Leonardo da Vinci’s Colour Codes


How the painter of Mona Lisa wore his reds-pinks with pride 

Dusty rose gown, dark purple stockings, crimson satin coat, pink cap…these are but a few of the shades of pink in Leonardo da Vinci’s wardrobe—or, to be precise, trunk, as wardrobes weren’t widely used at that time. The Italian Renaissance polymath wrote inventories of the clothes inside his trunk, and he wore them proudly wherever he went. Dressing, for the painter of the Mona Lisa and the inventor of the parachute, belonged to life’s pleasures. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) known artworks number less than 20, but he also left behind drawings and writings about all aspects of life. Giovanbatista Giraldi’s (Italian poet-novelist) father knew da Vinci. He explained that, once he decided what kind of person he wanted to paint, da Vinci went where “people of that kind assembled and observed their faces, their manners, dresses and gestures; and…noted it in a little book which he was always carrying in his belt.”

These “notebooks” and single sheets bound together as “codices” contain tens of thousands of his reflections. They portray a man who sought knowledge and beauty. A man who wore velvet hoods, taffeta, an Arab burnouse and a rose-coloured Catalan gown. At some point, his choice of colours and fabrics certainly defied Florentine sumptuary laws, which were much stricter than, say, Milan.

Pink was often referred to as a “feast day” colour in the Renaissance, but da Vinci  wore it any day he pleased, as well as various related shades of red and purple. This is particularly interesting because you had to pay fines in Florence for wearing purple or velvet if it was “above your station.” Wearing a crimson silk lucco (long coat) and purple hood, for example, announced you were a city Counsellor or a Lieutenant. Perhaps he paid the fines. Perhaps the “fashion police” turned a blind eye. Perhaps he used his wit to describe his outfit in new Italian terminology that was impossible to translate into the Latin of the law. 

There is precious little besides the supposed self-portrait with voluminous hair drawn in red chalk at the end of his life to show us da Vinci’s ’s physical appearance. Some experts suggest he appears in frescoes and drawings and paintings, but we really have to rely on what people who knew him said about him. 

A contemporary known by various forms of “anonymous” (Anonimo Gaddiano, Anonimo il fiorentino…) wrote that, while everyone was wearing lucco, da Vinci was easily recognisable walking the streets of Florence in his short, rose-coloured tunic, alongside his often colour-coordinated young companion Salai. Though beards were not in fashion, da Vinci  wore a long one, well-groomed and curled.

In his biographical Lives, Vasari mentioned that Leonardo loved curly hair, and that he delighted in Salai’s “fine locks curling in ringlets.” We are reminded of the red chalk drawing.

Portraying himself as painter, da Vinci wrote that, whereas the sculptor’s “face is smeared all over…his house is dirty…a painter… is well-dressed and…adorns himself with the clothes he fancies; his home is clean.”

Biographer Walter Isaacson went as far as to say “Leonardo spent as much on books as he did on clothes.” He did not say it the other way round. 

Alessandro Vezzosi is founder of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci and author of a new da Vinci biography (released this year for the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s  death). He says that while Leonardo “strongly disapproved of conformism,” we mustn’t try to label the man. Though he was a vegetarian, and one friend even wrote that ‘he preferred to dress in linen, so as not to wear something dead,” he also studied the best ways to roast meat. 

He was also, at times, a non-conformist who conformed. Elizabeth Currie of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) reminds us that “the most ‘Florentine’” aspect of clothing of this period was the fabric from which it was made.” The Renaissance polymath  announced his pride in being Florentine every time he wore high-sheen Florentine silks.

“The eye will not be able to recognise the features of a friend or relation, if it were not for their clothes and general appearance.” da Vinci  wrote this in his Treatise on Painting. Clothing tells people who you are. Choosing how you want to be seen can be one of life’s pleasures. 

Add this to his anatomical design studies, and we can understand why he marvelled at the people who pushed their feet into shoes until their “toes pushed against each other and became covered with corns.” And why he shook his head at clothing so tight it seemed to “burst.” 

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