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“He was a great artistic personality, crucial for the development, in some way, of what we think as the modern science. But he was not alone.”

Leonardo da Vinci died more than 500 years ago, but he is still revered as a genius polymath who painted beguiling compositions like the Mona Lisa, avidly studied the natural sciences, and created designs and inventions in thousands of journal pages. Even during Leonardo’s lifetime, contemporaries marveled at the artist’s great skill and wide-ranging pursuits, but many also noted his perfectionism and difficulty completing projects. Since his death, the legends surrounding his life and personality have continued to grow. Today Leonardo’s story inspires novels and his work brings record-breaking prices, demonstrating his enduring relevance and mystique.

In this episode, Getty curator Davide Gasparotto discusses early accounts of Leonardo’s life and how they shaped our understanding of the artist. Passages from these biographies were recently collected in the Getty Publications book Lives of Leonardo da Vinci.
Cover of the book Lives of Leonardo da Vinci, featuring a drawn self portrait of the artist in brown ink on brown paper.

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Lives of Leonardo da Vinci


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
GASPAROTTO: He was a great artistic personality, crucial for the development, in some way, of what we think as the modern science. But he was not alone.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty curator Davide Gasparotto about the Lives of Leonardo da Vinci.
“Is there any artist more famous than Leonardo da Vinci,” asks the art historian, Charles Robertson, in his introduction to the book Lives of Leonardo da Vinci, recently published by Getty Publications. While this is a question that can’t be answered, it is a question that many have asked, both during and after the artist’s lifetime.
This book, in the series Lives of the Artists, includes texts by the unknown writer Anonimo Gaddiano, which appeared in 1530; by the author Paulo Giovio, published in 1549; and by the painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari, published in Florence in 1568. Perhaps most surprising and revealing of all, is a draft of a letter written by Leonardo himself to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, offering his services and stating his abilities. Together, these texts and others reveal early mythologizing efforts by the artist and his biographers to shape a powerful public persona, many aspects of which are with us still to this day.
Joining me to discuss the Lives of Leonardo da Vinci is Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum.
Thank you, Davide, for joining me on this podcast. It’s always a pleasure speaking with you.
DAVIDE GASPAROTTO: Thank you very much, Jim, for having me.
CUNO: Now, the world—and I hardly exaggerate when I say the world—recently marked the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, with dozens of major exhibitions in, among other venues, Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The event was even marked by an international controversy, when Italian right-wing politicians objected to the Louvre mounting the world’s largest Leonardo exhibition, on the grounds that although Leonardo worked and died in France, he was, in fact, an Italian painter, and thus, his greatest memorial exhibition should be mounted in Italy and not in Paris.
Davide, give us a sense of Leonardo’s development as an artist, his early career and training, and the development of his early fame.
GASPAROTTO: Yes. Kind of a difficult task, but I will try to be very concise. So Leonardo was born in 1452, in the small town of Vinci; so hence his name Leonardo da Vinci, which means Leonardo from Vinci. He was an illegitimate son of a notary, Ser Piero. His father was moderately well-to-do and moderately cultivated.
So we don’t know much about Leonardo’s early education, because basically, the first information we have about him is in 1472, when we have a document where he was required to pay his dues to the painter’s guild, the Compagnia di San Luca in Florence, which means he was twenty years old, he was already a painter. We know from other documents that he was trained in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, one of the most prominent artistic figures in Florence at the time, and both a painter, a sculptor, a goldsmith.
I think it’s a key element to understand Leonardo’s personality, the kind of range of activities which were going on in Verrocchio’s workshop. There, he learned to draw, he learned to paint, he learned to model in terracotta, which was one of the things he did for his entire life. But he also witnessed the creation of important masterpieces in bronze, so he learned the casting techniques. He had a sort of a very wide-ranging experience with Verrocchio.
CUNO: How common was this kind of education for Leonardo?
GASPAROTTO: I think, in some way, it was standard for every artist. Around the age of eleven, twelve, someone who wanted to become a practitioner of one of the visual arts, usually went to study with someone else. I think the specific thing about Leonardo, the important thing, is that Verrocchio’s workshop was really the major workshop in Florence at the time. And Verrocchio and his team were busy in really doing kind of different tasks. And this idea of a multidisciplinary, a very busy workshop, doing different things, the wide-ranging interests of Leonardo, I think were, in part, due to this important apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop.
