Leonardo da Vinci is an outstanding artist, the man of genius of Renaissance and Humanism. The unique fame that the Florentine artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci enjoyed in his lifetime has remained undimmed to the present day. It is based on the equally unique universality of his spirit. He was a painter, sculptor, architect and engineer. An unlimited desire for knowledge guided his thinking and behaviour. He found that his eyes were his main avenue to knowledge. «Knowing how to see» (Saper vedere) became the great theme of his studies of man’s works and nature’s creations. His superb intellect, his unusual powers of observation, and his mastery of the art of drawing led him to the study of nature itself.
Leonardo was born in 1452 on his father’s family estate in Vinci. His father was a Florentine notary and landlord. His mother was a young peasant woman. Leonardo grew up in his father’s house, where he was treated as a legitimate son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father took him to a renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo received a many-sided training that included not only painting and sculpture but the technical-mechanical arts as well. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted in the painters’ guild of Florence and worked independently until 1481.
In 1482 he moved to Milan where he spent 17 years serving the Duke until Ludovico’s fall from power in 1499. Highly esteemed, Leonardo was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals, technical adviser and engineer. There Leonardo’s genius unfolded to the fulL He created «Lady with an Ermine» (the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani), an altar painting of «The Virgin of the Rocks», a monumental wall painting of the «Last Supper». He wrote treatises on painting, architecture, a book on the elements of mechanics, a work on human anatomy, geographical, botanical, hydrological and aerological researches.
From 1500 till 1502 Leonardo travelled from one city to another until he entered the service of the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia as «senior military architect and general engineer». Only his «appetite to life» can explain Leonardo’s decision. For ten months he travelled across the territories and sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps that laid the groundwork for modern cartography. In 1503 he returned to Florence and for three years worked on «Battle of Anghiari» but it remained unfinished. These same years he painted the portrait of «Mona Lisa» and a painting of a standing «Leda», which was not completed and has survived only in copies.
In 1506 the governor of Milan invited Leonardo da Vinci and the latter accepted the invitation. In Milan he did very little as a painter but his scientific activity flourished.
In 1513 Leonardo went to Rome hoping to find employment there. He remained in the Eternal City for three years. While Donato Bramante’was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the Pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius, and many younger artists were active there, the ageing master worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments.
In a life of such loneliness, it is easy to understand why Leonardo, despite his 65 years, decided to accept the invitation of the young king Francis I to enter his service in France. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence near the King’s summer palace. The King treated him in every respect as an honoured guest. Leonardo spent most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies.
He died on May 2, 1519. During the French Revolution the church where he had been buried was devastated. Hence, his grave can no longer be located. But his masterpieces live and we can admire their perfect beauty.