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Leonardo Da Vinci – Leonardo’s Animals Part 1 of 2
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1492 on a Tuscan farm in Anchiano, Italy, near the town of Vinci, where he spent most of his childhood. He was the son of Ser Piero and a girl named Catherine who worked for him. After Leonardo was born, father and mother did not remain together. Only recently have details of Leonardo’s birth mother come to light. In 2002, Alessandro Vezzosi, Director of the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Vinci, Italy, told the press that they had found substantial evidence that Leonardo’s mother was a slave rather than a peasant girl, as previously believed.(1) Vezzosi continued to reported that Leonardo’s father was a craftsman who owned a Middle Eastern slave named Catherine. And, according to their discovery, a few months after Catherine gave birth to Leonardo, she married one of the workers.
Leonardo lived in Anchiana and Vinci until he was eight years old. Afterwards, he moved to Florence with his father. When Leonardo was 14, he was apprenticed to the famous sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. At that time, Verrocchio was the leading Florentine artist. By the time Leonardo was between 21 and 23 years old, he had become a very skilled painter. Verrocchio allowed Leonardo to help with an important painting, The Baptism of Christ (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Leonardo painted the background and the kneeling angel. It is said that when Verrocchio saw that Leonardo could paint better than anyone he had ever seen, including himself, he gave up painting forever. Verrocchio decided he would concentrate on sculpture.
Leonardo da Vinci was said to have a great love for animals, and his diaries further illustrate this. He was a vegetarian, at least in the latter part of his life (we have no clear evidence that he was a strict vegetarian in his early days). He wrote, “The time will come when people like me will look upon the killing of animals as they now look upon the killing of men.” He also said, “The Littlest Cat is a masterpiece.”
In the 1480s, Leonardo painted the Lady with Ermine. The lady in the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, the 17-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. She wears an ermine for three reasons. First, for the Duke of Milan, having been appointed to the Order of Ermine by Ferdinand I of Naples, the ermine was the heraldic symbol on his coat of arms. Second, the ermine was considered a symbol of virtue and purity. And finally, it was a play on Cecilia Gallerani’s name since the Greek name for ermine is “gallee”.
In Leonardo’s notebooks, he wrote that the ermine eats every other day. Most likely, the ermine, an animal related to the sable and the weasel, stayed in the studio while the painting was being completed. In the Renaissance period, soft-haired paintbrushes were made from the tips of ermine tails. Brushes were also made from squirrel fur and attached to goose or chicken feathers—another reason ermine could have been at home in the studio.
Leonardo da Vinci included cats in many of his sketches. On a sheet of animal sketches in his notebook, the artist portrayed more than twenty cats and a dragon. He drew cats in various poses, alone, with other cats, and hugging and holding. His sketches are vivid and reveal the solemn love he had for cats.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1470s, Leonardo worked on a series of different studies related to the subject of the Madonna and Child Christ, holding a cat. It was originally thought that no paintings existed beyond his initial studies of these paintings. Recently; however, the Madonna with the Cat, which is in the collection of industrialist Carlo Noya in Savona, Italy, was discovered to be a painting by none other than Leonardo. (2) The painting is based on a legend about a cat that was born at the same time as baby Jesus.
Other sketches for paintings that feature animals and are based on a legend or myth is that of Leda and the Swan. Although no actual paintings exist, there are countless drawings. The story is that Leda was seduced by the Lord Zeus in the form of a swan and gave birth to two eggs, which resulted in the creation of Helen of Troy with Clytemnestra and Castor with Pollux.
Although there are countless studies and sketches made by Leonardo, only 13 or 14 actual paintings exist today. One of them is the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, painted between 1508 and 1510. All the figures shown are related to each other and the baby Jesus is shown holding a small lamb tightly. Da Vinci painted the lamb with sensitivity and detail. The lamb is a symbol of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for mankind. Leonardo’s animal subjects are grounded in reality and filled with vitality.
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