Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the greatest and most ingenious
men that history has produced. His contributions in the areas of art,
science, and humanity are still among the most important that a single
man has put forth, definitely making his a life worth knowing.
Da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, is credited with being a
master painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, and
scientist. He was born an illegitimate child to Catherina, a peasant
girl. His father was Ser Piero da Vinci, a public notary for the city
of Florence, Italy. For the first four years of his life he lived
with his mother in the small village of Vinci, directly outside of the
great center of the Renaissance, Florence. Catherina was a poor
woman, with possible artistic talent, the genetic basis of Leonardo’s
talents. Upon the realization of Leonardo’s potential, his father
took the boy to live with him and his wife in Florence (Why did).
This was the start of the boy’s education and his quest for knowledge.
Leonardo was recognized by many to be a “Renaissance child”
because of his many talents. As a boy, Leonardo was described as
being handsome, strong, and agile. He had keen powers of observation,
an imagination, and the ability to detach himself from the world
around him. At an early age Leonardo became interested in subjects
such as botany, geology, animals (specifically birds), the motion of
water, and shadows (About Leonardo).
At the age of 17, in about 1469, Leonardo was apprenticed as a
garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine
painter and sculptor of his day. In Verrocchio’s workshop Leonardo
was introduced to many techniques, from the painting of altarpieces
and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in
marble and bronze.
In 1472 he was accepted in the painter’s guild of Florence,
and worked there for about six years. While there, Leonardo often
painted portions of Verrocchio’s paintings for him, such as the
background and the kneeling angel on the left in the Baptism of Christ
(Encarta). Leonardo’s sections of the painting have soft shadings,
with shadows concealing the edges. These areas are distinguished
easily against the sharply defined figures and objects of Verrocchio,
that reflect the style called Early Renaissance. Leonardo’s more
graceful approach marked the beginning of the High Renaissance.
However, this style did not become more popular in Italy for another
25 year (Gilbert 46). Leonardo actually started the popularization of
this style. For this reason Leonardo could be called the “Father of
the High Renaissance.” Leonardo’s leading skills emerged through his
paintings and his techniques. Leonardo’s talents soon drew him away
from the Guild and in 1472 Leonardo finished his first complete
painting, Annunciation. In 1478 Leonardo reached the title of an
Independent Master. His first large painting, The Adoration of the
Magi (begun in 1481), which was left unfinished, was ordered in 1481
for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works
ascribed to his youth are the Benois Madonna (1478), the portrait
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (1481).
Leonardo expanded his skills to other branches of interest and in 1481
Leonardo wrote an astonishing letter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico
Sforza. In this letter he stated that he knew how to build portable
bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and
of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armored
vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could execute
sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay.
Thus, he entered the service of the Duke in 1482, working on
Ludovico’s castle, organizing festivals, and he became recognized as
an expert in military engineering and arms. Under the Duke, Leonardo
served many positions. He served as principal engineer in the Duke’s
numerous military enterprises and was active as an architect
(Encarta). As a military engineer Leonardo designed artillery and
planned the diversion of rivers. He also improved many inventions
that were already in use such as the rope ladder. Leonardo also drew
pictures of an armored tank hundreds of years ahead of its time. His
concept failed because the tank was too heavy to be mobile and the
hand cranks he designed were not strong enough to support such a
As a civil engineer, he designed revolving stages for
pageants. As a sculptor he planned a huge monument of the Duke’s
father mounted up on a leaping horse. The Horse, as it was known, was
the culmination of 16 years of work. Leonardo was fascinated by
horses and drew them constantly. In The Horse, Leonardo experimented
with the horses’ forelegs and measurements.
The severe plagues in 1484 and 1485 drew his attention to town
planning, and his drawings and plans for domed churches reflect his
concern with architectural problems (Bookshelf). In addition he also
assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the work Divina
While in Milan Leonardo kept up his own work and studies with
the possible help of apprentices and pupils, for whom he probably
wrote the various texts later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651).
The most important painting of those created in the early Milan age
was The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo worked on this piece for an
extended period of time, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had
begun (Encarta). It is his earliest major painting that survives in
complete form. From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on his masterpiece,
The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa
Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo rejected the fresco
technique normally used for wall paintings. An artist that uses this
fresco method must work quickly. Leonardo wanted to work slowly,
revising his work, and use shadows-which would have been impossible in
using fresco painting. He invented a new technique that involved
coating the wall with a compound that he had created. This compound,
which was supposed to protect the paint and hold it in place did not
work, and soon after its completion the paint began to flake away.
For this reason The Last Supper still exists, but in poor condition
(Gilbert 46). Leonardo had at many times merged his inventive and
creative capabilities to enhance life and improve his works. Although
his experiments with plastering and painting failed, they showed his
dissatisfaction with an accepted means and his creativity and courage
to experiment with a new and untried idea. Experimentation with
traditional techniques is evident in his drawings as well.
During Leonardo’s 18 year stay in Milan he also produced other
paintings and drawings, but most have been lost. He created stage
designs for theater, architectural drawings, and models for the dome
of Milan Cathedral. Leonardo also began to produce scientific
drawings, especially of the human body. He studied anatomy by
dissecting human corpses and the bodies of animals. Leonardo’s
drawings did not only clarify the appearance of bones, tendons, and
other body parts but their function in addition. These drawings are
considered to be the first accurate representations of human anatomy.
