The greatest Italian artist of his time, Leonardo da Vinci was a multifaceted individual whose works and contributions to science, geology, arts and architecture ushered in a period of technological advancement until his works have been discovered during the late 19th century. You may have known him as the painter of the Mona Lisa portrait and as the first person to design and have thought of the airplane, parachute, bicycle and helicopter, but you know little of his biography.
During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was primarily known for his art works more than for his scientific discoveries because he used science to learn how painting figures should be done perfectly. He studied anatomy and was successful in setting up a standard rule to painting his subjects and objects. In other words, his scientific experiments were articulated through art.
Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, was only 25 years old when he got Caterina impregnated. Ser Piero was a lawyer who had an illegitimate son with a peasant woman and the offspring that was Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, Italy. Vinci was a Tuscan town located near Florence so it had not been difficult for the young painter to come in and out of Florence anywhere between 1452 and 1466 to study the arts with his masters.
Although a child out of wedlock, Leonardo got to live in his father’s estate in 1457 together with his grandparents in Vinci. He was given the opportunity to study Latin, Mathematics and Geometry during his early childhood. These subjects helped him develop an inclination towards shapes and lines; hence, painting figures.
One time, a peasant asked Ser Piero to paint a shield but it was Leonardo that responded to the request by painting a fictitious figure in a moment of spitting fire. His father, feeling terrified by it, had sold the painting to an art dealer in Florence who would later give it to the Duke of Milan.
The painting with a monster figure must be that really thought-provoking to have Ser Piero be floored by it, in a negative way. But no a lighter note, this was one of the earliest demonstrations of Leonardo’s talent in painting.
In 1466, he went to Florence to work for Andre del Verrochio. Leonardo was only 14 at that time and so he painstakingly studied the works of his master and other paintings that might have passed through the workshop. Also, he was able to advance his skills and knowledge in arts and sciences by learning drafting, sculpture, metallurgy, chemistry, carpentry, among other technical skills that have been essential to perfecting his artistic skills.
From 1472 to 1475, Leonardo and Verrochio would have been painting The Baptism of Christ, which is now in Uffizi. This collaboration was so successful that when Verrochio saw how his student painted it perfectly, he wanted to retire from what he was doing and simply let Leonardo come out of his shadow.
In 1472, Leonardo became an independent master through his membership with the Guild of St. Luke, which was a famous association of medical doctors and artists at that time. This was also the period when Leonard would have painted the Arno Valley which was completed in 1473.
Post-Verrochio’s mentorship had been a flourishing stint for Leonardo da Vinci. In 1478, he found a new home in the Sforza family in Milan. He worked there as the family’s personal painter, engineer, sculptor and architect. But before he was hired by the Sforza family, he made sure to finish his painting of The Last Supper for the Monastery of Santa Marria delle Grazie, Milan.
However, da Vinci his career with the Sforza’s was cut short in 1499 when the French army took over the city in that same year. Thus, the family was forced to exit Milan, leaving him without an art patron. Before he left the Sforza’s, in the early 1480’s, he could have been traveling throughout Florence wherein he would have also worked for the Medici family. Over there he worked in Garden of the Piazza San Marco, a school owned by the said ruling family.
In Florence, he also painted the altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in Palazzo Vecchio and The Adoration of the Magi for San Donato a Scopeto. These could have been his first few commissioned works had he not decided to return to Milan in 1481. He was asked by Lorenzo de’ Medici to go to the said city to create a silver lyre in 1482. This lyre was not your ordinary one because it was in a head of a horse, and its purpose was as a gift for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, in Medici’s effort to execute peace between the two cities. This paved the way for Leonardo to be appreciated by the Sforza family and did some commissioned works for them.
In fact, Leonardo went to Hungary to see Matthias Corvinus, as requested by Ludovico. Corvinus hired da Vinci to paint a version of Holy Family. His career stint with the Sforza’s had been very successful and his designs had been put to use like for creating a dome for the Milan Cathedral, floats for special events, a design for an equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza and other bronze castings.
Among these works, one of the main highlights was the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza because it was bigger, and definitely better, than the Gattamelata by Donatello in Padua and the Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio in Venice. Hence, the statue was named Gran Cavallo, however it did not come to fruition because the bronze material that was meant for casting it was utilized to make cannons in order to defend Milan against the advancements of Charles VIII’s troops. Thereafter, the French invaded the city and the ruling family was sent into exile in 1499.
In 1502, Leonardo enlisted himself in the service of Cesare Borgia as his military engineer and architect. Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI so both had the luxury to travel around the country to design maps, urban plans and edifices. From 1503 to 1508, Leonard would have been back and forth to Milan and Florence to re-connect with his Guild and fix some issues with his brothers concerning of the estate of his father.
In 1513, he went to Rome and explored the works of his contemporaries, Raphael and Michelangelo. Both of them were active in doing works for the Vatican while Leonardo busied himself with working for Francis I of France. One of his groundbreaking works, a mechanical lion, was established during this period. This mechanical lion could move forward and could open its mid-section to show a bunch of lilies.
Although still working at old age, Leonardo was able to open a studio for his prospect students and took Count Francesco Melzi as one of his pupils. By this time, he would have been staying in Clos Luce, a manor of Francis I which is located near Chateau d’Ambiose. He stayed three years over there until he died in May 1519.
Around 1490’s, Leonardo executed The Last Supper, which he painted for Santa Maria della Grazie convent. This painting depicts Jesus and his disciples sharing the last meal, an unforgettable event in the life of Jesus Christ, thus this painting became timeless that appealed to the taste of Christians and Catholics over the centuries.
Beyond its theme, The Last Supper was considered to be a masterpiece because of its characterization and grand design. Leonardo utilized the fresco technique in painting this combined with tempera as his method. Therefore, the painting suffered from deterioration over time due to mold and peeling.
Come 1500’s, Leonardo already established his name in the industry and his reputation got even solidified with his execution of the La Gioconda, Mona Lisa or the laughing one in English language. Perhaps, Leonardo never would have thought of this small portrait to be the world’s famous painting of the modern-day era.
What made the Mona Lisa painting extremely famous is the mysterious air over the woman’s elusive smile. Elusive because you cannot exactly determine whether she’s smiling or not with the way Leonardo painted her; subtle shadow around the corners of the lips, also known as sfumato, and the eyes that seemed to imply that she’s known of your deep secret.
Another notable thing on the painting is why Leonardo kept the woman unadorned with jewelries? The landscape on the background effect drama yet its stillness suggests tranquility.
Although he used oil paints for this work, the blending and coloring resembles tempera painting thus the brushstrokes are quite difficult to distinguish. And for some reason, this painting has always been in good condition even before it was stored in Louvre Museum in Paris, France compared to The Last Supper that suffered from deterioration.
Overall, Leonardo da Vinci is undeniably one of the great masters of European arts. His masterpieces may be discovered of great significance only after his death, but this kept the arts and sciences from going on with a series of inventions and inspired works from innovators who have followed that Leonardo had started.