Saturday, June 25, 2016


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"Man is the measure of all things." 
Leonardo da Vinci, Self Portrait, 1512
Form:  The formal qualities of this drawing are not as significant as the iconographic and contextual qualities it represents.  The drawing is a fine representation of the human head and face and demonstrates a close attention to proportion, detail, and texture.  The diagonal lines that run from the upper left hand corner of the drawing and flow down to the lower right unify the drawing and make a cohesive value structure by flowing along like waves against the direction of the light source which is coming from the upper right hand corner.  The use of line and cross hatch marks to create texture and chiaroscuro are typical of Leonardo's style especially in his drawing and are complimented in their contrast to the types of lines that he uses to depict the hair which are long, flowing and curvilinear. Iconography:  This drawing was probably a fairly quick "sketch" by Leonardo and the artist probably did not intend for the drawing to be deeply symbolic, nevertheless, to us it is.  Because the drawing was drawn from direct observation it is a snapshot of Leonardo's penetrating gaze.  As a viewer it is easy to imagine that this drawing and his facial expression sum up some of the qualities of this intense individual.  Interestingly enough, he looks kind of grumpy in the drawing but most accounts describe him as a witty and charming individual.
One of the skills that most painters needed to develop during the Renaissance period was the ability to paint portraits and accurate likenesses.  Often this skill was developed by painting with a the only model that one might have available which is one's self.  The humanistic and platonic idea of perfectability also gave rise to self reflection and observation.  A portrait then is not just about the immediate apprearance but also it is a symbol of the person.  In this image we see that Leonardo is studying himself and also demonstrating his ability to create a strong physical likeness as well a psychological likeness.
Context:  Here is Leonardo's letter to the Duke of Milan asking for employment,
To My Lord the Duke of Milan, Florence, 1482Most Illustrious Lord,
Having until now sufficiently studied and examined the experiments of all those who claim to be experts and inventors of war machines, and having found that their machines do not differ in the least from those ordinarily in use, I shall make so bold, without wanting to cause harm to anyone, as to address myself to Your Excellency to divulge my secrets to him, and offer to demonstrate to him, at his pleasure, all the things briefly enumerated below :
1. I have the means to construct light, solid and sturdy bridges, easy to transport, in order to follow and if necessary rout the enemy, and other even more solid which resist fire and storm, simple to remove and lay down. And the means to burn and destroy those of the enemy.
2. For the siege of a stronghold, I know how to clear the moats of water and construct an infinite number of bridges, battering-rams and scaling-ladders and other machines useful for this sort of enterprise.
3. Item, if a stronghold could not be reduced by bombardment, because of the height of its slopes or the strength of its position, I have the means of destroying any citadel or other emplacement whose foundations do not rest upon the ground.
4. I also have methods for making mortars that are simple and practical to move, that throw rubble in an almost steady stream, causing much fear and terror in the enemy camp with their smoke, as well much damage and confusion.
5. Item, I also have the means, using tunnels and twisting secret passageways, dug noiselessly, of arriving at a determined point, even if this meant going under moats and rivers.
6. Item, I shall make sure and invincible covered wagons, which will penetrate the ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and that group of armed men does not yet exist which can stop them; infantry can then follow them unharmed and unobstructed.
7. Item, if necessary I shall make siege guns, mortars and other machines, of beautiful and practical shape, completely different from what is generally in use.
8. Wherever the use of cannon is impossible, I shall forge catapults, mangonels, trabocchi and other admirably effective engines, generally little used. In short, according to the situation, I shall manufacture an indefinite number of various machines, both offensive and defensive.
9. And if, by chance, the engagement took place at sea, I have plans for the construction of engines quite suited to attack or defense, of vessels which resist the fire of the largest guns, powder, and smoke.
1O. In time of peace, I believe I am capable of giving you as much satisfaction as anyone, whether it be in architecture, for the construction of public or private buildings, or in bringing water from one place to another. Item, I can sculpt in marble, bronze or terracotta; while in painting, my work is the equal of anyone¹s. What is more, I shall undertake the execution of the bronze horse which will be the immortal glory, eternal homage, to the beloved memory My Lord Your Father, and to the illustrious house of Sforza. And if one or another of the things listed above seems impossible or impractical, I should be pleased to demonstrate on your grounds or in any other place which may please Your Excellency, of whom I beg to remain the most humble servant.
Leonardo da Vinci
quoted from Artists on Art, from the 14th to the 20th Century, edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, (New York, Pantheon Books)

