Provocative and original, this fresh look at Leonardo da Vinci’s formative years in Florence and Milan provides a radically different scenario of how he created his signature style that would transform Western art forever.
The traditional view of Leonardo da Vinci’s career is that he enjoyed a promising start in Florence and then moved to Milan to become the celebrated court artist of Duke Ludovico Sforza. Young Leonardo presents a very different view. It reveals how the young Leonardo struggled against the prevailing style of his master Verrocchio, was stymied in his efforts to produce his first masterpiece in Florence, and left for Milan on little more than a wing and a prayer. Once there, he was long ignored by Duke Ludovico, and enjoyed only tepid Sforza support after his great equestrian project came to nothing. Meanwhile, all the major Sforza commissions went to artists whose names are now forgotten.
Isbouts and Brown depict Leonardo’s seminal years in Milan from an entirely new perspective: that of the Sforza court. They show that much of the Sforza patronage was directed on vast projects, such as the Milan Cathedral, favoring a close circle of local artists to which Leonardo never gained entry. As a result, his exceptional talent remained largely unrecognized right up to the Last Supper. The authors also explore a mysterious link between the Last Supper and the fresco of the Crucifixion on the opposite wall, a work that up to now has fully escaped public attention. Finally, they present a sensational theory: that two long-ignored, life-sized copies of the Last Supper, now in Belgium and the U.K., were actually commissioned by the French King Louis XII and painted under Leonardo’s direct supervision.
Young Leonardo is a fascinating window into the artist’s mind as he slowly develops the groundbreaking techniques that will produce the High Renaissance and change the course of European art.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts is an acclaimed art historian, archaeologist and doctoral professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. His bestselling books on art and biblical archaeology include National Geographic’s The Biblical World, From Moses to Muhammad and The Archaeology of the Bible.
Dr. Christopher Heath Brown is a connoisseur of Renaissance art and founder of Brown Discoveries, LLC, an institute of art research. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon who practices in North Carolina, Dr. Brown’s experience in reconstructing faces has enabled him to create groundbreaking analyses of Renaissance portraits. Together with Dr. Isbouts, he previously co-authored The Mona Lisa Myth (2013).
Read an Excerpt
The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472-1499
By Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Christopher Heath Brown
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown
All rights reserved.
BEGINNINGS IN FLORENCE
You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.
— LEONARDO DA VINCI
Ser Piero da Vinci recognized the talents of his young son, Leonardo, early on. That's why, in 1466, he arranged for the boy to be apprenticed at the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence when the boy was just fourteen years of age. According to the sixteenth-century author Giorgio Vasari, one of da Vinci's first biographers, Leonardo was soon recognized as a prodigy, which under normal circumstances would have meant that a bright future lay ahead of him. So, in the six years that he worked in Verrocchio's bottega, Leonardo learned to draw, to prep wet plaster and wooden panels, to stretch canvas, and to grind and mix pigments in order to create paint. (Ready-made paint tubes of the type we use today would not appear until the nineteenth century.) Eventually he was entrusted with more important tasks, such as transferring a cartoon (a drawing to scale) to a plaster or wooden surface, blending colors in water-based tempera or oils (still a relatively new invention then), and finally, painting lesser elements, such as a background landscape.
Verrocchio's workshop was in high demand, which meant his pupils worked on a wide range of artistic endeavors, not only painting and sculpture (in plaster, wood, or bronze), but also a variety of furnishings, such as wooden chests, chairs, and coats of arms. The studio was also called upon whenever Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Medici ruler of the city, wished to produce any of the sumptuous masques and pageants for which his rule was famous. This invariably involved all sorts of intricate stage sets and machinery, as well as costumes, tapestries, and the construction of temporary structures such as Roman-style triumphal arches. Leonardo was at the studio when Verrocchio attained one of his greatest triumphs: the completion of a huge gilded ball that, in 1471, was hoisted to the top of the lantern of Brunelleschi's famous dome over the Florence Cathedral. In the process, Leonardo was thoroughly indoctrinated in Verrocchio's unique brand of art: the production of lovely though somewhat soulless and formulaic figures, whether sacred or secular, whose robust disegno betrayed the master's preference for sculpture over painting.
