted him most of all. Strange shapes of hills and rocks, rare plants and animals, unusual faces and figures of men, questionable smiles and expressions, whether beautiful or grotesque, far-fetched objects and curiosities, were things he loved to pore upon and keep in memory.
Neither did he stop at mere appearances of any kind, but, having stamped the image of things upon his brain, went on indefatigably to probe their hidden laws and causes. He soon satisfied himself that the artist who was content to reproduce the external aspects of things without searching into the hidden workings of nature behind them, was one but half equipped for his calling.
Every fresh artistic problem immediately became for him a far-reaching scientific problem as well. The laws of light and shade, the laws of “perspective,” including optics and the physiology of the eye, the laws of human and animal anatomy and muscular movement, those of the growth and structure of plants and of the powers and properties of water, all these and much more furnished food almost from the beginning to his insatiable spirit of inquiry.
The evidence of the young man’s predilections and curiosities is contained in the legends which tell of lost works produced by him in youth. One of these was a cartoon or monochrome painting of Adam and Eve in tempera, and in this, besides the beauty of the figures, the infinite truth and elaboration of the foliage and animals in the background are celebrated in terms which bring to mind the treatment of the subject by Nuremberg master Albrecht Durer in his famous engraving done thirty years later.
A peasant of Vinci having in his simplicity asked Ser Piero to get a picture painted for him on a wooden shield, the father is said to have laughingly handed on the commission to his son, who thereupon shut himself up with all the noxious insects and grotesque reptiles he could find, observed and drew and dissected them assiduously, and produced at last a picture of a dragon compounded of their various shapes and aspects, which was so fierce and so life-like as to terrify all who saw it.
He was full of new ideas concerning both the laws and the applications of mechanical forces. His architectural and engineering projects were of a daring which amazed even the fellow-citizens of Alberti and Brunelleschi. History presents few figures more attractive to the mind’s eye than that of Leonardo during this period of his all-capable and dazzling youth. He did not indeed escape calumny, and was even denounced on a charge of immoral practices, but fully and honourably acquitted.
No contemporary gives the least hint of Leonardo’s having travelled in the East; to the places he mentions he gives their classical and not their current Oriental names; the catastrophes he describes are unattested from any other source; he confuses the Taurus and the Caucasus; some of the phenomena he mentions are repeated from Aristotle and Ptolemy; and there seems little reason to doubt that these passages in his MSS. are merely his drafts of a projected geographical treatise or perhaps romance.
When he and Fra Luca Pacioli (Franciscan friar, mathematician and the founder of double-entry accounting) left Milan in December 1499, their destination was Venice. They made a brief stay at Mantua, where Leonardo was graciously received by the duchess Isabella Gonzaga, the most cultured of the many cultured great ladies of her time, whose portrait he promised to paint on a future day; meantime he made the fine chalk drawing of her now at the Louvre but his real purpose for the trip was to learn cosmogony and calculus
Death of father
His father had died in 1504, apparently intestate. After his death Leonardo experienced unkindness from his seven half-brothers, Ser Piero’s legitimate sons. They were all much younger than himself. One of them, who followed his father’s profession, made himself the champion of the others in disputing Leonardo’s claim to his share, first in the paternal inheritance, and then in that which had been left to be divided between the brothers and sisters by an uncle.
The litigation that ensued dragged on for several years, and forced upon Leonardo frequent visits to Florence and interruptions of his work at Milan, in spite of pressing letters to the authorities of the republic from Charles d’Amboise, from the French king himself, and from others of his powerful friends and patrons, begging that the proceedings might be accelerated.
At this point Leonardo drew in chalk our only portrait of himself (see our header picture): while he looks old for his years, he has the character of a veteran sage with features grand, clear and deeply lined, the mouth firmly set and almost stern, the eyes strong and intent beneath their bushy eyebrows, the hair flows untrimmed over his shoulders and commingles with a majestic beard.
+++Adapted and condensed from Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911