Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist of the High Renaissance who became one of the most famous and significant artists of all time. His production extended far beyond his masterfully executed paintings. He was also very prolific in sculpture, cartography, botany, architecture, anatomy, and engineering, to name only a few, becoming a prime example of a Renaissance Man. Leonardo also became very famous for his scientific studies, especially with his inventive machines. In the world of painting, Da Vinci became known for his use of blurring effects known as sfumato. He also worked with vanishing points to create atmospheric perspectives as well as the enigmatic expressions of his subjects, creating realistic and mesmerizing artworks that were regarded as perfection at the time. Da Vinci created the most iconic and recognizable artworks of all time; The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo da Vince was born in April 1452, in Vinci, the Italian region of Tuscany. The artist had no surname in the usual sense; his birth name was Lionardo di ser Piero da Vince, which literally meant Leonardo, son of Piero from Vinci. The artist was born out of wedlock. However, his family never stigmatize him for this fact.
During his childhood, Leonardo had little to no formal education beyond Latin, mathematics, and geometry. By fourteen years old, young Leonardo became an apprentice at the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, who had studied under the distinguished Early Renaissance artist Donatello.
Verrocchio was a prominent artist in the court of the powerful House of Medici, whose influence ranged from political to artistic. They would often be considered one of the main art patrons of the time, playing a pivotal role in Renaissance art. The Medici's influence on Florence created an environment in which humanism and art could flourish. In fact, the region of Tuscany, specifically Florence, is regarded as the very birthplace of the Renaissance.
Artists of this period were often deeply involved with humanistic studies, and Leonardo wasn't any different. In addition to studying artistic mediums such as painting, drawing, and sculpture, the artist would also develop an interest in architecture, anatomy, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics. Such a varied education was undoubtedly a pivotal element to the flourishing of his acutely inventive nature. The earliest documented artwork by Leonardo is dated from 1473, a pen and ink drawing depicting the Arno Valley.
As was customary at the time, the apprentices of a workshop often collaborated on his master's artworks. The same applied to Verrocchio and Leonardo, whereas the latter contributed to the first's The Baptism of Christ. Also, Leonardo was probably the model for two of Verrocchio's artworks, the Archangel Raphael in his Tobias and the Angel, and the bronze statue of David located in The Bargello, Florence.
In 1472, when Leonardo was about twenty years old, he became a member of the Guild of St. Luke. Although his father set up a studio for him, Leonardo continued to work as an assistant in Verrocchio's workshop for the following four years.
In 1476, Leonardo, along with three other men, was accused of sodomy. However, the charges were let go due to insufficient corroboration, often attributed to the fact that his friends came from affluent families. Being gay was a serious crime at the time, and the accused would face not only the chance of imprisonment and public humiliation but also execution.
Probably due to such a traumatic experience, Leonardo kept a low profile for the following years. Although some scholars believe Leonardo was a gay man, noticing homo-eroticism in some of his paintings, the specific nature of his sexuality is ultimately a matter of speculation. Other famous artists from Florence were also known to be gay, such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Sandro Botticelli.
In 1481, Leonardo received one of his earliest independent commissions, to complete the Adoration of the Magi for the San Donato a Scopeto's monks. The artist interrupted said commission to go to Milan under the summons of the Duke of Milan. There he worked in the court between 1482 and 1499.
Noted for his perfectionism, Leonardo spent much of his time studying the human anatomy in many forms. From the way the human body moves and its proportions, as well as more nuanced elements, such as the way they interacted in communication and socials engagements and their means of expression and gestures. Depicting all these elements was an exhaustive and lengthy endeavor, which is often considered part of the motive Leonardo's production lacks fully finished artworks. At the same time, it exhibits an outstanding library of cartoons that served as full-scale preparatory sketches for his paintings, as well as highly elaborate drawings. These drawings displayed Leonardo's masterful observation and his keen ability to portray human emotion.
It was during this period in his production that he started to experiment with new painting techniques. One of the said techniques, which is also regarded as one of Leonardo's most celebrated painterly abilities, is the sfumato. This technique was responsible for a smoky effect that created a soft transition between colors and mimics the blurriness of the out-of-focus plane perceived by the human eye. Through this method, the artist was able to portray the delicate modulation of fabric, as well as translucent hard surfaces such as glass and crystal, exemplified by his masterful depiction of the orb held by Christ in his Salvator Mundi.
In 1483, the artist received a commission to execute the Virgin of the Rocks. The picture depicts the Madonna and baby Jesus along with the angel Uriel and an infant John the Baptist in a rocky landscape, hence the name of the painting. There are two versions of this painting. One hangs in the Musee du Louvre in Paris, the other in the National Gallery in London. The imaginary rocky landscape gives mystical and dreamlike qualities to the composition. Like other artists of the time, Leonardo tried to explore religious narratives in an un-idealized manner, humanizing its subjects.
Around 1495, Leonardo received a commission from Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, to execute one of his most famous religious artworks, The Last Supper. The artwork explores the Last Supper of Christ with his apostles, as told in the Gospel of John, showing the exact moment in which Jesus announced that one of his apostles would betray him.
