da Vinci: A Genius Before His Time
He was a scientist before there was science,
an inventor whose ideas outstripped the technology of his time,
and a famous artist who produced the most valuable and recognized
painting in the world. Just what do we know about this celebrated
Renaissance man of mystery?
Ser Piero di Vinci didn't know what to do about
his son, Leonardo. He had reached the point in life where young
men needed to prepare for a career. Ser Piero himself was an important
official - a notary. This line of work would be closed to Leonardo.
His birth had been the result of a romantic tryst with a peasant
girl, too low a class for Ser Piero to consider marrying. Because
the boy was illegitimate, the guild of magistrates and notaries
would not accept him,. nor would he be allowed to attend the university.
The boy did show a definite talent for drawing, however, perhaps
he could be apprenticed to an artist…
This is how young Leonardo da Vinci started on his
career in art, a career in which he would create some of the most
famous paintings in the world, including perhaps the most-widely
recognized and most highly valuable painting of all time, the
Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci was more than just an artist,
however. He was also interested in science, anatomy and architecture.
His sketchbooks, filled with his ideas for inventions, stunned
the world when they were found centuries after his death.
Leonardo was born in or near the Italian town of
Vinci on April 15, 1452. He probably spent the first few years
living with his mother, but moved to his father's house when she
married. We know that by 1457 he was living there because his
name appears in tax records. His father was stern and distant
with him, but Leonardo was a favorite with his uncle, Francesco,
who ran the family's farm. Some time between the age of fifteen
and eighteen Leonardo was apprenticed to the artist Andrea di
Cione, called Verrocchio (which means "true eye") in his
studio in Florence.
Baptism of the Christ - Verrocchio with the help of
his apprentice, Leonardo.
Verrocchio was one of the leading artists in the
city and Leonardo turned out to be an excellent
student. He learned to make brushes and mix colors
as well as to draw, paint and sculpt. In those days when an artist
was commissioned to make a piece of art, his apprentices would
help do the work. It was said that when Leonardo was given the
assignment of painting an angel in one of the master's pictures,
his work was so much better than the rest of the painting that
Verrocchoio put down the paintbrush and never picked it up again.
At age twenty Leonardo was accepted into the painter's
guild. While he quickly got a reputation for doing fine work,
he was also labeled as an artist that never finished what he started.
This was a charge that was to follow him most of his life. While
he loved the challenge of painting, his interest in the project
would wane after the initial sketches were completed and the actual
drudgery of carefully painting brush mark after brush mark started.
Some attributed this to the wide range of Leonardo's interests:
Why should he be working on a boring painting when he could be
It was during this period that we have the first
records of Leonardo starting to record his observations about
nature, architecture and anatomy into his sketchbooks. Apparently
Leonardo started keeping a sketchbook to improve the quality of
his paintings. He would dissect human and animal bodies to better
understand how the muscles and bones inside shaped the skin. His
books contained almost 200 carefully-drawn anatomical pictures
of the human body. He also went into the countryside and studied
the features of plants and the geology of rocks, recording them
in his sketchbook. These fine details later emerged in some of
his most famous paintings.
Over his career, though, these sketchbooks became
more than just ways to improve his art. They were filled with
pictures and notes attesting to Leonardo's wide variety of interests
and his depth of understanding. Many of the pages included ideas
for inventions. Some were improvements to existing machines, others
were wholly new and ranged from a primitive tank to a human powered
A page from
one of Leonardo's sketchbook showing plans for a helicopter
Leonardo was not, by the standards of his day, an
educated man. He did not attend a university and he never got
formal training in Latin. This limited his ability to read the
classical texts. This deficiency may actually have been an advantage,
however. In those days scholars had the habit of answering questions
about nature by reading what the classical philosophers said about
the subject. Leonardo, perhaps because of the language barrier,
went out and observed nature himself, drawing his own conclusions
based on what he saw. He made hypotheses' about what he found
and in some cases set up experiments to test his ideas. He was
using the scientific method before it was invented.
