In the attempt to understand and encompass whom Leonardo da Vinci was it is essential to understand that he was much more than just a painter, he was a genius. From the skill and techniques he exuded in his work as a painter to his wondrous mechanical inventions, Leonardo da Vinci surpassed great minds not only in his time, but also in our own. Leonardo was, in fact, so ahead of his time that many of his inventions and ideas remained undiscovered by the rest of the world until hundreds of years after his death. To Leonardo, the world was one being where everything in it connected to everything else in some way. This way of thinking led Leonardo on a lifelong quest for knowledge.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15 in 1452. He was born out of wedlock, the illegitimate son of Caterina, a farmer’s daughter, and Ser Piero da Vinci, a wealthy notary. (University of the Arts) At this time in history, the fact that Leonardo was illegitimate meant that opportunities for him were limited. He would not be able to work as a notary like his father and grandfather had done before him. His illegitimacy also meant that he would not receive any formal schooling. One can speculate that Leonardo spent much of his time as a child playing outside discovering, on his own, the wonders of the natural world. Already, his thirst for knowledge was growing.
In 1468, after the passing of his grandfather, Leonardo moved with his father’s family to Florence. (Annabell) His father did not overlook young Leonardo’s natural talent as an artist. It was at this time that his father, Ser Piero, sent Leonardo to Andrea Verrocchio to work as his apprentice. During his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop, young Leonardo would have studied painting, sculpture, and bronze casting. Artists at this time were tradesmen, held in the same regard as any other commonplace worker. Renaissance painters were beginning to study nature more closely in order to attain greater realism in their works. (Museum of Science) Leonardo accomplished this task almost effortlessly it seems. In 1472, Verrocchio, commissioned to paint The Baptism of Christ by the monastery church of San Salvi, appointed Leonardo to paint one of the angels in the painting. (Emil Kren) When Verrocchio saw the angel that Leonardo painted, so amazed he was by his pupil’s work, that he never painted again. (BBC)
There are records dated from 1472, which imply that it was at this time, Leonardo da Vinci began to receive his own commissions as an artist and was no longer a student in Verrocchio’s workshop. (University of the Arts) In 1480, Leonardo received a commission by the church of San Donato Scopeto to paint the Adoration of the Magi. (Annabell) This, as many other of Leonardo’s works, was to be unfinished. One piece that Leonardo did complete was the Virgin of the Rocks. (1483-c1490) This piece, commissioned by Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, resides in the Musée du Louvre. (University of the Arts) The medium, which this painting employs, is oil on wood panel. Virgin of the rocks is one of my very favorite paintings by Leonardo. Each figure, poised in the midst of action, seem to come alive in the painting. The realism Leonardo emulates in the figures and the landscape is extraordinary. According to Fritjof Capra, in his book The Science of Leonardo-Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, “One of the hallmarks of a master painter in the Florentine tradition was the ability to represent figures in apparent three-dimensional relief.” In order to do this Leonardo created his own technique using light and shade, called sfumato. (Capra)
During his lifetime, Leonardo traveled to many places and worked for many different patrons. All the while however, there was something else Leonardo spent his life working on, his manuscripts. Some of the topics covered by Leonardo are botany, anatomy, human flight, engineering, architecture, and design. He wrote books about linear perspective, the theory of colors, proportions and movements of the human figure, and six books dedicated solely to the study of light and shade. (Richter)) The inventions and ideas found in Leonardo’s manuscripts were far beyond his time. His “idea of urban health, based on the view of the city as a living system” did not come into practice until the 1980’s. (Capra) Leonardo da Vinci was also the first to invent war machines such as the tank, machine gun, and the submarine.
