Leonardo da Vinci: Unveiling the Genius


Every now and then we encounter humans with incredible abilities. I don’t mean superpowers–no one can fly without special equipment, nor can they turn invisible. These abilities are acquired through study. Mastering an art form, throwing oneself into a field of science, or sailing around the world–these can be done by any human.

They can be done–but not without study and courage.

We have little hope of reaching the expertise of Leonardo da Vinci. He dabbled in everything–art, science, architecture, and more. All of these were his superpowers. They were trades and disciplines that he had a firm grip on because curiosity drove him to tireless study. Though he is best known for having painted the Mona Lisa, you could spend a lifetime learning about his achievements.

How did Leonardo da Vinci stand out as the genius of his time? Since I’m covering La Gioconda, I have decided to limit this blog post to his life as a painter. Maybe later I can explore his other talents.

Self-Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci

Priceless Education

Leonardo da Vinci did not go to school.

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Since he was born to unwed parents, he wasn’t allowed to study in the parish school. This might have been his great advantage: he had the opportunity to teach himself. This allowed him to open doors that his ‘luckier’ peers never thought of.

Da Vinci learned reading, writing and arithmetic at home–three skills that were to be the foundation for his achievements later on. At the age of twenty, he left to become an apprentice at the studio of painter Andrea Verrocchio. He was taught painting, sculpture, and mechanical skills.

16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote a fascinating account from da Vinci’s time as an apprentice. Historians today believe that he embellished the tale, but there is something charming in pondering legend.

Vasari writes that da Vinci collaborated with Verrocchio to paint The Baptism of Christ (1474-1478). According to Vasari, Verrocchio saw the great talent of his own apprentice and was struck with despair. He allegedly threw down his own brush and never painted again.

Baptism of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci and Verrocchio

Enduring Art

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, possessing great talent in many fields that we consider difficult or obsolete today. Since this trilogy focuses on the Mona Lisa, I thought it appropriate to summarize da Vinci’s life and success as a painter.

Only 18 original paintings attributed to him survive. They fall into categories–those universally accepted to be his work, those traditionally accepted, and widely accepted. These categories hinge on existing evidence of his being the painter.

The Annunciation (1472-1476) is widely accepted to have been his first completed painting. The Baptism of Christ, his collaboration with the ill-tempered Verrocchio, is widely accepted as the third.

La Gioconda, or Mona Lisa, is universally accepted as his twenty-second work. He was in his sixties when he took on this commission. What you might not have known, though, is that Mona Lisa is an unfinished painting.

Historical accounts from visitors and acquaintances tell us that da Vinci had a stroke. This caused a paralysis in his right hand which frustrated him while he was painting La Gioconda. How did he manage to paint what can be seen of her now? He was ambidextrous, which must have come in useful, but the paralysis still troubled him enough for the work to be unfinished.

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci

Where To Find His Work

Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings have taken on lives of their own long after the death of the master. Lovers of La Gioconda claim that her eyes appear to be following them. Stories exist of men who fell in love and brought her flowers.

If you want to see his most famous works of art, you’ll have to travel the world. Mona Lisa reigns in a chamber of her own at the Museum of the Louvre in Paris. The famous Last Supper is located in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

His pen-and-ink drawing, Vitruvian Man, is an image that most people have seen. It was taken from one of the many notebooks that he filled during his mature years. It isn’t on display because it is so brittle that photographs would do it severe damage. Vitruvian Man is kept safe in the archive of the Venetian Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Do you want to go on a pilgrimage and see his surviving works? Here is a list of where to locate them.

Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are available for the fanatic to read and bask in his wisdom. Gutenberg offers them for free, but they can also be purchased in book form for more comfortable reading.

There has been a renewed interest in the journals themselves and how he wrote in them. This compelling article makes me wish I knew how to keep smarter diaries, because the article says:

It is estimated that da Vinci produced between 20,000 to 28,000 pages of notes and sketches spanning across 50 different notebooks about work related to whatever topics that interested him – painting, engineering, philosophy, warfare, engineering, physiology, landscape, proportion, perspective, geography, geology, light and shade, inventions and various other topics.

In my lifetime I have filled about 28 notebooks properly–meaning that I finished them cover-to-cover rather than skipping around. However, I did not cover all the topics listed above.

If you want to know more about da Vinci, I can tell you as a diarist that journals are a great place to search. With this useful footnote I will close my attempt to capture Leonardo’s brilliance in a blog post. I hope I did some justice to his life as a painter.


