Cracking the Code: Leonardo da Vinci and Renaissance Art in Milan, 1400-1550

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Course Information
Art History
Terms offered: 
Fall, Spring
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

No previous art history background is necessary, although the pace is that of a 300-level course. More advanced students such as Art History majors receive assignments personally tailored to their level and interests.

Additional student cost: 

See Field Studies.


This course introduces students to the history of Renaissance art with special focus on the city of Milan and its most illustrious citizen, Leonardo da Vinci. More than simply a backdrop for Leonardo's achievements, Milan is considered here as his essential creative matrix. Throughout the course, special attention is paid not only to Leonardo's impact on the city, but also to Milan as a fertile terrain for his imagination, fantasies, and ingenious problem-solving skills. Taking advantage of the students' stay in Milan, the course emphasizes in-depth examinations of works that can be seen firsthand around the city. At the same time, students broaden their understanding of the historical moment under scrutiny. Da Vinci's achievements in Milan are used as a prism through which to study major artistic, social and cultural issues of the period in which he lived and worked. Field studies around the city of Milan include the Castello Sforzesco with Leonardo's fresco ceiling commissioned by the Sforza family, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana with Leonardo's Codice Atlantico, the bronze Sforza horse at San Siro, the Museum of Science and Technology, the Duomo and, of course, The Last Supper.

Attendance policy: 

Regular class attendance is mandatory. Students are expected to attend classes each day, including course-related excursions.

IES Abroad Milano allows a maximum of TWO excused absences per semester. Each further absence will automatically result in a penalty of two points off (2/100) on the final grade. SEVEN absences per course (including 2 excused absences) will result in a failing grade for that course. Furthermore, an absence on the date of scheduled tests, presentations or quizzes does not entitle you to recover/reschedule such tests. Failure to attend your midterm and/or final exam will result in an F grade on that paper/exam.

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of this course, students will gain thorough knowledge of Leonardo's role in art and history from the Italian Renaissance to the present, and will develop an understanding of the complex relationship between fact and interpretation with respect to writings about Leonardo. They will have learned about the major artistic, social, cultural and political forces that shaped Renaissance art. As works studied are often still in their original physical settings, during field studies to museums and churches in Milan students will come to understand the advantages of experiencing the works firsthand and in situ, with special consideration for art's material aspects.

Method of presentation: 

Lectures, field studies, student presentations

Field study: 

Class field study visits to monuments and museums:

  • Castello Sforzesco, with special focus on Leonardo’s frescoed room, La sala delle asse
  • Cost for Cattolica students: 1.50 euros.
  • (virtual tour online).
  • Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, with special focus on Leonardo’s Codice Atlantico and his Portrait of a Musician, 1490c.
  • Cost for Cattolica students:  8 euros.
  • Museum of Science and Technology
  • Cost for Cattolica students:  3 euros.
  • Santa Maria delle Grazie:  Leonardo’s Last Supper (time to be announced)
  • Cost for Cattolica students:  6.50 euros.

Independent field studies to:

  • Marco d’Agrate’s St. Bartholomew in the Duomo
  • Bramante’s trompe-l’oeil in the Church of San Satiro (via Torino)
  • Leonardo’s Bronze Horse in San Siro, Milan
  • No entry fee to these venues

*Please note that guest lectures and field studies are subject to change based on availability of lecturers or guides and/or tickets.

