Could This Be the Face of Leonardo da Vinci?

We each, I think, have an image in our head about Leonardo da Vinci, and for most of us, I think, that image is one of an older man with long hair and a wizened face. Something like this:

Chalk Self-Portrait by Leonardo da Vinci

About da Vinci, Wikipedia says “Portraits indicate that as an older man, he wore his hair long, at a time when most men wore it cropped short, or reaching to the shoulders. While most men were shaven or wore close-cropped beards, Leonardo’s beard flowed over his chest.” We read, too, of his strength, his dexterity, his genius as a true “Renaissance Man”.

When I posted the recent “Art Quiz” feature about Andrea del Verricchio — to whom da Vinci was apprenticed as a youth — I became curious. What did an apprentice to an artist do? How was da Vinci’s work shaped by Verricchio? I wanted to know more, so I began browsing a bit online. I found a lot of interesting information.

So much has been published about Leonardo da Vinci,  his life, and his famous works, that I won’t attempt to write out even a brief biography here. I will, however, share a few of the most interesting things I discovered, especially regarding his apprenticeship with del Verricchio.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit I came across was a very short video clip — 2 minutes — from Britannica:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Apprenticeship

It includes this information: “No portrait exists of the youthful Leonardo, but tradition has it that he posed for this bronze by Verrocchio.”

I don’t know about you, but I found it fascinating to think that I might be looking at a likeness of Leonardo da Vinci. Could this be? We’ll never know, really.

From the clip I also learned a bit about what his apprenticeship involved — careful studies of drapery, anatomy drawings, and, as was customary, assisting in the workshop. We can surmise that at the beginning of his apprenticeship — age 14 — he would likely have performed a number of menial tasks, and, in time, would probably have worked to prepare canvases and pigments for his master.

As was customary for apprentices, he would have then moved on to working on actual paintings to help del Verricchio. In examining Andrea del Verricchio’s works, historians find convincing evidence of da Vinci’s hand in many; in other instances, they see da Vinci’s influence but not his artistry, leading to the suggestion that Leonardo had perhaps made the initial sketches or planned the composition of a painting but had not done the actual painting.

In addition to art — drawing, painting, and sculpting — Leonardo was introduced to other technical skills, including leathercraft, metal-working, and carpentry. From all accounts he was a quick learner, intensely curious about the world around him, and a musically-inclined young man who loved to sing.

He served as an apprentice for nine years, from 1467 through 1476. During this time he was introduced to many influential people of Florence. His undeniable talent as an artist was quickly noted, of course, and there’s a story that his master, del Verricchio, gave up painting because he was so humbled by his pupil’s abilities. While it’s true that del Verricchio spent his later years working as a sculptor, the most likely reason is that his esteemed pupil was obviously capable of running the workshop, freeing del Verricchio to do what he most loved. Again, we’ll never really know.

In 1472, about the age of 19, Leonardo da Vinci was accepted into the painter’s guild in Florence. Even so, he remained as a student in del Verrocchio’s workshop for several more years before going out on his own.

Still curious, I wanted to know even more about the “apprentices” and “guilds” of the Renaissance period. I found this information from Encyclopedia.com:

During the Renaissance, art apprentices studied under the guidance of a master artist. They usually began their training between the ages of 12 and 14, and served for a period of between 1 and 8 years. Parents of apprentices signed a contract with the master that set out the terms of the training. A typical contract required the master to provide food, housing, and clothing as well as instruction. In some cases the parents paid the master a fee, while in others the apprentice received a salary from the master.

At first, local craft unions, or guilds, set standards for apprenticeship. The guilds decided matters such the length of contracts and the number of students a master could train. Some guilds would not allow pupils to switch masters during their apprenticeship or to sell their works independently. At the end of the apprenticeship students often had to show a piece of work to the guild to demonstrate that they had mastered their craft. This is the origin of the term masterpiece.

Artistic training varied from one master to another. In Italy, drawing was emphasized. A pupil might start by copying or tracing drawings and paintings before moving on to sketching live models. Students also learned to mix paints and to prepare walls and panels for painting. In addition, many apprentices studied techniques such as perspective and proportion.

For me, it’s been an interesting morning as I’ve browsed around online in search of Leonardo da Vinci, not the brilliant white-haired old man we revere as art students, but a hopeful young artist just starting off — with a few marks against him. He was an illegitimate child, was charged as a homosexual at one point, and was left-handed — often seen as an indication of criminal tendencies and demonic possession.

He was truly a one-of-a-kind figure, an artist of incomparable talent, a man who made an impact on the world. Yet he began as the son of a peasant woman, one of twelve children, in a time and place we can barely conceive today.

Whether or not the face of the bronze statue by del Verrocchio is truly that of Leonardo or not, no one will ever know for certain. But I want to believe it is. I want to hold this image in my mind and to think of da Vinci in his youth, filled with promise, setting off to make his mark on the world.

6 Comments

    1. Thanks! I really enjoyed browsing around and learning more about the young da Vinci, so I wanted to share. We always think of him as “the old master”, so I think it’s fascinating to imagine him in his youth.

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