Born out-of-wedlock to Piero da Vinci and Caterina in a region of Florence, Leonardo received his early education in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter, Verrocchio. Much of his working life was spent in the service of Ludovico in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded him by Francis I. Little is known about Leonardo’s early life. He spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano in the home of his mother, then in 1457 he went to live in the household of his father in the small town of Vinci. His father had married a woman named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but she died young. When Leonardo was sixteen his father married again, but it was not until his third and fourth marriages that Piero produced legitimate heirs.
Leonardo was and is renowned primarily as a great painter. Among his works the Mona Lisa is his most famous and The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the Euro coin, textbooks and T-shirts. Only fifteen of his paintings have survived over time together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams and his thoughts on the nature of painting.
Leonardo was also revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualised flying machines, a tank, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, the double hull and a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, were manufactured during his time. He made important discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optic, and hydrodynamics, but he did not publish his findings and they had no direct influence on later science.
Milan was once filled with canals and they were used to ship rice to the outer territories and bring marble from the lake quarries into the city center. Canals were its lifeline and linked the city to everywhere else. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, invited Leonardo da Vinci to be the state’s war, arms and engineering consultant for 20 years. While Milan’s canal system existed as early as the 12th century, da Vinci took it upon himself to improve its locks, which at the time were of the older ‘portcullis’ or ‘blade’ type that required two men and enormous amounts of effort to operate. Da Vinci came up with the miter gate (see drawing below) which works against the natural pressure of the water, so that only one person is needed to easily swing the doors open or closed. Da Vinci’s invention (two doors that meet at a 45 degree angle, pointing upstream, with a smaller gated culvert for flow) is still in use today. All the massive locks on the Panama and Suez canals, for example, use miter locks.
Leonardo worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499. He was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In the spring of 1485, Leonardo travelled to Hungary on behalf of Ludovico to meet Matthias Corvinus, for whom he is believed to have painted the Holy Family. Leonardo was employed on many different projects for Ludovico, including the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for a Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian monument.
At the start of the Second Italian War in 1499, the invading French troops overthrew Ludovico Sforza and Leonardo with his assistant, Salai, and a friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice where he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack. In 1500, he and his household were guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and were provided with a workshop, where Leonardo created The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, a work that won such admiration that men and women traveled long distances to see it. In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer, travelling throughout Italy with his patron.
Despite the recent awareness and admiration of Leonardo as a scientist and inventor, for the better part of four hundred years his fame rested on his achievements as a painter and on a handful of works, either authenticated or attributed to him that have been regarded as among the masterpieces. These paintings are famous for a variety of qualities which have been much imitated by students and discussed at great length by admirers and critics. Among the qualities that make Leonardo’s work unique are the innovative techniques which he used in laying on the paint; his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology; his interest in physiognomy and the way in which humans register emotion in expression and gesture; his innovative use of the human form in figurative composition and his use of the subtle gradation of tone. All these qualities come together in his most famous painted works, The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks.
The continued admiration that Leonardo commands from painters, critics and historians is reflected in many other written tributes. Baldassare Castiglione, author of Il Cortegiano (“The Courtier”), wrote in 1528: “… Another of the greatest painters in this world looks down on this art in which he is unequalled …”, while the biographer Anonimo Gaddiano wrote, c. 1540: “His genius was so rare and universal that it can be said that nature worked a miracle on his behalf.” The interest in Leonardo’s genius has continued unabated; experts study and translate his writings, analyse his paintings using scientific techniques, argue over attributions and search for works which have been recorded but never found. Liana Bortolon, writing in 1967, said: “Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge … Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe.”
The Cuisine of Milan
Like most cities in Italy, Milan and its surrounding area has its own regional cuisine, which uses more rice than pasta and butter instead of oil. Milanese cuisine includes “cotoletta alla milanese”, a breaded veal (pork and turkey can be used) cutlet pan-fried in butter. Other typical dishes are cassoeula (stewed pork rib chops and sausage with Savoy cabbage), ossobuco (stewed veal shank with gremolata), risotto alla milanese (with saffron and beef marrow), busecca (stewed tripe with beans) and brasato (stewed beef or pork with wine and potatoes). Season-related pastries include chiacchiere (flat fritters dusted with sugar) and tortelli (fried spherical cookies) for Carnival, colomba (glazed cake shaped as a dove) for Easter, pane dei morti (“Deads’ Day bread”, cookies flavored with cinnamon) for All Soul’s Day and panettone for Christmas. The salame milano, a salami with a very fine grain, is widespread throughout Italy. The best known Milanese cheese is gorgonzola from the namesake town nearby.