Notice that he begins his letter by telling the Duke all about his abilities as a scientist, inventor, and strategist and end at the end of the letter he says "Oh by the way, I'm an artist too."  What this anecdote indicates is that Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man.  Although this story indicates that Leonard is portraying himself as a scientist philosopher and architect first, this is just a dramatic way of introducing himself.   Leonardo new full well that his reputation as an artist preceded him.
A link to a biography about Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-7 Milan, 
Santa Maria delle Grazie 

1) The door was enlarged in 1652
2) Half a dozen well meaning restorers seem to have been its worst enemy.
3) A protective curtain hung by friars in 1768 
trapped humidity and abraded the mural when opened for visitors.
4) To ward against sunlight, nearby windows are now boarded.
5) Post world war rebuilding added central heating which 
stabilized the environment.
6) The foundations of the structure were strengthened.
(Source: National Geographic Magazine)
Form: The Last Supper is a mural in bad condition.  Leonardo used a combination of materials to paint this fresco and his experiment failed almost immediately.  Leonardo painted a lead white primer on top of the plaster wall to slow the drying and so he could paint more slowly.  It's not clear why the two didn't adhere but possibly the moisture of the plaster wall rejected the oil based primer on its surface and kept it from creating a tight cohesive bond.  As a result the paint almost immediately began to flake.  For some detail views of the fresco and its context see this page.The figures are life sized and placed in a single frieze like band on one side of the table.  The apostles are also arranged into four groups of three figures each.  Each figure in the group is posed or arranged in a unique manner and exhibits a unique emotional gesture.  The composition is symmetrical with Christ at it's center and arranged using one point perspective whose vanishing point converges behind Christ's head.  Almost all of the figures, except for the single figure of Judas have their heads' placed on the horizon line.
The use of linear perspective is exaggerated and further complimented by the arrangement of the coffers in the ceiling, the doors along each side of the room and the atmospheric perspective of the landscape through the windows.  This is further exaggerated by the gesture of Christ's body in the center whose arms are outstretched and whose body forms a triangular shape that points back towards the window and the vanishing point.
Iconography: The figures size and placement in a single frieze like band on one side of the table.  Serve two purposes.  First, they arrange the figures in such a way that the monks who would eat in this room felt as if they were pulling up a chair and eating with Jesus and the apostles.  Second, the arrangement also refers to the classical friezes that Leonardo would have studied and this reference would not have been lost on the viewers. 
The apostles arrangement into four groups of three figures is a reference to the sacred number of the trinity which represents the father, son, and the holy spirit.  This symbolism could also be part of why there are three windows in the background and is also part of why Christ's figure is arranged in the three sided triangular form. 
For Leonardo and his contemporaries, humanism or the human experience of religion was the key to unlocking the world.  Since the study of man and his experience was so important it makes sense that human gesture and pose is central to understanding this painting.  Here's a quote from Leonardo's notebook in which he discusses how to compose groups of figures in historical pictures:

When you have thoroughly learned perspective and have fixed in your memory all the various parts and forms of things, you should often amuse yourself, when you take a walk for recreation, by watching and taking note of the attitudes and actions of men as they talk and dispute, or laugh or come to blows one with another - both their actions and those of the bystanders who either intervene or stand looking on at these things; noting them down with rapid strokes in this way, in a little pocket book, which you ought always to carry with you.
quoted from Artists on Art, from the 14th to the 20th Century, edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, (New York, Pantheon Books)
As you can see, Leonardo believed in drawing from figures from observation and that he particularly was interested in communicating emotion and experience through gesture.  Christ's pose, with his arms outstretched is further invitation to the scene and an indication in which he is willing participant in his sacrifice.  Each apostles' figure is posed or arranged in a unique manner and exhibits a unique emotional gesture.  This refers back to the viewer and how the viewer might have had a similar reaction to one of the apostles.  This is a humanistic way of looking at the story because the viewer is supposed to look for a figure that he best identifies with.  The composition is arranged using one point perspective whose vanishing point converges behind Christ's head which places him in the most important and literally the most central location in the image.  All of the figures, except for the single figure of Judas have their heads' placed on the horizon line and this is symbolic of Judas status as a betrayer and therefore "beneath" the other apostles.
Context:  Since Leonardo was a scientist as well as a painter he attempted to try mixing tempera, oil paint and fresco in this painting.  The result was that the mural almost immediately had a really bad "dandruff" problem.The drawing condenses misfortunes the "Last Supper" has suffered and reveals modern correction.
Leonardo painted a lead white primer on top of the plaster wall to slow the drying and so he could paint more slowly.  It's not clear why the two didn't adhere but possibly the moisture of the plaster wall rejected the oil based primer on its surface and kept it from creating a tight cohesive bond.

Leonardo, Vitruvian Man, 
Study of proportions, c1492 
from Vitruvius's 
De Architectura (1st century BCE)
Pen and ink, 13"x 9" 
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Form: This is a fairly small pen and ink drawing, depicting a nude male figure whose body is inscribed within several geometric forms.  The rendering utilizes contour drawing rather than much attempt to portray value or chiaroscuro.   In the margins of the pages are inscribed in reverse (or mirror writing) Leonardo's observations about Vitruvius's' text.  The drawing is an interpretation of these ideas which are quoted in Stokstad. (Make sure you read them!)Iconography:  In a more general sense, this drawing represents Leonardo and his contemporaries neoplatonic and humanistic ideologies which can be traced back to the writings of Vitruvius and classical thinking.  The most relevant humanistic "sound bite" from that era being, "Man is the measure of all things."  In this drawing we see that Leonardo takes this idea almost quite literally and scientifically.
In addition to the idea of "man" in a general sense, Leonardo, consistent with classical thinking, chooses to represent the nude male figure rather than the nude female.  This choice is quite deliberate because much of the thinking concerning classical humanism revolves around the specifically male experience of the world.
Context:  Leonardo's notebooks are precisely and this is why Bill Gates has bought them all up and now owns all the rights to them.  Aside from their initial value as antique works by a master, they are an invaluable source of information for modern scholars concerning both how Leonardo thought about the world and also how an artist from the Renaissance might have thought.  Within its pages are his observations concerning science, art, his inventions of flying machines, his studies of anatomy, observations of his fellow man and commentaries on other's ideas and texts. 
In Stokstad you can read the quote from Vitruvius' treatise.  Here's another quote from Leonardo that applies to how he thought about the human figure in a rationalistic and scientific manner.

From chin to the starting of the hair is a tenth part of the figure.
From the chin to the top of the head is an eighth part.
And from the chin to the nostrils is a third a part of the face.
And the same from the nostrils to the eyebrows, and from the eyebrows to the starting of the hair.
If you set your legs so far apart as to take the fourteenth part from the height, and you open and raise your arms until you touch the line of the crown of the head with your middle fingers, you must know that the center of the circle formed by the extremities of the outstretched limbs will be the navel, and the space between the legs will form an equilateral triangle.
The span of a man's outstretched arms is equal to his height.quoted from Artists on Art, from the 14th to the 20th Century, edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, (New York, Pantheon Books)

According to the Brittanica
 fl. 1st century BC in full MARCUS VITRUVIUS POLLIO, Roman architect, engineer, and author of the celebrated treatise De architectura (On Architecture), a handbook for Roman architects. Little is known of Vitruvius' life, except what can be gathered from his writings, which are somewhat obscure on the subject. Although he nowhere identifies the emperor to whom his work is dedicated, it is likely that the first Augustus is meant and that the treatise was conceived after 27 BC. Since Vitruvius describes himself as an old man, it may be inferred that he was also active during the time of Julius Caesar. Vitruvius himself tells of a basilica he built at Fanum (now Fano).De architectura was based on his own experience, as well as on theoretical works by famous Greek architects such as Hermogenes. The treatise covers almost every aspect of architecture, but it is limited, since it is based primarily on Greek models, from which Roman architecture was soon decisively to depart in order to serve the new needs of proclaiming a world empire. De architectura is divided into 10 books dealing with city planning and architecture in general; building materials; temple construction and the use of the Greek orders; public buildings (theatres, baths); private buildings; floors and stucco decoration; hydraulics; clocks, mensuration, and astronomy; and civil and military engines. Vitruvius' outlook is essentially Hellenistic. His wish was to preserve the classical tradition in the design of temples and public buildings, and his prefaces to the separate books of his treatise contain many pessimistic remarks about the contemporary architecture. Most of what Pliny says in his Natural History about Roman construction methods and wall painting was taken from Vitruvius, though unacknowledged. Vitruvius' expressed desire that his name be honoured by posterity was realized. Throughout the antique revival of the Renaissance, the classical phase of the Baroque, and in the Neoclassical period, his work was the chief authority on ancient classical architecture.
The text of De architectura with an English translation is published in the Loeb Classical Library in two volumes.
 "Vitruvius."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 11, 2002.

