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Leonardo's Disasters
There is hardly an artist alive today that can't report from his or her past a work that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. I once tried painting kittens with a palette knife--not perhaps the best choice of method for such soft, fuzzy, cuddly little creatures. I don't know what ever happened to it and I don't much care. Even the greatest of artists have succumbed to similar misfortune. Michelangelo--his Tomb of Julius II; Leonardo da Vinci--his unfortunate mixed media experiment in the Last Supper; while one of Frank Lloyd Wright's clients was plagued by a leaky roof right over his seat in the dining room of his Wright-designed home. The architect told him to move his chair.

Actually, when it comes to Leonardo, genius that he was, his bravado often outpaced the technical limitations of his media. He went to Milan in 1482 to design and cast a bronze equestrian statue 23 feet tall--more than twice as large as anything ever attempted before. The problem was, he spent more time while there, directing extravagant entertainment productions, than building his horse. He was ten years, drawing, engineering, it, modelling it, even remodelling it. They even got as far as acquiring the nearly ten tones of bronze for it, only to have the model destroyed when Milan fell to French invaders in 1499. Leonardo fled for his life. But once back in Florence around 1505 there came an even greater disaster--The Battle of Anghiari.

Commissioned by the city fathers in direct competition with his upstart rival, Michelangelo, who was to paint the opposite wall in the council chamber, (a scene entitled The Battle of Cascina which was never executed), Leonardo was faced with a giant space and neither the experience nor the temperament to work in true fresco, the logical medium for such a commission. With the difficulties of the Last Supper still fresh in his mind, he fortunately eschewed oil on plaster and decided to try reviving the ancient Roman painting medium, encaustic. Leonardo was nothing if not ambitious. Basically the medium involves the melting of pigments into hot wax and had been traditionally done on small wooden panels. To facilitate his movement in front of the wall he invented an ingenious wheeled scaffolding that could be raised and lowered by workmen turning a large wooden screw in its criss-crossed legs. If only his genius had extended to a way to paint large-scale murals with hot wax without generating so much heat from his braziers so as to keep the finished portions of the painting from melting, he might have created a considerable masterpiece. As it was, ever the scientist, he discovered the law of physics that when heat rises, melting paint descends.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 January 1999


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