Required work and form of assessment: 
  • Participation and Professional Skills - 10%
  • Assignments (notebook, write-ups for readings, guest speakers and field studies) - 15%
  • Midterm Exam - 25%
  • Group Project and Oral Presentation - 20%
  • Final Exam - 30%

Students are asked to compile a notebook during the course just as Leonardo did during his life. This is a bound notebook, which should contain a selection of the following: critical reflections, analyses, drawing and sketches or photographs that rethink in deeper ways issues related to the content of the class. A simple travel log or diary type description is not considered an entry. It should contain an entry for every week and must be brought with you to every class. It will be turned in twice during the semester and presented in class at any time. It is also to be used for independent and class field studies, and should accompany you on your weekend travels to important Leonardo-related sites (the Louvre, The National Gallery in London, the Uffizi, the Vatican, etc...). In addition to the notebook, there will be several short written assignments covering readings, guest speakers and field studies to be completed and pasted into the notebook. Entries are graded for quality as well as consistency. Plagiarism will result automatically in the grade of 'F' (%) Note that electronic submissions of notebooks and assignments are not acceptable; computer or printer failures are not an acceptable excuse. Paper copies are easily obtained by taking your memory stick to a photo/copy store.

Group Projects
Each group is asked to design a project that addresses an important question about Leonardo's work. Projects requires a reconstruction of a Leonardo idea described both within its historical context and exemplified as to how it might be applicable to our world today. The final form will include documentation of group work, bibliography,  illustrations and a presentation of the results to the class. Plagiarism will result automatically in the grade of 'F' (0%). Students are required to attend the presentations of all other groups. Failure to attend will lower individual project grade by one letter grade.

Midterm and Final Exams 
The exams are comprised of three sections: 1)slide identification and/or slide comparison; 2)multiple choice; 3) short answer and/or essay question based on material considered in class, required readings as well as guest lectures topics and discussion. The final exam is comprehensive, although greater weight is given to material covered in the second half of the course. You will receive official notice of the exact date and time of the final exam as soon as all possible overlaps have been identified after add/drop deadline.

General Policies
Students are responsible for knowing and following the general IES Abroad Academic policies.

Academic Honesty
Please see page 41-42 of IES Abroad Student Policies.

Late Policy
All works are due on assignment due date: presentations must be given on the expected date. Midterm and final exams cannot be made up. No exceptions. Missed exams or late works will receive a grade of Fail (0%). for further information please see IES Abroad Academic Policy Guidelines. 

Special Needs
Students are expected to complete all assignments and exams required. Anyone requiring assistance due to a physical or learning disability or language difficulty (for example, if English is not your first language) or religious beliefs must notify the instructor immediately (prior to the 2nd week of term) so that assistance may be arranged in time.

Participation and Professional Skills
Simply being present in the classroom is not enough. The class structure and amount of work involved in this course requires students:

  • to attend each entire class session
  • to be prepared for and participate actively in class discussions
  • to submit on-time, typed, proofread, complete reading and writing assignments
  • to alert the professor to problems encountered with the class early enough for them to be resolved
Unit Content Leonardo Works Other Works Reading Due
1. Beginnings
  • Course introduction. Definition of Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci as its emblem; Vasari; Self-portraiture
  • Field study: Visit to Museo Leonardo3'
  • Self- Portrait (1512 c.)
  • Self-Portraits of other Renaissance artists
  • Please check Moodle for readings and assignments
2. Milan Context
  • Early Renaissance Art up to Leonardo. Discovery of perspective.

  • Why Milan? Leonardo's letter to Ludovico Sforza.

  • Baptism of Christ (1472-1475) with Verrocchio: Annunciation (1472-1475); Adoration of the Magi (1481-82)
  • Leonardo's letter to Ludovico Sforza (1482); Drawings of War Machines, 1482
  • Giotto to Piero della Francesca: other Baptisms, Annunciations and Adorations
  • Other warriors
    Machiavelli on the Prince warrior scholars


3. New relationships, collaborations, tensions, 'the social'
  • Field study: Exterior and interior of Santa Maria delle Grazie Church, Bramante Cloister
  • Artist and patrons
  • Field study: Castello Sforzesco
    (Sala delle Asse)


