Sep 18, 2021
11 mins read
One of the most influential artists in history. Today he leaves a significant legacy not only in the realm of art but in science as well. A man who brought Renaissance Italy to the eyes of the world. We now look at the life of a genius, Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci on 15 April 1452. His parents at the time were not married; his father was Ser Piero da Vinci, and his mother was Caterina.
Much about the early life of Leonardo is sketchy. Due to his illegitimate birth, it's entirely possible he was born within the country hamlet of Anchiano; due to its secluded nature, it would have offered sufficient remoteness to alleviate any problems with his birth. Florence, just a few miles away from his official recorded birthplace, even today it is still being touted as a candidate for this. A city in which it is known his father had a home. Yet little is known, and much of the writings today contain theories about the location and his parents. Ser Piero married four times in total; this would leave Leonardo having at least twelve half-siblings in the family. The last boy was born when Leonardo was 40 years old.
As with many stories from this period of history, much is regarded as legend and presumption. However, remarkably tax records from around the mid-15th-century state that he lived with his paternal grandfather, Antonio da Vinci. Leonardo had a subdued upbringing; his tutoring probably overlooked the basics of reading and writing and maths. Even at such a young age, his artistic prowess was catching the eyes of many, a gift that would enhance his life further in later years.
By the middle of the 1460's Leonardos family now moved to Florence. Back in the day, the city was the centre of Humanist culture and Christian thoughts. It was while here he would begin his apprenticeship of art. He became a studio boy of Andrea del Verrocchio. He was a sculptor, painter, goldsmith and the master of the workshop where now Leonardo would begin his career. Verrocchio was a man of incredible skill; suggestions made over the years is that Donatello apprenticed him, but there is no concrete evidence to support this. By the time Leonardo had become 17, he would become a full-time apprentice; 7 years of training lay ahead for the youngster. But his passion was evident for everyone to see. It wasn't just his painting ability that would catch the attention. He was taught a wide range of theory and technical skills, all of which enhanced his capabilities. Ones that would eventually turn him into one of the most influential artists the world had ever seen.
While Leonardo studied, he would have mixed with the best of the day at the studio. Men such as Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino. Then, Florence was the centre of world art, a vibrant city styled with lively frescoes, magnificent sculptures, and architectural delights around every corner. Piero Della Francesca was widely acknowledged for his study in maths and geometry alongside his artworks. The conclusions would give Leonardo much food for thought when he made a scientific study of light, something Leonardo would put to good effect in his paintings and observations over the coming years.
Although many paintings are attributed to Leonardo himself, within Verrochios studio, much of the work carried out was done mainly by assistants. This theory belongs to Vasari, widely acknowledged as "the first art historian". According to his works, Leonardo participated with Verrochio in his The Baptism of Christ. It has been said that Leonardo's skill in painting the young angel had completely overwhelmed Verrochio to the point he put down his brush, never to paint again! Although, you might wish to take this statement as many others with a pinch of salt.
Another great story from Vasari reveals that when Leonardo was a young man. A local man from the area made himself a shield then gave it to Ser Piero for his son to paint. Many stories over his life had inspired Leonardo, and the one of Medusa gave him the creative licence to paint the form of fire breathing monster. Yet so terrifying was this image to his father that he bought a replacement shield. The original was sold to a Florentine art dealer who later passed it on to the Duke of Milan.
In 1472, Leonardo was now 20 years old and had become a Master in the Guild of St. Luke, a collection of artists. His father had set him up with his own workshop, but Leonardo was still close to his mentor and continued living and working alongside Verrochio. The earliest work of Leonardo dates back to 1473 when he did a sketch using pen and ink to create a drawing of the Arno Valley. By January 1478, he had now received a commission to paint for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio. By 1481 another commission was prepared for Leonardo, this time from the monks at San Donato. But he never completed it as he was now hailed by the Duke of Milan, an offer too good to turn down.
Leonardo was becoming very popular, and his work was gaining much admiration, which didn't go unnoticed. His contacts with the House of Medici, which started to gain prominence in the early part of the 15th century, would pave the way to opening even more oversized doors in the future. Lorenzo de Medici was an Italian statesman, and without doubt, the most powerful and enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture in Italy. He sent Leonardo as an ambassador to the home of Ludovico Sforza, a nobleman who ruled as Duke of Milan for 20 years. Yet by 1500, Sforza had been overthrown by France, which meant Leonardo now had to flee Milan.
His next destination was Venice. When he first arrived, painting was far from his immediate concern. Instead, he found employment working as an engineer and was responsible for devising ways to defend the city if an attack came from the surrounding waters. However, this would not last, and he found himself returning to Florence later the same year. Here, he would settle with the Servite monks at Santissima Annunziata's monastery, where the monks provided a workshop for him to do what he did best: paint!
It was while here that, according to Vasari, Leonardo created one of his most famous cartoons, The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. This singular work created much hysteria with the public that many would flock to see the image and even relate the experience as a solemn tribute.
In 1502 Leonardo now teamed up with Cesare Borgia; he was the son of Pope Alexander VI. Leonardos duties were to perform architectural plans of Borgia's stronghold and facilitate the best ways to engineer them. Borgia was pleased, and Leonardo gained full-time employment on the back of his work. But his artistic skills would be called into use later when he also produced a map of Chiana Valley, Tuscany. It gave Borgia a more significant idea of strategic positions with good placement characteristics essential to supporting his geographical plans.
