With the art history world swooning about “La Bella Principessa“, a drawing newly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), I’m reminded again of the accomplishments of this singular Renaissance genius.  Not only did he create some of the most famous paintings in the world, but he also made seminal discoveries in engineering, sculpture, theater design, architecture, aeronautics, music and anatomy. In just 67 years!

Leonardo da Vinci.  Self Portrait.  Red chalk on paper, approximately 13″ by 8.5″.

Born in the town of Vinci, outside Florence, Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a notary, a scarring social stigma which some art historians believe contributed to his lifelong solitude.

After training with the famous painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrochio (c. 1435-1488), Leonardo became master of Florence’s Guild of St. Luke, an association named in honor of the patron saint of painters.  Unlike his contemporaries in Renaissance art, though, Leonardo da Vinci was inspired by the primacy of the eye in direct observation, and of the intellect in comprehending what was observed.

Leonardo spent much of his life outside Florence, employed by foreign princes and kings often at war with his native land. Among these were Prince Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who retained Leonardo from 1508 to 1513 as a painter and builder of catapults, bridges and cannons.  It was during this Milan tenure that Leonardo da Vinci purportedly drew “La Bella Principessa”, believed to be the prince’s daughter, Bianca Sforza.

One of the most famous Leonardo paintings, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, is an unfinished commission with visible traces of underpainting. Even in its unfinished state, though, this famous painting illustrates three pictorial techniques either created or perfected by Leonardo da Vinci:

1. chiaroscuro (the use of light and dark to create effects of relief and modeling);

2. sfumato (literally, “vanished in smoke”, a technique of defining form and shape by gradations of light and dark); and

3. aerial perspective (a method of indicating distance by tone and color contrast).

Leonardo da Vinci. The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Oil on wood, c. 1503 – 1506.  5’6 1/8″ x 3’8″.  Louvre.

Here, he has arranged the figures as a pyramid set in a landscape.  While the theme of the Virgin Mary, her mother (Anne), and Jesus was common, it is unusual for Mary to be portrayed in her mother’s lap.  The background landscape, whose crags are seemingly replicated in Anne’s veil, virtually melts in its sfumato haze. The baby lamb is both a symbol of innocence and of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity, memorialized in John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”.

There are similarities between the Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child: Mona Lisa’s famously enigmatic smile is similar to Saint Anne’s. Additionally, the hazy, misty backgrounds are evocative of each other, although in Mona Lisa, the left and right parts are mismatched and have different horizons.

As if Leonardo could foretell that Mona Lisa would become one of the world’s most famous paintings, he had it – as well as The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne – in his possession when he died in 1519.