Florence: Leonardo’s artistic and social background

Florence at the time of Leonardo’s youth was the centre of Christian Humanist thought and culture.  Leonardo commenced his apprenticeship with Verrocchio in 1466, the year that Verrocchio’s master, the great sculptor Donatello, died. The painter Uccello, whose early experiments with perspective were to influence the development of landscape painting, was a very old man. The painters Piero della Francesca and Filippo Lippi, sculptor Luca della Robbia, and architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti were in their sixties. The successful artists of the next generation were Leonardo’s teacher Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and the portrait sculptor Mino da Fiesole. The latter’s lifelike busts give the most reliable likenesses of Lorenzo Medici’s father Piero and uncle Giovanni. Leonardo’s youth was spent in a Florence that was ornamented by the works of these artists and by Donatello’s contemporaries, Masaccio, whose figurative frescoes were imbued with realism and emotion; and Ghiberti, whose Gates of Paradise, gleaming with gold leaf, displayed the art of combining complex figure compositions with detailed architectural backgrounds. Piero della Francesca had made a detailed study of perspective, and was the first painter to make a scientific study of light. These studies and Alberti’s treatise De Pictura were to have a profound effect on younger artists and in particular on Leonardo’s own observations and artworks. Massaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” depicting the naked and distraught Adam and Eve created a powerfully expressive image of the human form, cast into three dimensions by the use of light and shade, which was to be developed in the works of Leonardo in a way that was to be influential in the course of painting. The humanist influence of Donatello’s “David” can be seen in Leonardo’s late paintings, particularly John the Baptist.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne by Leonardo da Vinci

A prevalent tradition in Florence was the small altarpiece of the Virgin and Child. Many of these were created in tempera or glazed terracotta by the workshops of Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio and the prolific della Robbia family.[62]Leonardo’s early Madonnas such as The Madonna with a carnation and the Benois Madonna followed this tradition while showing idiosyncratic departures, particularly in the case of the Benois Madonna in which the Virgin is set at an oblique angle to the picture space with the Christ Child at the opposite angle. This compositional theme was to emerge in Leonardo’s later paintings such as The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.