The Triumph of the City


The High Renaissance




(Renaissance  Art Map)



Leonardo da Vinci



Leonardo da Vinci

c. 1512






 Leonardo da Vinci had painted his Last Supper by 1498. The series of wood engravings by Albrecht Durer known as The Passion included a Last Supper and can be dated from between 1509 and 1511. In little over a decade, the Renaissance had been given its most important prototypes for one of the favourite subjects of 16th-century sacred art - the renewed interest in this subject coincided with the debate on the doctrine of the Eucharist stimulated by the Reformation. The iconography of Leonardo's version is rich in new ideas, some taken from the
Dominican culture of the monastery in which the work was painted and some linked to the figurative tradition of Lombardy. The artist's choice to portray the moment following Christ's shocking announcement that "one of you shall betray me" gave him the opportunity to explore the reactions of the apostles. The size of the figures, their position in the foreground, and the unusual perspective mean that the observer is drawn into the emotion of the scene, just as Dominican friars would have desired. In his engraving, Durer takes up the drama and movement of Leonardo's painting. He shows John having fallen into the arms of Christ, indicating the close relationship between Jesus and this young apostle. Later, the theme would be developed by Veronese (1528-1588), among others. With little feeling for the spiritual, Veronese transformed the holy meal into a triumphal banquet for the princes of the Church.


Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper
Mixed technique
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan




Albrecht Durer
Last Supper






Circa 1483-86; oil on panel (transferred to canvas); 198 x 123 cm (78 x 48 in). Musee du Louvre, Paris

The Virgin Mary has her right arm around the shoulders of infant St John the Baptist, who kneels in prayer. Her left hand, slightly open, hovers above the head of the seated Christ child. A kneeling angel points at St John with his right hand, while his left supports Christ. The figures occupy a large part of the composition; they are placed against a dark background of jagged rocks rising to an arch, through which a misty landscape may be glimpsed.


Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks
Musee du Louvre, Paris



Leonardo da Vinci




Leonardo's exquisite portrait of Ginevra de' Benci was described by Vasari as a "beautiful thing." It was originally larger, but was cut down (because of damage) to this powerfully compact format by later owners. The back of the panel depicts a wreath of laurel and palm encircling a juniper sprig. The three are connected by a scroll bearing the inscription "She adorns her beauty with virtue."


Leonardo da Vinci
Ginerva de' Benci






Reserved character

Ginevrds rose pink check and lips are painted with supreme delicacy and restraint. This effect is so subtle, so cool, that it admirably conveys her inner restraint, her firm control over her emotions. Her heavy, half-closed lids cast a shadow over the irises of her eyes, and the almost total absence of reflected light serves to reduce the communication between us and her. A slight cast in her left eye accentuates the lack of focus in her expression, and her gaze is directed over our shoulder.




Skin under the bodice

Ginevra's skin is rendered with absolutely smooth, "invisible"
brushstrokes. This is achieved by working wet-in-wet, and by the
use of glazes and loose, "oily" paint, so that the color and contours
of each brushstroke blend imperceptibly to form a continuous,
uninterrupted surface. It is seen through her diaphanous bodice,
which is given only the slightest definition. If it were not for the gilt
pin holding it together, we would perhaps not notice it at all.




Juniper leaves

The young woman's name, Ginevra, is related to the Italian word ginepro, meaning "juniper." Appropriately, Leonardo has set her pale, marblelike beauty against the dark, spiky leaves of a juniper bush. She is well described by spikiness, we may imagine, and the bitter appeal of the gin that comes from the juniper berry is also adumbrated by this setting.

Insubstantial landscape

In contrast to the woman, with her firm, sculptural presence, the middle-distance landscape quivers with uncertainty, rendered with thin, fluid paint. Each brushmark is visible over the next, and the trees are merely thin stalks, their trunks painted with delicate, tremulous brushstrokes.


The Demonic Enchantment of a Smile

The secret of the Mona Lisa

K. Reichold, B. Graf

The lady smiles with regal serenity. Her instinct for conquest, for cruelty, the whole legacy of her sex, the will to seduce, to enmesh in deceptive wiles, the apparent goodness concealing malicious intentions - all this appears and disappears behind a veil of serenity to be lost in the poetry of her smile. Smiling, she is good and evil, cruel and merciful, gentle and cat-like.
Angelo Conti, On the Mona Lisa, 1909

Is she cold-hearted? Soulless? Seductive? "Hundreds of poets and men of letters have written on this woman. And none of them has solved the enigma of her smile, none has read her thoughts", to quote an essay written by Angelo Conti. Attempts at interpretation are legion, yet none is satisfying. Some see "the embodiment of all the love experienced in the history of civilisation", others "the narcissistic traits of Leonardo himself". Even the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, felt compelled to comment on the Mona Lisa: "If one thinks of Leonardo's pictures, the recollection of the beguiling and enigmatic smile that he has magically conjured on to the lips of his female figures comes to mind. An unchanging smile on long, curving lips: it has become the distinctive feature of his work and is usually called 'Leonardesque'. The exotic, beautiful face of the Mona Lisa is most captivating to the spectator and confounds his wits." Even Freud was forced to admit defeat: "Let us leave the enigma of the Mona Lisa's countenance unresolved."
We do know something about the artist's model. She was known as Mona, or Monna, which means "Madam", Lisa del Giocondo.
Born in 1479, she married the respectable cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo and lived in Florence. There she was noticed, at the age of twenty-four, by Leonardo da Vtnci, who was twice her age. An extraordinarily gifted painter, sculptor, draughtsman, architect, natural scientist and engineer, he was arguably the greatest genius of his age. Giorgio Vasan, who founded the discipline of art history, understated the unparalleled powers of this polymath and universal genius when he referred to him as "most admirable and divinely gifted". He is said to have worked on the Mono Lisa for three years, using the most sophisticated techniques to distract his model so that he might capture that enigmatic smile.

Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Musee du Louvre, Pans


Leonardo da Vinci



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