illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a
peasant girl, Caterina, Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452,
in Vinci, Italy, just outside Florence. His father took custody
of the little fellow shortly after his birth, while his mother
married someone else and moved to a neighboring town. They
kept on having kids, although not with each other, and they
eventually supplied him with a total of 17 half sisters and
up in his father's Vinci home, Leonardo had access to scholarly
texts owned by family and friends. He was also exposed to
Vinci's longstanding painting tradition, and when he was
about 15 his father apprenticed him to the renowned workshop
of Andrea del Verrochio in Florence. Even as an apprentice,
Leonardo demonstrated his colossal talent. Indeed, his genius
seems to have seeped into a number of pieces produced by
the Verrocchio's workshop from the period 1470 to 1475.
For example, one of Leonardo's first big breaks was to paint
an angel in Verrochio's "Baptism of Christ," and
Leonardo was so much better than his master's that Verrochio
allegedly resolved never to paint again. Leonardo stayed
in the Verrocchio workshop until 1477 when he set up a shingle
search of new challenges and the big bucks, he entered the
service of the Duke of Milan in 1482, abandoning his first
commission in Florence, "The Adoration of the Magi".
He spent 17 years in Milan, leaving only after Duke Ludovico
Sforza's fall from power in 1499. It was during these years
that Leonardo hit his stride, reaching new heights of scientific
and artistic achievement.
Duke kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing
elaborate court festivals, but he also put Leonardo to work
designing weapons, buildings and machinery. From 1485 to
1490, Leonardo produced a studies on loads of subjects,
including nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics,
municipal construction, canals and architecture (designing
everything from churches to fortresses). His studies from
this period contain designs for advanced weapons, including
a tank and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and
submarines. Also during this period, Leonardo produced his
first anatomical studies. His Milan workshop was a veritable
hive of activity, buzzing with apprentices and students.
Leonardo's interests were so broad, and he was so often
compelled by new subjects, that he usually failed to finish
what he started. This lack of "stick-to-it-ness"
resulted in his completing only about six works in these
17 years, including "The Last Supper" and "The
Virgin on the Rocks," and he left dozens of paintings
and projects unfinished or unrealized (see "Big Horse"
in sidebar). He spent most of his time studying science,
either by going out into nature and observing things or
by locking himself away in his workshop cutting up bodies
or pondering universal truths.
1490 and 1495 he developed his habit of recording his studies
in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered
four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of
mechanics, and human anatomy. These studies and sketches
were collected into various codices and manuscripts, which
are now hungrily collected by museums and individuals (Bill
Gates recently plunked down $30 million for the Codex Leicester!).
to Milan... after the invasion by the French and Ludovico
Sforza's fall from power in 1499, Leonardo was left to search
for a new patron. Over the next 16 years, Leonardo worked
and traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers,
including the dastardly Cesare Borgia. He traveled for a
year with Borgia's army as a military engineer and even
met Niccolo Machiavelli, author of "The Prince."
Leonardo also designed a bridge to span the "golden
horn" in Constantinople during this period and received
a commission, with the help of Machiavelli, to paint the
"Battle of Anghiari."
1503, Leonardo reportedly began work on the "Mona Lisa."
On July 9, 1504, he received notice of the death of his
father, Ser Piero. Through the contrivances of his meddling
half brothers and sisters, Leonardo was deprived of any
inheritance. The death of a beloved uncle also resulted
in a scuffle over inheritance, but this time Leonardo beat
out his scheming siblings and wound up with use of the uncle's
land and money.
1513 to 1516, he worked in Rome, maintaining a workshop
and undertaking a variety of projects for the Pope. He continued
his studies of human anatomy and physiology, but the Pope
forbade him from dissecting cadavers, which truly cramped
the death of his patron Giuliano de' Medici in March of
1516, he was offered the title of Premier Painter and Engineer
and Architect of the King by Francis I in France. His last
and perhaps most generous patron, Francis I provided Leonardo
with a cushy job, including a stipend and manor house near
the royal chateau at Amboise.
suffering from a paralysis of the right hand, Leonardo was
still able to draw and teach. He produced studies for the
Virgin Mary from "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne",
studies of cats, horses, dragons, St. George, anatomical
studies, studies on the nature of water, drawings of the
Deluge, and of various machines.
died on May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Legend has it that
King Francis was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo's
head in his arms.