Anatomical studies from Leonardo's notebooks

Even though it was against the law, Leonardo was still able to obtain corpses and dissect them.  Leonardo's studies of anatomy initially make sense from a rationalistic point of view for artists.  He states in one of his notebooks,It is a necessary thing for a painter, in order to be able to fashion limbs correctly in the positions and actions which they can represent in the nude, to know anatomy of sinews, bones, muscles, and tendons in order to know, in the various different movements and impulses, which sinew or muscle is the cause of each movement and to make only those prominent and thickened, and not the others all over the limb, as do many who, in order to appear great draftsmen, make their nudes wooden and without grace, so that it seems rather as if you were looking at a sack of nuts than a human form or a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of nudes.
quoted from Artists on Art, from the 14th to the 20th Century, edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, (New York, Pantheon Books)
So then, you may ask yourself, why did he choose to study an unborn child in the womb.  The answer is that he was a Renaissance man an interested also in pure science.

A flying machine by Leonardo.

Leonardo, Virgin and St. Anne with the Christ Child 
and the Young John the Baptist. c 1500-1 
Charcoal heightened with white on brown paper, 
54x39" (139x101 cm)
National Gallery, London
Form:  This is a large drawing on brown paper that uses the brown of the paper as part of its value structure.  The medium brown tone of the paper served as the middle tones of the drawing and then the lights and darks were established with chalk and charcoal. In several sections of the drawing, Leonardo has chosen to leave sections unfinished in terms of value and we can see contour lines that indicate the forms.  Some of the contour lines are rough and several have some "false" starts and corrections he made.
The overall composition is fits the figures in a pyramidal form in the foreground of the image.  The relationship of the figures although placed within a stable triangular form is still somewhat awkward and it looks almost as if Leonardo has collaged the figures together.  In the background of the image is an idealized landscape.
Iconography:  The iconography of the image deals with the holy family in a humanistic fashion.  This holy family and its gestures are meant to relate to your own family and this ties in with the Catholic humanist ideal of seeing the image of Christ in the world that surrounds you and with the concept of traditional family values.
The concept of faith, sacrifice, wisdom and idealism are related almost in a river like flow from Anne all the way down to St. John.  The start or source of this knowledge comes from "God the Father" who is not represented but pointed towards by St. Anne, Mary's mother on whom Mary sits.  In some ways, this refers back to the "throne of wisdom" them that was evidenced in Giotto and Cimabue's painting but in this case, Leonardo's drawing is a correction of the original schema.  In this case, St. Anne becomes the original throne on which Mary rests.
From Anne comes Mary, who offers her child to the world and he in turn offers his blessing, in the form of a gesture, and therefore wisdom, to the apostle John who will go and relate the "good news" to his followers.
From another perspective, this image also communicates the point of view of the Renaissance audience about the roles of women.  The women in this image are in some ways representative of the "ideal" woman.  Clearly an image like this incorporates the point of view that motherhood is a very high calling.  Since images like this were primarily commissioned by male patrons and made by male artists some historians have named this phenomena the "male gaze."
Context:  This large drawing is neither a study of a finished drawing for presentation in the strictest sense.  Although in some ways it is both.  This drawing is a cartoon and is a planning drawing or design.  In some ways it's a form of carbon paper.  The drawing would have been used in a similar fashion to the paper designs dress makers use.  The drawing would have been pierced with a pin or awl along its main contours and then the image would have been transferred to a canvas or board by "pouncing" charcoal or chalk through the holes created by the pin. 
Stokstad explains that there is no finished painting associated with this drawing, however, Leonardo has several paintings that are very similar to it.  It was not unknown of and actually a fairly common practice to recycle old cartoons, and the basic designs of paintings over and over again.  For example, Cimabue has several version of the seated Madonna that look almost identical but for minor differences in color, iconography the number of angels and the apostles who accompany her.  This may account for the weird interrelationship and tangle of legs between Mary and Anne in the image.  It is possible that Leonardo recycled and collaged some old ideas and figures in this cartoon.  Another painting that shares many of these qualities with this cartoon is Leonardo's Virgin and St. Anne with the Christ Child, 1510 now in the Louvre.


