Medusa (lost Leonardo da Vinci painting; 15th century)

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Leonardo da Vinci

Status: Lost

Medusa was a painting by Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century and is thought to be among Leonardo da Vinci's early works. The painting was mentioned in the 1568 biography Vita di Leonardo. It is possible that painters such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio could have seen it and in return, inspired their own variation based on Leonardo da Vinci's version. The last documentation Leonardo's Medusa was in 1782 by Italian historian Luigi Lanzi when he claimed to have found it in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence though this is often mistaken as. To this day, the Leonardo's Medusa remains shrouded in mystery as it is not known who exactly saw it, who commissioned it, where the painting went after da Vinci's death, and if it was destroyed.

Background

The Italian Renaissance was a period in time in which art, philosophy, technology, and science flourished due to the amount of wealth made by merchants in Italy. Many people would either work regular jobs or would be in the monastery where they had time and money to explore new ideas, read ancient texts, study technology and science. Also, due to a great deal of wealth in Italy, many churches, people, and governments wanted better works of art and better buildings so they would commission people such as Leonardo da Vinci.[1]

The painting

Despite being shrouded in mystery, Leonardo's Medusa has been well documented. Author Giorgio Vasari describes Leonardo's Medusa in his 1568 biographical book Vita di Leonardo writing

Then having prepared it for painting, he began

to think what he could paint upon it that would frighten everyone that saw it, having the effect of the head of Medusa. So he brought for this purpose to his room, which no one entered but himself, lizards, grasshoppers, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange animals of the kind, and from them all he produced a great an animal so horrible and fearful that it seemed to poison the air with its fiery breath. This he represented coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its open jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils,

a monstrous and horrible thing indeed.

[2]

In 1782, Italian historian Luigi Lanzi documented the painting in Uffizi Gallery in Florence writing:

Finally on the following wall one sees the head of Medusa with serpents so realistic that it makes credible what we read of Vinici; wherein a painting produced like this in which one saw fear and fled; something that does no less honor to modern painting than did the grapes of Zeuxis or the horses Apelles ...Never the less the work lacks the final finish, as do the works of Vinci for the most part.

[3]

Availability

Despite being documented in galleries of wealthy and eventually in the Uffizi Gallery, the painting is still lost to this day. There are no theories as to why the Leonardo's Medusa went missing.

Legacy

Leonardo's Medusa had influenced many Renaissance-era painters to replicate the painting and make other paintings of Medusa. English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an entire poem titled On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery.

References