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Leonardo da Vinci, one of the universal geniuses of Western history, made contributions to art, mathematics, and science that anticipated the ideas and inventions of future centuries. Most significantly for world history, Leonardo’s curiosity and his belief in the power of observation spurred him to investigate and record the forces that drive the natural universe and define man’s place within it.
Atrue “Renaissance man,” Leonardo da Vinci achieved renown in painting, architecture, engineering, science, and anatomy. He was born in the Tuscan countryside, the illegitimate son of a notary, and trained in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488). By 1472 he was recorded as member of the guild of painters in his own right, and evidence of his growing reputation began to build. Works from this early period include the Adoration of the Magi (1481–1482), a painting left unfinished, as were so many of Leonardo’s projects.
In 1482 or 1483 Leonardo left Florence for Milan to serve in the court of Duke Lodovico Sforza (1452–1508). His duties at the court were wide and included not only painting, sculpture, and architecture, but also military and civil engineering, stage design, and interior decoration. The life of a courtier allowed Leonardo time to pursue his interests in the natural world and mathematics. His notebooks, kept throughout his life and written in mirror writing, reflect his wide-ranging interests. Studies of human anatomy, wind and water, plants and animals, machines, and optics occupied his restless mind. Heavily illustrated, these notebooks constitute a document of Leonardo’s curiosity and his ingenious investigation of mysteries such as flight.
In addition to creating some of his most famous paintings during this period—for example, The Last Supper (1495–1497) in Santa Maria delle Grazie—Leonardo worked to fulfill the commissions provided by his master, such as an enormous bronze horse honoring Lodovico’s father, Francesco Sforza. Although Leonardo managed to produce a clay model, the horse was never cast; Milan fell to King Louis XII of France in 1499, and Leonardo fled the city.
He accepted in 1502 a position as military engineer for the infamous Cesare Borgia (c. 1475–1507), but his hopes for Borgia patronage did not fully materialize, and Leonardo returned to Florence. There he perfected his sfumato style (subtly shaded figures blending into the composition) in his Virgin, Child and St Anne (begun in 1502 but not completed until 1516), and attempted a new fresco technique for The Battle of Anghiari (1502–1503), commissioned for the Hall of the Great Council, the central deliberative chamber of the Florentine Republic. Unfortunately, the work is altogether lost as his experimental technique failed: the plaster did not dry evenly and the paint did not adhere.
Leonardo’s second residence in Florence was consequently not very productive, although he did begin the portrait that would become perhaps the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa (1503–1506). Returning to Milan in 1508, Leonardo resumed his responsibilities at court, but this time for the French, who were masters of the city until 1512, when the Sforza dynasty briefly returned. Again, most of his artistic projects were never carried to fruition (an exception is his Virgin of the Rocks, 1503–1506), in part because of his growing interest in scientific pursuits, especially anatomy.
In 1513 Leonardo set out for Rome. He served the Medici family, who had returned as rulers of Florence in 1512, including the head of the family, Pope Leo X. It is probable that Leonardo accompanied Leo to Bologna to meet with King Francis I of France. The young king recognized Leonardo’s genius and convinced him to come to France in late 1516 or 1517, where Leonardo was presented with a small chateau at Cloux (Clos-Luce), near the king’s residence at Amboise. Leonardo continued his theoretical work and engaged in specific commissions for Francis, including designs for elaborate entertainments and grand royal palaces (which were never built). He also completed some of the unfinished paintings he had brought with him. Leonardo’s health had already begun to decline, perhaps the result of a stroke; in August 1519 he was dead, and was buried in Amboise.
The contribution of Leonardo to the culture of the West was enormous. His wide-ranging genius united many aspects of technical and creative skill (such as designs for a parachute and flying machines) to establish new heights of High Renaissance art; indeed, the art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) saw in Leonardo the moment when the ancients were at last surpassed. Most significantly for world history, Leonardo believed in the power of human observation. His curiosity about nature and the world spurred him to investigate and record the forces that drive the natural universe and define man’s place within it.
- Chastel, A. (1961). The genius of Leonardo da Vinci: Leonardo da Vinci on art and the artist. New York: Orion Press.
- Clark, K. (1988). Leonardo da Vinci: An account of his development as an artist (Rev. ed.). London: Viking. (Original work published 1939)
- Kemp, M. (1981). Leonardo da Vinci: The marvellous works of nature and man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Muntz, E. (2006). Leonardo da Vinci: Artist, thinker, and man of science (2 Vols.). New York: Parkstone Press.
- Pedretti, C. (1973). Leonardo da Vinci: A study in chronology and style. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Turner, R. (1993). Inventing Leonardo. New York: Knopf.
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