Leonardo da Vinci – A Brief Biography (1452-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, theorist, and scientist of the Renaissance period.
He is the creator of the Mona Lisa and is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists and thinkers of all time.
Initially famous for his achievements as a painter, he eventually also became famous for his notebooks filled with notes and drawings on a variety of subjects such as anatomy, cartography, astronomy, botany, paleontology, military machines, and other inventions.
Leonardo is often considered the founder of the High Renaissance, whose artistic and scientific works have influenced subsequent artists and scientists for centuries.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on 15th April 1452 in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, 20 miles away from Florence.
He was born out of wedlock to Ser Piero da Vinci, a legal notary, and Caterina, a woman from the lower class.
According to a local oral tradition, Leonardo was born in Anchiano, a country hamlet that offered sufficient privacy for an illegitimate birth. However, this account could never be verified and so Leonardo’s actual birthplace still remains uncertain.
A year after his birth, Leonardo’s parents married separately.
Apart from these details, very little is known about Leonardo’s childhood. Much of it is shrouded in myth and speculation, and whatever little is known about it has been derived from Giorgio Vasari‘s biography of Leonardo in the book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550).
According to tax records, around 1457, Leonardo lived with his paternal grandfather, Antonio da Vinci.
In spite of his father belonging to a long line of notaries, Leonardo only received a basic and informal education in writing, reading, and mathematics.
Apprenticeship Under Verrocchio
In the mid-1460s, Leonardo’s family moved to Florence, which was the center of Christian Humanist thought and culture at the time.
In 1466, Leonardo da Vinci, aged 14, became a studio boy in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, a leading Florentine painter and sculptor.
Three years later, Leonardo became an apprentice to Verrocchio and remained in training for the next seven years. Other artists such as Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio, who would all go on to become famous artists in the future, also apprenticed in Verrocchio’s workshop at the same time.
At the workshop, Leonardo was exposed to a wide range of technical skills such as drafting, metalworking, plaster casting, metallurgy, mechanics, chemistry, woodwork, and leatherworking.
Apart from these skills, he also picked up artistic skills such as drawing, painting, modeling, and sculpting.
According to Vasari, Leonardo collaborated with Verrocchio on Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ painting. Close examination of the painting has shown that a few areas, such as the landscape and much of the figure of Jesus, have been painted over the tempera using the relatively new technique of oil painting, thereby indicating the hand of a young Leonardo da Vinci.
End of Leonardo’s Apprenticeship
In 1472, Leonardo da Vinci, aged 20, qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the common name for a city guild for painters and other artists in early modern Europe.
Leonardo’s father set up a workshop for him, but he was so attached to Verrocchio that he continued to live and collaborate with him for a few more years.
Beginning of Leonardo’s Independent Artistic Career
In January 1478, Leonardo da Vinci received an independent commission to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence. This was his first major independent commission. Sadly, he never completed it.
By 1480, Leonardo was said to be living with the Medici, who became his patron.
Leonardo often worked in the garden of the Piazza San Marco, a city square in Florence. At the garden, he met and mingled with the other artists, philosophers, and poets who were called on by the Medici.
In March of 1481, Leonardo received another independent commission from the monks of San Donato in Scopeto to paint The Adoration of the Magi. Unfortunately, he did not complete this as well.
Instead, he went to offer his services to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. He wrote a letter to Sforza, describing to him the various things he could do in the fields of engineering and weapon designing. And at the very end of the letter, he added almost as an afterthought that he could also paint.
In 1482, Leonardo, aged 30, was sent as an ambassador by Lorenzo de Medici to Ludovico Sforza.
Life in Milan
In Milan, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks for the confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, a church and Dominican convent in Milan.
Leonardo was employed on many projects for Sforza. He was asked to prepare floats and pageants for festivals and other special occasions. He was also asked to draw and make a wooden model for a competition to design the Cupola (a dome-like structure on top of a building) for the Milan Cathedral.
Leonardo then received a commission to make a model for a huge equestrian monument to Ludovico’s predecessor Francesco Sforza. He completed a model for the horse and made detailed plans for its casting, but the project was eventually abandoned in 1494 when Ludovico gave away the bronze to be used for a cannon to defend the city from Charles Vlll of France.
Return to Florence
In 1499, Ludovico Sforza was overthrown by King Louis Xll of France at the Battle of Novara.
As a result of this change in political power, Leonardo da Vinci left Milan for Venice, along with his assistant Salai and his mathematician friend Luca Pacioli. Upon his arrival in Venice, Leonardo was employed as a military architect and engineer, trying to devise methods to defend the city from naval attacks.
The following year, Leonardo returned to Florence and stayed as a guest of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata, the mother church of the Servite Order.
At the monastery, Leonardo was provided with a workshop, where he created the charcoal drawing of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. According to Vasari, the drawing became so popular that men, women, and children flocked to see it and admire it.
Employment Under Cesare Borgia
In 1502, Leonardo da Vinci went to Cesena and entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander Vl.
In order to gain Borgia’s patronage, Leonardo created a town plan (a detailed map) of Imola, Borgia’s stronghold. On seeing the map, Borgia employed Leonardo as his chief military engineer and architect and took him along with him in his travels throughout Italy.
Shortly later, Leonardo also created a map of Chiana Valley in Tuscany, so as to give Borgia a better overlay of the land and a greater strategic position. The map also helped Leonardo in another project of constructing a dam from the sea to Florence, to ensure a steady supply of water in order to sustain the canal during all seasons.
