In this success story, we have prepared the biography of Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s most diversely talented persons. Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 02, 1519) contributed significantly to the fields of architecture, sculpting, painting, invention, science, anatomy, botany, geology, astronomy, mathematics, engineering, literature, music, and writing. His artistic masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, still baffle tourists and scientists alike. Leonardo was a polymath and an expert in many subject areas. He is, therefore, regarded as a creative genius and one of the greatest inventors of his time, even though many of his works have never seen the light of day.
Family History & Early Life
Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, on a Spring evening near the small Tuscan town of Vinci. The area was known for its majestic landscape, spanning reed beds along the river, houses framed by shade trees, small vineyards, wild pine, laurel, sweet chestnut, and solid turkey oak growing on high slopes. Vinci was an outpost of the Florentine Republic – a quiet, rural town. The town is a cluster of stone buildings surrounding a twin-tower castle and a 13th-century church.
Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci was born out of wedlock. His father, Ser Piero (April 19, 1426 – 1504), was a respected Florentine notary. Notaries played a vital role in the Renaissance legal system. Many types of contracts, including property sales, business pacts, and wills, had to be forged in Latin and set up in a binding and valid way. Notaries created legal records of such agreements, turning them into public documents they could consult when desired.
His mother, Caterina di Meo Lippi (1427 – 1493), has been a subject of controversy. Some theories state that she might have been an African or Asian slave bought in Italy. Professor Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, disagrees with these claims, denouncing them as simply an attractive story for the public. Kemp believes that Caterina di Meo Lippi was a poor and vulnerable orphan, living in a crumbling farmhouse about a mile from Vinci in the Tuscan hills, and she was seduced by a lawyer (Ser Piero) at the age of 15. Some believe she might be slightly more famous than we have previously thought, drawing a line between her characteristics, life story, and Leonardo’s masterpiece – the Mona Lisa.
Piero da Vinci’s family was of good stock and standing. They were a family of notaries but also ran a farming business in the country. Notaries were influential during the Renaissance because the mercantile boom created much demand for this profession. The Arte Dei Giudici e Notai, the notaries’ Guild, was the most respected in Florence. Ser Piero, the grandfather of Leonardo’s father, was the most celebrated of the family. His only son, Antonio, didn’t become a notary and lived all his life in Vinci. Antonio married Lucia, the daughter of another notary. She was twenty years younger than Antonio. On April 19, 1426, Lucia gave birth to their first child, Piero, who was named after his grandfather. The following year, Lucia gave birth to her next son, Giuliano, who died in infancy. Five years later, the first daughter, Violante, was born. At this time, Antonio owned a farm and two plots of building land in Vinci. He was the head of the family for most of Leonardo’s childhood. Francesco, Antonio’s youngest son, was born in 1436.
Ser Piero was very similar to his grandfather of the same name. He came to similar positions in Florentine financial affairs. In 1446, Ser Piero left Vinci and spent a couple of years in Pistoia and Pisa, but soon moved out to establish his career in Florence. Like other Vincis, Piero was urbane, ambitious, and not entirely warm-hearted. Ser Piero left nothing in his will to Leonardo because he had numerous legitimate children. Unlike him, Francesco, Piero’s brother, who was childless, left his entire estate to Leonardo.
Ser Piero didn’t marry Leonardo’s mother, and various historians have different accounts of this story. Nevertheless, he was already engaged to a sixteen-year-old girl, Albiera, a wealthy Florentine notary’s daughter, whom he married in 1452, eight months after the birth of Leonardo. Soon after the birth of Leonardo, Caterina married Antonio di Piero Buti del Vacca, a local man. He had a nickname, Accattabriga, which meant “Tough guy.” In 1454, Caterina gave birth to their first daughter, Piera. In three years, Maria, their second daughter, was born. Over the next six years, Caterina gave birth to three children: Elisabetta, Francesco, and Sandra. She gave birth to 6 children over the course of 11 years. The marriage between Accattabriga and Caterina began as a marriage of convenience. The union allowed Caterina to improve her social status, and Accattabriga received some financial benefits by being close to San Piero’s business. The couple stayed together with four out of their five children until Accattabriga died in 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci lived with his father and stepmothers, and he sometimes stayed with his mother and stepfather. When he was five, he moved to Vinci to his father’s household and lived there with his uncle and grandparents. Leonardo had few memories of his childhood. One, which he thought was an omen, was when a kite fell from the sky, hovering over his cradle with its feather bruising his face. Another was when he discovered a cave that he feared entering because he thought a monster was inside while being driven by curiosity to enter. It appears that the theme of “birds” can be observed throughout his paintings, possibly fueled by another childhood memory of a bird landing on his cradle.