Leonardo is also credited with the first use of the cross
section, a popular technique for diagramming the human body. Leonardo
wrote, “The painter who has acquired a knowledge of the nature of the
sinews, muscles, and tendons will know exactly in the movement of any
limb how many and which of the sinews are the cause of it, and which
muscle by its swelling is the cause of this sinew’s contracting”
In December, 1499, the Sforza family was driven out of Milan
by French forces and Leonardo was forced to leave Milan and his
unfinished statue of Ludovico Sforza’s father, which was destroyed by
French archers that used it for target practice. Leonardo then
returned to Florence in 1500 (Bookshelf).
When Leonardo returned to Florence the citizens welcomed him
with open arms because of the fame he acquired while in Milan. The
work he did there strongly influenced other artists such as Sandro
Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo. The work he was to produce would
influence other masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1502
Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Romagna and son
and Chief General of Pope Alexander VI. For this post he supervised
work on the fortress of the papal territories in central Italy. In
1503 he was a member of a commission of artists to decide on the
proper location for the David by Michelangelo (Encarta).
Towards the end of the year Leonardo began to design a
decoration for the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo chose
the Battle of Anghiari as the subject of the mural, a victory for
Florence in a war against Pisa. He made many drawings and sketches of
a cavalry battle, with tense soldiers, leaping horses and clouds of
dust. In painting The Battle of Anghiari Leonardo again rejected
fresco and tried an experimental technique called encaustic. Once
again the experiment was unsuccessful. Leonardo went on a trip and
left the painting unfinished. When he returned he found that the
paint had run and he never finished the painting. The paintings
general appearance is known from Leonardo’s sketches and other
artists’ copies of it (Creighton 45).
During the period of time that Leonardo spent painting the
Palazzo Vecchio he also painted several other works, including the
most famous portrait ever, the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa, also known
as La Gioconda, (after the presumed name of the model’s husband)
became famous because of the unique expression on Lisa del Gioconda’s
face. She appears to have just started to or finished smiling. This
painting was one of Leonardo’s favorites and he carried it with him on
all of his subsequent travels (Clark 133).
In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan to finished up some of his
projects that he had to abandon during his hasty departure. He stayed
there until 1516 when he moved to Cloux, France, where he stayed with
his pupil Melzi. While in Milan he was named Court Painter to King
Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six
years he traveled from Milan to Florence repeatedly to look after his
inheritance. In 1514 he traveled to Rome under the patronage of Pope
Leo X. During this time Leonardo’s energy was focused mainly on his
scientific experiments. He then moved to France to serve King Francis
I. It is here in Chateau de Cloux that he died on May 2,1519 (Wallace
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Leonardo constantly reworked his drawings, studies and
mechanical theories. His observations of the motion of water are
amazingly accurate. In Leonardo’s Studies of Water Formation, the
flow patterns observed are swirling around , then below as it forms a
pool. Using modern slow motion cameras’ scientists now study the same
effects that Leonardo wrote about and observed with his naked eye
Another study of water and wind is his Apocalyptic Visions.
This is a collected study of hurricanes and storms. In these highly
detailed drawings the pen lines so carefully marked explode into
action similar to the storms themselves. Leonardo’s mathematical
drawings are also highly skilled. In a math formula Leonardo proved
the theory of perpetual motion false but it still intrigued him.
Among his vast notes were small ideas for a perpetual motion machine.
His ideas for completing this task involved an unbalanced wheel that
would revolve forever, conserving its energy. However these machines
were never constructed. Another mathematical drawing was the
Polyhedron. This three dimensional figure represented proportions to
him “not only in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights,
positions and in whatsoever power there may be” (Wallace 59).
The notebooks of Leonardo contain sketches and plans for
inventions that came into existence almost five-hundred years after
the Renaissance. Leonardo practiced a technique of writing backwards.
It has been postulated that he did this, being left-handed, so that
he wouldn’t smear the ink by his left hand running across
newly-written words. Moreover, the individual words are spelled
backwards. In order to read the Notebooks one must hold the pages up
to a mirror and it is believed by some that Leonardo did this to keep
his writing and theories secret. In any event, contained in the
Notebooks are plans and drawings for what we recognize today as the
first working propeller, a submarine, a helicopter, a tank,
parachutes, the cannon, perpetual motion machines, and the rope
ladder. There are perfectly executed drawings of the human body, from
the proportions of the full figure to dissections in the most minute
detail. It was observed, however, that Leonardo’s interest in the
human body and his ability to invent mechanical things were actually
not as paramount to him as was his fascination and awe of the natural
world (Clark 133).
Leonardo lived to be 67 years old. He is not known to have
ever married or had children. In fact, it was said of him that he
only saw women as “reproductive mechanisms” (Clark 134).
If there is one quality that characterizes the life of Leonardo da
Vinci it would be his curiosity for life and the world around him.
Curiosity is the force that motivated him to observe, dissect and
document every particle of matter that warranted his attention. From
babies in the womb to seashells on the beach, nothing escaped his
relentless intellect. The mind of Leonardo transcends the period of
the Renaissance and every epoch thereafter. It is universally
acknowledged that his imagination, his powers of reason, and his sheer
energy surpass that of any person in history. The study of Leonardo
is limited only by the inadequacy of the student.