Work in Florence was slow, so in 1481 Leonardo decided
to move to Milan. He knew that Duke Ludovico Sforza (also known
as "The Moor" because of his dark complexion) ruler of the Duchy
of Milan, was concerned about the defense of the city, so he wrote
the Duke a letter. In the letter, which Leonardo addressed to
the "Most Illustrious Lord," he claimed to have studied all of
the latest engines of war and come up with many improvements for
them, some of them secret. He wrote that some of his designs included
bridges that were light to carry but very strong, better mortars,
catapults, and techniques for digging tunnels and drying up moats.
He also alleged he was an architect capable of building canals
and other structures. Finally, almost as an afterthought, he added,
"I am able to execute statues in marble, bronze and clay; in painting
I can do as well as anyone else."
Virgin of the Rocks
While he was waiting for Ludovico to make his mind
on his proposal, Leonardo accepted a commission to paint an altarpiece
for the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The monks who
commissioned the work spelled out in detail what they expected
to see when the artist was done, including the characters in the
painting and what they should be wearing. Leonardo signed the
contract, but completely ignored its contents. What Leonardo produced,
however, was undoubtedly a masterpiece. He dispensed with such
conventions as halos and produced an extremely natural-looking
picture compared with what other artists were doing. A careful
study of nature can be seen in the rocks and plants that surround
Mary, the baby Jesus, the baby St. John and a watching angel.
By not giving objects in the picture a sharp outline but letting
them flow together through the use of shadows he gave the painting
a three-dimensional effect like no other artist had ever before
This work apparently impressed Ludovico enough that
he hired Leonardo to work for him. Leonardo's assignments from
the duke included designing a heating system for the duchess's
bath, overseeing the molding of cannons, engineering canals, supervising
pageants and decorating the ceiling of a room in the palace with
a painting of a grove of trees. Probably his most difficult assignment
was a giant horse. Ludovico wished to have a statue of a rider
on a horse erected to commemorate his father, Francesco Sforza.
He gave this project to Leonardo who worked off and on on it for
sixteen years. Leonardo spent much time studying horses, sketching
them, and even dissecting dead ones in order to understand how
the statue should be made. Finally, in 1493, he produced a full-size
clay model that was 24 feet high. His idea was to start with the
horse and add the rider later. While the molds were prepared and
the bronze gathered, Leonardo worked out a way of pouring the
metal quickly so it would not crack as it cooled, which was problem
with such a huge statue. At the last minute, however, Ludovico
decided he needed the bronze more for cannons than for the statue,
and the project was never completed.
Misfortunes of the Leonardo's Last Supper
From the first
this masterpiece has been plagued with problems:
to work in fresco, so he tried an experimental technique
to paint on the wall of the monk's refectory. The experiment
failed and humidity in the room caused the paint to start
flaking as soon as 1517. By 1586 it could hardly even be
were attempted but most of them seemed only to make the
situation worse. In 1652 the monks decided to cut a doorway
through the center of the painting, resulting in the feet
of Jesus and part of the table being destroyed in the process.
-In 1796 the
room was used by French troops as a stable. Despite orders
from Napoleon that the masterpiece not be damaged in any
way, soldiers took to throwing clay at the faces of the
-In 1800 a flood
covered the entire painting. Green mold had to be removed
from its surface.
-During WW II
much of the building was destroyed by Allied bombing. The
wall with the painting only survived because it had been
protected by sandbags.
and somewhat controversial restoration has made the painting
viewable again and stabilized it against further decay.
Still, it will never be as complete or vibrant as it once
was. However, considering all it has gone through, we are
fortunate to have it around at all.
It was while he was in Milan that Leonardo painted
one of his most famous works, The Last Supper. This painting,
depicting the last Passover dinner for Jesus and his disciples,
was to be done on a wall of the monk's dining hall at Santa Maria
della Grazie. The work was to be done as a fresco. Fresco is a
technique for painting on walls where the artist lays down a layer
of plaster and then brushes onto it water colors. The painter
is limited to a certain range of colors and must work quickly
before the wall dries. Leonardo simply could not work fast enough
(the painting, much to the distress of the monks, took him four
years to complete, starting in 1495) so he came up with his own
experimental method that would allow him to add changes days or
even years later. Leonardo chose to have the disciples using the
same type of tables, plates, glassware and tablecloth as the monks
used, giving the impression that they were eating right alongside
the others in the hall.
