Leonardo da Vinci Overview
born: 1452 A.C.
died: 1519 A.C.
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the world's most celebrated generalists, equally fluent in science and art, and a supreme innovator in both. Leonardo's scholarship and his contributions to painting, science, and engineering have raised him to such heights of glory... [more]
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the world's most celebrated generalists, equally fluent in science and art, and a supreme innovator in both. Leonardo's scholarship and his contributions to painting, science, and engineering have raised him to such heights of glory among the cultural heroes of Western civilization that his accomplishments are nearly yawned at in their magnificence. Leonardo was a working-class prodigy, beginning life as the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl in Vinci, Italy. When his talents quickly outgrew his simple home, the teenager traveled to the nearby city of Florence to apprentice himself to Andrea del Verrochio. He quickly ingested his lessons, soon surpassing his mentor in both skill and imagination. Already well-known at 21, Leonardo found his first patron in the Duke of Milan, for whom he produced paintings and sculptures, planned elaborate festivals, and designed myriad weapons of war -- including missiles, grenades, machine guns, and tanks. Intellectually Leonardo rejected his war-toy assignments; he considered war a "beastly madness" and himself a peaceful man. (He even bought caged birds from the marketplace to set them free.) Despite his fame, however, Leonardo was a working artist in need of pay. During his years in Milan, Leonardo produced a total of six paintings, among them "The Last Supper." Apparently he spent more time in study than in production. Relying on natural observation as a preparation for painting, he took educational walks to consider flora and fauna. He also began an in-depth study of human anatomy, spending long hours dissecting cadavers under stark fifteenth-century conditions -- according to the master himself, he "lived through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold." Leonardo also investigated the mechanics of movement and began a system of categorizing the expression of emotions. All of his research was carefully documented in four illustrated notebooks under the titles "Painting," "Architecture," "Elements of Mechanics," and "Human Anatomy." What we know today as the fields of zoology, botany, geology, optics, aerodynamics, and hydrodynamics all had their germ in the output of this formidable intellect. Leonardo eventually returned to Florence where he painted "La Gioconda," also called "Mona Lisa." When it was originally shown, this painting caused a stir. It represented a new breed of "realistic" art. Leonardo had figured a way out of the cartoon-like, flat characters created by his contemporaries: he employed chiaroscuro, a technique he developed, which gently distributes light and shadow to portray depth, emotion, and movement. The painting is forever embedded in history, as well, as Western art's most mysterious portrait: the Mona Lisa's smile is an eternal conundrum evoking both a sweet benignity and a certain, secret smirkiness, neither of which can be separated from the other. The "Mona Lisa" is alleged to have been Leonardo's favorite painting, with which he parted only when financial obligations forced him. Over the centuries it has been stolen and recovered, parodied by Modern artists, and slapped onto billboards and picnic-ware: it has become one of the most over-used images the world over. Perhaps the fate of this phenomenal painting best illustrates posterity's simultaneous awe of and near boredom with Leonardo's spectacular achievements. Such an exemplary human surely deserved the noble death he is rumored to have had: the officially titled "Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King," died with his head cradled in the lap of his close friend and final patron, King Francoise I of France. [show less]