In 1492, Leonardo traveled to Milan to seek work in the court of Ludovico Sforza. The acting duke of Milan had formed an alliance with France to invade Naples, and this was a bustling militaristic based city. Leonardo, wishing to gain employment as a military engineer rather than a painter, presented Ludovico with the designs for some of his war machines. Leonardo and his inventions impressed Ludovico, but his military designs would have to wait. One of these designs was the covered assault car, which would remain unrealized until 400 years later. Knowing Leonardo’s talent as a painter Ludovico commissions him to paint a portrait of his mistress. This painting, The Lady with the Ermine, would become one of Leonardo’s most famous works. (The History Channel) This, however, was not the only great work of art that the duke would commission Leonardo to create. He earned his title here as ‘Magician’ through his many theatre productions. At the beginning of the show, he could make the curtains rise when they had only fallen before. Leonardo also created the first revolving stage, and his shows featured moving scenery and “special effects”. (Capra) There were mechanical moving animals, steam, and flames. People in his time had never seen such incredible theatrics.
Moreover, when Leonardo put his hands to clay, they had never seen such a sculpture. Ludovico Sforza intended to commemorate his father “with an enormous horse in bronze, on which rides the Duke Francesco in armor”. Leonardo begins his work on this project around 1489. (University of the Arts) In doing so, he begins to study the forms of horses. His first design poses the horse rearing up on its hind legs with Francesco astride the great beast. The casting of the monument in this pose however turns out to be an impossible task, and Leonardo must rethink his design. Four years later, at the wedding of the duke’s niece, Bianca Maria Sforza, Leonardo presents a clay model of the equestrian monument. (The History Channel) This 24-foot clay model of the horse would be the only version of the monument ever created. There was a shortage of bronze at this time, and the Duke of Milan must choose between the casting of the monument and the casting of cannons. The 60 tons of bronze, which was set aside for the equestrian monument, Ludovico has made into cannons.(The History Channel) Once again, Leonardo finds himself with work left unfinished. Finding a new task for Leonardo, however, was not difficult for Ludovico. In 1495, he began working on the Last Supper. With this masterpiece, completed sometime in 1497, Leonardo had used a new technique of oil on plaster. The technique is a failure and “within decades, dampness in the wall begins to disintegrate the oil based paint.” (The History Channel) This is not the only thing, which led to the paintings deterioration. There was a new king in France, and he was not interested in being Milan’s ally. In December of 1499, the French took control of Milan and expelled Ludovico Sforza. (University of the Arts) The invading French army turned the refectory, where the Last Supper was painted, into horse stables and they cut a door into the wall at the bottom of the painting. (BBC) Restorations on the Last Supper began as early as 1517 and continued up until the last major one in 1999. (University of the Arts)
With the fall of the Sforza in Milan Leonardo traveled to Venice in an attempt to sell his talent as a military engineer there. His Inventions, rejected, he left Venice to return to Florence. (The History Channel) In 1503, he began working on one of the best-known paintings of all time, The Mona Lisa. This painting is oil on wood panel and is now at the Musée du Louvre in France. The identity of the woman in the painting is unknown. Some believe it may be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a prominent Florentine silk merchant Francesco Del Giocondo. (University of the Arts) The fact that the sitter is unknown, however, only adds to the mystery and intrigue of the painting. Portrait paintings were not unheard of at this time, but for the most part the figures were straight backed and stiff, showing only a profile view. Leonardo positions the figure, slightly turned, and looking directly out at the viewer. The slight grin on her lips shows as well through her eyes, an astonishing display of emotion in a painting from this time. Leonardo applied the technique of sfumato in The Mona Lisa, as he did in Virgin of the rocks, and if you look very closely, you can just make out the veil that covers the woman’s face. (Witcombe) Leonardo carries this painting with him for many years, working on it all the while. Some people speculate that it remains today as one of Leonardo’s unfinished works.
Leonardo da Vinci died, at the Castle of Cloux in France on April 23, 1519, at the age of 67. (University of the Arts) He made it his life’s work to gain knowledge from everything he encountered in the world. His many faceted talents, and views on the world, have inspired the minds of humans for centuries. Leonardo was a man far beyond his time, as his legacy lives to tell.
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Leonardo da Vinci. Dir. Alan Yentob. BBC. 2004.
Leonardo da Vinci. Dir. Robert Gardner. The History Channel. 2005.
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Museum of Science. Leonardo's Perspective. 1997. 12 July 2009 <http://www.mos.org/>.
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