Leonardo da Vinci

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
"I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have."
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"The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the works of others as his standard."
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"All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions."
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"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
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"The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding."
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"The artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of."
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"Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art."
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Summary of Leonardo da Vinci

Only a select number of figures in the pantheon of art history can match the level of fame accorded Leonardo da Vinci. The very personification of the "Renaissance man", Leonardo searched for new knowledge within the burgeoning fields of the humanities and the sciences. One of the so-called "holy trinity" (with Michelangelo and Raphael) of the Italian High Renaissance, Leonardo remains best known today as the painter of some of the world's greatest masterpieces, and for a series of notebooks and drawings that confirm his reputation as the most accomplished polymath of his time.


  • While his yearning for new knowledge that saw him excel in many fields within the humanities and sciences, Leonardo has achieved most acclaim as a painter. He has gained world-wide fame for his enigmatic portrait, the Mona Lisa, the religious fresco, The Last Supper, and his Vitruvian Man, a mathematically precise anatomical drawing. These priceless works are amongst the most known images of all time.
  • Leonardo surpassed the naturalistic techniques of Early Renaissance masters through his meticulous attention to detail and through the introduction of new methods. The most influential of these was his signature sfumato effect in which he blended shades of color to blur - or to "smoke" - the outlines of figures, facial features, and objects. Sfumato achieved such realistic effects it contributed significantly to the birth of the era referred to now as the High Renaissance.
  • Leonardo's intellectual curiosity and imagination produced many ideas and inventions that were described in his vast collection of notebooks. These contain scientific diagrams (predicting future inventions such as the parachute, the helicopter, and the military tank), anatomical and botanical sketches and drawings, and his philosophy on painting. As the art historian E. H. Gombrich put it, "the more one reads these pages, the less one can understand how one human being could have excelled in all these different fields of research and made important contributions to all of them".
  • Leonardo produced several ambitious architectural designs. In Milan, he designed an ingenious 32-mile waterway linking Milan and Lake Como. He is also credited with the design of the spectacular double-helix central staircase (two spirals winding around a glass column, allowing guests to acknowledge each other without physically passing). Through his ability to combine his creative vision with more practical problem-solving skills, Leonardo helped establish architectural principles that have passed down through the centuries.

The Life of Leonardo da Vinci

Detail from Leonardo's <i>Virgin on the Rocks</i> (1491-92)

Leonardo stated that "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt", and as if to push home his point, he invented sfumato, an application of subtle colored glazes that were able to convey atmosphere and subtle shifts in moods and feelings in the human body and face.

Important Art by Leonardo da Vinci

Progression of Art
Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474-78)
c. 1474-78

Ginevra de' Benci

Painted while still in his early 20s, Ginevra de' Benci is one of Leonardo's earliest known works. It gives us the first example of his signature portraiture technique whereby he abandoned the conventional "half face" profile pose in favor of a three-quarter pose. Through the three-quarter rotation of his sitter, Leonardo gives us a fuller facial portrait that places the personality of the subject above their status. It was a humanistic technique that would define his future portraits, including such works as the Mona Lisa. Indeed, Leonardo is thought to be the first Italian to represent his sitter in such a way and it would become a convention of High Renaissance portraiture. There is also a strong suggestion (traces of fingerprints on the painting's surface) that Leonardo used his fingers to delicately shade Ginerva's flesh tones. As the National Gallery of Art in Washington (NGAW) states, "The planes of her face subtly modeled, she may have 'come to life' before viewers in a fashion more vivid than any other painting they had seen before", and adds that, "One of Leonardo's contemporaries wrote that he 'painted Ginevra d'Amerigo Benci with such perfection that it seemed to be not a portrait but Ginevra herself'".

