Leonardo da Vinci

Italia • 1452−1519
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452, Vinci, Italy, to May 2, 1519, Amboise, France) was an Italian artist (painter, sculptor and architect), scientist (anatomist, mathematician, physicist and naturalist), engineer and inventor, considered by many to be the ultimate example of the “Renaissance man” (Latin: homo universalis). He is credited with many inventions, most of which, like flying machines and tanks, were technologically impossible to build in his lifetime. Surrounded by legends, Leonardo was there at the very beginning of the High Renaissance era.

Attributes of His Works: One of the most recognizable features of Leonardo’s paintings is his use of soft lines, blurred using the technique of sfumato (blurred, smoky), which he perfected, allowing him to make delicate transitions and shading and elusive lines and creating an aura of airiness. His works were surprisingly anatomically accurate, thanks to his vigorous studies of human anatomy, and he was masterful at capturing the movement and expression of his subjects. He had a very scientific eye for art and his use of depth and background was revolutionary for its time.

Famous Works: Portrait of Ginevra de ' Benci, The Lady with an Ermine, The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, The Virgin of the Rocks, Vitruvian Man.
The Early Life of the Artist Leonardo was born April 15, 1452, in Anchiano, a hamlet not far from Vinci. His father was Piero da Vinci, a notary from a prominent Vinci family, and his mother Caterina was, according to different accounts, either a peasant or an innkeeper. Around the age of four and a half, Leonardo was taken to his father’s house, and, according to documents of that time, recorded as “the illegitimate son of Piero.” In 1469 he entered the workshop of the famous painter, sculptor and goldsmith Andrea del Verrocchio (1435(36)−1488). Here Leonardo completed his entire apprenticeship: from grinding paint to working as a journeyman. According to his contemporaries, he painted the left angel in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (C. 1476, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), which immediately drew attention to him. The natural motion with smooth lines, softness of light and shade stick out against Verrocchio’s more rigidly painted angel. Leonardo lived in the master’s house even after he was admitted to the Guild of St. Luke in 1472.

The first painting thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci (though its authorship is disputed by many experts, and is most likely a collaboration with Verrocchio) is the Annunciation (1472, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Unfortunately, an unknown artist made a “correction” later, lengthening the angel Gabriel’s wings, which significantly worsened the quality of the work. Portrait of Ginevra de ' Benci (1473−1474, National Gallery of Art, Washington) is a melancholy and enigmatic painting. It is cropped at the bottom, and Ginevra’s arms and hands may have been previously included. Her contours are softened thanks to Leonardo’s use of sfumato.
Mature Work In 1482, Leonardo went to Milan, where he served in the court of Ludovico Sforza for 16 years. It is there that he painted The Lady with an Ermine (1484, Czartoryski Museum, Krakow), one of his first works as court portraitist. The painting depicts Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of Ludovico, holding an ermine, the emblem of the Sforza family. The sophisticated turn of her head, bending of her hand, and the intelligent gaze of the animal are all hallmarks of Leonardo da Vinci. The background was painted over by another artist.

Another work he was commissioned to do in this period was The Virgin of the Rocks (1483−1484, the Louvre, Paris). The image of the Madonna, baby Jesus, John the Baptist as a child, and an angel in the landscape was a new motif in Italian paintings of the time. From the entrance of the cliff, a landscape with sublimely perfect features is visible, showing well-developed linear and aerial perspective. Although the cave is dimly lit, the picture is not dark; faces and figures softly appear in the shadows. The subtle chiaroscuro (sfumato) creates the impression of a dim ambient light, showing off the face and hands. Leonardo connects shapes not only using a shared atmosphere, but also with unity of space. A slightly different version of this painting, thought to be painted slightly later, hangs in the National Gallery in London.

In 1495 and 1496, Leonardo painted the last supper (4.5 × 8.6 m). The mural is located on the wall of the refectory of the Dominican convent Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan three meters above the floor and takes up the entire front wall of the room. Thirteen people are gathered around a table, with Jesus Christ in the center, surrounded by his disciples. The dramatic moment when Christ uttered the words “. . . one of you will betray Me” is illustrated, as well as the different reactions of the apostles to these words.

By the early 1500s he was back in Florence and working on the portrait that would go down in history as being a masterpiece of the Renaissance: Mona Lisa (1503−1506, the Louvre, Paris). The third wife of Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo Giocondo, she was fated to be immortalized in Leonardo’s most celebrated painting. The picture has been slightly altered: the original had columns to the left and right which have been cut off. She is shown in a landscape where the depth of field and atmospheric fog are illustrated with the greatest perfection. The sfumato technique made famous by Leonardo is brought to unprecedented peaks: the finest, melting, haze of light shrouding the figure softens the outlines and shadows. There is something elusive, fascinating, and alluring in her cryptic smile, the liveliness of her expression, and the majestic calm stillness of the flowing lines of her hands.

In 1506 Leonardo went back to Milan, where he worked and studied in many different scientific fields, all while painting and sculpting and taking on pupils. It was in this period that he painted The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503, The Louvre, Paris).
Inventions and Innovations Long before the first helicopter was built, Leonardo da Vinci had imagined and designed a screw-shaped flying machine that used the same principles to get it off the ground. He also had the idea for a “tent made of linen” that would allow one to fall “from any great height without suffering any injury.” Although its triangular shape and wooden frame made it far different from the modern parachute, it was successfully tried in 2000 by British skydiver Adrian Nicholas and proven to work.

Inspired by the flight of birds and bats, Leonardo da Vinci invented an ornithopter that would be flown by a pilot working a system of pulleys, pedals, and levers, but which, unfortunately, would be too heavy for even the strongest human to take to the air.

Leonardo also designed many military innovations, such as an early version of the machine gun, an armored tanklike vehicle, a giant crossbow to fire bombs or rocks, a portable bridge to get soldiers easily across a river, and scuba gear for naval sneak attacks.
Death Leonardo da Vinci died at the age of 67 on May 2, 1519, at Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, France, some say in the company of his friend King Francis I.

He is remembered to this day as one of the most talented and important people in history, and crowds still flock to see his artworks and take inspiration from his inventions and life story.

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