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Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance

Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance

Professor George R. Bent, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University

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Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance

Course No. 7111
Professor George R. Bent, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University
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4.7 out of 5
43 Reviews
97% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 7111
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Course Overview

In the grand history of the Western world, there is no single individual whose name is more synonymous with inventiveness, curiosity, and creative genius than Leonardo da Vinci. His life and works would not just remake the Renaissance in Italy—they would go on to inspire developments and innovations in our own world.

Leonardo has always exerted an extraordinary fascination. For unlike his artistic peers, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, who were known solely for their artistic accomplishments, Leonardo was the very epitome of the Renaissance man, whose skills and influences touched on nearly every aspect of human endeavor.

  • As an artist, he helped develop artistic techniques of perspective, classical composition, and naturalism in works such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
  • As an engineer, he devised marvelous inventions that aimed to transform the way people thought about warfare, transportation, and even plumbing.
  • As a scientist, he exposed to everyday eyes the previously mysterious workings of human anatomy, the biology of various flora and fauna, and the properties of optics.
  • As a thinker and writer, he advanced ideas and theories about art, mathematics, and science that would guide generations of other great minds.
  • As a mentor, he inspired and prodded the techniques and careers of artists like Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael, who would go on to become masters of High Renaissance art and architecture as well.

And Leonardo continues to compel our interest long after his death and the subsequent end of the Renaissance he helped define. As expert art historian Professor George R. Bent of Washington and Lee University observes, "Without Leonardo, the things we know and the things we have just might not be with us today.”

Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance is Professor Bent's powerful and engrossing look at this grand master, the intriguing world he inhabited and shaped, and the legacies he left behind for us. This 36-lecture course—packed with illustrations and animations that bring you closer than ever before to Leonardo's paintings, sculptures, sketches, and notebooks—is like touring an imaginary and comprehensive exhibit devoted to his entire career. You'll gain fresh insights into his iconic paintings, his important anatomical studies, and his astonishingly prescient visions for machines we now take for granted. But more than that, you'll experience what it was like to live in Leonardo's world and to understand the High Renaissance as it swept through great Italian cities such as Florence, Milan, and Rome.

Live in Leonardo's World

Leonardo da Vinci was at the forefront of so many fields that a survey of everything he did can seem intimidating and nearly impossible. But Professor Bent has crafted Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance to be a highly focused, tightly organized examination of the life and times of this most famous Renaissance man.

The key: taking a chronological approach to Leonardo's collection of works, which sets each of his major masterpieces—as well as other works you may be less familiar with—in the larger context of political, social, spiritual, and cultural changes that swept through Italy between the mid-1400s and the early 1500s. Here, Professor Bent guides you through each of the three major stages of Leonardo's professional career:

  • Florence from the 1460s to 1482
  • Milan between 1482 and 1499
  • Cities and regions including Venice, Rome, and western France from 1499 to 1519

As you follow Leonardo's movements, you learn how he secured work, how his surroundings helped inspire him, and how he interacted with some of the famous figures from the Italian Renaissance, including the Medici and Borgia families and fellow artists such as Michelangelo and Verrocchio. It's this multilevel look that makes this course transcend mere art appreciation and biography to become a unique framework in which to explore this profound period in Western history.

Discover New Ways to Appreciate Leonardo's Masterpieces …

Central to this course is Professor Bent's piercing examinations of Leonardo's work, which has gone on to influence generations of artists and thinkers. Professor Bent uses his expert knowledge of both Leonardo and Western art and history to unpack the hidden details and importance behind Leonardo's masterworks, drawing your attention to aspects you never noticed before, calling out techniques that were then revolutionary to art and science, and even shattering some well-worn myths and legends that have been passed down through the centuries.

In Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance, you'll feel as if you're encountering and understanding familiar pieces for the first time. Among these are

  • the Virgin of the Rocks (1483–1486), which—more than any other 15th-century painting—epitomizes the High Renaissance style with its classical composition of Mary, John the Baptist, and the Christ child;
  • the Vitruvian Man (c. 1487), Leonardo's iconic drawing of a man framed by both a square and a circle—two geometric shapes that presented the Christian idea of eternal life and God's desire to construct a balanced, symmetrical world on Earth;
  • The Last Supper (1495–1498), a fresco whose use of symmetry, perspective, figural interaction, and intricate juxtaposition of chaos and serenity were heretofore unseen in a single composition; and, of course,
  • the Mona Lisa. (c. 1503–1519), which openly defied the traditional approach to painting portraiture by experimenting with smoky contours (a technique known as sfumato) to suggest the subtle energy in the sitter's mysterious expression.

… as Well as Dozens of Other Works

You'll also comb through a host of

  • schematics for innovative machines, including airplanes and parachutes;
  • architectural diagrams for everything from church interiors to set designs for plays;
  • anatomical studies of organs, muscles, and other features of the human body;
  • drafts for and copies of paintings and sculptures that were lost, destroyed, or never realized; and
  • notebooks and letters outlining Leonardo's thoughts and opinions on art and society.

As you go inside all of these works, you'll find revealing answers to commonly asked questions about Leonardo's style and technique. Here are just two:

Why did Leonardo write backward in his journals? Contrary to popular belief, Leonardo didn't write backward out of any concern over secrecy. Rather, it was a means to prevent the left-handed writer's billowing sleeves (fashionable attire for men in Renaissance Italy) from dragging across wet ink as he wrote.

Why were Leonardo's military inventions never realized? Despite their ingenuity, Leonardo's tanks, siege engines, flying machines, and submarines were often literally impossible to make. Many required an extraordinary amount of materials and a powerful source of locomotion that couldn't be provided in preindustrial Renaissance Italy.

Expertly Crafted, Richly Illustrated, Visually Engaging

As befitting a series of lectures on one of the world's greatest artists, this course has been crafted by Professor Bent to provide you with a learning experience that is as richly illustrated and visually engaging as it is insightful and informative. These lectures feature high-definition versions of Leonardo's paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works; 3-D animations that bring Leonardo's never-realized inventions to life; intimate looks at pages and sketches from Leonardo's notebooks and manuscripts; and high-definition versions of works by Leonardo's contemoraries and apprentices. And Professor Bent himself is a scholar and teacher whose passion for Leonardo's work and world is absolutely riveting and undeniably contagious. Whether you're already familiar with the artist or have never closely examined him before, you'll find yourself raptly following along as Professor Bent recounts illuminating stories, provides eye-opening artistic insights, and reveals little-known details about life during the High Italian Renaissance.

So prepare yourself for a fascinating and unforgettable encounter with the quintessential Renaissance man in Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance—an immersive, comprehensive, and expertly delivered course that only The Great Courses can bring you.