In early 1503, Leonardo left Borgia’s service and returned to Florence.
Life on Returning to Florence
Upon his return to Florence, Leonardo da Vinci began working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence.
Giocondo’s portrait was commissioned by her husband to Leonardo, on which he would continue to work until his last years.
Giacondo’s portrait eventually came to be known as the Mona Lisa and became the most famous painting in the world.
Leonardo was also part of a committee formed to recommend where Michelangelo’s statue of David would be placed.
From 1503 to 1505, Leonardo spent his time designing and painting a mural of The Battle of Anghiari, while Michelangelo worked on designing and painting its companion mural of The Battle of Cascina.
Unfortunately, neither artist completed their respective murals.
The Battle of Anghiari is often referred to as ‘The Lost Leonardo’, as the painting in its original form can no longer be found. Some commentators believe it to be hidden beneath one of the later frescoes in the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) in the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence.
Summoned to Milan
In 1506, Charles ll d’Amboise, the acting French governor of Milan, summoned Leonardo to the city.
In Milan, Leonardo received a commission for an equestrian figure of d’Amboise, of which only a wax model survived. It is believed that much like most of his projects, this one too was never completed.
The Council of Florence wanted Leonardo to return to Florence to finish The Battle of Anghiari. But he was no longer interested in the project and was given leave at the behest of Louis Xll, who wished to commission Leonardo to make some portraits.
After going back to Florence for a brief period to sort out a dispute with his brothers over his father’s estate, Leonardo returned to Milan in 1508.
In 1512, Leonardo began working on an equestrian monument for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, an Italian aristocrat who held several military commands during the Italian Wars.
But once again, the project was abandoned when a confederation of Venetian, Swiss, and Spanish forces invaded Milan and drove the French away.
Leonardo remained in the city for a few more months, staying at the Medici’s Villa in Vaprio d’Adda.
Moving to Rome
In September 1513, Leonardo da Vinci made his way to Rome, where he was received by Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici, the brother of Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, who assumed the papacy as Leo X in March of the same year.
For the next three years, Leonardo lived in the Belvedere Courtyard in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the pope. It was a place where Michelangelo and Raphael were also active around the same time.
Leonardo practiced botany in the Vatican gardens and was once also asked to make plans for the draining of the Pontine Marshes.
During this period, Leonardo became ill and suffered a stroke, the first of multiple strokes that would one day lead to his death.
Moving to France
In October 1515, Milan was recaptured by King Francis l of France.
The following year, Leonardo da Vinci entered the service of King Francis l and moved into the manor house Chateau du Clos Luce, in France, taking along the Mona Lisa with him.
Francis frequently visited Leonardo and was so impressed by him that the two became close friends. Around this time, Francis also commissioned Leonardo to make plans for an immense castle town in Romorantin, a town in the region of Centre-Val de Loire.
On 2nd May 1519, Leonardo da Vinci, aged 67, died at Clos Luce. The cause of his death was believed to be a stroke.
Francis I had become a close friend of Leonardo before Leonardo’s death, and he even remarked that there was never another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture, and architecture, as he was a great philosopher.
In accordance with his will, sixty beggars carrying tapers followed Leonardo’s casket.
Leonardo’s remains were interred in the Collegiate Church of Saint Florentin at the Chateau d’Amboise.
Leonardo’s friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi was his principal heir and executor, receiving Leonardo’s painting tools, personal objects, and library, along with money.
Salai, Leonardo’s long-time apprentice and companion, owned the Mona Lisa at the time of his death in 1524. The small panel portrait was valued at 505 lire at the time, an exceptionally high amount for such a small portrait.
Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as one of the greatest artists and thinkers to have ever lived. He was the quintessential polymath, often referred to as a genius, whose fame within his own lifetime was such that aristocrats and kings admired and courted him.
Interest in Leonardo has never diminished over all these years. In fact, it has only increased and intensified. Experts study, analyze, and translate his writings, interpret his drawings, and examine his paintings using scientific techniques. They argue over attributions made to him and look for his lost artworks that have never been found.
Although initially only famous for his paintings, it has now been generally accepted that Leonardo was so much more than just a painter. Since his death, his personal notebooks have become famous, revealing the true extent of his genius.
His notebooks reveal his infinite curiosity and interest in a wide range of topics such as engineering, anatomy, physiology, science, mathematics, etc, and prove that he is one of the greatest innovators of all time.
These notebooks are filled with detailed and accurate drawings and information regarding human anatomy, machines, and other scientific inventions so ahead of time that they seemed fantastical and unrealistic.
One of the most famous drawings in his notebooks is the Vitruvian Man, which is a study of the proportions of the human body. The drawing depicts a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, inscribed in a circle and square, and represents Leonardo’s concept of the ideal human body proportions. The drawing has become one of the most famous and influential drawings by an artist.
Some other famous drawings and sketches include the Studies of the Fetus in the Womb, which accurately depicts the human fetus in its proper position inside a dissected uterus; the anatomical study of the arm and the human brain and skull; the extremely detailed and accurate drawing of the human spinal column; and a design for a flying machine, an aerial screw suggestive of a helicopter.
And finally, we are all aware of Leonardo’s great achievements in the field of art. His masterpiece, Mona Lisa, is the most famous painting in the world today. And The Last Supper is the most reproduced and famous religious painting of all time.
One thing is for certain, a man such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose genius was so rare and universal, comes but rarely in history. All we can be sure of is that his greatness will continue to live on for many more centuries, or it may possibly never die at all.