Ginevra de' Benci was 16 years old and from an affluent family. She was well-educated and had earned a reputation as a fine poet and conversationalist. Her milk-white complexion is flawless, and her blank expression is difficult to read. But as NGAW explains, "Young women of the time were expected to comport themselves with dignity and modesty. Virtue was prized and guarded, and a girl's beauty was thought to be a sign of goodness. Portraitists were expected to enhance - as needed - a woman's attractiveness according to the period's standards of beauty". It is likely that Leonardo was commissioned to paint Ginerva's portrait on the occasion of her betrothal (thought to be to a man named Luigi Niccolini). But as the NGAW states, the painting also "reflects a cultural phenomenon of the Italian Renaissance period - platonic love affairs between well-mannered gentlemen and ladies. Such affairs, often conducted from afar, focused on effusive literary expressions that displayed the courtier's and lady's sophistication". Indeed, Ginevra is known to have had many admirers, including Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and Lorenzo de'Medici, who both composed poems in her honor.

The painting is also of significance for its reverse side which carries an emblem in the form of a wreath of laurel and palm encircled with a sprig of juniper, and a scroll featuring the phrase "Virtutem Forma Decorat" ("beauty adorns virtue"). The NGAW states that "The central juniper, ginepro in Italian, a cognate of Ginevra's name and thus her symbol, also represents chastity. The palm stands for moral virtue, while the laurel indicated artistic or literary inclinations".

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86)

Virgin of the Rocks

This painting presents the Madonna, with infant versions of Christ and John the Baptist, and the archangel Gabriel. Like other Renaissance artists, Leonardo was interested in presenting proverbial religious narratives in a more naturalistic way. Here Leonardo's animate quartet sits amidst a mystical landscape that demonstrates his mathematical approach to picture perspective. Complementing the intimate group in the foreground, the scenery of desolate rocks and still water lends the narrative a dreamlike quality, infusing the scene at once with a sense of the heavenly and the human (a blurring, in other words, of the spiritual with the material).

The composition utilizes a pyramidal arrangement common amongst High Renaissance artists, while Leonardo's perfection of anatomical movement and fluidity elevates the figures with a sense of naturalistic motion. Their gestures and glances, too, create a dynamic human interaction that was highly innovative. Leonardo's sfumato style, meanwhile, is present in the way colors and outlines blend into a soft smokiness. This technique brings a heightened intensity and more realistic depth-of-field. The painting is also an early example of the use of oil pigment, which was relatively new to Italy, and made the artist better able to capture such intricate details.

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

Lady with an Ermine (1489-90)

Lady with an Ermine

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned this portrait. In it, Leonardo depicts Sforza's sixteen-year-old mistress Cecilia Gallerani (Sforza being in his late thirties). She peers to the right, as if her attention has been caught by something just outside the picture frame. She bears a look of poise and knowing that is exceptional for a young lady of such tender years. The slightly coy smile seems to suggest her confidence in her position at the Court, and the knowledge of the power of her innate beauty. She holds an ermine, bearer of the fur that was used in Sforza's coat of arms. The ermine was a symbol of purity, and its inclusion was likely representative of Cecilia's fidelity to the Duke.

Leonardo's genius in this work is evident in the way he captured the complexity of his sitter's psychology. Indeed, her three-quarter pose and gesture were unconventional for portraiture of the time. Leonardo's scientific study of the human body, and its movements and expressions, meanwhile, allowed him to represent the subtle human undertones that intrigue the viewer and invite them into the intimate mental world of the subject. 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...".

In 2014, Pascal Cotte, a French scientist, completed a three-year investigation of the painting in which Cotte discovered that it was completed in three distinct stages. Cotte discovered that Leonardo's first version was a simple portrait (with no animal). The second included a small grey ermine. In the third, the animal is transformed into a large white ermine. Commenting on Cotte's research, historian Lorenza Munoz-Aloñso writes, "The duke, who was da Vinci's patron and champion for eighteen years, was nicknamed 'the white ermine'. The progression in the painting might indicate a growing desire from the couple to affirm their relationship in a more public manner. The transformation of the ermine - from small and dark to muscular and white - could also indicate the duke's wish for a more flattering 'portrait' [of his mistress]". It is also widely believed that the ermine was included to conceal the secret pregnancy of Cecilia who later gave birth to Sforza's son - Cesare.

Oil on wood panel - Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland

The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485)
c. 1485

The Vitruvian Man

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 (after 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 classical 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's original calculations. The idea of relative proportion has influenced 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 output in art and architecture. It also underlines the goals of Renaissance Humanism which placed man in relation to nature, and as a link between the earthly (square) and the divine (circle). It also demonstrates, of course, the artist's thorough understanding of science and mathematics, and his excellence in draftsmanship.

