Celebrating Leonardo da Vinci

Stuart Forster looks at some of the places celebrating the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci 500 years on from the polymath’s death.

Leonardo da Vinci is widely regarded as one of the world’s great geniuses. 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of his death and is the catalyst for exhibitions celebrating his life and works in his native land and elsewhere.

Da Vinci was, in so many ways, the archetypal Renaissance man. He was a polymath rather than merely and artist, designer or sculptor. Leonardo was also an inventor and his detailed drawings show that he had keen interests in diverse subjects, including anatomy, botany, architecture and astronomy. He designed a double-gated lock bridge for Milan’s San Marco canal and was employed an architect and engineer to Cesare Borgia, the head of the Papal army.

He was talented, productive and regarded by his contemporaries as l’uomo universale (universal man). He worked for some of the most powerful rulers of his age. When he died on 2 May 1519 at Amboise, in France, his legacy included masterpieces such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa plus notebooks crammed with approximately 13,000 pages of detailed notes and drawings of his diverse observations and ideas.

Leonardo da Vinci’s early life

Leonardo was born on 15 April 1452 in the hamlet of Anchio, near Vinci, roughly 46 kilometres west of Florence. He soon showed talent as an artist and was apprenticed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.

Giorgio Varasi, an early Da Vinci biographer, knew many of the people with whom Leonardo was acquainted and tells how even during his apprenticeship Leonardo came up with designs for engines, mills plus a plan for making the River Arno navigable. Records show that by 1472 Leonardo was a member of the Compagnia di San Luca, the Guild of St Luke, Florence’s body of professional artists.

After completing commissions such as the Annunciation and Madonna and Child with a Carnation and beginning an altarpiece for the San Berardo chapel within the Palazzo Vecchio a work that remained unfinished, along with an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi Da Vinci moved to Milan in 1482.

Da Vinci in Milan

He took a position in the court of Ludovica ‘Il Moro’ Sforza, whose Castello Sforzesco is this year hosting Da Vinci-themed exhibitions. Leonardo designed fortifications and instruments of war while undertaking artistic commissions for the Sforzas and other patrons.

One of the reasons he was invited to Milan was to undertake a commission to create a bronze sculpture of a horse to honour Francesco Sforza, Ludovica’s father, and a predecessor as the Duke of Milan.

The monumental work was going to stand over seven metres tall and weigh more than 67,800 kilograms. In preparation, Leonardo studied the anatomy of horses and details of equine statues from ancient times.

However, the statue was never made. The bronze from which the sculpture was to have been cast was sent to the Duke of Ferrara in 1494 to make cannons.

The highly regarded clay model that he completed was destroyed in 1499 by the army of King Louis XII of France, who used it as target practice after invading Milan.

Painting The Last Supper

During the mid-1490s the Milanese convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie was being redeveloped. Leonardo was commissioned to paint a fresco in the refectory. The Last Supper, completed in 1497, depicts Jesus Christ and his disciples and was soon regarded as a masterpiece.

He also received a commission to decorate the Sala delle Asse (Hall of Wooden Boards) in the Castello Sforzesco, which he completed after walking away from the task for a time.

The change in regime in Milan, in 1499, prompted Leonardo to move on following 17 years in the city. It was the city in which he lived longest as an adult.

Over the next 17 years, he spent periods of time in several locations. He travelled to Mantua and Venice before returning to the Republic of Florence.

After a period back in Milan, then three years in Rome, he moved to France in 1516 at the invitation of King Francis I, taking the position of First Painter, Engineer and Architect of the King. The Château du Clos Lucé, near Amboise in the Loire Valley, continues to celebrate its association with Da Vinci and is this year hosting a cultural programme to commemorate his death at the property. His mortal remains are interred beneath a simple slab in the Church of St Florentin in Amboise.

The Last Supper.
Detail from The Last Supper.

The notebooks of a genius

Throughout his career, Leonardo recorded his ideas, thoughts and observations, spending and sketches. Yet even if you understand the Italian that was spoken at the time of the Renaissance, it’s tricky to make sense of the copious notes made by Da Vinci.

Leonardo developed his own style of writing. It’s often described as mirror writing because it was penned from right to left and back to front. Some people assume that this was because he wanted to keep his notes secret. Experts, though, have suggested it was largely to do with the fact he was left-handed, so pulling a quill from right to left would have been easier than writing the conventional way.

Several of Leonardo’s seemingly fanciful designs — for vehicles such as an armoured car, flying machine and an automobile — were not realised within Leonardo’s lifetime yet they have been constructed subsequently.

Some of the anatomical details that he sketched were so accurate that they were not verified scientifically until as recently as the 1980s. He was the author of notable studies such as Proportions of the Human Figure, a work often known simply as Vitruvian Man, which includes text on the squaring of the circle and the observation that the length of a human’s outstretched arms is typically equal to a person’s height.

Upon Da Vinci’s death his assistant, Franceso Melzi, was bequeathed Leonardo’s books, depictions and tools. In time the collection was split, with a body of work making its way into England’s art royal collection. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing was held at 12 venues across the United Kingdom until 6 May 2019 before works were shown at The Queen’s Gallery,  at Buckingham Palace in London.

Over the coming months, Milan will host several exhibitions relating to Da Vinci. Half-a-millennium on from his death, Leonardo da Vinci’s works continue to fascinate viewers and inspire travel in Italy and beyond.

Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions in Italy

See the Italy Tourism website for comprehensive information about Leonardo da Vinci-related exhibitions.

Celebrating Leonardo in Milan

The Castello Sforzesco’s programme, commemorating Leonardo da Vinci’s associations with Milan, begins on 2 May with the reopening of the newly restored Sala delle Asse. The reopening coincides with the launch of a new multimedia installation. From 16 May to 18 August the exhibition Leonardo and the Sala delle Asse between Nature, Art and Science will feature a selection of Da Vinci’s drawings in the Duke’s Chapel. In another of the halls, from 2 May, another multimedia exhibition Leonardo’s Milan will depict the city as it was between 1482 and 1512.

Until 23 June 2019, the Palazzo Reale will host The Wonderful World of Nature Before and After Leonardo, exploring how Da Vinci’s works changed perceptions and representations of nature.

From 19 July 2019, Italy’s National Museum of Science and Technology will host Leonardo da Vinci Parade, celebrating both art and science.

The Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan’s historic library, hosts The Genius Experience. Leonardo and Warhol until 30 June 2019.

Until November 2019 artists will be invited to the San Siro Racecourse to create scaled interpretations of the unfinished horse sculpture that Leonardo was commissioned to create in 1482.

Da Vinci exhibitions in Rome

At the Quirinal Palace in Rome, a major exhibition exploring Da Vinci’s designs for machines, use of perspective and studies for an ideal city will run until 30 June 2019. It puts Da Vinci’s works and designs into the scientific context of the age in which he lived.

Da Vinci at the Louvre

From 24 October 2019 until 24 February 2020 the Louvre in Paris will host a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition.

Stuart Forster, the author of this article, is a freelance writer and photographer based in North East England. If you’d like to sponsor a post on Go Eat Do, please get in touch by calling 07947 587136 or sending a message via the contact page..

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Detail from The Last Supper originally painted by Leonardo da Vinci
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  • Mellissa Williams

    May 17, 2019 at 17:26 Reply

    We went to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum in Milan when we were there a couple of years ago. It is well worth going to. It has a number of his drawings and models he made and a cool VR part.

    • Stuart Forster

      May 22, 2019 at 10:33 Reply

      Thanks for making that suggestion!

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