Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci
Born April 15, 1452
Died May 2, 1519
Amboise, Indre-et-Loire, France
Field Many and diverse fields of arts and sciences
Movement High Renaissance
Mona LisaLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May
2, 1519) was an Italian polymath: scientist, mathematician, engineer,
inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, and writer.
He was born and
raised near Vinci, Italy, the illegitimate son of a notary, Messer Piero,
and a peasant woman, Caterina. He had no surname in the modern sense,
"da Vinci" simply meaning "of Vinci". His full birth
name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", meaning "Leonardo,
son of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci."
Leonardo has been
described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man", a man
whose seemingly infinite curiosity was equalled only by his powers of
invention. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters
of all time, and the man with the most diversely prodigious talent ever
to have lived.
It is primarily
as a painter that Leonardo was and is renowned. Two of his works, the
Mona Lisa and The Last Supper occupy unique positions as the most famous,
the most illustrated and most imitated portrait and religious painting
of all time, only approached in fame by Michelangelo's Creation of Adam.
His drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also iconic.
As an engineer,
Leonardo conceived ideas vastly ahead of his own time, conceptually
inventing a helicopter, a tank, the use of concentrated solar power,
a calculator, a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics, the double hull,
and many others. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were
feasible during his lifetime. Some of his smaller inventions such
as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile
strength of wire entered the world of manufacturing unheralded.
He greatly advanced
the state of knowledge in the fields of anatomy, astronomy, civil engineering,
optics, and the study of water (hydrodynamics). Of his works, only a
few paintings survive, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings,
scientific diagrams, and notes.
Early life, 1452-1466
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Anchiano, a hamlet near the
town of Vinci in the lower valley of the Arno, within the territories
Leonardo was later
to record only two incidents of his childhood. One, which he regarded
as an omen, was when a hawk dropped from the sky and hovered over his
cradle, its tail feathers brushing his face.
known drawing, the Arno Valley, 1473.The second incident occurred while
he was exploring in the mountains. He discovered a cave and recorded
his emotions at being, on one hand, terrified that some great monster
might lurk there and on the other, driven by curiosity to find out what
At the age of five,
he went to live in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle,
Francesco, in the small town of Vinci, where his father had married
a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but unfortunately
Vasari tells the
story of how a local peasant requested that Ser Piero ask his talented
son to paint a picture on a round plaque. Leonardo responded with a
painting of snakes spitting fire which was so terrifying that Ser Piero
sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who sold it to the Duke of Milan.
Meanwhile, having made a profit, Ser Piero bought a plaque decorated
with a heart pierced by an arrow which he gave to the peasant.
The Baptism of Christ by Verrocchio and LeonardoIn 1466 Leonardo was
apprenticed to one of the most proficient artists of his day, Andrea
di Cione, known as Verrocchio. The workshop of this famous master was
at the centre of the intellectual currents of the day. Among those apprenticed
or associated with the workshop were Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo
di Credi, assuring the young Leonardo of an advanced education in all
branches of the humanities.
As a fourteen-year-old
apprentice Leonardo would have been trained in all the countless skills
that were employed in a traditional workshop in which the artists were
regarded primarily as craftsmen and only a master such as Verrocchio
had social standing.
The products of
Verrochio’s workshop would have included decorated tournament
shields, painted dowry chests, christening platters, votive plaques,
small portraits, and devotional pictures. Major commissions included
altarpieces for churches, and commemorative statues. Although many craftsmen
specialised in tasks such as frame-making, gilding and bronze casting,
Leonardo would have been exposed to a vast range of technical skills
and had the opportunity to learn drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal
working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics and carpentry as
well as the obvious artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting
appears to have run an efficient and prolific workshop, few paintings
can be ascertained as coming from his hand. And on one of those, Vasari
tells us, Leonardo collaborated.
Leonardo posed for Verrocchio's David.The painting is the Baptism of
Christ. According to Vasari, Leonardo painted the young angel holding
Jesus’ robe and Verrocchio, overwhelmed by the sweetness of the
angel’s expression, its moist eyes and lustrous curls, put down
his brush and never painted again. This is probably an exaggeration.
The truth is that on close examination the painting reveals much that
has been painted or touched up over the tempera using the new technique
of oil paint. The landscape, the rocks that can be seen through the
brown mountain stream and much of the figure of Jesus bears witness
to the hand of Leonardo.
