Explore the life and times of the man whose name is synonymous with inventiveness, curiosity, and creative genius. In Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance, taught by art historian and Professor George R. Bent, you’ll take a powerful and engrossing look at this grand master, the intriguing world he inhabited and shaped, and the legacies he left behind for us. These visually rich 36 lectures will give you fresh insights into Leonardo’s iconic paintings, his important anatomical studies, and his astonishingly prescient visions for machines we now take for granted. But more than that, you’ll experience what it was like to live in Leonardo’s world during the High Renaissance in Italy.
Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance
Professor George R. Bent has taught in the Department of Art and Art History at Washington and Lee University since 1993. The holder of the Sidney Gause Childress Professorship in the Arts, Professor Bent offers courses on the art and architecture of Northern and Southern Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance—including lecture courses on medieval art in Byzantium and Italy, Italian Renaissance art, and Northern Renaissance art as well as seminars on the art of Venice, the High Renaissance in Italy, and Gothic art in France. A two-time holder of Fulbright Scholarships to Italy, Professor Bent received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1985 and his Ph.D. in Art History from Stanford University in 1993. He cofounded Washington and Lee's interdisciplinary program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies in 1995, chaired it from 2000 to 2003, served as Associate Dean of the College from 2003 to 2006, and currently serves as chair of the Department of Art and Art History. Professor Bent's early scholarly work focused on issues of artistic production, the function of liturgical images, and institutional patronage in early Renaissance Florence. He is the author of Monastic Art in Lorenzo Monaco's Florence, a book that addresses these subjects through an examination of panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, and religious rituals performed in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli from 1300 to 1415. Professor Bent's current research interests revolve around paintings produced for public spaces in Florence between 1250 and 1450, which have caused him to consider works such as Madonnas in street-corner tabernacles, frescoes of virtuous heroes in guildhalls, cult images that worked miracles for common people, and images of political propaganda that decorated offices of state bureaucrats. Professor Bent and his wife, Lorriann Olan, have three children, each of whom tolerates their father's obsession with the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance.
01: Introducing Leonardo da Vinci
In this introductory lecture, Professor Bent sets the stage for the rest of the course by detailing the swelling political, cultural, and artistic changes in Italy—all of which would lay the groundwork for the High Renaissance that Leonardo, through his life and work, would come to define and change forever.
02: Who Was Leonardo? Facts and Fictions
How do we know what we know about Leonardo? First, dispel some common myths about the artist and signature works such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Then, explore important sources for the life and career of Leonardo, including the detailed (yet opinionated) Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari.
03: Leonardo’s Artistic Origins
Leonardo wasn’t born great—like everyone else, he learned his skills from his contemporaries and predecessors. After a walk through Renaissance Florence, follow Leonardo’s artistic development under his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, and figures who influenced him, including the artists Masaccio and Donatello, as well as the humanist thinker and architect Leon Battista Alberti.
04: From Apprentice to Partner
Continue following Leonardo’s artistic growth against the backdrop of revolutionary changes in art, including the rise of paper as the surface of choice for drawings and the introduction of oil paint as a new medium in Italy. Then, learn more about Leonardo’s big break: his contribution to Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ (1472).
05: Annunciation-Leonardo’s First Commission
Here, watch as the increasingly successful Leonardo experiments with replicating nature, unfolding grand vistas, and depicting delicate draperies. Central to this lecture is Professor Bent’s analysis of Leonardo’s first commission as a master painter in Verrocchio’s workshop (and one of his first true masterpieces): Annunciation of the Virgin (1473–1474).
06: A New Kind of Portrait-Ginevra de’ Benci
To truly grasp Leonardo’s originality, you must look at his portraiture. After examining traditional approaches to portraits from antiquity to the early Renaissance, discover how this artistic genius revolutionized the genre—particularly through his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and its shocking emphasis on a woman’s individual features and intellectual presence.
07: Leonardo’s Early Madonnas
Leonardo’s innovative approach to female sitters also informed his interpretation of the female icon of Christian art: the Virgin Mary. Professor Bent reveals how Leonardo’s innovative Madonnas—such as Madonna of the Carnation and the Benois Madonna—radically differed from those of predecessors and contemporaries like Fra Filippo Lippi and Verrocchio.
08: Scandal, Reprieve, and the Penitent St. Jerome
Why was Leonardo arrested by the Guardians of the Night, Florence’s vice squad? How did this arrest inspire Leonardo’s haunting and unfinished painting of St. Jerome (one of his first commissions as a truly independent artist)? Find out in this investigation of a key scandal that consumed the artist during his 20s.
