See Part One for Leonardo’s early years in Vinci.
Showing early signs of being a fine painter, Leonardo moved to Florence with his father when he was fourteen and was apprenticed to master painter Verrocchio (only a couple of blocks from the stunning cathedral).
In those days, the apprentices worked as a team on many of the commissioned works though tradition dictated that all were credited to the workshop master. Hence the difficulty today in assigning who actually painted various paintings. It is well documented that Leonardo painted the angel in the lower left of Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ (pictured) with most considering it the finest part of the painting (it is hung in the nearby Uffizi). Stories abound that Verrocchio never painted again and turned solely to sculpture.
Early on, Leonardo pioneered subtle shading and smudging techniques called sfumato to create subtle differences in tone and mood which is apparent in all his works.
As it is today, Florence was an elegant cultural city becoming the ultimate Renaissance City. While the buildings have obviously changed and the city walls gone, the general panorama of Florence is little changed with its grand cathedral (duomo), main piazza and stately Ponte Vecchio already built by the time Leonardo moved there in 1466. Note Vasari’s painting of Florence from 1460 (top photo) and contrast it with the wonderful and recommended panoramic view from Piazzale Michelangelo. As with Paris, the city centre has been spared from tall modern buildings with architectural integrity being maintained so well.
The relationship to art is well noted with statues and artworks all over the city in the main squares along with a number of world class galleries. To imagine that Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, a remarkable trinity of renaissance painters all spent overlapping time in Florence, leaving a cultural influence that remains bedded into the fabric of this city to this very day.
A few years later, Leonardo set out by himself (aged 25) but struggled to find much work with competition fierce between the painters serving the elite and wealthy citizens. His lifetime habit of being both a perfectionist and procrastinator left him with a nasty early reputation of being unreliable and not completing work.
Leonardo must have seemed an odd person to his fellow workers. He was left-handed (seen as the work of the devil by many), homosexual (evidently not as unusual in Florence, but illegal and strongly disliked in the highly influential church) and a vegetarian (very rare) on compassionate grounds.
Not being as well known, sadly little remains of Leonardo’s time in Florence apart from a handful of his fine paintings that are on view in the incomparable Uffizi Gallery (a public gallery since 1591!). These include The Adoration of the Magi (one of several unfinished paintings) and The Anunciation. An occasional habit of painters of the time was to include self-portraits with speculation that the young man on the far right looking outwards is a youthful Leonardo.
His finest times were to come as he moved to Milan under the sponsorship of the Duke of Milan. Part Three takes up Leonardo’s life in Milan.