Leonardo was a country boy. He spent his entire childhood in agricultural production. The colors Leonardo used came from earth and minerals, plants and bark, etc. The processing of paints in Leonardo’s workshop was similar to the handling of olives in the olive mill. Leonardo loved the countryside. Leonardo’s close relationship to nature is prevalent in his work – his superbly detailed drawings of plants and trees in the luminous, mysterious landscapes of the artist’s paintings. He had a broad knowledge of the natural world – the botanical, the agricultural, and the folkloric.
Education and Verrocchio’s Workshop
There is little information about Leonardo’s education, only that he studied essential reading, writing, and mathematics. An Italian painter, architect, and writer, Giorgio Vasari, mentioned in his famous book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), that Leonardo also studied music and ‘he never left off drawing and sculpting, which suited his imagination better than anything.’
In June 1464, Albiera, Ser Piero’s wife, died in childbirth. It was a personal loss for Leonardo. The following year, Ser Piero married again. His bride was the fifteen-year-old daughter of Ser Giuliano Lanfredini – Francesca. In 1465, Leonardo’s grandfather died. That year was the last for Leonardo Vinci.
The main stage of Leonardo’s development began in 1466. Leonardo relocated to Florence, where he became the apprentice of Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni (c. 1435 – 1488), one of the most successful artists and sculptors of the Renaissance. The artist was also known as Verrocchio, and his workshop was the great intellectual center of Florence. According to Vasari, Ser Piero was a good friend of the master, and once he showed Verrocchio Leonardo’s drawings. The artist was amazed and urged Piero to make Leonardo study drawing. It was a real gift for the boy. Leonardo had an opportunity to learn metallurgy, chemistry, leatherworking, plaster casting, and mechanics. He also studied painting, drawing, modeling, and sculpting.
Leonardo worked with Verrocchio on the Baptism of Christ (1472 – 1475), drawing a young angel holding Jesus’s robe. He also painted the landscape, the rocks, and much of Christ’s figure using the new oil painting technique. Historians suggest that Leonardo could have been a model for some of Verrocchio’s works – for instance, Tobias and the Angel (1470 – 1480) and the statue of David in the Bargello.
Leonardo completed his apprenticeship at Verrocchio’s studio in 1472. At age 20, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke, a guild of artists and doctors founded in the mid-fourteenth century—other guilds were established in Milan and Siena, with later versions in London, Paris, and Rome.
Leonardo da Vinci opened his workshop somewhere between 1472 – 1477. Even then, he continued working with his master, Verrocchio.
In 1478, the artist received his first independent commission to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard. Three years later, he was hired to paint The Adoration of the Magi for the Monks of San Donato a Scopeto (1481). Leonardo did not complete that order because he departed for Milan the following year. Without waiting for Leonardo, the monks gave the commission to Filippino Lippi (April 1457 – April 1504), another Italian artist who completed Adoration of the Magi in 1496.
Leonardo’s departure from Florence was one of the reasons for the incomplete Adoration of the Magi. In 1482, Leonardo received an order from Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici (January 01, 1449 – April 08, 1492) to produce a silver lyre and bring it as a peace gesture to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza (July 27, 1452 – May 27, 1508). Having fulfilled the order, Leonardo sent Ludovico a letter in which he advertised his skills as a military engineer. Leonardo schematically painted various military vehicles in the letter, such as an armored tank, a giant crossbow, and a war chariot with scythe blades. It made an impression on Ludovico, so he called Leonardo to Milan, where he spent 17 years serving the Sforza family.
Leonardo was the Sforza family’s painter, sculptor, and architectural and military-engineering advisor. During his time in Milan, he received numerous orders. On April 25, 1483, Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks (1483 – 1486). The prestigious contract was forged between Leonardo and Ambrogio de Predis (c. 1455 – c. 1508) and a religious group called the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. The commission was to decorate the Confraternity’s chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande. It was the second biggest church in Milan after the Duomo.
