The archetypal “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest scientific minds as well as one of the greatest visual artists the human race has ever produced. The bastard son of a wealthy Florentine notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman named Caterina, Leonardo was born in Tuscany on April 15, 1452, in Anchiano, a town near Vinci, which is in the proximity of Florence.
When he was about 17 years old, Leonardo was apprenticed as a garzone or studio boy to the workshop of the Renaissance master Andrea Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and artist of his day. From roughly 1469 to 1476, Leonardo acquired a variety of skills during his apprenticeship at Verrocchio’s workshop, including painting altarpieces and panel pictures and making large sculptures in bronze and marble. In 1472, he joined the painters’ guild, and six years later, he became an independent master. His first commission was in 1478, to paint an altarpiece for the Palazzo Vecchio’s chapel. The painting was never executed. Florence’s Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto commissioned Leonardo’s first large painting in 1481. ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ was left unfinished when Leonardo left Florence for Milan approximately a year later, to work for Duke Lodovico Sforza as court artist and as an engineer.
Leonardo had written the Duke of Milan touting his skills as a military engineer. In his letter, Leonardo claimed that he could build portable bridges, manufacture cannon, and build ships and war machines, including armored vehicles and catapults. He also told the Duke he could sculpt in bronze, clay and marble. He worked for the Duke of Milan for almost 18 years, painting portraits, designing festivals, and planning to sculpt a massive equestrian monument to honor the Duke’s father. In addition to serving the duke as an architect and working for him as a military engineer, Leonardo assisted the mathematician Luca Pacioli in the celebrated work Divina Proportione.
Leonardo’s interest in science began to flourish in Milan, and as a civil and military engineer, he delved into the field of mechanics. His scientific research also embraced anatomy, biology, mathematics, and physics. It was during this period that he finished “The Last Supper,” which along with the “Mona Lisa,” is his most significant masterpiece.
France captured Milan in 1499, and Leonardo moved to Mantua and then to Venice to seek employment. By April 1500, he had returned to Florence, though two years later, he left to work for Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Romagna, in a military capacity. The son of Pope Alexander VI, Borgia served his father as his general in-chief. Leonardo. as the duke’s chief architect and engineer, supervised construction on forts in the Papal states in central Italy.
Back in Florence in 1503, Leonardo served on the art commission of artists that determined the proper placing of Michelangelo’s sculpture ‘David.’ Florence was at war with Pisa, and Leonardo served the city-state as a military engineer while continuing his scientific research. Leonardo began to design a painting for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio to commemorate the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory over Pisa. While Leonardo produced a full-size sketch in 1505, he never executed the wall painting. During his second residency in Florence, Leonardo painted the portrait ‘La Giocondane,’ more famously known as Mona Lisa. Leonardo apparently was quite fond of the completed work, as it accompanied him on all of his subsequent travels.
Arguably the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa is a bravura technical performance. The innovative Leonardo exhibits his mastery of chiaroscuro, the technique of modeling and defining form through contrasts of light and shadow, and sfumato, the technique of using subtle transitions between areas of color. The Mona Lisa, like many of his paintings, features a landscape background utilizing atmospheric perspective. Leonardo was one of the first painters to introduce atmospheric perspective into art, and his work influenced the High Renaissance Florentine masters, including Raphael. He also was a major influence on the artistic development of Correggio.
Returning to Milan in June 1506, at the invitation of French governor Charles d’Amboise, Leonardo went to work for the French court, which with King Louis XII of France, was residing in the Italian city. Except for a sojourn back in Florence in the period 1507-08, Leonardo stayed in Milan for seven years, though he returned to Florence often to visit his half-brothers and -siters and to manage his inheritance. In 1507, Leonardo went was named court painter to King Louis XII.
In Milan, he worked on engineering projects and on the planning of an equestrian statue to honor Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the French military commander of Milan. The statue was never realized. During this Milan stay, scientific research became paramount. He applied his artistic gifts toward scientific illustration. In addition to his study of anatomy, he studied the stratification of rocks and researched the principles behind light, the flow of water, and the growth of plants. Leonardo’s method was to draw and describe things by first approaching the surface before delving in to the underlying structure. He was interested in exactly describing the appearance of natural things in order to analyze their functioning. Similar to his artistic innovations, Leonardo’s scientific theories were based on careful observation, precisely documented. He also made sketches of mechanical devices for the transmission of energy.
Along with Giuliano de’Medici, the brother of Pope Leo X, Leonardo moved to Rome in 1514. Enjoying the patronage of Pope Leo X, he lived in the Palazzo Belvedere in the Vatican and was mostly concerned with scientific experimentation. In 1516, he left Italy and moved to France to become the architectural adviser of King Francis I, an admirer of his work. Leonardo lived at the Château de Cloux, near Amboise, France, where he died on May 2, 1519 at at the age of 67.