There are so few works by Leonardo da Vinci in the world, that when you have the chance to see one, you’ve got to take it. I remember the mad dash at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, a hyped build-up that no masterpiece could survive. Seeing his Virgin of the Rocks (above, 1505-1508) at the National Gallery in London, however, was a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Born April 15, 1452, da Vinci seems even more of a magical figure today than he did to contemporaries such as Giorgio Vasari, who called the master “marvelous and divine, indeed” in his life of Leonardo. Standing before the Virgin of the Rocks, you feel as you are there in the peaceful bucolic setting with the sainted figures, drinking in the serenity. Such masterpieces transcend time and place, but also frustrate us in their rarity. Like so many geniuses, da Vinci excelled at whatever he did, but found that fluency came so easily that he rarely had the staying power to complete the task at hand.
“[T]here was such a power of intellect that whatever he turned his mind to he made himself master of with ease,” Vasari writes of Leonardo. “In erudition and letters he would have distinguished himself, if he had not been variable and unstable. For he set himself to learn many things, and when he had begun them gave them up.” The only work by da Vinci in the entire Western hemisphere is his Ginevra de' Benci (above, from 1475) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was the first da Vinci I saw in person. After seeing so many of the works in reproduction, I was unprepared for the tiny painting in reality. The Mona Lisa’s diminutiveness similarly shocks at first sight. Whereas Michelangelo, himself a famous procrastinator and abandoner of incomplete works, managed to finish off some works on a grand scale, Leonardo leaves us with only these tiny works. Leonardo surpasses Michelangelo in versatility, of course, mastering the sciences like few others then or since, but his seemingly boundless potential borders on the infuriating when you add up the physical results.
Despite all we think we know about Leonardo’s life, there is so much more we don’t know. Perhaps only Shakespeare comes close as a historical cipher upon which people love to paint their theories. Da Vinci’s John the Baptist (above, from 1514) is reportedly modeled after one of his students, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, but better known as Salai, Italian for “little devil.” Salai’s youthful beauty allegedly blinded da Vinci to his faults, which included repeatedly stealing from Leonardo. Leonardo painted and drew Salai over and over during the thirty years they spent together, leading many to believe that they were lovers. (Another theory that Leonardo was a hermaphrodite adds a different spin on this painting.) Is Salai Leonardo’s “dark lady of the sonnets”? As much fun as it is to speculate on the personal lives of artists, reading backwards from their works to their biography, especially gap-ridden bios such as those of da Vinci or Shakespeare, in the end we need to see the works for themselves. Leonardo giveth, and Leonardo taketh away, but what he gives us, however paltry, has helped shape art and culture in immeasurable ways.