Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

Date: 1912–1916

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Chapter XLIII Renaissance Artists



Leonardo da Vinci


Truly marvelous and celestial was Leonardo, the son of Pietro da Vinci. In learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have become highly proficient, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them. Thus, in arithmetic, during the few months that he studied it, he made so much progress, that, by continually suggesting doubts and difficulties to the master who was teaching him, he would very often bewilder him. He gave some little attention to music, and quickly resolved to learn to play the lyre, as one who had by nature a spirit most lofty and full of refinement; wherefore he sang divinely to that instrument, improvising upon it. Nevertheless, although he occupied himself with such a variety of things, he never ceased drawing and working in relief, pursuits which suited his fancy more than any other. Pietro, having observed this, and having considered the loftiness of his intellect, one day took some of his drawings and carried them to Andrea del Verrocchio, who was his friend, and besought him to tell him whether Leonardo, by devoting himself to drawing, would acquire any skill. Andrea was astonished to see the extraordinary drawing by Leonardo, and urged Pietro to let him study art; wherefore he arranged with Leonardo that he should enter the workshop of Andrea, which Leonardo did with the greatest willingness in the world.

Leonardo practiced not one branch of art only, but all those in which drawing played a part. . . . He not only worked in sculpture, making in his youth, in clay, some heads of women that are smiling, of which plaster casts are still taken, and likewise some masterly heads of boys, but in architecture, also, he made many drawings, both of ground-plans and of other designs of buildings. He was the first, although but a youth, who suggested the plan of reducing the river Arno to a navigable canal from Pisa to Florence. He made designs of flour mills, fulling-mills, and engines, which might be driven by the force of water; and since he wished that his profession should be painting, he studied much in drawing after nature. . . . He was continually making models and designs to show men how to remove mountains with ease, and how to bore them in order to pass from one level to another; and by means of levers, windlasses, and screws he showed the way to raise and draw great weights, together with methods for emptying harbors, and pumps for removing water from low places, things which his brain never ceased from devising. . . .

It is clear that Leonardo, through his comprehension of art, began many things and never finished one of them, since it seemed to him that the hand was not able to attain to the perfection of art in Carrying out the things which he imagined. . . . And so many were his caprices, that, philosophizing of natural things, he set himself to seek out the properties of herbs, going on even to observe the motions of the heavens, the path of the moon, and the courses of the sun. . . .

Leonardo painted in Milan, for the friars of St. Dominic, at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a Last Supper, a most beautiful and marvelous thing. To the heads of the apostles he gave such majesty and beauty that he left the head of Christ uncompleted, believing that he was unable to give it that divine air which is essential to the image of Christ. This work, remaining thus all but finished, has ever been held by the Milanese in the greatest veneration, and also by strangers as well; for Leonardo imagined and succeeded in expressing that anxiety which had seized the apostles in wishing to know who should betray their Master. For which reason in all their faces are seen love, fear, and wrath, or rather, sorrow, at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; which thing excites no less marvel than the sight, in contrast to it, of obstinacy, hatred, and treachery in Judas. Every least part of Leonardo’s picture displays an incredible diligence, seeing that even in the table-cloth the texture of the stuff is counterfeited in such a manner that linen itself could not seem more real. . . .

Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife; and after toiling over it for four years, he left it unfinished. The work is now in the collection of King Francis I of France, at Fontainebleau.1 In the head of Mona Lisa, whoever wished to see how closely art could imitate nature, was able to comprehend it with ease. . . . The eyes, one notes, had that luster and watery sheen which are always seen in life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints, as well as the lashes, which cannot be represented without the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty . . . could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth, with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh tints of the face, seemed to be not colors but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse. And, indeed, it may be said that the portrait was painted in such a manner as to make any other craftsman, be he who he may, tremble and lose heart. Leonardo made use, also, of this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he always employed, while he was painting her portrait, persons to play or sing, and jesters, who might make her merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to the portraits that they paint. And in this work of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold; and it was held to be something marvelous, since the reality was not more alive. . . .

1 , translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere. 10 vols. London, 1912–1916. Philip Lee Warner.

2 Vasari, Delle vile de più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed arckitettori, vol. iv, pp. 87–106.

1 This famous picture is now one of the treasures of the Louvre in Paris.

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Leonardo da Vinci

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Chicago: Gaston Du C. De Vere, trans., Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 457–459. Original Sources, accessed May 25, 2024,

MLA: . Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, translted by Gaston Du C. De Vere, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 457–459. Original Sources. 25 May. 2024.

Harvard: (trans.), Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.457–459. Original Sources, retrieved 25 May 2024, from