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kottke.org posts about Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Leonardo Overrated

Tyler Cowen asks Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated? and, in a rebuke to Betteridge, proceeds to answer “yes”.

He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them. The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading. Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.

So Leonardo was perhaps not the best at any one thing but he was very good or great at many different things. He is literally the quintessential “Renaissance man” and yet Cowen fails to evaluate him on that basis. Not surprising…history’s generalists are under-celebrated as a rule. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo in the next couple of weeks.

See also how the Mona Lisa became overrated.

Last remaining privately held Leonardo painting up for sale

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2017

Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Only fewer than 20 of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings are known to have survived until the present day. In 2005, a painting of Leonardo’s called Salvator Mundi was rediscovered after its provenance had been forgotten hundreds of years ago, to the point that it sold for £45 at an auction in 1958. In November, Christie’s auction house is selling the painting.

The painting disappeared from 1763 until 1900 when — its authorship by Leonardo, origins and illustrious royal history entirely forgotten — it was acquired from Sir Charles Robinson, who purchased the picture as a work by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, for the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond. By this time, Christ’s face and hair had been extensively repainted. A photograph taken in 1912 records the work’s altered appearance.

In the dispersal of the Cook Collection, the work was ultimately consigned to auction in 1958 where it fetched £45, after which it disappeared once again for nearly 50 years, emerging only in 2005 — its history still forgotten — when it was purchased from an American estate.

That estate sale in 2005 sold the painting for only $10,000…it was believed to be a Leonardo copy. The painting is estimated to sell at a price of $100 million but seeing how the last two sales netted $75 million and $127.5 million, it would be easy to see that going higher.

Update: New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz says that Salvator Mundi is probably fake (or at least not by Leonardo).

I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo. The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old. This explains why Christie’s pitches it with vague terms like “mysterious,” filled with “aura,” and something that “could go viral.” Go viral? As a poster, maybe. A two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.

Why else do I think this is a sham? Experts estimate that there are only 15 to 20 existing da Vinci paintings. Not a single one of them pictures a person straight on like this one. There is also not a single painting picturing an individual Jesus either. All of his paintings, even single portraits, depict figures in far more complex poses. Even the figure that comes remotely close to this painting, Saint John the Baptist, also from 1500, gives us a turning, young, randy-looking man with hair utterly different from and much more developed in terms of painting than the few curls Christie’s is raving about in their picture.

Update: Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million, “obliterating the previous world record for the most expensive work of art at auction”. On Twitter, Saltz called the buyer “a sucker” and posted an image of the painting with Trump’s face pasted on it. Buuuuuuuurn.

Browse the British Library’s online copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s 570-page notebook

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2017

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo's Notebook

Leonardo da Vinci was an avid taker of notes. Over the course of his working life, he filled thousands of pages with drawings, sketches, equations, and his distinctive mirrored handwriting. The British Library has one of Leonardo’s notebooks and has digitized and put all 570 pages of it online. It’s interesting to see all of the spare geometric line drawings and then every once in awhile there’s this wonderfully rendered 3D-shaded tiny masterpiece in the margin when more detail was required. (via open culture)

How the Mona Lisa became so overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2016

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is overrated. Why? For starters, the director of the Louvre said that 80% of the museum’s visitors are there just to see the Mona Lisa. 80%! We’re talking about one of the finest museums in the world, overflowing with some of the world’s greatest artworks, and people come to only see one thing. Overrated. The story of how that happened involves a passionate art critic and a crime.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Restoration of the Century

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2016

This is an hour-long documentary on the Louvre’s recent restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. It is also one of the most mysterious. Disfigured and even jeopardised by “repairs” and by the successive layers of varnish applied to it over the centuries, it was also in very bad condition. To save the painting, it had to be restored.

The spectacular operation, the likes of which occurs only once a century, took over three years to complete. The complex and outstanding restoration process provided a unique opportunity to get as close as possible to the painting, to how it was originally painted, and to better understand the complex relationship Leonardo da Vinci had with one of his finest masterpieces.

Restorations are fascinating. I only had time today for the first five minutes, but it hooked me enough that I’m going to go back to it tonight. (via @BoleTzar)

Leonardo da Vinci’s resume

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2014

When he was around 32 years old, Leonardo da Vinci applied to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, for a job. The duke was in need of military expertise and Leonardo’s 10-point CV emphasized his military engineering skills:

3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.

4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instil a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.

And I love what is almost an aside at the end of the list:

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.

Oh yeah, P.S., by the way, not that it matters, I am also the greatest living artist in the world, no big deal. Yr pal, Leo. (via farnam street and the letters of note book)

Did the Nazis steal the Mona Lisa?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2013

Per Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer to this is “no”, but it’s still an interesting yarn.

Among the many enduring mysteries of this period is the fate of the world’s most famous painting. It seems that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was among the paintings found in the Altaussee salt mine in the Austrian alps, which was converted by the Nazis into their secret stolen-art warehouse.

The painting only “seems” to have been found there because contradictory information has come down through history, and the Mona Lisa is not mentioned in any wartime document, Nazi or allied, as having been in the mine. Whether it may have been at Altaussee was a question only raised when scholars examined the postwar Special Operations Executive report on the activities of Austrian double agents working for the allies to secure the mine. This report states that the team “saved such priceless objects as the Louvre’s Mona Lisa”. A second document, from an Austrian museum near Altaussee dated 12 December 1945, states that “the Mona Lisa from Paris” was among “80 wagons of art and cultural objects from across Europe” taken into the mine.

The Mona Lisa was actually stolen in 1911, in one of the cleverest art heists ever pulled.