But by 1503, Leonardo was on his way again; he returned to Florence. Around this time, he began work with Lisa del Giocondo; you may know her better as Mona Lisa. Although Leonardo did not create the portrait overnight, it's understood he continued to work on the picture until the final years of his life. The following year, Leonardo now formed part of a committee, deciding where a statue of David created by Michelangelo should be placed. Following this, he started work on another famous artwork. On this occasion, the mural of The Battle of Anghiari for the Signoria, in collaboration with Michaelangelo, who was requested to paint an accompanying piece Battle of Cascina to sit alongside, but although preparatory drawings were made, the work was never completed.
Leonardo was once again on the move in 1506; he was called by Charles II d'Amboise, a French governor at the city of Milan. But Leonardo now had concerns; back in Florence, the council tried to get him to come back to complete his Battle of Anghiari. However, they understood the importance of Louis XII of France also wanting his services. By 1507 Leonardo returned to Florence, but this time to try and quell ongoing bickering between his brothers and their dispute over his father's estate, who had died three years earlier. Over the next few years, Leonardo would continue to work tirelessly, firstly in Milan, then Rome. In March 1513, Giovanni de Medici would become Pope as Leo X. Later, when Leonardo went to Rome, he'd live at Apostolic Palace in the Belvedere Courtyard. A place where both Michelangelo and Raphael were present.
A commission was soon to come calling, and the Pope requested a subject of which no records exist. However, due to illness, Leonardo cancelled the project. It' has been considered that Leonardo's condition may have attributed to his death eventually. Although the project was no more, Leonardo continued to make strides to appease the Pope by doing some horticulture on the grounds of the Vatican City. On a darker side, he was also asked to dissect human bodies to write a thesis. But all to no avail, although his attempts to appease the Pope were honourable, he was unsuccessful in his many endeavours.
When King Francis I of France captured Milan in October 1515. Leonardo was present at the meeting between the King and Pope. The following year his life would now be under different circumstances, as he would work for Francis. A trip to France was on the cards, and he became a resident at Clos Lucé, a manor house close to the Kings Château d'Amboise. But Leonardo was not alone on the journey, as his close friend and companion Francesco Melzi would be by his side. Around 1517, it is thought Melzi drew a portrait of Leonardo, although Melzi can't be corroborated as the original artist. In total, two known images of Leonardo were created both sketches. This second drawing confirms accounts that Leonardo had some paralysis near the end of his life, which indicates why works such as the Mona Lisa remained unfinished. For Leonardo, he would continue to work until eventually finding himself so weak he would be bedridden.
Leonardo da Vinci eventually passed away on 2 May 1519. By this time, Francis, I had become a very close friend to him. Vasari reported that Leonardo was full of repentance on his deathbed, stating he had failed to practice his arts in a way he should have and saying he thought god must be offended. As with all great people, legend and myth persist, including one that Francis was present when Leonardo died, holding his head in his arms. At his Wills request, Leonardo was carried to his final resting place, followed by 60 beggars.
His long time friend Melzi would become the chief executor, and he'd received all his personal effects along with tools and, of course, his paintings. Land owned by Leonardo was split between his brothers. On 12 August 1519, the remains of Leonardo were buried at the Collegiate Church of Saint Florentin at the Château d'Amboise. Long time friend Salai had been given the Mona Lisa at the time of his death; an assessment of the picture took place and was deemed to be worth around 505 lire. It was an astronomic value for such a small portrait.
Francis summed up Leonardo by saying, "There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher." When we started this look at the life of Leonardo da Vinci, it isn't easy to fully understand the man's mindset and character as so little is known about him. Leonardo was a very private man, and there are literally no comments made by himself regarding his personal life. Yet all this against a backdrop of thousands of notes and writings conveying his work and practices. The man's extraordinary gift, his ability to invent and create masterpieces not just in the world of art but throughout his engineering and geographical guidance, are remarkable. This passion drove others to take an interest not just in his work but the man himself.
Leonardo had many friends and acquaintances over his career, many known for their historical works. Yet, it seems that Leonardo never became attracted to any woman or even indulged with the opposite sex. He kept his private life secret, and much of what has been written about his sexual life is at best speculative. Perhaps Leonardo gained much more love for his pupils than that of anyone else; his life passions kept him away from marriage. That being said, there is no need to delve into his private affairs; Leonardo da Vinci left something that today is irreplaceable.
He was one of the most influential men in the history of the world, never mind the 15th century. When you think of the greats from time, names like Shakespeare, Freud, Newton, Einstein, even Aristotle. It's fair to say Leonardo is right up there with the best, a man with little time for glory yet sure of his ambitions. He had what can only be described as an exceptional natural ability of intellect and is forever remembered as a creative genius.
On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death, the largest single exhibit was arranged at the Louvre in Paris. In total, over 100 paintings, drawings and notebooks were on display. Famous works, including The Last Supper alongside Vitruvian Man today considered an iconic symbol. Yet, the most famous portrait of all time was left within its gallery, mainly due to public demand, was the Mona Lisa, which welcomes around 10 million visitors a year, and that's enough to put a smile on anybody's face!