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Leonardo da Vinci and the Medici: the Genius' enchanting paintings in Renaissance Florence

The development of art in Leonardo da Vinci's paintings in Florence from his early work to his departure for Milan

Leonardo da Vinci: A journey into the heart of the renaissance art

14 April 2024

How to Observe Art

The young Leonardo: artistic beginnings and the discovery of light

Leonardo da Vinci's genius is generally extolled through his futurist inventions, to the detriment of his great artistic sensibility. However, for Leonardo, the art of painting constituted a field of investigation and insight as significant as any other field of study placing art and science closer than one might think.

Leonardo da Vinci's career as a painter of genius began at a very early age when, around 1469, at the age of 17, he was assigned as a "apprentice" to Andrea del Verrocchio's workshop in Florence. Here Leonardo began to develop an attention to the things of the real world and in particular to the behavior of light, grasping in this the ability to define and shape the very forms of reality but also to attribute to them unprecedented grace and elegance.

We have the first evidence of Leonardo's hand in a drawing from 1473 in which he traced with brown ink on a sheet of paper the Valdarno Landscape, describing with rapid and decisive strokes a view that emerges from his memories or he observes from life, in direct contact. Leonardo completely untangles himself from the art history of previous centuries, which associated any landscape with a subject of sacred or profane character, to focus exclusively on the view, with special attention to the atmospheric effects produced by the juxtaposition of the far with the near. Indeed, he forgoes even the detail-rich descriptive beauty of Flemish painting to dwell more on the atmospheric sense that pervades all things. This is the first work by Leonardo with a date, August 5, 1473, written in an unusual but unmistakable handwriting. Indeed, a peculiarity of Leonardo da Vinci's emerges here for the first time: mirror writing, that is, writing from right to left. This peculiarity has often been interpreted as an attempt by Leonardo to keep his work secret and incomprehensible to most, but it is nothing more than the natural writing of left-handed people whose handwriting sense is not corrected. Today we can admire this drawing at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe in the Uffizi Gallery. At the time this drawing was made, Leonardo was completing his apprenticeship at Verrocchio's workshop, but he must already have had in mind a type of painting, and especially of perception of the world, intended to scientifically investigate nature.

First steps in the art world

The first subject of a pictorial nature that has come down to us from Leonardo da Vinci is suggested by Vasari, who, presenting a work by Andrea del Verrocchio in which St. John baptizes Christ, tells us that a young Leonardo da Vinci was entrusted with the creation of the angel holding some robes. This is the Baptism of Christ, a work made for the monastery of San Salvi outside the walls of Florence and preserved in the Uffizi Gallery. At the time of the making of this panel, between 1475 and 1478, Verrocchio's workshop was the most important in Florence and the master used many collaborators to make the works. For this subject Verrocchio painted the two protagonists, clearly recognizable by his realistic style, with manners taken from the Flemish style and a character derived from his skill as an eclectic master, capable of transforming his workshop into a multipurpose center, offering works of painting, sculpture, goldsmithing and decoration to meet the growing demand from all parts of Italy for Florentine products. At a later stage two other collaborators were brought in: one, who remains unknown, responsible for the palm tree on the left and the rocky landscape on the right, and another responsible for the face of the angel seen opposite, presumably attributed to a young Sandro Botticelli. Only in the final stage was Leonardo da Vinci asked to finish the painting by trying to unify the parts already painted.

We therefore attribute to him the face of the angel in profile where we can already notice inescapable elements of his painting such as the transparent brushstrokes aimed at unifying the planes of the landscape in depth and the use of sfumato, that is, the technique, characteristic of Leonardo, with which he manages to attenuate the contours of the figures and the landscape around, tending almost to merge them, through a skillful use of color, with the atmospheric effect of the air that Leonardo unravels in the scene. Vasari also reports the anecdote that Verrocchio never touched his brush again after seeing his pupil surpass him; this does not actually appear to be true, but it undoubtedly testifies, through the lively accounts of ordinary people, to Leonardo's precocious talent.In the mid-1970s Leonardo launched his independent painting career with the execution of a painting to be placed on the main altar of the church of San Bartolomeo in Monteoliveto, a short walk from the walls of Florence. This altarpiece, depicting the Annunciation, now in the Uffizi Gallery, still shows signs of Verrocchio's influence, especially in the draperies of the robes shaped by light, the elegance of the faces and the tomb-like taste of the choice of the lectern on which the Old Testament rests. However, there is no lack of signs of novelty on Leonardo's part, for example in the softness of the hair and the detail of a distant landscape in which, amidst the mist, mountains rise up. It is in this juxtaposition of planes that Leonardo introduces his greatest novelty: aerial perspective, a technique that involved a softer, more muted coloring for scenes represented in the distance, as if shrouded in mist, and a sharper, more decisive coloring for nearby subjects, depicted minutely precisely because they were under direct view of the observer.