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36 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introducing Leonardo da Vinci
    In this introductory lecture, Professor Bent sets the stage for the rest of the course by detailing the swelling political, cultural, and artistic changes in Italy—all of which would lay the groundwork for the High Renaissance that Leonardo, through his life and work, would come to define and change forever. x
  • 2
    Who Was Leonardo? Facts and Fictions
    How do we know what we know about Leonardo? First, dispel some common myths about the artist and signature works such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Then, explore important sources for the life and career of Leonardo, including the detailed (yet opinionated) Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. x
  • 3
    Leonardo’s Artistic Origins
    Leonardo wasn’t born great—like everyone else, he learned his skills from his contemporaries and predecessors. After a walk through Renaissance Florence, follow Leonardo’s artistic development under his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, and figures who influenced him, including the artists Masaccio and Donatello, as well as the humanist thinker and architect Leon Battista Alberti. x
  • 4
    From Apprentice to Partner
    Continue following Leonardo’s artistic growth against the backdrop of revolutionary changes in art, including the rise of paper as the surface of choice for drawings and the introduction of oil paint as a new medium in Italy. Then, learn more about Leonardo’s big break: his contribution to Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ (1472). x
  • 5
    Annunciation—Leonardo’s First Commission
    Here, watch as the increasingly successful Leonardo experiments with replicating nature, unfolding grand vistas, and depicting delicate draperies. Central to this lecture is Professor Bent’s analysis of Leonardo’s first commission as a master painter in Verrocchio’s workshop (and one of his first true masterpieces): Annunciation of the Virgin (1473–1474). x
  • 6
    A New Kind of Portrait—Ginevra de’ Benci
    To truly grasp Leonardo’s originality, you must look at his portraiture. After examining traditional approaches to portraits from antiquity to the early Renaissance, discover how this artistic genius revolutionized the genre—particularly through his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and its shocking emphasis on a woman’s individual features and intellectual presence. x
  • 7
    Leonardo’s Early Madonnas
    Leonardo’s innovative approach to female sitters also informed his interpretation of the female icon of Christian art: the Virgin Mary. Professor Bent reveals how Leonardo’s innovative Madonnas—such as Madonna of the Carnation and the Benois Madonna—radically differed from those of predecessors and contemporaries like Fra Filippo Lippi and Verrocchio. x
  • 8
    Scandal, Reprieve, and the Penitent St. Jerome
    Why was Leonardo arrested by the Guardians of the Night, Florence’s vice squad? How did this arrest inspire Leonardo’s haunting and unfinished painting of St. Jerome (one of his first commissions as a truly independent artist)? Find out in this investigation of a key scandal that consumed the artist during his 20s. x
  • 9
    Inventing Early Modern Classical
    Continue tracking Leonardo’s growth as an independent artist with this lecture on his engrossing The Adoration of the Magi and its classical, pyramidal composition; his northern European approach to painting natural landscapes; and his artistic and political ties to a giant of 15th-century Florence: Lorenzo de’ Medici (“The Magnificent”). x
  • 10
    Arrival in Milan—Madonna of the Rocks
    Follow the artist to Milan, where he served in the court of the Renaissance prince Ludovico Sforza, who would employ Leonardo for the next 17 years. Central to this lecture is a detailed aesthetic examination of Leonardo’s masterpiece from 1483, Madonna of the Rocks, which is the first fully realized example of High Renaissance painting. x
  • 11
    Leonardo at Court—Portrait of a Musician
    Portrait of a Musician. Frescoes on the Sala delle Asse. The Sforza Madonna (Litta). Go inside these and other works from Leonardo’s work between the 1470s and 1480s—much of which shocked the local cultural elite. Also, get an insider’s look at the politics and structure of a typical Renaissance court. x
  • 12
    Leonardo and the Ladies
    Professor Bent invites you to peer behind the canvases of Leonardo’s portraits of female sitters, including Cecilia Gallerani (in Lady with an Ermine) and Lucrezia Crivelli (in La Belle Ferronniere). In doing so, you’ll learn how Leonardo ushered in a new phase of portraiture that was both more naturalistic and psychological. x
