Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452May 2, 1519) was an Italian Renaissance architect, musician, anatomist, inventor, engineer, sculptor, geometer, and painter. He has been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" and as a universal genius. Leonardo is famous for his masterly paintings, such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. He is also known for designing many inventions that anticipated modern technology, although few of these designs were constructed in his lifetime. In addition, he helped advance the study of anatomy, astronomy, and civil engineering.

Self-portrait in red chalk, circa 1512 to 1515, widely accepted as a genuine self portrait although somewhat disputed.
Self-portrait in red chalk, circa 1512 to 1515, widely accepted as a genuine self portrait although somewhat disputed.



Personal life

The first known biography of Leonardo was published in 1550, by Giorgio Vasari in his Vite de' piu eccelenti architettori, pittori e scultori italiani ("The lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors"). Most of the information collected by Vasari was from first-hand accounts of Leonardo's contemporaries (Vasari was only a child when Leonardo died), and it remains the first reference in studying Leonardo's life.

Plato (detail of The School of Athens by Raphael), believed to be based on Leonardo's likeness. The pointing finger was a noted feature of Leonardo
Plato (detail of The School of Athens by Raphael), believed to be based on Leonardo's likeness. The pointing finger was a noted feature of Leonardo

Leonardo, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary named Ser Piero and a local peasant woman called Caterina, was born before modern naming conventions developed in Europe; his name "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", simply means "Leonardo, son of [Mes]ser Piero, from Vinci". Leonardo signed his works "Leonardo" or "Io, Leonardo" ("I, Leonardo").

Leonardo grew up with his father, Ser Piero, in Florence where he started drawing and painting. His early sketches were of such quality that his father soon showed them to the painter Andrea del Verrocchio, who subsequently took on the fourteen-year old Leonardo as an apprentice. In this role, Leonardo also worked with Lorenzo di Credi and Pietro Perugino.

But the greatest of all Andrea's pupils was Leonardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of person never sufficiently admired and a wonderful grace in all his actions, there was such a power of intellect that whatever he turned his mind to he made himself master of with ease.Vasari

Later, Giorgio Vasari became an independent painter in Florence.

In 1476, he was accused anonymously, along with three other men, of sodomy with a 17 year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, who was a notorious male prostitute. After two months in jail, he was acquitted because no witnesses stepped forward. For some time afterwards, Leonardo and the others were kept under observation by Florence's Officers of the Night - a Renaissance organisation charged with suppressing the practice of sodomy, as shown by surviving legal records of the Podestà and the Officers of the Night.

Some modern critics have contended that Leonardo's love of boys was well-known even in the sixteenth century. Rocke reports that in a fictional dialogue on l'amore masculino (male love) written by the contemporary art critic and theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo, Leonardo appears as one of the protagonists and declares, "Know that male love is exclusively the product of virtue which, joining men together with the diverse affections of friendship, makes it so that from a tender age they would enter into the manly one as more stalwart friends." In the dialogue, the interlocutor inquires of Leonardo about his relations with his assistant, Salai, "Did you play the game from behind which the Florentines love so much?"

In contrast, Freud, in an analysis of the artist, took the position that the following sentence, taken from one of Leonardo's notebooks, "indicates his frigidity": 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 sensuous dispositions.

There is some suggestive evidence that Leonardo was intimately involved with some women having a close friendship like that of Isabella D'Este. Though he kept his private life particularly secret, it is known that he surrounded himself with youths throughout his life, allowing his art to reflect an appreciation of beauty. Leonardo's drawings of heterosexual human sexual intercourse were destroyed by a priest who found them after his death when they were in the possession of his heir Melzi. The absence of these sorts of evidence together with the false accusation of his involvement with homosexual crimes at Florence in youth have contributed to the highly biased belief that he was homosexual.

One of his lovers is thought to have been Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salai (Little Devil). Salai entered Leonardo's household around 1488 at the age of 10, becoming his servant and assistant for the next thirty years. Salai's name appears (crossed out) on the back of an erotic drawing (ca. 1513) by the artist, The Incarnate Angel, at one time in the collection of Queen Victoria. It is seen as a humorous and revealing take on his major work, St. John the Baptist, also a work and a theme imbued with homoerotic overtones by a number of art critics such as Martin Kemp and James Saslow. (Saslow, 1986, passim)

In 1506, Leonardo met Count Francesco Melzi, the 15 year old son of a Lombard aristocrat. Salai eventually accepted Melzi's continued presence and the three undertook journeys throughout Italy. Though Salai was always introduced as Leonardo's "pupil", he never produced any work of artistic merit. Melzi, however, became Leonardo's pupil and life companion, and is to this day considered to have been his favorite pupil.

