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Leonardo da Vinci - biography

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo was born in the small town of Vinci, in Tuscany, near Florence. He was the son of a wealthy Florentine notary and a peasant woman. In the mid-1460s the family settled in Florence, where Leonardo was given the best education that Florence, a major intellectual and artistic center of Italy, could offer. He rapidly advanced socially and intellectually. He was handsome, persuasive in conversation, and a fine musician and improviser. About 1466 he was apprenticed as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. In Verrocchio's workshop Leonardo was introduced to many activities, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in marble and bronze. In 1472 he was entered in the painter's guild of Florence, and in 1476 he was still considered Verrocchio's assistant. In Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (1470?, Uffizi, Florence), the kneeling angel at the left of the painting is by Leonardo.

In 1478 Leonardo became an independent master. His first commission, to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was never executed. His first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481, Uffizi), left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the so-called Benois Madonna (1478?, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), the portrait Ginevra de' Benci (1474?, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (1481?, Pinacoteca, Vatican).

About 1482 Leonardo entered the service of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, having written the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armored vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay. He served as principal engineer in the duke's numerous military enterprises and was active also as an architect. In addition, he assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the celebrated work Divina Proportione (1509).

Evidence indicates that Leonardo had apprentices and pupils in Milan, for whom he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651; translated 1956). The most important of his own paintings during the early Milan period was The Virgin of the Rocks, two versions of which exist (1483-1485, Louvre, Paris; 1490s to 1506-1508, National Gallery, London); he worked on the compositions for a long time, as was his custom, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had begun. From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on his masterpiece, The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately, his experimental use of oil on dry plaster (on what was the thin outer wall of a space designed for serving food) was technically unsound, and by 1500 its deterioration had begun. Since 1726 attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, to restore it; a concerted restoration and conservation program, making use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and is reversing some of the damage. Although much of the original surface is gone, the majesty of the composition and the penetrating characterization of the figures give a fleeting vision of its vanished splendor.

During his long stay in Milan, Leonardo also produced other paintings and drawings (most of which have been lost), theater designs, architectural drawings, and models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. His largest commission was for a colossal bronze monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, in the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco. In December 1499, however, the Sforza family was driven from Milan by French forces; Leonardo left the statue unfinished (it was destroyed by French archers, who used the terra cotta model as a target) and he returned to Florence in 1500.

In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, duke of Romagna and son and chief general of Pope Alexander VI. In his capacity as the duke's chief architect and engineer, Leonardo supervised work on the fortresses of the papal territories in central Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists who were to decide on the proper location for the David (1501-1504, Accademia, Florence), the famous colossal marble statue by the Italian sculptor Michelangelo, and he also served as an engineer in the war against Pisa. Toward the end of the year Leonardo began to design a decoration for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory in its war with Pisa. He made many drawings for the decoration and completed a full-size cartoon, or sketch, in 1505, but he never finished the wall painting. The cartoon itself was destroyed in the 17th century, and the composition survives only in copies, of which the most famous is the one by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1615?, Louvre).

During this second Florentine period, Leonardo painted several portraits, but the only one that survives is the famous Mona Lisa (1503-1506, Louvre). One of the most celebrated portraits ever painted, it is also known as La Gioconda, after the presumed name of the woman's husband. Leonardo seems to have had a special affection for the picture, for he took it with him on all of his subsequent travels.

In 1506 Leonardo again went to Milan, at the summons of its French governor, Charles d'Amboise. The following year he was named court painter to King Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years Leonardo divided his time between Milan and Florence, where he often visited his half brothers and half sisters and looked after his inheritance. In Milan he continued his engineering projects and worked on an equestrian figure for a monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, commander of the French forces in the city; although the project was not completed, drawings and studies have been preserved. From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X. He was housed in the Palazzo Belvedere in the Vatican and seems to have been occupied principally with scientific experimentation. In 1516 he traveled to France to enter the service of King Francis I. He spent his last years at the Château de Cloux, near Amboise, where he died.

Although Leonardo produced a relatively small number of paintings, many of which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an extraordinarily innovative and influential artist. During his early years, his style closely paralleled that of Verrocchio, but he gradually moved away from his teacher's stiff, tight, and somewhat rigid treatment of figures to develop a more evocative and atmospheric handling of composition. The early painting The Adoration of the Magi introduced a new approach to composition, in which the main figures are grouped in the foreground, while the background consists of distant views of imaginary ruins and battle scenes.