The painting never finished and the sad trial

Leonardo's youthful experiments culminated shortly thereafter in the Adoration of the Magi, commissioned in 1481 for the high altar of the Augustinian church of San Donato a Scopeto, on the outskirts of Florence, now preserved after careful restoration at the Uffizi Gallery. The work was only sketched out by the painter, so it appears to us as a kind of large preparatory drawing, yet it equally succeeds in imparting an emotional connotation and vitality in the characters depicted, no longer static as in the Annunciation of a few years earlier. The placement of the protagonists with the Madonna and Child seated under a tree, surrounded by the Magi and their large retinue, also appears unusual. In the background we see stairs and arches of a building under construction, alternating with the now established rocky landscape. Unfortunately, Leonardo's life in the vaulted and refined Florence was disrupted by a scandal and trial over his homosexuality, which had sad and not entirely clear consequences in the already complex mind of Leonardo, who preferred to leave the place that had taught him everything to seek a place far from gossip and religious hypocrisy that could stimulate him once again to great inventions. So it was that in 1482 he left for Milan, leaving the altarpiece for San Donato a Scopeto unfinished and forcing the patrons to call on Filippino Lippi, a well-established painter in the Florentine artistic circle, to create a work of similar subject matter.

Leonardo in Milan and his return to republican Florence

In his early years in Milan Leonardo continued with his studies of mechanics, inventions of military machines, and the development of various technologies. Documents seem to indicate that Leonardo's reception in Milanese circles was rather lukewarm, not initially achieving the desired results by leaving Florence. By about 1485 he must have already entered the circle of Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan from 1480, for whom he designed with versatility irrigation systems, painted portraits, and prepared sets for court festivities. Ludovico was a learned and passionate gentleman in various fields from letters to the arts to arms, which greatly spurred Leonardo's ingenuity and his openness to scientific and technological innovations. During his time in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci was able to explore the subject of portraiture, taking advantage of the anatomical studies he had begun in Florence. He focused particularly on the links between facial expressions and states of mind, observing how outward features could reflect psychological aspects and moral qualities.

When Milan was occupied by the French led by Louis XII in late 1499, Leonardo da Vinci began a series of travels and peregrinations that led him to visit many different courts and to return for short periods to Florence. Here he found a scenario very different from how he had left it: in the sacred and tumultuous crucible of the Renaissance era, the burning flame of freedom rose from the depths of the Florentine soul. The streets resounded with the fervent cries of citizens thirsting for autonomy, while the piazzas were colored with flags vibrant with hope and ideals. With irrepressible impetus, Florentines stood like untamable lions, defying the chains of Medici tyranny and proudly proclaiming the triumph of democracy. In that thunderous whirlwind of passion and courage, the Florentine Republic was born, a bastion of freedom and virtue that would serve as the backdrop for the ideal of human rebirth. The Florentine Republic in the years when Leonardo returned to Florence was governed by the gonfaloniere, or high-ranking public official, Pier Soderini. The same gonfaloniere commissioned Leonardo to decorate one of the great walls of the new Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. This work was to be grand in size and conception, precisely to celebrate the Republic by contrasting with equal creative power the many works of art desired by the Medici. Perhaps to give even more meaning to the contrast between past and present, two artists opposed from a personal and artistic point of view were chosen to paint the two large opposite walls of the Salone: Leonardo da Vinci, calm and reflective, driven by a thirst for knowledge in the various disciplines, and Michelangelo, twenty-three years younger, marked by a childhood lived in poverty and forced by his father to hide his art.

The last commission between mysteries and legacies

The scene entrusted to Leonardo was the Battle of Anghiari, that is, an episode of the clashes between the Florentine and Milanese armies on June 29, 1440. For different reasons neither wall painting was completed, perhaps because the technique proved dramatically inadequate when it was too late, as with the Last Supper. Some scholars believe that Leonardo never put his hand to the actual painting, and that sources citing the work may have seen a large part of Leonardo's preparatory drawing, partially colored and applied to the wall after Leonardo had stopped working on it. For this there are some early copies by other famous authors including Peter Paul Rubens. However things really went, about sixty years later, the hall containing the works was enlarged at the behest of Cosimo I and new decorations were commissioned from Giorgio Vasari. We do not know what Vasari found when he completed his frescoes, whether fragments of Leonardo's and Michelangelo's works were still present or whether the artist destroyed them before turning to his decorations. Some argue that Vasari hid them under a new plaster or a new wall, however, one detail ignites curiosity in the observer: the suggestive inscription "Search Finds" in one of the banners depicted by Vasari. Research and essays conducted so far have not yet been able to completely solve the mystery, and this remains just one of the many questions hovering around the figure of Leonardo da Vinci.

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