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The Shadow Drawing

How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint

Francesca Fiorani

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Shadow Drawing Download image

ISBN10: 0374261962
ISBN13: 9780374261962


384 Pages



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Leonardo da Vinci has long been celebrated for his consummate genius. He was the painter who gave us the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and the inventor who anticipated the advent of airplanes, hot air balloons, and other technological marvels. But what was the connection between Leonardo the painter and Leonardo the scientist? Historians of Renaissance art have long supposed that Leonardo became increasingly interested in science as he grew older and turned his insatiable curiosity in new directions. They have argued that there are, in effect, two Leonardos—an artist and an inventor.

In this pathbreaking new interpretation, the art historian Francesca Fiorani offers a different view. Taking a fresh look at Leonardo’s celebrated but challenging notebooks, as well as other sources, Fiorani argues that Leonardo became familiar with advanced thinking about human vision when he was still an apprentice in a Florence studio—and used his understanding of optical science to develop and perfect his painting techniques. For Leonardo, the task of the painter was to capture the interior life of a human subject, to paint the soul. And even at the outset of his career, he believed that mastering the scientific study of light, shadow, and the atmosphere was essential to doing so. Eventually, he set down these ideas in a book—A Treatise on Painting—that he considered his greatest achievement, though it would be disfigured, ignored, and lost in subsequent centuries.

Ranging from the teeming streets of Florence to the most delicate brushstrokes on the surface of the Mona Lisa, The Shadow Drawing vividly reconstructs Leonardo’s life while teaching us to look anew at his greatest paintings. The result is both stirring biography and a bold reconsideration of how the Renaissance understood science and art—and of what was lost when that understanding was forgotten.


Praise for The Shadow Drawing

“In this insightful and beautiful book, the great Leonardo scholar Francesca Fiorani connects his studies of optics with his painting. It’s a wonderful study of how Leonardo’s art and science were interwoven—which should be an inspiration to us all.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci

"Francesca Fiorani’s lively intellectual adventure gives us a new understanding and appreciation of Leonardo’s ingenious cross-fertilization of art and science. It is a perceptive biography of Leonardo exploring the frontiers of science, but also a brilliantly informative guide to his paintings—many of which I will now enjoy seeing again with Fiorani’s fresh insights in mind."—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome, Leonardo and the Last Supper, and Mad Enchantment

"Francesca Fiorani’s book makes an effective contribution towards demolishing the false notion of two Leonardos—one the artist, the other the scientist. Fiorani masterfully shows how science enabled the young Leonardo to take Renaissance painting to an unprecedented level of perfection. No matter how many books about Leonardo you might have read, this one is not to be missed. It will shape your understanding of his beautiful mind’s all-encompassing vision of art, nature, and man."—Paolo Galluzzi, director, Museo Galileo, Florence

"University of Virginia art historian Fiorani’s sparkling second book explores how Leonardo’s love of science informed his art. Intimately capturing the artistic, religious, and cultural landscape of Leonardo’s world, the author traces his development as an artist from his early apprenticeship days to the lessons he learned as he painted his greatest works and up to his posthumous legacy . . . Fiorani effectively describes Leonardo’s experiments with paints that allowed him to 'achieve an astounding variety of optical effects.'" Kirkus Reviews

"[Francesca Fiorani] provides new insight into the work of Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci in this fresh assessment . . . This beautifully written work is underpinned by immense scholarship; art lovers and historians will not be able to put it down."Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


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The teenage boy who showed up for an apprenticeship at the bottega of Andrea del Verrocchio was, it seemed, a work of art in his own right. He was possessed of such extraordinary beauty, it was...

About the author

Francesca Fiorani

Francesca Fiorani is a professor of art history at the University of Virginia, where she has served as associate dean for arts and humanities and chair of the art department. A leading authority on Renaissance art and the application of computer technology to the humanities, she is the creator of the Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting digital platform and the author of The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography, and Politics in Renaissance Italy.

© Simona Filippini

Francesca Fiorani