Leonardo da Vinci was born in Tuscany, Italy in 1452.
He died in Amboise, France, in 1519 age sixty-seven probably of a stroke.
The world pays homage to him in a way it does not for his, arguably, equally gifted contemporaries. Is this because he was so much more than an artist? Leonardo was a visionary, his inventions and meticulously accurate anatomical drawings were centuries ahead of their time.
He would not be at all surprised by the current wave of adulation, he was famous in his own life-time. What is astonishing is that his reputation remains undimmed. He would be pleased with that. Very pleased. Leonardo was well aware of his worth.
As Aboisiens, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of our long dead, never to be forgotten neighbour, by posting some interesting facts about the man who many called The Master.
Our first fact is that Leonardo da Vinci invented pastels. The why, how and when behind this fact is fascinating. His invention came about because France invaded Italy in 1499.
Leonardo was artist in residence at the magnificent court of the Duke of Milan when Louis XII, King of France, took the city.
With Louis was his Court Painter, Jean Pérreal, known as Jean de Paris, a gifted portraitist. Conquerors want their conquests recorded for posterity.
Portraits done on the hoof need easily portable art materials. Oil paints and watercolours are not much use. They are fiddly and take too long to dry. Pérreal needed quick on the spot sketches to be worked into finished portraits when he got home.
He had the perfect medium for a travelling artist. Chalks. Just three. Black, white and red which looked good on his preferred medium of coloured paper. Chalks, easily blended and in his hands could achieve the painterly effects he needed for skin tones.
Astonishingly, chalks, used extensively in France for decades, were completely unknown in Italy.
The two court painters, Jean and Leonardo, met. We know this because in 1499 Leonardo wrote himself an aide memoire.
‘Get from Jean de Paris...the method of dry colouring...how to make coated sheets...learn the tempera of flesh tones, learn to dissolve gum lake’.
Leonardo da Vinci, leader of the Italian Renaissance, was reminding himself to learn a new technique from a French artist.
He was delighted with these new chalks but they presented a problem for him. Leonardo was notoriously fastidious. Chalks were messy. They smudged. The dust got on his clothes and his fingers.
Leonardo invented a recipe.
‘...[mix] the tempera with a little wax and it will not rub off, a wax that will dissolve with water...the distilled water will evaporate in steam and only the wax will remain...the colours must be ground on a hot stone’.
The hot stone was probably a pestle and mortar.
Hey Presto! Waxy chalks, now known as pastels.
Leonardo was so delighted with the results he abandoned his use of metal point.
The first time he used his invention was for Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile. This was initially dismissed as a fake because it was done in pastels instead of oils.
Read more about Leonardo da Vinci and his connection with the Loire Valley in Leonardo da Vinci: The Amboise Connection (available from Amazon).
The book was written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519 at Clos Lucé, Amboise, France where he spent the last three years of his life.
Post by Pamela
Pamela, a Graduate and Tutor in the History of Art, trained as a magazine journalist at the London College of Printing and has been a freelance writer for over twenty years. She has a passion for history and has published several books on various subjects. Click hear to see all of Pamela’s books.