The History of Leith

March 24, 2012


Some of our readers may have read in the newspapers
that this masterpiece of the artist Leonardo da Vinci has
been mysteriously stolen from the Louvre in Paris. I
have been reading what Vasari says about this picture.
Vasari is, of course, the historian of the great Italian
painters and sculptors of the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries. He himself was an artist, as well as a
biographer, and knew personally many of those concerning
whom he writes. Vasari was about 8 years old
when Leonardo da Vinci died in the year 1519. He
tells us many anecdotes of Leonardo, and expresses the
most boundless admiration for the rich and varied genius
of this great artist. It is to Vasari that we are indebted
for that story of Leonardo, which we read in our school
books, how that he was wont, when passing places where
birds were sold, to buy many of these, and then, having
paid the price, to open the doors of the cages, and set
the little captives at liberty.
When only a boy Leonardo was placed with the artist
Andrea Verrocchio. This painter was engaged on a
painting of St. John baptising Christ. Leonardo painted
in this an angel holding some vestments. So excellently
did he do*it, that poor Andrea Verrocchio in despair
never again touched his paint brushes, and abandoned
his art. This very picture is, I am told, now in
Florence, in the Academy of Fine Arts. The story is
reminiscent of the Roslin Chapel anecdote, though
unlike that, it did not have a tragic termination ;. else
had been lost one of the world’s greatest geniuses.
But what of La Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa, as it is
sometimes called. It is the portrait of one Mona Lisa,
Leonardo was four years in painting it. ” Whosoever,”
writes Vasari, “shall desire to see how far art can
imitate nature, may do so to perfection in this head,
wherein every peculiarity that could be depicted by the
utmost subtlety of the pencil has been faithfully reproduced.
The eyes have the lustrous brightness and
moisture which is seen in life, the eyebrows, nose,
mouth, cheeks do not appear to bet depicted by the
painter, but to be truly flesh and blood : he who looks
at the throat cannot but believe that he sees the beating
of the pulses, and it may be truly said that this work is
painted in a manner calculated to make the greatest
master tremble, and astonishes all who behold it, however
well accustomed to the marvels of art.” Mona
Lisa was very beautiful, and Vasari tells us that Leonardo
had musicians constantly present to sing and play, that
the lady might preserve a pleasing and cheerful expression.
It is this smile of singular and almost
superhuman sweetness, that is one of the chief sources of
the admiration which has always been accorded to this
The great east window of our church of South Leith
has as its subject, a copy in stained glass of one of
Leonardo’s great paintings, “The Last Supper.” He
executed it in 1497 in oil on the wall, in the refectory of
the Dominican Monastery at Milan. Vasari tells us
how in the execution of this wonderful work he was
much annoyed by the prior of the monastery. The prior
was constantly coming in to see if Leonardo was painting,
and if the artist happened to be absorbed in thought and
contemplation, he accused him of idleness. Leonardo
got rid of this ignorant persecution by suggesting to the
prior, that if the worst came to the worst, and he could
not find a model for the face of Judas, he would paint
the prior in that character.
W. M. L.

source-South Leith Magazine 1911

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