CUNO: Now, most of us are familiar with the patronage of the great cities of Venice and Florence and Rome. What was the patronage like in Milan, in the north of Italy, and how did Leonardo attract the attention of the French King Francis I? How did he go from Florence to Milan and Milan to France?
GASPAROTTO: So I think when Leonardo left Florence in 1482, his reputation as an artist was already well established. He had worked in Verrocchio’s workshop, but he had done also some work as an independent painter, so his reputation was good, was well established.
Milan was, since the fourteenth century, a major artistic center in Italy, and also the capital of one of the most powerful and wealthy Italian states, which was the dominion of the Visconti family, and later of the Sforza family. And it was a court, really, characterized by, extreme refinement and able to attract major artists from other places.
Your question about the French and how Leonardo later on attracted the attention of the French king, I think goes back to the fact that in 1499, when the French invaded the state of Milan, where Leonardo had lived for seventeen years, from 1482. That is the moment when the sort of— the love affair of Leonardo with the French started.
And one of the biographers included in the book, the sources on Leonardo, Paolo Giovio, mentions that the French king wanted to detach to The Last Supper, the famous mural painting by Leonardo, from the wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie and bring it to France.
So later on, when Francis I acceded to the throne, he already knew, obviously, Leonardo. Leonardo was very well known to the French. And Francis I, we know that, was deeply passionate for Italian art. And Leonardo basically was the first celebrated artist who moved from Italy, attracted by the sort of lavish patronage of Francis I.
CUNO: So he was sixty-seven when he died. How did his career divide itself between Florence and Rome and Milan, and then France, in terms of the years he spent in each of those places? Was he predominantly thought of as Florentine painter or Roman painter or—?
GASPAROTTO: I think Leonardo was thought to be predominantly a Florentine painter. His education was in Florence. But after 1482, he started to travel. So I think the years, the eighteen years he spent in Milan are really key to build his great reputation as a painter.
It was in Milan, in fact, where he stayed from 1482 to 1499, that he created some of his most celebrated works, like the famous Virgin of the Rocks, in the 1480s, which is today in the Louvre. Then in the 1490s, the mural painting of The Last Supper, some of his most famous portraits, like the Lady with the Ermine, today in Krakow, which is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, who was the mistress of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan.
And we know that at the end of the century, his reputation was very high, his reputation as a portrait painter. And when, basically he, in 1500, returned to Florence, he was already very famous. And he was sort of welcomed, even, as a sort of a prodigal son. He publicly exhibited a famous cartoon, the cartoon with the representation of the Virgin and Saint Anne and the Christ child and John the Baptist, and was in public. And this was an enormous success, which attracted crowds to the rooms of the convent of Santa Maria Novella, where the work was shown. And so hence, the commission to Leonardo to depict this fresco, monumental fresco, inside the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio, the civic palace of Florence, with The Battle of Anghiari, a project that he never completed. But the commission, obviously, was the proof of the high esteem in which he was regarded by his Florentine contemporaries.
After Florence, he was in Rome. And then he moved to France at the end of his life. And when the Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona visited him in his studio in Amboise two years before his death, in 1517— There is a report about this visit which is published in the book, the Lives of Leonardo da Vinci, which we are sort of commenting [on] today. And he says that they were seeing the most outstanding painter of our time. So in some way, his reputation grow and grow.
CUNO: Well, what was his personality like?
GASPAROTTO: We have several accounts about his personality. We sort of know that he was handsome; he had good manners; that he liked to dress very elegantly; and that he was at ease in talking with like princes, aristocrats. And we have records of this in some early sources.
Obviously, we have always to take into account in some of these sources, there are things that are said that correspond to an ideal image of the artist as was, you know, believed to be in the Renaissance. So for example, stressing that he was elegant and he had good manners probably was true. But elegance and good manners were a kind of a trope of artistic literature to announce the stature of an artist. We know, for example, that he was a good musician. This is reported by some early sources. And like several other Renaissance artists, are documented to be good musicians, especially good lute players. And I think that this was certainly true. But in some way, to be well versed in music was a way to show a high degree of education.
