Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

France 1952. Leonardo da Vinci. Self-portrait.

France 1952.  Self Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci

Back to Renaissance

German Democratic Republic 1990. Leonardo da Vinci. Self-portrait.

GDR 1990. Self Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci was a Florentine artist, one of the great masters of the High Renaissance, celebrated as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist. His profound love of knowledge and research was the keynote of both his artistic and scientific endeavours. His innovations in the field of painting influenced the course of Italian art for more than a century after his death, and his scientific studies -- particularly in the fields of anatomy, optics, and hydraulics -- anticipated many of the developments of modern science. 

Monaco 1969. Leonardo da Viinci. Set of six stamps, showing drawings and studies of various works.

Early Life in Florence
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the small town of Vinci, near Florence, in Tuscany. He was the son of a wealthy Florentine notary and a peasant woman. 
In the mid-1460s the family settled in Florence, where Leonardo was given the best education that Florence, a major intellectual and artistic center of Italy, could offer. He rapidly advanced socially and intellectually. 

He was handsome, persuasive in conversation, and a fine musician and improviser. In about 1466 he was apprenticed as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. In Verrocchio’s workshop Leonardo was introduced to many activities, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in marble and bronze. 

Latvia 1932. Leonardo da Vinci. Semi-postal air mail stamps, issued for the benefit of wounded Latvian aviators.

In 1478 Leonardo became an independent master. His first commission, to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was never executed. His first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), begun in 1481 and left unfinished, was ordered for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the so-called Benois Madonna (c. 1478, Hermitage, St Petersburg), the portrait Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), and the unfinished St Jerome (c. 1481, Pinacoteca, Vatican). 

USSR 1971. Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Benois. Quaiti State in Hadhramaut 19y7. Leonardo da Vinci. Souvenir sheet showing Ginevra de' Benci. Poland 1956. Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with Ermine.

Years in Milan
In about 1482 Leonardo entered the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, having written the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armoured vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay.  Among the paintings from this period are:

Albania 1969. Leonardo da Vinci. Self-portrait.            Albania 1969. Leonardo da Vinci. Lilies. USSR 1970. Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta, c. 1490.
Albania 1969. Leonardo da Vinci. Helicopter.

€1 national side

He served as principal engineer in the duke’s numerous military enterprises and was also active as an architect. In addition, he assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the celebrated work Divina Proportione (1509), a treatise on aesthetics centering on the concept of the Golden Section.  

The national side of a 1 Euro coin, issued by Italy, showing the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, displayed in the gallery of the Academy in Venice, illustrating the ideal proportions of the human body. Scan by courtesy of the European Central Bank 

Italy 1992. Leonardo da Vinci's "Vetruvian Man" is incorporated in the design of the stamp, celebrating the discoveries of  Christopher Columbus.

Telecom Italia. Leonardo da Vinci. Telephone Card with illustration  from The Vitruvian Man.

United Nations Geneva 1972. International World Health Day.

Evidence indicates that Leonardo had apprentices and pupils in Milan, for whom he probably wrote the various texts that were later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651; trans. 1956).  

The most important of his own paintings during the early Milan period was The Virgin of the Rocks, of which two versions exist.  

He worked on the compositions for a long time, as was his custom, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had begun. 

  • Italy 1952.  I very nice set, showing Leonardo's famous self-portrait, and his painting "Virgin of the Rocks", issued in celebration of his 5th birth centenary. 

 Italy 1952. Leonardo da Vinci. Self-portrait.

Italy 1952. Leonardo da Vinci.  "Virgin of the Rocks".

France 1983. Leonardo da Vinci. Charcoal drawing of Isabelle d'Este.

Although Leonardo produced a relatively small number of paintings, many of which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an extraordinarily innovative and influential artist. During his early years, his style closely paralleled that of Verrocchio, but he gradually moved away from his teacher’s stiff, tight, and somewhat rigid treatment of figures to develop a more evocative and atmospheric handling of composition. 

The early Adoration of the Magi introduced a new approach to composition, in which the main figures are grouped in the foreground, while the background consists of distant views of imaginary ruins and battle scenes. 

One of his many unfinished paintings is this one of Isabelle d'Este, an Italian noble woman from Ferrara.  The stamp shows a charcoal drawing (1504) of the painting; the drawing belongs to the Louvre Museum.  

  • France 1983.  Charcoal drawing of Isabelle d'Este. 

From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo laboured on his masterpiece, The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately, his experimental use of oil on dry plaster (on what was the thin outer wall of a space designed for serving food) led to technical problems, and by 1500 the mural had begun to deteriorate. Since 1726 attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, to restore it; a concerted conservation and restoration program, making use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and has reversed some of the damage. Although much of the original surface is gone, the majesty of the composition and the penetrating characterization of the figures give a fleeting vision of its vanished splendour. 

Leonardo’s stylistic innovations are even more apparent in The Last Supper, in which he re-created a traditional theme in an entirely new way. Instead of showing the 12 apostles as individual figures, he grouped them in dynamic compositional units of three, framing the figure of Christ, who is isolated in the center of the picture. Seated before a pale, distant landscape seen through a rectangular opening in the wall, Christ -- who is about to announce that one of those present will betray him -- represents a calm nucleus while the others respond with animated gestures, a very human attitude when defending unjustified ideas or acts. 

Italy 1998l. Leonardo da Vinci. "The Last Supper".

