Leonardo da Vinci

Italian Painter, Designer, Sculptor, Inventor, Scientist, Architect, and Engineer

Born: April 15, 1452 - Anchiano, Tuscany
Died: May 2, 1519 - Clos Lucé, Amboise (now France)
I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.

Summary of Leonardo da Vinci

During the Italian High Renaissance, the spirit of Humanism abounded, in which artists were deeply entrenched in a study of the humanities to consistently better themselves as people of the world. A person immersed in the comprehension and accomplishment of such varied interests would become later termed a "Renaissance man." Leonardo da Vinci was the first prime exemplar of this term. Although his exhaustive personal interests led to his mastery of multiple fields, he is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. His iconic works continue to be studied and revered today.


The Life of Leonardo da Vinci

"Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt," Leonardo da Vinci famously said. He invented sfumato, an application of subtly colored glazes, to convey atmosphere and the subtle shifts of feeling across a human face.

Progression of Art


Virgin of the Rocks

This painting presents the Madonna with infant versions of Christ and John the Baptist, along with the archangel Gabriel. The quartet sits amongst a mystical, imagined landscape that exemplifies Leonardo's acuity with depth of perspective. Juxtaposed with the intimate group in the foreground, the fully imagined environment of desolate rocks and water lends a dreamlike quality both infusing the viewer with the sense of merging with the heavenly as well as witnessing a resonant experience of human-like tenderness. St. John was the patron saint of Florence and his depiction in this piece was important. According to Florentine tradition, he was a playmate of Christ, but he was also aware of Christ's future sacrifice for mankind. Like other artists of the time, Leonardo was interested in presenting known religious narratives in an un-idealized way, thus humanizing the secular.

The picture utilizes a pyramidal arrangement common of High Renaissance artists, although Leonardo's perfection of anatomical movement and fluidity elevates the figures with a sense of realistic motion. Their gestures and glances create a dynamic unity that was innovative for the time. Also, his sfumato style is present in the way colors and outline blend into a soft smokiness, also intensifying the naturalist feel and giving the space three-dimensionality. The painting is an early example of the use of oil pigment, which was relatively new in Italy, and allowed the artist to capture intricate details, also leading to the real life feeling of the piece.

This painting has been widely influential. Author Angela Ottino della Chiesa identified some of the paintings derived to some degree from the work including Holy Family and St. John by Bernardino Luini, the Thuelin Madonna by Marco d'Oggiono, and the Holy Infants Embracing by Joos van Cleve. Flemish artists such as Quentin Matsys have also copied the image.

Oil on wood transferred to canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris


Lady with an Ermine

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned this portrait. In it, Leonardo depicts Sforza's sixteen-year-old mistress Ceclia Gallerani. She peers to the right, as if her attention has been caught by something happening just outside the painting's frame. She bears a look of poised knowing in direct opposition to her age. The smile, slightly coy, seems to suggest her confidence in her position at the Court, and the knowledge of the power in her beauty. She holds an ermine, bearer of the fur that was used in Sforza's coat of arms, which was added later to the portrait at the subject's request. The paradox of the ermine is that it is also a symbol of purity, embraced by a young woman prey to the sensual needs of an older man in what was a very chauvinistic age. But other interpretations suggest the ermine is representative of Cecilia's fidelity to the Duke.

Leonardo's genius in this work was in capturing a complicated emotionality through a look and a sideways gesture unconventional for portraiture. His study of the human body and its movement allowed for this precise capture of expression that is layered with subtle undertones that intrigue the viewer and invite them into the intimate world of his subject. Its lifelike immediacy captivated audiences. As art critic Sam Leith put it, "Give the painting a really good, close look and you'll see she really does have the very breath of life in her...just distracted by a noise, caught in a living moment..."

Oddly enough, Lady with an Ermine has found an unusual cult following in contemporary society. It was one of the visual inspirations for Phillip Pullman's concept of daemons in the His Dark Materials books (1995-2000). It has also inspired characters in film, science fiction, and video games.

Oil on wood panel - Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland

c. 1485

The Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man depicts a man in two superimposed positions. In one position, the man's legs are together with arms outstretched in demonstration of the volume of a square. In the second position, the man's legs stand apart and his arms extend to demonstrate the circumference of a circle. The shading and delicate drawing of elements such as the hair give the drawing a three-dimensional graphic feel.