09: Inventing Early Modern Classical
Continue tracking Leonardo’s growth as an independent artist with this lecture on his engrossing The Adoration of the Magi and its classical, pyramidal composition; his northern European approach to painting natural landscapes; and his artistic and political ties to a giant of 15th-century Florence: Lorenzo de’ Medici (“The Magnificent”).
10: Arrival in Milan-Madonna of the Rocks
Follow the artist to Milan, where he served in the court of the Renaissance prince Ludovico Sforza, who would employ Leonardo for the next 17 years. Central to this lecture is a detailed aesthetic examination of Leonardo’s masterpiece from 1483, Madonna of the Rocks, which is the first fully realized example of High Renaissance painting.
11: Leonardo at Court-Portrait of a Musician
Portrait of a Musician. Frescoes on the Sala delle Asse. The Sforza Madonna (Litta). Go inside these and other works from Leonardo’s work between the 1470s and 1480s—much of which shocked the local cultural elite. Also, get an insider’s look at the politics and structure of a typical Renaissance court.
12: Leonardo and the Ladies
Professor Bent invites you to peer behind the canvases of Leonardo’s portraits of female sitters, including Cecilia Gallerani (in Lady with an Ermine) and Lucrezia Crivelli (in La Belle Ferronniere). In doing so, you’ll learn how Leonardo ushered in a new phase of portraiture that was both more naturalistic and psychological.
13: Threats to the Italian Renaissance-The 1490s
Pull back from Italy to explore the overall geopolitics of 1490s Europe—which would provide fertile ground for the next phases of Leonardo’s brilliant career. You’ll investigate power struggles in the Holy Roman Empire, the corrupt reigns of several popes, French expansionism under Charles VIII, and Columbus’s daring voyage to the New World.
14: Leonardo the Inventor and Engineer
Begin your initial foray into Leonardo’s incredibly inventive technical mind with a look at his engineering work. Comb through the artist’s various papers and manuscripts and get a fascinating glimpse of designs for moveable walls, machines for raising columns and grinding needles, a self-propelled cart, hydraulic devices, bridges, and more.
15: Vitruvian Man, Perfection, and Architecture
Leonardo was an artist deeply interested in matters of architecture. Here, examine some of the master’s most important architectural drawings and their underlying mathematical ideas about perspective and proportion. In addition to viewing his stage sets and church plans, you’ll see how Leonardo’s iconic Vitruvian Man brings together geometry, nature, and spirituality.
16: Leonardo the Military Scientist
Explore the utterly imaginative (and sometimes barbaric) military works that Leonardo drafted while employed by Ludovico Sforza in Milan—but never saw realized. Among the jaw-dropping prototypes you’ll take a closer look at: defensive castle walls and towers, siege-busting bridges, human-powered tanks, repeating canons, giant crossbows, and even a submarine.
17: Leonardo and Flight
Investigate one of Leonardo’s greatest passions: the possibility of human flight. You’ll get to peer over his shoulder as he captures birds in flight, creates his first designs for a glider (ornithopter) based on birds, expands his ideas to encompass parachutes and mechanical wings, and attempts to design grand self-powered flying machines.
18: Drawing Human Figures and Caricatures
After a brief look at the role drawings played in Renaissance art, see how Leonardo used drawings to better depict the myriad features of the human body. Professor Bent provides illuminating commentary on Leonardo’s detailed drawings of grimacing faces, hallowed religious figures, dramatic battles, and even comedic caricatures.
19: Colossus - The Sculpture for Ludovico Sforza
Leonardo’s mathematical knowledge and drive to capture natural forms extended into his sculpture as well. Follow Leonardo’s process from start to near completion as he developed an ultimately unrealized sculpture that nevertheless remains a powerful example of his sculptural and engineering genius: a colossal 24-foot-high bronze horse in memory of the father of Ludovico Sforza.
20: The Making of The Last Supper
Conclude your look at Leonardo’s career in Milan by focusing on his grand masterpiece from this phase of his career: The Last Supper. By closely analyzing this exceptional work of Western art (and the epitome of High Renaissance Italian painting), you’ll consider it from a variety of technical and theoretical perspectives.
21: The Meaning of The Last Supper
Go deeper into the powerful hidden meanings of The Last Supper. Closely study the painting’s figures to see what each suggests about human nature and the world we live in. Then, follow the story of the painting’s decay, as well as efforts to restore it to its original glory.
22: Mantua, Isabella d’Este, and Venice
Travel alongside Leonardo as he leaves French-invaded Milan and moves between Italian courts as an intellectual free agent. In particular, you’ll focus on his productive stays in Mantua (which led to his drawing the Portrait of Isabella d’Este) and Venice (where Leonardo designed the concept for a diving suit).
