Da Vinci Leonardo

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Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci Biography Leonardo da Vinci was a leading artist and intellectual of the Italian Renaissance who's known for his enduring works "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa." Synopsis Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci was the epitome of a “Renaissance man.” Possessor of a curious mind and keen intellect, da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work as a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman. His ideas and body of work—which includes "Virgin of the Rocks," "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa"—have influenced countless artists and ma...

Leonardo da Vinci Biography

Leonardo da Vinci was a leading artist and intellectual of the Italian Renaissance who's known for his enduring works "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa."

Synopsis

Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci was the epitome of a “Renaissance man.” Possessor of a curious mind and keen intellect, da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work as a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman. His ideas and body of work—which includes "Virgin of the Rocks," "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa"—have influenced countless artists and made da Vinci a leading light of the Italian Renaissance.

Born out of wedlock to respected Florentine notary Ser Piero and a young peasant woman named Caterina, he was raised by his father and his stepmothers. At the age of five, he moved to his father’s family estate in nearby Vinci, the Tuscan town from which the surname associated with Leonardo derives, and lived with his uncle and grandparents. 

Young Leonardo received little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction, but his artistic talents were evident from an early age. Around the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He learned a wide breadth of technical skills including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting. His earliest known dated work—a pen-and-ink drawing of a landscape in the Arno valley—was sketched in 1473.

At the age of 20, da Vinci qualified for membership as a master artist in Florence’s Guild of Saint Luke and established his own workshop. However, he continued to collaborate with his teacher for an additional five years. It is thought that Verrocchio completed his “Baptism of Christ” around 1475 with the help of his student, who painted part of the background and the young angel holding the robe of Jesus. According to Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, written around 1550 by artist Giorgio Vasari, Verrocchio was so humbled by the superior talent of his pupil that he never picked up a paintbrush again. Most scholars, however, dismiss Vasari’s account as apocryphal. His best-known works are two of the most famous paintings of all time, the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper."

Humble Beginnings

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in a farmhouse nestled amid the undulating hills of Tuscany outside the village of Anchiano in present-day Italy. Born out of wedlock to respected Florentine notary Ser Piero and a young peasant woman named Caterina, he was raised by his father and his stepmothers. At the age of five, he moved to his father’s family estate in nearby Vinci, the Tuscan town from which the surname associated with Leonardo derives, and lived with his uncle and grandparents. 

Young Leonardo received little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction, but his artistic talents were evident from an early age. Around the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He learned a wide breadth of technical skills including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting. His earliest known dated work—a pen-and-ink drawing of a landscape in the Arno valley—was sketched in 1473.

At the age of 20, da Vinci qualified for membership as a master artist in Florence’s Guild of Saint Luke and established his own workshop. However, he continued to collaborate with his teacher for an additional five years. It is thought that Verrocchio completed his “Baptism of Christ” around 1475 with the help of his student, who painted part of the background and the young angel holding the robe of Jesus. According to Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, written around 1550 by artist Giorgio Vasari, Verrocchio was so humbled by the superior talent of his pupil that he never picked up a paintbrush again. Most scholars, however, dismiss Vasari’s account as apocryphal.

Florentine court records show that in 1476 da Vinci and four other young men were charged with sodomy, a crime punishable by exile or even death. Although da Vinci was acquitted, his whereabouts went entirely undocumented for the following two years.

“Renaissance Man” Emerges in Milan 

After leaving Verrocchio’s studio, da Vinci received his first independent commission in 1478 for an altarpiece to reside in a chapel inside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Three years later the Augustinian monks of Florence’s San Donato a Scopeto tasked him to paint “Adoration of the Magi.” The young artist, however, would leave the city and abandon both commissions without ever completing them. 

In 1482, Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici commissioned da Vinci to create a silver lyre and bring it as a peace gesture to Ludovico Sforza, who ruled Milan as its regent. After doing so, da Vinci lobbied Ludovico for a job and sent the future Duke of Milan a letter that barely mentioned his considerable talents as an artist and instead touted his more marketable skills as a military engineer. Using his inventive mind, da Vinci sketched war machines such as a war chariot with scythe blades mounted on the sides, an armored tank propelled by two men cranking a shaft and even an enormous crossbow that required a small army of men to operate. The letter worked, and Ludovico brought da Vinci to Milan for a tenure that would last 17 years. 