Liberia 1969. Leonardo da Vinci. "The Last Supper".

During his long stay in Milan, Leonardo also produced other paintings and drawings (most of which are now lost), theatre designs, architectural drawings, and models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. His largest commission was for a colossal bronze equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, for the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco. In December 1499, however, the Sforza family was driven from Milan by French forces. Leonardo had made the clay model but contingency dictated that the metal intended for the statue be used for cannon instead. The model was destroyed by French archers, who used it as a target. Leonardo returned to Florence in 1500. 

Return to Florence
In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Romagna and son and chief general of Pope Alexander VI. In his capacity as the duke’s chief architect and engineer, Leonardo supervised work on the fortresses of the papal territories in central Italy. 

In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists who were to decide on the proper location for Michelangelo’s statue of David (1501-1504, Accademia, Florence), and he also served as an engineer in the war against Pisa. 

Towards the end of the year Leonardo began to design a decoration for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory in the war with Pisa. He made many drawings for it and completed a full-size cartoon, in 1505, but he never finished the wall painting. The cartoon itself was destroyed in the 17th century, and the composition survives only in copies, of which the most famous (c. 1615, Louvre) is the one by Peter Paul Rubens.  

  • Poland 1952. Postcard (not a maximum card) franked on the front with a self-portrait of Leonardo, and cancelled 8th July 1957. The stamp was issued five years earlier (1952) at the occasion of Leonardo's 500th birth anniversary. See also the self-portrait on the GDR-stamp at the top of this page. 

Poland 1952. Leonardo da Viinci. Postcard with self-portrait.

La Joconde -- Mona Lisa
During this second Florentine period, Leonardo painted several portraits, but the only one that survives is the famous Mona Lisa (1503-1506, Louvre), one of the most celebrated portraits ever painted. It is also known as La Gioconda, after the presumed name of the woman’s husband. Leonardo seems to have had a special affection for the picture, for he took it with him on all his subsequent travels.  

France 1993. Leonardo da Vinci. Pane os 2x2 se-tenant stamps of the Louvre Museum in a composite design, with a label  showing Mona Lisa's eyes.

France 1999. Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. France 1993. Leonardo da Vinci. Close-up of the label showing Mona Lisa's eyes.

Great Britain 1990. Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. Stamp from the Greetings Booklet "Smiles".

Sanda 1968. Leonardo da Vinci. Cinderella souvenir sheet.

La Joconde. Engraving done by the French engraver Pierre Albuisson, for the philatelic document accompanying the French stamp-issue for PhilexFrance '99.

For years art historians and researchers have disputed who the lady with the enigmatic smile really was, and a lot of different theories have been aired. 

She has been assumed to be anybody from the artist's mother, over a self-portrait in female form (Leonardo was assumed homosexual), to a courtesan, and a prostitute from Florence. 

After twenty-five years of research by an Italian teacher, Giuseppe Pallanti, it is now assumed that she was Lisa Gherardini, married to a rich Florentine silk merchant. 

The image on the left is an engraving done by the French engraver Pierre Albuisson for the philatelic document accompanying the French stamp-issue for PhilexFrance '99 (see the stamp immediately above, left). 

Merci, Pierre :-)

Giuseppe Pallanti gives evidence that the silk merchant Ser Francesco del Giocondo was a close friend of the Da Vinci-family.  He married Lisa Gherardini in 1495, and the couple had five children, of whom two were girls who both became nuns.  

Already in 1550 it was maintained that Mona Lisa's real name was Lisa Gherardini, and for centuries she has been known under her alternative name, La Gioconda.  

Pallanti maintains that all evidence shows that Da Vinci knew Mona Lisa long before she was painted.  But as opposed to other Renaissance paintings, this one is unsigned by the artist, and has no information about where and when it was painted. 

  • German Federal Republic 1952. Mona Lisa. 

German Federal Republic 1952. Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa.

However, Pallanti's research has given evidence to the close relationship through many years between Leonardo Da Vinci's father, and the silk merchant Giocondo, whose testament mentions Mona Lisa as his "beloved and intelligent spouse". Pallanti has presented his research to the public in a small book and, slthough not stating Mona Lisa's identity with 100% certainty, much acclaimed by art historians.  ItaliaOggi 08.04.2004 (in Portuguese). 

Panama 1967. Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with Ermine. Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with Ermine, engraved on copper plate by the French engraver Pierre Albuisson. Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with Ermine (a modern greetings-card).

Later Travels and Death
In 1506 Leonardo went again to Milan, at the summons of its French governor, Charles d’Amboise. The following year he was named court painter to Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years Leonardo divided his time between Milan and Florence, where he often visited his half-brothers and half-sisters and looked after his inheritance. In Milan he continued his engineering projects and worked on an equestrian figure for a monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, commander of the French forces in the city.  Although the project was not completed, drawings and studies have been preserved. From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X: he was housed in the Palazzo Belvedere in the Vatican and seems to have been occupied principally with scientific experimentation. In 1516 he travelled to France to enter the service of Francis I. He spent his last years at the Château de Cloux, near Amboise, where he died on May 2, 1519. 

Sources and links:

 Other Renaissance Artists on this site:  


Back to Renaissance

Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Revised 05-apr-2007. Ann Mette Heindorff
Copyright © 1999-2007. All Rights Reserved

Homepage Heindorffhus