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Leonardo Da Vinci


Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the greatest and most ingenious
men that history has produced. His contributions in the
areas of art, science, and humanity are still among the
most important that a single man has put forth, definitely
making his a life worth knowing. 

Da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, is credited with being a
master painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer,
and scientist. He was born an illegitimate child to
Catherina, a peasant girl. His father was Ser Piero da
Vinci, a public notary for the city of Florence, Italy. For
the first four years of his life he lived with his mother
in the small village of Vinci, directly outside of the
great center of the Renaissance, Florence. Catherina was a
poor woman, with possible artistic talent, the genetic
basis of Leonardo's talents. Upon the realization of
Leonardo's potential, his father took the boy to live with
him and his wife in Florence (Why did). This was the start
of the boy's education and his quest for knowledge.
Leonardo was recognized by many to be a "Renaissance child"
because of his many talents. As a boy, Leonardo was
described as being handsome, strong, and agile. He had keen
powers of observation, an imagination, and the ability to
detach himself from the world around him. At an early age
Leonardo became interested in subjects such as botany,
geology, animals (specifically birds), the motion of water,
and shadows (About Leonardo). 

At the age of 17, in about 1469, Leonardo was apprenticed
as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the
leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. In
Verrocchio's workshop Leonardo was introduced to many
techniques, from the painting of altarpieces and panel
pictures to the creation of large sculptural projects in
marble and bronze. 

In 1472 he was accepted in the painter's guild of Florence,
and worked there for about six years. While there, Leonardo
often painted portions of Verrocchio's paintings for him,
such as the background and the kneeling angel on the left
in the Baptism of Christ (Encarta). Leonardo's sections of
the painting have soft shadings, with shadows concealing
the edges. These areas are distinguished easily against the
sharply defined figures and objects of Verrocchio, that
reflect the style called Early Renaissance. Leonardo's more
graceful approach marked the beginning of the High
Renaissance. However, this style did not become more
popular in Italy for another 25 year (Gilbert 46). Leonardo
actually started the popularization of this style. For this
reason Leonardo could be called the "Father of the High
Renaissance." Leonardo's leading skills emerged through his
paintings and his techniques. Leonardo's talents soon drew
him away from the Guild and in 1472 Leonardo finished his
first complete painting, Annunciation. In 1478 Leonardo
reached the title of an Independent Master. His first large
painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun in 1481), which
was left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery
of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to
his youth are the Benois Madonna (1478), the portrait
Ginevra de' Benci (1474), and the unfinished Saint Jerome

Leonardo expanded his skills to other branches of interest
and in 1481 Leonardo wrote an astonishing letter to the
Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In this letter he stated
that he knew how to build portable bridges; that he knew
the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making
cannons; that he could build ships as well as armored
vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he
could execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay. 

Thus, he entered the service of the Duke in 1482, working
on Ludovico's castle, organizing festivals, and he became
recognized as an expert in military engineering and arms.
Under the Duke, Leonardo served many positions. He served
as principal engineer in the Duke's numerous military
enterprises and was active as an architect (Encarta). As a
military engineer Leonardo designed artillery and planned
the diversion of rivers. He also improved many inventions
that were already in use such as the rope ladder. Leonardo
also drew pictures of an armored tank hundreds of years
ahead of its time. His concept failed because the tank was
too heavy to be mobile and the hand cranks he designed were
not strong enough to support such a vehicle. 

As a civil engineer, he designed revolving stages for
pageants. As a sculptor he planned a huge monument of the
Duke's father mounted up on a leaping horse. The Horse, as
it was known, was the culmination of 16 years of work.
Leonardo was fascinated by horses and drew them constantly.
In The Horse, Leonardo experimented with the horses'
forelegs and measurements. 

The severe plagues in 1484 and 1485 drew his attention to
town planning, and his drawings and plans for domed
churches reflect his concern with architectural problems
(Bookshelf). In addition he also assisted the Italian
mathematician Luca Pacioli in the work Divina Proportione

While in Milan Leonardo kept up his own work and studies
with the possible help of apprentices and pupils, for whom
he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as
Treatise on Painting (1651). The most important painting of
those created in the early Milan age was The Virgin of the
Rocks. Leonardo worked on this piece for an extended period
of time, seemingly unwilling to finish what he had begun
(Encarta). It is his earliest major painting that survives
in complete form. From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on his
masterpiece, The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of
the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. 

While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo rejected the
fresco technique normally used for wall paintings. An
artist that uses this fresco method must work quickly.
Leonardo wanted to work slowly, revising his work, and use
shadows-which would have been impossible in using fresco
painting. He invented a new technique that involved coating
the wall with a compound that he had created. This
compound, which was supposed to protect the paint and hold
it in place did not work, and soon after its completion the
paint began to flake away. For this reason The Last Supper
still exists, but in poor condition (Gilbert 46). Leonardo
had at many times merged his inventive and creative
capabilities to enhance life and improve his works.
Although his experiments with plastering and painting
failed, they showed his dissatisfaction with an accepted
means and his creativity and courage to experiment with a
new and untried idea. Experimentation with traditional
techniques is evident in his drawings as well. 

