Leonardo da Vinci Paints Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Leonardo’s fresco The Last Supper marks the epitome of High Renaissance Italian painting. The work is renowned for its depiction of religious devotion, although it is said that Leonardo did not intend to paint a religious work primarily.

Summary of Event

Modern assessment and understanding of Leonardo da Vinci, the towering genius of the Renaissance, may be said to begin no earlier than the late nineteenth century, when scholars had ready access to almost five thousand pages of his notebooks. Last Supper, The (Leonardo da Vinci) Leonardo da Vinci Sforza, Ludovico Sforza, Lucovico Vasari, Giorgio Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo, born in a small town near Florence, was already eighteen when he was apprenticed to a painter in Florence. He soon surpassed his masters in uniting precision of line with rhythm of movement, and in finding new ways to show light and shade. At the same time he revealed his passion for scientific knowledge, which was in constant creative tension with his artistic leanings. Although he spent more and more of his energies on scientific observations, theorizing about and planning a multitude of architectural and engineering projects, few were ever completed. In the fine arts, his actual output was also small, and only about twelve paintings are recognized as authentic.

When he was about thirty years old he left Florence to work for the brilliant despot Ludovico Sforza in Milan. In an early letter to the duke seeking his patronage, Leonardo delineates his accomplishments in military engineering, but he does not mention music and mentions his ability as a painter only briefly near the end of his letter. Art patronage;Italy

At Milan, Leonardo planned and executed pageants, made studies for completing the cathedral and modernizing the city, and planned canals and irrigation projects. He spent much time designing a heroic equestrian statue for Sforza, and though even the model was a remarkable accomplishment, the work was not executed in the way he had planned. He also painted his first version of the famous Madonna of the Rocks Madonna of the Rocks (Leonardo da Vinci) (c. 1485), which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris, though his stay in Milan will always be remembered for The Last Supper, which he painted there between 1495 and 1497.

The Last Supper was commissioned by Sforza for the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria della Grazle. The novelist Matteo Bandello, a contemporary, related that Leonardo sometimes worked without interruption from sunrise to sunset, but at other times quietly contemplated the painting for an hour or two without touching a brush to it. At other times he would interrupt work elsewhere to mount the scaffolding in the monastery and “take up the brush and give one or two touches to one of the figures, and suddenly give up and go away again.” Leonardo’s notebook has one entry directly related to his Last Supper. Its laconic description of proposed models and poses again shows the dynamism and precision with which he conceived his work. Painting;Italy

Other sections of his notebook compare painting and music, which he regarded as “sisters.” Painting, however, was the higher art because music was more fluid, more dependent upon time, and less durable; similarly the sense of hearing in his opinion was less worthy than that of the eye because “as soon as harmony . . . is born, it dies.” Furthermore, he pointed out that music and poetry present their objects sequentially, whereas painting brings the object as a whole to the viewer and is therefore closer to nature.

Some idea of Leonardo’s concept of the “subtle possibilities” of painting can be gained by reflecting on his understanding of sight in its relationship to painting. He recognized ten attributes of sight: darkness and brightness, substance and color, form and place, remoteness and nearness, and movement and rest. Painting was concerned with all ten attributes, whereas sculpture was less intellectual because it could utilize only some of them. Page after page describes his attention to perspective, to the grouping of figures, and to anatomical details down to the physical attitude of a person when he is speaking. There are precise directions for copying figures by using a mirror to ensure accuracy. He always insisted on working from live models.

Unfortunately for the subsequent fate of The Last Supper, Leonardo experimented with various new paints, and by the latter part of the sixteenth century The Last Supper was ruined, although sketches remained. When the art historian Giorgio Vasari visited Milan in 1566, he reported that he found only a faint spot on the wall. In the 1580’, another observer referred to the painting as being “completely ruined.” It is indeed fortunate that modern techniques have restored it admirably.


The influence of The Last Supper can hardly be exaggerated. The work has become a standard reference for subsequent paintings on a central theme of Christian devotion. For Leonardo, paradoxically, it was not first and foremost a work of religious inspiration, as far as can be judged from his notebooks and from the facts of his career. His fascination was centered on the technical and artistic challenges offered by the commission. To the art historian, the significance of The Last Supper lies in its high degree of excellence in the techniques and the spirit of High Renaissance painting.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atalay, Bülent. Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004. This study of the relationships between science, art, mathematics, and nature treats Leonardo as a mathematician working out his ideas in art instead of numbers, or as an artist whose medium is fundamentally scientific. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Brambilla Barcilon, Pinin. Leonardo: The Last Supper. Translated by Harlow Tighe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. An incredibly detailed photographic documentation of every inch of The Last Supper, produced alongside the saga of its decay and restoration and interpretations of its meaning and importance. Includes more than two hundred pages of color illustrations, as well as bibliographic references and an index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1967. While Clark takes into account the diversity and complexity of his subject’s genius, his book focuses specifically on Leonardo as an artist. He judges The Last Supper to be “the climax of Leonardo’s career as a painter.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldscheider, Ludwig. Leonardo da Vinci. 7th ed. London: Phaidon Press, 1964. In addition to Goldscheider’s analysis of Leonardo’s career, this work includes the famous biography of Leonardo by Giorgio Vasari, originally published in 1568.
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    xlink:type="simple">Marani, Pietro C. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. A truly remarkable book, this text includes reproductions and scholarly analysis of all known paintings by da Vinci in loving detail, including double foldout reproductions of his frescoes, extreme close-ups of select details, and a host of sketches and works by Leonardo’s contemporaries. Also includes checklists of all extant paintings and all known lost paintings, an appendix of all known primary documents that refer directly to the artist’s life, extensive bibliography, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Parr, Adrian. Exploring the Work of Leonardo da Vinci Within the Context of Contemporary Philosophical Thought and Art. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. A reinterpretation of da Vinci’s aesthetic project from the point of view of modern and postmodern criticism, especially the work of Gilles Deleuze. Looks at the dynamics of identification and the impossibility of pure verisimilitude. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Richter, Irma A., ed. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. The notebooks are an indispensable source for reaching an understanding of Leonardo.
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    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Leo. Leonardo’s Incessant “Last Supper.” New York: Zone Books, 2001. A brilliant and thought-provoking study of The Last Supper by a leading scholar in the field, which denies that the painting is meant to freeze a moment in time, and instead shows the many ways in which it can be read in terms of sequence or duration.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, R., et al., eds. The World of Leonardo, 1452-1519. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966. Includes a brief but informative investigation through text and illustrations of the changing conceptions of The Last Supper as a subject of art from the sixth through the twentieth centuries.
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    xlink:type="simple">Zubov, V. P. Leonardo da Vinci. Translated by David H. Kraus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. An interpretive biography by a historian of science particularly concerned with Leonardo’s scientific and philosophical ideas.

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Categories: History