The other creation
of Verrocchio’s which is particularly pertinent to the young Leonardo
is the bronze statue of David, now in the Bargello Museum. Apart
from the exquisite quality of this work of art, it is significant in
holding the claim to be a portrait of the apprentice, Leonardo. If this
is the case, then in the figure of David we see Leonardo as a thin muscular
boy, quite different to the rounded androgynous figure made by Verrocchio’s
teacher, Donatello. It is also suggested that the Archangel Michael
in Verrocchio's Tobias and the Angels is a portrait of Leonardo.
When Leonardo was
twenty he joined the Guild of St Luke, the guild of artists and doctors
of medicine, but even after his father set him up in his own workshop,
his attachment to Verrocchio was such that he continued to work with
Bortolon, Vasari, della Chiesa, Martindale
The Adoration of the Magi. This important commission was interrupted
when Leonardo went to Milan.The earliest known dated work of Leonardo's
is a drawing done in pen and ink of the Arno valley, drawn on 5 August,
It is assumed that
Leonardo had his own workshop in Florence between 1476 and 1481. He
was commissioned in 1478 to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St
Bernard and in 1481 by the Monks at Scopeto for The Adoration of the
Magi. In 1482 Leonardo, whom Vasari tells us was a most talented musician,
created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse's head. Lorenzo de’
Medici was so impressed with this that he decided to send both the lyre
and its maker to Milan, in order to secure peace with Ludovico il Moro,
Duke of Milan ,. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter
to Ludovico, describing the many marvellous and diverse things that
he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing the Lord
that he could also paint.
Between 1482 and
1499, when Louis XII of France occupied Milan, much of Leonardo’s
work was in that city. It was here that he was commissioned to paint
two of his most famous works, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity
of the Immaculate Conception, and The Last Supper for the monastery
of Santa Maria delle Grazie. While living in Milan between 1493 and
1495 Leonardo listed a woman called Caterina as among his dependants
in his taxation documents. When she died in 1495, the detailed list
of expenditure on her funeral suggests that she was his mother rather
than a servant girl.
Study of horse
from Leonardo's journals.For Ludovico, he worked on many different projects
which included the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions,
designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian
monument to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s predecessor. Leonardo
modelled a huge horse in clay. Known as the “Gran Cavallo”,
seventy tons of metal were set aside for casting it in bronze. It surpassed
in size the only two large equestrian statues of the Renaissance, Donatello’s
statue of Gattemelata in Padova and Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni
in Venice. The monument remained unfinished for several years, which
was not in the least unusual for Leonardo. Michelangelo rudely implied
that he was unable to cast it. In 1495 the bronze was used for cannons
to defend the city from invasion under Charles VIII.
The French returned
to invade Milan in 1498 under Louis XII and the invading French used
the “Gran Cavallo” for target practice.
With Ludovico Sforza
overthrown, Leonardo, with his assistant Salaino and friend, the mathematician
Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice. In Venice he was employed as a
military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city
from naval attack.
Returning to Florence
in 1500, he entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander
VI, acting as a military architect and engineer and travelling throughout
Italy with his patron. In Forlì he met Caterina Sforza, of whom
it is speculated by some that the Mona Lisa may be a portrait. At Cesenatico
he designed the port. In 1506 he returned to Milan, which was in the
hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries had driven out the
French. Many of Leonardo’s most prominent pupils or followers
in painting either knew or worked with him in Milan, including Bernardino
Luini, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco D'Oggione
in France where Leonardo died in 1519.From 1513 to 1516, Leonardo lived
in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time.
In Florence, he was part of a committee formed to relocate, against
the artist’s will, Michelangelo’s statue of David.
In 1515, François
I of France retook Milan. Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece
(a mechanical lion) for the peace talks between the French king and
Pope Leo X in Bologna. In 1516, he entered François' service,
being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé next to
the king's residence at the royal Chateau Amboise. It was here that
he spent the last three years of his life. The King granted Leonardo
and his entourage generous pensions: the surviving document lists 1,000
écus for the artist, 400 for Count Francesco Melzi, (his pupil,
named as "apprentice"), and 100 for Salaino ("servant").
In 1518 Salaino left Leonardo and returned to Milan, where he eventually
perished in a duel.
Leonardo died at
Clos Lucé, France, on May 2, 1519. François I had become
a close friend. Vasari records that the King held Leonardo’s head
in his arms as he died. According to his wish, sixty beggars followed
his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle
of Amboise. Although Melzi was his principal heir and executor, Salaino
was not forgotten, receiving half of Leonardo's vineyards and the Mona
Some twenty years
after Leonardo's death, François was reported by the goldsmith
and sculptor Benevenuto Cellini as saying:
“ No man ever
lived who had learned as much about sculpture, painting, and architecture,
but still more that he was a very great philosopher. ”
Leonardo's artistic and social background
statue outside the Uffizi, FlorenceLeonardo commenced his apprenticeship
with Verrocchio in 1466, the year that Verrocchio’s master, the
great Donatello, died. Uccello, was a very old man. The painters Piero
della Francesca and Fra Filippo Lippi, sculptor, Luca della Robbia,
and architect and writer Alberti were in their sixties. The successful
artists of the next generation were his teacher Verrocchio, Antonio
Pollaiuolo and the portrait sculptor, Mino da Fiesole.