During Leonardo's 18 year stay in Milan he also produced
other paintings and drawings, but most have been lost. He
created stage designs for theater, architectural drawings,
and models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. Leonardo also
began to produce scientific drawings, especially of the
human body. He studied anatomy by dissecting human corpses
and the bodies of animals. Leonardo's drawings did not only
clarify the appearance of bones, tendons, and other body
parts but their function in addition. These drawings are
considered to be the first accurate representations of
human anatomy. Leonardo is also credited with the first use
of the cross section, a popular technique for diagramming
the human body. Leonardo wrote, "The painter who has
acquired a knowledge of the nature of the sinews, muscles,
and tendons will know exactly in the movement of any limb
how many and which of the sinews are the cause of it, and
which muscle by its swelling is the cause of this sinew's
contracting" (Wallace 131). 

In December, 1499, the Sforza family was driven out of
Milan by French forces and Leonardo was forced to leave
Milan and his unfinished statue of Ludovico Sforza's
father, which was destroyed by French archers that used it
for target practice. Leonardo then returned to Florence in
1500 (Bookshelf).
When Leonardo returned to Florence the citizens welcomed
him with open arms because of the fame he acquired while in
Milan. The work he did there strongly influenced other
artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo. The
work he was to produce would influence other masters such
as Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1502 Leonardo entered the
service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Romagna and son and Chief
General of Pope Alexander VI. For this post he supervised
work on the fortress of the papal territories in central
Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists
to decide on the proper location for the David by
Michelangelo (Encarta). 

Towards the end of the year Leonardo began to design a
decoration for the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Leonardo chose the Battle of Anghiari as the subject of the
mural, a victory for Florence in a war against Pisa. He
made many drawings and sketches of a cavalry battle, with
tense soldiers, leaping horses and clouds of dust. In
painting The Battle of Anghiari Leonardo again rejected
fresco and tried an experimental technique called
encaustic. Once again the experiment was unsuccessful.
Leonardo went on a trip and left the painting unfinished.
When he returned he found that the paint had run and he
never finished the painting. The paintings general
appearance is known from Leonardo's sketches and other
artists' copies of it (Creighton 45). 

During the period of time that Leonardo spent painting the
Palazzo Vecchio he also painted several other works,
including the most famous portrait ever, the Mona Lisa. The
Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, (after the presumed
name of the model's husband) became famous because of the
unique expression on Lisa del Gioconda's face. She appears
to have just started to or finished smiling. This painting
was one of Leonardo's favorites and he carried it with him
on all of his subsequent travels (Clark 133). 

In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan to finished up some of
his projects that he had to abandon during his hasty
departure. He stayed there until 1516 when he moved to
Cloux, France, where he stayed with his pupil Melzi. While
in Milan he was named Court Painter to King Louis XII of
France, who was then residing in Milan. For the next six
years he traveled from Milan to Florence repeatedly to look
after his inheritance. In 1514 he traveled to Rome under
the patronage of Pope Leo X. During this time Leonardo's
energy was focused mainly on his scientific experiments. He
then moved to France to serve King Francis I. It is here in
Chateau de Cloux that he died on May 2,1519 (Wallace 127).
Leonardo constantly reworked his drawings, studies and
mechanical theories. His observations of the motion of
water are amazingly accurate. In Leonardo's Studies of
Water Formation, the flow patterns observed are swirling
around , then below as it forms a pool. Using modern slow
motion cameras' scientists now study the same effects that
Leonardo wrote about and observed with his naked eye

Another study of water and wind is his Apocalyptic Visions.
This is a collected study of hurricanes and storms. In
these highly detailed drawings the pen lines so carefully
marked explode into action similar to the storms
themselves. Leonardo's mathematical drawings are also
highly skilled. In a math formula Leonardo proved the
theory of perpetual motion false but it still intrigued
him. Among his vast notes were small ideas for a perpetual
motion machine. His ideas for completing this task involved
an unbalanced wheel that would revolve forever, conserving
its energy. However these machines were never constructed.
Another mathematical drawing was the Polyhedron. This three
dimensional figure represented proportions to him "not only
in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights,
positions and in whatsoever power there may be" (Wallace
The notebooks of Leonardo contain sketches and plans for
inventions that came into existence almost five-hundred
years after the Renaissance. Leonardo practiced a technique
of writing backwards. It has been postulated that he did
this, being left-handed, so that he wouldn't smear the ink
by his left hand running across newly-written words.
Moreover, the individual words are spelled backwards. In
order to read the Notebooks one must hold the pages up to a
mirror and it is believed by some that Leonardo did this to
keep his writing and theories secret. In any event,
contained in the Notebooks are plans and drawings for what
we recognize today as the first working propeller, a
submarine, a helicopter, a tank, parachutes, the cannon,
perpetual motion machines, and the rope ladder. There are
perfectly executed drawings of the human body, from the
proportions of the full figure to dissections in the most
minute detail. It was observed, however, that Leonardo's
interest in the human body and his ability to invent
mechanical things were actually not as paramount to him as
was his fascination and awe of the natural world (Clark

Leonardo lived to be 67 years old. He is not known to have
ever married or had children. In fact, it was said of him
that he only saw women as "reproductive mechanisms" (Clark
If there is one quality that characterizes the life of
Leonardo da Vinci it would be his curiosity for life and
the world around him. Curiosity is the force that motivated
him to observe, dissect and document every particle of
matter that warranted his attention. From babies in the
womb to seashells on the beach, nothing escaped his
relentless intellect. The mind of Leonardo transcends the
period of the Renaissance and every epoch thereafter. It is
universally acknowledged that his imagination, his powers
of reason, and his sheer energy surpass that of any person
in history. The study of Leonardo is limited only by the
inadequacy of the student. 


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