Sunday, May 6, 2007



Leonardo da Vinci is remembered as one of the greatest masterminds of Renaissance Europe and one of the greatest intellectuals in European history. Described by those who knew him as a gentle man who excelled in everything he put his sharp mind to, Leonardo was considered a genius of many fields. The contributions he made throughout his lifetime to the schools of science, mathematics, engineering, botany, architecture and visual arts cannot be overestimated. Naturally gifted, multi-talented, open-minded and forward-thinking, Leonardo da Vinci truly was the original 'Renaissance man'.

A genius is born

Leonardo da Vinci was born in Italy in April 1452. He lived during a period of Italian history commonly referred to as the 'High Renaissance' period. Leonardo did not have a surname; da Vinci simply means that he is from the town of Vinci, which is located near Florence in Italy's central-north.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock and raised by his father, a lawyer named Piero da Vinci. When Leonardo was 12 years old, his father decided that they would move from Vinci to Florence. In the mid-15th century, Florence was a vibrant, artistic city at the forefront of the Italian Renaissance movement.

Florence - humble beginnings as an artist

Leonardo's natural artistic talent and intelligence was apparent from a young age. Within two years of moving to Florence, the heart and soul of Italian Renaissance art, Leonardo became a student of Andrea del Verrocchio, who was one of the city's greatest painters and sculptors. Leonardo was so naturally gifted, however, that it was not long before his skills surpassed those of Verrocchio.

At age 20, Leonardo ceased being a student and was sponsored by the Florentine patron, Lorenzo de Medici (refer to Topic one, Chapter three), who was referred to by locals as the 'Magnificent One'. For the next ten years, Leonardo was commissioned by Lorenzo to paint pictures and design buildings in Florence. During these years, however, he also spent time pursuing his own interests, many of which were not related to his career as an artist.

Milan - the inventor comes to life

In 1483 Leonardo moved to the northern Italian city of Milan. A possible reason for this move was that he believed Milan was less insular and more forward thinking than Florence was under the rule of the Medici family. Another possible reason is that Leonardo was attracted to the style of leadership displayed by Milan's ruler, Duke Lodovico Sforza, who became Leonardo's patron while he was in Milan.

Duke Sforza was known to be a strong military leader and nourished Leonardo's interest and talent in weapons design, mechanics and invention. Although Leonardo himself was a well-known pacifist (lover of peace), he produced many designs for powerful weapons and sophisticated armour while working for Sforza.

Milan was also where Leonardo painted the 'Last Supper', one of his better-known artworks. It is believed he painted this large fresco, which depicts a supper held during Jesus' last days, between the years of 1495 and 1497. A few years after this, Leonardo returned to Florence and painted what is undoubtedly his most famous work: La Gioconda (Mona Lisa). This was completed sometime between the years of 1505-1507.

France - Leonardo's last years

For the decade before his move to France in 1516, Leonardo moved between the Italian cities of Florence, Milan and Rome, depending on where he was commissioned to work. Whilst he was in Rome, Leonardo painted frescos for the Papacy (the office of the Pope) with Raphael and his former student, Michelangelo Buonarroti. It was during this time that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

In 1516, Leonardo moved to France and spent the last years of his life working on his notebooks. This is where he recorded the thousands of ideas he had for bringing his radical projects to life. In these pocket-sized notebooks, Leonardo wrote in tiny font and from right to left. Rumour has it he did this either to hide his ideas from prying eyes, or because he was left-handed and liked to do everything in an unconventional manner, just to be different to other people.

While many of his designs were never completed during his lifetime, some have since been completed by other scientists and engineers. Many of them, although extremely advanced for his time, actually worked. Leonardo died in France in 1519, aged 67.
Interests and Inspiration

People who came into contact with Leonardo da Vinci often described him as a man who exuded grace, compassion and intellect. He was talented at just about everything he did and possessed a sharp, inquisitive mind. He was also confused about the world and constantly in search of answers to life's most complicated questions.

Although Leonardo did design weapons and military equipment, he was a devout pacifist (lover of peace) and often expressed his sadness at the inhumanity of mankind. He was also a vegetarian on moral grounds and loved animals. Countless stories have been told of how Leonardo used to buy caged birds at the local markets, just so he could set them free.

Leonardo was fascinated by the inner-workings of living things. He liked to watch birds flying, so that he could observe and sketch the way they moved through the air. He was also intrigued by human anatomy, which he learnt about by cutting-up and examining the bodies of dead people. These observations helped him depict natural things more realistically in his artwork. They also enabled him to understand the mechanical nature of bones, joints and muscles, which inspired many of his inventions.
Contribution to humankind

In terms of his understanding of the human body and medicine, Leonardo was far more advanced than doctors of his time, who still believed diseases to be magical or supernatural phenomena. Prior to Leonardo, nobody had ever sketched bones, joints, muscles, veins, capillaries and nerves in such fine and accurate detail. Leonardo filled one hundred notebooks with these anatomical illustrations and was also the first person to draw sketches of a winged glider capable of flying a human through the air.

Although there are not many examples of completed artworks by Leonardo da Vinci, he was one of Renaissance Italy's greatest artists. He has provided inspiration and guidance to countless artists, scientists, engineers and doctors since his death almost five centuries ago.

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