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The Italian Renaissance: Leonardo Da Vinci Essay

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Updated: Feb 23rd, 2022


The renaissance was a period in history where Europe underwent a rebirth in its perception of art. It marked the transformation of the continent from the middle ages to the modern era. The renaissance was the starting point for the development of concepts such as individualism, secularism as well as capitalism. In art, most works were associated with geometric representations of the natural world.

However, some scholars are quick to warn others about the dangers of bracketing all artists in the renaissance into one similar group because some individuals do not fit neatly into these patterns. While other Italian artists may fall outside conventional understandings of art in the renaissance, Leonardo de Vinci does not; his work exemplifies this radical transformation in the representation of images and forms on various media.

Distinct features of the renaissance

Renaissance art was known for its focus on personalities, attitudes or emotions rather than just the outlines or forms of the images being represented. Artists were able to capture emotion even in sculptures, especially the unsupported nude (Maginnis 14). Most of their forms had great emotional intensity and thus appeared more natural.

This was also a time when paintings or drawings became more realistic than they had ever been before (Saari & Saari 44). Most of the artists who achieved this goal utilised the concept of perspective in their work. They made their two-dimensional representations seem very similar to three-dimensional figures.

The ability to manipulate light and darkness in renaissance work also made artistic quite authentic (Jurdjevic 250). These artists knew how to work with tone and they would play with contrast in a manner that achieved their desired goal.

As stated earlier, the renaissance was a time in history when Europe started experiencing elements of secularism (Hay 130). In the period before the renaissance, most artists were intent on promoting religious devotion through their work. However, in the renaissance era, artists started doing some mythological representations and focused on subjects outside of religion. It should be noted that the extent to which this occurred was rather small. However, secular paintings were still a reality (Hart & Wilkins 23).

Lastly, the renaissance was also associated with the accurate representation of images and forms in space. This was manifested through effective use of motion. Images in this era, therefore, focused on correctness and logic rather than unscientific work (Macdonald 9).

Leonardo’s techniques and contribution to the renaissance

Leonardo is best known for his superior use of light and shade in his artistic work. This was a concept that made his paintings more realistic and came to be a distinct feature of the renaissance period. As such, Da Vinci was a true renaissance artist. A typical case of how he used light and shade wistfully was his painting of ‘Virgin and Child with a Cat’. In this artwork, Leonardo was able to capture the mass of his subjects through effective use of light and shade (Van Cleave 86).

Leonardo mastered this technique by analysing his life-sized sculptures. They often replicated the manner in which light and shade fell on real human subjects. It was this ability to transform such abstract concepts, such as light and reflection, to artistic works that made Leonardo highly valued in the renaissance.

O’Connor (50) explains that Leonardo’s ability to manipulate light and darkness stemmed from his intense study of optics. The artist wanted to learn more about the phenomenon of light transmission. He, therefore, used science in order to accomplish his artistic goals. At the time, the individual focused on using real human eyes to study light. He obtained eyes from medical colleagues and discovered a way of hardening different layers of the eye.

He then came up with theories on how light was reflected by the different components. Although these concepts seemed far-fetched at the time, and most medical scientists rejected his ideas, Da Vinci’s theories proved to be quite practical for his designs as well as his artistic work (McHam 53).

He found out that light travels in waves and that the eye worked as a lens. Such ideas assisted him in accurately representing his paintings. The comprehensive scientific work done by Da Vinci exemplifies the need to focus on scientific representation of form. Leonardo was a true renaissance artist because he strived for correct representation of form through scientific mechanisms.

Geometric calculations and intense preparations were famous methods used by renaissance artists to increase the accuracy their work, and Da Vinci was no exception (Kavaler 16). When Leonardo lived in Milan, his ruler had talked about the desire to make a bronze horse with a rider on it. When Leonardo heard about this interest, he took it upon himself to research about the item intensely. He learnt a lot about bronze casting and then observed horses at rest, racing horses as well as prancing horses.

He disentangled various components of the horse’s body part and worked on them independently. Thereafter, Da Vinci was commissioned with the job, and he created a clay model of a horse and its rider. The model was quite huge and profoundly detailed. Leonardo worked out a way of determining how much bronze he would need to cover the clay model from top to bottom. Once again, he relied on scientific methods of measurements and dimension.

The clay mould was never transformed into a bronze statue because Italy diverted its bronze elements for use in making weapons (O’Connor 55). However, the intense and meticulous preparation of the artist is a depiction of his renaissance leanings. He always wanted to make his sculptures and paintings as accurate as possible, and to do this well, then scientific or geometric methods came in handy (Langley 92).

Leonardo often created pieces that captured emotions effectively and seemed magical in the way they represented the human form. A case in point is the Mona Lisa, which is, arguably, the most famous painting ever made by a renaissance artist. Art lovers and critics alike still remain fascinated by the image of the ‘Mona Lisa’. People have imitated and reproduced the ‘Mona Lisa’ in an attempt to demystify this creation.

The same thing may be said about his portraits of beautiful women such as ‘Cecilia Gallarani’. There was a high degree of depth in these pieces because the women were not just beautiful; they had a contemplative and pensive countenance. Da Vinci superbly captured these qualities in his work and thus exemplified the renaissance tendency to portray human emotion so well.

The women in these portraits appeared to have something to hide. However, instead of revealing to the audience what the model was concealing, Da Vinci preferred to show the concealment in order to allow audiences to speculate about those missing components for themselves.

Da Vinci was also widely reputed for his ability to capture movement and mass with subtlety. In the portrait “Virgin of the rocks” the artist had a way of moving from shapes to tones without demonstration of any sort of contours in his pieces. The delicateness of the features in this painting, and many others was evidence of the fact that Leonardo had a deep-seated ability to smoothly transition between forms.

Da Vinci’s promienence as a renaissance artist also stemmed from his capacity to coordinate attitude and the human anatomy perfectly. The artist knew how to demonstrate position and motion in the human body by relating it to the physique of the subject (Keele 366). As a result, his paintings were quite natural.

Many armature contemporaries did not understand this relationship. Consequently, most of them did not change the way muscles looked in different parts of the body, such as the arms, stomach, as well as the back. Their images always seemed to lack adequate emotion. Leonardo explained that it was essential to match attitude with the position of the subject (Kemp and Wallae 87).

To achieve this, one must consider some possible thoughts of the concerned models. Da Vinci often thought about mutes who solely rely on motion in their eyes, back, and feet in order to express what they think about. Alternatively Da Vinci knew how to match the age of the subject with the nature of the attitude that they had.

For instance, Leonardo proposed that when drawing an old man, in the standing position, one must refrain from spreading his legs too wide (Keele 366). Additionally, various muscles and body parts must be used to echo this position. For instance, the person should have bent knees and he ought to have straddled feet. A crooked back would be appropriate as well as stooping shoulders. It would also be fitting for the old person to wear a dull and sluggish look (Richter 101).

This attention to details revolving around the human anatomy made Da Vinci’s work come to life. It alludes to the propensity for the use of science in his work. The artist understood the clinical asymmetry of the human body. He knew that the neck area, hip area and shoulders often exhibit the greatest variability in motion.

As result, it was necessary to alter these traits in order to meet his objectives. Leonardo thought of the human body as some sort of moving machine (Keele 368). Consequently, he was right to assert that the body was governed by mechanical laws. These concepts were indeed revolutionary because medical scientists did not understand them at the time.

Nonetheless, they explained why Da Vinci captured attitude so effortlessly in his work. It is this combination of scientific techniques to achieve true representation that makes him an exemplary renaissance case (Gelb 99).

Leonardo’s weaknesses and distinctness from other renaissance artists

While Leonardo was one of the most influential figures in the renaissance, some of his work was wanting because of his artistic temperament. The individual rarely focused on one thing at a time. He was fascinated by all he saw, and wanted to figure out how things worked. The problem with this attitude was that Leonardo often got bored with certain projects. He would start working on a piece of art and leave it half way (Van Cleave 86).

