|Leonardo da Vinci epitomised the genius and diversity of achievements that we associate with the Italian Renaissance. The range of his accomplishments was astonishing, for he was an anatomist, engineer, mathematician, naturalist and philosopher, as well as a painter, sculptor and architect. In fact far more is known about his thought and the great range of his mind than of the events and circumstances of his life, especially its early stages.
The location of Leonardo's birth is questionable. Some say Vinci (about 50km west of Florence), others believe Anchiano (near Vinci). He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant woman. It is unknown as to whether he spent the first years of his life with his mother or father. Records show, however, that by the time he was five years old he was living with his father and stepmother, Albiera who was at that stage childless.
Leonardo's early education was probably handled by Albiera and her mother-in-law, Monna Lucia who was fifty-nine when Leonardo was born. He demonstrated a talent for drawing and design early in the piece. Then, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, after he moved with his family to Florence, was apprenticed to one of the leading artists in the city - Andrea di Cione, called Verrocchio ('True Eye').
It was in Verrocchio's studio, according to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, that Leonardo gave the first great demonstration of his ability. He assisted in painting Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (c.1472, Florence, Uffizi). His contribution, the left-hand angel, made the other figures look prosaic. Vasari asserted that Verrocchio was so affected by his pupil's success that he never wanted to paint again. At only twenty years of age and still under his master's authority Leonardo's addition and several other 'corrections' were completed using a form of oil compound even though Verrocchio began this piece using tempera.
Leonardo's rejection of tempera, the medium choice of his master, was a considered act demonstrating a forthright belief in his own ability, which some described as arrogance. He clearly desired the effects possible from the medium of oil paint, first discovered by Flemish artists, such as transparent and luminous skin, lustrous jewelery and silken hair.
It is at this stage, that it is possible Leonardo took a managerial role regarding commissions in Verrocchio's studio, as several paintings from the years between 1472 and 1477 are regularly attributed to Leonardo. These include the Annunciation and Ginevra de' Benci. Although there is reminiscence of Verrocchio's style in these pieces, the composition and atmosphere of the Annunciation and the compelling facial expression of the Ginevra are close enough to Leonardo's artistic intentions, justifying claims of his direct participation in these works.
After leaving Verrocchio's studio, though his talent was widely known, Leonardo gained a reputation for not delivering on his commissions, and it is possible that this is why he did not recieve much official work. One commission he did receive, in 1481, came from the monks of San Donato at Scopeta. This piece, The Adoration of the Magi was an important work displaying great originality and complexity in its sense of movement and in its variety of gesture and expression. It was left unfinished when, in 1482, Leonardo left Florence for Milan.
In Milan, in 1483, Leonardo received another important commission from the Church of San Francesco Grande. This painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, although the contract specified a seven month deadline, was not deliverd for another 25 years.
It was during this time that Leonardo wrote an extraordinary letter to the then ruler of Milan, Duke Ludovico Sforza, in which he recommended himself as a military inventor and engineer. He claimed that he could make bridges 'indestructible by fire and battle', and 'chariots, safe and unassailable'. To this he added at the end that he was also an architect, a sculptor and a painter.
Leonardo's letter earned him a commission from Sforza and in 1483 he began work on the Great Horse. It was an immense undertaking. He set himself the seemingly impossible task of creating a rearing horse over three metres high. Such a task had never been undertaken before. After a number of stopages the full-sized clay model was finished in 1493.
To complete the horse tonnes of bronze were needed. While waiting for Sforza to organise the bronze Leonardo began work on a huge mural for the monastery church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper was an incredible piece. Even before it was finished word spread of its brilliance drawing many admiring pilgrims to the monastery. Although Leonardo's experimental technique used for this work failed disasterously, leaving the mural as a sad ruin with peeling paint, it still retains some of the authority which made it the most celebrated painting of its time.
Leonardo's drawings and notes indicate the immense care taken in its design. "That figure is most praiseworthy", he wrote, "which, by its action, best expresses the passions of the soul." The idea of the artist as a creative thinker rather than a skilled artisan was revolutionary and stems chiefly from Leonardo.
The bronze meant for the Great Horse was used by Sforza to make weapons and therefore this work was never completed. When the French took Milan in 1499, the clay horse was used as target practice by French archers.
Leonardo left Milan, passing through Venice, then looked mainly to Florence. It is during this period that he painted an artwork that has become one of the most internationally recognised art images - the Mona Lisa, innovatory in the subtlety and naturalness of its pose and expression. Also the war-painting of The Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Veechio. This is destroyed but copies show that its dynamic energy anticipated the Baroque.
In 1502 Leonardo left Florence enlisting in the service of Cesare Borgia, a brutal leader, for whom Leonardo travelled as a military engineer inspecting fortifications. He then returned to Florence to resume life as an artist. From 1506 to 1513 Leonardo was based in Milan, although he made two lengthy visits to Florence.
In 1513 he went to Rome, at the invitation of Giuliano de' Medici. We learn from Vasari that he was engaged by Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici), Giuliano's cousin. It was in Rome that he may have begun St John the Baptist. In 1514 and 1516 respectively, two of Leonardo's most important patrons, Louis XII and Giuliano de' Medici, died.
Fortunately, however, Louis' successor François I, intervened and became Leonardo's patron and great friend. In 1516 Leonardo headed for France at the new king's invitation and was given lodgings in the castle at Cloux. And it was there that he lived the remainder of his days, dying on May 2, 1519.
Described by Sir Kenneth Clarke as "The most relentlessly curious man in history", Leonardo's later years were taken up increasingly with scientific work (which largely remained hidden in his notebooks). Anatomical studies including those of embryos inside the womb, botany, astronomy and physics were all a part of his explorations into human and natural science. Although his paintings are so few, more drawings (e.g. Study of Hands c.1485) exist by Leonardo than by any other contemporary Italian artist (mainly at Windsor Castle), and in them is revealed the range and power of his extraordinary genius and his insatiable quest for knowledge.
Leonardo's contemporary reputation was colossal and has never faded. He was a generation older than the other two supreme artists of the High Renaissance, Michelangelo and Raphael, and with his nobly balanced designs and heroic figures can virtually be said to have created the style. An influential aspect of his work was sfumato modelling through light and shade which suggested rather than delineated the form.
Many have speculated as to what Leonardo's achievements may have been if he had been born in a different time, even a century later when scientific study was celebrated. Indeed Freud said of Leonardo that "He was a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while others were still asleep." In this the assumption is clearly that Leonardo's accomplishments were limited by the constraints of the era in which he lived. One can therefore only marvel at the extent of Leonardo's achievements within such constraints and acknowledge that the world has seen few of the likes of Leonardo thus far and will see even fewer in the centuries to come.
Nuland, Sherwin B. (2000) Leonardo da Vinci London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd.
Piper, D. (1981). The Dictionary of Painting & Sculpture, Art & Artists, Painters & Sculptors, Terms & Techniques. London: Mitchell Beazley Publishers.
The Great Artists (1985) Leonardo da Vinci. London: Marshall Cavandish Ltd.