Leonardo was the
contemporary of Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino who were all slightly
older than he was. He would have met them at the workshop of Verrocchio,
with whom they had associations, and at the Academy of the Medici, Botticelli
being a particular favourite of the family. These three were among those
commissioned to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo was
not part of this prestigious commission. Leonardo was also the contemporary
of the two architects, Bramante and Sangallo.
In 1476, during
the time of Leonardo’s association with Verrocchio’s workshop,
Hugo van der Goes arrived in Florence, bringing the “Portinari
Altarpiece” and the new painterly techniques from Northern Europe
which were to profoundly effect Ghirlandaio, Perugino and others. In
1479, the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, who worked exclusively
in oils, travelled north on his way to Venice, where an older painter,
Giovanni Bellini adopted the media of oil painting, quickly making it
the preferred method in Venice.
political contemporaries were Lorenzo Medici (il Magnifico), who was
three years older, and his popular younger brother Giuliano who was
slain in the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478. Ludovico il Moro who ruled Milan
between 1479–99 and to whom Leonardo was sent as ambassador from
the Medici court, was also of Leonardo’s age.
Through the Medici,
Leonardo came to know the older Humanist philosophers of whom Marsiglio
Ficino, proponent of Neo Platonism and Cristoforo Landino, writer of
commentaries on Classical writings, were foremost. Also associated with
the Academy of the Medici was Leonardo's contemporary, the brilliant
young poet and philosopher Pico della Mirandola.
named together as the three giants of the High Renaissance, Leonardo,
Michelangelo and Raphael were not of the same generation. Leonardo was
23 when Michelangelo was born and 31 when Raphael was born. The short-lived
Raphael died in 1520, the year after Leonardo, but Michelangelo went
on creating for another 45 years.
Salai as John the BaptistGian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed
Salai or il Salaino ("The little devil), was described by Giorgio
Vasari as "a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair,
in which Leonardo greatly delighted."
Il Salaino entered
Leonardo's household in 1490 at the age of ten. The relationship was
not an easy one. A year later Leonardo made a list of the boy’s
misdemeanours, calling him "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton."
The "Little Devil" had made off with money and valuables on
at least five occasions, and spent a fortune on apparel, among which
were twenty-four pairs of shoes. Nevertheless, Leonardo’s notebooks
during their early years contain many pictures of the handsome, curly-haired
adolescent. Il Salaino remained his companion, servant, and assistant
for the next thirty years.
As a painter, Salaino’s
work is generally considered to be of less artistic merit than others
among Leonardo's pupils such as Marco d'Oggione and Boltraffio. In 1515
he painted, under the name of Andrea Salai, a nude portrait of "Lisa
del Giocondo", based upon the Mona Lisa and known as Monna Vanna.
The Mona Lisa was bequeathed to Salaino by Leonardo, and in Salaino's
own will it was assessed at the high value of £200,000.
In 1506, Leonardo
took as a pupil Count Francesco Melzi, the fifteen-year-old son of a
Lombard aristocrat. Salaino, at first jealous of Melzi, eventually accepted
his continued presence and the three undertook journeys throughout Italy.
Melzi became Leonardo's life companion, and is considered to have been
his favourite student. He travelled to France with Leonardo and was
with him until his death.
Study for a painting
of Isabella d'Este
Main article: Leonardo da Vinci's relationships
Leonardo had many friends who are figures now renowned in their fields,
or for their influence on history. These included the mathematician
Luca Pacioli with whom he collaborated on a book in the 1490s and Cesare
Borgia, in whose service he spent the years 1502 and 1503. During that
time he also met Niccolò Machiavelli, with whom later he was
to develop a close friendship. Also among his friends are counted Franchinus
Gaffurius and Isabella d'Este. Isabella was probably his closest female
friend. He drew a portrait of her while on a journey which took him
through Mantua which appears to have been used to create a painted portrait,
Leonardo kept his private life secret. He commented "the act of
procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting
that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and
to have had no close relationships with women beyond his friendship
with Isabella d'Este. His most intimate relationships were with his
pupils Salai and Melzi, Melzi writing that Leonardo's feelings for him
were both loving and passionate. It has been claimed since the 16th
century that these relationships were of an erotic nature and since
that date much has written about this aspect of Leonardo's life.
