Vinci, Lionardo Da

, an illustrious Italian painter, and universal genius, was the natural son of one Piero, a notary at Florence, and was called Da Vinci from the place of his birth, a small burgh or castle of Valdarno di Sotto. He was born in 1452, and was placed under Andrea Verrochio, a painter of some note in that city; but soon surpassed him, particularly in a piece which that painter had made of St. John baptizing our Saviour, and in which Da Vinci, by his order, had painted an angel, holding up some of the vestments. This appeared so much the finest figure, that it visibly discredited all the rest: which so hurt Verrochio, that he relinquished painting ever after.

Da Vinci now set up for himself; and executed many pictures at Florence of great credit, and the universality of his genius soon appeared. He had a perfect knowledge of the theory of his art. He was, by far, the best anatomist and physiologist of his time, the first who raised a spirit for anatomical study, and gave it credit, and certainly the first man we know of who introduced the practice of making anatomical drawings. His first attempt, according to Vasari, was a book of the anatomy of a horse; he afterwards applied with more diligence to the human anatomy, in which study he reciprocally received and communicated assistance to Marc. Antonio della Torra, an excellent philosopher, who then read lectures in Pavia, and wrote upon this subject. For him Da Vinci made a book of studies, drawn with red chalk, and touched with a pen, with great diligence, of such subjects as he had himself dissected: where he made all the bones, and to those he joined, in their order, all the nerves, and covered them with the muscles. And concerning those, from part to part, he wrote remarks in letters of an ugly form, which are written by the left hand, backwards, and not to be understood but by those who know the method of reading them. These very drawings and writings are now in his majesty’s collection of drawings. After inspecting them some years ago, Dr. Hunter expressed his full persuasion that Da Vinci was the best anatomist, at that time, in the world ,*


Hunter’s Two Introductory Lectures, 1734, 4to.

| Lionardo was also well skilled in optics and geometry, almost every branch of literature, and the arts. He was a good architect, an able carver, and extremely well versed in the mechanics: he had a fine voice, and understood music, and both played and sang with taste and skill. Having also the advantage of a well-formed person, he excelled in all the manly exercises. He understood the management of a horse, and took delight in appearing well mounted: and he was very dextrous in the use of arms’. His behaviour also was polite, and his conversation so engaging, that no man ever partook of it without pleasure, or left it without regret.

His reputation soon spread itself all over Italy, and Lewis Sforza, duke of Milan, invited him to his court, and prevailed with him to be a director of the academy for architecture he had just established, where Lionardo restored the simplicity and purity of the Greek and Roman models. About this time, the duke having formed a design of supplying the city of Milan with water by a new canal, the execution of the project was deputed to Lionardo. In order to accomplish this vast design, he spent much time in the study of philosophy and mathematics; applying with double ardour to those parts which might give him light into the work he had undertaken. To these he joined antiquity and history; and observed, as he went along, hoiy the Ptolemies had conducted the waters of the Nile through the several parts of Egypt; and how Trajan had opened a commerce with Nicomedia, by rendering navigable the lakes and rivers lying between that city and the sea. At length, he happily achieved what some thought next to impossible, by rendering hills and valleys navigable with security. The canal goes by the name of Mortesana, being above 200 miles in length; and passes through the Valteline and the valley of Chiavenna, conducting the waters of the river Adda to the very walls of Milan.

After Lionardo had been labouring some years for the service of Milan, in quality of architect and engineer, he was requested by the duke to adorn it by his paintings; and be painted, among other things, his celebrated “Last Supper.”. Francis I. was so charmed with this, that, finding it impracticable to have it removed into France, he ordered a copy to be taken, which was placed at St. Germains; while the original, being painted in oil, and upon a wall not sufficiently secured from moisture, has been | defaced long ago. The wars of Italy began how to interrupt him; and his friend and patron duke Lewis being defeated and carried prisoner to France, the academy was destroyed, the professors dispersed, and the arts effectually banished out of Milan. In 14^9, the year before duke Lewis’s defeat, Lionardo, be’ing at Milan, was desired, by the priucipals of the place, to contrive some new device for the entertainment of Lewis XII. of France, who was just then ready to make his entrance into that city. Lionardo consented; and accordingly made a very curious automaton of the figure of a lion, whose inside was so well furnished with machinery, that it marched out to meet the king; made a stand when it came before him; reared up its hinder legs; and, opening his breast, presented a scutcheon, with fleurs-de-lis quartered upon it.