The image is truly iconic and has been referenced through several fine art sources. These include William Blake's, Glad Day (aka The Dance of Albion) (c.1794), Enzo Plazzotta's Homage to Leonardo (aka. Vitruvian Man) (1984) - an outdoor statue in central London, and Andrew Leicester's giant robot-like Tin Man (2001) sculpture placed in the engineering faculty courtyard at the University of Minnesota. It has also provided a point of reference within popular graphic culture with the online comic book resource (Comiclist) displaying some twenty three comic-book covers - including issues of Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Ironman - that self-consciously align these superheroes with Leonardo's drawing. The drawing has even featured in an episode of The Simpsons (season 10) in which Homer Simpson is chased by the Vitruvian Man in a dream where he is attacked by famous artworks that have come to life.

Pen and ink on paper - Accademia, Venice, Italy

The Last Supper (1498)

The Last Supper

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned The Last Supper for the dining hall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. It tells the famous biblical story of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, and specifically, the moment after he has told them that one of their own would betray him. Each of the apostles is individually rendered with different expressions of consternation and disbelief as Judas stands in the shadows clutching the purse containing silver he received for his betrayal (Leonardo was given permission to bring a criminal to his studio from prison to model as Judas). Jesus occupies the center frame, reaching for bread and a glass of wine referring to the Eucharist. Behind him, seen through the windows, lays an idealized landscape, perhaps alluding to heavenly paradise, and the three windows possibly denote the holy trinity.

The intricate detail, coupled with the use of one point perspective, placing Jesus at the crux of the pictorial space, and from which all other elements emanate, was to herald in a new direction in High Renaissance art. Furthermore, the use of the vanishing point technique complimented the painting's position and setting, allowing for the artwork to mesh into the space as if it were a natural extension of the nuns' dining area. The art historian E. H. Gombrich said of the finished painting: "There was nothing in this work that resembled older representations of the same theme. In these traditional versions, the apostles were seen sitting quietly at the table in a row - only Judas being segregated from the rest - while Christ was calmly dispensing the Sacrament. There was drama in it, and excitement. Leonardo, like Giotto before him, had gone back to the text of the Scriptures, and had striven to visualize what it must have been like when Christ said, 'Verily I say unto you, that one of you will betray me'".

Because the water-based paints typically used for frescos of this type were not conducive to Leonardo's sfumato technique, he opted instead for oil-based paints. However, the oil-on-plaster combination would prove disastrous as, even before the artist's death, the paint had begun to flake from the wall (a situation not helped by the steam and smoke emanating from the monastery's kitchens). Today, little of Leonardo's original paintwork remains with the last restoration, finished in 1999, lasting some twenty-one years. The art historian Khyati Rajvanshi describes how the fresco now sits in a strict temperature-controlled environment. Rajvanshi adds that "The management board allows just 1,300 people to visit the Last Supper each day" giving each person a maximum of fifteen minutes to enjoy the masterpiece (and not leave too much dust to cause it further harm).

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

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist (c. 1499-1500)
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 the baby St. John the Baptist looking on. Mary's eyes peer down at her 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 as a stencil which he placed on the intended painting surface. Once fixed in place, a pin would be used to create an outline that would then guide the artist's brush. Because this piece is impeccably preserved, it is assumed that it was never put to use for this purpose.

The drawing is notable in that it reflects Leonardo's search for perfection, even in planning for a painting. His acuity with anatomy is present in the realistic ways the figures' 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 attention to detail for what was a preparatory drawing, underlines the artist's painstaking approach to producing art.

Leonardo's cartoons are so technically perfect that they are regarded as highly 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

Salvatore Mundi (c. 1500)
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 savior of the world and master of the cosmos. 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 contemporary 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. Jesus's "closeness" to us lends the visage an intense intimacy. The painting is representative of the mastery of Leonardo's signature techniques. The softness of the gaze, acquired through sfumato, lends a spiritual quality, inviting veneration from the viewer, while Jesus's face encompasses an emotion and expressiveness defined by the artist's acuity with anatomical correctness. The darkness from which he emerges contrasts with the light that seems to emanate from Jesus's exposed upper chest. Thus, the painting still (in spite of his humanist outer shell) presents Christ as an awe-inspiring "bringer of light".