In the accompanying text to the drawing, Leonardo describes his intention to study the proportions of man as described by the first century BC Roman architect Vitruvius (for whom the drawing was named) in his treatise De Architectura (On Architecture, published as Ten Books on Architecture). Vitruvius used his own studies of well-proportioned man to influence his design of temples, believing that symmetry was crucial to their architecture. Leonardo used Vitruvius as a starting point for inspiration in his own anatomical studies and further perfected his measurements, correcting over half of Vitruvius' original calculations. The idea of relative proportion has influenced western Renaissance architecture and beyond as a concept for creating harmony between the earthly and divine in churches, as well as the temporal in palaces and palatial residences.

Ultimately, The Vitruvian Man is a mathematical study of the human body highlighting the nature of balance which proportion and symmetry lend us, an understanding that would inform all of Leonardo's prolific output, in art, architecture, and beyond. It also nods to Renaissance Humanism, which placed man in relation to nature, and as a link between the earthly (square) and the divine (circle.) It combines the great thinker's comprehension of science with his excellence in draftsmanship.

The image is truly legendary and has shown up referenced in numerous works of other artists from William Blake's Glad Day or The Dance of Albion (c.1794), to today's contemporary art scene as in Nat Krate's Vitruvian Woman.

Pen and ink on paper - Accademia, Venice, Italy


The Last Supper

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned The Last Supper for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. It reflects the famous story of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, and more specifically, the moment after he has told them that one of them would betray him. Each of the apostles is individually rendered in various expressions of consternation, disbelief, and amazement as Judas stands in the shadows clutching the purse containing the thirty pieces of silver he received for his betrayal. Jesus sits central, reaching for bread and a glass of wine referring to the Eucharist. Behind him, through the windows, splays an idealized landscape, perhaps alluding to heavenly paradise, and the three windows may denote the holy trinity.

Never before had such realism been used to depict the classic drama of that pivotal moment on the eve of Christ's journey toward crucifixion. The authenticity and intricate detail coupled with the use of one point perspective, placing Jesus at the crux of the pictorial space from which all other elements emanated out from, was to herald in a new direction in High Renaissance art. Furthermore, the use of the vanishing point technique complimented the painting's refectory setting, allowing for the piece to mesh into the space as if it were a natural extension of the room. All of these elements greatly influenced, and were used by, Leonardo's peers of the time including Michelangelo and Raphael.

Because the water-based paints typically used for frescos of this type were not conducive to Leonardo's signature sfumato technique, he opted for oil-based paints for this work. Unfortunately, the oil upon plaster combination would prove disastrous, as before the artist's death, the paint already began to flake from the wall. The masterwork has been consistently restored over the centuries, the last effort lasting 21 years before completion in 1999. Very little of the original paint remains.

Fresco - Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

c. 1499-1500

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist

This preliminary drawing shows the Virgin seated next to her mother, St. Anne, while holding the baby Jesus, and with St. John the Baptist as a child looking on. Mary's eyes peer down at her Christ child who points to the heavens as he delivers a benediction.

The piece is very large in size, consisting of eight papers glued together. Also known as the Burlington House Cartoon, it is presumed to be a sketch in planning for a painting. Although, the painting either no longer exists or was never created. Leonardo often used a "cartoon" such as this to create a pre-drawing, which would then be applied as a transfer onto the actual painting surface. Once applied, a pin would be used to prick outline the work onto the surface as an under guide for the artist. Because this piece is impeccably preserved, it is assumed it never made its journey into a full work of art.

The drawing is notable in that it reflects Leonardo's perfectionism, even in planning for a work of art. His acuity with anatomy is present in the realistic ways the figure's bodies are shown in various gestures of interaction with each other. Genuine tenderness is conveyed in the faces of the women and St. John as they reflect upon the focal point of Christ. The amount of detail captured, even in a work not originally intended for viewing, showcases the artist's meticulous process and mind.

Leonardo's drawings, even, are so technically perfect, that they are also considered just as fine pieces of art as his finished masterpieces. Many were admired and shown both at the Court and in public exhibitions during his life and after.

Charcoal and chalk drawing on paper - The National Gallery, London

c. 1500

Salvatore Mundi

King Louis XVII of France is said to have commissioned Salvator Mundi after his conquest of Milan in 1499. The painting is a portrait of Jesus in the role of saviour of the world and master of the cosmos. This is reflected through symbolism. His right hand is raised with two fingers extended as he gives divine benediction. His left hand holds a crystalline sphere, representing the heavens.

