Leonardo Da Vinci Artwork Analysis Essays

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Italian essayist, treatise writer, fabulist, scientist, engineer, and artist.

The following entry presents criticism of Da Vinci's writings on philosophy and the arts.

Often described as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leonardo was the painter of such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. In addition to possessing great artistic talent, Leonardo excelled as a scientist, experimented with philosophy, and wrote extensively on the myriad subjects he investigated. His writings, sketches, and diagrams, originally written as private journals and notes, were compiled after his death into the Notebooks. These works have been analyzed and discussed on the merits of their form, style and content, and in much the same way Leonardo's life has been the subject of close scrutiny by art and literary critics, historians, and psychoanalysts.

Biographical Information

Born in the northern Italian village of Vinci in 1452, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a prosperous Florentine notary and a peasant woman. It is believed that he spent the first years of his life with his mother and was then raised by his father. Leonardo's education, which took place in his father's home, included instruction in music and art. Around 1467 he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, a prominent Florentine painter, sculptor, and goldsmith. In 1472, after being tutored by Verrocchio in painting and sculpture, Leonardo was inducted into the Florentine guild of painters. In the years that followed he became one of the most sought-after artists in Florence. Interested in science and mechanics as well as painting, Leonardo became a civil and military engineer for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in the early 1480s. He spent nearly twenty years in Milan, working on a variety of architectural and military projects, and keeping notebooks of his studies. Not only did he paint the masterpieces Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper during these years, he also completed a significant portion of a treatise on painting and prepared the foundation for proposed texts on anatomy, architecture, and mechanics. After Milan fell to French forces in 1499, Leonardo returned to Florence, serving as Cesare Borgia's chief architect and engineer from 1502 to 1503. Three years later he returned to Milan, where he was offered a prominent position in the court of French governor Charles d''Amboise. In 1517 the French king, Francis I, invited Leonardo to join his court at Amboise, his summer residence. Leonardo lived in a home provided for him near Amboise until his death in 1519.

Major Works

Leonardo's artistic and scientific studies were guided by his conviction that vision is the “noblest” of all the senses. Knowledge, he believed, is gained through observation, and his art and science were based on his acute observations of nature. Containing preliminary notes and outlines for treatises on art, architecture, engineering, and several branches of science, the Notebooks began as the unorganized journals he left to his pupil Francesco Melzi. In addition to his notes, observations, and treatises on art and science, Leonardo's Notebooks also reveal his fascination with allegory; he borrowed from Pliny and Aesop to compose fables and a bestiary. Melzi's organization of the manuscripts resulted in the eventual publication of Trattato della pittura (Treatise of Painting) in 1652. Melzi's heirs allowed the journals to be separated, sold, and discarded, a state of affairs that has presented a number of difficulties for scholars and researchers. In addition, Leonardo's unique orthographic style has also posed problems. He wrote in a mirror script, from right to left, and his handwriting remained essentially unchanged throughout his lifetime, making the establishment of a chronology of his works by means of handwriting analysis impossible.

Critical Reception

Despite the fact that Leonardo did not present his philosophical thoughts and views in an organized manner, but rather dispersed them throughout the Notebooks, critics have attempted to discern whether or not a guiding philosophy or a philosophical “system” can be found in Leonardo's work. Paul Valéry, attempting to explain why Leonardo is not often viewed as a philosopher, emphasizes that the quantity of notes and observations Leonardo left, as well as the disorganized manner in which he left them, call into question the nature of Leonardo's philosophical thinking. George Kimball Plochmann, however, maintains that Leonardo assuredly developed a philosophical system, one that is implicit throughout his writings. Its primary concerns are the concepts of existence and the nature of knowledge. This system, Plochmann concedes, is weakened by Leonardo's failure to make explicit the connection between his philosophical principles and the particular subject he was addressing at the moment. In his analysis of Leonardo's philosophy, Karl Jaspers also discusses Leonardo's views on knowledge and perception. Jaspers emphasizes that for Leonardo knowledge and one's understanding of nature is directly linked with vision and the supposed supremacy of vision over the other senses. D. van Maelsaeke, for his part, detects several similarities between Leonardo's natural philosophy and that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including a shared belief in the experimental method and in nature as a force with both creative and destructive qualities.

