In an age of exploration, Leonardo was the boldest explorer of all. As Cooper writes, while his fellow countryman Christopher Columbus was discovering America, Leonardo in a sense was discovering the world (3). Leonardo had one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. His inventions were ahead of his time. His art set the standard for later Renaissance artists. Most impressive is his variety of talents and achievements. He mastered all his subjects of study. He is the symbol of the Renaissance spirit.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, near Florence. This is why Leonardos name was Leonardo Da Vinci. This simply means, Leonardo from Vinci. Leonardos father, Piero, was a respected legal specialist and notary, and his mother, Caterina, was a peasant woman. Because their relationship was an affair, they lived apart. (MacLeish 296). In the village of Vinci, it is easy to see how Leonardo could have become so interested in nature. On the rolling hills of Vinci Leonardo would study all that his eyes could see. He was interested in everything.
These early interests stayed with him until the latter part of his life. He would run along the rolling hills studying every plant. This is considered his first recorded observations, because not only did he study them; he also drew them. It is said that Leonardo took several small dead animals to his study and drew them with such intensity, ignoring the smell. (Mathe 8). At first, Leonardo lived with his mother. He later moved to live with his father to acquire a modest education. This moving from place to place started very young, and continued throughout his life.
Around 1469 Leonardos father took Leonardo to Florence, where he was educated by Lorenzo De Medici, who had established an aristocracy to literate intellectuals where all acts of art were honored (MacLeish 300). Here Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea Del Verrochio, one of the most famous artists in Florence. In this apprenticeship, he would get the chance to improve upon his art. While in Florence, Leonardo met with geniuses of his own time. This brought his art to maturity (MacLeish 300). Leonardos first major work was with Verrochio on the Baptism of Christ in 1472.
While in the studio, Leonardo proved better than the other students, and proved himself a better painter than his master. Verrochio noticed that Leonardo was easily bored, and never finished any of his assignments (MacLeish 310). This problem stayed with Leonardo for the rest of his life. It became a signature of his works (MacLeish 310). In 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo was accepted into the guild of painters, allowing him to seek independent commissions. After four years, in 1476, Leonardo opened his own studio in Florence. It wasnt as successful as he had hoped.
He was not in official favor because he kept out of politics, also because he was charged with being a homosexual, and was ignored by Medicis. (MacLeish 311). Because of his problems with the Medicis, he went out to seek protection from others. While in Florence he made sketches in 1478, which helped create his famous Adoration of the Magi for which he received a commission in 1481 (MacLeish 311). Although he left his signature on the piece, he never finished it. Leonardo left Florence in 1482 at the age of thirty. He stayed away for eighteen years.
In 1482, Leonardo went to Milan with the powerful Duke Ludovico Sforza. He stayed under the wing of the powerful duke for twenty years, during which time he achieved the fame and success for which he is remembered today (Mathe 10). Having been given the title of Military Engineer by Sforza, he worked on everything. To feed his thirst for knowledge he turned to mathematics, geometry, optics, astronomy, and painting. In 1485, he started his notebooks. Leonardo was always jotting ideas on scraps of paper, inspired by what he saw, what he knew, and by what he dreamed.
He was known to follow a person all day, looking and observing them from every angle. Then he would go home and draw a perfect likeness of them (MacLeish 301). When words failed, Leonardo drew. Alone in the day, he would analyze the working parts of machines and reconstruct them in new ways to increase their effectiveness. He understood the law of friction, how to use ball bearings, and transmissions (MacLeish 301). His notes were voluminous, cryptic compilations of material on anything of interest that gave way to another (Summers 202).
One of the famous things about his notebooks was the way he wrote in them. He wrote left handed, from right to left. This is writing backwards. More amazingly, he wrote fluently in mirror writing. This means his writings could have only be read using a mirror. Many say he wrote this way out of pure genius to hide his thoughts from the common reader or the Catholic Church (Mathe 11). But others say his writing could have hardly have kept the contents of his text secret, for the notebooks were very illustrated.
Maybe Leonardo did do this out of pure genius but some say this could have been a learning disability (Boorstin 1). In his notes, Leonardo used drawings both as a tool of scientific investigation and as an expression of artistic imagination. He changed the art of drawing. His drawings were amazingly detailed and exact (Summers 200). His drawings and ideas were ahead of his time. His body was in the fifteenth century while his minds ideas were in the twentieth century (Summers 200). He drew plans for aircraft, helicopters, and parachutes.
