Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass



As a result of his varied interests, Leonardo only completed a handful of paintings in his lifetime.The authenticity of those which scholars are certain of relate primarily to his working sketches.


"The Annunciation" (1473), for example, is authenticated by a drawing of Mary's sleeve and upraised hand. It is only in such an early example which Leonardo would paint halos for both figures, and wings on the angel. His later works ridded such supernatural devices.


The Virgin of the Rocks is a rare finished work which has been attributed to Leonardo's hand. Mary has been placed in a grotto, instead of an architectural setting. The identification of the individuals are known through their gestures. Mary raises her hand over the infant Jesus' head in an expression of protection. Jesus raises his hand symbolic of his sovereignty and grace. St. John assumes a position of blessing. The most curious gesture is that of the angel (this time without wings), who points at St. John. It is suggested that only a Florentine would understand this, as St. John was the patron saint of Florence.

There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks which have been long disputed as to which is by Leonardo's hand and which is a copy (one in the Louvre in Paris, the other in the London Gallery of Art). One piece of evidence that points to the authenticity of the Louvre copy is this preparatory drawing of a woman (found in Leonardo's notebooks), which closely approximates that of the angel in the painting.


Lady With Ermine is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani. This is one of my favorite Leonardo paintings. It is interesting to note that the lady was the mistress of the Duke of Milan, and that the ermine was at the time considered an emblem of chastity. Another note is that the word for the animal in Greek is "galee", which may be a pun on Ms. Gallerani's name. 


The Last Supper

Leonardo painted the image of Jesus among his disciples in the refectory of the Monastery of Sta. Maria delle Grazie between 1495-97. This was by commission of the Duke of Milan, who also had him paint a Crucifixion on the opposite wall (with images of himself and his family as witnesses). Instead of using the traditional fresco technique, Leonardo experimented with a mixture of tempera and oil on the stone wall. Fluctuations in humidy caused the paint to crumble off the wall within 15 years of its completion. Giorgio Vasari (a historian who chronicled "Lives of the Artists", written at the end of the Renaissance) wrote that it was "a mass of blots" within only 60 years of its creation.

To make matters worse, it suffered further damage by those intending to restore and preserve it. There were a total of 7 restorations to the work, the first beginning in 1726. One of the restorers used a strong solvent (attempting to clean off the grime) which dissolved some of Leonardo's original colors. Another used a strong glue (attempting to seal it), which attracted more dirt. Others attempted to fill in the missing paint, though their abilities were far below Leonardo's (one such painter gave one of the apostles six fingers!). Further damage was created by the friars themselves, who installed a curtain over the piece to protect it. Instead, it trapped moisture between the curtain and the mural, and more paint flaked off each time the curtain was opened to reveal it. Later, Napoleon's soldiers used the space as a stable, threw rocks at it, and climbed ladders to scratch out the apostle's eyes. During WWII, a bomb barely missed the mural by a few feet. It is a wonder that the mural remains at all.

The most recent renovation was undertaken by a Milanese woman, Dr. Pinan Branbilla Barcilon. Beginning in 1977, she spent more than 20 years restoring the masterpiece. Aided by modern microscopes, measuring devices, and chemicals, she has removed all of the previous restorers' work and left only that which was created by the hand of Leonardo (which accounts for only 30-40% of the surface of the mural). In the intervening spaces, she has painted watercolors in neutral colors (which can be easily differentiated and removed).


Mona Lisa

Painted in Florence, the sitter's name was Lisa di Noldo Gherardini. At the time of the portrait, she was recently married to Francesco del Giocondo, a merchant who was twice widowed. It is mentioned that she is wearing the colors of mourning, though it is unsure who's death she may be grieving (my personal thought is that it is her marriage to what must have been a much older man!) It has also been mentioned that Leonardo had to hire musicians to keep her amused and to prevent her from looking too sad. Perhaps this is the appeal of her so-called "mysterious smile"... that her smile is mixed with sadness. She also seems to be both confident and shy. Leonardo is known for his attraction to such contradictions. Perhaps her fame is overblown, but it is known that this was one of Leonardo's favorite paintings... and its commissioner had a difficult time getting Leonardo to part with it. I have read one account that the King of France requested its possession when Leonardo was under his employment. Another account says that he willed the painting to a pupil (Salai) upon his death. In either case, it was found in the Versailles Palace during the French revolution, and was subsequently placed in the Louvre, in Paris.


Although I don't personally support this thesis, I think the following is of some interest: Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs suggests that Leonardo painted himself, supporting her theory by analyzing the facial features of Leonardo's face and that of the famous painting. She digitized both the self-portrait of the artist and the Mona Lisa, then flipped the self portrait and merged the two images together using a computer. She noticed the features of the face aligned perfectly!


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