- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

ATLANTA — There’s symmetry in the fact that the late Georgia folk artist Howard Finster, a self-proclaimed “Man of Visions,” so appreciated Leonardo da Vinci, a man of inventions.

Mr. Finster couldn’t quite spell the brilliant Italian artist’s name (his 1991 portrait has it as “Divency”), but he totally got da Vinci’s creative spark and often painted tributes to him and his best-known creation, the “Mona Lisa.”

For a fellow born more than 500 years ago, da Vinci is keeping a high profile these days. The much-anticipated Tom Hanks movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” opened yesterday.

Just who was da Vinci — and where can you see his work? Those are mysteries we can quickly clear up.

Renaissance man

The phrase must have been created for da Vinci. In addition to being the painter of some of the world’s masterpieces, he was an inventor, architect, engineer, military strategist and musician.

Love child

He was born April 15, 1452, in the Tuscan town of Vinci, west of Florence, the son of a notary, Ser Piero da Vinci, and Caterina, who may have worked in the household. Since he was illegitimate, he could not attend the university, but he displayed promise at drawing as a teen and was given an apprenticeship with the Florentine artist and engineer Andrea del Verrocchio.

A beautiful mind

Along with “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” most prominent among his surviving paintings, he left thousands of notebook pages filled with ideas, discoveries, drawings and line after line of notes scrawled in his bewildering backward handwriting. Yet the notebooks reveal precious little about him. In that respect, he was the perfect vessel for mysteries that swirl in “The Da Vinci Code.”

Unfinished business

His adulthood was marked by genius — and contradictions. He advised or was commissioned by dukes, popes and kings, yet migrated from job to job. He was a pacifist who designed weapons for war; a perfectionist who rarely saw projects to their completion. (Even his younger rival Michel- angelo ridiculed da Vinci’s procrastination.)

Martin Kemp, author of the biography “Leonardo,” notes, “If there is a frustration apparent in his notebooks, it involves the impossibility of not being able to do everything simultaneously. There is a repetitive doodle that reads: ‘Tell me if anything were ever done?’”

Mythical, mystical ‘Mona’

Crowds elbow near the semicircular barrier up front. People crane their necks for a glimpse. Shutters click.

“Mona Lisa” just smiles enigmatically from her wall of the Louvre museum in Paris. If one of the world’s most famous paintings seems somehow to be making eye contact from inside her climate-controlled case, it’s not your imagination. The level of psychological realism that da Vinci brought to the painting was a breakthrough in the history of portraiture.

His sitter was Lisa de Gherardini, wife of a silk merchant. Some believed she was pregnant when she posed, which might explain that smile. There’s also conjecture that da Vinci set her mood with musicians and jesters in the studio.

Louvre officials have smiled since “Mona Lisa” entered the collection in 1798, during the French Revolution (www.louvre.fr).

Showing in District

The “Ginevra de’ Benci,” at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, is thought to be the only da Vinci painting in the Western Hemisphere. The National purchased the portrait, from the 1470s, for $5 million in 1967.

Painted in a landscape setting, in front of a juniper tree, Ginevra was 16 when da Vinci was commissioned by her family, probably to mark her engagement. Though the artist was only 22, he achieved a lifelike representation, blending oil paint in places with his fingers and palms to soften edges and create atmospheric effects. (www.nga.gov)

Slow horse

Da Vinci was commissioned to create a horse sculpture by the Duke of Milan and started working on a full-scale, 24-foot-tall clay model in 1489. But the French invaded Milan, and the 70 tons of bronze set aside for the sculpture were instead turned into weapons. Adding insult, French archers used da Vinci’s clay model for target practice.

Five centuries later, sculptor Nina Akamu completed two identical, full-scale versions in homage, one in Milan, Italy, and one, “American Horse,” at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. (www.meijergardens.org).

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