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483—1486
The painting Virgin of the Rocks exists in two versions. The consensus view is that the version of the Louver was earlier and was painted independently by Leonardo. The other version in the National Gallery in London is the one that Ambrogio de Predis and Leonardo painted later. Leonardo demonstrated his pioneering use of chiaroscuro in the Virgin of the Rocks. It’s a technique of stark contrast between darkness and light that gives a three-dimensionality to his figures.
The subject matter uniting the two paintings is the adoration of the Christ Child by the infant John the Baptist. This theme was quite common in the art of Renaissance Florence, as John the Baptist was the city’s patron saint. Both Michelangelo and Raphael have made paintings with the same subject matter.
The paintings both depict an angel making an expressive gesture toward Christ while his gaze is focused on something out of the frame. The figure in Madonna’s embrace (John the Baptist) personifies humanity’s need for divine protection. Art historians speculate that the cave in the background depicts a womb, and the dominating natural elements in the image may have come from Leonardo’s fascination with biology and geology.
It is challenging, if not impossible, to form an accurate conception of the colors used in the original painting. The work has been repainted, almost buried under layers of varnish. The mixture used for painting resulted in the surface cracking like mud, and there are hints that there have been many old repaints all over the work. This analysis aims toward those who conclude that Leonardo did not have great taste in coloring during that period.
In 1484 – 1485, a plague has claimed the lives of about fifty thousand Milanese. Leonardo believed the reason was the terrible overcrowding and filth: garbage was everywhere, and the sunlight hardly penetrated the narrow streets. The artist offered the Duke to build a new city, which would have consisted of ten districts and thirty thousand inhabitants, each with a sewage system in each area. Streets must have been wide; the narrowest width should equal a horse’s average height. Leonardo also proposed a system of two-level urban roads: the upper level – for pedestrians the lower one – to move crews. There would be stairs connecting the two levels.
In 1492, Leonardo completed a model for a 16-foot-tall equestrian monument for Francesco I Sforza (July 23, 1401 – March 08, 1466), Ludovico’s predecessor. The memorial was a large horse modeled in clay. Unfortunately, the project was put on hold, and Leonardo never finished it. The reason was that Italy was at war with France, and the bronze required to cast the monument went towards the production of cannons. In 1499, the French destroyed the clay model of the horse, using it for a target practice.
The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci received his next order from Ludovico in 1495. He was commissioned to paint The Last Supper (1495 – 1498) for the monastery of Milan, Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper is one of the most recognizable paintings by Leonardo. The creation of this masterpiece took approximately three years. It is Leonardo’s only surviving fresco with dimensions of 460 cm (180 inches) x 880 cm (350 inches). The artist depicts the time of Passover when Jesus tells the Twelve Apostles that one of them will soon betray him. Matteo Bandello, a monk at the monastery, often watched Leonardo at work and said the following words: “He would arrive early, climb onto the scaffolding, and set to work. Sometimes he stayed there from dawn to sunset, never once laying down his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, painting without pause. At other times, he would go for two, three or four days without touching his brush, but spending several hours a day in front of the work, his arms folded, examining and criticizing the figures to himself.”
Leonardo’s composition gives each apostle a unique facial and bodily expression. By portraying Jesus in isolation from the apostles, he conveys a physical and emotional detachment between the two parties preceding the betrayal. This compositional approach would be hugely influential for many generations of artists.
Leonardo ran into several problems when creating the mural. The first issue was the compositional arrangement of thirteen people at a table. The second was the allocation of Judas so that the audience recognized him immediately. He put Judas on the same side of the table as everyone else but psychologically separated him from the others by a loneliness much more devastating than physical isolation. The grim and focused Judas pulled away from Christ. While the other apostles, questioning, protesting, and denying, still do not know who the traitor is – the audience knows it immediately.
The Last Supper became one of history’s most instantly recognizable works of art.
Return to Florence
With Milan сaptured by the French in 1499 and the Sforza family overthrown, Leonardo da Vinci with his friends, the mathematician Luca Pacioli (c. 1447 – 1517), and the assistant Salai escaped to Venice. There, Leonardo spent time developing a system of protection for the city.
Venice was at the forefront of the new technology of copper-plate engraving, in which the image was etched with corrosive acid on a sheet of copper. The subtlety of line in copper etching provided much better quality results than traditional wood cutting. Leonardo quickly gained interest in the new printing technology. The technique was still at an experimental stage, but Leonardo no doubt understood its potential for the reproduction of his technical drawings.