While Leonardo's writings concerning philosophy are scattered throughout the Notebooks, his views on the role and nature of painting were written in complete enough form to be compiled as the Trattato della Pittura (1651) or Treatise of Painting (also referred to as Treatise on Painting). Ludwig H. Heydenreich provides a detailed historical analysis of the Codex Urbinas, which contains the Trattato della Pittura. Maintaining that the Codex Urbinas served as the archetype for other versions of the Trattato, Heydenreich asserts that Leonardo's student Francesco Melzi compiled the manuscript around 1550 from his master's original writings. Heydenreich goes on to discuss the content of the treatise, noting that it covers such topics as perspective; light and shade; color theory; practical applications of drawing and color; and the proportions, anatomy, and movement of the human form. Emmanuel Winternitz, analyzing the Paragone, a section of the Trattato that compares painting to other forms of art, contends that although Leonardo praises painting as the highest form of art—superior to poetry, music, and sculpting—upon closer examination of his arguments, music is demonstrated to be an art form just as noble as painting. Other critics have also explored Leonardo's contention that painting is the highest art and vision the “noblest” sense. Claire J. Farago states that Leonardo's defense of painting's superiority is rooted in his belief that painting is a science based on perspective, and that painting relies on the skill of the artist to truthfully depict the forms of nature. The visual images of a painting, Farago explains, are, in Leonardo's estimation, superior to music and to the verbal images of poetry because they can be received as a whole. In his comparison of the role of vision as a tool of knowledge in Leonardo's and in Shakespeare's work, Richard Fly illustrates that Leonardo's valorizing of painting at the expense of poetry is based on a pair of factors: that the vocabulary of poetry is finite, and this limits its powers of representation; and that the “insubstantiality” of the language of poetry reduces the sensual impact poetry has upon its reader. For Leonardo, Fly concludes, the main function of the eye is the objective, scientific scrutiny of nature.

Offering general appraisals of Leonardo as writer, Augusto Marinoni and Robert J. Rodini both discuss the style of Leonardo's works. After summarizing the history of Leonardo's reputation as a writer, Marinoni discusses the literary value of several of Leonardo's manuscripts. The critic notes that Codex B and Codex Trivulziano lack any certain style or literary value, but he concedes that the works were written for utilitarian rather than literary purposes. In conclusion Marinoni maintains that as Leonardo did not “submit himself to a complete literary discipline,” his writings lack “orderly expression.” In Rodini's examination of Leonardo as both a “writer and humanist,” the critic discerns an intense interest in “the potential and the limitations of language.” Rodini finds that Leonardo's writing style reveals his “anxiety” concerning the inadequacy of language to convey his thoughts, and suggests that Leonardo's experience of feeling “marvel, dismay, and inadequacy” in response to language parallels his reaction to “the drama of universal flux” and to the phenomenon of “death and renewal.”

To a fifteenth-century audience Leonardo's Annunciation would have looked familiar (fig. 1). While no absolute formula existed for the narrative, one of the most popular in Italian art, certain general characteristics tended to remain consistent across its representation: the angel Gabriel arrived from the left, announcing to the unsuspecting Virgin at the right that she would bear the son of God. Variables in the narrative allowed artists to play with the poses of the figures and their psychological interaction, but a domestic setting (inside or just outside Mary's house) and an ideal depiction of the Virgin —pale, blonde and delicate—were standard elements of the scene.

Alongside conventional elements in the Annunciation, however, Leonardo introduces a number of uncommon characteristics that would have offered contemporary viewers new ways to experience the story. Typically, early Renaissance versions of the Annunciation include a depiction of the dove of the Holy Spirit and often a representation of God the Father (or just his hand) to clarify that the Incarnation occurs at this moment (fig. 2). Leonardo's painting offers no obvious supernatural elements beyond the angel who is necessary to the narrative.

