Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the greatest and most ingenious men that history has produced. His contributions in the areas of art, science, and humanity are still among the most important that a single man has put forth, definitely making his a life worth knowing. Da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, is credited with being a master painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, and scientist. He was born an illegitimate child to Catherina, a peasant girl. His father was Ser Piero da Vinci, a public notary for the city of Florence, Italy. For the first four years of his life he lived with his mother in the small village of Vinci, directly outside of the great center of the Renaissance, Florence.
Catherina was a poor woman, with possible artistic talent, the genetic basis of Leonardo’s talents. Upon the realization of Leonardo’s +potential, his father took the boy to live with him and his wife in Florence (Why did). This was the start of the boy’s education and his quest for knowledge. Leonardo was recognized by many to be a “Renaissance child” because of his many talents. As a boy, Leonardo was described as being handsome, strong, and agile. He had keen powers of observation, an imagination, and the ability to detach himself from the world around him. At an early age Leonardo became interested in subjects such as botany, geology, animals (specifically birds), the motion of water, and shadows (About Leonardo). At the age of 17, in about 1469, Leonardo 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 techniques, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in marble and bronze. In 1472 he was accepted in the painter’s guild of Florence, and worked there for about six years. While there, Leonardo often painted portions of Verrocchio’s paintings for him, such as the background and the kneeling angel on the left in the Baptism of Christ (Encarta). Leonardo’s sections of the painting have soft shadings, with shadows concealing the edges. These areas are distinguished easily against the sharply defined figures and objects of Verrocchio, that reflect the style called Early Renaissance. Leonardo’s more graceful approach marked the beginning of the High Renaissance. However, this style did not become more popular in Italy for another 25 year (Gilbert 46).
Leonardo actually started the popularization of this style. For this reason Leonardo could be called the “Father of the High Renaissance.” Leonardo’s leading skills emerged through his paintings and his techniques. Leonardo’s talents soon drew him away from the Guild and in 1472 Leonardo finished his first complete painting, Annunciation. In 1478 Leonardo reached the title of an Independent Master. His first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun in 1481), which was left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the Benois Madonna (1478), the portrait Ginevra de’ Benci (1474), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (1481). Leonardo expanded his skills to other branches of interest and in 1481 Leonardo wrote an astonishing letter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In this letter he stated that he knew how to 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. Thus, he entered the service of the Duke in 1482, working on Ludovico’s castle, organizing festivals, and he became recognized as an expert in military engineering and arms. Under the Duke, Leonardo served many positions. He served as principal engineer in the Duke’s numerous military enterprises and was active as an architect (Encarta). As a military engineer Leonardo designed artillery and planned the diversion of rivers. He also improved many inventions that were already in use such as the rope ladder.
Leonardo also drew pictures of an armored tank hundreds of years ahead of its time. His concept failed because the tank was too heavy to be mobile and the hand cranks he designed were not strong enough to support such a vehicle. As a civil engineer, he designed revolving stages for pageants. As a sculptor he planned a huge monument of the Duke’s father mounted up on a leaping horse. The Horse, as it was known, was the culmination of 16 years of work. Leonardo was fascinated by horses and drew them constantly. In The Horse, Leonardo experimented with the horses’ forelegs and measurements. The severe plagues in 1484 and 1485 drew his attention to town planning, and his drawings and plans for domed churches reflect his concern with architectural problems (Bookshelf). In addition he also assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the work Divina Proportione (1509). While in Milan Leonardo kept up his own work and studies with the possible help of apprentices and pupils, for whom he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as Treatise on Painting (1651). The most important painting of those created in the early Milan age was The Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo worked on this piece for an extended period of time, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had begun (Encarta). It is his earliest major painting that survives in complete form. 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. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo rejected the fresco technique normally used for wall paintings. An artist that uses this fresco method must work quickly. Leonardo wanted to work slowly, revising his work, and use shadows-which would have been impossible in using fresco painting. He invented a new technique that involved coating the wall with a compound that he had created. This compound, which was supposed to protect the paint and hold it in place did not work, and soon after its completion the paint began to flake away. For this reason The Last Supper still exists, but in poor condition (Gilbert 46). Leonardo had at many times merged his inventive and creative capabilities to enhance life and improve his works. Although his experiments with plastering and painting failed, they showed his dissatisfaction with an accepted means and his creativity and courage to experiment with a new and untried idea. Experimentation with traditional techniques is evident in his drawings as well.