The following year, Leonardo returned to Florence. He lived at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata, where he was provided with a workshop, allowing him to create The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist (c. 1499 – 1500 or c. 1506 – 1508). He gained widespread acclaim for this work, with everyone seeing it as a miracle and seeing him as a genius.
In 1502 and 1503, Leonardo worked as a military architect and engineer for Cesare Borgia (September 13, 1475 – March 12, 1507), the commander of the papal army and Duke of Valentinois. Leonardo traveled throughout Italy with his patron, surveyed military construction projects, and sketched topographical maps and city plans.
The Mona Lisa
Leonardo was back in Florence at the beginning of March 1503. He began working on his masterpiece and possibly the most famous, recognizable, and parodied painting in the world – the Mona Lisa. The painting is estimated to have been completed in 1507, although he kept working on it until he died in 1509.
The painting was unique for its combination of a sitter and landscape. The meaning of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has puzzled art historians for centuries. At the same time, the sfumato technique and the endless layering of paint had a tremendous impact on artists of the Renaissance and beyond.
Scholars and historians have expressed numerous versions and arguments about the sitter’s identity. The first theory says she is Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo, the Florentine merchant. Biographer Vasari offered this assumption in 1550. Another theory says that the sitter was Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, an idea proposed by Sigmund Freud. He suggested that Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile was an unconscious memory of Leonardo’s mother’s smile. The third suggestion is that the sitter was a man, Leonardo’s longtime apprentice, Salai. Another version is that the painting is Leonardo’s self-portrait. In August 2013, a group of art and forensic experts opened the tomb of the Giocondo family to find Lisa del Giocondo’s remains, test her DNA, and recreate an image of her face. The results have not been published, and scientists can not determine for certain whether these remains belong to Lisa del Giocondo.
Today, the Mona Lisa is the only Leonardo half-length portrait painting from that period that exists. It is exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, and attracts millions of tourists annually.
The Battle of Anghiari
In 1503, Leonardo was commissioned to paint a mural entitled The Battle of Anghiari (1504–1505) for the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio. At the same time, Leonardo’s contemporary, the great artist Michelangelo, received an order to draw another part of the mural – The Battle of Cascina (1504). It was the only project which they worked on together. In 1505, Michelangelo stopped working on his part and relocated to Rome to build the Pope’s tomb.
The Battle of Anghiari was the largest and most significant of Leonardo’s works. Sadly, his experiment with new techniques of fresco painting failed. Leonardo painted in oil colors, but the work began to dampen. He also used paint with wax, but some pigments evaporated. The oil paints do not lay on plaster, and the paint dripped. To dry the painting, Leonard hung large charcoal braziers near the fresco. It did not give the expected result. Only the lower part dried quickly; the top couldn’t dry, and the colors intermingled. Due to technical difficulties, the work on the fresco moved very slowly. In 1506, the French governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise (1473 – February 11, 1511), invited Leonardo to Milan. He relocated there, and the mural was unfinished. Later, in 1555 and 1572, the Medici family decided to reconstruct the hall. As a result, Leonardo’s work was lost – his place taken by Vasari’s fresco called the Battle of Marciano.
Return to Milan
In 1506, the fifty-four-year-old Leonardo da Vinci returned to Milan at the invitation of Charles d’Amboise. The French governor treated Leonardo with great reverence. The French gave Leonardo the freedom he desired. They paid him well and did not show too much insistence. Apart from a few trips, he spent six years in Milan, increasingly immersed in his research. Leonardo researched the mountains and worked on the canals lining the valley in Lombardy.
From 1506 to 1508, Leonardo drew the second (London) version of the Virgin of the Rocks. Comparing the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks and the later version, now kept in the British National Gallery, reveals the profound differences between Leonardo’s style of Quattrocento and the High Renaissance periods.
Although both paintings are about the same size, the figures appear more extensive in the second embodiment. The muted colors make their faces and bodies seem covered with a deathly pallor. All colors were deliberately not highlighted; they are used to express the idea of the picture. It proves to be the result of his deep reflection in the field of light and shade and his research on “how to make a plastic figure.” The result produced a psychological mind effect of the colors, rather than only making them pleasurable to sight.
At the end of 1507 and the beginning of 1508, Leonardo had spent six months in Florence dealing with his family issues. He was never in a good relationship with his half-brothers. In 1504, Messer Piero da Vinci died without leaving a will. The younger sons have banded together to deprive Leonardo of his share of the inheritance. And in 1507, Francesco, Leonardo’s uncle, died. He left a will in which he mentioned his brilliant nephew. The brothers tried to forge the will, and Leonardo filed against them.
