Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a painter, architect, inventor, and student of all things scientific. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452, in the heart of the Renaissance in the heart of Europe. He was born outside Vinci, which lies high up on Mount Albano, in the valley of the Arno River, near the city of Florence. Florence was an independent republic and commercial center at the time of his birth. He was the son of Ser Pierro da Vinci, who was a legal specialist, and a peasant girl named Caterina. He was considered an “illegitimate” son because they were not married. Right away. His father married into a wealthy family and he went to live with his grandparents. Later he lived with his father’s family and they didn’t conceal his birth and welcomed his addition to the family.
His natural genius crossed so many disciplines that he epitomized the term “Renaissance man.” Today he remains best known for his art, including two paintings that remain among the world’s most famous and admired, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Art, da Vinci believed, was indisputably connected with science and nature. Largely self-educated, he filled dozens of secret notebooks with inventions, observations and theories about pursuits from aeronautics to anatomy. But the rest of the world was just beginning to share knowledge in books made with movable type, and the concepts expressed in his notebooks were often difficult to interpret. As a result, though he was lauded in his time as a great artist, his contemporaries often did not fully appreciate his genius—the combination of intellect and imagination that allowed him to create, at least on paper, such inventions as the bicycle, the helicopter and an airplane based on the physiology and flying capability of a bat. The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day rests largely on his unlimited desire for knowledge, which guided all his thinking and behavior.
An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became the great theme of his studies. He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish. Leonardo worked as a sculptor from his youth on, as shown in his own statements and those of other sources. A small group of generals’ heads in marble and plaster, works of Verrocchio’s followers, are sometimes linked with Leonardo, because a lovely drawing attributed to him that is on the same theme suggests such a connection. But the inferior quality of this group of sculpture rules out an attribution to the master. No trace has remained of the heads of women and children that, according to Vasari, Leonardo modeled in clay in his youth.
From 1478 to 1482, he obtained his own studio. After that, he was offered the job of court artist for Lodvico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. He took it and lived in beautiful Milan for 17 years. There, he had a great variety of jobs including designing artillery, and planning river system diversions for the city. In Milan, he really started to dive into the field of science and learn a lot. Toward the end of his life, in about 1508, King Louis XII of France asked him to accompany him to Milan, and he went willingly. There, he stayed working on anatomy and other fields until 1512, when the French lost Milan. He then had to go to Rome. There, he stayed until his life was finished. He was very good friends with Guiliano de’ Medici, brother of the duke, and he was well housed and treated very kindly. Sadly, while in the bliss of the Renaissance, his health started to fail. In March, 1516, Guiliano died, and Leonardo was left alone in the world, practically deserted. Not far thereafter, on May 2, 1519, the mind of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci died.