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“The Last Supper” was created for the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Completed in 1498, it was painted in tempura and oil on plaster. Almost immediately, cracks began to form in the fragile tempura and it has been a five century long struggle to preserve the masterwork.
Even as an apprentice, Leonardo’s talent was hard to ignore. While working under Andrea del Verrocchio, the young man’s genius was such that his contribution to the “Baptism of Christ” was so vivid, it was said that Verrocchio threatened to give up painting.
Leonardo had been experimenting with oils, a radical technique at the time. Traditionally, Italian artists had painted with egg tempera (pigment mixed with egg yolk or whites), a messy mixture that dried quickly and often appeared to crack. By mixing his pigment with oil, Leonardo discovered a more versatile color, which could be built up in layers to add depth and tone or even painted over to cover mistakes. It was the start of an artistic revolution.
Following the completion of his apprenticeship with Verrocchio, Leonardo was now a master, but dissatisfied with his life in Florence. Science now interested him as much as painting. Based upon the notebooks that he left behind, he began to make frequent and significant scientific observations and speculations.
Leonardo approached Lorenzo de’Medici for help. Lorenzo wanted to ensure peace between Florence and Milan and referred him to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Leonardo arrived in Milan in 1482 and brought as a gift for the Duke, a silver lyre from Lorenzo. He was as much a peace emissary as an artist. In fact, Sforza’s needs were quite practical. Even though Milan was less artistically-centered than Florence, the city would provide him with more opportunities to apply his various interests. This suited Leonardo perfectly, as he had surpassed the need for just a studio and was desperate to build the inventions that only existed in his mind and notebooks.
Milan held a highly strategic position in southwestern Europe and was for centuries, a point of military contention. Prior to arriving in the city, Leonardo wrote a letter to Sforza offering his services as a military engineer. The letter also alluded to an equestrian monument Sforza hoped to erect in honor of his father. Leonardo planned a gigantic horse to serve this purpose, one that would be a feat of engineering, as well as art.
Once Leonardo gained the patronage of Sforza, he became a prominent figure in Sforza’s court. On April 25, 1483, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. The oil on wood piece, approximately six feet high, became known as the “Virgin of the Rocks.” It was one of two pieces by Leonardo that is almost identical in composition. The earlier work now hangs in the Louvre. In this painting, he experimented with blending the edges of objects in indistinct light to create a sort of smoky effect known as sfumato, a technique the artist would continue to develop in his future works. During the 1480s, he also worked on two famous portraits, the Portrait of a Musician and the Lady with an Ermine.
Leonardo was employed on many different projects for Ludovico, including the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions and designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral. During this time, he designed a number of military machines, including a primitive form of war tank and a chariot with scythes attached to its wheels, predating James Bond’s similarly-equipped Aston Martin DB5 in the movie “Goldfinger” by five centuries!
The most significant of the projects entrusted to Leonardo was the creation of the aforementioned bronze statue to honor Francesco Sforza. Leonardo conceived of a magnificent 16-foot-tall equestrian statue that would have required 70 tons of bronze. Never had such a casting approached this size. It surpassed in size the only two large equestrian statues of the Renaissance, Donatello’s Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice and became known as the Gran Cavallo. The project took up a great deal of his time, as he continued to work on different designs, molds and models. In 1492, the clay model of the horse was completed. Michelangelo told Leonardo that he would never be able to cast a statue that immense. He was correct; in November 1494, Ludovico Sforza used the bronze to make cannons for the defense of the city from invasion by Charles VIII. For the remainder of his life, Leonardo was haunted by the twelve years of the unfinished project and considered it to be one of his greatest failures. To add to the humiliation, archers from the invading French troops used the life-sized clay model of the Gran Cavallo for target practice.
Meanwhile, Leonardo was keeping scrupulous notebooks on a number of studies, including artistic drawings, but also depictions of scientific subjects ranging from anatomy to hydraulics. He chronicled his thoughts about painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy. His notebooks contained wide-ranging ideas, including plans for a flying machine, bicycle and drawings of the human skeleton.
In his personal life, in 1480, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, entered Leonardo’s household as his servant and pupil at the age of ten. He would serve his master for the next 28 years. In 1493, a woman named Caterina, whom it is believed was his mother, also came to live with him; she died in 1495.
Although relatively few of da Vinci’s paintings and sculptures survive, in part because his total output was actually quite small, two of his existing works are among the world’s most well-known and admired paintings. The first is da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” painted during his time in Milan, from about 1495 to 1498. A tempera and oil mural on plaster, “The Last Supper” was created for the refectory of the city’s Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Also known as “The Cenacle,” this work measures about 15 by 29 feet and is the artist’s only surviving fresco. It famously depicts the Passover dinner during which Jesus Christ addresses the Apostles and says, “One of you shall betray me.” One of the painting’s stellar features is each Apostle’s distinct emotive expression and body language. Its composition, in which Jesus is centered among, yet isolated from the Apostles, influenced painters for centuries.
In Part III of this series, Leonardo leaves Milan and gains employment as a military engineer in Venice, before returning to Florence.