Leonardo da Vinci

from The New Book of Knowledge®


Perhaps no one in history achieved so much in so many different fields as did Leonardo da Vinci. An outstanding painter, sculptor, and architect, he also designed bridges, highways, weapons, costumes, and scientific instruments. He invented the diving bell and tank, and—though they could not be built with the materials of the time—flying machines. He made important discoveries about the structure of the human body.

From his notebooks we can tell that Leonardo approached science and art in the same methodical manner: after studying a problem, he made many sketches to help him find a solution. He saw no difference between planning a machine and a painting, and he became an expert in every field that interested him.

Leonardo da Vinci was born in the town of Vinci, Italy, in 1452. His father was a successful government official, and his mother was a peasant girl. Leonardo spent his early years on his family's farm. Free to explore in the fields and streams, he grew to love the outdoors. He had a keen interest in how things work. He bought caged birds in the marketplace and set them free. He did this because he could not stand to see birds in cages and also because he wanted to learn exactly how birds fly.

By 1469 Leonardo had moved with his father to Florence, where the young man was apprenticed to the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435?-88). In the 7 or more years Leonardo spent in Verrocchio's studio he was especially inspired by his teacher's imaginative sculpture. By 1472, Leonardo became a master of the painters' guild. A few years later he painted such a beautiful angel that Verrocchio, his master, is said to have given up painting for good.

After this, Leonardo's skill as a painter must have been known, for he painted an altarpiece, The Adoration of the Kings, for the monks of Scopeto. The Adoration had a great influence on younger painters. The Virgin Mary is shown in a large landscape. She and the three kings stand out among the many figures because of Leonardo's use of chiaroscuro—contrasts of light and dark. He made many drawings for this work. What we see today is only the first stage, for Leonardo left the painting unfinished in 1481. Leonardo often abandoned works, regardless of their state of completion. After he had solved a particular problem, he went on to other projects that interested him.

About 1482, Leonardo left Florence to enter the house of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. While there, he painted court portraits, supervised pageants, designed costumes, built machines of war, and even installed central heating in the palace. He also supposedly played the lyre and sang to entertain the Duke and his friends.

While in Milan, Leonardo worked on his magnificent painting, The Last Supper. Because he worked slowly, Leonardo painted in oil on a damp wall instead of using the fresco technique (painting with watercolors on wet plaster). This experiment was not successful, and the painting began to peel soon after Leonardo's death. Although it is now badly damaged, it is still an extraordinary picture. By cutting out all unnecessary details Leonardo emphasized the drama of the event.

One of Leonardo's greatest interests was the study of the human body. At first, like other artists of the 15th century, he studied the outward appearance of the body. Then he became fascinated with its inner structure and dissected corpses to find out how the body was put together. His studies of the heart, especially, were quite advanced. Leonardo looked at plants as closely as he looked at people and animals, and he made many discoveries about plant growth.

Soon after he arrived in Milan, Leonardo began to write down things that interested him. His notebooks show the great variety and originality of his scientific observations. He illustrated his theories with very beautiful and exact drawings. By studying his drawings of machines, 20th-century engineers, with modern materials, have been able to build models that work perfectly. The notebooks are hard to read because he used mirror writing. He did not want his ideas to be stolen.

Leonardo's life in the court of Milan was suddenly interrupted in 1499 by the invasion of the French Army. Leonardo's patron, Lodovico, was taken prisoner, and Leonardo fled to Venice. The next year he went back to Florence, which was still an active center of art. He was given a commission to paint an altarpiece for the church of the Annunziata. When his full-scale drawing of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was placed on public view, people filed by for two days and admired it enthusiastically.

Leonardo briefly served Prince Cesare Borgia in Rome as a military engineer. In 1503 he returned to Florence, where he spent a few very productive years. The most outstanding and only completed painting of this period is his portrait of a Florentine lady, the Mona Lisa. This portrait is famous for the delicately painted features of the woman's face and for the rich sfumato ("smoky") effects of the mountainous landscape in the background. While in Florence, Leonardo was commissioned to paint a battle scene on a wall of the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Again Leonardo experimented, this time with wax paint. The work began to melt even before he finished it. Leonardo was disappointed. But as a scientist, he knew that to achieve success, people must expect some experiments to fail.

In 1513 Leonardo was invited to Rome by Giuliano de' Medici, a brother of Pope Leo X. There he continued his experiments. Sometime in 1516 Leonardo left Italy to become chief painter and engineer to the king of France. King Francis I gave Leonardo a château near Amboise, where he was free to carry on his experiments.

While in France, Leonardo was stricken with partial paralysis. He had to stop painting, but his mind remained active. During his last years he received countless visitors, who listened with awe to the master's brilliant ideas about art and science.

People of the Renaissance set impossibly high goals for themselves. Leonardo da Vinci, the person who came closest to reaching all of those goals, died in his French château on May 2, 1519.

Reviewed by Aaron H. Jacobsen