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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452May 2, 1519) was an Italian Renaissance architect, musician, anatomist, inventor, engineer, sculptor, geometer, and painter. He has been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" and as an universal genius. Leonardo is famous for his masterly paintings, such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. He is also known for designing many inventions that anticipated modern technology but were rarely constructed in his lifetime. In addition, he helped advance the study of anatomy, astronomy, and civil engineering.



Personal life

Leonardo was born in Anchiano, near Vinci, Italy. He was an illegitimate child. His father, Ser Piero da Vinci was a young lawyer and his mother, Caterina, was probably a peasant girl. It has also been suggested, albeit on scanty evidence, that she was a Middle Eastern slave owned by Piero. However, the latter theory is unlikely to be true.

As he was born before modern naming conventions developed in Europe, his full name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", which means "Leonardo, son of Mister Piero, from Vinci". Leonardo himself simply signed his works "Leonardo" or "Io, Leonardo" ("I, Leonardo"). Most authorities therefore refer to his works as "Leonardos", not "da Vincis". Presumably he did not use his father's name because of his illegitimate status.

Leonardo grew up with his father in Florence. Here, he started drawing and painting. His early sketches were of such quality that his father soon showed them to the painter Andrea del Verrocchio who subsequently took the fourteen-year old Leonardo on as an apprentice. Later, he became an independent painter in Florence.

In 1476, he was accused anonymously, along with three other men, of sodomy with a 17 year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, who was a notorious male prostitute. After two months in jail, he was acquitted because no witnesses stepped forward. For some time afterwards, Leonardo and the others were kept under observation by Florence's Officers of the Night - a kind of Renaissance vice squad, charged with suppressing the practice of sodomy, which a majority of male Florentines engaged in, as shown by surviving legal records of the Podestá and the Officers of the Night.

Modern critics contend that Leonardo's love of boys was well-known even in the sixteenth century. Rocke reports that in a fictional dialogue on l'amore masculino (male love) written by the contemporary art critic and theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo , Leonardo appears as one of the protagonists and declares, "Know that male love is exclusively the product of virtue which, joining men together with the diverse affections of friendship, makes it so that from a tender age they would enter into the manly one as more stalwart friends." In the dialogue, the interlocutor inquires of Leonardo about his relations with his assistant, Salai, "Did you play the game from behind which the Florentines love so much?"

Leonardo kept his private life particularly secret, and there is no evidence that Leonardo was ever intimately involved with any woman, nor in a close friendship with one. He also surrounded himself with handsome young men throughout his life, and his art reflects an appreciation of androgynous beauty. It has, therefore, been assumed that he was a homosexual. One of his loves may have been Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno (nicknamed Salai (Little Devil)). Gian entered Leonardo's household around 1488 at the age of 10, becoming his servant and assistant.

In 1506, Leonardo met Count Francesco Melzi, the fifteen year old son of a Lombard aristocrat. Salai eventually accepted Melzi's continued presence and the three undertook various journeys throughout Italy. Though Salai was always introduced as Leonardo's "pupil", he never produced any work of artistic merit. Melzi, however, became his pupil and life companion. Leonardo had many other friends who are now figures renowned in their fields, or for their influence on history; these included Niccolò Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia and Franchinus Gaffurius.

Disregarding the controversy of homosexuality, it is clear from the works of Leonardo and his early biographers, that he was a man of high integrity and very sensitive to moral issues. Hereby, it should be noted that Leonardo was a vegetarian at least a part of his life and often bought birds just to release them. He was also the respected judge on the matters of beauty and elegance, particularly in pageantry .

Professional life

From around 1482 to 1499 Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan [1], employed Leonardo and permitted him to operate his own workshop complete with apprentices. It was here that seventy tons of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo's "Gran Cavallo" horse statue (see below) were cast into weapons for the Duke in an attempt to save Milan from the French under Charles VIII in 1495 (see also the Italian Wars).

When the French returned under Louis XII in 1498, Milan fell without a fight, overthrowing Sforza [2]. Leonardo stayed in Milan for a time, until one morning when he found French archers using his life-size clay model of the "Gran Cavallo" for target practice. He left with Salai and his friend (and the first man to describe double-entry bookkeeping) Luca Pacioli for Mantua, moving on after 2 months to Venice (where he was hired as a military engineer), then briefly returning to Florence at the end of April 1500.

In Florence he entered the services of Cesare Borgia (also called "Duca Valentino", the son of Pope Alexander VI) as a military architect and engineer with whom he travelled throughout Italy. In 1506 he returned to Milan, now in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries had driven out the French.

From 1513 to 1516 he lived in Rome, where painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active at the time, though he did not have much contact with these artists. However, he was probably of pivotal importance in relocation of 'David', one of Michelangelo's masterpieces, against the artist's will.

In 1515 Francis I of France retook Milan, and Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (a mechanical lion) for the peace talks between the French King and Pope Leo X in Bologna, where he must have first met the King. In 1516, he entered Francis' service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé next to the king's residence at the Royal Chateau at Amboise [3]. The King granted Leonardo and his entourage generous pensions: the surviving document lists 1000 ecus for the artist, 400 for Melzi (named "apprentice") and 100 for Salai (named "servant"). In 1518 Salai left Leonardo and returned to Milan, where he eventually perished in a duel. Francis became a close friend.