He made designs for tanks, machine guns, and movable bridges. In his notebooks, he drew accurate pictures of the human anatomy. He drew bones, muscles, and the other parts from corpses. He made the first accurate portraits of the human anatomy (Summers 202A). From his notebooks, Leonardo planned to write books on many subjects like painting, human movement, and the flight of birds. But in these cases, Leonardo left his signature mark of never completing anything. He published none of his notes (Summers 202A). You could say Leonardos notebooks were some of his greatest unrecognized achievements.
In 1490, Leonardo became involved with a ten-year-old boy who Leonardo called Salai, little devil. Salai was a thief from the start stealing things from both Leonardo and his company. Salai would take what he had stolen and trade it for sweets. Leonardo stayed with Salai for twenty-five years, though he had no apparent reason to. Thats why it is believed that Salai was Leonardos lover. It became known that Leonardo was a homosexual, for he modeled his lifestyle after the Greeks where older men had relations with boys (Mannering 40).
While in Milan, Leonardo worked on his famous Last Supper. It is said that Leonardo would work on the painting non-stop for up to a day, while some days the brush wouldnt touch the painting. The Last Supper was doomed from the start due to Leonardos mixture of paint. The paint would have worked perfectly on canvas, but not on a wall due to the clay base and varnish mixed with oil to make the colors rich. It soon began to flake and run (Mannering 40). Leonardo was interested in optics. Optics is the study of shadows and how things appear.
For example, how there is a vanishing point, and shadows. His style was very different from other Renaissance artists of his time because of his understanding of optics. Thats why his paintings were so great. Leonardo once wrote, The first object of the painter is to make a flat plane appear as a body in relief and projecting from the plane. Then in 1499, the French invaded Milan and forced Leonardo to go back to Florence. He was welcomed back warmly due to his well-known Last Supper. While in Milan in 1503, Leonardo painted the portrait of a Renaissance woman.
Many are suspicious of who she was. Some say the portrait is of a normal woman, while others believe that it was Leonardo drawing himself through a mirror as a woman (Summers 200). Either way the Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait ever painted. The Mona Lisa is so popular because its smile is so mysterious, because it is in the process of either appearing or disappearing. Yes, the Mona Lisa was also left unfinished by Leonardo (MacLeish 321), Leonardos paintings were all very unique and different in the Renaissance. His style was unpopular then, but later became the standard.
His works were interesting because they were of motion, unlike other Renaissance painters (Gilbert 441). Diffuse shadows and subtle hues that marked the beginning of the High Renaissance characterized his work. What made his paintings so new was his understanding of perspective of clarity and perspective of color (Gilbert 438). In 1504, Leonardo worked with Michelangelo in Milan. Michelangelo was a younger and rising star in painting. They hated each other (MacLeish 321). They were both assigned to decorate the walls of the new Florence City Hall.
But Leonardos paint creation was a disaster and in 1506 he left his work never to be finished (Summers 200). From 1506 to 1512, Leonardo was under the protection of Louis XII of France. Here in France he pondered the universe and worked on his notes and on his inventions. Then like many painters of his time, he moved to Rome. He lived there from 1513 to 1516 with the Pope Leo X. While in the church he drew The Deluge. This is Leonardos drawing of the world ending. While there, a fleeting but savage physical attack left one of Leonardos hands partially paralyzed (Mathe 12).
After his attack Leonardo left for Choux, France in 1516 with his companion Salai and trusted friend Melzi. There in Choux he was the first painter, engineer, and architect of the king. While there he was devoted to anatomical drawings, drafting, architectural plans, and designing sets for court entertainment. Leonardo knew he was dying, his greatest works crumbling, his knowledge undiscovered. He grieved for what he might have been. Leonardo died on May 2, 1519. Leonardo was the symbol of the Renaissance spirit although his life was filled with accomplishments that were never fully realized.
His life remains immortal due to the large volume of works that he left behind. Leonardo was dedicated to the discovery of truth and the mysteries of nature. His insightful contributions to science and technology were and are legendary. As the archetypal Renaissance Man, Leonardo helped set an ignorant and superstitious world on a course of reason, science, learning, and tolerance (Berkeley 1). To label Leonardo an excellent painter is like calling Shakespeare a clever wordsmith. He was a true genius, recognized in his time, and idolized in ours.