Six years after his arrival in Verrocchio's studio, Leonardo was enrolled as a master in the guild of artists, which, as it happened, also included the trade of doctors and apothecaries (medici e speziali). This enabled him to accept commissions on his own, rather than through his tutor and master. Leonardo was not the only painter to be enrolled; Sandro Botticelli (a product of Fra Filippo Lippi's workshop) and Pietro Perugino (likewise a pupil of Verrocchio's) were also inducted that year.
Leonardo was certainly ready to embark on a career as an artist in his own right, but initially that was not the case. As a graduate from this busy atelier, he became one of Verrocchio's associates — a common practice at the time, and one that Leonardo himself would adopt in later years. This meant that the former pupil, now an "assistant," was tasked with working on various parts of paintings, sculptures, and other creations then under development at Verrocchio's bottega.
In recent decades, the need for a large stable of assistants had become the norm at the leading studios in Florence. Ever since the plague, the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, eliminated many of Florence's principal rivals in the cloth and banking trade, notably Siena and Pisa, the city had become the source of stupendous bourgeois wealth. As always, wealth seeks an outlet and, in Florence, the rich merchants had long since decided that art should be one of these outlets. They didn't buy paintings for the reasons that wealthy collectors buy art today — as a form of investment, hedging their bets that art appreciates faster than other human artifacts, such as real estate — but for the simple reason that art bestows a certain prestige. Throughout the Middle Ages, the commissioning of art had been the exclusive province of the two powers that ruled Europe: the Church and the aristocracy. Now the bankers and merchants of Florence were emerging as the third most powerful group in the city. Outwardly, they might have mocked and disparaged the nobility as a fading relic of the past, but privately they tried very hard to emulate them.
This development was partly fueled by the idea that Florentine art had undergone an important transformation. While previously, Italian paintings were restricted to the depiction of sacred themes, preferably scenes from the Gospels, Florence had boldly expanded the repertoire by embracing motifs from its ancient past. Even now, anyone who cared to look could find the remnants of Roman sculptures, reliefs, or temples scattered throughout the Tuscan countryside. That the artistry of the Romans was beyond parallel (and, it should be said, technically superior to anything that medieval artists had achieved) was always well known. Unfortunately, such spolia, as these fragments were depreciatively called, were also the tangible products of a pagan culture, a society that had wallowed in the superstitious belief in gods and goddesses, usually depicted in the nude, as sufficient reason for the Church to ban them as heresy.
Yet all that changed at the dawn of the fifteenth century, the Quattrocento, when the classical spirit seeded by the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio took root among the citizenry of Florence. And not just the citizenry. Many of the city's pious souls may have been shocked when the committee supervising the production of sacred art for the Florentine cathedral issued a competition for a new set of doors for its baptistery in 1401, and was found to be deeply impressed by the works of two sculptors, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Both competitive designs openly flaunted copies of famous Roman sculptures. Sometime thereafter, Brunelleschi solved a problem that had stumped medieval technology: how to cover the vast crossing space of the Florence Cathedral with a dome. He did so by simply copying the engineering design of the dome of the Roman Pantheon, which is still standing today in the heart of Rome.
From that point on, the floodgates were open. The imitation of all things Roman — in art, in sculpture, in literature, even in the collection of Roman coins — now became the attribute of the New Florentine Man: a sophisticated dilettante as knowledgeable about the Gospels as about the exploits of the Greco-Roman gods.
Of all the arts, however, painting was the one discipline that had been least affected by the new Renaissance. While there were Roman sculptures and architectural pieces aplenty, Roman paintings were all believed to have perished in the preceding centuries — or so it was thought, until the discovery of Pompeii in the seventeenth century. Thus, the influence of Roman precedent on Florentine art was limited to the depiction of mythological motifs (The Birth of Venus, say), albeit in the late medieval style that skillfully blended the art of Giotto and Masaccio with the new invention of linear perspective.