Today we think more Leonardo as the genius, the isolated figure. But in some way, like Raphael, Leonardo enjoyed the company of other artists. And he had pupils very close to him. Especially during his Milan period, which was, you know, the longest period he spent in one place. We know important pupils of Leonardo, like Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Marco d’Oggiono, Francesco Melzi, who was the painter to whom Leonardo left his entire library and his manuscripts and his drawings when he died, because he accompanied Leonardo to France. So Leonardo had a workshop, he had pupils. Definitely not an isolated figure. He followed, in some way, the example of his master, Verrocchio.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, reputations are often built by others, those who talk or write about the developing personalities like Leonardo. One of the earliest accounts we have of Leonardo as an artist was the anonymous text attributed to rightfully-named Anonimo Gaddiano, circa 1530. Tell us about the circumstances of the publication of that manuscript and what it adds to our understanding of Leonardo.
GASPAROTTO: So the Anonimo Gaddiano’s an interesting text. We know for sure that he was, for example, known to Vasari when he was writing his Life of Leonardo, you know, published for the first time in 1550 and then republished in 1568. But the text of the Anonimo Gaddiano was never published in the sixteenth century. And so it was a manuscript that circulated, then ended up in the Bibliotech Nazionale in Florence. So it was published only at the end of the nineteenth century.
And there has been much speculation about the author of this text. Certain names were suggested, like the art lover and later on patron of the famous sculptor Giambologna, Bernardo Vecchietti; or the name of Vincenzo Borghini, who was a collector or art lover, and was in very close friendship with Vasari. But we don’t know. The author, in any case, was pretty well informed on certain circumstances of Leonardo’s life.
CUNO: Well, I know the text by Anonimo Gaddiano includes a description of Leonardo much as you’ve described him recently in our conversation. He said, “Beautiful in person and aspect, Leonardo was well proportioned and graceful. He wore a rose-colored cloak, which came only to his knees, although at the time, long vestments were the custom. His beard came to the middle of his breast, and was well dressed and curled.” How common was such a description in a text of this kind, and did it add to Leonardo’s reputation?
GASPAROTTO: You know, obviously, in some way, it didn’t add, because it was never really published. But I think there are other descriptions of Leonardo, of the fact that he was handsome, this fact that when he was older he had the long beard. And, as I told you, there are these reports about this, the fact that he was elegant, that he was good-mannered. So I believe that this— this is something must have been true in some way. And it was a way to show that Leonardo was a sort of a gentleman. He was not a practitioner of a mechanical art, but he was cultivated, elegant, able to speak very well, on the same level as his patrons.
CUNO: Now, another early account of Leonardo’s life and career is by Paolo Giovio, dated roughly 1528, but first published only in 1549, I think. Tell us about Paolo Giovio and how he came to know Leonardo.
GASPAROTTO: Yeah. I think Paolo Giovio is one of my favorite[s] among these early sources—you know, the pre-Vasari sources—which speaks about Leonardo. Giovio was born in Northern Italy, north of Milan, in Como. And he was an historian, but also an art lover, a collector. At some point, he built a large villa in Como, where he kept his famous collection of portraits of famous men and women from the past and the present.
He for sure had also the opportunity to meet Leonardo, probably the first time in Pavia, near Milan in 1507. And later on, he must have met Leonardo in Rome, during the pontificate of Leo X, who came from the Medici family. And Leonardo spent a couple of years in Rome as a sort of a guest of the brother of the pope, Giuliano de Medici. So Giovio knew Leonardo.
This is a short biography. It’s written in Latin, in a very elegant, beautiful Latin. And in my opinion, it’s probably the most intelligent account of Leonardo’s art before Vasari. Because in some way, Giovio, he covers all the most significant aspects of Leonardo’s personality, in a very quick but effective way.
So he speaks about the commitment of Leonardo to elevate the status of painting to that of a liberal art, to that of an intellectual profession. He speaks about Leonardo’s interest for modeling in clay. He speaks about Leonardo’s researches on optics and perspective. He makes very clearly, the link between Leonardo’s work as a painter and his interest and passion for the study of nature, and especially for the study of anatomy. He reminds [us of] his ability as a musician. And he also touches on the talent of Leonardo, the inventor of theatrical spectacles, which is something that Leonardo did a lot, especially when he was in Milan, at the court of Ludovico il Moro. He’s being a sort of a director of spectacles, building surprises, machines, and things was something who made him very famous at the time. So I think Giovio’s life is really, despite short and mentioning few works painted by Leonardo, it’s very important for sort of assessing his personality and his interests.
