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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.

Leonardo da Vinci, self-portrait, ca 1512
Leonardo da Vinci, self-portrait, ca 1512

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.

His Paintings

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.

Leonardo collaborated with Verrocchio on the painting The Baptism of Christ. 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]

The Baptism of Christ

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 as outlines.

About 1485, while living in Milan, Leonardo painted Madonna of the Rocks, his earliest major painting that survives in complete form.

Leonardo painted The Last Supper 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.

The Last Supper

When painting The Last Supper, Leonardo rejected the fresco technique normally used for wall paintings. An artist who uses the 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 well ans the paint began flaking away soon after he completed the picture.

After 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, 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.

detail of a drawing of Battle of Anghiari

While working on the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, 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]

Mona Lisa

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne 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, Paris]

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

His Notebook Sketches

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.

Vitruvian Man, 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]

Vitruvian Man

anatomical study of the shoulder
anatomical study of the shoulder

sketch of an experimental flying machine
experimental flying machine

design for a movable bridge
design for a movable bridge

a construction crane
construction crane

drawing of a rock formation
rock formation

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The Robinson Library >> Art History: Italy

This page was last updated on 08/08/2018.