Virgin territory: the Madonna Litta, c.1491-95, from St Petersburg, an icon modernised, its realism based on drawings from life. The lapis lazuli of her robe is in characteristic breakdown
In Vinci, a small town a morning's walk to the west of Florence, on 15 April 1452, Leonardo - famous painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, anatomist and engineer - was born into a family that had adopted the town's name as its own. He was the illegitimate son of Piero, a young notary (a lawyer of sorts), and Catarina, a local farmer's daughter. What a momentous out-of-wedlock conjugation theirs had been on 15 July 1451 or thenabouts, in the heat of the day or the cool of the evening, in a meadow of wild flowers, a hayloft, or up against the cowshed wall. Had they wandered off to the banks of the Arno, or were there snuffling pigs in earshot? Was it merely the lustful rutting of the young in heat, or the coupling of hapless lovers thwarted and divided by class and property? More than half a century later Leonardo was to write on a sheet of related drawings that if intercourse is performed with love as well as desire, the consequent child will be of great intelligence, wit and charm; as this he knew himself to be, was it a yearning recollection of his parents?
For this bastard there was a kinder fate than might have been, for Leonardo's paternal grandfather was something of a gentleman and from a family of notaries, and it was he, not Catarina's father, who took the boy into his household as a dependant, recording the birth as of "a grandson, the child of Piero, my son". Both the young parents were within months married to spouses more suitable in class and played little significant further part in Leonardo's life. As no other son was born to his father until Leonardo was 24 (and then by Piero's third wife), the illegitimate boy, grown into a man, occupied a disconcerting position in the family, both of it and precariously not of it, his illegitimacy denying him entry into a suitable formal profession and apparently denying him a formal education too (little Latin and no Greek a constant hindrance in his later studies). One other member of the family perhaps deserves attention - Francesco, Leonardo's uncle, who was only 16 years his senior, died childless and left him his estate. We should also bear in mind that Leonardo, twice accused of the sodomy for which Florence was, across Europe, notorious for seven centuries, was capable of extraordinary affection and loyalty to young men, an element of self likely to colour both the spirit and the substance of his work as a painter. Indeed, almost all who set out to explain the life and work of Leonardo are so waylaid by his homosexuality, so diverted by it, that they follow Freud into a wilderness to discover more than was ever there.
There can be little doubt that Leonardo's background so hindered his development as a painter - he was late in beginning his apprenticeship and late in setting up his own independent workshop - that, at 30, when he left Florence for Milan, he had executed little work to commend him as a genius. Nevertheless, in his Madonna of the Carnation, a small private work, he had established the physical type of the Christ Child in his later paintings (the plump muscularity of the infant Mussolini, as it were), the mountainous landscape background common to the Virgin of the Rocks and the Mona Lisa, his use of demonstrative gesture, and an enquiring interest in colour, light, shadow, contre-jour effects, and in the physical nature of drapery, materials and other details. In the Adoration of the Magi that he left so unfinished on his departure for Milan in 1481 or so that it is essentially a drawing magnificent in scale, he demonstrated a profound knowledge of perspective (though still unable to join his foreground to his background), of horses that were to reappear in a battle scene and two equestrian monuments, and of men, old and young, real and ideal, whose expressions, gestures and beauty were to reappear in The Last Supper.( Read more... )