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Leonardo Da Vinci
( Originally Published 1913 )
In taking up the career of Leonardo we come upon a very prince of painters. Born in the fortress of Vinci, not far from Florence, in 1452, his father was a nobleman, his mother a peasant. Born out of wedlock, he was taken by the father and given every opportunity for education. Long after he had become famous we find Leonardo having his mother interred with great pomp.
It was an easy matter to interest this young lad in study. All his life he remained curious, seeking out animals, insects, plants, people, and studying them all. It was perhaps unfor tunate that he was gifted in so many ways. Poet, scientist, engineer, sculptor, musician, painter-what could not this versatile man do? His restless nature prompted him to turn from one field of activity to another and the result was that few complete specimens of his work remain. In his day Leonardo was called a wizard; people felt that it was not natural for one man to know as much as he did. He computed the height of a tower by measuring its shadow and this in the minds of some proved conclusively that he was in league with the devil.
There is a tradition that when a boy Leonardo's father picked up a large piece of wood that had been cut from a fallen tree. As his son had already displayed considerable artistic ability, the father asked him to paint him something. The youth was seized with a desire to paint such a terrible scene that the beholder would be struck with dismay. Accordingly he chose the Medusa's head for his subject. For days he collected snakes and cared for them in his laboratory; every insect and crawling thing, each creature whose wings displayed curious colors-these were carefully gathered together and studied in all sorts of wriggling attitudes. Finally the head was done. Years later the Duke of Milan purchased it for a goodly sum, but it has long since disappeared.
Leonardo studied with the best artists of the age, but he soon surpassed them all. He was chosen by the Duke of Milan to dwell at his court, paint pictures, make bronze statues, draw up fortifications, and fill many functions. For twenty years he remained and here executed his masterpiece-The Last Supper. This is a subject which many have attempted to put on canvas or fresco; yet there is but one Last Supper, and that is Leonardo's. It was painted on the end wall in the refectory of a monastery in this northern city. Difficult indeed was the task of making a group of men around a table live, yet he who had undertaken the work was equal to it. He seized upon the moment when Christ said to his disciples: "One of you shall betray me!" In that little circle of friends the words fell like a thunderbolt. Who could do so? Each gives expression to his surprise-with one exception. Judas does not like the turn the conversation has taken. Already his hand is closed over the bag of silver. It was the psychological moment that appealed to Leonardo, who for months dreamed over his subject, and painted rapidly and fiercely at brief intervals.
Unfortunately the great mind that grappled with all the problems of his day could not stay for details. The plaster was not properly prepared for the paint, and in a comparatively short time began to flake off. The soldiers of Napoleon stabled their horses in the monastery wherein this wonderful example of human genius was treasured, and amused themselves by throwing stones at the heads of the twelve apostles. Today one has to imagine what the picture must once have been. Happily, a copy of it was made before time and man had done their worst, and from this copy one can divine what the original must once have been.
In the Louvre today we may see another of Leonardo's great pictures-Mona Lisa, of all portraits most frequently mentioned. Four years the artist labored with it; even then he said it was unfinished. Her smile has been the admiration and despair of artists. Character readers have sought in vain to fathom its meaning. Aptly has it been said that he who solves it will have penetrated the secret which lies at the heart of nature. In strong contrast to pictures which lay hold of merely the physical-as for example, some of Rubens'-this imprint of mind upon the features of an animated being must always stand forth impressively.