Despite the recent awareness and admiration of Leonardo as a scientist
and inventor, for the better part of four hundred years his enormous
fame rested on his achievements as a painter and on a handful of works,
either authenticated or attributed to him that have been regarded as
among the supreme masterpieces ever created.
These painting are
famous for a variety of qualities which were to be interminably discussed
and speculated about by connoisseurs and critics, imitated by students,
and gazed at day after day by the public in thousands. Among the qualities
that make Leonardo’s work unique are the innovative techniques
that he used in laying on the paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy,
light, botany and geology, his interest in physiognomy and the way in
which humans register emotion in expression and gesture, his innovative
use of the human form in figurative composition and his use of the subtle
gradation of tone. All these qualities come together in his most famous
works, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks.
AnnunciationLeonardo’s early works begin with the Baptism of Christ
in conjunction with Verrocchio. Two other paintings appear to date from
his time at the workshop, both of which are Annunciations. One is small,
59 cms long and only 14 cms high. It is a “predella” to
go at the base of a larger composition, in this case a painting by Lorenzo
Di Credi from which it has become separated. The other is a much larger
work, 217 cm long. In both these Annunciations Leonardo has used the
very formal arrangement of Fra Angelico’s two well known pictures
of the same subject, the Virgin Mary sitting or kneeeling to the right
of the picture, approached from the left by an angel in profile, with
rich flowing garment, raised wings and bearing a lily.
In the smaller picture
Mary averts her eyes and folds her hands in a gesture that symbolised
submission to God’s will. In the larger picture, however, Mary
is not in the least submissive. The beautiful girl, interrupted in her
reading by this unexpected messenger, puts a finger in her bible to
mark the place and raises her hand in greeting. This calm young woman
accepts her role as the Mother of God not with resignation but with
confidence. In this painting the young Leonardo presents the Humanist
face of the Virgin Mary, a woman who recognises humanity’s role
in God’s incarnation.
Paintings of the 1480s
In the 1480s Leonardo received two very important commissions, and commenced
another work which was also of ground-breaking importance in terms of
compositon. Unfortunately two of the three were never finished and the
third took so long that it was subject to lengthy negotiations over
completion and payment. One of these paintings is that of St Jerome
in the wilderness. Although the painting is barely begun the entire
composition can be seen and it is very unusual. Jerome, as a penitent,
occupies the middle of the picture, set on a slight diagonal and viewed
somewhat from above. His kneeling form takes on a trapezoid shape, with
one arm stretched to the outer edge of the painting and his gaze looking
in the opposite direction. Across the foreground sprawls his symbol,
a great lion whose body and tail make a double spiral across the base
of the picture space. The other remarkable feature is the sketchy landscape
of craggy rocks against which the figure is silhouetted.
The daring display
of figure composition, the landscape elements and personal drama were
to reappear in the great unfinished masterpiece, the Adoration of the
Magi, a commission from the Monks of St Donato a Scopeto. It is a very
complex composition about 250cm square. For it Leonardo did numerous
drawings and preparatory studies, including a detailed one in linear
perspective of the ruined Classical architecture which makes part of
the backdrop to the scene. But in 1482 Leonardo went off to Milan at
the behest of Lorenzo de’ Medici in order to win favour with Ludovico
il Moro and the painting was abandoned.
Virgin of the
Rocks, London.The third important work of this period is the Madonna
of the Rocks which was commissioned in Milan for the Confraternity of
the Immaculate Conception. The painting, to be done with the assistance
of the de Predis brothers was to fill a large complex altarpiece, already
Leonardo chose to
paint an apocryphal moment of the infancy of Christ when the Infant
John the Baptist, in protection of an angel, met the Holy Family on
the road to Egypt. In this scene, as painted by Leonardo, John recognizes
and worships Jesus as the Christ. The painting demonstrates an eerie
beauty as the graceful figures kneel in adoration around the infant
Christ in a wild and rocky landscape of tumbling rock and whirling water.
While the painting
is quite large, about 200 x 120 cms, it is nowhere as complex as the
painting ordered by the monks of St Donato, having only four figures
rather than about 50 and a rocky landscape rather than architectural
details. The painting was eventually finished; in fact, two versions
of the painting were finished, one which remained at the chapel of the
Confraternity and the other which Leonardo carried away to France. But
the Brothers did not get their painting, or the de Predis their payment
until both were long over due.
Paintings of the
The most famous painting the 1490s is Last Supper, also painted in Milan.