During Leonardo’s 18 year stay in Milan he also produced other paintings and drawings, but most have been lost. He created stage designs for theater, architectural drawings, and models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. Leonardo also began to produce scientific drawings, especially of the human body. He studied anatomy by dissecting human corpses and the bodies of animals. Leonardo’s drawings did not only clarify the appearance of bones, tendons, and other body parts but their function in addition. These drawings are considered to be the first accurate representations of human anatomy. Leonardo is also credited with the first use of the cross section, a popular technique for diagramming the human body. Leonardo wrote, “The painter who has acquired a knowledge of the nature of the sinews, muscles, and tendons will know exactly in the movement of any limb how many and which of the sinews are the cause of it, and which muscle by its swelling is the cause of this sinew’s contracting” (Wallace 131). In December, 1499, the Sforza family was driven out of Milan by French forces and Leonardo was forced to leave Milan and his unfinished statue of Ludovico Sforza’s father, which was destroyed by French archers that used it for target practice. Leonardo then returned to Florence in 1500 (Bookshelf). When Leonardo returned to Florence the citizens welcomed him with open arms because of the fame he acquired while in Milan. The work he did there strongly influenced other artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo. The work he was to produce would influence other masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Romagna and son and Chief General of Pope Alexander VI. For this post he supervised work on the fortress of the papal territories in central Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists to decide on the proper location for the David by Michelangelo (Encarta). Towards the end of the year Leonardo began to design a decoration for the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo chose the Battle of Anghiari as the subject of the mural, a victory for Florence in a war against Pisa. He made many drawings and sketches of a cavalry battle, with tense soldiers, leaping horses and clouds of dust. In painting The Battle of Anghiari Leonardo again rejected fresco and tried an experimental technique called encaustic. Once again the experiment was unsuccessful. Leonardo went on a trip and left the painting unfinished. When he returned he found that the paint had run and he never finished the painting.
The paintings general appearance is known from Leonardo’s sketches and other artists’ copies of it (Creighton 45). During the period of time that Leonardo spent painting the Palazzo Vecchio he also painted several other works, including the most famous portrait ever, the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, (after the presumed name of the model’s husband) became famous because of the unique expression on Lisa del Gioconda’s face. She appears to have just started to or finished smiling. This painting was one of Leonardo’s favorites and he carried it with him on all of his subsequent travels (Clark 133). In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan to finished up some of his projects that he had to abandon during his hasty departure. He stayed there until 1516 when he moved to Cloux, France, where he stayed with his pupil Melzi. While in Milan he was named Court Painter to King Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years he traveled from Milan to Florence repeatedly to look after his inheritance. In 1514 he traveled to Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X. During this time Leonardo’s energy was focused mainly on his scientific experiments. He then moved to France to serve King Francis I. It is here in Chateau de Cloux that he died on May 2,1519 (Wallace 127). Leonardo constantly reworked his drawings, studies and mechanical theories. His observations of the motion of water are amazingly accurate. In Leonardo’s Studies of Water Formation, the flow patterns observed are swirling around , then below as it forms a pool. Using modern slow motion cameras’ scientists now study the same effects that Leonardo wrote about and observed with his naked eye (Encarta). Another study of water and wind is his Apocalyptic Visions. This is a collected study of hurricanes and storms. In these highly detailed drawings the pen lines so carefully marked explode into action similar to the storms themselves. Leonardo’s mathematical drawings are also highly skilled. In a math formula Leonardo proved the theory of perpetual motion false but it still intrigued him. Among his vast notes were small ideas for a perpetual motion machine. His ideas for completing this task involved an unbalanced wheel that would revolve forever, conserving its energy. However these machines were never constructed. Another mathematical drawing was the Polyhedron. This three dimensional figure represented proportions to him “not only in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights, positions and in whatsoever power there may be” (Wallace 59). The notebooks of Leonardo contain sketches and plans for inventions that came into existence almost five-hundred years after the Renaissance. Leonardo practiced a technique of writing backwards. It has been postulated that he did this, being left-handed, so that he wouldn’t smear the ink by his left hand running across newly-written words. Moreover, the individual words are spelled backwards.
In order to read the Notebooks one must hold the pages up to a mirror and it is believed by some that Leonardo did this to keep his writing and theories secret. In any event, contained in the Notebooks are plans and drawings for what we recognize today as the first working propeller, a submarine, a helicopter, a tank, parachutes, the cannon, perpetual motion machines, and the rope ladder. There are perfectly executed drawings of the human body, from the proportions of the full figure to dissections in the most minute detail. It was observed, however, that Leonardo’s interest in the human body and his ability to invent mechanical things were actually not as paramount to him as was his fascination and awe of the natural world (Clark 133). Leonardo lived to be 67 years old. He is not known to have ever married or had children. In fact, it was said of him that he only saw women as “reproductive mechanisms” (Clark 134). If there is one quality that characterizes the life of Leonardo da Vinci it would be his curiosity for life and the world around him. Curiosity is the force that motivated him to observe, dissect and document every particle of matter that warranted his attention. From babies in the womb to seashells on the beach, nothing escaped his relentless intellect. The mind of Leonardo transcends the period of the Renaissance and every epoch thereafter. It is universally acknowledged that his imagination, his powers of reason, and his sheer energy surpass that of any person in history. The study of Leonardo is limited only by the inadequacy of the student.