The painter, who created what is universally considered to be the most famous painting in the world, was above all a great innovator: to him, we owe the introduction of the aerial perspective, which radically revolutionized the concept of perspective space.
The supreme incarnation of humanistic ideals, Leonardo da Vinci applied his intelligence to a number of different fields, though foremost and most accomplished of his endeavours was painting. Masterpieces such as the Annunciation, the Virgin of the Rocks, the Adoration of the Magi, the Lady with an Ermine, the Last Supper, the Battle of Anghiari, or the Mona Lisa, even when unfinished or lost, marked the collective imagination of entire generations of art enthusiasts. It was German painter Paul Klee who best described Leonardo’s contribution to the art world, noting in his diary: “Once you’ve seen Leonardo, you cannot conceive the possibility of making further progress.” But you cannot understand da Vinci’s painting if you don’t first observe his speculative dimension. In fact, he devoted much of his work to the problems of painting: his notebooks are full of notations regarding the issue of real-life painting, published posthumously under the title A Treatise on Painting, 1632.
This work is useful to better understand the master’s point of view, concerned above all with the practice of a “visual philosophy,” which means the ability to perceive nature’s imagery. Every aspect is in fact traced back to the systematic comprehension of the physical, mathematical, and geometrical phenomena that determine visual perception. According to Leonardo, the application of logic, of mathematics and geometry, of anatomy and optics ennobles painting to the point that it is elevated to the same echelon as that of other liberal arts, such as philosophy, poetry, and theology. Painting is science: it is universal, for the eye conveys a form of communication that, unlike the spoken word, is not subject to linguistic variation, so “it has no need for interpreters […] as does literature.” His research leads him to the introduction of the so-called aerial perspective, at once excelling in its use. This idea of painting is founded on the discovery that air is not an entirely transparent medium and in fact, as the distance of the observation point increases, contours become more indefinite, and colours become less pure, tending towards blue. Thus he attempts to adapt to this assumption: carrying out a “blueing of the far away,” where outlines are lost in the distance and are clear only in the foreground. Leonardo radically renovates the concept of perspective space inspired by the studies of Arab scientist Alhazen, according to whom from every minuscule particle of an observed object, luminous information detaches, travelling through the air until it reaches the observer’s retina. This represented a radical turning point: the study of depth, which up until then had been viewed in terms of a linear Florentine perspective, was then conceptualized following more of an abstract, and no longer exclusively geometrical, criteria.