• Deborah Kade

Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian polymath of the Renaissance

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

September 14, 2019

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, more commonly Leonardo da Vinci, was an Italian polymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography.

"Renaissance man" was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century.It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination". Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century that began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal


'The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time, universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a master of a specific field.

When someone is called a "Renaissance man" today, it is meant that rather than simply having broad interests or superficial knowledge in several fields, the individual possesses a more profound knowledge and a proficiency, or even an expertise, in at least some of those fields.

Some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" to describe someone with many interests or talents, while others give a meaning restricted to the Renaissance and more closely related to Renaissance ideals. "

Michael and I saw Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" and "The Crucifixtion" at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie today. It was quite an experience!!

"The Last Supper measures 460 cm × 880 cm (180 in × 350 in) and covers an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazi.

"The theme was a traditional one for refectories, although the room was not a refectory at the time that Leonardo painted it. The main church building had only recently been completed (in 1498), but was planned by Ludovico Sforza to be remodeled as a family mausoleum. The painting was commissioned by Sforza to be the centerpiece of the mausoleum. The lunettes above the main painting, formed by the triple arched ceiling of the refectory, are painted with Sforza coat of arms. The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorano to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera; these figures have deteriorated in much the same way as has The Last Supper.

A study for The Last Supper from Leonardo's notebooks shows twelve apostles, nine of which are identified by names written above their heads. Judas sits on the opposite side of the table, as in earlier depictions of the scene."

Our guide kept stressing how Da Vinci had painted strained muscles in Judas' neck .

"The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. The apostles were identified by their names using a manuscript found in the 19th century. (Before this, only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified.) From left to right, according to the apostles' heads:

Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Andrew form a group of three; all are surprised.

Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form another group of three."

"Judas is wearing red, blue, and green and is in shadow, looking rather withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag, perhaps signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus, or perhaps a reference to his role within the 12 disciples as treasurer. He is also tipping over the salt cellar. This may be related to the near-Eastern expression to "betray the salt" meaning to betray one's Master. He is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting.

Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ, perhaps foreshadowing his violent reaction in Gethsemane during Jesus' arrest. He is leaning towards John and touching him on the shoulder, perhaps because in John's Gospel he signals the "beloved disciple" to ask Jesus who is to betray him.

The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon and lean towards Peter."


Apostle Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip are the next group of three.

Thomas is clearly upset; the raised index finger foreshadows his incredulity of the Resurrection.

James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air. Meanwhile, Philip appears to be requesting some explanation.

Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot are the final group of three.

Both Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, perhaps to find out if he has any answer to their initial questions.

"The painting as it appears on the church wall

In common with other depictions of the Last Supper from this period, Leonardo seats the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer. Most previous depictions excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other eleven disciples and Jesus, or placing halos around all the disciples except Judas.

Leonardo instead has Judas lean back into shadow. Jesus is predicting that his betrayer will take the bread at the same time he does to Saints Thomas and James to his left, who react in horror as Jesus points with his left hand to a piece of bread before them. Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread not noticing Jesus too stretching out with his right hand towards it (Matthew 26: 23). The angles and lighting draw attention to Jesus, whose turned right cheek is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines; his hands are located at the golden ratio of half the height of the composition. In addition, the painting demonstrated Da Vinci's masterful use of perspective as "the perspective draws our attention to the face of Christ at the center of the composition, and Christ's face, through his down-turned gaze, directs our focus along the diagonal of his left arm to his hand and therefore, the bread." These attributes of perspective and use of the "golden ratio" were hallmarks of the Italian Renaissance as they demonstrate the use of harmony, depth, balance.

The painting contains several references to the number 3, which represents the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle. The painting can also be interpreted using the Fibonacci series: 1 table, 1 central figure, 2 side walls, 3 windows and figures grouped in threes, 5 groups of figures, 8 panels on the walls and 8 table legs, and 13 individual figures. There may have been other references that have since been lost as the painting deteriorated. However, debates among art historians still surround the issue of the Fibonacci series as some argue that the purposeful use of the golden section and Fibonacci sequence did not fully be applied to architecture until the early 19th century."

"Two early copies of The Last Supper are known to exist, presumed to be work by Leonardo's assistants. The copies are almost the size of the original, and have survived with a wealth of original detail still intact. One, by Giampietrino, is in the collection of the Foyal Academy of Arts, London, and the other, by Cesare da Sesto, is installed at the Church of St. Ambrogio in Ponte Capriasca, Switzerland. A third copy (oil on canvas) is painted by Andrea Solari (c. 1520) and is on display in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of the Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium.