Verrocchio's workshop embraced the art of Antiquity as eagerly as other studios in the city, particularly when it came to sculpture, or the development of backdrops and costumes for masques (an early form of historical theater). When it came to painting, however, Verrocchio preferred to remain faithful to the Late Gothic style that had swept Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Verrocchio was not a man to take risks. In 1457 he had passed through a period of financial difficulty. His tax statement of that year confessed that he was "losing his shirt" trying to keep the shop in operation. (The Italian expression is Non guadagniamo le chalze, or "We can't keep our hose on.")
What's more, Verrocchio thought primarily in plastic terms, since he vastly preferred sculpture over painting (as in the case of Michelangelo), and was happy to leave the tedium of painting to his more experienced pupils. It was this Verrocchio style, an uneasy blend of old and new, of Gothic design and a somewhat sculptural and muscular formalism, that Leonardo fully absorbed during his apprenticeship years, only to improve on it as soon as he got the chance.
That chance came with The Baptism of Christ of 1475, a painting commissioned by the monks of the San Salvi monastery, just outside the Porta alla Croce. Verrocchio charged his young assistant with painting one of the angels. The sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari claims that when Verrocchio saw what Leonardo had done, and recognized the superior quality of his work, he "never again touched color" — painting, that is. Left unsaid is the way in which Leonardo was able to make his angel more luminous and realistic. Verrocchio's own style was grounded in the use of tempera, the quick-drying, water-based paint that allows for little plasticity. As such, it was perfectly suited for the Quattrocento style of creating figures as colored-in lines, a style exemplified by the art of Botticelli.
Leonardo, however, never thought in terms of drawing lines (disegno). His interest lay in creating threedimensional shapes, forms that were suggested, rather than defined, through the use of delicate glazes, of subtle hues and shading. Tempera paint could never achieve such effects. This is why Leonardo preferred to use oils in his paintings, a technique that had been developed by northern European artists and that was relatively new in Florence. Recent X-ray tests of the Baptism show that, whereas Verrocchio was still painting his figures as contours in tempera on a white lead base, Leonardo was using thin, superimposed layers of colored oils in the sections assigned to him. The truth is that when Verrocchio recognized his assistant's virtuosity in this new technique, he was probably relieved. "Great, you can do the paint jobs from now on," he may have said, for this arrangement would have allowed him to focus exclusively on sculpture, a discipline he was far more comfortable with.
Indeed, Leonardo painted other sacred panels while in Verrocchio's employ, including several depictions of the Madonna, using oil on panel. This may explain why he remained faithful to the Verrocchio prototype of feminine grace for quite some time, for his output had to follow to some extent the "brand" established by the master, even though Leonardo soon probed for improvements. There was plenty of opportunity for that, for this series of Madonna paintings was destined not for churches or monasteries, as was usually the case, but for private homes. The rapid growth of urban centers had led to the rise of a new form of religious society known officially as the Order of Preachers, but more colloquially as the Dominican Order, which included friars and nuns as well as laymen and tertiaries.
The order's purpose was to sustain preaching and piety in a society that was reaping levels of prosperity not seen in Europe in centuries. As part of their program, the Dominicans encouraged the citizenry not only to attend services in church, but also to spend time in contemplative study and prayer at home.
To facilitate this type of private meditation, many homes began to acquire what in German is called an Andachtsbild, a devotional painting of Christ, the Madonna, or saints that would help the faithful focus their prayerful thoughts. Verrocchio's Madonnas from the 1470s, many of which are (at least partly) attributed to Leonardo, are a perfect example of this new motif.
To emphasize the domestic character of the painting, Mary is typically shown in a small, enclosed space, with windows or portals that open up to a splendid, sun-splashed Italianate landscape. What's more, she is shown "in close-up," from the torso up, rather than in the full-length format favored in church frescoes, so as to establish an intimate bond between the figure and the beholder.