Salvator Mundi was unaccounted for between 1763 and 1900 when it was bought by one Sir Charles Robinson as a work by Bernardino Luini. It later sold at Sotheby's, London, in 1958 for £45 ($125). The painting, which was badly damaged, was then bought by an independent U.S. auction house in 2005. Having undergone extensive restoration, it reemerged in the early 2000s when it was confirmed as a work by Leonardo (though some experts still questioned it attribution). The painting was sold at auction at Christies New York in 2017 for $450 million a new record for an artwork at that time.

Oil on wood panel - Louvre, Abu Dhabi

Mona Lisa (c. 1503)
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 half-length portrayal shows the sitter, 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. There has been much speculation as to its origin of location, yet it is more widely construed that it is imaginary, a composition born in Leonardo's mind (that could also allude to our admittance into Mona Lisa's dreamlike interior world). But it is of course Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression that transfixes the viewer and the eternal mystery of what's lying behind that iconic smile.

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 Leonardo desired to capture more than mere likeness. He wanted to show something of her soul, which he accomplished by placing emphasis on her peculiar and unconventional smile. As Gombrich observed, "We see that Leonardo has used the means of his 'sfumato' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly on two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us. Her expression always seems just to elude us".

Leonardo's painting is probably the most famous single painting in history. It has inspired many artists. Raphael drew upon it for a drawing in 1504, while countless writers have written about her, including the 19th century French poet Theophile Gautier who called her "the sphinx who smiles so mysteriously." She has been the subject of many popular songs (most famously, perhaps, Mona Lisa, by Nat "King" Cole), and has been parodied in art, from the 1883 caricaturist's Eugene Bataille's, Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, to the 1919 Marcel Duchamp readymade showing her with a mustache 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 Mona Lisa "Thirty are better than one". Her image has also been reproduced endlessly on postcards, calendars, posters, and all manner of other commercial products.

Oil on wood panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Childhood and Education

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

The illegitimate son of Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary and landlord, and Caterina, a peasant girl (who later married an artisan), Leonardo 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 at an early age. Leonardo was the oldest of twelve siblings but was never treated as the illegitimate son. Like his siblings, Leonardo received a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, but he did not show his great passion for learning until adult life.

Early Training and Work

At the age of fourteen, Leonardo moved to Florence where he began an apprenticeship at the renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist who himself had been a student of the Early Renaissance master Donatello. It is a matter of record that Leonardo also visited the nearby workshop of Antonio Pollaiuolo. Verrocchio was an important artist in the court of the Medici, a family noted equally for its political power and its generous patronage of the arts. Indeed, Florence attracted many talented young artists, including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, and Lorenzo di Credi and it is indicative of his father's civic standing that Leonardo was able to take up his apprenticeship in such a prestigious workshop.

Although Leonardo gained only a basic grasp of Latin and Greek, Florentine artists of this period were compelled to the study the humanities as a way of more fully understanding man's place in the modern world, and Leonardo's curious and skeptical mind was nurtured under Verrocchio's mentorship (as art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote, "At a time when the learned men at the universities relied on the authority of the admired ancient writers, Leonardo, the painter, would never accept what he read without checking it with his own eyes").

Leonardo's name would become closely associated with the intellectual movement/philosophy known as Renaissance Humanism. It promoted a return to the values and ideals of the classical world but also laid emphasis on what it was to "be human". Great focus was placed on "higher" education and the promotion of "civic virtue" in the belief that by reaching one's full potential - which the Renaissance artist achieved by becoming learned in aesthetic beauty, ethics, logic, and scientific and mathematical principles - one could advance civilization. Leonardo would more than measure up to the title of "renaissance man" through his passionate interest in the disciplines of art, anatomy, architecture, geometry, chemistry, and engineering.

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 had set him up with a workshop of his own, Leonardo - now regarded by many of his peers, according to Gombrich, "as a strange and rather uncanny being" - continued to work with Verrocchio as an assistant for a further four or five years.