This is an unusual portrait in that it shows Christ, in very humanist fashion, as a man in Renaissance dress, gazing directly out at the viewer. It is also a half-length portrait, which was a radical departure from full-length portraits of the time, making the overall visage one imbued with an intensified intimacy. It is representative of the mastery of all of Leonardo's signature techniques. The softness of the gaze, acquired through sfumato lends a spiritual quality, inviting veneration from the viewer. The extreme realism of the face encompasses an emotionality and expressiveness defined by the artist's acuity with anatomical correctness. The darkness and shadow create a depth, which in contrast with the light emanating from the chest presents Jesus as a formidably light filled being.

Salvator Mundi was sold at auction in 2017 for an unprecedented $450.3 million dollars, a testament to the timeless appeal of Leonardo's masterpieces and evidence of the importance of his legacy that remains monumental to this day.

Oil on wood panel - Louvre, Abu Dhabi

c. 1503

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is said to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant named Francesco del Gioconda. The innovative half-length portrayal shows the woman, seated on a chair with one arm resting on the chair and one hand resting on her arm. The use of sfumato creates a sense of soft calmness, which emanates from her being, and infuses the background landscape with a deep realism. Chiaroscuro creates a profound depth in this piece, which keeps the eye moving across the painting. But it is her enigmatic smile that magnetizes the viewer, along with the mystery of what's behind that famous smile.

This work is one of Leonardo's most iconic for multiple reasons. Prior portraits of the time focused on presenting the outward appearance of the sitter, the personality of the subject only hinted at through symbolic objects, clothing, or gestures. Yet in this painting, Leonardo's desire was to capture more than mere likeness. He wanted to show something of her soul, which he accomplished with his great emphasis on her peculiarly unconventional smile. She is not simply smiling for the artist; she is caught in a particular moment of feeling. The viewer is left to wonder what she was thinking, what the smile might have meant, and who she was. The ambiguity of expression invites us to engage with the work on a personal level as we resonate with the very humanist depiction of being caught mid-emotion. The landscape is also important in delivering this sense of soulfulness. There has been much speculation as to its origin of location yet it is more widely construed that it is imaginary, a made up compilation from Leonardo's mind that could also allude to our admittance into Mona Lisa's dreamlike interior world.

This painting has been held in high esteem and surrounded by a sense of awe continually for the last five hundred years since it was painted. It has inspired many artists as well. Raphael drew upon it for a drawing in 1504. Countless writers have written about her, like French poet Theophile Gautier in the 19th century who called her "the sphinx who smiles so mysteriously." It has been parodied endlessly from the 1883 caricaturist's Eugene BatailleMona Lisa smoking a pipe to the 1919 Marcel Duchamp readymade showing her with a moustache and beard. In 1954, Salvador Dalí created his Self-portrait as Mona Lisa and in 1963 Andy Warhol included her in his seminal silkscreen output with Mona Lisa "Thirty are better than one." Her image has also been reproduced endlessly on multiple prints, posters, and commercial products in the contemporary popular culture markets.

Oil on wood panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Childhood and Education

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, described as one of the most gifted and inventive men in history, was born in 1452 in a village near the town of Vinci, Tuscany.

An illegitimate son of Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant girl, he was brought up on the family estate in Anchiano by his paternal grandfather. His father married a sixteen-year old girl, Albiera, with whom Leonardo was close, but who died young. Leonardo was the oldest of 12 siblings and his family never treated his illegitimacy as a stigma.

Early Training and Work

At the age of 14 Leonardo moved to Florence to begin an apprenticeship with Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist who had been a student of Early Renaissance master Donatello. Verrocchio was an important artist in the court of Medici, a powerful family equally noted for its political involvement and generous patronage of the arts, to which the success of the Renaissance is often attributed. Florence was an important artistic center in Renaissance Italy, which attracted many talented budding artists including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, and Lorenzo di Credi. It is indicative of his father's influence in the city that Leonardo was able to begin his apprenticeship in such a prestigious art studio.

Artists of this period were deeply immersed in the study of the humanities as a way to fully understand man's place in the world. Under Verrocchio's mentorship, Leonardo's early genius was extensively nurtured. In addition to drawing, painting, and sculpture, he developed an interest in anatomy, architecture, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering. This education helped hone a profound imagination, which later led to his planning of marvelous inventions, evidenced by his many drawings of military weapons and mechanical contraptions which contribute to his reputation as a genius today.

Customary to the time, the output of Verrocchio's studio would have been a collaborative effort between master and apprentices. Two pictures accredited to Verrocchio in particular, The Baptism of Christ, 1475, and The Annunciation, 1472-1475, are seen by art historians, including Giorgio Vasari, to have evidence of Leonardo's lighter brush strokes compared to Verrocchio's heavier hand.