23: Return to Florence - Sfumato and an Exhibition
Professor Bent guides you through a nomadic period of Leonardo’s career, a dramatically productive phase that saw Leonardo complete a massive mural for the Republic of Florence, military plans for sovereign states, and an impressive drawing of the Virgin Mary and Saint Anne—now lost—that led to the world’s first one-man art show.
24: Leonardo, Cesare Borgia, and Machiavelli
In 1502, Leonardo went into the service of the Renaissance villain Cesare Borgia, where he put his talents to use in the name of science and engineering. Comb through some of the artist’s surveyor maps, explore his schematics for machines, learn the story of his help in attempting to redirect the Arno River, his connection to Machiavelli, and more.
25: Michelangelo and Leonardo
Continue following Leonardo’s life and work in the Florentine state. In this lecture, you’ll learn more about his relationship with another great Renaissance artist, Michelangelo; discover the story behind Leonardo’s epic Battle of Anghiari of 1503; and compare that masterpiece with Michelangelo’s own Battle of Cascina from 1505 to 1506.
26: Mona Lisa - La Gioconda
Who was the Mona Lisa painted for? What is the sitter’s true identity? How did Leonardo achieve the painting’s brilliant sfumato effects? What should you really be looking for when confronted with this painting? Get solid answers to these and other probing questions about Leonardo’s most enigmatic work.
27: Raphael and Leonardo
Explore the connection between Leonardo and Raphael, who would soon go on to paint his own masterpieces, including the School of Athens. How did this relationship develop? What was Michelangelo’s role in this mentor-protégé relationship? In addressing these questions, you’ll focus on Leonardo’s now-lost erotic work, Leda and the Swan.
28: Leonardo in Milan and Pope Julius II in Rome
The rise of Pope Julius II led to the rebuilding of Rome that drew the talents of Michelangelo, Raphael, and even Leonardo’s associate Bramante. So why was Leonardo content to avoid papal Rome in favor of Milan and Florence? Discover the answer in this lecture on the changing landscape of early 1500s Italy.
29: The Anatomical Drawings - His Greatest Works?
Focus on Leonardo’s revolutionary anatomical drawings of everything from the cardiovascular system and fetuses to eyes and heads to spines and musculature. You’ll see how, taken together, these anatomical drawings are remarkably accurate, scientifically groundbreaking, and profoundly naturalistic—all while produced under almost unimaginable conditions involving freshly dissected corpses.
30: In Praise of Painting - Leonardo’s Manifesto
Pore over some of Leonardo’s most fascinating ideas, credos, observations, and philosophical statements about optics, light, perspective, distance, and other artistic concepts. These views, assembled after the artist’s death, are as close to a personal manifesto as Leonardo ever gave and stress his profound belief that painting was the noblest art of all.
31: Leonardo and the Medici in Rome
Survey the nomadic Leonardo’s period working as a consultant for the court of Pope Leo X, also known as Giovanni de’ Medici. While spearheading several projects, including a stylistically innovative Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and a Lamb, this professional relationship would ultimately prove problematic and lead to Leonardo’s final departure from Italy.
32: High Renaissance Art from Rome to Venice
How did Leonardo’s works and ideas go on to inspire some of the Italian High Renaissance’s other great artists? Here, Professor Bent trains your eyes to see hidden connections between Leonardo and dramatic works by artists, including Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio.
33: Last Years - Leonardo in France
First, finish your look at Leonardo’s tenure in Rome with an analysis of his exciting drawing, The Deluge. Then, learn about some of the ideas Leonardo developed for his final patron: Francois I, king of France. It was for the French court that Leonardo would continue to work until his death in 1519.
34: Renaissance Man and Man of the Renaissance
Dispel any doubts you may have about Leonardo’s status as Western history’s greatest Renaissance man. In this lecture, explore the political, cultural, and spiritual climate of the times that led to the possibility of such a comprehensive individual’s existence. In the process, you’ll get a window into the sources and reasons for Leonardo’s lasting genius.
35: The End of an Era
During the 1520s, the dream of the High Renaissance came to an end. Professor Bent explores some of the reasons behind this dramatic shift away from classical art styles, including the lack of suitable heirs to Leonardo; the demise of papal power; and the failed ambitions of leading Italian cities, including Milan and Florence.
36: The Legacies of Leonardo da Vinci
What should we remember Leonardo for as an artist? As an inventor? As an engineer? As a scientific observer? In this lecture, take one last look at the legacy of Leonardo’s life and work, his relevance to today’s world, and why he remains—even today—one of Western history’s greatest individuals.