By Muhammad Asad
Her smile might be engaging or mocking. You decide. The subject’s softly modelled face in the painting, hanging on the wall of Louvre, the most visited museum in the world since the end of the 18th century, depicts the skillful handling of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), one of the most successful Italian artist, painter, architect, inventor, and student of all things scientific, in history.
The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s tireless patience in recreating his studied observations. No wonder the world’s most famous artwork, Mona Lisa, draws thousands of visitors to the Louvre Museum each day, many of whom are compelled by the sitter’s mysterious gaze and enigmatic smile. The seemingly ordinary portrait of a young woman dressed modestly in a thin veil, sombre colours, and no jewellery might also confound its viewers, who may wonder what all the fuss is about. The painting’s simplicity belies Leonardo’s talent for realism. There is something eminent about Leonardo’s works that caterwauled Italian, yet there existed a transcendental facet to every piece he created, well only those that have been recovered and are on display for public viewership, that caught attention of the eyes accustomed to Sandro Botticelli. Italy has over the centuries bred some breathtaking artists but about Leonardo and his works there’s a certain pristine quality that has the power of eternity.
His natural genius crossed so many disciplines that he reifies the term ‘Renaissance man.’ Today he remains best known for his art. One of the great Renaissance painters, Leonardo da Vinci continually tested artistic traditions and techniques. He created innovative compositions, investigated anatomy to accurately represent the human body, considered the human psyche to illustrate character, and experimented with methods of representing space and three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. The result of his inexhaustible curiosity is many unfinished projects but also some of the most lifelike, complex, and tender representations of human nature.
Little is known about Leonardo’s childhood. Leonardo da Vinci was born in Anchiano, Tuscany, now Italy, close to the town of Vinci that provided the surname we associate with him today. In his own time he was known just as Leonardo or as ‘Il Florentine,’ since he lived near Florence—and was famed as an artist, inventor and thinker. From the age of 15, for about a decade, Vinci refined his painting and sculpting techniques and trained in mechanical arts with Andrea del Verrocchio, of Florence and outshined as an independent master in around 1478. Short after that, he relocated to Milan to work for the ruling Sforza clan, serving as an engineer, painter, architect, designer of court festivals and, most notably, a sculptor.
It was in Milan, when the maestro painted his ever-famous pieces, including The Last Supper. When Milan was invaded by the French in 1499 and the Sforza family fled, da Vinci escaped as well, first to Venice and then to Florence where he painted Mona Lisa. In 1506, da Vinci returned to Milan, but merely for a decade. Da Vinci left Italy for good in 1516, when French ruler Francis I offered him the title of ‘Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King,’ which afforded him the opportunity to paint and draw at his leisure while living in a country manor house, the Château of Cloux, near Amboise in France. How many people die in the arms of the King with the king himself supporting their head? Not many! Well Da Vinci was one of them, who even died royal. Da Vinci died at Cloux, now Clos-Lucé, on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67.Art is sometimes sentimentally termed priceless. And Da Vinci’s is for sure. Italy and the world honour the day of May 2, 500 years ago, when Leonardo da Vinci died, with a series of events as a homage to the veteran maestro whose works are even relatable for the modern art. As the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death is commemorated, the artist’s notebooks are experiencing a renaissance of their own. Museums are mounting exhibitions of his sketches, and scholars are publishing new analyses, delving ever deeper into the full spectrum of his creations.
Società Dante Alighieri and Qatar National Library (QNL), in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy, recently organised a lecture ‘Leonardo da Vinci as Seen by His Contemporaries: Remarks About the Mona Lisa and Other Portraits’ by Professor Carmelo Occhipinti, art historian, critic and Associate Professor of Museology, Art Criticism and Restoration at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, at QNL as part of his 500th death anniversary.
Società Dante Alighieri (SDA) was established in Italy in 1889 by a group of intellectuals inspired by the Nobel laureate Giosuè Carducci, legally registered in 1893 with the original purpose of preserving the ties between the Italian emigrants and their motherland. Over the years, SDA has broadened its horizons and is now one of the most important institutions in promoting the Italian language and culture worldwide. Today SDA is a non-profit organisation based in Rome, as a centre of a network of 480 independent local committees, spread in 80 countries. SDA is part of the Steering Committee led by the Italian Foreign Ministry and a member of EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture).
Critically analysing Vinci’s work, Professor Carmelo explained how Vinci’s paintings fascinate, partly due to a range of subtle optical effects that blur outlines, soften transitions and blend shadows like a smoke. Minute observations, optical measurements and reconstitutions that define his perfect aura.
To grasp the real wonder of Leonardo you need to look at his drawings. It’s in his notebooks that Leonardo truly soars. In page after page he studies nature, designs machinery, invents weapons, plans fortifications and seeks the secret of flight. He even challenges the Greek with his exceptionally perfect take on a knight horse. Drawing provides an insight into how this pioneer, who defied all expectations, saw the world around him.
Speaking to Community, Pasquale Salzano, Ambassador of Italy, said, “Leonardo Da Vinci, universally considered as an ‘immortal genius’ and one of the greatest polymaths ever, died 500 years ago but he left an enduring legacy of extraordinary innovations which have made their mark in the arts, sciences and many other disciplines. It is really surprising that after 5 centuries he continues to be one of the most known Italian of all times: this gives the idea of the greatness of Leonardo da Vinci, whose visionary intuitions paved the way to human and scientific developments. The 500th anniversary from the death of Leonardo is not only an occasion to celebrate his memory, but also to highlight the importance of knowledge and education in pushing for social advances and empowering young generations to shape a future based on progress and cultural growth”.
The uncertainty that surrounds so many aspects of Leonardo’s life and work has undoubtedly fueled the world’s fascination with the Renaissance master. Five hundred years on, it seems to be stronger than ever.
Research on Da Vinci are far from being concluded even after five centuries. An immense task yet awaits the art historians of today and tomorrow.
With grandeur and elegance in levels only Italy could provide as a landscape background, Vinci’s installations are a reflection of the past meeting the present through design and art. Leonardo Da Vinci is even relatable today.
It’s no intellectual faux pas to imagine that the clothes, hairstyles, accessories, and jewels are important in his women portraits—or that our modern-day viewpoints can offer us surprisingly accurate parallels. All the subjects in those portraits were teenagers from nowhere. They rose to prominence by virtue of their talents, intelligence, beauty, and fashion expertise to become self-made women and the obsessions of aristocrats, politicians, and royalty – exactly like how it happens today. Vinci’s works are holding history together like a warlock and gives us a corroboration of rich Italian heritage and culture.
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