Leonardo worked on The Last Supper from about 1495 to 1498, but did not work it continuously. The beginning date is not certain, as the archives of the convent for the period have been destroyed. A document dated 1497 indicates that the painting was nearly completed at that date. One story goes that a prior from the monastery complained to Leonardo about its delay, enraging him. He wrote to the head of the monastery, explaining he had been struggling to find the perfect villainous face for Judas, and that if he could not find a face corresponding with what he had in mind, he would use the features of the prior who had complained.

Contemporaneously to painting The Last Supper, Leonardo also worked on Salvator Mundi, a portrait ndy Warhol'sof Jesus. This was auctioned in 2017 along with Andy Warhol's The Last Supper, itself an interpretation of Leonardo's original which inserts modern advertising and other modifications.

Because the painting was on a thin exterior wall, the effects of humidity were felt more keenly, and the paint failed to properly adhere to the wall. Because of the method used, soon after the painting was completed on February 9, 1498 it began to deteriorate. In 1499, Louis XII contemplated removing the painting from the wall and taking it to France. As early as 1517, the painting was starting to flake, and in 1532 Gerolamo Cardano described it as "blurred and colorless compared with what I remember of it when I saw it as a boy". By 1556—fewer than sixty years after it was finished—Giorgio Vasari described the painting as reduced to a "muddle of blots" so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. By the second half of the sixteenth century Gian Paolo Lomazzo stated that "the painting is all ruined". In 1652, a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognizable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the center base of the painting. It is believed, through early copies, that Jesus' feet were in a position symbolizing the forthcoming crucifixion. In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting for the purpose of protection; it instead trapped moisture on the surface, and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint.

For this work, Leonardo sought a greater detail and luminosity than could be achieved with traditional fresco. He painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, so it is not a true fresco. Because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead chose to seal the stone wall with a double layer of dried plaster. Then, borrowing from panel painting, he added an undercoat of white lead to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that was applied on top. This was a method that had been described previously, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. However, Cennini had recommended the use of secco for the final touches alone. These techniques were important for Leonardo's desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style.

A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural. This repair did not last well and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by an otherwise unknown artist named Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage. In 1796, French revolutionary anti-clerical troops used the refectory as an armory and stable; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. The refectory was later used as a prison; it is not known if any of the prisoners may have damaged the painting. In 1821, Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged the center section before realizing that Leonardo's work was not a fresco. Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi first completed a careful study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. In 1924, Oreste Silvestri did further cleaning, and stabilized some parts with stucco.

During World War II, on August 15, 1943, the refectory was struck by Allied bombing; protective sandbagging prevented the painting from being struck by bomb splinters,but it may have been damaged by the vibration. In 1950, Brera director ernanda Wittgens was involved in a restoration."

"From 1951 to 1954, another clean-and-stabilize restoration was undertaken by Mauro Pelliccioli.

The painting as it looked in the 1970s

The painting's appearance by the late 1970's had become badly deteriorated. From 1978 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt and pollution. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century restoration attempts were also reversed. Since it had proved impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment, which meant bricking up the windows. Then, detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting's original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some areas were deemed unrestoreable. These were re-painted using watercolor in subdued colors intended to indicate they were not original work, while not being too distracting.

This restoration took 21 years and, on May 28, 1999, the painting was returned to display. Intending visitors were required to book ahead and could only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colors, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, had been a particularly strong critic. Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, has also complained about the restored version of the painting. He has been critical of Christ's right arm in the image which has been altered from a draped sleeve to what Daley calls "muff-like drapery".

The Last Supper has been the target of much speculation by writers and historical revisionists alike, usually centered on purported hidden messages or hints found within the painting, especially since the publication of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), in which one of the characters suggests that the person to Jesus' right (left of Jesus from the viewer's perspective) is actually Mary Magdalene. It also states that there was a letter ‘glaring in the center of the painting’ (M) standing for Matrimonio or Mary Magdalene. This speculation originated in earlier books The Templar Revelation (1997) by Lynn Picknett and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh (1982). Art historians hold that the figure is the Apostle John, who only appears feminine due to Leonardo's characteristic fascination with blurring the lines between the sexes, a quality which is found in his other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist (painted c. 1513–1516). Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon comment "If he [John] looks effeminate and needs a haircut, so does James, the second figure on the left."

Furthermore, according to Ross King, an expert on Italian art, Mary Magdalene's appearance at the last supper would not have been controversial and Leonardo would have had no motive to disguise her as one of the other disciples, since she was widely venerated in her role as the "Apostle to the Apostles" and was the patron of the Dominican Order, for whom The Last Supper was painted. There would have even been precedent for it, since the earlier Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico had included her in his painting of the Last Supper.

Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff and, if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo's writing, form a musical composition."

No flash photography is allowed. We only stayed in the room for approximately 15 minutes. Doors open and close automatically from one waiting area to another. They only allow a small number of people in at a time."

