To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Tribune will be presenting a multi-part series about the life, art, inventions and scientific studies of this genius who graced this world with his presence from April 15, 1452 to May 2, 1519. Leonardo is among the most influential artists in history, having left a significant legacy, not only in the realm of art, but in science as well. As a painter, architect, inventor and student of all things scientific, each discipline that he mastered influenced his thinking and treatment of the others. As a result, his art was indisputably connected with science and nature.
Largely self-educated, Leonardo filled dozens of secret notebooks with inventions, observations and theories about pursuits ranging from aeronautics to anatomy. But the rest of the world was just beginning to share knowledge in books made with moveable 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 his intellect and imagination that allowed him to create, at least on paper, inventions such as the bicycle, helicopter and an airplane based on the physiology and flying capability of a bat. He has been variously called the father of paleontology, ichnology (the study of trace fossils) and architecture.
Leonardo lived in a golden age of creativity among such contemporaries as Raphael and Michelangelo and contributed his unique genius to virtually everything he touched. Renaissance Italy represented one of the summits achieved in human history and perhaps there is no one better to hold the mantle for that period than Leonardo da Vinci.
The Early Years: 1452 to 1478
Leonardo da Vinci was born in the Tuscan hamlet of Anchiano, near the town of Vinci that provided the surname we associate with him today. In his own time he was known just as Leonardo or as “Il Florentine,” since he lived near Florence. His father, Ser Peiro, was an attorney and notary. His mother, Caterina, was a peasant woman. Leonardo’s parents never married and he was the only child they had together. With other partners, they had a total of 17 other children, Leonardo’s half-siblings. Since he was born out of wedlock, he could not use his father’s surname and as was the custom of the day, was referred to by the town of his origin, or in his case, the closest town – Vinci. His surname da Vinci means ‘from Vinci,’ therefore, in this series of articles, the great genius will be referred to as Leonardo, rather than the more commonly used name which only denotes where he was from, rather than who he was. To use his full name, we could refer to him as Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, which would be understood as Leonardo, son of Ser Peiro, from the town of Vinci.
Caterina wed another man while Leonardo was very young and began a new family. Beginning around age five, he lived on his father’s family estate in Vinci. During this period of his life, he was also strongly influenced by his uncle Francesco, who may have had more of a hand in his upbringing than by either of his parents. Francesco imbued in his nephew a love of nature that Leonardo maintained for his entire life.
Beyond basic reading, writing and mathematical skills, Leonardo did not receive much formal education. Recognizing his potential as an artist, his father sent him at the age of 14 to apprentice with Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) of Florence, a popular sculptor, painter and goldsmith who was an important figure in the art world of the day. At Verrocchio’s busy Florence studio, the young Leonardo likely met masters of the day, such as Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), while working beside fellow apprentices Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi.
Verrocchio had learned his craft under the master Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386 – 1466), better known as Donatello. He had the esteemed position as the officially recognized sculptor for the Medici family, the rulers of Florence. Under Verrocchio’s tutelage, Leonardo progressed from performing various menial tasks around the studio to mixing paints and preparing surfaces. He would have then graduated to the study and copying of his master’s works. Finally, he would have assisted Verrocchio, along with other apprentices, in producing the master’s artworks. During the six years that Leonardo spent under Verrocchio, he not only developed his skill in drawing, painting and sculpting, but through others working in and around the studio, he picked up knowledge in such diverse fields as mechanics, carpentry, metallurgy, architectural drafting and chemistry. In 1473, when he was more than halfway through his studies with Verrocchio, he completed his Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria della Neve, a pen and ink depiction of the Arno River valley. It is the earliest work that is clearly attributable to him.
Leonardo became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke by the age of 20 and remained with Verrocchio until he became an independent master in 1478. Around that time, he took on his first commissioned work, The Adoration of the Magi, for Florence’s San Donato, a Scopeto monastery. However, he never finished this work. He did a few preliminary sketches but then abandoned the project, for he was soon lured to Milan to serve as an engineer, painter, architect and sculptor for the ruling Sforza dynasty.
In our next segment, we will examine Leonardo’s life in Milan and one of his greatest artistic triumphs.