  • 13
    Threats to the Italian Renaissance—The 1490s
    Pull back from Italy to explore the overall geopolitics of 1490s Europe—which would provide fertile ground for the next phases of Leonardo’s brilliant career. You’ll investigate power struggles in the Holy Roman Empire, the corrupt reigns of several popes, French expansionism under Charles VIII, and Columbus’s daring voyage to the New World. x
  • 14
    Leonardo the Inventor and Engineer
    Begin your initial foray into Leonardo’s incredibly inventive technical mind with a look at his engineering work. Comb through the artist’s various papers and manuscripts and get a fascinating glimpse of designs for moveable walls, machines for raising columns and grinding needles, a self-propelled cart, hydraulic devices, bridges, and more. x
  • 15
    Vitruvian Man, Perfection, and Architecture
    Leonardo was an artist deeply interested in matters of architecture. Here, examine some of the master’s most important architectural drawings and their underlying mathematical ideas about perspective and proportion. In addition to viewing his stage sets and church plans, you’ll see how Leonardo’s iconic Vitruvian Man brings together geometry, nature, and spirituality. x
  • 16
    Leonardo the Military Scientist
    Explore the utterly imaginative (and sometimes barbaric) military works that Leonardo drafted while employed by Ludovico Sforza in Milan—but never saw realized. Among the jaw-dropping prototypes you’ll take a closer look at: defensive castle walls and towers, siege-busting bridges, human-powered tanks, repeating canons, giant crossbows, and even a submarine. x
  • 17
    Leonardo and Flight
    Investigate one of Leonardo’s greatest passions: the possibility of human flight. You’ll get to peer over his shoulder as he captures birds in flight, creates his first designs for a glider (ornithopter) based on birds, expands his ideas to encompass parachutes and mechanical wings, and attempts to design grand self-powered flying machines. x
  • 18
    Drawing Human Figures and Caricatures
    After a brief look at the role drawings played in Renaissance art, see how Leonardo used drawings to better depict the myriad features of the human body. Professor Bent provides illuminating commentary on Leonardo’s detailed drawings of grimacing faces, hallowed religious figures, dramatic battles, and even comedic caricatures. x
  • 19
    Colossus—The Sculpture for Ludovico Sforza
    Leonardo’s mathematical knowledge and drive to capture natural forms extended into his sculpture as well. Follow Leonardo’s process from start to near completion as he developed an ultimately unrealized sculpture that nevertheless remains a powerful example of his sculptural and engineering genius: a colossal 24-foot-high bronze horse in memory of the father of Ludovico Sforza. x
  • 20
    The Making of The Last Supper
    Conclude your look at Leonardo’s career in Milan by focusing on his grand masterpiece from this phase of his career: The Last Supper. By closely analyzing this exceptional work of Western art (and the epitome of High Renaissance Italian painting), you’ll consider it from a variety of technical and theoretical perspectives. x
  • 21
    The Meaning of The Last Supper
    Go deeper into the powerful hidden meanings of The Last Supper. Closely study the painting’s figures to see what each suggests about human nature and the world we live in. Then, follow the story of the painting’s decay, as well as efforts to restore it to its original glory. x
  • 22
    Mantua, Isabella d’Este, and Venice
    Travel alongside Leonardo as he leaves French-invaded Milan and moves between Italian courts as an intellectual free agent. In particular, you’ll focus on his productive stays in Mantua (which led to his drawing the Portrait of Isabella d’Este) and Venice (where Leonardo designed the concept for a diving suit). x
  • 23
    Return to Florence—Sfumato and an Exhibition
    Professor Bent guides you through a nomadic period of Leonardo’s career, a dramatically productive phase that saw Leonardo complete a massive mural for the Republic of Florence, military plans for sovereign states, and an impressive drawing of the Virgin Mary and Saint Anne—now lost—that led to the world’s first one-man art show. x
  • 24
    Leonardo, Cesare Borgia, and Machiavelli
    In 1502, Leonardo went into the service of the Renaissance villain Cesare Borgia, where he put his talents to use in the name of science and engineering. Comb through some of the artist’s surveyor maps, explore his schematics for machines, learn the story of his help in attempting to redirect the Arno River, his connection to Machiavelli, and more. x
