It was 1467 and Leonardo had just turned fifteen. For the past six years Leonardo had been living with his grandfather, in Florence. His birth father had remarried for the second time but still refused to legitimate him. Even knowing that his birthright situation was then a common occurrence, Leonardo had a hard time accepting this humiliating heritage. He had grown into a well mannered, and very handsome young man. His birth father immediately arranged for him to relocate, and placed Leonardo to work as an apprentice with a local, well known, Master painter.
On that fatidic day Leonardo became an Artisan. The prevailing Italian law had sealed his future; an illegitimate child had no social rights. With no right to a family name, from now on he must sign simply, Leonardo, and he could add, from (da) Vinci, the town he was born. He would never go to university, have the right to own property in any Italian domain, or like his birth father, hold a public office. This was the final blow to Leonardo’s ego. Father and son hardly ever saw each other afterwards.
The young Leonardo, in the prime of his youth, entered the busy atelier of Andreas del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was an architect, sculptor, goldsmith and painter who ran a large and successful workshop in Florence. Painters, apprentices, and servants, they all worked and lived, cramped up, in the same property. But, what a great time it was for the young Leonardo. His life had taken a three hundred and sixty degrees turnaround. It was like a blessing in disguise.
Verrocchio’s huge atelier was full of eccentric, boisterous, gay, and amusing people. The majority were openly homosexuals, including his new mentor and Master. Here Leonardo found the family he had always dreamed about. Leonardo suddenly found himself free to pursue new experiences. Free to discover and explore his blossoming sexuality.
Late 1469, the young and flamboyant Francesco Botticini, who also worked in the atelier, got an especial commission to do a painting of the legend of “Tobias and The Three Archangels”. He asked Leonardo to be the model for the angel Saint Michael. (Leonardo is the one on the far left.) Botticini finished the painting the following year, and by then everybody wanted the handsome, young Leonardo, to be their model.
Even his Master had decided to use Leonardo as his model. Verrocchio had accepted a commission from Lorenzo de Medici for a sculpture of the bible’s hero “The Young David and Goliath.” This is without doubt Verrocchio’s most beautiful and better known sculpture. The biggest innovations introduced in this 125 cm tall bronze sculpture were the replacement of the traditional ‘sling shot’ by a sword, and having Goliath’s decapitated head at David’s feet. When the piece was finished and delivered in 1473, every artist in Florence, or visiting, copied this new pose and attitude of the biblical hero.
This was the ‘Golden Age’ of Florence, under the Medici’s rule.
In 1474 Verrocchio got a commission from the Church of San Savi to do a painting of “The Baptism of Christ.” The commission specified that the images for this altar piece should follow the events exactly as recorded in the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John: Jesus came to the Jordan River where John baptized him. The event concluded with heavens opening, and a dove-like descent of the Holy Spirit.
Verrocchio had decided to do this commission in oil paint, a technique only used until then in Italy, for durable item like parade shields, or accessories. There was so much work going on at Verrocchio’s atelier that quite often several painters worked on one painting at the same time. In order to have it delivered on time, the above commission was no exception. Verrocchio did the essential parts of the main characters and other painters finished the details. Leonardo was entrusted to do the angel kneeling on the left side.
At that time Leonardo was also working on another of Verrocchio’s painting using the same oil technique, “The Annunciation.”
Verrocchio had informed his assistants that the commission for this “Annunciation”, from the monastery of San Bartolomeo, required a symbolic, biblical account of the event, but with an Italian connotation, which of course would please the Medici family. Verrocchio cleverly rose up to the occasion. He conceived the angel holding a Madonna lily, a symbol of Mary's virginity and of the city of Florence. For the marble desk in front of Mary, he used the same design of the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de Medici in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which Verrocchio had just finished sculpting. Verrocchio instructed Leonardo to complete all the background of the painting and the angel. On this artwork Verrocchio used lead-based paint and heavy brush strokes, while Leonardo used light brush strokes and no lead. For the angel, he copied the wings from those of a bird in flight. The city in the background was Leonardo’s first approach of his new, signature painting technique ‘sfumato’. There are no harsh outlines. Minuscule brushstrokes blends the areas into one another with a hazy but realistic rendition of light and color.
Leonardo developed his technique, “sfumato”, to utmost perfection and he used it brilliantly on “Mona Lisa”, but that is another story…