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Leonardo Da Vinci – Leonardo’s Animals Part 1 of 2
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1492 on a Tuscan farmhouse in Anchiano, Italy, near the town of Vinci where he spent most of his childhood. He was the son of Ser Piero and a girl called Caterina who worked for him. After Leonardo was born, father and mother did not stay together. It was only recently that details about Leonardo’s birth mother came to light. In 2002, Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Vinci, Italy, told the press that they had found substantial evidence that Leonardo’s mother was a slave and not a peasant, as previously believed. (1) Vezzosi went on to report that Leonardo’s father was an artisan who owned a slave from the Middle East named Caterina. And, according to their discovery, a few months after Caterina gave birth to Leonardo, she was married to one of the workers.
Leonardo lived in Anchiana and Vinci until he was eight years old. Subsequently, he moved to Florence with his father. At the age of 14, Leonardo became an apprentice with the famous sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. At that time, Verrocchio was the main Florentine artist. By the time Leonardo was between 21 and 23 years old, he had become a very gifted painter. Verrocchio allowed Leonardo to help with an important painting, The Baptism of Christ (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Leonardo painted the background and the kneeling angel. It is said that when Verrocchio saw that Leonardo could paint better than anyone, including himself, he gave up painting for good. Verrocchio decided to focus on sculpture.
Leonardo da Vinci was said to have a great love for animals, and his diaries further illustrate this. He was a vegetarian, at least in the latter part of his life (we have no definitive proof that he was a strict vegetarian in his early life). He wrote: “The time will come when such men as I will regard the killing of animals as they now regard the killing of men.” He also remarked, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
In the 1480s, Leonardo painted Lady with an Ermine. The Lady in the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, the 17-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. She wears an ermine for three reasons. First, for the Duke of Milan, having been appointed to the Order of the Ermine by Ferdinand I of Naples, the ermine was the symbol of heraldry on his coat of arms. Second, the ermine was considered a symbol of virtue and purity. And finally, it was a play on the name of Cecilia Gallerani since the Greek name for the ermine is “galee”.
In Leonardo’s notebooks he wrote that the ermine eats every other day. Most likely, the ermine, an animal related to the sable and the weasel, remained in the studio while the painting was being completed. During the Renaissance, brushes with soft bristles were made of ermine tail tips. Brushes were also made from squirrel fur and attached to goose or hen feathers – another reason the ermine might have been at home in the studio.
Leonardo da Vinci included cats in many of his sketches. On a sheet of animal sketches in his notebook, the artist depicted over twenty cats and a dragon. He drew cats in different poses, alone, with other cats, cuddled and held. His sketches are lively and reveal the solemn affection he had for felines.
In the mid to late 1470s, Leonardo worked on a series of different studies on the subject of the Virgin and Child Jesus, holding a cat. It was originally thought that no painting existed beyond his initial studies for these paintings. Recently; however, Madonna with the Cat, which is in the collection of industrialist Carlo Noya in Savona, Italy, was discovered to be a painting by none other than Leonardo.(2) The painting is based on a legend about the birth of a cat at the same time as the child Jesus.
Other sketches of paintings depicting animals and based on legend or myth are those of Leda and the Swan. Although there are no actual paintings, there are countless drawings. The story is that Leda was seduced by the god Zeus in the form of a swan and carried two eggs, resulting in the creation of Helen of Troy with Clytemnestra and Castor with Pollux.
Although there are countless studies and sketches made by Leonardo, only 13 or 14 actual paintings exist today. One of them is the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, painted from 1508 to 1510. The figures depicted are all related to each other, and the child Jesus is shown firmly holding a little lamb. Da Vinci painted the lamb with sensitivity and detail. The lamb is the symbol of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for mankind. Leonardo’s animal subjects are based on reality and are filled with vitality.
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