  • 25
    Michelangelo and Leonardo
    Continue following Leonardo’s life and work in the Florentine state. In this lecture, you’ll learn more about his relationship with another great Renaissance artist, Michelangelo; discover the story behind Leonardo’s epic Battle of Anghiari of 1503; and compare that masterpiece with Michelangelo’s own Battle of Cascina from 1505 to 1506. x
  • 26
    Mona Lisa—La Gioconda
    Who was the Mona Lisa painted for? What is the sitter’s true identity? How did Leonardo achieve the painting’s brilliant sfumato effects? What should you really be looking for when confronted with this painting? Get solid answers to these and other probing questions about Leonardo’s most enigmatic work. x
  • 27
    Raphael and Leonardo
    Explore the connection between Leonardo and Raphael, who would soon go on to paint his own masterpieces, including the School of Athens. How did this relationship develop? What was Michelangelo’s role in this mentor-protégé relationship? In addressing these questions, you’ll focus on Leonardo’s now-lost erotic work, Leda and the Swan. x
  • 28
    Leonardo in Milan and Pope Julius II in Rome
    The rise of Pope Julius II led to the rebuilding of Rome that drew the talents of Michelangelo, Raphael, and even Leonardo’s associate Bramante. So why was Leonardo content to avoid papal Rome in favor of Milan and Florence? Discover the answer in this lecture on the changing landscape of early 1500s Italy. x
  • 29
    The Anatomical Drawings—His Greatest Works?
    Focus on Leonardo’s revolutionary anatomical drawings of everything from the cardiovascular system and fetuses to eyes and heads to spines and musculature. You’ll see how, taken together, these anatomical drawings are remarkably accurate, scientifically groundbreaking, and profoundly naturalistic—all while produced under almost unimaginable conditions involving freshly dissected corpses. x
  • 30
    In Praise of Painting—Leonardo’s Manifesto
    Pore over some of Leonardo’s most fascinating ideas, credos, observations, and philosophical statements about optics, light, perspective, distance, and other artistic concepts. These views, assembled after the artist’s death, are as close to a personal manifesto as Leonardo ever gave and stress his profound belief that painting was the noblest art of all. x
  • 31
    Leonardo and the Medici in Rome
    Survey the nomadic Leonardo’s period working as a consultant for the court of Pope Leo X, also known as Giovanni de’ Medici. While spearheading several projects, including a stylistically innovative Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and a Lamb, this professional relationship would ultimately prove problematic and lead to Leonardo’s final departure from Italy. x
  • 32
    High Renaissance Art from Rome to Venice
    How did Leonardo’s works and ideas go on to inspire some of the Italian High Renaissance’s other great artists? Here, Professor Bent trains your eyes to see hidden connections between Leonardo and dramatic works by artists, including Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio. x
  • 33
    Last Years—Leonardo in France
    First, finish your look at Leonardo’s tenure in Rome with an analysis of his exciting drawing, The Deluge. Then, learn about some of the ideas Leonardo developed for his final patron: Francois I, king of France. It was for the French court that Leonardo would continue to work until his death in 1519. x
  • 34
    Renaissance Man and Man of the Renaissance
    Dispel any doubts you may have about Leonardo’s status as Western history’s greatest Renaissance man. In this lecture, explore the political, cultural, and spiritual climate of the times that led to the possibility of such a comprehensive individual’s existence. In the process, you’ll get a window into the sources and reasons for Leonardo’s lasting genius. x
  • 35
    The End of an Era
    During the 1520s, the dream of the High Renaissance came to an end. Professor Bent explores some of the reasons behind this dramatic shift away from classical art styles, including the lack of suitable heirs to Leonardo; the demise of papal power; and the failed ambitions of leading Italian cities, including Milan and Florence. x
  • 36
    The Legacies of Leonardo da Vinci
    What should we remember Leonardo for as an artist? As an inventor? As an engineer? As a scientific observer? In this lecture, take one last look at the legacy of Leonardo’s life and work, his relevance to today’s world, and why he remains—even today—one of Western history’s greatest individuals. x

