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Leonardo da Vinci

Updated on August 21, 2009

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist and scientist. Born Vinci, Italy, April 15, 1452.

One of the outstanding figures in Western cultural history, Leonardo excelled as a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, inventor, engineer, and mathematician. By inquiring into the nature of all things and by taking all human knowledge as his province, he embodied the Renaissance spirit of intellectual curiosity and vitality. He filled his notebooks with analytic sketches and descriptions of things in motion, human anatomy, facial types, the structure of plants, the physical laws of waves and winds, and the principles of color, light, perspective, and proportion. His studies were equally valuable to him as scientific knowledge and as the basis for art.

Leonardo's interests covered so wide a range that he completed only a few major projects. Among them, however, are half a dozen of the world's greatest paintings, including the portrait Mona Lisa (Louvre Museum, Paris), the altarpiece Madonna of the Rocks (one version at the Louvre, the other at the National Gallery, London), and the fresco The Last Supper (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). He also produced hundreds of drawings that are unsurpassed in draftsmanship.

As a scientist, Leonardo is famous for anticipating important ideas about the circulation of the blood and the specialized functions of the brain. He also anticipated several modern inventions, including the airplane, tank, submarine, and cannon.

Early Life and Works

As a youth, Leonardo was apprenticed to the famous painter, sculptor, and goldsmith Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He quickly showed his interest in the natural and physical sciences by including scientific diagrams and notes on-the same sheets with his drawings. The most important of his early works of art are Landscape Drawing, which is a study of the Arno river valley with typically accurate geological details, and the figure of an angel in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (both in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence). His*first great work, although unfinished, is The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), which he painted between 1480 and 1482 for a monastery near Florence.

In about 1482, Leonardo sent a letter of self-recommendation to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, describing the many interests and accomplishments that could make his service valuable. Lorenzo de' Medici also sent Leonardo to the court of Milan at this time. Ludovico eagerly received Leonardo, and for almost 20 years he employed him to arrange court pageants, construct fortifications and war engines, paint portraits of members of the court, and design parts of the Cathedral of Milan.

Leonardo's works of this period include a huge clay model in preparation for an equestrian statue of the duke's father, Francesco Sforza, and two of his most famous paintings, the Madonna of the Rocks and The Last Supper. Unfortunately his desire to experiment led Leonardo to paint The Last Supper according to a new technique, and the fresco was already in a state of decay in his lifetime. Although badly deteriorated, the fresco still epitomizes the symmetry, proportion, and psychological realism of the High Renaissance style. On the wall facing The Last Supper, Leonardo included portraits of the duke ard his family as part of Montorfano's Crucifixion.

Later Years

When Ludovico fell from power in 1499, Leonardo traveled to Venice, where he worked briefly as a military engineer. He then settled in Florence. In 1502 and 1503 he served as military architect and engineer in central Italy for the famous Cesare Borgia. When Leonardo returned to Florence, he was given the greatest commission of his career, a monumental battle scene that was to cover an entire wall of the council chamber in the Palazzo della Signoria. Although the Battle of Anghiari was incomplete and was eventually destroyed, a copy in the Uffizi Gallery and companion sketches by Leonardo suggest its magnificent scheme of fighting horsemen.

Leonardo's major work of this period is the famous portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known throughout the world as the Mona Lisa. The relaxed pose and the psychological subtlety of the face make the work a landmark in the history of portrait painting. While in Florence, Leonardo also began the beautiful St. Anne With the Virgin and Child (Louvre). At the same time he worked on mathematical problems and dissected cadavers, becoming the outstanding anatomist of his time.

In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan, where he completed a treatise on the flight of birds, began an equestrian statue of Marshal Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, and continued his studies in geology and botany. In 1513 he went to Rome, where he worked under the patronage of Giuliano de' Medici. However, he seems to have had little desire to compete with Michelangelo and Raphael, who were also in Rome, and in 1517 he happily accepted the invitation of Ring Francis I of France to come to the French court at Cloux. He painted little in France, concentrating on further research in science and mechanics.

Many of Leonardo's drawings and scientific notes date from this final period. One of his most ingenious designs was that of a double twisting staircase, in the Chateau de Chambord, on which people going up or down can never be seen by one another. Leonardo was also interested in town planning, and he devised many architectural schemes for the ideal city. His reputation in France was great. According to the biographer Giorgio Vasari, King Francis himself held Leonardo in his arms as he died.

Achievement as an Artist

Approximately 12 paintings still in existence have been attributed to Leonardo. Of these most are unfinished, several were worked on by assistants, and others have needed extensive restoration. Nevertheless, despite his meager output, Leonardo is ranked with Michelangelo and Raphael as one of the three masters of the High Renaissance. Combining the scientific mastery of Masaccio and the lyrical inspiration of Botticelli, Leonardo idealized his figures, but he also gave them psychological reality. Although the atmosphere of his works is poetic, their spatial arrangements are mathematically precise.

Leonardo's most impressive work is The Last Supper, generally considered the first masterpiece of the High Renaissance. It is a combination of perfect formal design and dramatic characterization. The figures are grouped in Leonardo's typical geometric arrangement, the pyramid. In this painting he gave a traditional theme new psychological depth, which he intensified by means of chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and shadow, and by perspective.

Leonardo not only perfected the use of chiaroscuro and perspective but also invented a new technique, known as sfumato. In this method, colors are lightened and darkened so that they shade into one another imperceptibly. A famous example of sfumato is the effect of veiled mistiness in the Mona Lisa. By sfumato, the figure in this painting is made mysterious, and the background, which is increasingly blurry as it recedes into the distance, produces a sense of infinite space. Leonardo first used this technique in the Madonna of the Rocks, in which the figures are softly highlighted in a deeply shadowed grotto. St. Anne With the Virgin and Child is another outstanding example of sfumato.

The Adoration of the Magi, although unfinished, almost ranks in importance with The Last Supper. Its powerfully simple, pyramidal design strongly influenced the composition of later Renaissance painters.

Several other paintings are usually attributed to Leonardo but are not ranked among his masterpieces. They include an incomplete and badly damaged St. Jerome (the Vatican, Rome), St. John the Baptist (Louvre), Madonna Benois and Madonna Litta (Hermitage, Leningrad), The Annunciation (Uffizi), and Lady With an Ermine (Krakow, Poland).

About 600 of Leonardo's drawings have survived, and most of them are at Windsor Castle in England. Done in various media, including chalk, pen-and-ink, metal point, and pastel, the drawings are sometimes considered his outstanding work and are certainly his finest achievements in draftsmanship. The subjects include human, animal, and plant life, coats of arms and emblematic designs, architectural, mechanical, and anatomical studies, and sketches of imaginary monsters. One of the best-known groups is a series of caricatures that depict old men and grotesque types, often appearing next to figures of ideal beauty and youth. Perhaps the most famous series is the Deluges, based on Leonardo's studies of moving water. The series depicts an imaginary storm and flood of Biblical proportions.


The notebooks of Leonardo are in many museums and libraries, notably the Institut de France in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, both in London. The notebooks contain many of his drawings, as well as thousands of pages of notes, diagrams, and treatises. The most famous of the treatises include The Nature of Water, Treatise on Anatomy, and Treatise on the Flight of Birds. Of special interest is the Treatise on Painting, which includes most of Leonardo's theories and discoveries about space, light, and color. Probably for purposes of secrecy he wrote the notebooks in an inverted script from right to left so that they can be read only if held to a mirror. The notebooks are perhaps the outstanding illustration in history of the ability of a single human mind to explore the entire range of art and science.


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