Grade 9

Leonardo Da Vinci's Most Famous Paintings


French 2 Honors

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Vinci, Italy, directly outside of Florence. The son of a peasant, Caterina, and a wealthy Florentine notary, Ser Perio, he was fortunately given access to a multitude of scholarly texts owned by family and friends and apprenticed as a garzone, or studio boy, to the workshop of the leading painter and sculptor in Florence, Andrea del Verrochio. In 1470, Da Vinci painted a kneeling angel in Verrochio's Baptism of Christ. His own addition to the painting surpassed Verrochio's own talents and the latter, recognizing that his apprentice had outdone him, gave up his trade. Da Vinci was allowed entrance into the painter's guild of Florence only two years later, and thus began his career as an artist.

His first commission was The Adoration of the Magi, ordered from the monastery of San Donata a Scopeto near Florence in 1480. The painting is a sizable nine by eight feet and features an array of characters, some on horseback, surrounding the Virgin and child in the center. Beside Mary and her child is a tree thought to represent the tree of life and the thriving of Christianity over other pagan religions seen, in the painting, slowly decaying. In the far right, separate from the painting like a thoughtful spectator, is a shepart boy thought to be a self-portrait of a younger Leonardo. Finished in only thirty months, Da Vinci included sixty-six human beings and eleven animals. He was twenty-nine when he completed the painting.

After his first success, Da Vinci worked under the patronage of Duke Ludovico Sforza in Milan for seventeen years, studying human anatomy and engineering and designing everything from churches to tanks. During this time, he painted the now-famous and controversial Last Supper. The painting measures fifteen by twenty-nine feet and took Da Vinci years to complete (he worked on it from 1495 and finished it in 1498). It depicts the biblical moment before Christ's crucifixion in which he foretells the specifics of his demise. His disciples visibly react in horror and astonishment at this claim, tilting away from the center of the painting, where Christ sits placidly. Da Vinci also included the coat of arms of the Duke Sfroza, his patron, above the ceiling of the refractory. The painting is groundbreaking in terms of the medium used. While many paintings of that era where frescos, using wet plaster which mixed with the paint applied and dried into an unchangeable layer of paint, the Last Supper was an experiment of Da Vinci's, using dry plaster instead of the traditional kind. Though this enabled Da Vinci to paint over sections of the painting and 'revise' any part of the extremely detailed work of art, the dry plaster did not mix with the paint, exposing the medium directly to atmospheric decay. Recently, a group of experts spent over twenty-one years in an attempt to restore the painting, finally completing their work in 1999. The destruction of parts of the painting only adds to its mystery, as the detail put into the Last Supper are infinite and, from every angle, fascinating. For example, Judas's plate is empty, separating him from the other disciples and showing his lack of belief in the Messiah. In front of his plate is a fallen saltshaker, a traditional sign of bad luck for the superstitious. On the table fish is also available, an allusion to Jesus's life around Lake Tiberias and the origins of many of his disciples. The species, though, is unclear, from the way the fish is painted, and could be identified as any of two varieties. The first possibility, the herring, is renga in northern Italy, meaning he who denies religion. The second is the eel, or, in Italian, aringa. When an extra 'r' is added to form arringa, the result is the Italian word for indoctrination. Some specialists argue that Da Vinci may have been deliberately ambiguous as to the species of fish, implying the double meaning, but, in either case, each seemingly insignificant detail in the painting has a world of meaning, giving insights into Da Vinci's own opinions and beliefs.

In 1499, with the French invasion and Duke's fall from power, Da Vinci was forced to find a new patron. Finally, under the patronage of the Duke of Romagna and son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, Da Vinci was able to continue his work as architect, engineer, and artist. Though he painted several portraits, the only one which survived is the celebrated Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda in Italian, which was painted from 1503 to 1506. The Italian name means a ligh-hearted woman, referring to her mysterious smile and confident expression. However, her appearance may not be so mysterious. In an essay titled "On the Perfect Beauty of a Woman," the 16th century writer, Firenzuola, explains that a smile such as the one on the Mona Lisa was, in that period, a sign of elegance. The missing eyebrows were also common in that era, as women of the time would usually shave them off. But this does not explain the true and inexplicable mystery of the painting. In reality, it is Da Vinci's ability to capture a multitude of emotions in one moment which allows the viewer to see another facet of La Gioconda's personality, leaving the observer dazed and awed. Da Vinci's use of sfumato technique, gradually dissolving forms and lines for a smoother transition between light and dark, adds to the ambiguity of the piece, giving uncertain shadows to the subject's bright face and blurring our perception of time. In addition, it is now known that the Mona Lisa was seated on a terrace, as specialists have identified the bases of columns on the edges of the seventy-seven by fifty-three centimeter painting, presumably cut off. Adding to the allure and mystery of the piece, recent computer restoration shows that the original colors of the painting where quite different from the ones seen today. The original Mona Lisa is declared to have been endowed with rosy cheeks and set on a background of pale blue skies instead of the yellow and green tinge seen now from the grime that covers it. The possible damage, however, which a restoration could bring to the painting, has led specialists to ignore the possibility. The true colors of La Gioconda may, for this reason, never be known for sure.

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest mysteries of the Mona Lisa is the uncertainty pertaining who the individual in the painting actually was. It is unknown who commissioned the painting or if it was commissioned at all, giving little insight into the identity of La Gioconda. One theory which has recently been entertained is that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of Da Vinci himself in drag. The painting, when compared with a self-portrait of Da Vinci, is strikingly similar in bone structure and other features, but skeptics claim that comparisons could be drawn easily and there is also the possibility that the Mona Lisa was a portrait of Da Vinci's aforementioned mother, Caterina. While this would explain Da Vinci's special affection for the painting (he brought it with him on all of his travels and refused to sell it until his death), it does not explain why prototypes of the famous painting portray a clearly male sitter. This past January, Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage is undertaking the investigation, planning to exhume Da Vinci's corpse now buried in a French castle, in an attempt to compare his bone structure to that portrayed by the Mona Lisa. Perhaps, either one of the countless mysteries of Da Vinci will be available to us now, or we will be left to forever ponder the secrets left behind by this brilliant inventor and artist.

Works Cited

ABC News. "Is Da Vinci's Mona Lisa a Self Portrait?" .com. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .com/ GMA/ leonardo-da-vincis-mona-lisa-self-portrait/ story?id=9662394&page=2.

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"The Last Supper: Leonardo Da Vinci, Mary Magdalene, the Hand and Knife." .com/ hobbies/ art/ . N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .com/ hobbies/ art/ .

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"Leonardo da Vinci - The Last Supper Painting." .com. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .com/ articles/ .

"Mona Lisa." .org. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. ./ leonardo/ .

Museum of Science. "Rennaissance Man." .org/ . N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .org/ leonardo/ .

ScienceDaily. "Leonardo Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' Reveals More Secrets." .com. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .com/ releases/ 2010/ 03/ .

Webmuseum, Paris. "Leonardo Da Vinci: La Joconde." .org. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 June 2010. .org/ wm/ paint/ auth/ vinci/ joconde/.

(I have to admit, I did this the day before it was due, but I loved it. We were supposed to do only two pages. I spent four hours minimum just doing research. It's a fascinating subject with so much controversy. Hope you enjoyed the insight into Da Vinci's paintings. This was a project that was actually fun. I also painted the Mona Lisa… on cling wrap. Got a 95% because I forgot to include a Title Page which was 5% of the grade. Grumble... oh, well.)