Mystery, genius, and beauty–to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Musement takes a look at some curiosities found in the works of the Renaissance Genius.
Everyone knows Leonardo da Vinci: everyone has heard of him, many have studied his work while others have read up on him for personal interest. His timeless genius and incredible art coupled with the aura of mystery that often surrounds it constantly only adds to the intrigue of this extraordinary character.
2019 marks an important event: the 500th anniversary of his death, and, being headquartered in Milan, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge it. We have already discussed the curiosities of one of Leonardo’s great masterpieces, “The Last Supper”, yet milestones warrant celebration, so we have created an interactive map where you can discover curiosities and places that shelter 24 of Leonardo’s works.
Below, you’ll find secrets, curiosities and interesting anecdotes about five of these works.
1. An angel with bird wings: the Annunciation
Leonardo painted “The Annunciation”, one of his earliest works, while working in Verrocchio’s workshop. For centuries, critics have been uncertain whether to attribute to him the patronage of this work. The many curious elements include the white flowers that the angel gives to Mary, a symbol of her purity, to the strange angle of the Virgin’s arms. But the angel’s wings summon one’s attention: in the Middle Ages, angels were represented with peacock wings, which symbolized immortality because their flesh was believed incorruptible. Leonardo chose to depart from tradition and designed bird wings for Gabriel which were subsequently extended by another artist to make them more similar – at least in size – to those of a peacock.
2. “The Lady with an Ermine”, the Milanese socialite
Cecilia Gallerani was one of history’s first ‘It Girls’: not only did the young Milanese socialite enjoy the privilege of having the great Leonardo paint her portrait, but the painting also offers a glimpse of the fashions of her time. Her double-wrapped black pearl necklace is her only accessory and her “Spanish style” hair revisited according to Milanese style standards: a crop with a part in the middle and a braid tucked in the back, all under a sheer veil. A lock of hair passes under the chin, presumably on both cheeks, to frame her face.
3. The Head of a Woman in 1998
This sketch made a cameo in the 1998 film, ‘Ever After: A Cinderella Story’, an unusual film adaptation of Perrault’s fairy tale. Drew Barrymore plays Danielle de Barbarac/Cinderella, in the service of a wicked Anjelica Huston, and the ‘Fairy Godfather’ who intervenes to save the day is none other than Maestro da Vinci. In the film, Leonardo is a guest at the French court and while testing one of his brilliant inventions he meets Danielle. He is fascinated by her strength of mind, acute intelligence and endless culture, and not only does he try to convince the Prince to look beyond the girl’s humble condition, but he also helps her attend the ball, taking care of her wardrobe and helping her escape from the house where her stepmother holds her prisoner. During the happy ending, he gifts Danielle with a portrait of herself: The Head of a Woman–with some tiny difference from the original as it was supposed to be as similar as possible to Drew Barrymore.
4. The Devil’s Lawyers: The Theft of Madonna of the Spindles of the Spindles
This work carries an element of intrigue worthy of an addictively page-turning mystery novel. The “Madonna dei Fusi” belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch, who was so fond of it that he is said to have taken it with him from castle to castle. The painting, however, was stolen in 2003 from the Castle of Drumlanrig right under the nose of the Duke by a couple of thieves from New Zealand posing as on-duty police officers. Of course, the Duke did everything possible to find the painting and hired private elite investigators, but for years no one was able to bring the work home. In 2007, a lawyer called one of the Duke’s investigators claiming to know the location of the painting and promising its return. In an operation involving undercover agents and special anti-crime teams that led to the arrest of four people, including some lawyers from some of Scotland’s most renowned law firms, the painting was recovered. Unfortunately, its rightful owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, never got to see his precious treasure again–he died one month before it was found.
5. Jesus, John the Baptist and the Cult of the Sun in the Virgin of the Rocks
The “Virgin of the Rocks”, along with the “Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa”, has most sparked the imagination and speculation of critics, researchers, writers, and mystery enthusiasts as it is said that the Christian patina conceals an esoteric mystery. The “Virgin of the Rocks” was commissioned to Leonardo in 1483 by the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and included a composition different from what is visible today: it was meant to have been the central panel of a triptych to represent Madonna in the presence of God together with a group of angels. Why did Leonardo deviate so much from the intended subject? There are some theories out there. According to some, Da Vinci set the scene in the cave of St. John the Baptist in Laorca, a place above Lecco that the Celtic people visited in ancient times to visit a fertility seat pointed towards the rising sun. This particular combined with the position of Jesus and John the Baptist have led some to believe that Leonardo’s will was to represent two moments of the solar cycle, fundamental, among other things, in many pagan cults. The Confraternity did not accept this work and Leonardo was forced to paint another painting.