Leonardo's stylistic innovations are even more apparent in The Last Supper, in which he represented a traditional theme in an entirely new way. Instead of showing the 12 apostles as individual figures, he grouped them in dynamic compositional units of three, framing the figure of Christ, who is isolated in the center of the picture. Seated before a pale distant landscape seen through a rectangular opening in the wall, Christ—who is about to announce that one of those present will betray him—represents a calm nucleus while the others respond with animated gestures. In the monumentality of the scene and the weightiness of the figures, Leonardo reintroduced a style pioneered more than a generation earlier by Masaccio, the father of Florentine painting.

The Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous work, is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. This work is a consummate example of two techniques—sfumato and chiaroscuro—of which Leonardo was one of the first great masters. Sfumato is characterized by subtle, almost infinitesimal transitions between color areas, creating a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic smile. Chiaroscuro is the technique of modeling and defining forms through contrasts of light and shadow; the sensitive hands of the sitter are portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while color contrast is used only sparingly.

Leonardo was among the first to introduce atmospheric perspective into his landscape backgrounds, an especially notable characteristic of his paintings. The chief masters of the High Renaissance in Florence, including Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Fra Bartolommeo, all learned from Leonardo; he completely transformed the school of Milan; and at Parma, the artistic development of Correggio was given direction by Leonardo's work.

Leonardo's many extant drawings, which reveal his brilliant draftsmanship and his mastery of the anatomy of humans, animals, and plant life, may be found in the principal European collections. The largest group is at Windsor Castle in England. Probably his most famous drawing is the magnificent self-portrait in old age (1510?-1513?, Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy).

Because none of Leonardo's sculptural projects was brought to completion, his approach to three-dimensional art can only be judged from his drawings. The same strictures apply to his architecture: None of his building projects was actually carried out as he devised them. In his architectural drawings, however, he demonstrates mastery in the use of massive forms, a clarity of expression, and especially a deep understanding of ancient Roman sources.

As a scientist Leonardo towered above all his contemporaries. His scientific theories, like his artistic innovations, were based on careful observation and precise documentation. He understood, better than anyone of his century or the next, the importance of precise scientific observation. Unfortunately, just as he frequently failed to bring to conclusion artistic projects, he never completed his planned treatises on a variety of scientific subjects. His theories are contained in numerous notebooks, most of which were written in mirror script. Because they were not easily decipherable, Leonardo's findings were not disseminated in his own lifetime; had they been published, they would have revolutionized the science of the 16th century. Leonardo actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times. In anatomy he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. He made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation, and surmised the nature of fossil shells. He was among the originators of the science of hydraulics and probably devised the hydrometer; his scheme for the canalization of rivers still has practical value. He invented a large number of ingenious machines, many potentially useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying devices, although not practicable, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.

Michelangelo Buonarroti - biography

Michelangelo BuonarrotiMichelangelo (full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) was born at Caprese, a village in Florentine territory, where his father, named Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni was the resident magistrate. A few weeks after Michelangelo's birth the family returned to Florence, and, in 1488, after overcoming parental opposition he was formally apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio for a term of three years. Later in life Michelangelo tried to suppress this fact, probably to make it seem that he had never had an ordinary workshop training; for it was he more than anyone else who introduced the idea of the 'Fine Arts' having no connection with the craft that painting had always previously been. His stay in the Ghirlandaio shop must also have coincided with his beginning to work as a sculptor in the Medici Garden, where antiques from their collection were looked after by Bertoldo. Although this connection drew him into the Medici circle as a familiar, the account by Vasari of an established 'school' is now discredited. It must, however, have been Ghirlandaio who taught him the elements of fresco technique, and it was probably also in that shop that he made his drawings after the great Florentine masters of the past (copies after Giotto and Masaccio; now in the Louvre, in Munich, and in Vienna). Michelangelo produced at least two relief sculptures by the time he was 16 years old, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs (both 1489-92, Casa Buonarroti, Florence), which show that he had achieved a personal style at a very early age.