Both of these relationships follow the pattern of eroticized apprenticeships which were frequent in the Florence of Leonardo's day, relationships which were often loving and not infrequently sexual. See Historical pederastic couples Leonardo had many other friends who are now figures renowned in their fields, or for their influence on history; these included Niccolò Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia and Franchinus Gaffurius.

It is apparent from the works of Leonardo and his early biographers that he was a man of high integrity and very sensitive to moral issues. His respect for life led him to being a vegetarian at least part of his life (although the term 'vegan' would fit him well, as he even entertained the notion that taking milk from cows amounts to stealing. Under the heading, "Of the beasts from whom cheese is made," he answers, "the milk will be taken from the tiny children." [1]). Vasari reports a story that as a young man in Florence he often bought caged birds just to release them from captivity. He was also a respected judge on matters of beauty and elegance, particularly in the creation of pageants.

A nineteenth century illustration of Leonardo da Vinci
A nineteenth century illustration of Leonardo da Vinci

Professional life

The earliest known dated work of Leonardo's is a drawing done in pen and ink of the Arno valley, drawn on the 5th of August 1473. It is assumed that he had his own workshop between 1476 and 1478, receiving two orders during this time.

From around 1482 to 1499, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan [2], employed Leonardo and permitted him to operate his own workshop complete with apprentices. It was here that seventy tons of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo's "Gran Cavallo" horse statue (see below) were cast into weapons for the Duke in an attempt to save Milan from the French under Charles VIII in 1495.

When the French returned under Louis XII in 1498, Milan fell without a fight, overthrowing Sforza [3]. Leonardo stayed in Milan for a time, until one morning when he found French archers using his life-size clay model of the "Gran Cavallo" for target practice. He left with Salai and his friend Luca Pacioli (the first man to describe double-entry bookkeeping) for Mantua, moving on after 2 months to Venice (where he was hired as a military engineer), then briefly returning to Florence at the end of April 1500.

In Florence he entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer; with Cesare he travelled throughout Italy. In 1506 he returned to Milan, now in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries had driven out the French.

From 1513 to 1516, he lived in Rome, where painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active at the time, though he did not have much contact with these artists. However, he was probably of pivotal importance in the relocation of David (in Florence), one of Michelangelo's masterpieces, against the artist's will.

Clos Lucé, in France where Leonardo died in 1519.
Clos Lucé, in France where Leonardo died in 1519.

In 1515 Francis I of France retook Milan, and Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (a mechanical lion) for the peace talks between the French king and Pope Leo X in Bologna, where he must have first met the King. In 1516, he entered Francis' service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé (also called "Cloux") next to the king's residence at the royal Chateau Amboise. The King granted Leonardo and his entourage generous pensions: the surviving document lists 1000 écus for the artist, 400 for Melzi (named "apprentice") and 100 for Salai (named "servant"). In 1518 Salai left Leonardo and returned to Milan, where he eventually perished in a duel. Francis became a close friend.

Leonardo da Vinci died at Clos Lucé, France, on 2nd May, 1519. According to his wish, 60 beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Although Melzi was his principle heir and executor, Salai was not forgotten; he received half of Leonardo's vineyard.

One of his first paintings done in Florence, the Benois Madonna (1478)
One of his first paintings done in Florence, the Benois Madonna (1478)


Leonardo pioneered new painting techniques in many of his pieces. One of them, a colour shading technique called "Chiaroscuro", used a series of glazes custom-made by Leonardo. It is characterized by subtle transitions between colour areas, creating an atmospheric haze or smoky effect. Chiaroscuro is a technique of bold contrast between light and dark.

Early works in Florence (1452-1482)

Leonardo was apprenticed to the artist Verrocchio in Florence when he was about 15. In 1476 Leonardo worked with Verrocchio to paint for the friars of Vallombrosa The Baptism of Christ. He painted the angel at the front and the landscape, and the difference between the two artists' work can be seen, with Leonardo's finer blending and brushwork. Giorgio Vasari told the story that when Verrochio saw Leonardo's work he was so amazed that he resolved never to touch a brush again.

Leonardo's first painting completed wholly by himself was the Madonna and Child painting completed in 1478, he also painted at the same time a picture of a little boy eating sherbert. In 1480-81 he created a small Annunciation painting which is now in the Louvre. In 1481 he painted an unfinished work of St. Jerome. Between 1481 and 1482 he started a painting called The Adoration of the Kings (also known as The Adoration of the Magi). He made extensive, ambitious plans and many drawings for the painting, but it was not finished, as Leonardo's services had been accepted by the Duke of Milan, to which he traveled.

