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The High Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci

The High Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will introduce High Renaissance art and architecture and consider several examples of the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

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Tutorial

An introduction and overview of Leonardo da Vinci.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about Leonardo da Vinci. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Our objectives, or the things we're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the varied interests of Leonardo da Vinci and explain why he's often characterized as a Renaissance man, and describe important artworks of Leonardo da Vinci as well as the restoration process on his fresco of "The Last Supper."

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is scientific illustration, drawings made with the goal of communicating information regarding the structure and appearance of an object. Chiaroscuro, an important method of shading using gradations of values and strong contrasts of light and dark to create a sense of volume. This method enhances the illusion of three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional plane. Sfumato, painting technique that involves subtle tones blended into one another without harsh outlines, creating a smoky appearance. Anatomy, the branch of science that deals with the physical structure of plants and animals. And restoration, cleaning and repairing a work of art in order to bring it back to its original state as much as possible. And conservation, repairing a work of art in order to avoid any further damage.

The big idea for today is that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most important figures of the High Renaissance in Italy. His interests extended beyond the realm of the fine arts, including studies in the natural sciences and engineering. So we'll be looking at a short period of time today, covering the years 1480 to 1505. And I've shown you the year of Columbus' well known trip to the New World in 1492 as a reference.

And once again, we'll travel to Italy, and the beautiful city of Florence. Before we start, let's first take a look at some of the important influences on artistic production at this time. The fall of Florence as a regional power, the overall prevalence of warfare. These are things going on at this time. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, which was the Catholic response to the Reformation. These are all major influences on the artistic production of the time, just to give you an idea of what's going on in the background.

Now, Leonardo da Vinci is the epitome of a Renaissance man. That's an individual whose expertise exists in many different and varied areas. And although remembered most, perhaps, for his contributions to art, his interests extended well beyond this realm. He was a prolific inventor and kept countless journals filled with ideas for devices and machines, as well as observations of the natural world around him.

This is one of his most famous drawings, "Vitruvian Man." In fact, his detailed empirical observations of the world around him originated this idea of scientific illustration. Concepts such as anatomy would be impossible without them. And although far ahead of his time, some of his understandings were imperfect. For example, this example here. The uterus is not sphere shaped.

Now, Leonardo was a true artistic genius, which makes it even more fascinating that art was just one of his many interests and endeavors. Now, his paintings became test beds for scientific experiments regarding natural phenomena, such as aerial or atmospheric perspective-- that's where things fade as they get further back-- and the subtle play of light and shadow called chiaroscuro, as evident in this painting titled "The Virgin of the Rocks."

Now, the figures are arranged in a triangular arrangement, and are united within the composition in their exposure to light-- as you can see here-- and the way they gesture to each other. So for example, the infant John the Baptist, who is on the left, praised toward the infant Jesus, who appears to be either pointing at, or more likely, blessing John in return.

Now, the angel on the far right is definitely pointing in John's direction. And Mary completes this image by resting her hand on John and either reaching toward Jesus or performing a gesture of blessing over Christ. It all takes place within a dark and somewhat foreign-looking landscape. It's more than just an artistic achievement, but a true technological achievement as well, as Leonardo really pushed the early boundaries of what the relatively new medium of oil painting could do.

Now, not every experiment works out. And the example is maybe best illustrated in Leonardo's "The Last Supper" Fresco from 1495. Now, Leonardo experimented with an oil and tempera combination on dry plaster, as opposed to wet plaster, to try and recreate the effect of oil on wood. And it didn't work out. And the humidity of Milan's climate, where this was painted, only accelerated the degradation of the painting, which began soon after its completion. A restoration of the project was undertaken to save the masterpiece, and was completed in watercolor to distinguish it from the original.

However, the restorative, rather than conservative, process was so extensive it's estimated that only about 20% of what is seen today is actually the original painting. Now, the subject matter is that of the Last Supper immediately after the moment when Christ says that one of the disciples will betray him. So most of them are depicted as fairly animated, talking to one another in a state of surprise or shock, or are concerned that the guilty party may be them.

Now, the composition is essentially symmetric, with the central figure of Christ serving to divide the image into two parts. And just as in "The Virgin of the Rocks," Leonardo uses a triangle with Christ to anchor the composition. Now, the number three, symbolic of the Holy Trinity, is integrated throughout the image, as in the three windows behind Christ and the way the disciples are arranged in four groups of three.

Leonardo placed the vanishing point directly above Christ's head as a way of drawing the viewer's gaze toward the central figure of Christ. The disciples, again, are arranged in groups of three, evenly distributed on either side of Christ. And they are, from left to right, Bartholomew, right here; James; Andrew; Judas, who's the betrayer; Peter, who's the first pope; and John, on the left.

Now, notice how Judas is depicted somewhat obscured in shadow. His head is lower than the others and his elbow's on the table. And he also spilled salt, which is a superstition associated with bad luck. Now, Jesus is in the center. Next is Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, followed by Matthew, Jude, and Simon.

Now, this should look familiar. "Mona Lisa" is likely the world's most famous painting. It's an interesting painting depicting what is thought to be the wife of a wealthy Florentine. Mona is a shortened form of Madonna, which means "my lady." So literally, it's "my lady Lisa."

It exemplifies da Vinci's skill with atmospheric perspective and sfumato-- which is that smoky, hazy quality-- and his mastery of the application of chiaroscuro, and how the face and hands of the "Mona Lisa" almost appear to glow out of the picture.

So now that you've seen the lesson, let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the varied interests of Leonardo da Vinci and explain why he's often characterized as a Renaissance man? Can you describe important artworks of Leonardo da Vinci as well as the restoration process on his fresco of the Last Supper?

And the big idea, once more, is that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most important figures in the High Renaissance in Italy. His interests extended beyond the realm of the fine arts, including studies in the natural sciences and engineering. And that is it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Scientific illustration

    Drawings made with the goal of communicating information regarding the structure and appearance of an object.

  • Chiaroscuro

    An important method of shading using gradations of values and strong contrasts of light and dark to create a sense of volume. This method enhances the illusion of three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional plane.

  • Sfumato

    A painting technique that involves subtle tones blending into one another without harsh outlines, creating a "smoky" appearance.

  • Anatomy

    The branch of science that deals with the physical structure of plants and animals.

  • Restoration

    Cleaning and repairing a work of art in order to bring it back to its original state as much as possible.

  • Conservation

    Repairing a work of art in order to avoid any further damage.