In the fifteenth century, Italy was not the unified country we know today but was divided into many small independent states. Naples in the south was ruled by a series of kings, the Papal States of the Roman Catholic Church ruled the middle section, and to the north different families controlled the largest and wealthiest city-states of Florence, Milan, and Venice. These states fought many wars against each other and against smaller neighboring states to increase their power. During the interval of relative peace from the mid-15th century until the French invasions of 1494, Italy experienced a great flowering of culture, especially in Florence and Tuscany under the Medici family.
During the Renaissance, European artists began to study the model of nature more closely and to paint with the goal of greater realism. They learned to create lifelike people and animals, and they became skilled at creating the illusion of depth and distance on flat walls and canvases by using the techniques of linear perspective. An increased awareness of classical knowledge created a new resolve to learn by direct observation and study of the natural world, as DaVinci exemplified through his notebooks. Consequently, secular themes became increasingly important to artists, and with the renewed interest in antiquity came a fresh repertoire of subjects drawn from Greek and Roman history and mythology. The models provided by ancient buildings and works of art also inspired the development of new artistic techniques and the desire to re-create the forms and styles of classical art.
Central to the development of Renaissance art was the emergence of the artist as a creator, adored and respected for his imagination and erudition. Art, too, became valued—not only as a vehicle for religious and social instruction, but more as a mode of personal, aesthetic expression. Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies this aspect of the Renaissance period, exploring art—along with many other fields of study—simply for the inner-peace and joy that it brought him.
Leonardo DaVinci’s birth coincided with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, which intensified the revived interest in learning and opened up an era of wider communication. One of the many ironies of Leonardo’s life, however, is that his extraordinary ideas and inventions would remain buried in his notebooks for nearly 150 years before any of them reached the world through the medium of print. His contemporaries included Luther, Macchiavelli and Michelangelo, who each had an impact on some element of DaVinci’s life, whether directly or indirectly.
DaVinci was born on April 15, 1452 in his grandfather’s house at the small hill-town of Vinci, about 20 miles west of Florence in Italy (Douglas 1). He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero d’Antonio da Vinci, a young lawyer, and a peasant woman named Caterina. His father rose to the top of his profession as a notary, following in the footsteps of his ancestors and retaining the most clients in Florence during his time. DaVinci hardly associated with his mother at all, since she married the brute Accattabriga di Piero da Vinci after giving birth to Leonardo and moved out of the town. Although he had seventeen half-siblings by the time of his death, DaVinci was an only child for over twenty years, since his father did not have any more children—legitimate or otherwise—until he was 24 years old (Douglas 2-3).
Illegitimate children were not uncommon during the fifteenth century and his father was an excellent parent; however, his rich upbringing combined with the love of his grandparents caused Leonardo to be extremely spoiled during his youth. His many gifts, including superlative male beauty, a splendid singing voice, magnificent physique, mathematical excellence, scientific daring, and a prominent upbringing elicited an inconstancy leading to failures later in life. His overabundance of talents caused him to treat his artistry lightly, seldom finishing a picture and sometimes making rash technical experiments. The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, for example, has almost vanished, so inadequate were his innovations in fresco preparation for this 1495 masterpiece (Richter 327).
The first thirty years of Leonardo’s life were shrouded in mist, as his own personality and emotions were never fully uncovered. It has been discovered, however, that at a young age he developed an intense interest in nature while living at his grandparents’ home in Vinci, and became a vegetarian due to his love of animals. His first complete drawing is a rural landscape of the Arno Valley, near Vinci, dated 1473 (Douglas 3). Leonardo had a weak formal education, learning little Latin and no Greek, and rendering few literary skills at all. Often angered by his lack of a better education, DaVinci improved his Latin later in life, mostly for the purpose of reading scientific treatises (Bax 22).
One of the most unique characteristics of this Renaissance Man was his style of handwriting, which runs from right to left across the page with its letters reversed, so that it can be best read using a mirror. Although many speculate that strange heretic ideas or paranoia lead him to write this way, it has been most logically explained that he merely found it most convenient, as a left-handed person, to write in such a fashion (Wallace 10), even though it has been found that he was ambidexterous as well (Douglas 4).
His father first discovered Leonardo’s extraordinary artistic genius when a peasant of his estate asked to have something painted on a round shield made of the bark of a fig tree. Instead of sending it to Florence, the lawyer gave this project to his own son, who took lizards, newts, maggots, snakes, bats, and other such animals into a private room where he could study them and create a vicious monster that would terrify all beholders of the shield. Startled by his son’s realistic and frightening creation, Ser Piero bought another shield and sent it to Florence to be painted, selling Leonardo’s shield secretly to some merchants (Wallace 11).
