Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is by far the best known painting in the world. It is also the most valuable, holding the Guinness World Record for the highest known insurance valuation in history. It was valued at $100 million when it was insured for an exhibition in Washington, DC and New York City, NY for an exhibition back in 1962. That translates to around $800 million today.
In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.— Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in Vinci, in the Republic of Florence (Now the city of Florence in Tuscany, Italy. Born out of wedlock to a Florentine legal notary (Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci,) and a peasant woman named Caterina. His name translates to Leonardo, son of Mr Piero, from Vinci.
The term “Renaissance Man” is closely linked with Leonardo, but it’s based around an ideal expressed by Leon Battista Alberti, that “a man can do all things if he will.” This grew into the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, putting man at the centre of the universe, with limitless scope for development, and stating that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible. Leonardo along with a lot of his contemporaries lived by this ideal. He had endless curiosity and a “feverishly inventive imagination.” Noted areas of expertise were painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, botany, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, mathematics, writing, history and cartography. He’s been called the father of palaeontology, ichnology (study of animal tracks and burrows), and architecture and is known as one of the greatest painters of all time.
Leonardo started as an apprentice under Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrochio’s workshop was hugely important to the renaissance art world, turning out other artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and Botticelli. Verrochio’s apprentices studied a variety of subjects, as diverse as mechanics, carpentry, metallurgy, chemistry and drafting, as well as artistic disciplines. As an apprentice, Leonardo would also have been drafted to do some of the painting in some of his master’s work, and it’s believed that he served as the model for some of Verrocchio’s work, such as his sculpture of David, and the Archangel Gabriel in Tobias and the Angel.
Another subject which helped his art was anatomy. As he grew more successful as an artist he gained permission to dissect human corpses, first at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, and later at hospitals in Rome and Milan. On his death in 1519 over 240 drawings and 13,000 words were left to his heir, Francesco Melzi for compiling and publishing into a full essay. Due to the scope and complexity of the subject, Melzi failed to finish the task, and the work wasn’t published until 1632, and even then only a small amount of the material was included. His drawings include some of the first scientific drawings of a fetus in utero. Earlier publication of this material could have advanced medical knowledge considerably.
The idea of flight fascinated Leonardo, and he designed several flying machines, such as the ornithopter, which had flapping wings, and an early version of a helicopter. Although these designs were unsuccessful, a lot of his designs were groundbreaking. He worked as an engineer in Venice for several years and invented a system of barricades to protect the city. He also designed parachutes, a diving suit, musical instruments, an early calculator, a self driving car, an armoured tank and a robotic knight.
The Mona Lisa was completed in the early 16th century. The subject of the painting has long been disputed, with some saying it’s Leonardo himself, or his friend and assistant Salai. The most realistic version of events though has Francesco del Giocondo commission Leonardo to paint his wife Lisa Gherardini. At the time the composition, modelling and illusion of atmosphere were all new techniques. The painting is also renowned for the smoky, shadowy effect, which came to be called sfumato.
She is often described as having an enigmatic smile. I think one of the reasons for the interest in this painting in painting of Leonardo’s in particular is the smile, and the way her smile seems to grow wider as you look away.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Giaconda (The Mona Lisa) is on permanent display in The Louvre, Paris, France.