Fig 34 Fig. 34.—Madonna. By Perugino.
In the Pitti Gallery, Florence.

We come now to one of the most celebrated masters of Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the head of the Lombard or Milanese school. He was not the equal of the great masters, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Titian; but he stands between them and the painters who preceded him or those of his own day.

In some respects, however, he was the most extraordinary man of his time. His talents were many-sided; for he was not only a great artist, but also a fine scholar in mathematics and mechanics; he wrote poetry and composed music, and was with all this so attractive personally, and so brilliant in his manner, that he was a favorite wherever he went. It is probable that this versatility prevented his being very great in any one thing, while he was remarkable in many things.

When still very young Leonardo showed his artistic talent. The paper upon which he worked out his sums was frequently bordered with little pictures which he drew while thinking on his lessons, and these sketches at last attracted his father’s attention, and he showed them to his friend Andrea Verrocchio, an artist of Florence, who advised that the boy should become a painter. Accordingly, in 1470, when eighteen years old, Leonardo was placed under the care of Verrocchio, who was like a kind father to his pupils: he was not only a painter, but also an architect and sculptor, a musician and a geometer, and he especially excelled in making exquisite cups of gold and silver, crucifixes and statuettes such as were in great demand for the use of the priesthood in those days.

Fig 35 Fig. 35.—Leonardo da Vinci. From a drawing in red chalk by himself.
In the Royal Library, Turin.

Pietro Perugino was a fellow-pupil with Leonardo, and they two soon surpassed their master in painting, and at last, when Verrocchio was painting a picture for the monks of Vallambrosa, and desired Leonardo to execute an angel in it, the work of his pupil was so much better than his own that the old painter desired to throw his brush aside forever. The picture is now in the Academy of Florence, and represents “The Baptism of Christ.” With all his refinement and sweetness, Leonardo had a liking for the horrible. It once happened that a countryman brought to his father a circular piece of wood cut from a fig-tree, and desired to have it painted for a shield; it was handed over to Leonardo, who collected in his room a number of lizards, snakes, bats, hedgehogs, and other frightful creatures, and from these painted an unknown monster having certain characteristics of the horrid things he had about him. The hideous creature was surrounded by fire, and was breathing out flames. When his father saw it he ran away in a fright, and Leonardo was greatly pleased at this. The countryman received an ordinary shield, and this Rotello del Fico (or shield of fig-tree wood) was sold to a merchant for one hundred ducats, and again to the Duke of Milan for three times that sum. This shield has now been lost for more than three centuries; but another horror, the “Medusa’s Head,” is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and is a head surrounded by interlacing serpents, the eyes being glassy and deathlike and the mouth most revolting in expression.

While in Florence Leonardo accomplished much, but was at times diverted from his painting by his love of science, sometimes making studies in astronomy and again in natural history and botany; he also went much into society, and lived extravagantly. He had the power to remember faces that he had seen accidentally, and could make fine portraits from memory; he was also accustomed to invite to his house people from the lower classes; he would amuse them while he sketched their faces, making good portraits at times, and again ridiculous caricatures. He even went so far, for the sake of his art, as to accompany criminals to the place of execution, in order to study their expressions.

After a time Leonardo wished to secure some fixed income, and wrote to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, called Il Moro, offering his services to that prince. This resulted in his going to Milan, where he received a generous salary, and became very popular with the Duke and all the court, both as a painter and as a gentleman. The Duke governed as the regent for his young nephew, and gathered about him talented men for the benefit of the young prince. He also led a gay life, and his court was the scene of constant festivities. Leonardo’s varied talents were very useful to the Duke; he could assist him in everything—by advice at his council, by plans for adorning his city, by music and poetry in his leisure hours, and by painting the portraits of his favorites. Some of these last are now famous pictures—that of Lucrezia Crevelli is believed to be in the Louvre at Paris, where it is called “La Belle Ferronière.”