Leonardo da Vinci

Dates1452 - 1519

To examine the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is to be immersed in the details of Italian Renaissance court life and to witness the bedrock of western art and science. While Leonardo is now arguably best known for paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, in the war-ravaged environment of Italian city-states of the period it was his work as a military engineer that led rulers and patrons to covet his services. On paper, Leonardo foresaw armored tanks, submarines, helicopters, and other advanced weaponry only developed centuries later.

Leonardo’s groundbreaking activity across many disciplines came to embody the idea of the Renaissance Man, a multifaceted contemplative and creative thinker. He was a mathematician, anatomist, naturalist, botanist, hydrologist, engineer (civil, military, and aeronautical), astronomer, sculptor, architect, painter, and scientist. He far surpassed common contemporary definitions of the artist as merely a skilled craftsman.

Born out of wedlock in Vinci, a small Tuscan town, in 1452, Leonardo grew up in the countryside with little formal education. His last name, “da Vinci,” means “from Vinci.” Because he was illegitimate, many professions were closed to Leonardo, including his father’s occupation as a Florentine notary. However, his well-connected father observed Leonardo’s talent at draftsmanship and gained him an apprenticeship aged 17 in one of the principal artistic workshops in Florence, that of Andrea del Verrocchio. This provided a fertile environment for Leonardo’s talents in painting, sculpture, and design. It was in Verrocchio’s studio that he pursued a number of drapery studies—using cloth dipped in plaster then left to dry—to study detailed fold structures candlelit from different angles.

With an insatiable and tireless curiosity driven by close observation, over the course of his lifetime Leonardo completed thousands of notebook pages, elaborating in great detail his studies in notes, sketches, and finished drawings. He started, but never finished, treatises on painting, and a compendium of drawings of horses in all forms of movement. Leonardo was left-handed and wrote in “mirror-writing” from right to left as some left-handers do. This may have been so he wouldn’t smudge the ink as his hand moved across the page, rather than to hide his ideas from others. As his reputation soared, Leonardo was commissioned to paint a large Adoration of the Kings (unfinished) for the monks of S. Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. In it, he created a pyramid-shaped composition that was compact yet dynamic.

In 1482 Leonardo went to Milan in the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza. Most significantly he worked on the Last Supper, the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, and a project for a huge equestrian statue of the Duke, acting as “resident genius” for the Court. In 1499 the French invaded Milan and Leonardo left the city, subsequently resettling in Florence for a number of years, where he painted the Mona Lisa. Leonardo returned to Milan in 1508. He gained access to corpses—probably at the University of Pavia—and finished hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings. He was among the first to understand how blood circulated through the veins and arteries of the heart, and that when they constricted as people aged, heart failure followed. In 1513 Leonardo moved to Rome to work for Giuliano de’Medici, where he studied geometry and optics. Three years later he was lured to France by King Francis 1st, remaining there until his death on May 2, 1519, at age sixty-seven. As a painter, Leonardo is considered a pioneer of the High Renaissance artistic attributes of balance, serenity, and technical accomplishment. His prodigious studies across a wide variety of fields continue to reveal new accomplishments.