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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinchi may be considered as perhaps the most recognized man of the renaissance. He was a true renaissance man as he embodied all the qualities of a multi talented genius. He was an architect, an anatomist an engineer, a painter, a sculptor and an inventor par excellence. He is one of the most famous Italians ever.

 

 

Birth

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Anchiano, near Vinci, just outside of Florence, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci a young notary and Caterina a young peasant girl. His father brought him up while his mother remarried and moved away.

Early Childhood

Leonardo had access to the arts and scholarly texts right from his childhood. He was interested in painting. His father showed some of his early sketches to the painter/sculptor Verrachio who was impressed by them. So his father made him an apprentice at the workshop of Verrachio.

At the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio

It was at the workshop of Andre del Verrochio that the young Leonardo demonstrated his immense talents as a sculptor and painter. He learnt the basics of arts and sculpting here. He learnt to use various materials like wood, metal etc in the workshop. He is credited with painting one of the angels in the famous painting “Baptism of Christ” by Verrochio when he was only 21. This was the first major break he got in his career as a painter. Leonardo painted the angel so beautifully that it is said that Verrochio resolved never to paint again. Leonardo worked in Verrochio’s workshop till 1477.In this period he acquired many skills and made many observations. He began his studies of anatomy and various machines here. He recorded a lot of his observations in the form of sketches. He also explored the city of Florence. The great cathedral of Florence was under construction and young Leonardo spent much of his free time making sketches of the machinery used at the construction site. He was as interested in science and machinery as the arts and his artistic nature helped him in his scientific and mechanical sketches.

Leonardo and his patrons

Leonardo produced some of his best scientific and artistic works when he was in Milan between the years 1482 to 1499. He worked for the Duke of Milan in various capacities including military engineer. He painted, sculpted and organized court festivals for the Duke. He designed weapons and machinery and buildings. His workshop in Milan was always busy with many projects being executed simultaneously. Leonardo was interested in so many different and diverse activities at the same time. This is why he has left many projects incomplete. He would start a project with great enthusiasm but move on to a new one without finishing the original one. He was eclectic by nature and had very wide and varied interests including art, nature, geometry, anatomy, mechanics, engineering, architecture etc. his workshop was always filled with activity and many projects would be taking place at the same time.

After the death of the Duke Leonardo worked for various diverse people including the Medicis, the notorious Cesar Borgia and the Pope. His final and perhaps most generous patron was King Francis I of France.

Leonardo the painter and sculptor.

Leonardo is well known as a painter for his famous paintings “The Last Supper” in Milan and the famous “Mona Lisa” or “La Gioconda” which is perhaps the most visited painting in the Louvre, Paris. The enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is one of the most talked about and recognized paintings in the modern world. However some historians claim that the original was not painted by Leonardo. Both these paintings are amongst the most copied or reinterpreted paintings in the world. However Leonardo began his career as a painter painting the kneeling angel in “The Baptism of Christ” at the age of 21. He was commissioned to paint a huge mural “The battle of Anghiari”in Florence, which was left incomplete, as was the “The Adoration of the Magi” though he completed “the Virgin on the Rocks”. He left many paintings incomplete.

He spent about seventeen years designing and modeling a proposed 24 feet high bronze horse for the Duke of Milan. He spent several years studying horses and finally made a clay model. Alas France invaded Milan and hence the project was abandoned. It was used by the French soldiers for target practice when they invaded Milan. Although seventeen paintings of his have survived none of his sculptures have survived.

Leonardo the scientist and engineer

Leonardo was definitely a scientist and inventor par excellence who developed and sketched various machines and made prototypes of some of them. He can be credited for producing the first working models of the mechanical computer, a car using spring mechanism and also the robot. Recently a tank has also been constructed using his sketches. Many of his sketches have practical applications in today’s modern and technologically sound world. He designed advanced war weapons including a tank, submarine, machine guns, cluster bombs and other combat devices. His talent as an illustrator helped him to draw accurate sketches of machines. He began sketching machines right from his days at the Verrochio workshop. He was able to use his artistic talents to develop his scientific drawings.

He was a keen observer of nature and made various sketches. The flight of birds fascinated him and he sketched various flying machines including a design of a helicopter and a hand glider. Although the helicopter could not be translated into a working model the drawing of the hand glider could have been successful. He also used concave mirrors to harness solar power.

At the workshop of Verrochio all apprentices were taught anatomy by dissecting corpses. Leonardo’s studies in anatomy led him to sketch the different parts of the human body in detail. He made over 200 sketches of different parts of the human body including the skull, the fetus and the backbone. He was interested in both the structure as well as the functions of the various parts of the body. He sketched deformed people and hence is credited as the pioneer of caricature.

He designed a single span 720 feet bridge for the Sultan Beyazid II as a civil engineering project. Although it was not built a smaller version of it was built in Norway in 2001 using his design.

His notebooks

Leonardo sketched prolifically in notebooks. Although he wrote in Italian he wrote in a form of shorthand, which he developed. He was a left-hander. He used mirror writing from the right to left. Many theories have been advocated on why he did so including one, which says that he did so to avoid persecution from the Catholic Church, as some of his ideas could be considered heretical in those times. Others say he did so for convenience to avoid smudging and yet others believe he did so to prevent rivals from copying and stealing his ideas. His notebooks are a valuable legacy. They contain innumerable sketches and various ideas for a large number of machines some of which have practical application even today. His notebooks give us an insight on how talented he was. They also show us that he was a curious, intelligent methodical man who was way ahead of his contemporaries in his ideas. His scientific approach and talents as an illustrator are fully illustrated in his notebooks. They provide an insight into his observational skills and his minute details on many aspects of nature. His genius was such that he could envisage future applications when technology was in its nascent development stages. He truly was a pioneer and the ultimate Renaissance man.

Personal Life

Although he worked as a military engineer and developed weapons for war Leonardo was against war and was a peace loving man. He was a gentle man and a vegetarian. He loved animals and birds. It is said that when he was a young man in Florence he used to buy caged birds just to set them free. He had two faithful companions Salai and Melzi who find mention in his will. King Francis was also a close friend. Leonardo was a man of integrity and high morals.

Death

On May 2, 1519, Leonardo breathed his last breath in Cloux, France. As per his wishes he was buried in the chapel of Saint Hubert in Castle Amboise. Although a great man had died he left his legacy in the arts and sciences for future generations.