CUNO: You talk about the dissection. And Paolo Giovio said of Leonardo, “He established that all proper practice of painting should be preceded by a training in the sciences and the liberal arts, which he regarded as necessary handmaidens to painting.” What did Giovio mean by the sciences? And was it rare for a painter like Leonardo to have the education or the knowledge of science?
GASPAROTTO: So I think this is obviously a very important question, sort of a key question for Leonardo as an artist. Obviously, I think the pairing of science and liberal arts is interesting, because liberal arts were the arts of the mind. They were intellectual sort of pursuits. Science means the curiosity for nature, the curiosity for the physical world, the curiosity for, I would say, the macrocosm, on one side—so the physical world—and the microcosm, the human body basically, the machine of the body. These were all aspects in which Leonardo was very interested.
He was not the first artist to be interested, for example, in the human anatomy in Florence. Other artists, even before him or contemporary to him, like Antonio Pollaiuolo, for example, were very interested in anatomy. So on one side, there is this idea that the artist should have broader interests. And this idea, I think, is something that was an inheritance from the antique, from the classical antiquity.
We have, on the other side, always to think that Leonardo, as he always says about himself, he was a uomo senza lettere. So he says this in Italian. He was a man without letters, because he did not have a proper humanistic education. He didn’t learn Latin or Greek. So many of the ancient texts, the great texts of the Classical literature, were inaccessible to him, or only accessible if there was a translation.
Leonardo, all over the course of his life, tried to fill this gap, trying a little bit to learn Latin, to collect many books also written in ancient Italian. But in some way, he tried to fill the gap with this enormous curiosity and his sort of appetite to learn not only from books, but above all, from experience. He said “la esperienza,” he said, not experience. He’s used this word. And so from here, you have this great interest of exploring with his own means, the physical world on one side and the human body on the other side.
And so I think this is a key moment in the history of, I would say, Western thinking because Leonardo, through his research, is sort of questioning the authorities through the experience. He started that path that in some way, will lead to the great real experimental science later on in the seventeenth century, for example, with Galileo. So he’s in sort of the beginning of a trajectory. To look not only at the texts, not only at the authorities transmitted, but also to look at things with his own eyes.
CUNO: Now, we’ve been talking about Leonardo as someone who was courted by the great and the good, the wealthy and the powerful. But in 1482, he drafted a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, offering his services and stating his abilities as an artist. Tell us about that letter and how common it was for an artist to write such a thing; and why Leonardo thought it appropriate to write about his talents regarding instruments of war, for example; what this tells us about him as a— as an artist, as an engineer, as a aspiring figure; and what resulted from his letter.
GASPAROTTO: This is an incredibly fascinating document, this sort of letter which we preserve a sort of a draft of his letter to Ludovico il Moro from 1482, when he presents himself to the duke and aspiring to be at the service of the duke. It’s fascinating to see that in the letter, he’s concentrating almost exclusively on his capability as a military engineer and to build war machines. And only toward the end, he says that he can do things in, you know— with a lot of self-awareness, in some way, because he says, you know, “I can undertake for you sculpture in marble, in bronze, in clay; painting, without any comparison to anybody else.” He’s sort of stressing all his talents.
I think that what he was trying, obviously, to impress the duke. To me, what he had at that moment in mind, more than anything else, was the commission for the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, the father of Ludovico il Moro. We know that Ludovico il Moro wanted to erect an equestrian monument in bronze, to the memory of his father, who has been a great man of arms.
CUNO: Now, the longest and most substantial account of Leonardo’s life and work is by the painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari, from the second edition of the book of the lives published in Florence in 1568. And in that book, in that text, Vasari calls Leonardo “unstable, for he set himself to learn many things. And then after having begun them, abandoned them.” And as examples, he cites arithmetic and music and the drawing knots of cords and designs for raising great weights. What does that mean? Why did he point that out and call him a kind of failure for having abandoned them? As if Leonardo was so flighty and curious as a mind that he couldn’t rest his mind on one single thing.