The painting represents the last meal shared by Jesus with his desciples
before his capture and death. It shows, specifically the moment when
Jesus has said “one of you will betray me.” See painting
reproduced further down this page.
Leonardo tells the
story of the consternation that this statement caused to the twelve
followers of Jesus. Vasari describes in detail how he worked on it,
how some days he would paint like fury, how other days he would spend
hours just looking at it, and how he walked the streets of the city
looking for the face of Judas, the traitor.
When finished, the
painting was acclaimed as a masterpiece of design and characterisation.
But its artist was also denounced for the fact that it was no sooner
finished than it began to fall off the wall. Leonardo, instead of using
the reliable technique of fresco had experimented with different paint-binding
agents, which were subject to mold and to flaking. Despite this, the
painting has remained one of the most reproduced works of art, countless
copies being made in every medium from carpets to cameos.
Virgin and Child
with St. Anne
Paintings of the 1500s
Among the works created by Leonardo in the 1500s is the small portrait
known as the Mona Lisa or “la Gioconda”, the laughing one.
The painting is famous, in particular, for the elusive smile on the
woman’s face, its mysterious quality brought about perhaps by
the fact that the artist has subtly shadowed the corners of the mouth
and eyes so that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined.
The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called
“sfumato” or Leonardo’s smoke. Other characteristics
found in this work are the unadorned dress, in which the eyes and beautiful
hands have no competition from other details, the dramatic landscape
background in which the world seems to be in a state of flux, the subdued
colouring and the extremely smooth nature of the painterly technique,
employing oils, but laid on much like tempera and blended on the surface
so that the brushstrokes are indistinguishable.
In the Virgin and
Child with St. Anne the composition again picks up the theme of figures
in a landscape. It harks back to the St Jerome picture with the figure
set at an oblique angle. The thing that makes this painting unusual
is that there are two obliquely-set figures, superimposed, because Mary,
is seated on the knee of her mother, St Anne, and leaning forward to
support the Christ Child as he plays (rather roughly) with a lamb, the
sign of his own impending sacrifice. In the composition of this painting,
Leonardo is showing trends which would be adopted in particular by the
Venetian painters, Titian and Tintoretto as well as by Andrea del Sarto,
Pontormo and Correggio.
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.Leonardo
was not a prolific painter, but he was a most prolific draftsman, keeping
journals full of small sketches and detailed drawings recording all
manner of things that took his attention. As well as the journals there
exist many studies for paintings, some of which can be identified as
preparatory to particular works such as The Adoration of the Magi, The
Virgin of the Rocks' and The Last Supper. His earliest dated drawing
is a Landscape of the Arno Valley, 1473, which shows the river, the
mountains, Montelupo Castle and the farmlands beyond it in great detail.
Among his famous
drawings are the Vitruvian Man, a study of the proportions of the human
body, the Head of an Angel, for The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre,
a botanical study of Star of Bethlehem and a large drawing (160×100
cm) in black chalk on coloured paper of the The Virgin and Child with
St. Anne and St. John the Baptist in the National Gallery, London. This
drawing employs the subtle sfumato technique of shading, in the manner
of the Mona Lisa. It is thought that Leonardo never made a painting
from it, the closest similarity being to The Virgin and Child with St.
Anne in the Louvre.
A study for Leda
and the Swan.Other drawings of interest include numerous studies of
facial deformities which are frequently referred to as "caricatures",
while close examination of the skeletal proportions indicates that the
majority are based directly on live models. There are numerous studies
of the beautiful young man, Salaino, with his rare and much admired
facial feature, the so-called "Grecian profile". He is
often depicted in fancy-dress costume. Leonardo is known to have designed
sets for pageants with which these may be associated. Other, often meticulous,
drawings show studies of drapery. A marked development in Leornardo's
ability to draw drapery occurred in his early works. Another often-reproduced
drawing is a macabre sketch that was done by Leonardo in Florence in
1479 showing the body of Bernado Baroncelli, hanged in connection with
the murder of Giuliano, brother of Lorenzo de'Medici, in the Pazzi Conspiracy.
With dispassionate integrity Leonardo has registered in neat mirror
writing the colours of the robes that Baroncelli was wearing when he
saw no mutually exclusive polarities between the sciences and the arts,
and Leonardo's studies in science and engineering are as impressive
and innovative as his artistic work, recorded in notebooks comprising
some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and natural
philosophy (the forerunner of modern science). These notes were made
and maintained daily throughout Leonardo's life and travels, as he made
continual observations of the world around him.