  • Bramante, trompe l'oeil
  • Sala delle Asse in passing
  • Giotto, Mantegna
4. Two forces held in tension: paradoxes
  • Science & Art, the 'soul' harmony, creation, humanism, perfection
  • Science & Art, the 'soul' harmony, creation, humanism, imperfection
  • Review
  • Midterm Exam
  • St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1480 c.); Vitruvian Man; anatomy studies
  • Deluge drawings: Leda and the Swan various versions, various dates, copies


  • Raphael, School of Athens (1509-1510)
  • Michelangelo, Deluge (1508-1512), Botticelli,
    Birth of Venus (1482-1486), Venus and Mars (1485 c.)
  • Overview of group projects
5. Thecnique Material & Metaphor
  • Sculpture
  • Field study: Museum of Science and Technology
  • Line and Color, Chiaroscuro, Sfumato
  • Sforza Steed, works that are 'sculptural', copy of Battle of Anghiari (1550-1603 c.)
  • Reconstructions of Leonardo's inventions
  • Donatello, Verrocchio, Ghiberti, Michelangelo
  • Pisanello, Titian
6. Religion and Humanity
  • Madonna of the rocks
  • (Spring Break)
  • (Spring Break)
  • Last Supper
  • Madonna of the rocks (1482-1486) and second version (1508);
  • Madonna and Child with Carnation (1475-1476); Benois Madonna (1479-1480); Madonna Litta (1481-1497);
  • Madonna of  the Yarnwinder (1501-1507)
  • Last supper (1494-1498)
  • Other Last Suppers
7. The human being
  • Portraits
  • Ginevra de' Benci (1476-1478 c.)
  • Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), (1488-1490); La Belle Feronnière (1496-1497 c.)
  • Other portraits
8.  Self & Other, Others & Self
  • Mona Lisa
  • Field Study:
    Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
  • Mona Lisa (1503-1507)
  • Portrait of a Musician (1490)
  • Silver Lyre
  • Other images of Renaissance women & men
  • De Predis, Lady with the Pearl Cap (1485-1500c.)
9. Endings, Part I
  • Guest Lecture:
    Leonardo da Vinci and Contemporary Art
10. Endings, Part II
  • Group projects presentations
  • Review
11. Final Exam Final Exam      

Students will receive official notice of the exact date and time of the final exam as soon as all possible overlaps have been identified after add/drop deadline.



Required readings: 

Course Reader, consisting of excerpts from:

  • Adams, Laurie Schneider, Italian Renaissance Art, 2001
  • Barolsky, Paul, “Leonardo, Satan and the Mystery of Modern Art”
  • “The Mysterious Meaning of Leonardo's St. John the Baptist”, Source, spring 1989, 11-15
  • (reprinted in Leonardo da Vinci Selected Scholarship, ed C. Farago (New York, Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • Baxandall, Michael, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1988
  • Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code (any edition)
  • Freud, Sigmund, Leonardo da Vinci, a Memory of his Childhood, 1910
  • Kemp, Martin, Leonardo da Vinci. The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981
  • Maiorino, Giancarlo, Leonardo da Vinci, the Daedalian Mythmaker, University Park,, Pennsylvania University Press, 1992
  • Poseq, Avigdor W. G., “Left and Right in Leonardo”, Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 66, 1997, pp. 37-50
  • Richter, Jean Paul, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publications, 1970
  • Steinberg, Leo, Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, New York, Zone Books, 2001
  • Turner, A. Richard, Inventing Leonardo, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1992
  • Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of Artists, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998
  • Wayman, Alex, “The Human Body as Microcosm in India, Greek Cosmology and Sixteenth Century Europe”, in History of Religions, vol. 22, n,.2 (nov. 1982), pp. 172-190
  • Welch, Evelyn, Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500, Oxford History Art Series, Oxford University Press, 2001
  • Woods-Marsden, Joanna, Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist, Cambridge, Yale University Press, 1998
  • Zöllner, Frank, “'Ogni pittore dipinge sé”' Leonardo da Vinci and 'automimesis”, 1989 (see link)
  • Excerpts from “The Art of Renaissance Science”,