GASPAROTTO: I think that in this instance, Vasari really sort of records something about Leonardo’s character and personality which has been already stressed by other writers and people before him. This is something which was really true. Leonardo’s sort of dissatisfaction with his works, his sort of hypercritical attitude, the really experimental nature of his artistic research are absolutely a leitmotif since his earliest biographers.
And rereading some of them, I think it’s very clear that, you know, for example, one of the sources included in the book, the Libro di Antonio Billi, we read something very similar. We read, you know, “He was far in advance of others in design, and also the most beautiful inventions; but he did not color many things because never and in nothing, and even the beautiful things he made, did he satisfy himself. And for these reasons, there are no very few things by him. His great knowledge of error prevented him from making them.”
Or you know, the Anonimo Gaddiano says it was hard for him to be satisfied. And Paolo Giovio also writes that while he was spending his time in the close research of the subordinate branches of his art, he carried on very few works to completion. And he says also something interesting. “For owing to his masterly facility and fastidiousness of his nature, he discarded works he had already begun.”
Leonardo was constantly looking for something new. His attitude with constant experimentation. He was very critical of what he has done. He was slow in painting, we know. So that’s something that in some way, again, is related to the fact that he conceived more his profession as an intellectual profession, and the products were not as important as the thinking.
CUNO: Now Vasari makes a bold statement. He says that the science of optics was to Leonardo of paramount importance. And upon it, he founded the principles of the distribution of light and shade, down to the most minute details. What did he mean by this? And how did he distinguish Leonardo, in this regard, from other artists?
GASPAROTTO: I think this is one of the great important new things about Leonardo as a painter. His interest in optics, and in particular in the relationship between light and shade, is rightly emphasized by Paolo Giovio, but we find ample evidence of this interest in Leonardo’s own writings. Some of these writings were published early on. In the seventeenth century in France, it was published, what was at the time called a Treatise on Painting by Leonardo. Leonardo really never wrote a treatise on painting, but he wrote a lot of notes about painting. And so in his writings, there is a lot about optics, and especially the relationship between light and shade.
And obviously, Leonardo’s handling of light and shade is a key aspect of many of his paintings, many of his important paintings. And his contemporaries were well aware of this aspect. If you, for example, think to the Virgin of the Rocks today, the first version, today in the Louvre, no, this painting, which portrays, the Virgin, very youthful Virgin Mary with the infant Saint John the Baptist and the infant Christ and an angel. They are in front of this rocky grotto. And the protagonists, they appear to emerge from these deep shadows. And so their three-dimensionality is enhanced. And Leonardo describes really the different intensities of light across the bodies.
And then there is the other famous device that Leonardo employed to enhance the sense of unity, but also the sense of the illumination of a painting, which is the blurring of contours, no? Especially those contours which are further in space, to suggest the presence of air, atmosphere that sort of surrounds, envelops the scene. The famous technique was called the sfumato, you know, the— In Italian, sfumare. I don’t know, it can translated like to soften, soften the contours. So I think one of the essences of Leonardo as a painter is the interest for the way in which light plays with bodies and in space.
CUNO: Now, among the works that Vasari writes that Leonardo sat for a long time staring and not working, by which he meant not putting brush to painted surface, was The Last Supper in Milan. Do others write similarly of Leonardo about that particular painting, that he abandons it, that he doesn’t finish the painting?
GASPAROTTO: Yes. Yes. I think one of the fun sort of sources we have in the book is the short story by Matteo Bandello, just an extract of this story by Matteo Bandello, who was a novelist and writer of the sixteenth century from Northern Italy. Bandello writes about the fact that Leonardo, you know, some days used to work in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie and work up on the scaffold from dawn to evening on the mural painting of The Last Supper. Some other days, he used to go there without even touching the brush, just contemplating the figures he had done in the previous days. As Bandello says, “as if to criticize them himself.” So you know, this again, stressing the critical attitude of Leonardo towards everything he was sort of doing in painting. Obviously, this critical attitude and this experimental nature lead to— at least in two cases, to disastrous results.