Leonardo da Vinci died in Cloux, France on 2nd May, 1519, in the arms of King Francis[4]. According to his wish, 60 beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Melzi was his principal heir and executor, but Salai was not forgotten: he received half of Leonardo's vineyard.


Leonardo is well known for his artistry and paintings, such as Last Supper (Ultima Cena or Cenacolo, in Milan) 1498, and the Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda, now at the Louvre in Paris), 1503-1506. Though there is significant debate whether Leonardo himself painted the Mona Lisa, or whether it was the work of his students, it is known that it was probably his favorite piece. He most likely kept it with him at all times, and not travelling without it. Thousands of people see it each year in the Louvre, perhaps drawing their own interpretation on what is known as the Mona Lisa's most infamous and enigmatic feature - her smile.

Leonardo often planned grandiose paintings with many drawings and sketches, only to leave the projects unfinished. For example, in 1481 he was commissioned to paint the altarpiece "The Adoration of the Magi ". After extensive, ambitious plans and many drawings, the painting was left unfinished and Leonardo left for Milan. Only seventeen of his paintings and none of his statues survived.

In Milan he spent 17 years making plans and models for a monumental seven-metre (24-foot) high horse statue in bronze ("Gran Cavallo". Because of war with France, the project was never finished. Based on private initiative, a similar statue was completed according to some of his plans in 1999 in New York, given to Milan and erected there. The Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland has a small bronze horse, thought to be the work of an apprentice from Leonardo's original design.

After returning to Florence, he was commissioned for a large public mural, the "Battle of Anghiari "; his rival Michelangelo was to paint the opposite wall. After producing a fantastic variety of studies in preparation for the work, he left the city, with the mural unfinished due to technical difficulties.

Leonardo pioneered new painting techniques in many of his pieces. One of them, a colour shading technique called "Sfumato", used a series of custom-made glazes by Leonardo. It is characterized by subtle, almost infinitesimal, transitions between color areas, creating a atmospheric haze or smoky effect. "Chiaroscuro" is the technique of modelling and defining forms through contrasts of light and shadow.

List of paintings

Science and engineering

Perhaps even more impressive than his artistic work are his studies in science and engineering, recorded in notebooks comprising some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and science. These notes were made and maintained through Leonardo's travels through Europe, during which he made continual observations of the world around him. He was left-handed and used mirror writing throughout his life. Explainable by fact that it is easier to pull a quill pen than to push it; by using mirror-writing, the left-handed writer is able to pull the pen from right to left.

His approach to science was an observatory one: he tried to understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail, and did not emphasize experiments or theoretical explanations. Throughout his life, he planned a grand encyclopedia based on detailed drawings of everything. Since he lacked formal education in Latin and mathematics, contemporary scholars mostly ignored Leonardo the scientist.

In common with the majority of his peers at the time, he believed that the Sun and Moon revolved around the Earth, and that the Moon reflects the sun's light due to its being covered by water.


Leonardo's study of the proportions of the human body.
Vitruvian man
Leonardo's study of the proportions of the human body.

Leonardo started to discover the anatomy of the human body at the time he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, as his teacher insisted that all his pupils learn anatomy. As he became successful as an artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the hospital Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Later he dissected also in Milano in the hospital Maggiore and in Rome in the hospital Santo Spirito (the first mainland Italian hospital). From 1510 to 1511 he collaborated with the doctor Marcantonio della Torre (1481-1511). In 30 years, Leonardo dissected 30 male and female corpses of different age. Together with Marcantonio, he prepared to publish a theoretical work on anatomy and made more than 200 drawings. However, his book only was published only in 1580 (long after his death) under the heading Treatise on painting.

Leonardo drew many images of the human skeleton, and was the first to describe the double S form of the backbone. He also studied the inclination of pelvis and sacrum and stressed, that sacrum was not uniform, but composed of five vertebrae. He was also able to represent exceptionally well the human skull and cross-sections of the brain (transversal, sagittal and frontal). He drew many images of lung, mesentery, urinary tract, sex organs and even coitus. He was one of the firsts who drew the fetus in the intrauterine position (he wished to learn about "the miracle of pregnancy"). He often drew muscles and tendons of the cervical muscles and of the shoulder. He was a master of topographic anatomy . He not only studied the anatomy of human, but also of other beings. It is important that he was not only interested in structure but also in function, so he was anatomist and physiologist at the same time. Because he actively searched for bodily deformed people to paint them, he is also considered to be the beginner of caricature.

His study of human anatomy led also to the design of the first known robot in recorded history. The design, which has come to be called Leonardo's robot, was probably made around the year 1495 but was rediscovered only in the 1950s. It is not known if an attempt was made to build the device.