My first post about La Gioconda was an introduction to the mysterious lady and the controversy over who posed as her model. In my next article, I will review and comment on the book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti.

Canvas could not keep La Gioconda from going on an adventure, and I’d like to tell the story. After all, how often do paintings go on vacation?

Mona Lisa: The Queen of the Louvre


Throughout my years of blogging I’ve been faithful to the topic of literature. As a storyteller, it seemed like the most natural thing: reading is my vocation. Almost a decade later, I’m itching to write about more.

My interests as I’ve grown and learned have developed considerably. Having read The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, I’ve come to understand that story isn’t limited to words on a page.

Story is a magic that’s not limited to paper and ink. In the beginning, sagas were spoken by bards. Before common people could read, they learned their history through sketches and paintings. Story can also be sung or played on musical instruments.

Lost in the rabbit hole of the Internet, a person can live their lifetime without ever really looking at a painting. Masters such as Van Gogh or Beethoven are more than online trends. I want to talk about the artists whose work helped form society.

La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci

Most Famous Smile

We’re going to begin by discussing the most famous painting in the world.

Is there a better way in which to introduce fine art? Mona Lisa has made it to meme fame; her face is on trendy t-shirts and bags. It’s tragic that people know what she looks like but few know who she is. 

Mona Lisa, known in Italian as La Gioconda, has had an exciting life despite being trapped on canvas. She has been speculated over, stolen, and pulled into one of the wildest conspiracy theories.

At this time, she lives in the historic museum of the Louvre. So many tourists go there to visit La Gioconda (including myself!) that she has been given a room of her own. It’s bulletproof and its temperature is strictly controlled to protect her.

Who Is Mona Lisa?

Completed by the master Leonardo da Vinci in 1517, La Gioconda is categorized as a half-length painting. This is a term which refers to a portrait that only shows the subject’s upper half and hands.

Mona Lisa was commissioned by a wealthy silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. It was a portrait of his wife, Lisa, and took sixteen years for Leonardo to complete. It’s thought to have been painted in celebration of the birth of their second son.

Before Lisa del Giocondo was identified as the model, this painting presented a staggering puzzle. Alternate models were proposed such as Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Francavilla, and Renaissance art patron Isabella d’Este.

Some insist that Leonardo used himself as the model, but 21st century art historians refute this.

What’s It Like At Her House?

The Louvre had a history before it became a tourist hot spot. It was a fortress during the turbulent Middle Ages, a palace during the time of the monarchy, and Napoleon’s showcase for stolen art during the First Empire.

I visited the Louvre with my mom and brother. Because it was designed as a fortress, it’s unlike other museums I’ve seen with their straightforward floor plans. The Louvre is enormous; we didn’t have time to see everything.

I became pleasantly lost in the realm of the marble statues. It reminded me of the White Witch’s court in Narnia. Later I learned that the Louvre houses the Nike of Samothrace. I can’t believe I missed it, and hope to visit again for a look.

Nike of Samothrace

An Audience With La Gioconda

Mona Lisa is the Queen of the Louvre. If you wish to visit her, it means standing in line for at least half an hour. You ascend three elevators crowded with tourists who want to pay homage.

There is a sign by the entrance to her chamber. It says to make haste because of the many people who want to meet her.

When you enter the chamber, there’s a moment in which you think Is she really here? The Mona Lisa is depicted as enormous in cartoons and memes, but she’s actually the smallest painting in the vicinity.

La Gioconda measures 30 by 20 inches. The crowd is so packed that you must crane your neck to glimpse that famous smile. This is proof that you do not need to be the largest or most eye-catching to be powerful.

People then rush in to get their pictures. Drawing near to the legendary painting, you feel goosebumps. Regardless of her size, this is her–this is the lady everyone knows about to some degree, the goddess of Renaissance art.

La Gioconda in her chamber (Source: Reader’s Digest)

Homage

In the City of Light you cannot delude yourself into believing story is limited to pages in books.

Stories pack the streets of Paris, waiting on the famous bridges and near bookselling bouquinistes. They linger near the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral, where you can imagine centuries of people stopping there to pray. They are sprawled on the sidewalks which, during the Revolution, glistened with pools of blood.

In our next tribute to La Gioconda, we’ll learn about the artist–just a little, because there’s not enough room in a blog post to depict Leonardo da Vinci in a way that’ll do him justice. I’ll enjoy my research; I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.