Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci was born in Vinci, Florence in 1452 and became one of the greatest and most well known painters of the Renaissance. Leonardo is known as the quintessential Renaissance man as his interests and talents were widely varied. He is primarily known as a painter, but Leonardo was also a skilled writer, musician, scientist, sculptor, anatomist, botanist and engineer.
Born an illegitimate son to a notary and a peasant, very little is known of Leonardo’s childhood. He went to live with his father as an infant and was traditionally schooled as a child. In 1466, Leonardo became an apprentice under Andrea del Verrocchio, a very noteworthy painter in his time. One of the first major paintings Leonardo worked on was Baptism of Christ with Verrocchio. Legend has it that after working on the painting with Leonardo, Verrocchio compared the quality of their work and then put down his brush and vowed never to paint again.
After completing his apprenticeship, Leonardo entered the Duke of Milan’s service in 1482 and spent the next 17 years in Milan. The Duke did have Leonardo paint and sculpt, but also put him to work designing weapons, machinery and buildings. It was in Milan that Leonardo first began his anatomical studies, through which we know have the famous drawing The Vitruvian Man (1487). This drawing is an excellent example of how the Renaissance blended together science and art, and has become a classic symbol for “man as a measure for all things”.
Leonardo painted The Last Supper (1498) during this time period, and it has become one of the most well known, revered and satirized religious paintings of all time. The Last Supper depicts the story from the four gospels where Jesus gathers and instructs the 12 disciples on what was to come the following day and explains to them how to break bread and drink wine in the future, in remembrance of him. The scene that Leonardo painted is immediately after Christ informs His disciples that one of them shall betray Him before the following sunrise. The looks of anguish and shock depicted on the faces of the disciples set this picture apart from the majority of paintings on the same subject. Additionally, it is technically superb, with everything about the painting directing the eye to Christ’s head, making it one of the best one point perspective paintings of all time.
After the Duke of Milan was overthrown in 1499, Leonardo looked for a new patron. For the next 16 years he worked for a variety of patrons. Leonardo had such a vast array of interests and took on so many projects that he failed to complete very many. Although he did not complete many paintings or sculptures, he was very dedicated to keeping his journals, which were full of drawings, sketches and notes of varied subjects and ideas.
In 1503, Leonardo started working on the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous portrait painting ever. The Mona Lisa is also known as “la Gioconda”, or the laughing one. The elusive half smile and knowledgeable look in her eye gives the subject’s face a mysterious air. Leonardo shadowed the corners of the eyes and mouth in the painting, a technique which became known as “sfumato”, or Leonardo’s smoke.
For hundreds of years after his death, Leonardo was known primarily as a painter. However, in more recent years, Leonardo has become renowned for his contributions to technology. Among his many inventions are plans for a helicopter, tank and calculator.
Leonardo was very private about his personal life. In 1476, he and three other men were charged with sodomy, but later acquitted. There are no records of him having any close relationships with women, other than a friendship with Renaissance cultural figure Isabella d’Este.
In 1516, Leonardo moved to France to work under the patronage of Francis I, who gave him the title of ‘Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King’. He became a close friend to the King in his twilight years, and legend states that Francis held Leonardo’s head in his hands when he died. Much about Leonardo is the stuff of legends, as his unparalleled intelligence, talent and natural inquisitiveness set him apart from his contemporaries.
Giorgio Vasari opened his chapter on Leonardo in his book Lives of the Artists (1568) with this glowing accolade:
“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”
Leonardo da Vinci was an incredibly talented and accomplished man, and a true visionary.