Leonardo’s Earliest Surviving Drawing — the Emergence of Landscape in Art

Landscape of the Arno Valley (1473) by Leonardo da Vinci — earliest surviving drawing by the artist

The date is 5 August 1473 and a young aspiring artist, aged 21, decided to draw the beautiful Tuscan landscape in front of him. A native of a small town outside the small village of Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock and apprenticed to Florentine sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio (‘Andrea of the True Eye’). Apprenticed in his teens, Leonardo now honed his skill as the junior partner in Verrocchio’s studio — Verrocchio preferred sculpture and has handed the painting portion of the workshop to be handled by Leonardo. Leonardo had clearly done much before putting pen to paper to draw the landscape in front of him on that summer day in 1473. However, the drawing that would result would become a landmark in the history of art — the first time that a landscape would be a central subject for an artist.

The landscape as a work of art really began with this drawing, though there was a notable antecedent which should not go unmentioned. Seven decades previously, a French nobleman — the Duc de Berry — commissioned three extraordinary Dutch painters to create a series of prayer books, called books of hours, with some of the greatest manuscript illuminations of all time. These painters were Herman, Paul, and Johan van Limbourg. Their masterpiece was the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416), one of about fifteen illustrated prayer books for the royal art collector. The Duc de Berry was brother to the king of France and had plenty of money to spend on such luxury objects.

illustration for the June page of Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416) by the Limbourg Brothers

Okay, so landscape is not exactly the main focus in the work of the Limbourg Brothers, but it plays an increasingly important role than the mere symbolism and background of medieval images from previous centuries. Leonardo da Vinci likely never saw the work of the Limbourg Brothers. However, the increasing focus on landscape emerged in artistic tastes as Europe transitioned from medieval to renaissance.

In 1473, Leonardo decided to draw the area he was familiar with since childhood — the Arno River valley. Unlike the work of the Limbourg Brothers, people are absent from this drawing. Also unlike the Limbourg Brothers, Leonardo da Vinci mastered the use of perspective. Leonardo had also mastered the use of gesture lines — the clearest example of this is in the way he drew the trees and shading of the mountains in the background. Leonardo’s quick sketch, dated precisely to 5 August 1473, makes this the earliest dated picture in Leonardo’s entire body of works. It also marks the first time when the artist focused his mind on the natural world as the subject for a work of art, even a modest drawing. Leonardo came of age at a time when paper was increasingly available, allowing for greater experimentation. One could use lots of paper for relatively little money, compared to the much more expensive and limited supply of vellum used in previous centuries.

In recent years, the drawing (now at the Uffizi Museum in Florence) has been essential in revealing more about its creator. A study of the handwriting proves that Leonardo da Vinci was ambidextrous, not simply left-handed.

“The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature” -Leonardo da Vinci, from his Notebooks

Self-Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c.1512)

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