Ser Piero was a friend of the official artist of the Medici, Andrea Verrocchio, to whom he brought some of Leonardo’s early sketches, around age 15 (Douglas 4). Verrocchio was a goldsmith, sculptor, architect, painter, musician, and artist, highly respected by the Medici and the people of Florence in the fifteenth century. Around 1570, Leonardo left Vinci to enthusiastically study under his new master in Florence with a group of brilliant young painters (Bax 24). Verrocchio developed Leonardo’s genius, his adeptness of such a broad range of arts, his passion for knowledge, and his universal curiosity. However, the master and pupil differed greatly in respect to which art they devoted their best energies to—for Verrocchio it was sculpture, but Leonardo’s first love of painting always surpassed the other arts. DaVinci also had a strong musical talent, playing the lute and lyre, although musical and visual arts were closely associated during the Renaissance (Douglas 12). It was unusual, however, for upper class members such as DaVinci to take up art other than as a pastime, since artists were no longer perceived as craftsmen, as they were during the Middle Ages (Douglas 13).
Leonardo’s first painting is part of Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (completed in 1475), in which he painted an angel (Reti 13)—blue-robed, free and supple, subtly capturing the artist’s ideal of human beauty and his fascination with sinuous, fluid motion, while still eliciting that it was the work of a youth. He also painted much of the background, proven by the illusory, almost fantastical style of da Vinci’s later paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, and by the new Northern Italian technique of oil rather than the traditional egg tempera that his master continued to use (Wallace 27-28).
The year 1478 proved to be a turning point in the artist’s life, as he began to develop his own individual style as an artist, emerging from the tutelage of such a dominant character (Douglas 10). The most famous work that he created during this transitional stage was what is now known simply as Madonna; as soon as Leonardo was able to choose his own subjects, he painted mostly images of the Virgin and Christ. The first painting of the subject in which he was most interested is believed to be Madonna and Child of 1475, as he follows Verrocchio’s patterns more closely than in any other picture. His fascination with maternity, and of the Madonna in particular, was characteristic of his paintings and imagination, and it was through his many paintings of the small Madonnas that he became famous throughout Christendom across all of Europe (Douglas 6).
Leonardo’s beliefs and attitudes were becoming much more solid around this time as well, holding especially close to him the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato. He accepted the idea that the earth is spherical and that it is composed of the four “elements” of earth, air, fire, and water, proposed by Pythagoras. From Plato he believed in the “doctrine of macrocosm and microcosm”—a relationship between man and the universe, in which the universe is a macrocosm as gigantic living organism, and man is a miniature universe, or microcosm (Wallace 103).
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV and the Medici summoned the “best” Tuscan artists to begin work in the Vatican, but Leonardo’s name was not among the list. This event became one of the several reasons for Leonardo’s move from Florence to Milan in 1482 at the age of thirty, which lasted almost twenty years and provided great recognition for Leonardo. Another reason for his move was money; Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan became Leonardo’s new patron after receiving a brilliant letter that proved his genius in military engineering, suggesting new ideas and innovations that attracted Sforza immediately to hire the young Leonardo. Da Vinci abruptly stopped working on his first commission in Florence, The Adoration of the Magi, which was the culmination of the artist’s rapid progress that began in 1478. The monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, whose monks were clients of Leonardo’s father, received the unfinished work discontentedly, not realizing that it uncovered the immensity of Leonardo’s highly organized and dramatic efforts in painting (Wallace 32).
Sforza mainly occupied Leonardo as a painter, sculptor, and designer of elaborate court festivals, but he also kept Leonardo busy designing weapons, buildings, and machinery. As a result, this entire period of Da Vinci’s life concentrated on nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics, advanced weapons, municipal construction, canals and architecture.
His work in Milan obviously included crafting weapons for his patron, as was common among artists of the Renaissance, but Leonardo took his duty a step further by creating immense, technological machines of weaponry. Although DaVinci abhorred war, as Verrocchio’s workshop was decidedly non-military, he most likely constructed his armaments out of intrigue and the strong interests of an engineer. These inventions spurred the transition from simple to enormously destructive warfare, bringing about social and political changes in Western society as well. After discovering how to harness the energy of falling water and wind, Leonardo’s imagination soared as he devised new machines with tremendous accuracy and power, sharing his innovations with the greatest military leaders of his time.
A few of his pioneering ideas include a “turtle-shaped armored car” (Wallace 54)—more commonly known today as the tank, a multi-barreled cannon—the forerunner of the machine gun and multiple rocket-launcher, and the bombshell, which was not actually constructed during Leonardo’s time but was made effective by a British officer named Henry Shrapnel at the end of the eighteenth century (Wallace 54). Other scientific inventions Leonardo developed on paper but never saw in material form include the helicopter, parachute, scaling ladder (similar to today’s fire-fighting apparatus), a ratchet (that anticipated the modern automobile jack), roller bearings, and the hydraulic screw.