The journals are
written mostly in mirror-image cursive, the reason probably his left-handedness
which makes it difficult to push a quill pen from left to right across
His notes and drawings
display an enormous range of interests and preoccupations, some as mundane
as lists of groceries and people who owed him money and some as intriguing
as designs for wings and shoes for walking on water. There are compositions
for paintings, studies of details and drapery, studies of faces and
emotions, of animals, babies, dissections, plant studies, rock formations,
whirl pools, war machines, helicopters and architecture.
A page from Leonardo's
journal showing his study of a foetus in the womb.These notebooks—originally
loose papers of different types and sizes, distributed by friends after
his death—have found their way into major collections such as
the Louvre, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the Biblioteca
Ambrosiana in Milan, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and British
Library in London. The British Library has put a selection from its
notebook (BL Arundel MS 263) on the web in the Turning the Pages section.
 The Codex Leicester is the only major scientific work of Leonardo's
in private hands. It is owned by Bill Gates, and is displayed once a
year in different cities around the world.
Why Leonardo did
not publish or otherwise distribute the contents of his notebooks remains
a mystery to those who believe that Leonardo wanted to make his observations
public knowledge. Technological historian Lewis Mumford suggests that
Leonardo kept notebooks as a private journal, intentionally censoring
his work from those who might irresponsibly use it (the tank, for instance).
They remained obscure until the 19th century, and were not directly
of value to the development of science and technology.
In January 2005,
researchers discovered what some believe to be a hidden laboratory used
by Leonardo da Vinci for studies of flight and other pioneering scientific
work in previously sealed rooms at a monastery next to the Basilica
of the Santissima Annunziata, in the heart of Florence.
Leonardo's approach to science was an observational one: he tried to
understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail,
and did not emphasize experiments or theoretical explanation. Since
he lacked formal education in Latin and mathematics, contemporary scholars
mostly ignored Leonardo the scientist, although he did teach himself
Latin. In the 1490s he studied mathematics under Luca Pacioli and prepared
a series of drawings of regular solids in a skeletal form to be engraved
as plates for Pacioli's book Divina Proportione, published in 1509.
It has also been
said that he was planning a series of treatises to be published on a
variety of subjects though none survives; it appears he did complete
a coherent treatise on anatomy, which was observed during a visit by
Cardinal Louis D'Aragon's secretary in 1517.
Leonardo's formal training in the anatomy of the human body began with
his apprenticeship to Andrea del Verrocchio, his teacher insisting that
all his pupils learn anatomy. As an artist, he quickly became master
of topographic anatomy, drawing many studies of muscles, tendons and
other visible anatomical features.
of the arm.As a successful artist, he was given permission to dissect
human corpses at the hospital Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later
at hospitals in Milan and Rome. From 1510 to 1511 he collaborated in
his studies with the doctor Marcantonio della Torre and together they
prepared a theoretical work on anatomy for which Leonardo made more
than 200 drawings. It was published only in 1680 (161 years after his
death) under the heading Treatise on painting.
Leonardo drew many
studies of the human skeleton and its parts, as well as muscles and
sinews, the heart and vascular system, the sex organs, and other internal
organs. He made one of the first scientific drawings of a fetus in utero.
He also studied
and drew the anatomy of many other animals as well. He dissected cows,
birds, monkeys, bears, and frogs, comparing in his drawings their anatomical
structure with that of humans. He also made a number of studies of horses.
As an artist, Leonardo
closely observed and recorded the effects of age and of human emotion
on the physiology, studying in particular the effects of rage. He also
drew many models among those who had significant facial deformities
or signs of illness.
A design for flying
Engineering and inventions
Fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, Leonardo produced detailed studies
of the flight of birds, and plans for several flying machines, including
a helicopter powered by four men (which would not have worked since
the body of the craft would have rotated) and a light hang glider which
could have flown. On January 3, 1496 he unsuccessfully tested a
flying machine he had constructed.
During his lifetime
Leonardo was valued as an engineer. In a letter to Ludovico il Moro
he claimed to be able to create all sorts of machines both for the protection
of a city and for siege. When he fled to Venice in 1499 he found employment
as an engineer and devised a system of moveable barricades to protect
the city from attack. He also had a scheme for diverting the flow of
the Arno River in order to flood Pisa.
In 1502, Leonardo
produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (240 m) bridge as part
of a civil engineering project for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Istanbul.
The bridge was intended to span an inlet at the mouth of the Bosporus
known as the Golden Horn. Beyazid did not pursue the project, because
he believed that such a construction was impossible. Leonardo's vision
was resurrected in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was
constructed in Norway.
