Today marks the 568th death anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He was a painter, architect, inventor, and student of all things scientific. His natural genius crossed so many disciplines that he is widely hailed as the “Renaissance man.”
Artist and Natural Genius
Da Vinca remains best known for his art, including two paintings that remain among the world’s most famous and admired – Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He believed art was indisputably connected with science and nature. He was largely self-educated and wrote dozens of secret notebooks with inventions, observations and theories from aeronautics to anatomy that were often difficult to interpret.
Although he was lauded in his time as a great artist, his genius was never understood, the combination of intellect and imagination that allowed him to create, at least on paper, such inventions as the bicycle, helicopter and an airplane based on the physiology and flying capability of a bat.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in Anchiano, Tuscany in present-day Italy, close to the town of Vinci that is associated with him today. He was known as Leonardo or as “Il Florentine,” since he lived near Florence and was famed as an artist, inventor and thinker.
Leonardo’s father, an attorney and notary, and his peasant mother were never married to one another and he was the only child they had together. His parents had a total of seventeen other children. At age 5, he lived on the estate in Vinci that belonged to the family of his father. Da Vinci’s uncle, who had a particular appreciation for nature that da Vinci grew to share, helped raise him.
Da Vinci received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing and math. At around age 15, his father sent him as an apprentice to the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence.
For about a decade, da Vinci refined his painting and sculpting techniques and trained in mechanical arts. In 1472, when he was about 20, he was offered membership of the painter’s guild, but he remained with Verrocchio until becoming an independent master in 1478. Around 1482, he began to paint his first commissioned work, The Adoration of the Magi, for a monastery in Florence.
Da Vinci never completed the painting as he relocated to Milan to work for the ruling Sforza clan, serving as an engineer, painter, architect, designer of court festivals and, most notably, a sculptor. Da Vinci was asked to create a magnificent 16-foot-tall bronze equestrian statue to honour the dynasty founder. He worked on the project for around 12 years, and a clay model was ready for display in 1493 but it was destroyed during a conflict in 1499.
‘The Last Supper’
A few of da Vinci’s paintings and sculptures survive today but two of his works are among the world’s most well-known and admired paintings. The first is “The Last Supper,” painted during his time in Milan, from 1495 to 1498. The painting is a tempera and oil mural on plaster created for the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Also known as “The Cenacle,” this work measures about 15 by 29 feet and is the artist’s only surviving fresco. It depicts the Passover dinner during which Jesus Christ addresses the Apostles and says, “One of you shall betray me.” One of the painting’s stellar features is each Apostle’s distinct expression and body language. Its composition has influenced generations of painters.
Da Vinci escaped Milan when the French invaded in 1499, possibly first to Venice and then to Florence. There, he painted a series of portraits that included “La Gioconda,” a 21-by-31-inch work best known today as “Mona Lisa.”
Painted between approximately 1503 and 1506, the woman depicted has been the subject of speculation for centuries especially because of her mysterious slight smile. She was often thought to be Mona Lisa Gherardini, a courtesan, but research suggests that she was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a Florentine merchant. The portrait is housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris where it attracts millions of visitors each year.
Da Vinci’s studied nature, mechanics, anatomy, physics, architecture, weaponry and more, often creating accurate, workable designs for machines like the bicycle, helicopter, submarine and military tank that would not come to fruition for centuries. He was, wrote Sigmund Freud, “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”
Da Vinci believed that sight was mankind’s most important sense and that “saper vedere” (knowing how to see) was crucial to living all aspects of life fully. He saw science and art as complementary rather than distinct disciplines and thought that ideas formulated in one realm should inform the other.
Da Vinci failed to complete a significant number of his paintings and projects. He spent a great deal of time immersing himself in nature, testing scientific laws, dissecting human and animal bodies, thinking and writing about his observations.
In the early 1490s, da Vinci began filling notebooks on four broad themes – painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy – creating thousands of pages of neatly drawn illustrations and commentary which was indecipherable to others due to his left-handed mirror-script handwriting.
The notebooks – often referred to as da Vinci’s manuscripts and “codices”- are housed today in museum collections after having been scattered after his death. The Codex Atlanticus includes a plan for a 65-foot mechanical bat, a flying machine based on the physiology of the bat and the principles of aeronautics and physics.
Other notebooks contained anatomical studies of the human skeleton, muscles, brain, and digestive and reproductive systems, which brought new understanding of the human body to a wider audience. These were not published in the 1500s and had little influence on scientific advancement during the Renaissance period.
Later Years and Death
Da Vinci left Italy in 1516, when French ruler Francis I offered him the title of “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King,” which afforded him the opportunity to paint and draw at his leisure while living in a country manor house, the Chateau of Cloux, near Amboise in France.
Da Vinci died at Cloux in 1519 at age 67. He was buried nearby in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was destroyed in the French Revolution and was completely demolished in the early 1800s, making it impossible to identify da Vinci’s exact gravesite.