Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci
1452 - 1519

c. 1512
Red chalk on paper, 333 x 213 mm
Biblioteca Reale, Turin

Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His "Last Supper" (1495-97) and "Mona Lisa" (1503-06) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.

The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered and purified by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day is based on the equally unique universality of his spirit. Leonardo's universality is more than many-sidedness. True, at the time of the Renaissance and the period of humanism, many-sidedness was a highly esteemed quality; but it was by no means rare. Many other good artists possessed it. Leonardo's universality, on the other hand, was a spiritual force, peculiarly his own, that generated in him an unlimited desire for knowledge and guided his thinking and behaviour. An artist by disposition and endowment, he found that his eyes were his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man's highest sense organ because sight alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge. Saper vedere ("knowing how to see") became the great theme of his studies of man's works and nature's creations. His creativity reached out into every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. His superb intellect, his unusual powers of observation, and his mastery of the art of drawing led him to the study of nature itself, which he pursued with method and penetrating logic--and in which his art and his science were equally revealed.

The Baptism of Christ
Oil on wood
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Life and works

Early period: Florence

The illegitimate son of Ser Piero, a Florentine notary and landlord, Leonardo was born on his father's family estate. His mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married an artisan from that region. Not until his third and fourth marriages did Ser Piero's wives have children, the first one in 1476, when Leonardo was already an adult. Thus, Leonardo grew up in his father's house, where he was treated as a legitimate son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. As for Latin, the key language of traditional learning, Leonardo did not seriously study it until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. Not until he was 30 years old did he apply himself to higher mathematics--advanced geometry and arithmetic--which he studied with diligent tenacity; but here, too, he did not get much beyond the beginning stages.

Leonardo's artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio's renowned workshop Leonardo received a many-sided training that included not only painting and sculpture but the technical-mechanical arts as well. He also worked in the next-door workshop of Antonio Pollaiuolo, where he was probably first drawn to the study of anatomy. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted in the painters' guild of Florence but remained five years more in his teacher's workshop. Then he worked independently in Florence until 1481. In the few extant works of this early period one may clearly trace the development of the artist's remarkable talent. Keenness of observation and creative imagination stand out. His early mastery is revealed in an angel and a segment of landscape executed by him in Verrocchio's painting the "Baptism of Christ" (Uffizi, Florence) and in two Annunciations (Uffizi, as well as the Louvre, Paris), both of them done in Verrocchio's workshop, as were the "Madonna with the Carnation," the "Madonna Benois," and the "Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci." This mastery reached its peak in two paintings that remained unfinished: "St. Jerome" and a large panel painting of "The Adoration of the Magi." In addition to these few paintings there are a great many superb pen and pencil drawings, in which Leonardo's mastery blazed new trails for this graphic art. Among the drawings are many technical sketches--for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus--evidence of Leonardo's interest in and knowledge of technical matters at the outset of his career.

Tempera on wood, 98 x 217 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci
Oil on wood, 38,8 x 36,7 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Madonna with a Flower (Madonna Benois)
c. 1478
Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 50 x 32 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg


The Madonna of the Carnation
Oil on panel, 62 x 47,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich


St Jerome
c. 1480
Oil on panel, 103 x 75 cm
Pinacoteca, Vatican

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Unfolding of Leonardo's genius: first Milanese period (1482-99)

In 1482 Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan--a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the above-mentioned unfinished panel painting of "The Adoration of the Magi" for the monastery of S. Donato a Scopeto (1481) and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never fulfilled. That he gave up both projects despite the commitments he had undertaken--not even starting on the second named--seems to indicate deeper reasons for his leaving Florence. It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of his experience-oriented mind and that the more realistic academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, there was the fascination of Ludovico Sforza's brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan, until Ludovico's fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis ("painter and engineer of the duke"). Highly esteemed, Leonardo was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer.

In this phase of his life Leonardo's genius unfolded to the full, in all its versatility and creatively powerful artistic and scientific thought, achieving that quality of uniqueness that called forth the awe and astonished admiration of his contemporaries. At the same time, in the boundlessness of the goals he set himself, Leonardo's genius bore the mark of the unattainable so that, if one traces the outlines of his lifework as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose "unfinished symphony."


Oil on panel
Musйe du Louvre, Paris


Virgin of the Rocks
Oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm
Musйe du Louvre, Paris


Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine)
Oil on wood, 55 x 40 cm
Czartoryski Museum, Cracow