In 1472, after six years of apprenticeship, Leonardo became a member of the Guild of St Luke, a Florentine group of artists and medical doctors. Although his father set him up with a studio of his own, Leonardo continued to work in Verrocchio's studio as an assistant for the next four years.

In 1476, Leonardo was accused of sodomy with three other men, but was acquitted for lack of corroborative evidence, which is often attributed to the fact that his friends came from powerful families. Homosexuality was, at the time, illegal, and punishable not only by imprisonment, public humiliation, but also death. Perhaps because of the chastisement following such a traumatic event, he kept a low profile over the next few years, of which not much is known.

One of his earliest independent commissions was received in 1481 from the monks of San Donato a Scopeto to paint the Adoration of the Magi. Leonardo would interrupt work on the commission to move to Milan after receiving an offer from the Duke of Milan to work in his court. There is a lot of speculation why the move to Milan was so necessary at this time, some harking back to the sodomy charge a few years earlier. But it seems more likely that Leonardo was seduced by the invitation from the flamboyant Milanese Court, and the opportunity for progressing his reputation and career.

Mature Period

Leonardo worked in the Court of Milan from 1482 until 1499. A noted perfectionist, he spent a great deal of time exploring human anatomy, particularly in the way in which human bodies moved, were built and proportioned, and how they interacted in social engagement and communication, as well as their means of gesture and expression. An exhaustive endeavor for certain, and this may be part of the reason why there are so few finished works yet an extraordinarily large library of drawings executed in intricate detail, as well as cartoons which acted as full-scale preparatory drawings for paintings. These drawings show not only his unparalleled mastery of observation, but also his ability as an artist to understand and convey human emotion.

It was during this period that he experimented with radically new and different painting techniques. One of the techniques Leonardo is famous for is his ability to create a smoky effect, which was coined sfumato. Through his deep knowledge of glazes and brushstrokes, he developed the technique, which allowed for edges of color and outline to flow into each other to emphasize the soft modulation of flesh and fabric, as well as the remarkable translucence of hard surfaces such as crystal or the tactility of hair. The intimate authenticity that resulted in his figures and subjects seemed to mirror reality in ways that had not been seen prior. A good example of this is his depiction of an orb in the painting, Salvatore Mundi (1490-1500).

Yet, as with many revolutionary inventions, some of his experimentations would only reveal problems later. The most notable of which was seen in his great fresco masterpiece of the period, The Last Supper (1495-98). It was painted on the refectory wall of the convent of Santa Maria del Grazie in Milan, through the use of oil-based paint on wet plaster to encourage the sfumato effect, which eventually caused the paint to flake off from the wall.

In 1485, he went on a diplomatic mission to Hungary on behalf of the Duke to meet the influential King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, and, while there was called on to use his meticulous design skills to prepare court festivals, as well as engineering and architectural projects, including plans for the dome of the cathedral in Milan.

For his last unfinished project before leaving Milan, Leonardo was commissioned to cast a five-meter-high equestrian bronze sculpture called Gran Cavallo commemorating the founder of the Sforza dynasty. In 1503, a clay model of the intended sculpture was displayed during the wedding of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, emphasizing the importance of the anticipated work. Unfortunately, the project was never finished and the conquering French Army who had taken Milan in 1499, ended up using the model for target practice. It has been said that the bronze slated for use in the sculpture was repurposed for cannon casting in what inevitably proved to be the unsuccessful defense of Milan from Charles VIII in the war with France.

Following the French invasion of 1499, and the overthrow of the Duke of Milan, Leonardo left for Venice accompanied by Salai, his long-time friend and assistant, who had been living with Leonardo since the age of ten and who remained with him until the artist's death.

In Venice, Leonardo was employed as a military engineer where his main commission was to design naval defense systems for the city under threat of Turkish military advances in Europe. Once done, he decided to return to Florence in 1500, where he lived with his companion as a guest of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata.

In 1502, Leonardo secured service in the Court of Cesare Borgia, an important member of an influential family, as well as son of Pope Alexander VI, and commander of the papal army. He was employed as a military engineer and accompanied Borgia on his travels throughout Italy. His duties included making maps to aid with military defense, as well as the construction of a dam to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water to the canals from the River Arno. During the diversion of the river project, he met Niccolò Machiavelli, who, at the time, was a noted scribe and political observer for Florence. It has been said that Leonardo exposed Machiavelli to the concepts of applied science, and that he had a great influence on the man who would go on to be called the Father of Modern Political Science.