The so-called Dreyfus Madonna of around 1472, traditionally attributed to Lorenzo di Credi but more recently to Verrocchio or even Leonardo, is a perfect example. The parallels between this panel and one of Leonardo's early paintings, The Madonna of the Carnation, are obvious. Mary's pose and the treatment of her garment are almost identical in the two works, as is the position of the Child, although, in The Madonna of the Carnation he is seated, rather than standing, on Mary's lap. Perhaps the sheer impossibility of balancing an infant on his mother's right leg offended Leonardo's devotion to verisimilitude.
Nevertheless, The Madonna of the Carnation dutifully follows the custom, borrowed from northern European painters, of enhancing a scene with various floral types, each endowed with a symbolic meaning. Thus, the Child is reaching for the red carnation in Mary's left hand, not yet knowing that this is an allegory of his future suffering on the Cross. Balancing the composition, on the right, is a crystal vase filled with a bouquet of flowers, a symbol of Mary's purity as a virgin.
In all these respects, The Madonna of the Carnation may be a typical product of the Verrocchio workshop, but other intriguing details already reveal Leonardo's talent for exploring new solutions. Whereas the Dreyfus Madonna is universally lit, as if the scene were painted outdoors against the prop of a back wall, Leonardo, in his panel, uses the indoor setting to cast the figures in a daring chiaroscuro, a contrast of brightly lit passages and deep shadows, using Mary's face and the baby's skin as the transition between darkness and light. Particularly in the treatment of Mary's face, with its soft glow of hues, Leonardo shows himself a prodigy in oils, wielding a technique that would become the hallmark of his style.
Another feature that would return in Leonardo's mature works was his fascination with deep landscape vistas. In this, once again, northern European artists such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden preceded him, but with an important difference. Northern artists created a form of landscape in which nature has been tamed by man, with soft rolling hills dotted by picturesque villages, and rivers dutifully winding themselves into the distance — the very image of Christian medieval order. By contrast, the landscape glimpsed through the windows of The Madonna of the Carnation is a wild, untamed land of jagged rocks and forbidding glaciers towering high on the horizon. The resemblance between this panorama and that of The Virgin of the Rocks, or even the Mona Lisa and the Saint Anne, is striking.
In sum, The Madonna of the Carnation is perhaps the first painting that signals Leonardo's determination to break away from Verrocchio's cloying stereotypes in order to survey paths of his own. His contemporaries did not fail to recognize this. Vasari called the painting "a most excellent work," and reserved special praise for the "glass vase full of water, containing some flowers, in which, besides its marvelous naturalness, he had imitated the dew drops on the flowers, so that it seemed more real than the reality." In fact, the painting was sufficiently admired to make its way ultimately into the collection of Pope Clement VII, or so Vasari claimed.
THE NEED FOR MEDICI PATRONAGE
To be a successful artist in the 1470s meant one had to have a connection to the wellspring of patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, the powerful "Lorenzo il Magnifico," who ruled Florence as a private fiefdom. A skillful diplomat and crafty politician, Lorenzo thought of himself as a gentleman scholar and poet who had reluctantly accepted the yoke of political leadership. He liked to surround himself with leading intellectuals such as Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino and, in his free time, discuss Neoplatonic ideas that blended Christology with Plato's reason. He expected his artists to be equally comfortable in such an intellectual milieu and, in many cases, they were.
Excerpted from Young Leonardo by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Christopher Heath Brown. Copyright © 2017 Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I Toward The Adoration of The Magi: Leonardo's Early Oeuvre in Florence
1 Beginnings in Florence 9
2 The Adoration of the Magi 36
Part II Toward The Last Sapper: Leonardo's Oeuvre in Milan
3 An Artist in Milan 57
4 The Sforza Commissions 73
5 The Pala Sforzesca 88
6 The Santa Maria delle Grazie 101
7 Montorfano's Crucifixion with Donors 110
8 The Theme of The Last Supper 138
9 Painting The Last Supper 153
10 Seeing The Last Supper with New Eyes 174
Select Bibliography 217