After settling the legal disputes about his inheritance, Leonardo returned to Milan in 1508, where he lived in his house in the parish of Santa Babila.
By 1508, Leonardo’s career as an artist came to an end. From these years, only two pictures remained: the St. Anna Maria and the Christ Child (c. 1503), which is at the Louvre.
Leonardo was approaching 60 when he delved back into sculpture for a short period. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio (1440 or 1441 – December 05, 1518), an Italian aristocrat and condottiere (military leader) from Milan, asked Leonardo to make him a tombstone with an equestrian statue on a carved pedestal-crypt. His idea primarily revolved around his incomplete “Horse” monument for Sforza. Leonardo made new sketches, re-imagining the memorial as a dynamic whole. The monument still exists only on paper.
Old Age and Rome
In 1512, the combined Swiss, Spanish, Venetian, and Papal forces drove the French out of Milan. It was a disaster for Leonardo. He found himself protectionless and penniless. His fame has faded by this point, and his personal and public trials have worn him out. He spent a few months 1513 at the Villa Melzi in Vaprio d’adda. In February of that year, Pope Julius II (December 05, 1443 – February 21, 1513) died, succeeded by Pope Leo X (December 11, 1475 – December 01, 1521) of the Medici family, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici family were considered patrons of the arts, and Leonardo did not miss the opportunity to seek them out for help. In September 1513, Leonardo da Vinci went to Rome. In Rome, the Pope’s brother Giulio de’ Medici gave him a room in the Vatican Belvedere Palace and determined a small salary.
Leonardo became ill. The nature of the illness, which caused paralysis of his right hand, and the cause of his death is still unknown. Whenever he recovered, he engaged in scientific research, studying plants in the Pope’s botanical garden. He drew drainage plans of the Pontine Marshes and made some outlines of a thesis on the structure of the human voice.
The only self-portrait of Leonardo emerged during his stay in Rome when he was about sixty-two years old. He depicts himself with a broad, furrowed brow, keen and sad, his glance full of pain, drooping corners of the lips, and a lush beard. By this time, he somewhat resembles an ancient prophet.
St. John the Baptist
Leonardo painted his final painting in Rome. St. John the Baptist (1513 – 1516) is another hugely influential and innovative work. It had a prominent influence on Raphael’s workshop. Raphael and his pupil Giulio Romano (c. 1499 – November 01, 1546) have worked on several portraits of St. John showing the Saint in a similar composition.
St. John the Baptist is depicted in isolation, emerging from a dark background with long curly hair and an enigmatic smile reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. His left-hand holds a cross while his right is pointed toward heaven. Leonardo’s use of sfumato gives the figure such gentle reverence that the subject’s soft, delicate appearance is almost androgynous to the eye. This figure has been widely interpreted to express Leonardo’s homoerotic feelings. However, he was celibate for most of his life, devoting his time to art rather than the pleasures of the body. Another interpretation of St. John the Baptist by the British art historian Kenneth Clark is that Leonardo aimed the figure to represent the “eternal question mark, the enigma of creation,” evident from the restlessness and awkwardness that the painting instills. The interpretation states that the grace and disturbing erotic view of the figure aimed towards magnifying the ambiguity between spirit and flesh meant to convey a spiritual meaning, which Saint John mentions when he speaks of the “fullness of grace from God.”
After the death of Ludovico XII (June 27, 1462 – January 01, 1515), the young King Francis I (September 12, 1494 – March 31, 1547) suggested that Leonardo moved to France, to a house near the royal castle at Amboise. It was an environment perfect for a man of his age. Francois asked Leonardo only one thing: not to deprive him of the pleasure of talking with him.
Leonardo’s last commission was in France, creating a mechanical lion that could walk and open a chest with lilies.
On May 02, 1519, Leonardo da Vinci died at 67 at Clos Lucé, France, and was buried in the Chapel of Saint Hubert in the castle of Amboise.
Leonardo da Vinci could not complete many paintings and projects due to his abundant interests. He spent much time immersed in nature, testing scientific laws, dissecting human and animal bodies, and noting his observations. Leonardo has inspired generations of artists, painters, sculptors, and inventors and has always been considered a prolific genius who was undoubtedly way ahead of his time.
We hope you enjoyed exploring Leonardo da Vinci’s biography and success story.
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