Inventions and engineering

Fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, Leonardo produced detailed studies of the flight of birds, and plans for several flying machines, including a helicopter powered by four men (which would not have worked since the body of the craft would have rotated) and a light hang-glider which could have flown. On January 3, 1496 he unsuccessfully tested a flying machine he had constructed.

In 1502 Leonardo da Vinci produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (240 m) bridge as part of a civil engineering project for Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The bridge was intended to span an inlet at the mouth of the Bosphorus known as the Golden Horn. It was never built, but Leonardo's vision was resurrected in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Owing to his sometime employment as a military engineer, his notebooks also contain several designs for military machines: machine guns, an armored tank powered by humans or horses, cluster bombs, etc. even though he later held war to be the worst of human activities. Other inventions include a submarine, a cog-wheeled device that has been interpreted as the first mechanical calculator, and a car powered by a spring mechanism. In his years in the Vatican, he planned an industrial use of solar power, by employing concave mirrors to heat water.

His notebooks

Why Leonardo did not publish or otherwise distribute the contents of his notebooks remains a mystery to those who believe that Leonardo wanted to publish his notebooks and make his observations public knowledge. Technological historian Lewis Mumford suggests that Leonardo kept notebooks as a private journal, intentionally censoring his work from those who may irresponsibly use it (the tank, for instance). They remained obscure until the 19th century, and were not directly of value to the development of science and technology. In January 2005, researchers discovered the hidden laboratory used by Leonardo da Vinci for studies of flight and other pioneering scientific work in previously sealed rooms at a monastery next to the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, in the heart of Florence.[5]

While most of Leonardo's inventions were not realized, many were technologically feasible as it was demonstrated recently, e.g. his tank [6].

In fiction

With the genius and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci having captivated authors and scholars generations after his death, the following examples of "Da Vinci fiction" can be found in culture and literature.

  • In the Star Trek: Original Series episode "Requiem for Methuselah", Leonardo da Vinci is revealed to be one of many aliases to "Flint", an immortal man born in the year 3834 BC. Leonardo's abilities and knowledge are thus attributed to centuries of scientific and artistic study. Leonardo appears again in the Star Trek universe, in the series Star Trek Voyager, where his workshop is created as a holographic simulation. Actor James Daly played Flint / Leonardo in Star Trek: The Original Series, while John Rhys-Davies portrayed Leonardo in Star Trek Voyager. Also, in the S.C.E. (Starfleet Corps of Engineers) novels, the main starship of the series is called the U.S.S. Da Vinci (NCC-81623), a Saber-class vessel, named for the artist.
  • The 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death features a theft of the Mona Lisa. The Doctor goes back in time to visit Leonardo's workshop and claims to be an old acquaintance of the artist. Leonardo also appears as a character in several Doctor Who novels.
  • Theodore Mathieson 's short story "Leonardo Da Vinci: Detective" portrays him using his genius to solve a murder during his time in France.
  • The novel Pasquale's Angel by Paul McAuley, set in an alternate universe Florence, portrays Leonardo as "the Great Engineer", creating a premature industrial revolution (see clockpunk).
  • The novel The Memory Cathedral by Jack Dann is a fictional account of a "lost year" in the life of Leonardo. Dann has his genius protagonist actually create his flying machine.
  • The DC Comics Elseworlds story Black Masterpiece, in Batman Annual #18 shows Leonardo's apprentice becoming a Renaissance Batman, using the Master's devices in his war on Florentine crime.
  • DC Comics's Vertigo division published a twelve-issue miniseries about Leonardo and his apprentice Salai, entitled "Chiaroscuro: The Private Life of Leonardo da Vinci."
  • In the mainstream DC Universe, according to "Secret Origins" #27, Leonardo is an ancestor of the famed Freemason Cagliostro, as well as Zatara and Zatanna who are both magicians (in the Magic (illusion) and Magic (paranormal) senses) and Superheroes.
  • Terry Pratchett's character Leonard of Quirm is a pastiche of Leonardo.
  • The Dargaud cartoon character Léonard by Turk and De Groot.
  • Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code revolves around a conspiracy based on elements of Leonardo's Last Supper and other works, claiming that he belonged to the Priory of Sion (a sect generally regarded as fictitious).
  • Leonardo in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was named after Leonardo da Vinci.
  • The movie Ever After from 1998 starring Drew Barrymore and Patrick Godfrey as Leonardo da Vinci.
  • In the J.J. Abrams ALIAS TV series there is a character named Milo Rambaldi based on the work and life of Leonardo.
  • The movie Hudson Hawk starring Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello revolves around Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions.
  • Peter Barnes's Leonardo's Last Supper centers on Leonardo being "resurrected" in a filthy charnel house after being prematurely declared dead.

Further reading

  • Michael H. Hart (1992). The 100. Carol Publishing Group. ISBN 0806513500 (paperback).
  • Jean Paul Richter (1970). The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Dover. ISBN 0486225720 and ISBN 0486225739 (paperback). 2 volumes. A reprint of the original 1883 edition.
  • Frank Zollner & Johannes Nathan (2003). Leonardo Da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Taschen. ISBN 3822817341 (hardback).

See also


External links

Last updated: 10-19-2005 15:28:58
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