The disorders of Lombardy, and the misfortunes of his patrons the Sforzi, obliging Lionardo to quit Milan, h retired to Florence, where he flourished under the patronage of the Medici. In 1503 the Florentines resolving to have their council- chamber painted, Lionardo, by a public decree, was elected to the office and got Michael Angelq to assist him in painting one side of it, while he himself painted the other: Michael Angelo was then but a young man, yet had acquired a great reputation, and was not afraid to vie with Lionardo, but jealousy arose between them; an.d each having his partizans, they became open enemies. About this time, Raphael was led by Lionardo’s reputation to Florence; the first view of whose works astonished him, and produced a change in his style, to which all the glory he afterwards acquired has been ascribed by some. Lionardo remained in Florence till 1513, and then is stated to have. gone to Rome, which it is said he had never seen. Leo X. received him graciously, and resolved to employ him; upon which, Lionardo set himself to the distilling of oils, and the preparing of varnish, to cover his paintings with. Leo, informed of this, said smartly enough, that “nothing could be expected from a man, who thought of finishing his works before he had begun them.” There seems, however, some reason to doubt, whether Lionardo ever was at Rome in Leo’s time. It seems more certain that about this time, having an invitation from Francis I, he removed into France. He was above seventy years of age when he undertook this journey; and it is probable that the fatigues of it, together with the | change of climate, contributed to the distemper of which he died. He languished several months at Fontainebleau; during which time the king went frequently to see him: and one day, as he was raising himself up in bed to thank the king for the honour done him, he was at that instant seized with a fainting fit; and, Francis stooping to support him, he expired in the arms of that monarch. He died in 1520.

The life of Da Vinci, says Mr. Fuseli, may be nearly divided into four periods, the first of which is that of his youth, when he lived at Florence. To this not only the Medusa and the few works mentioned by Vasari, but probably all those paintings of his, belong, that have less energy of shade, less complicated drapery, and heads of forms rather delicate than exquisite, seemingly derived from the school of Verrocchio. Such are the Maddalenas of the Pitti at Florence, and the Aldobrandini at Rome, the Madonnas of the Giustiniani and Borghese palaces, and some heads of the Saviour and his Baptist, though the multitude of his imitators must render all decision on their originality ambiguous.

The second period is that which he spent at Milan in the service of Lodovico Sforza. There he staid till 1499, with little exertion in painting, if we except the most capital as the most celebrated of his works, perhaps the compendium of his powers, the Last Supper*, in the refectory of the Dominicans. Of this performance, which the whole history of painting agrees to class among the first products of art, three heads only remain by Lionardo’s own hand,


Mr. Cochin, a late traveller, and often ingenious writer, describing the picture of the Last Supper, which he saw at Milan in 1757, after giving a particular description of the beauty of the deign, the fine airs of the beads, the noble cast of the draperies, and that in general it was extremely in the taste of Raphael, concludes with observing a very singular impropriety in it, which is, that the hand of St. John has six fingers. See Voyage d’ltalie, torn, I. p. 41. In this picture, the head of our Saviour was never finished, Lionardo despairing to express the idea he had conceived of reaching a more exalted beauty thfln he had bestowed on the apostles. While he was employed in this piece, the prior of the convent, thinking his progress too slow, importuned him to dispatch; but all his solicitations proving vain, he, at length, had the assurance to carry his complaints to the duke. Upon this Lionardo was sent for, and being questioned about the painting, he assured his highness that there were but two faces wanting to complete the piece; the one being our Saviour’s, and the other that of Judas. As to the former, he owned himself unable to finish it; being at a loss how to paint the majesty and beauty of so amiable and august a personage but he promised very speedily to complete the latter; since, to draw the avarice and ingratitude of Judas, he needed nothing but to represent the prior of the Dominicans, who had so basely rewarded him for all the pains he had taken.

| and those rather delineated than coloured. Had he contented himself to paint it in distemper instead of oil, we should now be in the possession of a work, which was already found half decayed by Armenini, fifty years after it had been finished, and is spoken of by Scannelli, who examined it in 1642, as evanescent, and a thing tfcut once was.