In 1492, Lorenzo de' Medici died. Michelangelo then studied anatomy with the help of the Prior of the Hospital of Sto Spirito, for whom he appears to have carved a wooden crucifix for the high altar. A wooden crucifix found there (now in the Casa Buonarroti) has been attributed to him by some scholars. The next few years were marked by the expulsion of the Medici and the gloomy Theocracy set up under Savonarola, but Michelangelo avoided the worst of the crisis by going to Bologna and, in 1496, to Rome. He settled for a time in Bologna, where in 1494 and 1495 he executed several marble statuettes for the Arca (Shrine) di San Domenico in the Church of San Domenico.

In Rome he carved the first of his major works, the Bacchus (Florence, Bargello) and the St Peter's Pietŕ, which was completed by the turn of the century. It is highly finished and shows that he had already mastered anatomy and the disposition of drapery, but above all it shows that he had solved the problem of the representation of a full-grown man stretched out nearly horizontally on the lap of a woman, the whole being contained in a pyramidal shape.

The Pietŕ made his name and he returned to Florence in 1501 as a famous sculptor, remaining there until 1505. During these years he was extremely active, carving the gigantic David (1501-4, now in the Accademia), the Bruges Madonna (Bruges, Notre Dame), and beginning the series of the Twelve Apostles for the Cathedral which was commissioned in 1503 but never completed (the St Matthew now in the Accademia is the only one which was even blocked in). At about this time he painted the Doni Tondo of the Holy Family with St John the Baptist (Florence, Uffizi) and made the two marble tondi of the Madonna and Child (Florence, Bargello; London, Royal Academy).

After the completion of the David in 1504 he began to work on the cartoon of a huge fresco in the Council Hall of the new Florentine Republic, as a pendant to the one already commissioned from Leonardo da Vinci. Both remained unfinished and the grandiose project of employing the two greatest living artists on the decoration of the Town Hall of their native city came to nothing. Of Michelangelo's fresco, which was to represent the Battle of Cascina, an incident in the Pisan War, we now have a few studies by him and copies of a fragment of the whole full-scale cartoon which once existed (the best copy is the painting in Lord Leicester's Collection, Holkham, Norfolk). The cartoon, which is known as the Bathers, was for many years the resort of every young artist in Florence and, by its exclusive stress on the nude human body as a sufficient vehicle for the expression of alt emotions which the painter can depict, had an enormous influence on the subsequent development of Italian art - especially Mannerism - and therefore on European art as a whole. This influence is more readily detectable in his next major work, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In fact, however, the Battle of Cascina was left incomplete because the Signoria of Florence found it expedient to comply with a request from the masterful Pope Julius II, who was anxious to have a fitting tomb made in his lifetime.

The Julius Monument was, in Michelangelo's own view, the Tragedy of the Tomb. This was partly because Michelangelo and Julius had the same ardent temperament - they admired each other greatly - and very soon quarrelled, and partly because after the death of Julius in 1513, Michelangelo was under constant pressure from successive Popes to abandon his contractual obligations and work for them while equally under pressure from the heirs of Julius, who even went so far as to accuse him of embezzlement. The original project for a vast free-standing tomb with forty figures was substantially reduced by a second contract (1513), drawn up after Julius's death; under this contract the Moses, which is the major figure on the extant tomb, was prepared as a subsidiary figure. Two others, the Slaves in the Louvre, were made under this contract but were subsequently abandoned. The third contract (1516) was followed by a fourth (1532), and a fifth and final one in 1542, under the terms of which the present miserably mutilated version of the original conception was carried out by assistants, under Michelangelo's supervision, in S. Pietro in Vincoli (Julius's titular church) in 1545. Michelangelo was then 70 and had spent nearly forty years on the tomb.

Meanwhile, the original quarrel of 1506 with Julius was made up and Michelangelo executed a colossal bronze statue of the Pope as an admonition to the recently conquered Bolognese (who destroyed it as soon as they could, in 1511). In 1508, back in Rome, he began his most important work, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican for Julius, who, as usual, was impatient to see it finished. Dissatisfied with the normal working methods and with the abilities of the assistants he had engaged, Michelangelo determined to execute the whole of this vast work virtually alone. Working under appalling difficulties (amusingly described in one of his own poems), most of the time leaning backwards and never able to get far enough away from the ceiling to be able to see what he was doing, he completed the first half (the part nearer to the door) in 1510. The whole enormous undertaking was completed in 1512, Michelangelo being by then so practised that he was able to execute the second half more rapidly and freely. It was at once recognized as a supreme work of art, even at the moment when Raphael was also at work in the Vatican Stanze. From then on Michelangelo was universally regarded as the greatest living artist, although he was then only 37 and this was in the lifetimes of Leonardo and Raphael (who was even younger). From this moment, too, dates the idea of the artist as in some sense a superhuman being, set apart from ordinary men, and for the first time it was possible to use the phrase 'il divino Michelangelo' without seeming merely blasphemous.

