Often considered the archetypal Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was one of the era’s leading polymaths, making important contributions to the arts, sciences and humanities. During his lifetime he was primarily known as a painter, and his painting is considered to be some of the best work produced in any era. However, his ideas, inventions and theories were also influential, leading the way for many modern inventions. Along with Michelangelo, da Vinci is considered to be the most influential figure in the Italian Renaissance for his breadth and skill.
Life and Times
Leonardo was born out of wedlock and his father Messer Piero was a wealthy legal notary of Florence, while his mother was a peasant named Caterina. He lived his early life in the hamlet of Anchiano which was the town of his mother. When he was five he moved to the house of his father, grandparents and uncle which was in the small town of Vinci. His father married four times and not until his third marriage did he produce legitimate heirs.
Much of his early years remain shrouded, but it is thought that he received an informal education in geometry, Latin and mathematics. Leonardo himself only made two references to his childhood and much of his biography from this period is derived from secondhand sources, such as Vasari’s biography.
The Florence of this period was the center of Christian humanist culture and much of Leonardo’s personality and intellect was shaped by this. The first great Renaissance painters and thinkers were by then in old age and the year Leonardo was first apprenticed, the master Donatello died. The High Renaissance was beginning with the frescos of Masaccio, Donatello’s work in bas relief and Fra Filippo Lippi’s painting, all which combined new techniques that were pouring in from Northern Europe.
In this atmosphere of promise and innovation Leonardo was apprenticed to the workshop of Verrocchio, considered one of the finest shops in Florence. Along with other notable painters, such as Botticelli, Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi, Leonardo was exposed to the finest quality education available to a painter. He trained in the theories of art as well as its technical aspects, such as drafting, metallurgy, chemistry, mechanics and carpentry. In 1472, at the age of 20 Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St. Luke, which was the guild of artists and doctors of medicine.
Leonard’s professional career went through many stages, painting for the courts of Florence, Milan, Venice, and notably for the Medici family who controlled Florence at the time and were influential in Italian politics. He spent much of his later life in the Vatican where Michelangelo and Raphael were both working at the time. He became the close personal friend of Francis I of France and it was at the king’s castle in Clos Luce that he died in 1519.
During Leonardo’s life he was most noted as a painter and he contributed important innovations to its practice. His knowledge of anatomy and interest in physiognomy provided extremely lifelike characteristics to his paintings and these techniques have been widely imitated. His portrait work also employed unconventional styles, capturing gesture and motion in unique ways. Due to his interest in such a diverse range of fields his work in light, geology and botany is often highlighted, and the subtleness of his landscapes are masterful.
Leonardo’s earliest extant painting is the Baptism of Christ, which he completed with Verrocchio along with two Annunciations, which are paintings involving the Virgin Mary and a favorite subject of Christian Art. All of these works saw Leonardo completing works by Verrocchio, notably with Leonardo using non lead based paint whereas Verrocchio was known to use lead paints.
In the 1480s Leonardo received his first commissions, two of which were never completed and the third took a very long time due to negotiations. St. Jerome in the Wilderness and The Adoration of the Magi both remain unfinished, but they are distinct in style and Leonardo spent much time preparing both. He abandoned the Adoration when Lorenzo de Medici asked him to go to Milan in order to win over Ludovico il Moro.
His third great early work, which now resides at the Louvre in Paris, is the Virgin of the Rocks commissioned in Milan. This painting took so long to complete and the negotiations between the monks of Cofraternity of the Immaculate Conception and the de Predis brothers, who worked with Leonardo, that they did not receive their payment until the next century. There are now two copies of this painting.
In the 1490s Leonardo’s most famous work was the Last Supper. Leonardo was commissioned by the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan and it depicts the final supper of Christ and his disciples. Specifically the scene captures the moment after Christ has revealed that one of his disciples would betray him. Unfortunately, Leonardo did not use the more reliable fresco method and within a hundred years his masterpiece was so susceptible to mold and flaking that one viewer noted that it was ruined. However, it remains one of the most iconic images in the history of art.
The 1500s saw Leonardo create another of the most recognizable images in art with his small portrait the Mona Lisa or la Gioconda, the laughing one. Art historians have noted that the complexity of the subject’s smile makes the painting so difficult to understand as the nature of the smile does not fully indicate the mood of the subject. Leonardo’s technique sfumato, also known as Leonardo’s smoke, is apparent in the background of the painting.
Leonardo the Polymath
Although Leonardo was well known for his painting, his skills ranged far beyond the art and he was a master draftsman, inventor, scientist and engineer. He also provided some of the most important work on rendering human anatomy, which he was able to master because, as a painter of his quality, he had access to cadavers which he was allowed to dissect.
At over 13,000 pages, his journals contain an abundance of information about every subject from the mundane to the highly philosophical and inquisitive. Among his notes were ideas for wings, the helicopter, sketches of potential paintings, grocery lists, geologic studies and a host of other subjects.
Leonardo was employed as a military engineer in his life and many of his notes include information that was intended for such a job. He helped the create a plan to divert water from the river Arno, a project Niccolo Machiavelli also participated.