Walnut Gorgonzola Crostini
- 4 ounces gorgonzola, room temperature
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 20 fresh sage leaves, washed and patted dry
- Olive oil
- 1 ciabatta loaf, cut into 1/2 inch slices
- Kosher salt or fine sea salt
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup red grapes, sliced in half
- 1 large pear, sliced thin
Combine gorgonzola, cream, walnuts and Parmesan in a medium-sized bowl. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon until a creamy spread forms.
Pour olive oil into a heavy saute pan, about a 1/4 inch full. Heat over medium high heat, but not smoking.
Place sage leaves in oil and fry on each side about two to three minutes. Transfer to a paper towel to drain.
Sprinkle the sage lightly with salt. Repeat until all sage leaves have been fried. Once cooled, crumble the leaves. Save the oil for cooking other foods.
Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees. Place ciabatta slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until golden brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes.
Slice garlic in half. Rub each slice of crostini with garlic. Spread a layer of gorgonzola walnut mixture on to each crostini. Garnish with grape halves and pear slices.
Sprinkle the top of each crostini with fried sage leaves and serve.
Gorgonzola walnut mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.
- 5 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
- 3 carrots, diced
- 3 celery ribs, diced
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 1 head garlic, halved crosswise
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 (750-ml) bottle Italian dry red wine (about 3 3/4 cups)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 thyme sprigs
- 3 cups reduced-sodium beef broth
- 3 cups water
Potatoes and carrots
- 2 1/2 pounds small white boiling potatoes
- 1 1/2 pounds carrots
Equipment: a wide 6-to 8-quart heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid
Accompaniment: crusty bread
For the beef:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Pat beef dry and season with 2 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Heat butter or oil in the pot over medium heat until it melted, then brown meat, without crowding, in 3 batches, turning, about 8 minutes per batch. Transfer to a platter.
Reduce heat to medium, then add carrots, celery, onions, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 12 minutes. Push vegetables to one side of pot. Add tomato paste to the cleared area and cook paste, stirring, 2 minutes, then stir into vegetables. Add vinegar and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.
Stir in wine, bay leaves and thyme and boil until wine is reduced by about two-thirds, 10 to 12 minutes.
Add broth to pot along with water, beef and any juices from the platter and bring to a simmer. Cover and braise in the oven until meat is very tender, about 2 1/2 hours.
For the potatoes and carrots:
While the beef braises, peel potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch-wide wedges. Slice carrots diagonally into 1-inch pieces.
Add potatoes and carrots to the stew (make sure they are submerged) and simmer in the oven, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 40 minutes more.
Biscottini di Milan
If you have bread flour, it will be perfect here. Since it’s denser than white flour, you’ll need less volume — 4 cups minus a tablespoon — for 500 g.
- 4 1/5 cups (500 g) unbleached white flour or bread flour
- 1 1/4 cups (250 g) sugar
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, broken up into bits
- 4 egg yolks
- The grated zest of a lemon
- 1/2 cup warm water
Combine the flour and the sugar on a pastry board, make a mound and scoop a well into it. Drop the yolks and the water into the well together with the butter and the zest and work the dough until it is smooth and homogeneous.
Roll the dough out into a moderately thick (1/4-inch or 1/2-cm) sheet and cut it into rounds using a round cookie cutter or into squares/rectangles with a sharp knife.
Put the cookies on greased and floured cookie sheets and bake them in a 350 degrees F (170 C) oven until lightly browned. Cool on wire racks.
May 23, 2014 at 8:17 am
The crostini look wonderful!
May 23, 2014 at 8:19 am
Thanks – the gorgonzola makes it.
Our Growing Paynes
May 23, 2014 at 11:46 am
I didn’t realise that only 15 of his paintings still exist. A fascinating artist.
May 23, 2014 at 1:15 pm
Yes it is a shame. He had so many talents and that was amazing to me.
Our Growing Paynes
May 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm
Definitely born before his time!
May 27, 2014 at 8:39 am
I always love stopping by your blog. Not only do you have delicious recipes but such interesting stories to go along with them.
May 27, 2014 at 9:46 am
Thank you so much Karen and thank you for being a reader.
May 27, 2014 at 9:58 am
It is my pleasure on both counts. 🙂
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