<i>The Baptism of Christ</i> (1475). This collaboration between Verrocchio and Leonardo gave an early indication of Leonardo's lightness of touch and serves as an example of the “pupil overtaking his master”.

Customary to the times, the output of Verrocchio's workshop would have given rise to collaborative efforts between master and apprentice. Two pictures accredited to Verrocchio, The Baptism of Christ (1475) and The Annunciation (1472-75), are seen by art historians, such as the Renaissance chronicler, Giorgio Vasari, to evidence Leonardo's lighter brush strokes when compared with Verrocchio's heavier hand.

In 1476, Leonardo was accused of sodomy with three other men. Homosexuality was illegal and punishable, not only by imprisonment, but also by public humiliation and even death. Leonardo was acquitted through lack of corroborative evidence, which has been attributed to the fact that his friends/lovers came from powerful Florentine families. Perhaps because of the stigma and chastisement, Leonardo kept a low profile over the next few years, with little or no record of his activities during this time.

Leonardo's earliest commissions came in 1481 from the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto for a panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi (unfinished), and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria (never begun). However, Leonardo stopped work on the commissions to move to Milan after accepting an offer from the city's Duke to join his court. He was listed in the royal register as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis ("painter and engineer of the duke").

There is some speculation as to why the move to Milan was so appealing to the artist when his Florentine career was in the ascendency. It may have been that his decision was to put the earlier sexual scandal behind him. While that may have been a contributory factor, it seems more likely that what the historian Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich called Leonard's "gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing" was a better fit for the austere Milanese Court. As Heydenreich writes, "It may have been that the rather sophisticate spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo's experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza's brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there".

Mature Period

Da Vinci's notebooks reveal that he engaged in in-deptha deep study of anatomy, sketching countless images of both the internal and external working of the human body.

Leonardo worked in Milan between 1482 and 1499. Between 1483-86, he worked on the The Virgin of the Rocks, an altarpiece commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. For reasons that are unknown, Leonardo entered into a decade-long legal dispute with the Confraternity (leading Leonardo to paint a second version of the work in 1508). In 1485, he undertook a diplomatic mission to Hungary on behalf of the Duke. He met with the influential Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus, and worked on preparations for court festivals. While in Hungary he also worked on engineering and architectural plans, including for the dome of the cathedral in Milan.

While in Milan, Leonardo spent a great deal of time observing human anatomy. He closely studied the way in which human bodies moved, the way they were built and proportioned, how they interacted in social engagement and communication, and their habits of gesture and expression. This was a time-consuming and painstaking undertaking that helps explain perhaps why there are so few paintings dating from this period - just six in total, with suggestion of a further three commissions either now lost or never commenced - yet an extraordinarily large library of drawings. These are now testament to Leonardo's mastery of observation and his ability to convey human emotion.

It was during this period that he experimented with new and different painting techniques. One of the practices Leonardo is most 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 or 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 hitherto. A good example of this is his depiction of an orb in the painting Salvatore Mundi (1490-1500). It was during this period that Leonardo produced his great fresco masterpiece - what Gombrich called "one of the great miracles wrought by human genius" - The Last Supper (1495-98). It was painted on the dining hall wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

As an antidote to the beauty of his great masterpieces, Leonardo produced a series of drawings of deformed faces and bodies, perhaps the most famous of which are A Bald Fat Man with a Broken Nose (1485-90), and Grotesque Head of an old Woman (1489-90). The art historian Martin Kemp writes that Leonardo sometimes "followed ugly people around and drew them [in the belief] that the beautiful needed the grotesque [...] like light and shade". The art historian Jonathan Jones said of the former, meanwhile, that Leonardo's "repeated doodles of the same archetypal ugly visage [was] sometimes called his 'nutcracker' profile [...] This looks like a real man, and a fairly scary one: a street character, a violent, massive bald guy with a broken nose. And what makes it seem most real is that it is drawn quickly yet decisively, as in a sketch from life".