The third period dates from the return of Lionardo to Florence, after the fall of Francesco Sforza. The thirteen years of his stay there produced some of his best works; the celebrated portrait of Mona Lisa, a labour of four years, though still declared unfinished; the cartoon of St. Anna, prepared for an altar-piece at the church A’Servi, which never was coloured; the other cartoon of the battle of Niccolo Piccinino, in competition with Michael Angelo, and likewise never made use of, because his endeavour to paint it in oil on the wall had failed. He employed perhaps anpther method in a Madonna with the child, at St. Onofrio of Rome, a Raffaelesqne picture, but peeling in many places off the pannel. To this period probably belongs his own portrait in the ducal gallery, in an age which does not disagree with these years, a head whose energy leaves all the rest in that room far behind; and that other, in a different cabinet, which is called the portrait of Raffaello; and that half-figure of a young nun in the palace Niccolini, so much celebrated by Bottari. Christ among the doctors, formerly a picture of the Doria palace; the supposed portrait of queen Gioyanna with architecture; and Vertumnus with Pomona, commonly called vanity and modesty, a work as often copied as inimitable, in the Barberini; seem to coincide with this epoch; and we may count with them the Madonna begging the lily of the infant Christ in the Albani, a picture full of graces, and considered by Mengs as the masterpiece of the collection. It would however be too bold a conjecture to decide the date of every picture painted by an artist whose life was spent in search of new methods, and who too often dropped his work before it had received its finish.

The fourth period of this great man’s lift* terminates likewise the career of his art. Lionardo appears to have bid farewell to painting about his sixty-third year. When in 1515 Francis I. had failed in the attempt of having the picture of the last supper sawed from the walls of the refectory, for its transportation to France, he attempted to | possess’himself of the author. He invited him to his court, and Vinci accepted the invitation without much regret at leaving Florence, where, since his return from Rome, he had met in young Buonarroti with a rival already preferred to him in the disposal of commissions; because, if we believe Vasari, he gave works where Lionardo gave often only words. It is known that there was anger between them, and Vjnci, consulting his own quiet, passed over to France, where, before he had touched pencil, he died in the arms of Francis I.

Lionardo da Vinci broke forth with a splendour which eclipsed all his predecessors: made up of all the elements of genius, favoured by form, education, and circumstances, all ear, all eye, all grasp painter, poet, sculptor, anatomist, architect, engineer,chemist, machinist, musician, philosopher, and sometimes empiric he laid hold of every beauty in the enchanted circle, but, without exclusive attachment to one, dismissed in her turn each. Fitter to scatter hints than to teach by example, he wasted life insatiate in experiment. To a capacity which at once penetrated the principle and real aim of the art, he joined an inequality of fancy that at one moment lent him wings for the pursuit of beauty, and the next flung him on the ground to crawl after deformity. We owe to him chiaroscuro with all its magic, but character was his favourite study; character he has often raised from an individual to a species, and as often depressed to a monster from an individual. His notion of the most elaborate finish, and his want of perseverance, were at least equal. Want of perseverance alone could make him abandon his cartoon designed for the great council-chamber at Florence, of which the celebrated contest of horsemen was but one group; for to him who could organize that composition, Michael Angelo himself might be an object of emulation, but could not be one of fear. His line was free from meagreness, and his forms presented beauties; but he appears not to have been very much acquainted with the antique. The strength of his conception lay in the delineation of male heads; those of his females owe nearly all their charms to chiaroscuro; they are seldom more discriminated than the children they follow; they are sisters of one family.

Da Vinci composed a great number of discourses upon several curious subjects, among whichwere, “A Treatise of the Nature, Equilibrium, and Motion, of Water” “A | Treatise of Anatomy” “The Anatomy of a Horse” “A Treatise of Perspective” “A Treatise of Light and Shadows” and, “A Treatiseof Painting.” None of these have found their way to the press, but the “Treatise of the Art of Painting;” a noble edition of which was published by R. du Fresne at Paris in 1651, with figures by Nicholas Poussin. It was also published in English in 1721, 8vo, and reprinted in 1796, with a life of the author prefixed; from which we have extracted chiefly this account of him. 1


Life as above. Pilkington by Fuseli.