The Last Supper fresco in Milan (1498)
The Last Supper fresco in Milan (1498)

Milan (1482-1499)

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan under the services of Duke Ludovico (between 1482 and 1499). He did many paintings, sculptures, and drawings during this time. He also designed court festivals, and did many of his sketches related to engineering. He was given basically a free reign to work on any project he chose, though he left many projects unfinished, completing only about six paintings during this time. This included Last Supper (Ultima Cena or Cenacolo, in Milan) 1498 and Virgin of the Rocks. He worked on many of his notebooks between 1490 and 1495.

He painted the Virgin of the rocks in 1494. In 1499 he painted Madonna and Child with St. Anne.

He often planned grandiose paintings with many drawings and sketches, only to leave the projects unfinished. One of his projects involved making plans and models for a monumental seven metre (24 ft) high horse statue in bronze called "Gran Cavallo". Because of war with France, the project was never finished. (In 1999 a pair of full-scale statues based on his plans were cast, one erected in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the other in Milan [4].) The Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland has a small bronze horse, thought to be the work of an apprentice from Leonardo's original design.

The French invaded Milan in 1499, and Ludovico Sforza lost control. Leonardo was forced to search for a new patron.

Nomadic Period - Italy and France (1499-1519)

Mona Lisa (1503-1507)
Mona Lisa (1503-1507)
 Virgin of the Rocks (second version)
Virgin of the Rocks (second version)

Between 1499 and 1516 Leonardo worked for a number of people, travelling around Italy doing several commissions, before moving to France in 1516. This has been described as a 'Nomadic Period'. [5] He stayed in:

  • Mantua (1500)
  • Venice (1501)
  • Florence (1501-06) known sometimes as his Second Florentine Period.
  • Travelled between Florence and Milan staying in both places for short periods before settling in Milan.
  • Milan (1506-13) (known sometimes as his Second Milanese Period, under the patronage of Charles d'Amboise until 1511)
  • Rome (1514)
  • Florence (1514)
  • Pavia, Bologna, Milan (1515)
  • France (1516-19) (patronage of King Francis I)

In 1500 he went to Mantua where he sketched a portrait of the Marchesa Isabella d'Este. He left for Venice in 1501, and soon after returned to Florence.

After returning to 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. The painting was destroyed in a war in the middle of the sixteenth century.

He began work on the Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda, now at the Louvre in Paris) in 1503, which he did not finish until 1506. He most likely kept it with him at all times, and did not travel without it. Thousands of people see it each year in the Louvre, perhaps drawing their own interpretation on what is known as the Mona Lisa's most infamous and enigmatic feature - her smile. It is well known that Leonardo made extensive use of many tricks in this painting, including the so-called Golden Ratio. The name Mona Lisa is not the one given to the piece of art at the time, nor was it known by this title until much later. The Mona Lisa was probably his favourite piece.

He painted St Anne in 1509. Between 1506 and 1512, he lived in Milan and under the patronage of the French Governor Charles d'Amboise, he painted several other paintings. These included The Leda and the Swan, known now only through copies as the original work did not survive. He painted a second version of The Virgin of the Rocks (1506-1508). While under the patronage of Pope Leo X, he painted St. John the Baptist (1513-1516).

During his time in France, Leonardo made studies of the Virgin Mary for The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and many drawings and other studies.

List of artworks

The rhombicuboctahedron, by Leonardo,  as apeared in the Luca Pacioli's Divina Proportione, 1509.
The rhombicuboctahedron, by Leonardo, as apeared in the Luca Pacioli's Divina Proportione, 1509.

Science and engineering

Renaissance humanism saw no mutually exclusive polarities between the sciences and the arts, and as impressive and innovative as Leonardo's 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. These notes were made and maintained through Leonardo's travels through Europe, during which he made continual observations of the world around him. He was left-handed and used mirror writing throughout his life. This is explainable by the 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 observational 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, contemporary scholars mostly ignored Leonardo the scientist.

As did most people at the time, he believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that the Moon reflects the sun's light due to its being covered by water.

