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Leonardo Da Vinci – Leonardo’s Animals Part 1 of 2

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1492 in 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 named Caterina who worked for him. After the birth of Leonardo, father and mother did not stay together. Only recently have details about the birth of Leonardo’s mother come 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 state that Leonardo’s father was a craftsman who had a Middle Eastern slave named Katerina. And, according to their discovery, a few months after Katerina gave birth to Leonardo, she married one of the workers.

Leonardo lived in Angiana and Vinci until he was eight years old. He then moved to Florence with his father. When Leonardo was 14, he was apprenticed to the famous sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. At that time, Verrocchio was the leading artist in Florence. By the time Leonardo was between 21 and 23 years old, he had become a very skilled 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 he had ever seen, including himself, he gave up painting for good. Verrocchio decided that he would concentrate on sculpture.

Leonardo da Vinci is said to have had a great love for animals and his diaries further show this. He was a vegetarian, at least in the latter part of his life (we have no definite proof that he was a strict vegetarian in his early life). He wrote, “The time will come when people like me will look upon the killing of animals as they now look upon the killing of men.” He also remarked, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”

In the 1480s, Leonardo painted Lady With The Ermine. The lady in the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, the 17-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. He wears 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 heraldic symbol on his coat of arms. Second, the ermine was considered a symbol of virtue and purity. And finally, it was a play on Cecilia Gallerani’s name since the Greek name for 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 samarium and weasel, stayed in the studio while the painting was being completed. In the Renaissance period, brushes with soft hair were made from ermine tail tips. Brushes were also made from squirrel fur and attached to goose or hen feathers—another reason 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 more than twenty cats and a dragon. Draw cats in different poses, alone, with other cats, and being hugged and held. His sketches are lively and reveal the solemn affection he had for felines.

From the mid to late 1470s, Leonardo worked on a number of different studies on the subject of the Madonna and Christ Child, holding a cat. It was originally thought that there were no paintings beyond his original studies of these paintings. Recently; However, Madonna with the Cat, which is in the collection of the 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 a cat born in the at the same time as the baby Jesus.

Other sketches for paintings featuring animals and based on legend or myth are that of Leda and the Swan. Although there are no actual paintings, there are countless designs. The story is that Leda was seduced by the god Zeus in the form of a swan and laid two eggs, resulting in 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 Madonna and Child with St. Anne, painted between 1508 and 1510. The figures depicted are all related to each other and the baby Jesus appears to be holding a small lamb tightly. Da Vinci painted the lamb with sensitivity and detail. The lamb is a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death for mankind. Leonardo’s animal subjects are grounded in reality and full of life.

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