It seems that everywhere you go in Italy there is art, and if you’re inquisitive and observant you’ll find it in some pretty unlikely places. Michelangelo for example, has left his mark everywhere. His major works can be found in all the big museums and the Vatican, his sculptures seen (as copies) all around Florence, and you can walk his architectural design for the monumental dome of St.Peter’s and the plaza at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. It’s a testament to his fame and influence during his lifetime, but also to his personality and work ethic. By all accounts, he was a truly difficult and obstinate person who was tormented by his own creativity. He never married and viewed his art works as his children and heirs. He did however, manage to see many of his works through to completion. That cannot be said of his rival Leonardo.
Leonardo is without question among the most important and fascinating figures in the history of art. For being so famous, he’s tough to come by. Though regarded as one of the greatest painters who ever lived, only 15 of his paintings survive, and many of those are found in other countries, the most famous being the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. So how can this be explained? For one, Leonardo was a chronic procrastinator. He was so fascinated by the natural world around him and in making scientific and artistic discoveries that he just didn’t have the desire to finish projects. Of the 3 Leonardo paintings we’ll see in Italy, only 1 is finished. The others are glorified sketches. Another reason he has so few works is because he made a few huge mistakes (that he considered discoveries) in painting that resulted in the corrosion and disappearance of many works in the last 500 years. The most famous example of this is “The Last Supper”, which is in Milan.
The traditional technique of fresco, where paint is applied to wet plaster and absorbed into the wall when dried, is time consuming and difficult. Michelangelo used fresco in the Vatican, as did Raphael, and their works have stood the test of time. Leonardo was far too impatient, and for the “Last Supper” instead applied an experimental paint similar to tempera (or poster) paint and then varnished the wall to seal it. After only a few years, it was chipping and cracking, and after 100 years it was seen as a total ruin. It was in such bad shape, that the building owners punched a hole in the bottom of the painting to install a new doorway. Since then, it has become one of the most famous paintings in the world and has seen many restorations. (It also survived a direct hit from a bomb in WWII.) Today, it continues to flake and deteriorate, to the point where it’s humidity treated and only a few lucky people get in every day to see it.
One of the most impressive Leonardo works to be seen anywhere is his “Adoration of the Magi” at the Uffizi in Florence from 1481. It’s an incomplete painting with lots of visible sketches, started on commission in Florence and for some reason abandoned. It’s really interesting to see the amount of sketch work that goes into a finished painting, especially in the perspective of the ruined buildings at the top. It certainly stands out among the finished works around it in the Uffizi, both for being incomplete and totally intriguing.
Art historians are making discoveries about works like these all the time as technology advances. Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” is a great example. The painting has been in the Uffizi since 1670, but Leonardo died in 1519 and had many followers. How do we know that the painting wasn’t altered or further worked on by someone else? Those kind of questions are continuing to be answered, as seen in this clip.