da Vinci

1452 - 1519

 Renaissance Art Map
     Leonardo da Vinci - biography
     Leonardo da Vinci
     1452-1481 Leonardo in the Florence of the Medici    
     1482-1499 At the court of Ludovico il Moro    
     1500-1508 The return to Florence    
     1508-1513 The Milan of Charles d'Amboise    
     1513-1519 The last years: Rome and France    



Leonardo da Vinci
c. 1512




Leonardo in the Florence of the Medici



Light and shadow


Among the studies conducted by Leonardo into the phenomena of the natural world, those relating to light and shadow were of primary importance: touching upon a fundamental element of the painter's art, they were essentially scientific in character, and they commanded enormous interest within artistic circles. Stimulated as well by the refined optical effects of Flemish painting, Leonardo's work marked a decisive turning-point in Florentine and Italian tradition. The so-called "Leonardesque sfumato" stemmed from natural variations in the interplay of light and shade on objects, which determines the artistic conceptions of volume, depth, breadth, and color, subject to infinite variations of tone and changing according to the nature of the surface. Leonardo's theories assigned a greater importance to shadows than to light. In his Treatise on Shadow and Light, Leonardo conducts a complex survey of shadows, classified on the basis of quality, quantity, kind, and form, and defined as "primitive", "derived", and "repercussed". Similarly, light is differentiated on the basis of the surface on which it falls, and is described either as "light" or "lustre".

Crown of Pyramids around a Sphere, design from the Ashburnham Codex II. The infinite shadows produced by an illuminated body take the form of a pyramid. For Leonardo shadows are more powerful than light, because they can never entirely be eliminated.


Detail of the Virgin with the Carnation. Leonardo reveals a keen understanding of the quality of materials, studied here in conjunction with the colored surfaces. The painter is well aware that the reflection of light varies according to whether the surfaces are transparent or opaque, concave or convex. Analysis of the "lustre", or light reflected from a bright surface, is a subject treated in the Treatise on Painting.

Detail of the background landscape of the Annunciation. The atmosphere, which to the observer functions as a kind of lens, imposes its own perceptive values, and removes individual color from the objects.




St Jerome Penitent


Probably painted between 1480 and 1482, the incomplete St Jerome of the Vatican Library marks a progression towards an increasingly complex relationship between the figure and the elements of the surrounding space.


Leonardo da Vinci
St Jerome
c. 1480
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican, Rome


Leonardo da Vinci (detail)
St Jerome
c. 1480
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican, Rome

At some stage the uncompleted panel was cut into two pieces. The upper part, evidently corresponding to the saint's face, and presumably more marketable, is said to have been found by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch, in a Roman junk shop, offered as a table top. Years later he discovered the lower fragment being used as a wedge for the bench of a shoemakerer. Typically, Jerome's face appears at a three-quarter angle; emaciated and imploring; it testifies to Leonardo's flair for facial mimicry, all the more dramatic for its setting against the dark background of the cave and the rocky landscape veiled in mist.




Leonardo da Vinci, Drawing of a Church, 1495-97,
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.
Executed ten years after St Jerome, the drawing shows a building
in the style of Alberti, and is similar to that in the background of the painting, where it provides a perspective orientation to the scene. It is also the point on which the saint can fix his gaze.



 Leonardo da Vinci, The Hanged Body of Bernardo Baroncelli, 1478, Musee Bonnat, Bayonne.
The focus on anatomical detail in the saint's face and neck stems in part from the studies Leonardo made of corpses. In Florence he drew from life the dead body of the killer of Giuliano Medici, hanged publicly in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

 Personification of Geometry, 1489-1500,
frontispiece to the Antiquariae Prospecticae Romanae.
The pose of St Jerome is repeated on the frontispiece of the short
poem dedicated to Leonardo and attributed by some to Bramante.


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