Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Leonardo da Vinci self portrait in red chalk“And those men who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and man, as compared with boasters and declaimers of the works of others, must be regarded and not otherwise esteemed than as the object in front of a mirror, when compared with its image seen in the mirror. For the first is something in itself, and the other nothingness.”

“Folks little indebted to Nature, since it is only by chance that they wear the human form and without it I might class them with the herd of beasts.”

Renaissance Man

The life and work of the great Italian Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci have proved endlessly fascinating for later generations. What most impresses people today, perhaps, is the immense scope of his achievement. In the past, however, he was admired chiefly for his art and art theory. Leonardo’s equally impressive contribution to science is a modern rediscovery, having been preserved in a vast quantity of notes that became widely known only in the 20th century.

Background

Leonardo was born on Apr. 15, 1452, near the town of Vinci, not far from Florence. He was the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary, Piero da Vinci, and a young woman named Caterina. His artistic talent must have revealed itself early, for he was soon apprenticed (c. 1469) to Andrea Verrocchio, a leading Renaissance master. In this versatile Florentine workshop, where he remained until at least 1476, Leonardo acquired a variety of skills. He entered the painters’ guild in 1472, and his earliest extant works date from this time.

The artist

In 1478 he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Three years later he undertook to paint the Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. This project was interrupted when Leonardo left Florence for Milan about 1482. Leonardo worked for Duke Lodovico Sforza in Milan for nearly 18 years. Although active as court artist, painting portraits, designing festivals, and projecting a colossal equestrian monument in sculpture to the duke’s father, Leonardo also became deeply interested in non-artistic matters during this period.

He applied his growing knowledge of mechanics to his duties as a civil and military engineer; in addition, he took up scientific fields as diverse as anatomy, biology, mathematics, and physics. These activities, however, did not prevent him from completing his single most important painting, The Last Supper.

With the fall (1499) of Milan to the French, Leonardo left that city to seek employment elsewhere: he went first to Mantua and Venice, but by April 1500 he was back in Florence. His stay there was interrupted by time spent working in central Italy as a mapmaker and military engineer for Cesare Borgia. Again in Florence in 1503, Leonardo undertook several highly significant artistic projects, including the Battle of Anghiari mural for the council chamber of the Town Hall, the portrait of Mona Lisa, and the lost Leda and the Swan. At the same time his scientific interests deepened: his concern with anatomy led him to perform dissections, and he undertook a systematic study of the flight of birds.

Leonardo returned to Milan in June 1506, called there to work for the new French government. Except for a brief stay in Florence (1507-08), he remained in Milan for 7 years. The artistic project on which he focused at this time was the equestrian monument to Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, which, like the Sforza monument earlier, was never completed.

The scientist

Meanwhile, Leonardo’s scientific research began to dominate his other activities, so much so that his artistic gifts were directed toward scientific illustration; through drawing, he sought to convey his understanding of the structure of things. In 1513 he accompanied Pope Leo X’s brother, Giuliano de’Medici, to Rome, where he stayed for 3 years, increasingly absorbed in theoretical research.

Leonardo’s observations and experiments into the workings of nature include the stratification of rocks, the flow of water, the growth of plants, and the action of light. The mechanical devices that he sketched and described were also concerned with the transmission of energy. Leonardo’s solitary investigations took him from surface to structure, from catching the exact appearance of things in nature to visually analyzing how they function.

The knowledge

Leonardo’s art and science are not separate, then, as was once believed, but belong to the same lifelong pursuit of knowledge. His paintings, drawings, and manuscripts show that he was the foremost creative mind of his time.

In 1516-17, Leonardo left Italy forever to become architectural advisor to King Francis I of France, who greatly admired him. Leonardo died at the age of 67 on May 2, 1519, at Cloux, near Amboise, France.