|Leonardo da Vinci
the original "Renaissance Man"
His Life in Brief
Leonardo da Vinci was born in
1452 outside the village of Vinci, near Florence
in central Italy, the illegitimate son of Ser
Piero da Vinci, a legal specialist, and a peasant
girl. He was raised by his father.
During the late 1460's,
Leonardo became an apprentice to Andrea del
Verrocchio, a leading painter and sculptor in
Florence. He remained with Verrocchio as an
assistant after completing his apprenticeship.
From about 1478 to 1482,
Leonardo had his own studio in Florence.
About 1482, Leonardo left
Florence to become court artist for Lodovico
Sforza, the Duke of Milan, where he remained for
seventeen years. Leonardo had a variety of duties
in the duke's court. As a military engineer, he
designed artillery and planned the diversion of
rivers. As a civil engineer, he designed
revolving stages for pageants. As a sculptor, he
planned a huge monument of the duke's father
mounted on a leaping horse.
In 1499, the French overthrew
Lodovico Sforza and forced him to flee Milan.
Leonardo also left the city. He visited Mantura
and Venice before returning to Florence.
In 1517, Leonardo settled in
France at the invitation of King Francis I, who
wanted to surround himself with famous
representatives of Renaissance culture. Leonardo
spent his final years near Tours in a large house
provided by the king. He died there in 1519.
Leonardo's painting style is
characterized by his arrangement of elements into
a pyramid design, blurred outlines, graceful
figures, an overall feeling of calm, and dramatic
contrasts of dark and light.
collaborated with Verrocchio on the painting The
Baptism of Christ (left). His hand can be
seen in the head of the left angel, the distant
landscape, and the skin of Christ. His parts of
the painting have soft shadings, with shadows
concealing the edges. The figures are shown in
the act of moving from one position to another.
Verrocchio's figures and objects in this work are
sharpely defined. [Uffizi Gallery, Florence]
During the period when Leonardo had his studio
in Florence, he received a commission to paint a
church altarpiece now known as the Adoration
of the Three Kings. A depiction of three
kings worshiping the Christ child, Leonardo
abandoned the traditional treatment of this
subject. Earlier versions had shown the figures
in profile, with the Virgin Mary and Jesus on one
side of the painting and the kings on the other.
Leonardo, however, placed the Holy Family in the
center, facing the viewer, with the kings and
other figures forming a semicircle around them.
Leonardo never finished the piece, however, and
it exists today in an unfinished form, with the
figures and the light and dark areas visible only
About 1485, while living in Milan, Leonardo
painted Madonna of the Rocks, his
earliest major painting that survives in complete
Leonardo painted The
Last Supper (right) about 1495, on a wall of
the dining hall in the monastery of Santa Maria
delle Grazie, in Milan. The painting shows Christ
and His 12 Apostles just after Jesus has
announced that one of them will betray Him.
Leonardo changed the traditional arrangement of
the figures from a line of 13 figures to several
small groups. Each apostle responds in a
different way to Christ's announcement.
When painting The Last Supper,
Leonardo rejected the fresco technique normally
used for wall paintings. An artist who uses this
fresco method must work quickly. But Leonardo
wanted to paint slowly, revise his work, and use
shadows, so he developed a new technique that
involved coating the monastery wall with a
compound he had created. But the compound, which
was supposed to hold the paint in place and
protect it from moisture, did not work. Soon
after he completed the picture, the paint began
to flake away.
returning to Florence, Leonardo was hired to
decorate the walls of a new hall for the city
council (along with Michelangelo). Leonardo chose
the Battle of Anghiari, in which Florence had
defeated Milan in 1440. His painting showed a
cavalry battle, with tense soldiers, leaping
horses, and clouds of dust. In painting the Battle
of Anghiari (left), Leonardo again tried an
experimental technique called encaustic.
As in the case of The Last Supper, the
experiment did not work. Leonardo left the
painting unfinished when he went on a trip. The
paint began to run, and he never finished the
project. (Michelangelo never finished his
on the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo
painted the Mona Lisa (right), a
portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the young wife of
a Florentine merchant. The painting has become
famous because of the mysterious smile of the
subject. However, Leonardo actually showd the
woman's face moving into or out of a smile. He
arranged her folded hands so that the figure
formed a pyramid design. This technique solved a
problem that had faced earlier portrait painters.
These artists had shown only the head and upper
part of the body, and the picture seemed to cut
off the subject at the chest. Leonardo's
placement of the hands of the Mona Lisa
gave the woman a more complete, natural
appearance. [oil painting on wood, about 1503,
The Louvre, Paris]
Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (left)
clearly illustrates how Leonardo organized his
paintings in a pyramid design. It also represents
his style with its blurred outlines, graceful
figures, overall feeling of calm, and dramatic
contrasts of dark and light. [unfinished oil
painting on wood, early 1500's, The Louvre,
Leonardo recorded his ideas
about art, engineering, and science in several
notebooks. About 4,200 pages still exist. Many
pages include brilliant drawings that reveal
Leonardo's powers of observation and skill as a
draftsman. He wrote his notes backward, so they
can only be read with a mirror. As detailed as
the drawings are, however, many of his mechanical
devices would not have worked. Others would have
remained impractical until a power source such as
the steam engine became available. There is no
evidence that Leonardo ever attempted to build
any of the devices he sketched.
Man (right), one of Leonardo's most famous
notebook drawings, was made around 1492. It
depicts a naked male figure in two superimposed
positions with his arms and legs apart and
simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square.
The picture represents a cornerstone of
Leonardo's attempts to relate man to nature. He
believed the workings of the human body to be an
analogy for the workings of the universe.
According to Leonardo's notes in the accompanying
text, it was made as a study of the proportions
of the male human body as described in a treatise
by Vitruvius, an architect in ancient Rome.
[Gallerie dell' Academia, Venice, Italy]
Below, left to right: anatomical study of the
shoulder, a sketch of an experimental flying
machine, a design for a movable bridge, a
construction crane, and a drawing of a rock
Questions or comments about