Biography of Leonardo da Vinci
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 (1452-1481)
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, of 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 Verocchio'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 (1482-1513)
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 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 therewas 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 (1513-19)
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."
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 19 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly