da Vinci: A Genius Before His Time
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?
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…
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.
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.
was one of the leading artists in the city and Leonardo turned
out to be an excellent
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.
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 studying nature?
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.
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 flying machine.
A page from
one of Leonardo's sketchbook showing plans for a helicopter
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Battle of Anghiari
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.
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.
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
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 alive.
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.
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.
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
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
-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.
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.
da Vinci by Diane Stanley, Morrow Books, 1996.
da Vinci by Sherwin B. Nuland, Penguin Lives - Lipper Viking
da Vinci by Marin Kausal, http://www.kausal.com/, 2004.
Lee Krystek 2005. All Rights Reserved.