The Crucifixion

Giovanni Donato da Montorfano (c. 1460–1502/03) was an Italian painter of the Renaissance who was born, lived, and worked in Milan.

Giovanni Donato came from a family of painters. His grandfather, Abramo, and father, Alberto da Montorfano worked in the Milan Cathedral as painters and were members of the Milan painter's guild.

Both Giovanni Donato and his brother Vincenzo were pupils of their father.

Giovanni Donato is best known for his fresco depicting the Crucifixion (1495) in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It is painted on the wall facing Da Vinci's masterpiece of The Last Supper. This fresco is said to have some of the figures of the Duke and his family painted by Leonardo.

The Duomo, the Milan Cathedral

"The construction of the Duomo officially started in 1386 by Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo and was supported by the ruler of Milan Gian Galeazzo Visconti who had grand visions of the cathedral. Though originally started in terracotta stone, once the grandeur of the project was realized Condoglian marble from Lake Maggiore was chosen. The entire building is made up of this pink-hued white marble. To bring it from the quarries of Candoglia, canals were dug leading to the construction site, evidence of which is still visible along the famous navigli, the canals left over from the network built in southern Milan specifically for that purpose! Thousands of artists, sculptors and specialized workers were involved in the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. Architects from across Europe were invited to work on the project (at least 78 different architects total) and as it grew and grew, its construction dragged on over the years. It was consecrated in 1418 but only the nave was really finished at that time. Heavy construction continued for another 200 years."

"The construction of the Duomo of Milan began in 1386 and ended in 1965, it took place in the same location where the St. Ambrose basilica was located since the 5th century to which in the year 836 the Basilica of St. Tecla was added and destroyed by a fire in 1075. The construction of the Cathedral Visconti with the aim of renovating the area and celebrate the policy of territorial expantion of the Visconti.

The construction of the cathedral took place over a period of five centuries during which different architects, sculptors and artists made their professional contribution in the famous "Fabbrica del Duomo" (Cathedral Factory) which was an institution composed of 300 employees leaded by the architect Simone da Orsenigo. Galeazzo granted to the Factory the exclusive use of the marble of the quarry of Candoglia and exonerated the payment of taxes. 

In 1389, the Frenchman Nicolas de Bonaventure was appointed chief architect giving the cathedral a strong Gothic imprint. Thus, the exterior of the Cathedral is covered in pink white marble as well as the top that finishes with an infinity of pinnacles and towers crowned by statues that contemplate the city. Giuseppe Perego sculpted a golden copper statue in 1774 that was located at the highest point of the temple and is known as the Madonnina which became the symbol of Milan.

This impressive project resulted in a unique architectural work, which fuses the international Gothic style with the traditional Lombard architecture.

Contrary to what one might think, despite its large dimensions, the interior of the Milan Duomo is incredibly welcoming. The beautiful, colorful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible are visible, reflecting an ethereal light on the floor of the church. It is now possible to descend the marble staircase to the Cathedral Treasure to see and appreciate the paleo-Christian and Romanesque objects. It is also possible to climb the cathedral ceiling to admire a spectacular view of the city.

The cathedral continues in operation, in addition is the seat of the archdiocese of Milan and inside religious services are carried out regularly.

Did you know that the Duomo of Milan with its 45 meters of height is barely exceeded in size by the Cathedral of Beauvais of Paris with its 48 meters of height? The cathedral of Milan, better known as Duomo of Milan, is an impressive church that has five naves, one central and four lateral, with about forty pillars, also is crossed by a transept followed by the choir and the apse. The central nave has a height of 45 meters and its construction was done in brick covered with marble.

Did you know that the Duomo in Milan is one of the largest Catholic cathedrals in the world? The Cathedral of Milan has 157 meters in length, 11,700 m2 and with a capacity for more than 40,000 people.

The Cathedral of Milan is a church or great dimensions composed in its interior by big dark marble blocks where it’s possible to admire its stylized and spacious style with long columns of marble and carved statues that reach the ceiling. Among these columns are hanged large pictures representing different religious scenes. In addition it is possible to see the skeletons of different saints dressed with their finest clothes. Among the most striking elements are its beautiful stained glass windows and the statue of the Apostle Bartholomew.

They say there are more statues on this gothic-style cathedral than any other building in the world. There are 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures that decorate Milan Duomo! Climb the stairs or take the lift to the rooftop to fully appreciate the architecture of the most renowned silhouette in the city. From the terrazza you’ll see breathtaking views across Milan and, on clear days, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. You can also see the famous Madonnina, the gold-colored statue of Mary that stands on the cathedral’s highest spire."