Leonardo, Virgin and St. Anne with the 
Christ Child. 1510
Oil on wood, 168,5 x 130 cm 
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Photo of atmospheric perspective
Iconography:  This work shares almost the same exact content as the cartoon above; however, in this the St. John is substituted with a lamb.  The lamb is symbolic of Christ as the Lamb of God and of his preordained sacrifice.Some minor changes dealing with the gestures and poses of the figures are in evidence.  Most noticeably is Anne's.  In this version she does not chose to gesticulate towards the heavens but instead places her hand on her hip in to compliment this self assured and calm gesture she smiles benevolently down on her progeny.
Formal: An element that blurs the line between iconography and formalism is the use of the triangular or pyramidal organization of the figures. This shape is both iconic of the Trinity and it is a visual device which pulls the eye back into the picture plane and stabilizes the composition.
The "cut and paste" of the three figures, especially in how the figure of Mary relates to the figure of St. Anne, can probably be traced back to the use of older studies or cartoons which Leonardo has combined.  This painting also shares a lot in common with his Mona Lisa.  The shared qualities involved deal with his creation of space by using two devices, the use of atmospheric or aerial perspective and the use of sfumato.

Alberti's system of linear perspective failed to solve many problems related to the effective portrayal of depth by limiting it to a horizon line and by giving the appearance that the various planes in a painting are stacked much like a stage set.3 By careful observation of nature as the ultimate teacher, Leonardo solves these problems, "Perspective is divided into three parts, of which the first is concerned solely with the outlines of the bodies; the second in the diminution of colors at varying distances; the third in the loss of definition of bodies at various distances."4 Leonardo observed and defined atmospheric perspective and color perspective which in combination are often referred to as "aerial perspective."Leonardo explains color perspective this way, ". . . through variations in the air we are made aware of the different distances of various buildings. . . therefore make the first building. . . its own color; the next most distant make more blue. . . at another distance bluer yet and that which is five time more distant make five times more blue."5 This principle is demonstrated in the background of Mona Lisa: the ground and hills directly behind the subject are painted in warm tones of reddish browns and tans. As the landscape recedes the mountains and water become progressively more blue. Leonardo also noted that air is more dense closest to the earth, therefore the bases of hills will always appear lighter than the summit; he applies this theory to the hills behind the sitter's shoulders which start out a tan color and become dark brown.6
Leonardo's optical observations delineated atmospheric perspective in this way: "[t]hat thing will be less evident that is furthest removed from the eye. The boundaries of things in the second plane will not be discerned like those in the first."7 This theory is especially well developed in the backgrounds ofMona Lisa and Madonna and Saint Anne, which become less and less detailed as the images recede until they become so distant to the eye that they disappear in the atmosphere. Leonardo's establishment of these principles brought to an end the medieval system of absolute color and allowed artists to compress miles of landscape onto a flat picture plane.8
1. Martin Kemp, ed., Leonardo on Painting, (New Haven and others: Yale University Press, 1989), 197.
2. Serge Bramly, Leonardo: Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Sian Reynolds, trans., (New York: Harper and Collins Publishers, 1991),
3. William V. Dunning, Changing Image of Pictorial Space: A History of Spatial Illusion in Painting, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 42.
4. Kemp, 16.
5. Kemp, 80.
6. Kemp, 83-84.
7. Kemp, 85-87.|
8. Marcia Hall, Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 68.
The following is part of an essay excerpted from an art historical magazine published by Chico State called "Contrapposto"  which can be found at
"What Insights do Leonardo's Writings Shed on His Work?" by S. Lee Hager go to  this site for the full essay