Cultural references to Leonardo da Vinci

Main article: Leonardo da Vinci
Raphael's depiction of Plato in his fresco The School of Athens in the Vatican is believed to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.
West German stamp commemorating Leonardo’s 500th birthday

Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) was an Italian Renaissance painter and polymath who achieved legendary fame and iconic status within his own lifetime. His renown primarily rests upon his brilliant achievements as a painter, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, being two of the most famous artworks ever created, but also upon his diverse skills as a scientist and inventor. He became so highly valued during his lifetime that the King of France bore him home like a trophy of war, supported him in his old age and, according to legend, cradled his head as he died.

Leonardo's portrait was used, within his own lifetime, as the iconic image of Plato in Raphael's School of Athens. His biography was written in superlative terms by Vasari. He has been repeatedly acclaimed the greatest genius to have lived. His painting of the Mona Lisa has been the most imitated artwork of all time and his drawing the Vitruvian Man iconically represents the fusion of Art and Science.

Leonardo's biography has appeared in many forms, both scholarly and fictionalized. Every known aspect of his life has been scrutinized and analyzed. His paintings, drawings and notebooks have been studied, reproduced and analyzed for five centuries. The interest in and appreciation of the character of Leonardo and his talents has never waned.

Leonardo has appeared in many fictional works, such as novels, television shows and movies, the first such fiction dating from the 16th century. Various characters have been named after him.

Artworks after originals by Leonardo


Peter Paul Rubens' copy of the lost Battle of Anghiari

Leonardo's pupils and followers copied or closely imitated many of his pictures. Several of his important works exist only as copies by his admirers. These include:

Other much much-copied works include:


Le rire (The laugh) by Eugène Bataille, or Sapeck (1883)

No painting has been more imitated and satirised than the Mona Lisa. Beginning possibly with a naked portrait of Diane de Poitiers by Clouet, the pose and expression have been freely adapted to many female portraits. The avant-garde art world has made note of the undeniable fact of the Mona Lisa's popularity. Because of the painting's overwhelming stature, Dadaists and Surrealists often produce modifications and caricatures. Already in 1883, Le rire, an image of a Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, by Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), was shown at the "Incoherents" show in Paris. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp, one of the most influential modern artists, created L.H.O.O.Q., a Mona Lisa parody made by adorning a cheap reproduction with a moustache and a goatee, as well as adding the rude inscription, when read out loud in French sounds like "Elle a chaud au cul" literally translated: "she has a hot ass". This is a manner of implying the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual excitement and availability. This was intended as a Freudian joke,[1] referring to Leonardo's alleged homosexuality. According to Rhonda R. Shearer, the apparent reproduction is in fact a copy partly modelled on Duchamp's own face.[2]

Salvador Dalí, famous for his surrealist work, painted Self portrait as Mona Lisa in 1954.[3] In 1963 following the painting's visit to the United States, Andy Warhol created serigraph prints of multiple Mona Lisas called Thirty are Better than One, like his works of Marilyn Monroe (Twenty-five Coloured Marilyns, 1962), Elvis Presley (1964) and Campbell's soup (1961–1962).[4]

Replicas of lost works

"Il Gran Cavallo". This monumental bronze horse, 7 metres (24 feet) high, is a conjectural re-creation of a clay horse that was created in Milan by Leonardo da Vinci for the Ludovico Sforza and was intended to be cast in bronze. Leonardo never finished the project because of war with France, and the clay horse was ruined. This representation was based on a number of Leonardo's preparatory drawings. It was created in 1999 in New York and given to the city of Milan.

Presentation of existing works

The Last Supper is to be the subject of an animation by British film-maker Peter Greenaway, who plans to project interpretative images onto its surface to enliven the scene in which the apostles all question Jesus' statement that one of them will betray him.[5]

Representations of Leonardo in art

The Death of Leonardo

Ménageot's The Death of Leonardo da Vinci, 1781
The Death of Leonardo by Ingres, 1818

The story of Leonardo dying in the arms of the French king Francis I, although apocryphal,[6] appealed to the self-image of later French kings and to French history painters of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Apparently on commission from Louis XVI,[7] Ménageot painted The Death of Leonardo da Vinci in the arms of Francis I in 1781, setting it in a background of classical statuary. This painting, which was the triumph of the Salon of 1781, included a portrayal of the Borghese Gladiator (Ménageot probably having seen it at the Villa Borghese during his stay at the French Academy in Rome from 1769 to 1774), although this was an anachronism since Leonardo died in 1519, about ninety years before the statue was discovered.

