Spirit of Leonardo
Painter and photographer Maria Theresa Meloni has a unique ability to capture the angelic glow that permeated Renaissance art.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italy gave birth to what we now call the Renaissance, a period that balanced the traditions of the ancient past with contemporary innovations in art and engineering that focused on the future.
The word “renaissance” literally means rebirth, and the artists of the day drew from the deep well of their ancient heritage. A quintessential line of wisdom for the day came from the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who had written some 2,000 years earlier, “Man is the measure of all things.” Leonardo da Vinci actually emblazoned his famed sketch of the Vitruvian Man with those ancient words.
The masters of the Renaissance realized that the structure of life on earth—such as a person’s body or the shape of a leaf—adheres to a divine law of proportion. They called this the Golden Ratio, and they believed that true artists should use that divine sense of balance and interconnectedness as their starting point—regardless of whether the artwork be a painting, a building, calligraphy, or any form of artistic design.
Today, the spirit of the Renaissance lives on in Italy with Florentine painter and photographer Maria Theresa Meloni.
The era’s aesthetic of harmony is “absolute beauty,” she says. “The beauty that I try to convey is the one of that era.”
Meloni does more than emulate her predecessors. She learns from them and gives new life to the Renaissance principles of beauty through portraiture, using either the medium of photography or oil painting. All of her artistic themes are inspired by the Renaissance, with portfolio categories such as ‘Cherubs’ and ‘Madonna and Child.’
Being born and raised in Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Meloni grew up surrounded by the era’s ‘absolute beauty’—churches and public spaces alive with angels and divine imagery. For further exploration, she would gaze at the wonders contained in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery in the historic centre of the city.
Her connection with the Renaissance stretches back through her childhood, but it wasn’t until a mystical meeting with one of the epoch’s great masters that her relationship began to mature.
Meeting the Master
“The maestro I love—love as if he was a relative—is Leonardo da Vinci,” Meloni says. “My connection with Leonardo is hard to explain. First of all, I grew up all my life with everyone telling me that I looked like Mona Lisa.”
It’s true. With Meloni’s fair skin and her soft but deep gaze, she exudes an inner nobility that reminds you of Leonardo’s masterpiece and gives her a quintessentially Renaissance look. She could have been the sitter for any number of Leonardo’s works. The same calm wisdom in her eyes can be seen in the glorious face of Mary in Leonardo’s painting Virgin of the Rocks.
“Why do all the paintings look like me?” she would often wonder. “Have we met in another life?” That kinship with Leonardo deepened even further one day when she was 23.
Meloni was a children’s illustrator at the time, and she had taken a trip to see the Royal Château of Amboise, one of the residences of Francois the First in France’s Loire Valley. She meandered into a quaint, richly-detailed Gothic chapel on the property, unsure of what she would find.
“I was very sad that day, far away from home. For some reason, there were no tourists. It was just me in this chapel,” she says. “This little tiny church is like a sand castle standing on this cliff, bathed by the sun.”
She says the sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows was like being immersed inside a rainbow.
“It was like magic. I was alone, with all the colours that you can think all over the place. I thought, ‘Where am I?’”
Then she saw it. On a simple granite grave with a bronze medallion read the inscription, “Leonardo da Vinci.” Unbeknownst to her, it was the maestro’s burial place.
“I put my hand on the grave,” she says. “And then … magic reconnection.”
Magical moments like that day in the chapel pop up frequently in Meloni’s stories. Whether it’s a florist in Bologna who helped make a photo shoot possible or a random encounter with a girl whose beauty just begs to be painted, somewhere along the way, serendipity steps in.
Her openness to receive inspiration and stay connected to that spirit throughout the creation of her art is what makes Meloni more than just an artist. In Italian, there is a unique concept called disegno, which is most suitable to describe her work.
The Italian word for drawing or design (disegno)—carries deeper meaning in art, describing an artist who can both devise the artistic concept and execute it. Like a mirror or microcosm of God, the disegno artist can both conceive and create, raising the status of the work from craft to art.
A sitter, for example, wouldn’t come to Leonardo with a specific concept, Meloni says. Instead, he would be inspired by the subject matter, and his vision would be born. “Then Leonardo would create the painting according to his idea,” she says.
Meloni works in the same way.
“It’s called vision. When you have the vision, you can apply it to a drawing, photograph, or an oil painting, because the vision is in my brain,” she says. How she receives the vision “is always the same, it’s just the execution that changes.”
Meloni can’t explain how the inspiration and vision come to her; it’s just automatic, like her mind is tapping into another realm.
“The inspiration is like a spring. For some reason, my brain is wired like this,” she says. “You can take me anywhere in the world, and I’ll find you a beautiful spot that I would consider absolutely fantastic and connected to the Medici time.”
On a trip to Harvard, for example, Meloni happened upon a young woman who she says looked “very Pre-Raphaelite,” referring to the 19th-century movement that promoted highly detailed realism and symbolism similar to the style used in the era before the famous Renaissance painter Raphael.
Meloni approached the girl and said, “I’ve never seen a woman in my life that looked as if you’re walking out of a Dante Gabriel Rossetti image. Your lips, your eyes.” Surprised, the girl wasn’t familiar with Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite style of work. But when Meloni showed her, she thought the resemblance was uncanny.
“She comes to the studio, and then an image forms into my head,” Meloni says. “I don’t know how to explain this, but I saw her standing. I saw columns. I saw marble. I saw a vast city on a body of water.” While she was looking nearby for locations to shoot in upstate New York by the Hudson River, “I found the place that I had in my mind.”
Once the location and image are set, Meloni designs the Renaissance-era clothing that adorns her subjects. Her friend Angela Stavola then sews together the bespoke outfits. The exquisite detail, rich fabrics, and regal designs take you back to the Golden Age physically as well as in spirit.
Meloni’s gorgeous compositions and beautiful textures show her skill, but the aspect of her work that elevates it to mastery is her ability to capture the angelic glow that permeated Renaissance art.
“Light is the engine of everything,” She says. “Light is king at all times.”
Her strength is “the understanding of light in really small details … the fragmentation of light.”
“For example, if you’re in a dark room and you add a small amount of light, all of a sudden you see the dust floating within the blades of light,” says Meloni. She will even use humidification or fog to expand the light and enhance the chiaroscuro, the uneven contrast of light and shadow created by light coming from a particular direction.
True to the spirit of the Renaissance, Meloni’s photography and oil paintings revive the nobility and grace of a previous age—an approach to art as timely today as it was centuries ago.
“Art,” she says, “is a connection to immortality.”