Leonardo da Vinci - A Biography of the Renaissance Man

By: Bianca Tavares

Leonardo Da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy. It is uncertain that Vinci, just west of Florence, was the actual birthplace and it is often debated that perhaps he was born in a farmhouse in Anchiano. Nevertheless, Vinci claims the prestigious title of the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo did not author an autobiography; therefore, what little is know of his early life has been gathered from tax records and other documents of the period. What is known is that he was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci and a woman who is only known by her first name, Catrina. It is speculated that she was possible a slave from the Middle East or perhaps just a lowly servant that worked in the household.

His father, a notary of some stature, did not raise him. It is known that Leonardo (christened Lionardo) lived with his. Later on he went to live with his father or his father's younger brother, Francesco. What became of his mother is unknown.

Because of the circumstances of his birth, Leonardo’s early training was probably conducted by his step-mother, Donna Albiera, although he was mainly self-tought. Later on in life his illegitimacy would also influence his prospects for obtaining a higher education and the means to earn a living. When his father noted his artistic talent, he was sent to Florence as apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio at around the age of 16 or 17.

Under Verrocchio, Leonardo studied painting and sculpture. He probably learned geometry during his apprenticeship and worked with other students and artists of the time such as Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselil and Lorenzo di Credi. It was during this time that he was assigned his first task of painting the angel in Baptism of Christ (c.1472-75). After seeing Leonardo's angel it is said that Verrocchio swore "never to pick up a paintbrush again".

During his first Florentine period (1478-1483) Leonardo received some of his first commissions. He became known for his artistic talents with his work on Madonna and Child (c. 1478), Small Annunciation (1480-1481), and Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481-82).

Leonardo was revered by friends and colleagues as being handsome and charismatic. He was kind and generous and probably one of the world's first animal rights activists. He was also a practicing vegetarian (almost unknown in the fifteenth century.) However, he was not so well liked that he was immune to gossip and in 1476 he was arrested on the charge of sodomy. After about two months of incarceration he was released due to a lack of evidence. The question of his sexuality still remains a mystery.

After his release in 1478, Leonardo left Florence for the first time and traveled to Milan. There he joined a new patron, Ludovico Sforza. Initially he was to have been a military engineer, but instead became the court artist. He designed several machines such as catapults and armored cars but none were ever built. During this time he also painted one of his most famous frescos, The Last Supper - not actually a fresco in the true sense of the word but still paramount in establishing him as a portraitist and artist.

In 1499, Leonardo returned to Florence where he accepted a commission for an altar painting for the friars of the Order of the Servites at Santissima Annunziata. It was for this painting that Leonardo created one of his unfinished masterpieces, The Burlington House Cartoon (c.1499-1500). He also started two of his most famous works, The Battle of Anghiari, and The Mona Lisa (1503). The Battle of Anghiari was never finished and The Mona Lisa was never delivered to the client, Francesco del Giocondo.

In 1506 he headed back to Milan, remaining there for six years to continue his anatomy studies. Then in 1511, he moved to Rome where he continued his experiments with flight and optical puzzles as well as botany and the scientific mixing of oil paints and varnishes.

In 1516 Leonardo joined the King of France, Francois I, in the Loire Valley. The aging artist was ill and suffering from a stroke. Unable to paint, he undertook several projects including a walking mechanical lion. Instead of a heart, the lion's chest opened to reveal a fleur-de-lis. He also designed a palace at Romorantin, reorganized his notebooks, and several other smaller projects.

On May 2, 1519, Leonardo died and was buried in Saint-Forentine in Amboise. But even in death, his travels were not over. During the Wars of Religion Leonardo's remains were moved several times. Eventually he was buried in the Chapel of St. Hubert in the castle of Amboise.

Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, musician, philosopher, engineer, botanist, anatanomist, mathematician and a humanitarian. He did not believe in life after death and he did not agree with the teachings of the church. He was generous but suspicious. He questioned everything around him and excelled at everything he undertook. He spent 30 years keeping meticulous records and journals documenting his experiments and designs. Vassari observes with reference to Leonardo's writings, "he wrote backwards in rude characters, and with the left hand, so that anyone who is not practiced in reading them, cannot understand them”. He did not number the five thousand pages he documented but ensured that each observation or experiment documented be completed on one page. Leonardo took great pains to finish his notebooks. Yet, in contrast to his scientific studies, this artist who epitomizes the Renaissance left much of his artistic endeavors unfinished.

Much of Leonardo's life is a mystery in spite of his writings. Little is known of the man inside the body because he did not reveal much to the world. His accomplishments throughout his 67 years on earth did much to revolutionize the artistic community and, had his machines been built, would have revolutionized society centuries in advance. Leonardo was truly a man before his time.

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To learn more about Leonardo da Vinci and find Bianca Tavares’ other biographical writing at Renaissance Art.

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