"Near the main entrance you’ll see a sundial on the floor. A ray of sunlight from a hole on the opposite wall strikes the clock, shining the bronze tongue on June 21, the summer solstice, and the meridian on the winter solstice, December 21. Though ancient (it was placed in Milan Duomo in 1768 by astronomers from the Accademia di Brera) the sundial is surprisingly precise – even used to regulate clocks throughout the city!"

We had a tour of the inside of the Duomo.

"After its consecration in 1418 Milan Cathedral remained incomplete for centuries. Politics, lack of money, indifference in a seemingly never-ending project (imagine a mammoth structure in the middle of your city left unfinished for your entire lifetime and father’s… and grandfather’s) and other setbacks kept the cathedral on standby for what seemed like forever. Actually, it was Napoleon who finished the façade and jump-started the final stages of construction in the early 19th century. Considering its construction is still continuing, this could be considered the longest-worked cathedral in the world. A five-year project to clean the building was started in 2002 and routine restorations and cleaning are continually taking place to keep maintain its gleaming stone."

These are the largest stained glass window panels in the world.

Did you know that the Duomo of Milan with its 45 meters of height is barely exceeded in size by the Cathedral of Beauvais of Paris with its 48 meters of height? The cathedral of Milan, better known as Duomo of Milan, is an impressive church that has five naves, one central and four lateral, with about forty pillars, also is crossed by a transept followed by the choir and the apse. The central nave has a height of 45 meters and its construction was done in brick covered with marble.

Did you know that the Duomo in Milan is one of the largest Catholic cathedrals in the world? There are only two larger.The Cathedral of Milan has 157 meters in length, 11,700 m2 and with a capacity for more than 40,000 people.

"Above the apse (the arched part above the altar) there is a spot marked with a red lightbulb. This marks the spot where one of the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion was allegedly placed. Every year on the Saturday closest to September 14 the archbishop of Milan ascends to the apex in a wooden basket decorated with angels to retrieve the nail. The basket itself was constructed in 1577, though it was significantly reconstructed in 1701 when the angels were added. But you’ve got to be visiting at the right time – the nail is exhibited at the altar until the Monday after vespers before it’s lifted back up again."

We spent most of our time in the Duomo discussing this sculpture of Bartholomew.

" Of the sculptures seen in the Milan Duomo one in particular always creates a lot of interest and curiosity for millions of visitors walking the Monument’s naves every year. It is the statue of “St Bartholomew skinned”, made by the sculptor Marco d’Agrate in 1562 for the Veneranda Fabbrica of the Duomo. It is currently between the altar of the Presentation and the one to St Agnes, standing on a high pedestal, in the right-hand wing of the Cathedral transept.

St Bartholomew is one of Christ’s twelve apostles, executed for his Christian faith, portrayed here based on how he is identified by iconography following the agony suffered.

The Saint, skinned alive, carries what looks like a drape on his shoulders and around his body. But it is his skin; clear reference to the torture inflicted. Up until the XIII-XIV century, the apostle was portrayed dressed holding a book and a knife; alluding to the Gospel proclaimed and martyrdom suffered. They started to portray his agony from the Renaissance onward. Whereas the saint’s icon with his own skin removed from his flesh was finally sanctified after Michelangelo (XVI century) portrayed him that way in the Universal Judgement in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

St. Bartholomew was indeed flayed alive and then beheaded. What could he possibly have done to earn that punishment, you ask? Why, convert the King of Armenia to Christianity, of course! The king’s brother was none too pleased and ordered that horrible style of execution that he believed matched the crime.

The work of Marco d’Agrate does not do any psychological introspection or give evidence of the deep faith expressed by the martyrdom of Bartholomew. It is part of a 16th century sphere of interest: the study and presentation of human anatomy. The first scientific work on anatomy by Andrea Vesalio, on the autopsy study of the human body and dissection of corpses, was published in Venice in 1453.

The statue was an exercise, a careful description and a virtuous academic essay on the muscles and structure of the human body.

At the foot of the statue a short inscription says: “Non me Praxiteles, sed Marcus finxit Agrates”, referred to the sculptor’s “fear” as he presumed it might not be attributed to him due to style and craftsmanship, but to Praxiteles, one of the most skilled and famous sculptors from Athens in Ancient Greece.

Another version of St Bartholomew, still by Marco d’Agrate, dated 1556, is on the front of the Certosa of Pavia, where the sculptor worked for a long time creating many statues.

“St Bartholomew Skinned”, once outside the Duomo, attracted the interest of the faithful and visitors from the very start. This, along with its delicate surface finish, meant it had to be moved inside; first to behind the Cathedral choir and then to its current place following a chapter house order of 1664 ordering “a more suitable place for the admiration of art intellectuals”.

After almost five centuries the statue of St Bartholomew by Marco d’Agrate is still a marvel and surprise to visitors from all continents."

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