Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is still today, 500 years after his death, surprisingly modern. His work transcends borders, encompasses art, science and technology. The mysterious smile of “Mona Lisa”, “The Last Supper” and the study of proportions of “The Vitruvian Man” – da Vinci’s work is world famous. He died on May 2nd 1519 in the French town of Amboise, where he spent the last years of his life.
The point of departure for the search for the universal genius is a farmstead just outside the gates of the Tuscan village of Vinci, which is considered his birthplace. The illegitimate son of a notary, born in 1452, grew up in a patchwork family with his grandfather. Today, as half a millenia ago, olive groves and vineyards line the surrounding hills. The contrast between the austere birthplace with rough stone floors and the splendor of the courtyards of kings and popes, who later wooed da Vinci, could not be greater.
Leonardo da Vinci was an eccentric. He questioned everything from the flow of water to the functioning of the human body to the canonized rules of painting. While there are barely more than a dozen paintings by him, you can still admire over 6000 drawings by him.
He learned the craft in the Florentine workshop Andrea del Verrocchios. After his youth in Florence, he tried his luck at the Milan court of Ludovico Sforza, who, like other rulers, needed the art for his propaganda purposes.
As an artist, he wanted to work in the northern Italian metropolis only in peacetime. That included a huge equestrian monument, which, however, never went beyond the stage of drafts. This, too, runs through da Vinci’s life: he was overflowing with ideas, tirelessly he began with new constructions, sketches, accepted orders. Much remained unfinished.
One of his most famous works today is the Vitruvian man, the drawing of a man with outstretched arms and legs touching a circle and a square in two superimposed positions with his fingertips and soles of his feet. The sketch shows by way of example that Leonardo’s interest in anatomy and symmetry was inextricably linked to aesthetics.
In his time in Milan, da Vinci created in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie his famous “Last Supper”, which focuses on Jesus with the help of architectural lines. Instead of a fresco on the wet plaster, he painted the nine-meter-wide painting on the dry north wall. The colors began to fade quickly, so that the figures are only barely visible today.
A few years later he began work on the painting “Mona Lisa”, probably a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. The portrait, suspended between smile and seriousness, is today the most famous painting in the world. When he moved to France, Leonardo took it for his patron King Francis I. Today it hangs as a crowd magnet in the Paris Louvre.
Salvator Mundi recently made great headlines. It was attributed to da Vinci and was auctioned in 2017 as the most expensive work of art in the world for $450 million to Abu Dhabi. The whereabouts of the painting is currently unknown.
Until his death on May 2nd 1519 he kept the “Mona Lisa”, “John the Baptist” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” with him. Today thousands pass the paintings in the Louvre. They are still mysterious. The Louvre is planning a major da Vinci exhibition in the fall: as many as 14 to 17 paintings ascribed to Leonardo will be shown in Paris.