Portrait of Leonardo by Francesco Melzi
Name: Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci Born: Vinci, Tuscany, Italy 15 April 1452 Died: Clos-Lucé, Amboise, France 2 May 1519
Leonardo Da Vinci, also commonly referred to as the Renaissance Man, was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy. It is uncertain that Vinci, just west of Florence, was the actual birthplace and it is often debated that perhaps he was born in a farmhouse in Anchiano. Nevertheless, Vinci claims the prestigious title of the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Leonardo did not author an autobiography; therefore, what little is know of his early life has been gathered from tax records and other documents of the period. What is known is that he was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci and a woman who is only known by her first name, Catrina. It is speculated that she was possible a slave from the Middle East or perhaps just a lowly servant that worked in the household.
His father, a notary of some stature, did not raise the boy in the early years. It is known that Leonardo (christened Lionardo) lived with his grandfather in 1457 as ascertained from tax records of the period. Shortly thereafter he went to live with his father or his father's younger brother, Francesco. What became of his mother is unknown.
The educational prospects for Leonardo were very limited because of the circumstances of his birth. His early training was probably conducted by his step-mother, Donna Albiera. Most of his early education was self-taught. Later in his life his illegitimacy would also influence his prospects for obtaining a higher education and the means to earn a living. When his father noted his artistic talent he was whisked away to Florence to apprentice with Andrea del Verrocchio at around the age of 16 or 17.
Under del Verrocchio's tutoradge Leonardo studied painting and sculpture. He probably learned geometry during his apprenticeship and worked with other students and artists of the time such as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Cosimo Rosselil ( 1439-1507), and Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537.) It was during this time that he was assigned his first task of painting the angel in Baptism of Christ (c.1472-75). After seeing Leonardo's angel it is said that Verrocchio swore "to never pick up a paintbrush again".
During this period, Leonardo aided in the creation of several pieces: Annuciation (c.1472-75); Landscape of Santa Maria della Neve (1473) and Portrait of Ginever de' Benci (c. 1474).
At the age of about 20 Leonardo's apprenticeship with Verrocchio came to an end. In 1472 he joined the artist's guild Compagnia de San Luca, but probably continued to work with Verrocchio for about four more years.
During his first Florentine period ( 1478 – 1483) Leonardo probably received some of his first commissions. He became known for his artistic talents with his work on Madonna and Child (c. 1478), Small Annunciation (1480-1481), and Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481-82).
Leonardo was revered by his friends and colleagues as a handsome fellow who was charismatic. He was kind and generous and probably one of the world's first animal rights activists. It is said that he would buy birds in the village market and set them free and was a practicing vegetarian (something almost unheard of in the fifteenth century.) However, Leonardo was not so well liked that he was immune to gossip and in 1476 he was arrested on the charge of sodomy. After about two months of incarceration he was released due to a lack of evidence. The question of his sexuality still remains a mystery.
After his release by the authorities in 1478, Leonardo left Florence for the first time, and traveled to Milan. There he joined a new patron whom he probably met while still in Florence, Ludovico Sforza. Initially Leonardo was to have been a military engineer, but instead became the court artist. He had designed several machines such as catapults and armored cars but none of these machines were ever built. It was during this period that the bronze horse was commissioned and started. However, as with many of his projects, it was never finished. Also, during this time, Leonardo painted one of his most famous fresco's The Last Supper. The work was not actually a fresco in the true sense of the word but was paramount in establishing him as a portraitist and artist.
In late 1499, Leonardo left Milan and returned to Florence where he accepted a commission for an altar painting for the friars of the Order of the Servites at Santissima Annunziata. It was for this painting that Leonardo created one of his unfinished masterpieces The Burlington House Cartoon (c.1499-1500). It was also during this second Florentine period that he started two of his most famous works of art, The Battle of Anghiari, and The Mona Lisa (1503). The Battle of Anghiari was never finished and The Mona Lisa was never delivered to the client, Francesco del Giocondo.
In 1506 he headed back to Milan and it appears that during the six years he remained there he continued his anatomy studies that he had started while in Florence. He also revived his plans for a grand equestrian statue for Glen Giacomo Trivulzio. Again the statue remained unfinished.
In 1511, Leonardo moved to Rome where he continued his experiments with flight, optical puzzles as well as botany and the scientific mixing of oil paints and varnishes.
In 1516 Leonardo joined the then King of France, Francois I, in the Loire Valley. The aging artist was sickly and suffering the results of a stroke. Unable to paint any longer he undertook several projects including a mechanical lion that was able to walk a few steps. Instead of a heart, the lion's chest opened to reveal a fleurs-de-lis. He also designed a palace at Romorantin, reorganized his notebooks, and several other smaller projects.
On May 2, 1519, Leonardo died and was buried in Saint-Forentine in Amboise. Yet even in death, the artist's travels were not ended. During the Wars of Religion Leonardo's remains were moved several times. Eventually he was buried in the Chapel of St. Hubert in the castle of Amboise.
Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, a musician, a philosopher, an engineer, a botanist, an anatanomist, a mathematician and a humanitarian. He did not believe in life after death and he did not agree with the teachings of the church. He was generous but suspicious. He questioned everything around him and excelled at everything he undertook. He spent 30 years keeping meticulous records and journals documenting his experiments and designs. "Vassari observes with reference to Leonardo's writings, "he wrote backwards in rude characters, and with the left hand, so that anyone who is not practiced in reading them, cannot understand them."" He did not number the five thousand pages he documented but was adamant that each observation or experiment documented be completed on the page it was begun. Leonardo took great pains to finish his notebooks. Yet, in contrast to his scientific studies, this artist who epitomizes the Renaissance left much of his artistic endeavors unfinished.
Much of Leonardi's life is a mystery in spite of his writings. Little is known of the man inside the body because he did not reveal much to the world. His accomplishments throughout his short 67 years on earth did much to revolutionize the artistic community and, had his machines been built then, would have revolutionized society centuries in advance. Truly, he was a man before his time.
© Kay Kean and Mezzo Mondo Fine Art