Leonardo's work habits drove the monks crazy. He
might labor on the piece all day without a break, then leave and
not be seen for the rest of the week. He was observed on one occasion
staring at the painting for several hours, then making one or
two tiny brush strokes, then leaving.
It is said that Leonardo spent days haunting the
streets of Milan looking for a subject with an evil enough looking
face to use as a model for Judas. When the Prior (the head of
the monastery) complained about Leonardo's work ethic, the artist
threatened to use the Prior's face as the model. "Until now
I held off holding him up to ridicule in his own monastery!"
Leonardo supposedly commented.
The painting was finally completed in 1498, but
unfortunately the experimental method Leonardo used to prepare
the wall failed. Even before his death, flakes of pigment were
falling off the wall.
Battle of Anghiari
In 1499 French troops invaded Milan. Ludovico fled
the town and Leonardo lost his patron. For the next 16 years Leonardo
moved through Europe working for various people including the
notorious Cesare Borgia who was intent on conquering central Italy.
Leonardo was employed by Borgia as a military engineer. It was
at this time he became friends with a Florentine diplomat named
Niccolo Machiavelli who later on wrote the famous book The
Prince. Machiavelli recommended Leonardo for his next job,
a painting in the Great Council Chamber at Florence that would
depict The Battle of Anghiari.
To Leonardo's chagrin, a young rival artist, Michelangelo
Buonarroti, was also hired to paint another battle scene, The
Battle of Cascina, in the same room. Neither artist finished
their assignments. Leonardo's was again the victim of one of his
experimental techniques. He tried to avoid fresco once more and
use oil paints on the wall. His idea was to dry the paint by using
the heat from a fire. Although this worked in his workshop, the
results in the Council Chamber were uneven and the fire blackened
the top of the picture. Discouraged, Leonardo gave up and could
not be induced to finish the painting. Eventually what he had
completed so far was painted over. We only have an idea of what
it looks like now based on preliminary sketches made by Leonardo
and copies produced by other artists before it was destroyed.
This period in his life was a difficult time for
Leonardo. After his father died, a dispute with his half-brothers
and sisters deprived him of his portion of his father's estate.
The same thing nearly happened when his uncle died and left all
his wealth to Leonardo. After a protracted court battle Leonardo
did win the right to use his uncle's money and lands, but only
for his own lifetime.
Out of this difficult period, however, came what
is his most famous work, and perhaps the most well-known painting
of all time: The Mona Lisa (also referred to as La Gioconda).
It is thought that this painting was started in 1503 and depicts
the third wife of a Florentine silk dealer named Francesco di
Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. For some reason, perhaps because
Leonardo liked it so much, it was never sold to the person who
ordered it. The painting shows a young woman seated on a terrace
giving the viewer an enigmatic smile. Leonardo used a technique
of smudging the paint (called sfumato) near the end of
the lips and the corner of the eyes to fool the viewer. Her exact
expression eludes the observer, changing as he moves his eyes
over the portrait, and this makes the subject almost seem to be
Around 1516 or 1517, Leonardo's fortunes changed
again. The King of France, Francis I, offered him the position
of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King. Leonardo
happily accepted this assignment and traveled to France. There
he was installed in the manor of Cloux near the Royal chateau.
Leonardo brought two apprentices with him, Salai and Melzi, who,
because Leonardo had never married or had children, were like
sons to him. He also brought the Mona Lisa with him as
well as two other paintings, a picture of John the Baptist and
the Virgin and Child with St. Anne.
Leonado spent his last few years in comfort. His
duties for the King were light and they would spend long hours
in conversation. He stayed in the King's service until his death
on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67. It is said, though scholars have
disputed this, that he died in the arms of the king of France.
After his death, the Mona Lisa made its way into the King's
hands and is now enshrined in the Louve in Paris
Leonardo da Vinci by Diane Stanley,
Morrow Books, 1996.
Leonardo da Vinci by Sherwin B. Nuland,
Penguin Lives - Lipper Viking Books, 2000.
Leonardo da Vinci by Marin Kausal, http://www.kausal.com/,
Lee Krystek 2005. All Rights Reserved.