The Sistine Ceiling is a shallow barrel vault divided up by painted architecture into a series of alternating large and small panels which appear to be open to the sky. These are the Histories. Each of the smaller panels is surrounded by four figures of nude youths - the Slaves, or Ignudi - who are represented as seated on the architectural frame and who are not of the same order of reality as the figures in the Histories, since their system of perspective is different. Below them are the Prophets and Sibyls, and still lower, the figures of the Ancestors of Christ. The whole ceiling completes the chapel decoration by representing life on earth before the Law: on the walls is an earlier cycle of frescoes, painted in 1481-82, representing the Life of Moses (i.e. the Old Dispensation) and the Life of Christ (the New Dispensation). The Histories begin over the altar and work away from it (though they were painted in the reverse direction): the first scene represents God alone, in the Primal Act of Creation, and the story continues through the rest of the Creation to the Fall, the Flood, and the Drunkenness of Noah, representing the human soul at its furthest from God. The whole conception owes much to the Neoplatonic philosophy current in Michelangelo's youth in Florence, perhaps most in the idea of the Ignudi, perfect human beauty, on the level below the Divine story. Below them come the Old Testament Prophets and the Seers of the ancient world who foretold the coming of Christ; while the four corners have scenes from the Old Testament representing Salvation. The Prophet Jonah is above the altar, since his three days in the whale were held to prefigure the Resurrection. On the lowest parts - and very freely painted - are the human families who were the Ancestors of Christ. There can be no doubt that the splendour of the conception and the size of the task distracted Michelangelo from the Tomb, but he at once returned to it as soon as the ceiling was finished, from 1513 to 1516, when he returned to Florence to work for the Medici. (For details on the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel take a guided tour.)

His new master was Pope Leo X, the younger son of Lorenzo de Medici, who had known Michelangelo from boyhood; he now commissioned him to complete the façade of S. Lorenzo, the family church in Florence. Michelangelo wasted four years on this and it came to nothing. In 1520 he began planning the Medici Chapel, a funerary chapel in honour of four of the Medici - two of them by no means the most glorious of their family. The chapel is attached to S. Lorenzo. Leo X died in 1521 and it was not until after the accession of another Medici Pope, Clement VII, in 1523 that the project was resumed. Work began in earnest in 1524 and at the same time he was commissioned to design the Laurenziana Library in the cloister of the same church. Both these buildings are turning-points in architectural history, but the sculptural decoration of the chapel (an integral part of the architecture) was never completed, although the figures of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici set over their tombs, eternally symbolizing the Active and the Contemplative Life, above the symbols of Time and Mortality - Day and Night, Dawn and Evening - are among his finest creations. The unfinished Madonna was meant to be the focal point of the chapel.

In 1527, the Medici were again expelled from Florence, and Michelangelo, who was politically a Republican in spite of his close ties with the Medici, took an active part in the 1527-29 war against the Medici up to the capitulation in 1530 (although in a moment of panic he had fled in 1529) and supervised Florentine fortifications. During the months of confusion and disorder in Florence, when he was proscribed for his participation in the struggle, it would appear that he was hidden by the Prior of S. Lorenzo. A number of drawings on the walls of a concealed crypt under the Medici Chapel have been attributed to him, and ascribed to this period. After the reinstatement of the Medici he was pardoned, and set to work once more on the Chapel which was to glorify them until, in 1534, he left Florence and settled in Rome for the thirty years remaining to him.