Working with the greatest builder of his time, Donato Bramante, in the service of Sforza at Milan, Leonardo developed what is now called the classical phase of Rennaissance Architecture. They introduced brilliant and elaborate archways and domes in churches and modified the Gothic cathedral.
Leonardo also contributed immensely to the field of anatomy by making anatomical drawings that physicians used to transmit their findings to students. He studied more than ten dead bodies, dissecting the cadavers carefully and illustrating the images as he proceeded. Prior to this development, doctors did not utilize the drawings in textbooks as they were thought to be distracting, but with Leonardo’s four views of the subject and new technique of cross-sectional representation, a “modern” medical textbook was produced to set the standard for anatomical drawing today (Wallace 105). His anatomical analysis reconnected the mechanics that correspond to human emotion with the soul, acknowledging the simultaneous separation and unification of the body and soul, which indicate the general idea of religion during his era (Reti 225-226).
Leonardo’s connection of earth and heaven was also prevalent in his work, especially in the form of art. He developed a habit of recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks between 1490 and 1495, wandering the streets of Milan in search of beautiful or ugly faces (as a variation of the beautiful, to him) to draw. He rarely ever threw away a single sketch, as he found them to be great teachers and patterns for imminent artists. Leonardo also borrowed many of his ideas from the people of his time, but advanced upon them so much that he always gave himself full credit. He was direct and unconstrained in asking for information that was of interest to him and very often received what he was looking for (Wallace 15-17).
In 1499, Leonardo left Milan to explore other regions of Italy after depositing 600 gold florins in his account Florence on December 14. He traveled between Mantua and Venice for almost a year, drawing a cartoon for Portrait of Isabella d’Este and planning a dam in the Isonzo Valley in order to flood the country to prevent Turkish invasions. By April 24 of 1500, however, Leonardo was back in Florence principally to exercise his function as a painter, although he also became the chief architect and military engineer under a prominent political figure and prototype of Niccolò Machiavelli's Prince, Cesare Borgia —intelligent, cruel, treacherous, and ruthlessly opportunistic. He traveled with Borgia and Macchiavelli to Romanga in 1502 and executed maps of several Italian cities during this time (Reti 16-17).
Returning to Florence, Leonardo used his small profit to begin Battle of Anghiari, but lost interest after a brief time in order to concentrate on his Mona Lisa, which was completed by 1505. By 1508, he was back in Milan, where he painted St. Anne, finished his studies on anatomy, created a self-portrait, and began work on his final painting St. John the Baptist. Nearing the end of his life, Leonardo began drawing images in black chalk of apocalyptic destruction entitled The Deluge, which illustrate Leonardo’s intense belief that the same forces that he worked with his entire life would one day destroy all.
With the onset of the paralysis of his right hand, Leonardo began aging rapidly and retired to Rome during the Florentine rule by the Medici family once again. He spent three enjoyable years in France before returning to Rome to write his will and spend his final days. Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519, at the age of sixty-seven, completing the life of the most versatile and genius man who ever lived.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius, far ahead of his time, whose vat of knowledge and experience extended over four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy. He contributed to Western civilization through each of these fields, altering society’s perception of the Church, etc. His genius ideas were to be materialized by inventors of the future.
Bax, Clifford. Leonardo da Vinci. Edinburgh: Peter Davies Ltd., 1932.
Douglas, Langton R. Leonardo da Vinci: His Life and His Pictures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.
O’Malley, C.D. Leonardo’s Legacy: An International Symposium. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
Reti, Ladislao, ed. The Unknown Leonardo. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972.
Wallace, Robert. The World of Leonardo: 1452-1519. New York: Time Incorporated, 1966.
Richter, Irma A., ed. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
http://www.museoscienza.org/english/leonardo/ The Milan Science Museum’s site on the life of Leonardo DaVinci, including information on his artwork, manuscripts, and inventions.
http://www.leonet.it/comuni/vincimus/invinmus.html The official website of the Leonardo DaVinci Museum in Vinci, Italy allows readers to view the exhibits and the
http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/vinci/ This site from the WebMuseum in Paris includes more information on specific sketches and paintings of DaVinci, as well as a timeline of the High Renaissance.
http://www.kausal.com/leonardo/ This website provides great information on every aspect of Leonardo DaVinci’s life, including a Family Tree and online video streaming capabilities.
site dedicated to the lesser known aspects of DaVinci’s contributions,
including astronomy, zoology, paleontology, and geology.
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