For his last unfinished project before leaving Milan, Leonardo was commissioned to cast a five-meter-high equestrian bronze sculpture - called Gran Cavallo - commemorating Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. In 1493, 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 seized Milan in 1499, ended up using Leonardo's model for target practice. It is believed that the bronze reserved to cast the clay sculpture had been repurposed for cannon casting in what proved to be the unsuccessful defense of Milan against Charles VIII in the war with France.

Following the French invasion of Milan, and the overthrow of Duke Sforza in 1499, Leonardo left for Venice accompanied by his childhood friend and future assistant, Salai. 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 a Turkish military incursion. Leonardo returned to Florence in 1500, where he received a warm and enthusiastic welcome. He lived as a guest of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata. Leonardo was employed as a senior architectural advisor for a committee working on a damaged foundation at the church of San Francesco al Monte, but he devoted most of his time to studying mathematics.

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 "senior military architect and general engineer" and accompanied Borgia on his travels throughout Italy. His duties included making maps to aid with military defense, as well as designs for 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 was a noted scribe and political observer for Florence. It has been said that Leonardo introduced 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 the spring of 1503 and was enthusiastically welcomed into the Guild of St. Luke. He worked on landscape sketches for a canal that would bypass the "choppy" Arno River and connect Florence directly with the sea. As Heydenreich notes, "The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal". His return to Florence also 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), the mural Battle of Anghiari (1503-05) (which was left unfinished and later copied by the artist Peter Paul Rubens), and what was destined to become the world's most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa (1503-19). Of the latter, Gombrich wrote: "What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her [...] That great observer of nature knew more about the way we use our eyes than anybody who had ever lived before him".

In 1508, Leonardo returned to Milan where he remained for the next five years enjoying the generous patronage of Charles d'Amboise, the French Governor of Milan, and King Louis XII (of France). He was engaged in architectural projects, with notable commissions such as work on a Villa for Charles, bridge building, a project to create a waterway to link Milan with Lake Como, and preparatory sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana.

Leonardo ran a successful studio which included his former Milanese pupils, de' Conti and Salai, and new recruits, Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and a young aristocrat named Francesco Meizi. Although he created little as a painter, Leonardo did undertake a second aborted sculptural commission from the military commander, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. The preparatory sketches for the equestrian sculpture have survived, but the Trivulzio scrapped the project in favor of a more modest design.

A true Renaissance Man, Da Vinci's endeavors were not limited to art. He also produced designs for a wide range of mechanical devices, such as this flying machine (a precursor to today's aircraft).

Leonardo's second Milan period is best known for his scientific activities. He collaborated with the renowned anatomist, Marcantonio della Torre, which led to Leonardo's precise drawings of the human body and his excursions in comparative anatomy (differences between species) and the related field of physiology. Meanwhile, his manuscripts of this time included mathematic, mechanical, geological, optical, and botanical studies. He created plans for his famous flying machine, and also devised military weapons such as an early example of the machine gun and a large crossbow. Gombrich suggested that there were two reasons that Leonardo "never published his writings, and that very few can even have known of their existence." The first was because "he was left-handed and had taken to writing from right to left so that his notes can only be read in a mirror". The second relates to the possibility that Leonardo "was afraid of divulging his discoveries [such as his observation the 'the sun does not move'] for fear that his opinions would be found heretical".

It was also during the second Milan period that Leonardo and Francesco Melzi, his favorite pupil, became close companions and remained so until Leonardo's death. It may be reasonably surmised that at this point in his life, 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 stigmatization he experienced in his earlier years in Florence.

Late Period

A self-portrait by Da Vinci, produced some time around 1512

In 1513, after the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan, the sixty-year-old Leonardo relocated, taking Salai and Melzi with him, to Rome where he spent the next three years. He was given a generous stipend and residence in the Vatican by the Giuliano de' Medici, the brother of Leo X, the new pope. It was a depressing time for Leonardo, however, who struggled to secure any meaningful commissions. As Heydenreich writes, Leonardo arrived in Rome "at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter's, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope's new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, and many younger artists, such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma, were also active".

Heydenreich refers to "drafts of embittered letters" which confirmed Leonardo's disquiet and unhappiness which restricted his activities largely to "mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city". However, Leonardo did produce a "magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes" and drawings for a planned Florentine residence for the Medici (who had returned to power in 1512).