Leonardo, the "Legend"
Within Leonardo's own lifetime his fame was such that the King of France
carried him away like a trophy, supported him in his old age and held
him in his arms as he died. Vasari, in his "Lives of the Artists"
written about thirty years after Leonardo's death, described him as
having talents that "transcended nature".
The interest in
Leonardo has never slackened. The crowds still queue to see his most
famous artworks, T-shirts bear his most famous drawing and writers,
like Vasari, continue to marvel at his genius and speculate about his
private life and, particularly, about what one so intelligent actually
tomb in Saint Hubert Chapel (Amboise).Giorgio Vasari, in his "Lives
of the Artists", in its enlarged edition of 1568 introduces his
chapter on Leonardo da Vinci with the following words:
"In the normal
course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents;
but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is
marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such
abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem
inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather
than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo
da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite
grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly
that all problems he studied he solved with ease."
Leonardo da Vinci
was a Florentine artist, one of the great masters of the High Renaissance,
who was also celebrated as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer,
and scientist. His profound love of knowledge and research was the keynote
of both his artistic and scientific endeavors. His innovations in the
field of painting influenced the course of Italian art for more than
a century after his death, and his scientific studies—particularly
in the fields of anatomy, optics, and hydraulics—anticipated many
of the developments of modern science.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the small Tuscan town of Vinci,
near Florence. He was the son of a wealthy Florentine notary and a peasant
woman. In the mid-1460s the family settled in Florence, where Leonardo
was given the best education that Florence, the intellectual and artistic
center of Italy, could offer. He rapidly advanced socially and intellectually.
He was handsome, persuasive in conversation, and a fine musician and
improviser. About 1466 he 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
activities, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the
creation of large sculptural projects in marble and bronze. In 1472
he was entered in the painter's guild of Florence, and in 1476 he is
still mentioned as Verrocchio's assistant. In Verrocchio's Baptism of
Christ (circa 1470, Uffizi, Florence), the kneeling angel at the left
of the painting is by Leonardo.
In 1478 Leonardo
became an independent master. His first commission, to paint an altarpiece
for the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was
never executed. His first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi
(begun 1481, Uffizi), left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery
of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth
are the so-called Benois Madonna (c. 1478, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg),
the portrait Ginerva de' Benci (c. 1474, National Gallery, Washington,
D.C.), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (c. 1481, Pinacoteca, Vatican).
About 1482 Leonardo
entered the service of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, having written
the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could 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. He served as principal engineer
in the duke's numerous military enterprises and was active also as an
architect. In addition, he assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli
in the celebrated work Divina Proportione (1509).
that Leonardo had apprentices and pupils in Milan, for whom he probably
wrote the various texts later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651;
trans. 1956). The most important of his own paintings during the early
Milan period was The Virgin of the Rocks, two versions of which exist
(1483-85, Louvre, Paris; 1490s to 1506-08, National Gallery, London);
he worked on the compositions for a long time, as was his custom, seemingly
unwilling to finish what he had begun. 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. Unfortunately, his experimental
use of oil on dry plaster (on what was the thin outer wall of a space
designed for serving food) was technically unsound, and by 1500 its
deterioration had begun. Since 1726 attempts have been made, unsuccessfully,
to restore it; a concerted restoration and conservation program, making
use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and is reversing some
of the damage. Although much of the original surface is gone, the majesty
of the composition and the penetrating characterization of the figures
give a fleeting vision of its vanished splendor. During his long stay
in Milan, Leonardo also produced other paintings and drawings (most
of which have been lost), theater designs, architectural drawings, and
models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. His largest commission was for
a colossal bronze monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico,
in the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco. In December 1499, however, the
Sforza family was driven from Milan by French forces; Leonardo left
the statue unfinished (it was destroyed by French archers, who used
it as a target) and he returned to Florence in 1500.
In 1502 Leonardo
entered the service of Cesare Borgia, duke of Romagna and son and chief
general of Pope Alexander VI; in his capacity as the duke's chief architect
and engineer, Leonardo supervised work on the fortresses of the papal
territories in central Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission
of artists who were to decide on the proper location for the David (1501-04,
Accademia, Florence), the famous colossal marble statue by the Italian
sculptor Michelangelo, and he also served as an engineer in the war
against Pisa. Toward the end of the year Leonardo began to design a
decoration for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was
the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory in its war with Pisa. He
made many drawings for it and completed a full-size cartoon, or sketch,
in 1505, but he never finished the wall painting. The cartoon itself
was destroyed in the 17th century, and the composition survives only
in copies, of which the most famous is the one by the Flemish painter
Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1615, Louvre). During this second Florentine period,
Leonardo painted several portraits, but the only one that survives is
the famous Mona Lisa (1503-06, Louvre). One of the most celebrated portraits
ever painted, it is also known as La Gioconda, after the presumed name
of the woman's husband. Leonardo seems to have had a special affection
for the picture, for he took it with him on all of his subsequent travels.