Younger version of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to go on display

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2012

The Swiss-based Mona Lisa Foundation is presenting an earlier version of the famed Leonardo da Vinci painting. According to one foundation member, “We have investigated this painting from every relevant angle and the accumulated information all points to it being an earlier version of the Giaconda in the Louvre.” Seems like a good excuse to listen to The Rolling Stones sing Mona (I Need You Baby).

Drawings of the LHC in the style of Leonardo da Vinci

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2012

Dr. Sergio Cittolin has worked at CERN for the past 30 years as a research physicist. He has also made several drawings of the Large Hadron Collider in the style of Leonardo da Vinci.

LHC da Vinci

LHC da Vinci

Symmetry magazine profiled Cittolin a few years ago.

As a naturalist, da Vinci probed, prodded, and tested his way to a deeper understanding of how organisms work and why, often dissecting his object of study with this aim. “I thought, why not present the idea of data analysis to the world within the naturalist world of Leonardo?” Cittolin says. In the drawing below, the CMS detector is the organism to be opened; the particles passing through it and the tracks they leave behind are organs exposed for further investigation.

Cittolin brings a sense of humor to his work. For example, after betting CMS colleague Ariella Cattai that he could produce a quality drawing for the cover of the CMS tracker technical proposal by a given deadline, he included in the drawing a secret message in mirror-image writing-which was also a favorite of da Vinci’s. The message jokingly demanded a particular reward for his hard work. The completed picture was delivered on time and within a few hours Cattai cleverly spotted and deciphered the message. She promptly presented him with the requested bottle of wine.

(via ★johnpavlus)

Early copy of Mona Lisa found

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2012

Mona Lisa

Restorers at the Prado Museum in Madrid, working on what they thought was a 16th or 17th century replica of the Mona Lisa, have discovered that the painting was actually done by a student of Leonardo’s at the same time as the original.

Museum experts are in the process of stripping away a cover of black over-paint which, when fully removed, will reveal the youthfulness of the subject they say. The final area of over-paint will come off in the next few days.

The original “Mona Lisa” hangs in the Louvre but the sitter looks older than her years as the varnish is cracked. The painting is so fragile that restoration or cleaning is deemed too risky. The Prado version, however, will show the sitter as she was: a young woman in her early 20s.

Leonardo da Vinci’s to-do list

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2011

While travelling, Leonardo kept a small notebook at the ready for notes and sketching. In one of these notebooks, he listed a number of things he wished to accomplish in one week or month in the late 1490s.

Leonardo to-do list

What a jumble! Cannons, wall construction, studying the sun, ice skating in Flanders, optics, and that oh-so-casual, “Draw Milan.” It’s like his mind could wander off in any direction at any time. How did he concentrate? How did he focus?

Maybe he went in and out, plunging into a task that concentrated him fully, and then, once done, he’d spring back to the rough and tumble of Anything Goes. Great minds can go as they please.

Another giant, Michel Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, wrote that no single idea could hold him. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he wrote. “It goes along, befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”

I like being drunk like that.

(via sly oyster)

A “new” Leonardo painting

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2011

Art scholars have authenticated a painting by Leonardo da Vinci that has been lost for centuries.

New Leonardo

Simon brought the panel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art about two years ago to have it examined by several curators and conservators. “It was brought in for inspection in the conservation studio,” said a person close to the Metropolitan who asked not to be identified. “The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned gray and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s resume

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2010

From the Codex Atlanticus, this is a letter that Leonardo da Vinci wrote in 1482 to the Duke of Milan advertising his services as a “skilled contriver of instruments of war”. From the translation:

6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

So, Leonardo was pretty much Q from the Bond films or Lucius Fox from Batman. But the artist was in there as well…at the bottom of his list, stuck in almost as an afterthought:

11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Update: If Leonardo was a programmer, his letter might have read something like this:

4. Again, I have kinds of functions; most convenient and easy to ftp; and with these I can spawn lots of data almost resembling a torrent; and with the download of these cause great terror to the competitor, to his great detriment and confusion.

(via @bloomsburypress)

The theft of the Mona Lisa

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2009

This is an odd little excerpt from Vanity Fair of a book about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and other art in Paris.

The shocking theft of the Mona Lisa, in August 1911, appeared to have been solved 28 months later, when the painting was recovered. In an excerpt from their new book, the authors suggest that the audacious heist concealed a perfect — and far more lucrative — crime.

Expecting new revelations, I read on but it was the same story told in previous books. Regardless, it’s a great story and worth the read but nothing new if you’ve heard it before.

Update: Someone’s doing a documentary. (thx, rakesh)

Mona Lisa, evolved

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath and all that but this would have blown his tiny mind: the Mona Lisa “painted” using just 50 semi-transparent polygons. (via waxy)

Why does the woman depicted in the

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2008

Why does the woman depicted in the Mona Lisa appear to be both smiling and not smiling at the same time? The smile part of the Mona Lisa’s face was painted by Leonardo in low spatial frequencies. This means that when you look right at her mouth, there’s no smile. But if you look at her eyes or elsewhere in the portrait, your peripheral vision picks up the smile. (via collision detection)

myDaVinci takes your photo and pastes your

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2006

myDaVinci takes your photo and pastes your face onto the Mona Lisa. Not a fan of Leonardo? Try being the Girl with a Pearl Earring or American Gothic. (via ais)

Two Da Vincis long held in private

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2005

Two Da Vincis long held in private collections to go on public display for the first time.

Da Vinci scholar may have found a

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2005

Da Vinci scholar may have found a long lost Da Vinci fresco.