Leonardo’s depiction of the figures is notable for its lifelike appearance: drawings survive that demonstrate the artist carefully studied poses and draperies; the angel's wings are the first to function like real wings; and both the setting and the figures are shaped to suggest a three-dimensional space. Such observation of nature is one of Leonardo's chief preoccupations. But not every aspect of the scene is motivated by an effort to create the illusion of the three-dimensional world.

For Renaissance audiences Mary is a model woman whose ideal character is constantly reiterated in texts and images. One of the most popular religious instructional texts of the period, the Meditations on the Life of Christ, directs readers how to respond to the Annunciation:

See how the lady remains timorous and humble, with modest face, as she is accosted by the angel, not becoming proud and boastful after his unforeseen words […] Thus you may learn by her example to be modest and humble (Meditations 19).

In hundreds of early Renaissance images the Virgin's timorous humility is portrayed by her pose. She receives the angel with bowed head and lowered eyes, and there is often a shrinking quality to her stance. Although Leonardo himself noted that females should be represented demurely, with “their heads lowered and inclined to one side” (Leonardo, Manuscript A, fol. 17v, Richter no. 583), the Virgin in his Annunciation shows none of these characteristics.

Mary's back is straight, her head is up, and she looks right at Gabriel. Her raised gaze, in particular, would have been striking to quattrocento viewers, for women were constantly admonished to avoid improper boldness by keeping their gazes on the ground, not looking directly at strangers and what could be stranger than this heavenly messenger invading her private space?

Moreover, Mary does not passively receive Gabriel's message. Her left hand is raised to acknowledge his presence, while her right hand thumbs through the pages of her bible, perhaps to find the prophecy of a virgin conceiving the Son of God prophesied by Isaiah. Leonardo’s representation of an active Virgin expresses his interest in the dynamism of figures, but it also conveys to the audience that Mary is no ordinary fearful and docile woman: she is a woman with agency.

For Leonardo “lights and darks, together with foreshortening, comprise the excellence of the science of painting” (Kemp, 1982, 88). In this painting the light source is low on the left, and it warmly bathes the figure of the Virgin. Light falling across her face and arms is painstakingly delineated. A reflection from her chest bounces up under her chin and along her left jaw; the underside of her left arm is strongly highlighted and a shimmering line defines the contour of the shaded side of that wrist and hand; radiant spots mark the tips of each finger on her left hand. While these effects are typical of the artist's interest in optics, especially the exploration of chiaroscuro, they are strikingly different from the way the angel is portrayed (figs. 3 and 4). Gabriel faces away from the light, so the modeling on his face is very subtle, but in a naturalistic world the audience might expect his raised right hand to have some of the same brilliance as Mary's body, yet it is as subdued as his face. The result of the discrepancy in the illumination of the two figures is that the Virgin appears suffused with light.

In his studies of light Leonardo writes a great deal about incandescence, at one point declaring, "The greatest beauty is in the luminous, great splendor" (Leonardo, Manuscript E, fol. 18r). Leonardo originally ended this sentence with the word chiarezza (clarity) but crossed it out and replaced it with splendore. Optical theorists of the early Renaissance used splendor to refer to highlights and reflection and it is exactly Leonardo’s attention to reflection and highlights that makes his Virgin glow. But in the fifteenth century splendore also conveys a metaphysical meaning that defines radiance as evidence of transcendent light. In this context, then, Mary’s luminosity not only gives her great beauty but also suggests that she has been infused with the otherworldly.

Leonardo has no need of a dove, golden rays of light, or the hand of God to suggest to beholders of his Annunciation that the Incarnation occurs in this moment. Through the artist’s shaping of Mary as an exceptional woman, who not only commands her environment but also glows with a supernatural light, the audience gains a novel understanding of the advent of the divine into the earthly world: the sacred is experienced through the real.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c. 1472, tempera with oil on wood, 98 x 217 cm., Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 2 Fra Filippo Lippi, The Annunciation, c. 1450-3, egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm. National Gallery, London. (© National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 3 Details of Leonardo’s Annunciation (left) and Lippi’s (right).

Fig. 4 Details of Leonardo’s Annunciation.


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