In 1818 the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres depicted the scene of Leonardo's death which is shown taking place in the home Clos Lucé provided for him at Amboise by King Francis I. The King is shown supporting Leonardo's head as he dies, as described by Vasari, watched by the Dauphin who is comforted by a cardinal. A distraught young man may represent Leonardo's pupil Melzi.

The treatment of this subject by Ingres is indicative of Leonardo's iconic status and also specifically that he was of particular significance to the school of French Classicism. A number of his paintings had passed into the Royal collection and certain elements of them were much imitated. Leonardo's manner of soft shading known as sfumato was particularly adapted by Ingres, Jacques-Louis David and their followers. An influential painting was Leda and the swan, now regarded as by a pupil of Leonardo but then generally accepted as the master's work.


References in other media

Novels and short stories

The Da Vinci Code

This work of fiction has been the centre of controversy over the accuracy of its depictions of Christianity and of da Vinci.

A bestselling 2003 novel by Dan Brown, adapted and released as a major motion picture in 2006, The Da Vinci Code revolves around a conspiracy based on elements of Leonardo's Last Supper and other works. A preface to the novel claims that depictions of artworks, secret societies and rites described within the novel are factual. For this reason much of the content of the novel has been widely accepted by readers as authoritative. Because the theme involves a conspiracy within the Church over the life of Jesus and the suggestion that the Church has hidden the facts of his marriage, there has been a strong reaction against the novel and much material published examining and refuting its claims.

Within the novel it is claimed that from 1510–1519, Leonardo was the Grand Master of a secret society, the Priory of Sion. In reality this society existed only as a 20th-century hoax, but author Dan Brown used as a source the 1982 pseudohistory book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The writers of this book had based their research on forged medieval documents that had been created as part of the Priory of Sion fraud. The mix of fact and fiction in the documents made it difficult to discount immediately as a forgery. For example, it was claimed that the Grand Master prior to Leonardo was Botticelli, who had indeed had an association with Leonardo, as they were both students at the Florence workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.

The Priory of Sion story and the veracity of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was eventually debunked, and many of those involved publicly recanted, although Dan Brown continued to assert that the facts as presented were true.

In portraying the Priory of Sion as "fact" The Da Vinci Code expanded on the claims in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail:

The book also used a variation of Leonardo's backwards handwriting to hide a secret message on the American bookjacket.

Among the many criticisms of Brown's writing is that he uses the name da Vinci (meaning "from Vinci") in the manner that surnames are commonly used nowadays. Leonardo would never have been referred to simply as da Vinci in his lifetime. Such designations were appended to common baptismal names in order to identify individuals.


Films which are about the life of Leonardo or in which he appears as a character:

Films which refer to Leonardo's works or inventions:



Television fiction


Comics and graphic novels

Computer and video games



  1. Jones, Jonathan (26 May 2001). "L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp (1919)". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 12 June 2009.
  2. Marting, Marco De (2003). "Mona Lisa: Who is Hidden Behind the Woman with the Mustache?". Art Science Research Laboratory. Retrieved 27 April 2008.
  3. Dalí, Salvador. "Self Portrait as Mona Lisa". Mona Lisa Images for a Modern World by Robert A. Baron (from the catalog of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, p. 195). Retrieved 24 October 2009.
  4. Sassoon, Donald (2003). Becoming Mona Lisa. Harvest Books via Amazon Search Inside. p. 251. ISBN 0-15-602711-9.
  5. Robert Booth (2008-02-15). "Greenaway prepares to create Da Vinci coda". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-07-24.
  6. King Francis cannot have been present because the day after Leonardo's death, a royal edict was issued by the King at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a two-day journey distant from Clos Luce.
  7. According to François-Charles Joullain fils, Réflexions sur la peinture et la gravure 1786:2.
  8. Shkodrova, Albena. "Innocent as a Barbarian, Nostalgic for a Lost World". Balkan Travellers. Retrieved 17 April 2013.
  9. Leonardo Da Vinci at the Internet Movie Database
  10. Leonardo Da Vinci at the Internet Movie Database
  11. Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry at the Internet Movie Database
  12. Leonardo at the Internet Movie Database
  13. 1 2 3 Fairbrother, Trevor (1997). "The Ongoing Saga of Leonardo's Legend". In Kotz, Suzanne. The Ongoing Saga of Leonardo's Legend (ill. ed.). Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, in assoc. w. University of Washington Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-295-97688-4. OCLC 37465464. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  14. "Script for Boston Legal episode "The Nutcracker"" (PDF). p. 11. Retrieved 2013-10-22.
  15. "Benetton Group: Evolution of Communication Strategy" Accessed February 21, 2010
  16. "Leonardo da Vinci". Retrieved November 8, 2015.

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