Leonardo da Vinci was a celebrated Italian Renaissance architect, musician, inventor, engineer, sculptor and painter.
He has been described as the archetype of the “Renaissance man” and as a universal genius. Leonardo is well known for his masterly paintings, such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. He is also known for his many inventions that were conceived well before their time but of which few were constructed in his lifetime. In addition, he helped advance the study of anatomy, astronomy, and civil engineering.
His life was described in Giorgio Vasari’s biography Vite.
Leonardo was born in Anchiano, near Vinci, Italy. He was an illegitimate child. His father Ser Piero da Vinci was a young lawyer and his mother, Caterina, was a peasant girl. It has been suggested that Caterina was a Middle Eastern slave owned by Piero, but the evidence is scant.
This was before modern naming conventions developed in Europe. Therefore, his full name was “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci”, which means “Leonardo, son of Piero, from Vinci”. Leonardo himself simply signed his works “Leonardo” or “Io, Leonardo” (“I, Leonardo”). Most authorities therefore refer to his works as “Leonardos”, not “da Vincis”. Presumably he did not use his father’s name because of his illegitimate status.
Leonardo grew up with his father in Florence. He was a vegetarian throughout his life. He became an apprentice to painter Andrea del Verrocchio about 1466. Later, he became an independent painter in Florence.
In 1476 he was anonymously accused of homosexual contact with a 17-year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, a notorious prostitute. He was charged, along with three other young men, with homosexual conduct. However, he was acquitted because of lack of evidence. For a time Leonardo and the others were under the watchful eye of Florence’s “Officers of the Night” — a kind of Renaissance vice squad.
That Leonardo was homosexual is generally accepted. His longest-running relationship was with a beautiful delinquent Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, whom he nicknamed Salai (Little Devil), who entered his household at the age of 10. Leonardo supported Salai for twenty five years, and he left Salai half his vineyard in his will.
From 1478 to 1499 Leonardo worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and maintained his own workshop with apprentices there. Seventy tons of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo’s “Gran Cavallo” horse statue were cast into weapons for the Duke in an attempt save Milan from the French under Charles VIII in 1495 — see also Italian Wars.
When the French returned under Louis XII in 1498, Milan fell without a fight, overthrowing Sforza. Leonardo stayed in Milan for a time, until one morning he found French archers using his life-size clay model for the “Gran Cavallo” for target practice. He left with his servant and assistant Salai (a.k.a. Gian Giacomo Caprotti) and his friend (and inventor of double-entry bookkeeping) Luca Pacioli for Mantua, moving on after 2 months for Venice, then moving again to Florence at the end of April 1500.
In Florence he entered the services of Cesare Borgia (also called “Duca Valentino” and son of Pope Alexander VI) as a military architect and engineer. In 1506 he returned to Milan, now in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries drove out the French.
In 1507 Leonardo met a 15 year old aristocrat of great personal beauty, Count Francesco Melzi. Melzi became his pupil, life companion, and heir.
From 1513 to 1516 he lived in Rome, where painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active at the time; he did not have much contact with these artists, however.
In 1515 Francis I of France retook Milan, and Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (of a mechanical lion) for the peace talks in Bologna between the French king and Pope Leo X, where he must have first met the king. In 1516, he entered Francis’ service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé next to the king’s residence at the Royal Chateau at Amboise, and receiving a generous pension. The king became a close friend.
He died in Cloux, France in 1519. According to his wish, 60 beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise.
Leonardo had a great number of friends, some of whom were:
- Fazio Cardano — mathematician, jurist
- Giovanni Francesco Melzi — painter, pupil
- Girolamo Melzi — Captain in Milanese militia
- Giovanni Francesco Rustici
- Cesare Borgia — warrior
- Niccolo Machiavelli — writer
- Andrea da Ferrara
- Franchinus Gaffurius — music theorist, composer
- Francesco Nani — Brother in the Franciscan Order in Brescia
- Iacomo Andrea — architect and author
- Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli — Franciscan father
- Galeazzo da Sanseverino — Commanded ducal army of Milan, singer
- Ginevra dei Benci
- Atalante Miglioretti — singer, artist, actor
- Tomasso Masini da Peretola a.k.a. Zoroastro — student of alchemy, occultist
- Benedetto Dei — writer
Leonardo is well known for the masterful paintings attributed to him, such as Last Supper (Ultima Cena or Cenacolo, in Milan), painted in 1498, and the Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda, now at the Louvre in Paris), painted in 1503–1506. There is significant debate however, whether da Vinci himself painted the Mona Lisa, or whether it was primarily the work of his students. Only seventeen of his paintings, and none of his statues survive. Of these paintings, only Ginevra de’ Benci is in the Western Hemisphere.
Leonardo often planned grandiose paintings with many drawings and sketches, only to leave the projects unfinished.
In 1481 he was commissioned to paint the altarpiece “The Adoration of the Magi”. After extensive, ambitious plans and many drawings, the painting was left unfinished and Leonardo left for Milan.
He there spent many years making plans and models for a monumental seven-metre (24-foot) high horse statue in bronze (“Gran Cavallo”), to be erected in Milan. Because of war with France, the project was never finished. Based on private initiative, a similar statue was completed according to some of his plans in 1999 in New York, given to Milan and erected there. The Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland has a small bronze horse, thought to be the work of an apprentice from Leonardo’s original design.
Back in Florence, he was commissioned for a large public mural, the “Battle of Anghiari”; his rival Michelangelo was to paint the opposite wall. After producing a fantastic variety of studies in preparation for the work, he left the city, with the mural unfinished due to technical difficulties.
List of paintings
- Annunciation (1475-1480) Uffizi, Florence, Italy
- Ginevra de’ Benci (~1475) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, U.S.
- The Benois Madonna (1478-1480) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
- The Virgin with Flowers (1478-1481) Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
- Adoration of the Magi (1481) Uffizi, Florence, Italy
- Cecilia Gallerani with an Ermine (1488-90) Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland
- A Musician (~1490), Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy
- Madonna Litta (1490-91) The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
- La Belle Ferronière (1495-1498) Louvre, Paris, France
- Last Supper (1498) Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
- The Madonna of the Rocks (1483-86) Louvre, Paris, France
- The Madonna of the Rocks aka The Virgin of the Rocks (1508) National Gallery, London, England
- Leda and the Swan (1508) Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
- Mona Lisa or La Gioconda Louvre, Paris, France
- The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (~1510) Louvre, Paris, France
- St. John the Baptist (~1514) Louvre, Paris, France
- Bacchus (1515) Louvre, Paris, France
Science and engineering
Perhaps even more impressive than his artistic work are his studies in science and engineering, recorded in notebooks comprising some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and science. He was left-handed and used mirror writing throughout his life. Explainable by fact that it is easier to pull a quill pen than to push it; by using mirror-writing, the left-handed writer is able to pull the pen from right to left.
His approach to science was an observatory one: he tried to understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail, and did not emphasize experiments or theoretical explanations. Throughout his life, he planned a grand encyclopedia based on detailed drawings of everything. Since he lacked formal education in Latin and mathematics, Leonardo the scientist was mostly ignored by contemporary scholars.
He participated in autopsies and produced many extremely detailed anatomical drawings, planning a comprehensive work of human and comparative anatomy. Around the year 1490, he produced a study in his sketchbook of the Canon of Proportions as described in recently rediscovered writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius. The study, called the Vitruvian Man, is one of his most well-known works.