Leonardo returned for a second time to Florence in 1503, and was welcomed as a celebrity when he again joined the Guild of St Luke. This return spurred one of the most productive periods of painting for the artist including preliminary work on his Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503-19), as well as the Mona Lisa (1503-19), and unfinished Battle of Anghiari (1503-05), which was later copied by the artist Peter Paul Rubens.

In 1508, Leonardo returned to Milan where he remained for the next five years enjoying the patronage of Charles d'Amboise, the French Governor of Milan, and King Louis XII. This was a period in which Leonardo delved heavily into scientific activities, which included anatomical, mathematic, mechanical, and botanical studies and the creation of his famous flying machine. Notable commissions during this period included work on a Villa for Charles, bridge building, and a project to create a waterway to link Milan with Lake Como. He also devised efficient military weapons such as an early example of the machine gun, and his famous large crossbow.

It was also during this time that Leonardo met his pupil Francesco Melzi, who became his companion until his death. It may be surmised that at this point in his life and career, Leonardo was finally able to live discreetly as a gay man, his accomplishments and acclaim providing a safe shelter from the kind of traumatic and punitive stigmatizing he experienced in his younger years.

Late Period

In 1513, after the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan, Leonardo went to Rome where he spent the next three years. He was brought to the attention of the French King François I who offered him a permanent position as "first painter and engineer" of the French Royal Court. He was given a residence at Clos Lucé, close to the king's Château d'Amboise. François I, a pivotal figure in the French Renaissance, not only became the sort of patron Leonardo needed in his old age, demanding little of him, but also is reputed to have been a close friend of the artist. Vasari described the friendship saying, "The King...was accustomed frequently and affectionately to visit him."

Leonardo spent most of these late years dedicated to arranging his scientific papers and notes instead of painting, although his last painting, St John the Baptist (1513), was most likely made during this time. This collation of notebooks, representing a lifetime culmination of extraordinary investigative study and ability within such a vast number of disciplines, has proved his most enduring legacy. His opinions on architecture, mathematics, engineering, science, and human anatomy, as well as his philosophy on art, painting, drawing, and Humanism presented intelligence so profound that he became recognized as a true genius.

Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at Clos Lucé, naming his companion, Francesco Melzi, as principal beneficiary of his artistic and scientific estates. His vineyards were divided between Salai and his brothers.

The reverence with which Leonardo was regarded is epitomized by the apocryphal story of François I's attendance at his death. Vasari described Leonardo as having "breathed [his] last in the arms of the king." Their legendary friendship inspired the 1818 painting by Ingres, François I Receives the Last Breaths of Leonardo da Vinci, in which Leonardo is shown as dying in the arms of the King.

Leonardo was originally interred in the chapel of St Florentin at the Chateau d'Amboise in the Loire Valley, but the building was destroyed during the French revolution. Although it is believed that he was reburied in the smaller chapel of St Hubert, Amboise, the exact location remains unconfirmed.

The Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci

It is hard to concisely describe the legacy of a man as multi-talented as Leonardo da Vinci. He developed artistic techniques that are considered perfection. His use of vanishing point, the soft blurring effect in his sfumato method, his understanding the relationship between light and dark in chiaroscuro, and his enigmatic facial expressions created a mesmerizing and realistic quality to his paintings that had never before been seen. While much of his art focused on religion and portraits, painted in the time of the High Renaissance, which heralded the end of the dark ages in western civilization, it was his techniques together with his masterly composition that contributed the greatest influence on Western art. In fact, to this day, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa remain some of the world's most recognizable and iconic works of art, reproduced endlessly on posters and prints, and deeply embedded in contemporary popular culture as pieces of everlasting historical significance.

But then, what of his inventions, his anatomical research, his topographical drawings, as well as his engineering, mechanical, and architectural achievements? While many of his inventions such as the flying machine, the helicopter, or the parachute remained in mere idea form, and unfeasible in practice, that does not detract from the recognition of Leonardo's inquisitive mind being years ahead of its time. The same is true of the accuracy of his anatomical drawings, investigations into blood circulation, topography, and other mechanical engineering marvels which include the mitred lock, his contribution to accurate time-keeping, or the bobbin winder which had an immediate impact on local industry at the time. His investigation into enhancing military weapons heralded the tanks and machine guns so familiar to us today. He was indeed the first true "Renaissance man."

As Sigmund Freud said of him, he was a man, "who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep."

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