He was at once commissioned to paint his next great work, the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which affords the strongest possible contrast with his own Ceiling. He began work on it in 1536. In the interval there had been the Sack of Rome and the Reformation, and the confident humanism and Christian Neoplatonism of the Ceiling had curdled into the personal pessimism and despondency of the Judgement. The very choice of subject is indicative of the new mood, as is the curious fact that the mouth of Hell gapes over the altar itself where, during services, stands a crucifix symbolizing Christ standing between Man and Doom. It was unveiled in 1541 and caused a sensation equalled only by his own work of thirty years earlier, and was the only work by him to be as much reviled as praised, and only narrowly to escape destruction, though it did not escape the mutilation of having many of the nude figures 'clothed' after his death. Most of the ideas of Mannerism are traceable implicitly or explicitly in the Judgement and, more than ever, it served to imprint the idea that the scope of painting is strictly limited to the exploitation of the nude, preferably in foreshortened - and therefore difficult - poses. Paul III, who had commissioned the Judgement, immediately commissioned two more frescoes for his own chapel, the Cappella Paolina; these were begun in 1542 and completed in 1550. They represent the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter.

Michelangelo was now 75 years old. Earlier, in 1538-39, plans were under way for the remodeling of the buildings surrounding the Campidoglio (Capitol) on the Capitoline Hill, the civic and political heart of the city of Rome. Although Michelangelo's program was not carried out until the late 1550s and not finished until the 17th century, he designed the Campidoglio around an oval shape, with the famous antique bronze equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the center. For the Palazzo dei Conservatori he brought a new unity to the public building façade, at the same time that he preserved traditional Roman monumentality. However, since 1546 he had been increasingly active as an architect; in particular, he was Chief Architect to St Peter's and was doing more there than had been done for thirty years. This was the greatest architectural undertaking in Christendom, and Michelangelo did it, as he did all his late works, solely for the glory of God.

In his last years he made a number of drawings of the Crucifixion, wrote much of his finest poetry, and carved the Pietŕ (now in Florence Cathedral Museum) which was originally intended for his own tomb, as well as the nearly abstract Rondanini Pietŕ (Milan, Castello). This last work, in which the very forms of the Dead Christ actually merge with those of His Mother, is charged with an emotional intensity which contemporaries recognized as Michelangelo's 'terribilitŕ'. He was working on it to within a few days of his death, in his 89th year, on 18 February 1564. There is a whole world of difference between it and the 'beautiful' Pietŕ in St Peter's, carved some sixty-five years earlier.

Unlike any previous artist, Michelangelo was the subject of two biographies in his own lifetime. The first of these was by Vasari, who concluded the first (1550) edition of his 'Vite' with the Life of one living artist, Michelangelo. In 1553 there appeared a 'Life of Michelangelo' by his pupil Ascanio Condivi (English translations 1903, 1976 and 1987); this is really almost an autobiography, promoted by Michelangelo to correct some errors of Vasari and to shift the emphasis in what Michelangelo regarded as a more desirable direction. Vasari, however, became more and more friendly with Michelangelo and was also his most devoted and articulate admirer, so that the very long Life which appears in Vasari's second edition (1568), after Michelangelo's death, gives us the most complete biography of any artist up to that time and is a trustworthy guide to the feelings of contemporaries about the man who can lay claim to be the greatest sculptor, painter and draughtsman that has ever lived, as well as one of the greatest architects and poets. He is the archetype of genius.

Pure fresco was his preferred painting technique; he despised oil-painting, though the now authenticated unfinished Entombment (London, National Gallery) is in oil over a tempera underpainting. The Doni Tondo is in tempera. In sculpture, his usual method was to outline his figure on the front of the block and, as he himself wrote, to 'liberate the figure imprisoned in the marble', by working steadily inwards, with perhaps a few more finished details. Occasionally he made drawings for parts of a figure, and a few small wax models survive as well as one large one, made for the guidance of assistants working on the Medici Chapel figures. The four abandoned Slaves intended for a later version of the Julius Tomb (Florence, Accademia) and the two marble tondi left unfinished in 1505 provide fine examples of his direct carving technique and his consistent use of various sizes of claw chisel. No modelli exist for any paintings or frescoes, and only one cartoon (London, British Museum), made to help Condivi, has survived.

Apart from the works mentioned above, there are others in Florence (Bargello, Santo Spirito - the house of his family, which contains relics of him - and Palazzo della Signoria) and in Siena, Rome (Santa Maria sopra Minerva), and St Petersburg (The Hermitage). There are also some 500 drawings by him, the majority of which are in Windsor (Royal Collection), Florence (Casa Buonarroti), and Paris.

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