Furthermore, sometimes he focused so much on experimenting that it often got in the way of actual artistic work. A case in point was the painting of the “Battle of Aughiari”. Leonardo was experimenting with new techniques of paint application. Although the work had initially been appealing, this changed dramatically owing to deterioration of the paint quality (Van Cleave 86), (Welch 64).

Consequently, Da Vinci’s propensity for experimentation sometimes harmed his work. Beckett (5) explains that Da Vinci’s many talents caused him to place too much importance on other fields and thus treat his artistry lightly.

To a certain extent, many experts have come to associate the renaissance period with fresco painting. It was a method that renaissance artists preferred because not only was it a cheaper way of creating artistic pieces, but it also lasted longer than cloth, which was the form that inspired fresco painters (Lopez 204). The method required a lot if investment in artistic skill even though one did not need to use a lot of labour for the same.

As a result, artists had to be careful about the way the work was done. One must prepare a wall surface and then create the right scaffolding. Artists needed to consider the weather when making fresco paintings. If they exposed their painting to wet or cold weather, then this would cause the plaster to remain wet. Alternatively, if a painter did fresco painting when it was dry, then chances are that a part of the painting would dry before completing it.

Some artists looked for creative ways of dealing with the problem by combining oil and tempera (Welch 66). Da Vinci used his own approach to fresco painting by using with oil, although this did not work. It is likely that his divided attention may have led to the problem. Currently, images of paintings that he made with this technique were disastrous because he did not give the method the time that it needed to develop the right approach.

Leonardo was exceptional because he represented how artists could meet the objective of the renaissance era. The unique depictions of the human form could not be easily replicated by other artists. Many of the painters, who tried, only succeeded in imitating one or two elements of Leonardo’s work but never the entire piece (Turner 60).

In this regard, one can assert that Leonardo’s influence stood apart from what other renowned artists had accomplished in the renaissance. Therefore, one can argue that Leonardo stood apart from others as an artist and this reduced his influence in the era.

The subject matter of most of Da Vinci’s paintings was religious and traditional. In most circumstances he dwelt on angels and ordinary people. Therefore, one can assert that there were minimal secular themes in Da Vinci’s work. In this regard, he did not advance secularism as was the case for certain renaissance artists (Burke 15).


Leonardo was an exemplary renaissance artist owing to his focus on accurately presenting images on two dimensional media. He used geometric and scientific methods to achieve this. Da Vinci also balanced light and darkness just like other renaissance artists. Leonardo captured the emotion and attitudes of his subject as was expected in the renaissance. In this regard, he was an exemplary artist. Some deviations from such expectations do not change this fact.

Works Cited

Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

Beckett, Wendy. Leonardo Da Vinci 2010. Web..

Gelb, Michael. How to Think Like Leonardo: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. 1998. Print.

Hartt, Frederick and Wilkins, David. History of Italian Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. Print.

Hay, Denys. The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Print.

Jurdjevic, Mark. “Hedgehogs and Foxes: The Present and Future of Italian Renaissance Intellectual History. “ Past & Present 195(2007): 241-268. Print.

Kavaler, Ethan. “Renaissance Gothic: Pictures of Geometry and Narratives of Ornament.” Art History 29.1(2006): 1-46.

Keele, Kenneth. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Infleunce on Renaissance Anatomy n.d. Web.

Kemp, Martin & Wallae Marina. Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. Print.

Langley, Andrew. Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. Philadelphia, Pa.: Running Press, 2001. Print.

Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970. Print.

Macdonald, Fiona. The World in the Time of Leonardo da Vinci. Parsippany, N.J: Dillon Press, 1998. Print.

Maginnis, Hayden. Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation, Oxford: OUP, 1997. Print.

McHam, Sarah. Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Print.

O’Connor, Barbara. Leonardo Da Vinci: Renaissance Genius. MN: Carolhoda Books, 2003. Print.

Richter, Irma. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Saari, Peggy & Saari, Aaron. Julie Carnagie, project: Renaissance & Reformation, Primary Sources. Detroit :UXL, 2002. Print.

Turner, Jane. Encyclopaedia of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist Art. Chicago: Doubleday, 2000. Print.

Van Cleave, Claire. Master Drawings of the Italian Renaissance. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Welch Evelyne. Art in Renaissance Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

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