His ability to be employed by the Sforza clan as an architecture and military engineering advisor as well as a painter and sculptor spoke to da Vinci’s keen intellect and curiosity about a wide variety of subjects. Like many leaders of Renaissance humanism, da Vinci did not see a divide between science and art. He viewed the two as intertwined disciplines rather than separate ones. He believed studying science made him a better artist. 

Leonardo thought sight was humankind’s most important sense and eyes the most important organ. He stressed the importance of saper vedere, “knowing how to see.” He believed in the accumulation of direct knowledge and facts through observation.

“A good painter has two chief objects to paint—man and the intention of his soul,” da Vinci wrote. “The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movement of the limbs.” To more accurately depict those gestures and movements, da Vinci began to seriously study anatomy and dissect human and animal bodies during the 1480s. His drawings of a fetus in utero, the heart and vascular system, sex organs and other bone and muscular structures are some of the first on human record.

In addition to his anatomical investigations, da Vinci studied botany, geology, zoology, hydraulics, aeronautics and physics. He sketched his observations on loose sheets of papers and pads that he tucked inside his belt. He placed the papers in notebooks and arranged them around four broad themes—painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy. He filled dozens of notebooks with finely drawn illustrations and scientific observations. His ideas were mainly theoretical explanations, laid out in exacting detail, but they were rarely experimental.

Art and science intersected perfectly in his sketch of “Vitruvian Man,” which depicted a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart inside both a square and a circle. A man ahead of his time, da Vinci appeared to prophesize the future with his sketches of machines resembling a bicycle, helicopter and a flying machine based on the physiology of a bat.

'The Last Supper' and Other Works

Leonardo was commissioned to work on numerous projects during his time in Milan. His painting of the “Virgin of the Rocks,” begun in 1483, demonstrated his pioneering use of chiaroscuro—a stark contrast between darkness and light that gave a three-dimensionality to his figures—and sfumato—a technique in which subtle gradations, rather than strict borders, infuse paintings with a softer, smoky aura. 

Around 1495, Ludovico commissioned da Vinci to paint “The Last Supper” on the back wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. The masterpiece, which took approximately three years to complete, captures the drama of the moment when Jesus informs the Twelve Apostles gathered for Passover dinner that one of them would soon betray him. The range of facial expressions and the body language of the figures around the table bring the masterful composition to life. The decision by da Vinci to paint with tempera and oil on dried plaster instead of painting a fresco on fresh plaster led to the quick deterioration and flaking of “The Last Supper.” Although an improper restoration caused further damage to the mural, it has now been stabilized using modern conservation techniques.

Return to Florence and “Mona Lisa”

After brief stays in Mantua and Venice, da Vinci returned to Florence. In 1502 and 1503, he briefly worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and commander of the papal army. He traveled outside of Florence to survey military construction projects and sketch city plans and topographical maps. He designed plans, possibly with noted diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, to divert the Arno River away from rival Pisa in order to deny its wartime enemy access to the sea.

Upon his return to Florence in 1503, da Vinci started work on the “Battle of Anghiari,” a mural commissioned for the council hall in the Palazzo Vecchio that was to be twice as large as “The Last Supper.” However, he abandoned the project after two years when the mural began to deteriorate before he had a chance to finish it.

At the same time he began the “Battle of Anghiari,” da Vinci started working in 1503 on what would become his most well known painting—and arguably the most famous painting in the world—the “Mona Lisa.” The privately commissioned work is characterized by the enigmatic smile of the woman in the half-portrait, which derives from da Vinci’s sfumato technique.

Toward the end of his life, in about 1508, King Louis XII of France asked him to accompany him to Milan, and he went willingly. There, he stayed working on anatomy and other fields until 1512, when the French lost Milan. He then had to go to Rome. There, he stayed until his life was finished. He was very good friends with Guiliano de’ Medici, brother of the duke, and he was well housed and treated very kindly. Sadly, while in the bliss of the Renaissance, his health started to fail. In March, 1516, Guiliano died, and Leonardo was left alone in the world, practically deserted. Not far thereafter, on May 2, 1519, the mind of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci died.

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