Vitruvian ManLeonardo's study of the proportions of the human body.
Vitruvian Man
Leonardo's study of the proportions of the human body.
Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1510)
Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1510)


Leonardo started to discover the anatomy of the human body at the time he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, as his teacher insisted that all his pupils learn anatomy. As he became successful as an artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the hospital Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Later he dissected also in Milano in the hospital Maggiore and in Rome in the hospital Santo Spirito (the first mainland Italian hospital). From 1510 to 1511 he collaborated with the doctor Marcantonio della Torre (1481 to 1511). In 30 years, Leonardo dissected 30 male and female corpses of different ages. Together with Marcantonio, he prepared to publish a theoretical work on anatomy and made more than 200 drawings. However, his book was published only in 1580 (long after his death) under the heading Treatise on painting.

Leonardo drew many images of the human skeleton, and was the first to describe the double S form of the backbone. He also studied the inclination of pelvis and sacrum and stressed that sacrum was not uniform, but composed of five vertebrae. He was also able to represent exceptionally well the human skull and cross-sections of the brain (transversal, sagittal, and frontal). He drew many images of the lungs, mesentery, urinary tract, sex organs, and even coitus. He was one of the first who drew the fetus in the intrauterine position (he wished to learn about "the miracle of pregnancy"). He often drew muscles and tendons of the cervical muscles and of the shoulder. He was a master of topographic anatomy. He not only studied the anatomy of human, but also of other beings. It is important to note that he was not only interested in structure but also in function, so he was anatomist and physiologist at the same time. Because he actively searched for bodily deformed people to paint them, he is also considered to be the beginner of caricature.

His study of human anatomy led also to the design of the first known robot in recorded history. The design, which has come to be called Leonardo's robot, was probably made around the year 1495 but was rediscovered only in the 1950s. It is not known if an attempt was made to build the device. A diagram drawing Leonardo did of a heart inspired a British heart surgeon to pioneer a new way to repair damaged hearts in 2005. [6]

Inventions and engineering

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. PBS aired a special about the building and testing of a glider based on Da Vinci's design. The glider was a resounding success.

An armoured tank designed by Leonardo at the Château d'Amboise
An armoured tank designed by Leonardo at the Château d'Amboise
The interior of Leonardo da Vinci's armoured tank
The interior of Leonardo da Vinci's armoured tank

In 1502 Leonardo da Vinci produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (240 m) bridge as part of a civil engineering project for Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The bridge was intended to span an inlet at the mouth of the Bosphorus known as the Golden Horn. It was never built, but Leonardo's vision was resurrected in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Owing to his employment as a military engineer, his notebooks also contain several designs for military machines: machine guns, an armoured tank powered by humans or horses, cluster bombs, etc. even though he later held war to be the worst of human activities. Other inventions include a submarine, a cog-wheeled device that has been interpreted as the first mechanical calculator, and a car powered by a spring mechanism. In his years in the Vatican, he planned an industrial use of solar power, by employing concave mirrors to heat water. While most of Leonardo's inventions were not built during his lifetime, models of many of them have been constructed with the support of IBM and are on display at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise[7].

His notebooks

Leonardo's notebooks were on four main themes; architecture, elements of mechanics, painting and human anatomy. 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 British Library. The British Library has put a selection from its notebook (BL Arundel MS 263) on the web in its Turning the Pages section. [8] 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 the 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.[9]

In fiction

See main article Leonardo da Vinci in fiction

With the genius and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci having captivated authors and scholars generations after his death, many examples of "Da Vinci fiction" can be found in culture and literature. Such an example is "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, published 2003.

Leonard of Quirm, a character in the Discworld series of novels, is based largely on Leonardo Da Vinci.

Further reading

  • Michael J. Gelb (1998) How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385323816 (paperback)
  • Michael H. Hart (1992) The 100, Carol Publishing Group. ISBN 0806513500 (paperback)
  • Jean Paul Richter (1970) The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover. ISBN 0486225720 and ISBN 0486225739 (paperback) 2 volumes. A reprint of the original 1883 edition.
  • Frank Zollner & Johannes Nathan (2003) Leonardo Da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings, Taschen. ISBN 3822817341 (hardback)
  • Fred Bérence (1965) Léonard de Vinci, L'homme et son oeuvre, Somogy. Dépot légal 4° trimestre 1965
  • Charles Nicholl (2005) Leonardo da Vinci, The Flights of the mind, Penguin. ISBN 0-140-29681-6
  • Simona Cremante (2005) Leonardo da Vinci: Artist, Scientist, Inventor, Giunti. ISBN 8809038916 (hardback)

John N. Lupia, "The Secret Revealed: How to Look at Italian Renaissance Painting," Medieval and Renaissance Times, Vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer, 1994): 6-17. (ISSN 1075-2110)

See also


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