While in Rome he also made the acquaintance of King François I of France who offered Leonardo the permanent position of "first painter, architect and engineer to the King" at the French Royal Court. François is credited with doing more than any other individual to promote Renaissance art and architecture in France and Leonardo, having accepted the King's invitation, lived out the last three years of his life (with Melzi) at a small, but palatial, residence at Clos Lucé, close to the king's residence at Château d'Amboise. Leonardo brought with him a large cache of paintings and drawings, most of which stayed in France after his death (and which are now housed in Le Louvre as part of the world's largest single collection of Leonardo's art).

Da Vinci's last known painting was Saint John the Baptist (1513), now housed in the Louvre.

Leonardo did little painting in France, although his last painting, St John the Baptist (1513), was most likely made during this time. He worked on landscape plans for the palace gardens but all new work was abruptly halted following a region-wide outbreak of malaria. Leonardo found time to edit his scientific papers and to prepare his treatise on painting, including his Visions of the End of the World series which included his many cataclysmic storm drawings, known as the Deluges.

During these years, Leonardo and King François formed a close friendship - Vasari wrote that "The King ... was accustomed frequently and affectionately to visit him" - and, although he died shortly before construction began in earnest, it is likely that Leonardo designed the now famous double-helix staircase (two concentric spirals wind separately around a central column, allowing guests to pass without meeting while still being able to see one another through windows placed in a central column) of the Chateau de Chambord, a lavish Renaissance Chateau, commissioned by François (and which took 28 years to complete). Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at Clos Lucé, naming Melzi as principal beneficiary of his estate.

It is down to Melzi's efforts that Leonardo's notebooks and drawings were saved. After Leonardo's death, Melzi returned to Milan where he was visited by Vasari. Referring to Melzi as his "much beloved" pupil, Vasari wrote that "he holds them [the notebooks] dear, and keeps such papers together as if they were relics". Leonardo's vineyards (sixteen rows) in Milan, a gift to Leonardo from Sforza in 1482 (confiscated during the French invasion but returned to Leonardo's ownership at a later unknown date) were divided between Salai and a former servant. (The vineyards remain an ongoing concern and a Leonardo Museum to this day.)

French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres depicted the final moments of Da Vinci's life in <i>François I Receives the Last Breaths of Leonardo da Vinci</i> (1818).

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

This engraved portrait of Leonardo da Vinci was produced by French artist Nicolas de Larmessin and printed in the 1682 book Académie des Sciences et des Arts, written by Isaac Bullart.

Leonardo's list of achievements is extensive. As a defining figure of the High Renaissance, he helped usher in a new dawning in Western art and civilization. Amongst his most influential techniques were his pioneering use of vanishing points, the soft clouding effect in his signature sfumato method, his profound understanding of the dynamics between light and dark in chiaroscuro, and the enigmatic facial expressions of his figures that created a mesmerizing and realistic quality. One can add to his paintings, his inventions, his precise anatomical and topographical drawings, as well as hydraulic and mechanical designs and his architectural achievements.

It is hard to encapsulate the achievements of an artist who, in the words of art historian Martin Kemp, had "got such a grip on people's imagination - whether they're engineers, medics, fans of art, or whatever". Nevertheless, Kemp gives us a good insight into Leonardo's genius through his account of the "spine tingling" privilege of studying the Mona Lisa on an easel (the painting having been temporarily released from its bulletproof glass casing). Kemp had been worried that the painting might have lost something of its uniqueness because of its excessive fame and overexposure. He need not have worried. "There is a sense of something happening between the picture and yourself", he said, and while acknowledging that his assessment "sounds entirely pretentious [...] it does happen". Kemp argued indeed, that when in the presence of the original work, "The picture becomes a kind-of living thing", and that any attempt to offer an analysis of Mona Lisa's aura was, in the end, a somewhat futile exercise.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Leonardo da Vinci
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Duke of Milan
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    Ludovico Sforza
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    Cesare Borgia
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    Niccolò Machiavelli
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Francesco Melzi
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    Luca Pacioli
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    Marcantonio della Torre
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Leonardo da Vinci Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 19 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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