And because this Last Supper was a technical failure because Leonardo had this way of painting very slow. And also, he wanted to achieve a full range of effects in the fresco, which is very difficult to attain in the fresco because in the true technique of buon fresco, you have to paint very quickly on the wet surface. To be very quick, every day have a portion painted. So he didn’t use a strict buon fresco technique when he painted The Last Supper. And he worked on it more as a panel painting. So he painted a lot a secco, as we say in Italian. So he painted on dry plaster. And this produced a technique which didn’t last long, because the pigments didn’t adhere very well to the wall. And so this experimental technique led to the wall painting’s very quick, rapid deterioration.
And already in 1517, one chronicler said that the painting was wonderful, but it was already began to deteriorate. And he says, “I don’t know because of the damp in the wall or because of some inadvertence.” And it was because of this unorthodox technique that Leonardo used, that had this sort of disastrous effect on the conservation of The Last Supper.
And later on, he started painting also The Battle of Anghiari, this time using oil as a medium, just doing an oil on wall. But that also didn’t last. And then he abandoned because it was really a complete failure. So he didn’t complete The Battle of Anghiari. He did obviously complete The Last Supper, but after a few years, the painting was already sort of beginning to deteriorate.
CUNO: Now what about Vasari telling us about the great disdain that Michelangelo had for Leonardo?
GASPAROTTO: Ha. This is interesting. Yes. But you know, we have to think that Leonardo and Michelangelo, first of all, they were from different generations, you know? Michelangelo was almost fifteen years younger than Leonardo. And so when Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was seven years old, so was very young. And when Leonardo came back to Florence in 1500, Michelangelo was like a brilliant young, but already, in some way, famous artist, because he, at that point, he had already executed the famous Pieta, today in the Vatican; the Bacchus. So some of his great early sculptures.
And he was, at the moment when Leonardo came back to Florence, working on the colossal marble David. Actually, Leonardo was included in the group of artists in the sort of a commission who had to decide about the placement of Michelangelo’s David in 1504, when the sculpture was completed. And you know, soon afterward, the two artists were competing, directly competing, on the two opposite walls of the great wall of the great hall of the Palazzo della Signoria with the commission of two frescos representing, you know, glorious battles of the Florentine past—Leonardo, The Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo, the Battle of Cascina.
And you know, their artistic visions, I think, were very, very well apart. Michelangelo was basically almost exclusively concentrated on the depiction of the human body. Leonardo had a complete, as we have seen, different vision of art. Art was something very complex that was the interest in nature, the interest in the movement. And so what we know about the two frescoes which were never both completed, sets them in two different sort of worlds.
It’s interesting that the text of the Anonimo Gaddiano is the first to report the comments of Michelangelo about the fact that Leonardo was unable to complete his projects. And obviously, Michelangelo in that instance, was referring specifically to the fact that Leonardo never cast the bronze equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza. And he says, in the text of the Anonimo Gaddiano, he says this beautiful kind of very strong phrase. He says, “Those Milanese idiots did believe in you when they meet over a bridge,” you know, “in Florence.”
But the fact is that in some way, the irony is that none of them completed the frescoes for the Palazzo della Signoria—for different reasons, but they never completed the frescoes. And even later on, Michelangelo was not able to complete probably the most ambitious project of his entire career, the tomb for Pope Julius II, which you know, today still stands in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, but it’s sort of a project— It’s a compromise project. It was not the grandiose, the magnificent things he thought about at the beginning, who should have been in the basilica of Saint Peter.
So in some way, we can say that ambition was great, pride was great, but failure was fairly common for Renaissance artists, and was a common feature both of Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s careers.
CUNO: Now, I wouldn’t be forgiven if I didn’t give you the chance to talk about the Mona Lisa. Vasari writes of it as a convincing imitation of nature. By which he means its accuracy of form and life-likeness, especially of her smile, which he said was more divine than a human can behold. Did people really think that at the time or was this a trope of criticism that Vasari used to describe the picture? Or was it really a picture that was as famous then as it is now?
GASPAROTTO: So it’s very interesting, what you say. I think in the case of Vasari, it was really a trope because he never saw the Mona Lisa. And very few people, I think, saw the Mona Lisa, actually, because we know that Leonardo brought the painting with him in France, and then he left it to the French king. So the description of Vasari could be based on previous accounts, or Vasari could have spoken with someone who actually saw the painting. But I think his description is more of a rhetorical artifice than really based on the actual painting.