In 1506 Leonardo
went again to Milan, at the summons of its French governor, Charles
d'Amboise. The following year he was named court painter to King Louis
XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years
Leonardo divided his time between Milan and Florence, where he often
visited his half brothers and half sisters and looked after his inheritance.
In Milan he continued his engineering projects and worked on an equestrian
figure for a monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, commander of the French
forces in the city; although the project was not completed, drawings
and studies have been preserved. From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in
Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X: he was housed in the Palazzo
Belvedere in the Vatican and seems to have been occupied principally
with scientific experimentation. In 1516 he traveled to France to enter
the service of King Francis I. He spent his last years at the Château
de Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the King's summer palace
at Amboise on the Loire, where he died on May 2, 1519.
Although Leonardo produced a relatively small number of paintings, many
of which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an extraordinarily
innovative and influential artist. During his early years, his style
closely paralleled that of Verrocchio, but he gradually moved away from
his teacher's stiff, tight, and somewhat rigid treatment of figures
to develop a more evocative and atmospheric handling of composition.
The early The Adoration of the Magi introduced a new approach to composition,
in which the main figures are grouped in the foreground, while the background
consists of distant views of imaginary ruins and battle scenes.
innovations are even more apparent in The Last Supper, in which he re-created
a traditional theme in an entirely new way. Instead of showing the 12
apostles as individual figures, he grouped them in dynamic compositional
units of three, framing the figure of Christ, who is isolated in the
center of the picture. Seated before a pale distant landscape seen through
a rectangular opening in the wall, Christ—who is about to announce
that one of those present will betray him—represents a calm nucleus
while the others respond with animated gestures. In the monumentality
of the scene and the weightiness of the figures, Leonardo reintroduced
a style pioneered more than a generation earlier by Masaccio, the father
of Florentine painting.
The Mona Lisa, Leonardo's
most famous work, is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations
as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. This work
is a consummate example of two techniques—sfumato and chiaroscuro—of
which Leonardo was one of the first great masters. Sfumato is characterized
by subtle, almost infinitesimal transitions between color areas, creating
a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident
in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic
smile. Chiaroscuro is the technique of modeling and defining forms through
contrasts of light and shadow; the sensitive hands of the sitter are
portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while color
contrast is used only sparingly.
An especially notable
characteristic of Leonardo's paintings is his landscape backgrounds,
into which he was among the first to introduce atmospheric perspective.
The chief masters of the High Renaissance in Florence, including Raphael,
Andrea del Sarto, and Fra Bartolommeo, all learned from Leonardo; he
completely transformed the school of Milan; and at Parma, Correggio's
artistic development was given direction by Leonardo's work.
extant drawings, which reveal his brilliant draftsmanship and his mastery
of the anatomy of humans, animals, and plant life, may be found in the
principal European collections; the largest group is at Windsor Castle
in England. Probably his most famous drawing is the magnificent Self-Portrait
(c. 1510-13, Biblioteca Reale, Turin).
Because none of
Leonardo's sculptural projects was brought to completion, his approach
to three-dimensional art can only be judged from his drawings. The same
strictures apply to his architecture; none of his building projects
was actually carried out as he devised them. In his architectural drawings,
however, he demonstrates mastery in the use of massive forms, a clarity
of expression, and especially a deep understanding of ancient Roman
As a scientist Leonardo
towered above all his contemporaries. His scientific theories, like
his artistic innovations, were based on careful observation and precise
documentation. He understood, better than anyone of his century or the
next, the importance of precise scientific observation. Unfortunately,
just as he frequently failed to bring to conclusion artistic projects,
he never completed his planned treatises on a variety of scientific
subjects. His theories are contained in numerous notebooks, most of
which were written in mirror script. Because they were not easily decipherable,
Leonardo's findings were not disseminated in his own lifetime; had they
been published, they would have revolutionized the science of the 16th
century. Leonardo actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times.
In anatomy he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of
the eye. He made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the
effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of
continent formation, and surmised the nature of fossil shells. He was
among the originators of the science of hydraulics and probably devised
the hydrometer; his scheme for the canalization of rivers still has
practical value. He invented a large number of ingenious machines, many
potentially useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying
devices, although not practicable, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.
A creator in all
branches of art, a discoverer in most branches of science, and an inventor
in branches of technology, Leonardo deserves, perhaps more than anyone,
the title of Homo Universalis, Universal Man.