Kia Vahland

Leonardo da Vinci and the Women - An Artist’s Biography

(German title: Leonardo da Vinci und die Frauen)
ca. 350 pages
Kia Vahland
Foto: Kia Vahland
© Alessandra Schellnegger

Art historian and art critic Dr. Kia Vahland is an expert on the Renaissance and editor for culture and humanities at Süddeutsche Zeitung. She has authored books on Sebastiano del Piombo, Michelangelo and Raphael as well as numerous essays on art history. Kia Vahland teaches at the Institute for Art History at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and at the German School of Journalism. Her works have received numerous accolades including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's Michael Althen Prize (2016).

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English world rights (Black Dog & Leventhal/Hachette Books), Brazilian Portuguese rights (Editora Novo Seculo), Portuguese rights (Temas e Debates), Turkey (Marti), Greece (Nissos)

Nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2019

ZEIT best books list, position 3, April 2019

A new biographical look at the great polymath on the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019

»Leonardo takes women seriously, especially at that moment in which they are making a decision that will affect their whole lives. With his unconventional view of Mary the young painter is making a break with convention. Only Leonardo allows his protagonist to improvise. There is no doubt about her clear determination, her authority to make decisions. It is the humbly approaching angel who is the supplicant, not she.« (from the book, about Annunciation)


Leonardo da Vinci is considered modern for examining nature and being the inventor of a number of visionary technical instruments. But that’s not all. The artist also revolutionised European thought as a friend to women too: centuries before women’s emancipation movements, in his paintings he developed the image of the modern woman. Indeed, Leonardo outright invented the image of autonomous woman who thought for herself, the self-assured and simultaneously vulnerably beautiful woman who looked men straight in the eye from the canvas and seemed to reciprocate their love. Neither Leonardo’s worldview nor his artistic and scientific output can be understood without recognizing his sympathy for the other sex in general and his female models in particular. Thus, the central thesis of this new biography is that the particular allure of Leonardo’s oeuvre up to today is due to his open-minded portrayal of the woman.

Focusing on the real as well as the depicted woman, the book talks about Leonardo da Vinci’s life in a new way and describes important works like the paintings of Ginevra de’ Benci, Cecilia Gallerani, the »Mona Lisa«, and the major religious paintings while locating them in the context of the history of attitudes and intellectual thought. A general biography of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work, it is also the history of a man who did and thought far more than his contemporaries and thus came to develop a completely new type of worldview.

Vahland’s book is a portrait of an age in which people had to deal with wars, economic upheavals, and issues of modernisation. As never before, western thinkers, artists, and learned aristocrats turned to the worlds of human emotion and penetrated them both intellectually and aesthetically. In the discourse of the Renaissance women gained a new role as the emotional counterpart of men. The book therefore concerns itself with the life stories of the women Leonardo painted as well as the social relationships that formed these women’s biographies.

Characterised by a sensual and easy-to-read style, the book is panoramic, research intensive, and vividly written and aimed at a wide audience that appreciates understandable, enthrallingly written books of non-fiction full of solid information. While accessible to the general reader with no background in art history, it will also be of interest to specialists thanks to its presentation of the latest state of research.


»Kia Vahland’s language is clear and straightforward. Refusing to lose herself in self-absorbed formulations, she calls things by their name – often with a lovely hint of irony.« Nicola Kuhn, Tagesspiegel (Laudatio on the occasion of the Critics’ Prize of the HBS Cultural Foundation 2015)

»I can only recommend that everyone read her book Michelangelo & Raphael: Rivals in the Rome of the Renaissance; it is clever and learned in addition (…) to being as enthralling as a thriller; it is understandable and yet as serious as only a dust-covered archivist could be – just a whole lot more lively.« Niklas Maak, Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung (Laudatio on the occasion of the Michael-Athen Prize for Criticism 2016)

»As she proves by means of a precise analysis, in which Leonardo’s sfumato technique is described vividly, the Mona Lisa is no longer considered the portrait of an actual person  (most likely of the Florentine Lisa del Giocondo), but rather the image of a ›worldly woman‹ and ›the ideal being as the old master imagined it‹.« Benjamin Paul, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

»In this biography, journalist Kia Vahland deals with Leonardo’s works and shows why his art must be interpreted as a milestone in the history of women’s emancipation.« DIE ZEIT

»The volume, which was nominated for this year’s Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the nonfiction category, impresses not only with its original wording and competent analyses of the works, but also visualises female everyday culture in the Renaissance.« Georg Leisten, Stuttgarter Zeitung

»To illustrate the response these paintings elicited in those years, Kia Vahland keeps spanning impressive historical arcs; she knows her subject extremely well. […] With striking discipline Vahland substantiates each of her visual associations, her flights of fancy with rigorous studies of her sources as well as sociological and historical references.« Swantje Karich, Die Welt

»Occasionally, when the state of the facts permits, Vahland dares to take a very close look in this worthwhile read, describes not only the living conditions but also possible lines of thinking and motivations of the universal genius by consulting his sketch books as well as reports of contemporary witnesses.« Tilman Urbach, Bayern 2

»This may be a new beginning for biographies on Leonardo – at the very least it’s a brilliantly written artist biography.« René Aguigah, Deutschlandfunk No. 10

»an innovative biography« Weltkunst - Das Kunstmagazin der ZEIT

»Leonardo da Vinci and his liberating look at women: Possibly the most fascinating discovery 500 years after his death.« aspekte. Die Kultursendung im ZDF