The vanishing points of the composition lead directly to Jesus, who is represented reaching a glass of wine and a piece of bread in reference to the Eucharist, and who is placed at the center of the picture; all other pictorial elements emanate from this point. The masterpiece also masterfully displays the sense of consternation of the apostles, especially Judas, who clutches the bag of silver coins he received for his betrayal.
Since Leonardo was a highly inventive individual, he experimented with various painting techniques, and not all of his experiments succeeded. It was the case with The Last Supper. Frescoes were usually executed with water-based paints, such as egg tempera, which adhered properly to plaster surfaces. However, as Leonardo's sfumato technique required oil paint, he tried to execute it that way. Since oil painting was a relatively new medium, the reactions of oil paint on wet plaster surfaces were not yet known. The result was quite unpleasant, with the picture becoming highly deteriorated even during Leonardo's lifetime.
In 1499, following the French invasion and the subsequent overthrow of the Duke of Milan, the artist left for Venice. He went with Salai, described as Leonardo's apprentice and lifelong friend who lived with the artist since he was ten.
In Venice, Leonardo was hired as a military engineer whose main occupation was to design naval defense systems against Ottoman military advances in the city. Upon its completion, the artist returned to Florence in 1500.
In 1500, da Vinci completed Salvator Mundi, a half-length portrait depicting Jesus Christ in the role of "Savior of the World", represented by the orb in his left hand. This artwork is often considered an unusual portrait regarding its period. First, for its aforementioned length, which was quite a deviation from the full-length portraits of the period, second, Christ is represented in a more humanized manner, using ordinary Renaissance clothing and gazing directly at the observer, intensifying the sense of intimacy between observer and subject.
In 1502, Leonardo entered the court of Cesare Borgia, a member of the influential Borgia House, Pope Alexander VI's son, and the commander of the papal army. There, the artist was also employed as a military engineer and accompanied his patron during his travels throughout Italy.
His occupations included creating maps to assist with military defenses. He was also responsible for constructing a dam that provided a steady supply of water from the River Arno to the canals. During this project, Leonardo made acquaintances with the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. It is said that Leonardo presented concepts of applied science and would be a significant influence on Machiavelli, who is often regarded as the Father of Modern Political Science.
The artist returned to Florence in 1503. By this time, Leonardo's artistic production saw one of its most prolific periods, including preliminary works on the Mona Lisa, Virgin and Child with Sainte Anne, and the unfinished The Battle of Anghiari. The last is also referred to as The Lost Leonardo, for Leonardo's original artwork is lost, and the composition is only known from a copy made by Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1508, Leonardo returned to the city of Milan once again, where he remained for the following five years under the patronage of King Louis XII and the French Governor of Milan. During this period, the artist delved deeply into scientific studies, including anatomy, mechanics, mathematics, and botanical. Not only that, but Leonardo also created his famous flying machine and met Francesco Melzi, who became his pupil and companion until his death.
The Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, as mentioned before, Leonardo began to work on the masterpiece by 1503. Although it is believed the artist completed the painting between 1503 and 1506, some scholars argue that the picture displays the style of his mature period, post-1513.
The portrait probably depicts Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Gioconda, a florentine merchant. The use of sfumato, especially on her face, gives a sense of calmness to the picture. The use of chiaroscuro, creating tension between lighter and darker regions, provides more depth and dynamism to the composition, which keeps the observer's eyes moving through the picture.
One of the most noteworthy elements of this painting is her smile and its ambiguity. In many of his portraits, Leonardo not only focused on reproducing the sitter's likeness but also imbue them with personality and feelings. He thoroughly explored facial expressions and tried to express the subtle and fleeting nuances, elements noticeable in Lady with an Ermine as well. With the Mona Lisa, however, Leonardo would arguably reach his pinnacle regarding these elements. Her facial expression's enigmatic aspect is due to the fact that her portrayal was caught in mid-emotion.
Leonardo went to Rome in 1513, where he remained for the next three years. There, he came under the attention of King Francois I of France, who offered the artist a permanent position as "first engineer and painter" of the French Royal Court. The artist was given a residence close to the King, and it is reputed that they became close friends.
Leonardo spent most of his late years arranging his scientific notes and papers rather than producing art, although his St John the Baptist was made by that time. By 65 years old, Leonardo's hand became paralyzed, which may be one reason he left some artwork, such as the Mona Lisa, unfinished. The artist continued working until he became ill and bedridden for months.
Leonardo da Vinci passed away, probably victimized by a stroke, on May 2, 1519.
Da Vinci's fame and influence extended far beyond his lifetime, becoming one of the foremost figures in art history. Leonardo developed artistic techniques that are often regarded as perfection. The artist did not produce an extensive body of artistic work during his lifetime, compared to other Old Masters. However, the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci are a testament to his genius, revealing a man way ahead of his time.
His notes contain precise anatomical investigations, including blood circulation. Although many of his projects would never see the light of day, they were a prelude to future inventions like the helicopter and military machinery, such as armored vehicles. However, some of his studies, especially mechanical engineering, had an immediate impact on contemporary life, such as the bobbin winder and the miter lock.
"A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light."
"Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."
"Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen."
― Leonardo da Vinci