Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world’s most famous polymaths – scientist, inventor, painter and all-round Renaissance man, his legacy is as far-reaching as it is long-lasting. Da Vinci’s paintings are some of the most influential and famous in the Western art canon: only 18 works officially attributed to him survive, and at least half of these have caused controversy.
Despite being somewhat limited in number, da Vinci’s paintings give us a glimpse into the life of a Renaissance artist, as well as the wider world in which he operated.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in the village of Vinci in the Tuscan hills, about 20 miles outside Florence. Much of his early childhood is relatively obscure, but we do know for certain that around the age of 14, he began working in the studio of the artist Andrea del Verrocchio and became an apprentice aged 17.
The Baptism of Christ (1472-75)
It would be incorrect to say this painting was da Vinci’s: he is thought to have painted parts of it, with the rest being completed by Verrocchio himself. Verrocchio was primarily known for his sculpture, not his painting: one story goes that on seeing how accomplished his apprentice was, Verrocchio quit painting entirely.
The Baptism of Christ was commissioned by Verrocchio’s brother: much of the painting was executed in tempera (pigments mixed in egg yolk), whereas da Vinci’s parts are oil paint – the medium he painted in most often. As such, one of the angels and quite a lot of the landscape and sky is attributed to the young Leonardo.
Despite his own burgeoning success – including his father setting him up with his own workshop – da Vinci continued to work for and live with Verrocchio. Around 1478, he received his first independent commissions but these were abandoned, and eventually, he offered his services to Ludovico Sforza, heir to the Duchy of Milan.
Lady With an Ermine (1489-91)
Lady With an Ermine was completed whilst da Vinci was employed by Ludovico Sforza, who would go on to become Duke of Milan in 1494, and is widely regarded as a key figure in the Milanese Renaissance. His depicts his 16 year old mistress, Cecilia Gallerani holding a squirming ermine. Traditionally a symbol of purity and moderation, the ermine was also Sforza’s personal symbol: Gallerani holding the animal tight in her arms is reflective of the grip she had over her lover.
Gallerani was educated and intelligent: she invited da Vinci to take part in discussions with prominent philosophers of the day. The painting itself was relatively avant-garde for its time: da Vinci painted using oil, rather than fresco or tempera which was the normal medium in Italy at the time.
Having a patron as powerful as Sforza gave da Vinci’s life a degree of stability: there was less to worry about where the next commission would come from, and life would have been a little bit more comfortable and less nomadic as a result.
The Last Supper (1490s)
One of da Vinci’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper was commissioned by Sforza again, this time as part of renovations at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where the painting would adorn the wall of the refectory (dining hall). Sforza had planned for the site to become a family mausoleum, but in the end only a small mortuary chapel was ever constructed.
Traditionally, a painting like this would have been a fresco: da Vinci instead used a hybrid technique, using oil-based paint (his signature) to paint on a wet wall. In the long term this was a disaster: the paint was flaking off within 30 years, and conservation work has proved endlessly challenging. The fact any of it survives to this day remains a small miracle. Da Vinci used Milanese locals as models for Christ and his disciples, reportedly walking the streets to find people with the features he wanted.
The Last Supper’s fame comes not from the subject matter: the Biblical scene of Jesus and his disciples is hardly innovative or rare. Instead, the painting has captured the imaginations of thousands through its drama: the familiarity his audience would have had with the story helped da Vinci create a picture which highlights love, betrayal, fear and foreboding within one simple scene.
Salvator Mundi (c.1499-1510)
Salvator Mundi currently holds the record for the most expensive painting in the world, making $450.3 million at auction in 2017. The precise origins of the paintings are obscure – it was certainly a commission, possibly by Louis XII of France for his wife, Anne of Brittany to commemorate various military victories including his taking of the Duchy of Milan and Genoa.
In 1500, Sforza was overthrown and da Vinci fled first to Venice, and later back to Florence, where he entered the household of Cesare Borgia briefly.
Literally translating as ‘Saviour of the World’, Salvator Mundi depicts Jesus in a Renaissance style dress, making the sign of the cross and holding a transparent orb with the other.
The painting is controversial: its attribution is still hotly contested by some art historians. For several hundred years, da Vinci’s original Salvator Mundi was thought to have been lost – serious overpainting had transformed the work into a dark, gloomy work. Da Vinci’s attention to detail on particular features, particularly Christ’s hands, helped convince art historians that this work was in fact by him.
Mona Lisa (1503-6)
The Mona Lisa is one of the few paintings in the world which needs little introduction. With her famously enigmatic smile, it’s believed the subject was Lisa Gherardini – an Italian noblewoman. Married at the age of 15 to a silk and cloth merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, Lisa was his third wife and outlived her husband by many years.
It’s thought Giocondo commissioned this portrait of his wife around 1503 to celebrate the birth of their third child, Andrea. Da Vinci was notoriously reluctant to accept portrait commissions by wealthy patrons, which has led many to hypothesise he was in desperate need of money in 1503.
Lisa Gherardini is portrayed as a woman of virtue, as well as one up to date with the latest fashions. In a gesture of faithfulness, her right hand rests on her left, and her clothes are those of the Spanish-influenced fashions of the time. The original portrait had no smile: this was added later. Da Vinci viewed the work as unfinished, and analysis suggests he was working on it still, 10 years after the commission.
Unlike wealthier Florentine women of the time, critics have pointed out the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s smile is human: she smiles secretively to herself, holding something back from the viewer. Ever since it was purchased by King Francis I in 1516, the Mona Lisa has captivated almost everyone who looks upon her. The Mona Lisa is now housed in the Louvre, where she attracts over 6 million visitors a year.
After the Mona Lisa, only one painting – Saint John the Baptist – is widely believed to be by Leonardo. Continuing to live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle between Milan, Florence and Rome, da Vinci continued to complete commissions, pursue scientific experiments and practice botany.
In 1516, he entered the service of King Francis I of France: by this point, his right hand was partially paralysed. The Mona Lisa was still in his possession, but it seems that he could not really complete much more work on it due to this disability.
Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, leaving two of his close friends his library, paintings and personal effects. At some point in the years following his death, the Mona Lisa was bought by Francis I – who had become a friend of da Vinci – and remains in the possession of the French royal family, and later French state, right up until the present day.
On hearing of the death of his friend da Vinci, King Francis is supposed to have said “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo”.