‘Leonardo’ is a well-rounded introduction to a great artist

December 4, 2018

When Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Last Supper, the church prior complained to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, about the slow progress being make on the project.

When summoned by the duke, Leonardo explained: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least.” Leonardo then added, “he was having trouble finding a model for Judas, but he would use the image of the prior if he insisted on continuing to hound him.”

The story is indicative both of the creative process in general and Leonardo in particular. That process is examined in Walter Isaacson’s biography Leonardo da Vinci with an especial focus on the innovative, pioneering aspect of Leonardo’s creativity that made him an artistic genius.

One example of Leonardo’s genius is found in his masterpiece Lady with an Ermine. The painting is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani the mistress of Ludovico Sforza. We know from the historical record that Cecilia was educated and intelligent. She was also very beautiful and in 1489 Ludovico fell in love with her. That same year he commissioned Leonardo to paint her portrait.

The painting shows her in three quarters view dressed in the Spanish style popular at the time. Her body is turned toward our left but her head looks toward our right, so already Leonardo has departed from the conventional profile view. This compositional format also gives the painting a dynamism that a traditional pose would lack. As you follow her gaze to the right there is clearly something going on there. You can see it in her eyes and in the hint of a smile that plays around the corner of her mouth. The ermine she holds also sees it. Its’ right forepaw is held rigid and straight while the left forepaw is relaxed in concert with Cecilia’s right hand which lightly caresses the animal’s fur. Its’ eyes look alertly in the same direction as Cecilia’s. As Isaacson writes: “Leonardo had such skill that he could make an ermine look intelligent.”

“Leonardo has captured a narrative contained in an instant,” as Isaacson puts it, “one involving outward lives and inner lives. In the medley of hands, paws, eyes, and a mysterious smile, we see both motions of the body and motions of the mind.” Renaissance painting is often described as static, especially in comparison to Baroque painting which is full of movement and motion. But artists such as Leonardo could make a seemingly static painting come to life through the manipulation of posture, gesture and expression.

Walter Isaacson’s previous works include biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs and with these as with Leonardo da Vinci he has brought the generalists approach to bear. As a result, readers without a background in quantum physics or consumer-electronics or the art of the High Renaissance will find his books accessible and approachable. Leonardo da Vinci will serve as a well rounded introduction to one of the great artists of Western Civilization.

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