Leonardo da Vinci (Penguin Little Black Classics)

‘In this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human.’

Often called “the first art historian”, Vasari writes with delight on the lives of Leonardo and other celebrated Renaissance artists .

Though an artist in his own right, Giorgio Vasari is best known for his histories of famous Renaissance artists. This is an extract from his three-volume Lives of the Artists looking at Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Sandro Botticelli.

The essay on da Vinci was enlightening on who he was as a person rather than just the list of accomplishments he’s known for. We learn that he was a physically beautiful man with a magnetic personality who charmed everyone around him, but he also surprisingly comes across as a bit lazy too, creating sporadically rather than consistently. When a patron took him and his entourage on – paying his bed and board, ensuring he had space to create, etc. – da Vinci would do nothing for several weeks before, just as patience was wearing thin, creating something, usually a painting, that completely knocks them down. Da Vinci’s argument for his behaviour was that artists are always creating in their minds even though it appears they are doing nothing. It’s interesting to discover that in order to get the model for the Mona Lisa to smile, da Vinci hired entertainers to keep her amused while he painted her. He decided upon the brilliant choice to make her stand out from other portraits by smiling and that choice arguably made the painting the masterpiece it is. I also didn’t realise he and Michelangelo hated each other! Vasari’s history is delightful, presenting da Vinci as effortlessly brilliant, from his art projects to engineering, scientific experiments, and miscellany (as an entertainment for royalty, he created a mechanical lion whose chest opened up to reveal flowers!). It’s not a comprehensive account but a colourful one nonetheless.

The other two essays aren’t as exciting, mostly as Lippi and Botticelli’s lives were more mundanely focused on art whereas da Vinci’s life transcended art to have a much wider historical impact. Lippi (an artist I didn’t know about until reading this) was a warm and generous person whose teachings influenced his students, the most famous of which was Botticelli who I know of from his iconic Birth of Venus painting. As to his character, Botticelli was something of a randy bastard, chasing women throughout his life! Maybe it’s the translation but for a 16th century writer, Vasari is very easy to read. He’s certainly the better of some 19th century writers I’ve read, even some 21st century writers, so it’s no wonder he’s more known for his books than his paintings. A thoroughly accessible writer. I really liked Vasari’s essay on da Vinci – the others not so much. It’s worth checking out though for that.

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