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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 (1481). 

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 


 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 (1509). 

 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 


 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 59).

 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 133). 

 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 134).

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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