I think what is interesting, and what I would like to say here about the Mona Lisa, is that the first mention of the portrait, which is, you know, today, sort of the quintessence of Leonardo as a painter, was discovered in 2005 in a notation by a Florentine man, Agostino Vespucci, on his edition of the works by Cicero. This specific copy is in the university library in Heidelberg, in Germany, it was found. And it’s an interesting, because this Agostino Vespucci, he annotates his reading about Cicero’s description of an unfinished picture by the great Greek painter Apelles. And he says, he writes—and he dates the annotation October 1503, on the margin of the text—that Leonardo had painted the head of Lisa del Giocondo and left it unfinished.
So I think this annotation is very important because in some way, it confirms that the Mona Lisa is actually the portrait of this Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and hence the name, the alternative name now La Gioconda. And something that was confirmed by other sources. We know that Leonardo reworked at least twice, the Gioconda, the Mona Lisa, over the course of his life. And kept the painting always with himself.
But the painting, maybe in its unfinished state, or a drawing or a design or a project for the painting was certainly known at the beginning of the sixteenth century to the young Raphael. When the young Raphael went to Florence, he painted, at some point a portrait, the so-called Lady of the Unicorn. It’s clearly that within this portrait, he has seen the Mona Lisa, because he’s quoting some aspects of the pose, the position of the hands, the two columns which are barely visible in— today in the Mona Lisa, but they are there. And so Raphael knew, in some way, this painting. So the Mona Lisa was, in a certain way, influential for early sixteenth century portraiture, but was seen by few people, and especially not really described in detail by a lot of people.
CUNO: Now, Vasari closes out his account of Leonardo’s life and career by saying, “And so on account of all of his qualities, so many and so divine, although he worked much more by words than by deeds, his name and fame can never be extinguished. Wherefore it was thus said in his praise by Mister Giovan Battista Strozzi, ‘Alone, this man vanquished all others. He vanquished Phidias, he vanquished Apelles, and all their victorious herd.’” Has Leonardo’s reputation sustained itself on that scale over these last 500 years since his death? And did his reputation contribute significantly to the idea of the individual creative genius, as opposed to the large collaborative workshop painter?
GASPAROTTO: So complicated questions, but I’ll try to be concise, saying that we have always to think that in Vasari, there is on one side, this desire of reporting facts and describe works of art made by the painters, in his lives. But there is always this idea of the place that a certain artist occupies in the architecture of the lives. The lives are a complex architecture, and Leonardo plays a specific role.
So he’s the artist, according to Vasari, who opens up the terzeta [sp?], the third age, marks the beginning of the so-called maniera moderna, the modern manner, the way of painting for Vasari’s contemporaries, the new season, which opens up at the beginning of the sixteenth century with Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Correggio. In some way, Leonardo, who is the oldest in this group already in the 1480s and the 1490s, this was sort of the herald of this new season, with his attention for the rendering of light and shade, for his attention to the render of the inner minds, inner soul in his portraits. So he occupies a specific place in the architecture of Vasari’s life. And we have to understand always this, when we read the eulogy that Vasari makes of Leonardo.
We can say that Leonardo was certainly perceived as a great innovator during his own lifetime and afterward. In some way, his myth as a painter started in the sixteenth century. But the idea of Leonardo as a universal genius and proto scientist is more an idea, to me, that came about with the rediscovery of Leonardo’s manuscripts at the end of the eighteenth century, and then especially during the nineteenth century, when his writings were finally sort of published and fully presented to the scientific community. And so then now we have this myth, real myth of Leonardo proved by, you know, books like The Da Vinci Code, or by even the market itself. We have seen, you know, a couple of years ago, this painting attributed to Leonardo, the Salvator Mundi, fetched an incredible price $450 million of dollars at auction. So I think the myth of Leonardo is also a kind of a construction of the twentieth century, which has some basis in the sixteenth century, and then in the nineteenth century.
But as I said before, Leonardo was exceptional in some way. He was a great innovator. But he was not alone. And he had a workshop, he had pupils, he had [a] large following. I would say that he was a great artistic personality, crucial for the development, in some way, of what we think [of] as the modern science. But he was not alone.
CUNO: Thank you Davide. It was the perfect way to end our conversation. So thank you very much.
GASPAROTTO: Thank you very much Jim.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
GASPAROTTO: He was a great artistic personality, crucial for the development, in some way, of what w...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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