Annotation: Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance

While I found Vezzosi’s writing interesting and intelligent, and found the subject well researched and scholastic in tone, I can’t help but feel like this book should have instead been called “Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind, The Man, The Myth”. What it comes down to is that despite all the research about Da Vinci that has been done over the years, very little is verifiably known: most of our “facts” about him are taken from journals (some his own, others from his contemporaries), which are ultimately an entirely subjective view. There is this notion of him as a seer and visionary, which is largely due to his self-portrait and the use of his likeness in Raphael’s painting of Plato. That’s not to say that he wasn’t visionary and innovative in his work and ideas, but rather that the assumption of a benevolent old man is ultimately conjecture.

Though a relatively small book, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance is extremely dense, using a high quality paper to allow for high quality reproduction of his artwork. It is also dense in the another sense of the word, in terms of the amount of information that was packed into such a small space. Organized in a chronological/geological fashion, the book is broken down into several sections, starting in Vinci (his birthplace), and ending in Amboise (where he died). Considering that his works often spanned several years, this is really as good a method to organize his life as any.

Leonardo definitely had an interesting life. Despite being born as an illegitimate child, he was taken into his father’s house and raised largely as if he was. Really, the only aspect of family life that he was not able to participate in was the family business as Notary to several noble houses, including the Medici family. (The role of Notary required a level of gentility that his illegitmacy prevented.) He taught himself to write, which the author attributed a large amount of the mirror writing Leonardo is famous for (also, in conjecture, the idea was posited that he may have been dyslexic, which would also contribute to his adoption of backwards writing).

At the age of 17, he entered an apprenticeship in Florence, studying under the famous artist Verrocchio, during which time he became well respected among his peers, contributing to several remarkable works, including The Annunciation, and the Dreyfus Madonna (as well as the similarly composed Madonna with Carnation). He had already gained a mastery of painting at this time, but was able to refine that mastery while also learning more about sculpture, collaborating with Verrocchio to create Verrocchio’s David and Putta with Dolphin. Even after being admitted to the artists’ guild, he stayed with Verrocchio’s studio for several more years before finally heading out on his own.

Leonardo worked on several commissions while in Florence, working to curry favor with the Medici family, whom was the ruling family of Florence at the time. He achieved a moderate level of success, but after reaching something of a dead end, he found an excuse to travel to Milan, where he tried to get a position as engineer in the Ducal Court. His attempts did not succeed, but he did achieve moderate success as an artist in the area, until finally he began working for the Duke of Milan, Sforza, designing a giant bronze horse statue that was never completed. (This is a well known story: war broke out, and the 66 tons of bronze that Leonardo had managed to accumulate for the project was taken in order to make cannons.)

The entire region was embroiled in a variety of alliances, wars, invasions, and political intruiges, and Leonardo largely managed to play every side. He primarily worked for Milan and Florence, but he also worked for France and Pisa at several points, in various roles ranging from royal artist to war and civil engineers. He maintained ties with the Medici family, which allowed him to become an engineer/artist for Pope Leo X (a member of the Medici family), where he enjoyed relatively free reign over his projects (in fact, he worked for a man known as “il Magnifico”, the Pope’s brother). It was at this time that Raphael used Leonardo’s likeness for his fresco The School of Athens.

After il Magnifico grew ill and died, Leonardo decided that it was time to seek his fortunes elsewhere, taking the king of France up on a prior invitation to come and paint for him in Ambiose. Leonardo enjoyed his time in Ambiose, though he no longer was working with color as much as he had in the past, due to an injury to his arm (since he was ambidexterous, it really only hindered his work a little, but still enough to make it worth mentioning). He designed and (with the help of the King) initiated the building of a new city, Romolontino, in France, though work on it ultimately ended due to complications at the build site. Leonardo remained in Ambiose for the rest of his life. He remained well respected throughout these years, and purportedly, died in the presence of the King, whom had great admiration for the artist. (The actual accuracy of the legend is subject to considerable debate, apparently.)

I really enjoyed Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance, and found it quite informative about this master artist. I would recommend it to those looking for a grounding in the background of the arist and a general sense of what works he did, though for a more in depth look, I’m sure there are more robust works about Da Vinci, that would probably serve that purpose in a more complete and enriching fashion. Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m impressed more by: the works he completed, or the works that never made it out of his sketchbooks.

Vezzosi, Alessandro. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance. New York: Henry N Abrams, Inc., 1997.