Early Life: The Birth of a Genius
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, scientist, architect, sculptor, musician, and writer. Born on April 15, 1452 in the town of Anchiano near Florence, Italy, it has been said that even as a young boy he liked to learn but had trouble finishing what he started. When he began learning arithmetic, it was only a few months before he was able to ask questions that would stump his teacher. According to art historian and painter, Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo learned to play the Lyre and would sing along to it. In addition to his musical talents, Leonardo also possessed an affinity for the visual arts of drawing and painting. According to some sources, Leonardo was purportedly a handsome and generous individual with a love for animals and nature. Unlike most people of his time, he was a vegetarian and a pacifist (adapted from class notes). One source recounted the story that he would buy caged birds just to set them free.
Apprenticeship: The Bodega of Andrea del Verocchio
When Leonardo was young, his father, Piero da Vinci, realized that Leonardo possessed a natural talent for the visual arts and sent him to study under Andrea del Verocchio. Leonardo studied sculpture, painting, and architecture under the tutelage of Verocchio and showed the skills of a mature artist from early on. Under Verocchio, Leonardo learned all the techniques of a painter including techniques that he would further develop such as sfumato (the appearance of atmospheric thickening) and chiaroscuro (shaddow or light and dark effects). One painting that Leonardo worked on with Verocchio was “The Baptism of Christ” in which Leonardo painted one of the angels.
The Career: The Master at Work
Leonardo worked independently until 1481. He observed life and nature and used what he observed to create his drawings and to design water-powered machines. Leonardo left his first commission in Florence,”The Adoration of the Magi,” to go to Milan, Italy in 1482. It is unclear exactly why he came to Milan, some say it was because of a sodomy charge that was later dropped, but maybe it was because the Duke Ludovico Sforza asked him to come work for him.
During the 17 years that Leonardo was in Milan, he made strides in his artistic and scientific achievements. Some of his most famous works were created during this time including “The Virgin of the Rocks” and “The Last Supper”. Leonardo left Milan in 1499 after the invasion of the French and Ludovico Sforza’s fall from power. He then traveled around Italy, working for many different employers during those 16 years. In 1503 he was back in Florence and was commissioned by a wealthy Florentine merchant to paint a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. Leonardo worked in Rome from 1513 to 1516. There he undertook a variety of projects for the Pope and maintained a workshop. He continued his studies of the human body there, but the Pope did not allow him to dissect cadavers, which really annoyed Leonardo. In 1516 he moved to France because he was offered the position of Premier Painter, Engineer, and Architect of the King by King Francis I of France. King Francis was his last and perhaps most generous patron, providing Leonardo with a cushy job, including a stipend and manor house near the royal château at Amboise. Leonardo never returned to Italy.
The Scientist: An Affinity For The Natural World
Leonardo was equal parts artist and scientist. His creative works and paintings are intertwined with his scientific studies and sketches so much so that the two are often indistinguishable from one another. In fact, to Leonardo, science was art and art was science; for him, the line between the two was blurred if it existed at all. Often, his anatomical studies and measurements would overlap with fanciful doodles on the same page (adapted from class notes).
Leonardo’s propensity for the sciences stemmed from his aristotelian fascination with nature. He marveled at the natural world and sought to represent it in his works of art. In fact, Leonardo rarely began any work without first creating numerous anatomical studies from nature which he then used to guide his creative process (Britannica 2012). This is exemplified by his natural landscapes in works such as his “Virgin of the Rocks” and “The Mona Lisa.” In paintings such as, “The Adoration of the Magi,” Leonardo’s detailed study of human facial expressions are evident in the faces of the onlooking crowd surrounding the Virgin and baby Jesus. Leonardo captures not only the anatomical features of each face with mathematical accuracy, but also conveys the emotions of the onlookers and his studies of psychological interior also translate into his final works (adapted from class notes).
Even Leonardo’s innovative Sfumato technique is taken from nature. Leonardo noticed that in reality, the scenery fades and becomes more hazy as it recedes into the distance. In order to duplicate this effect in his work, Leonardo smeared white or grey paint over his backgrounds in order to give them the realistic illusion of fading into the distance. Hi goal is to duplicate reality and nature (adapted from class notes).
The Master: An Aging Instructor
Leonardo had a large influence on younger artists of Milan and Florence. Two of these were Filippino Lippi and Andrea del Sarto. These artists were able to understand his message rather than only copy the unimportant aspects of his style like other artists did. Leonardo became sick in his old age. When he was near to death, according to Vasari, he decided to learn the teachings of the Catholic Church. Friends and servants held him up as he received the Blessed Sacrament from his bed. Legend says that King Francis was there and held Leonardo’s head as he breathed his last. He died on May 2, 1519 at the age of 75.
Sources: Lives of the Artists Vol. I by Giorgio Vasari; http://legacy.mos.org/leonardo/bio.html; http://www.davincilife.com/biography1.html; http://www.leonardonline.it/en/leonardo-da-vinci-biography.html; http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ki-Lo/Leonardo-da-Vinci.html