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Your professor

George R. Bent

About Your Professor

George R. Bent, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University
Professor George R. Bent has taught in the Department of Art and Art History at Washington and Lee University since 1993. The holder of the Sidney Gause Childress Professorship in the Arts, Professor Bent offers courses on the art and architecture of Northern and Southern Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance—including lecture courses on medieval art in Byzantium and Italy, Italian...
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Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 43.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course Dr. Bent takes a little getting used to, as he sounds a bit stiff at first, but he is a font of knowledge with fascinating side stories about the commercial aspects of art in the high Renaissance. I've learned so much about Leonardo and art at that time. Well worth every penny!
Date published: 2017-09-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great topic - disappointing presentation I really enjoy Renaissance art history. Leonardo, of course, is a fascinating topic. Content delivered by the professor was good. Presentation by the professor was weak. Like he was reading a script or reading from a book. I admire professors (ex. Harl) who has such command of the material that he can present the lecture in a more conversational style.
Date published: 2017-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Extremely detailed. One quibble is that for a video course there was less video content and more talking head than I would like. I think course could have been compressed by 2 to 4 lectures. Prof clearly has a great love for this subject and great knowledge.
Date published: 2017-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unfinished Business Explained We all know that Leonardo did not produce very many paintings and of those he did many are not complete (or in some cases are lost and only copies remain: e.g Leda and the Swan). And we also know that Leonardo did not really build very many (or really any) of his fantastic creations such as war machines or flights of fancy. Until this course I never understood why this genius produced so few paintings and so rarely turned his drawings and sketches into functioning machines. I really gained quite a bit of insight as to the reasons as to how Leonardo worked shuffling between his many interests not being able to give his entire attention to a painting in progress. And until this course, I did not at all appreciate the difficulties of securing patrons who had their own demands on his time. Dr. Bent’s knowledge and enthusiasm for Leonardo largely contributed to enhancing my appreciation and understanding of Leonardo, his work and times. The course pretty much follows the life of Leonardo from his birth to his death, with the final lecture being devoted to his influence after his death. Although some reviewers took exception to the course length (36 lectures), I was pleased to have two full lectures devoted to “The Last Supper” as well as one considering “Mona Lisa”. And his other paintings get significant parts of lectures focusing on each one of them. And don’t forget the drawings and sketches. And his life in various courts and cities, all set in the swirl of the times of the High Renaissance. There are plenty of details of many of the personal lives of Leonardo’s patrons, friends, mentors, mentees and colleagues. All of this I found fascinating and I thought that 36 lectures managed to cover the ground very well. Kudos to Professor Bent for this outstanding course.
Date published: 2017-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb I have always been fascinated with the genius of Leonardo. As a retired engineer and occasional artist I can only marvel at his skill set that was unmatched at that time. He truly was far ahead of the limited knowledge base of the 15th century. The professor is an outstanding lecturer and holds your interest very well. He is not only versed in the history of the Renaissance, but also a very fine art historian. 36 lessons may seem a bit much, but the amount of interesting information contained justifies the time investment. Enjoy!
Date published: 2017-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course This is a first rate course and Professor Bent is an exception lecturer. The information presented is well researched and illustrated. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Leonardo da Vinci, his life, historical context, and work.
Date published: 2017-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I needed! I had always said that if I could go back in history and meet one person, it would have to be Leonardo da Vinci. Obviously that could not be done, but Professor George Bent offers the next best thing--a thorough review of his life and works, including all of his curiosities and endeavors, from painting and sculpture to his vast interests in anatomy, hydraulics, flight, etc. The added information on the entire Renaissance and many other historical figures is perfect. This was actually the second time I've gone through this course, just because it is so interesting and has so much to offer.
Date published: 2017-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Leonardo Art This was my first purchase of Great Courses. I can not express enough how interesting the course content is. Professor George Bent is wonderful to listen to. His manner of speaking is confident yet he holds your interest even for long periods at a time. He makes the information interesting and adds his own interpretation at times, which I liked. The artwork pictorials were beautiful. I would definitely recommend the series to a fellow artist.
Date published: 2016-08-30
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