Against God and men

Musée du Louvre

As I mentioned in a previous post, the purpose of my visit to Paris was to see an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre on Leonardo da Vinci, as 2019 was the 500th anniversary of his death. While I made a couple of strategic stops through the museum collections after completing my mission, this post won’t delve too deeply into the museum, and I will instead focus on the works on show as part of the da Vinci exhibition.

The exhibition did not only focus on works by da Vinci, but also by artists that might have had an influence on him, as well as his contemporaries.

Whenever I think of Leonardo da Vinci, I can’t help but think back to my Italian Renaissance college professor and his stories about the rivalry that existed between da Vinci and Michelangelo, as they both spent formative periods of time in Florence. The way he told it, it was a vicious and spiteful thing, where da Vinci would loudly comment on how melancholy and anti-social Michelangelo was whenever they ran into each other, and the latter would shoot back that at least he finished whatever he started, and had Leonardo completed his latest project yet? The drama.

I forgive da Vinci for not finishing most of the projects he started — mostly because I can relate, but also because it meant that he jumped from discipline to discipline with an astounding ease, exploring different fields simply out of curiosity, and dropping them for something he found more interesting once that curiosity ran out. I find him fascinating. I also think that it’s interesting that we usually think of him as an artist first, when so much of his work was actually scientific in nature.

Born in Vinci (and out of wedlock!), Leonardo became a garzone (studio boy) in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, who was the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of the time, by age 14. By the time he was 17, he became an apprentice and remained there as such for seven years. Other artists that also spent time in this workshop include Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Botticelli. His training while part of this workshop was broad when it came to subject matter, which may well have set the stage for the artist’s learning practices later in life.

He spent several years in Florence, receiving commissions from the Medici (the de facto rulers of the city), some of which he left unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482, and where he remained until 1499, to work for Duke Ludovico Sforza. Once the duke was overthrown during the Second Italian War, Leonardo moved himself and his workshop to Venice, where he worked as a military architect and engineer. By 1500, he had returned to Florence, where he set up workshop at the monastery of the Santissima Annunziata.

In 1502, Leonardo earned himself the post of military engineer and architect to Cesare Borgia after he gifted him with a map of the town of Imola, a Borgia stronghold.

By 1503, Leonardo had returned to Florence, and within a month he was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo – to be known through the centuries as the Mona Lisa. Other works that he started up while in Florence were left unfinished once he was summoned back to Milan, and in 1513, he moved to Rome after the French were kicked out of the northern city.

While in Rome, he was given painting commissions, practiced botany in the gardens of Vatican City, and dissected cadavers, making notes to write a treatise on vocal cords.

In 1515, Francis I of France took over Milan once again, and in 1516, Leonardo entered his service. By 1517, when he was 65, it seems that his right hand had become paralytic, which explains why he left some works towards the end of his life, including the Mona Lisa, unfinished.

This contemporary copy of The Last Supper was commissioned after the effects of Leonardo’s inventive nature made themselves known. The original painting was to be a fresco, painted directly onto a wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan using tempera. Frescoes have been in use in one way or another since at least Ancient Egypt (this is the reason why the wall paintings in Ancient Egyptian tombs have been preserved so well and for so long), but da Vinci wanted to improve upon the technique, and so sought to mix the traditionally used paints with oils. The experiment, sadly, did not go well, and the painting was already peeling off the wall in Leonardo’s lifetime. Today, if you wish to visit, you need to make a reservation months ahead of time and are only allowed to be in the same room with a small number of people and for about 15 minutes.

Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at age 67, of what is believed to be a stroke. Apparently, upon is deathbed, he declared that “he had offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done.” So next time you feel guilty that you’re not living up to your potential, just think of da Vinci.

Made a short stop to see this beauty, Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova, a.k.a. My Favorite Sculpture.

Remember I mentioned Death of Sardanapalus in a previous post?

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