Capable Men of History: Leonardo da Vinci

You may have come across the Vituvian Man, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Flying Machine and many of this inventions and masterpieces which made a man the face of Renaissance, sparked controversies, and changed the world forever. It will definitely made you think, how can one man influence various field of study?

In this article, you will know more how a man without formal education influenced modern art, science and engineering. The Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

Life of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo de ser Piero da Vinci also known as Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452 Anchiano, Tuscany on the outskirts of Vinci. According to Professor Martin Kemp from Oxford University, Leonardo’s mother’s name was Caterina di Meo Lippi and his father’s name was Ser Piero. Born out of wedlock during the time of his birth, he doesn’t have a last name that’s why the meaning of “da Vinci” basically means he was “from Vinci”.

He grew up with his father, grandparents and his uncle. When he was young, it was recorded that he was regarded as an omen because as a kite fell from the sky, it drifted over his cradle and the tails brushed on his face. Also, stumbling on a cave he discovered while exploring the mountains, he believed that there are monsters inside it and he is determined to known what is inside the cave. He is also known to be ambidextrous. 

According to Vasari, a 16th century biographer of Renaissance painters, Leonardo is quite famous among the local peasants because of his talent in painting. They asked Ser Piero to encourage his son to make an artwork out of a round plaque. He made a plaque with a heart pierced by an arrow in exchange of the first work he made with a snake spitting fire which shocked his father and he sold it to a Florentine Art dealer which was eventually sold to the Duke of Milan.

He was known to many names. Working as an apprentice in 1466, when he was only fourteen years old with one of the most successful artists during that time, Andrea di Cione, also known as Verrochio. He educated him with technical skills such as drafting, chemistry, carpentry, metal works, leather works and carpentry. He also assured Leonardo of an education in Humanities. Aside from all that, he also developed his artistic skills particularly in drawing, painting, sculpting and modeling.

Citing from Vasari’s biography, Leonardo collaborated with Verocchio to create “Baptism of Christ” painting. It is also assumed that Leonardo himself was the model for the works of Verrocchio particularly the Bronze Statue of David in Bargello and the Archangel Michael in Tobias.

At the age of twenty, Leonardo was qualified into the painter’s guild and medical doctors of Florence. His father started up his own workshop and he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio. One of his earliest work in pen and ink was the Arno Valley on August 5, 1473.

After an incident in 1476 when Leonardo together with three men were charged and eventually acquitted with sodomy, there are no records of his work.

There are no known whereabouts of Leonardo until 1481 where he made extant technical sketches such as pumps, military weapons, technical apparatus which catered to his interest and knowledge of technical matters. In the same year, he was hired to make an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo del Signoria, which he never started and an unfinished panel painting for Monk of San Donato a Scopeto, the The Adoration of the Magi. It was believed that he gave up both projects for deep reasons such as Neoplatonism in Florence and the work for the ruling Sforza Clan of Milan attracted him.

Around 1487, “Vitruvius” popularly known as the Vituvian Man was created in collaboration with Luca Pacioli. The drawing is sometimes depicted as Canon of Proportions or the Proportions of Man. This image shows Leonardo’s keen interest in proportion corresponds with the form of circle and a square.

During his stay in Mila, one of his remarkable painting, “The Last Supper” or “The Cenacle” was painted around 1495-1498 for the city’s Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Working as an engineer, painter, designer for court festivals, he was asked by the family to create a splendid 16-foot equestrian statue in bronze to honor Francesco Sforza. Looming war however halted the creation of the said bronze statue to be used for cannons and other weapons to defend the city against Charles VIII. 

In the emergence of the Second Italian War in 1499, the ruthless invading French troops destroyed to clay model for the bronze statue. Ludovico Sforza fell from power. Leonardo together with his assistant, Salai and his friend, Luca Pacioli who is a Mathematician, they fled from Milan to Venice. He was a technical adviser in architecture and military matters. He also served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer. Devising methods to defend it from naval attack.

Returning to Florence in 1500 after the French invasion, Leonardo together with his assistant and friends visited the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop. According to Vasari, Leonardo made the sketch of “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” and “St. John the Baptist” in the monastery’s workshop.

In the summer of 1502, Leonardo left Florence to work as a Senior Miliary Architect and General Engineer for Cesare Borgia, who is the infamous son of Pope Alexander VI. Traveling throughout Italy, Leonardo sketched some of the city plans and created early aspects of modern cartography.

In the spring of 1503, he returned to Florence where he rejoined the Guild of St Luke and attempted to divert the Arno River behind Pisa because the Florentines were deprived to access the sea. The attempt did not work that is why the large canal which bypass the unnavigable Arno River and connected Florence to the sea. Again, it was never carried out but centuries later, an expressway from Florence to the sea was built in accordance to the route plan made by Leonardo.

In 1504, Leonardo’s father died.

Approximately in 1503 until 1506, he painted a series of portrait which includes the famous “La Gioconda” or the “Mona Lisa”. It depicts a woman who is subject of speculation because of her mysterious slight smile. It is currently housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France attracting millions of tourists each year.

In 1506, together with his prominent students including the young aristocrat Francesco Melzi, who was Leonardo’s closest companion until his death returned to Milan. 

Ironically, Leonardo was again commissioned to sculp an equestrian-statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the one who overthrew Ludovico Sforza. It, too, was never completed.

Leonardo’s interest in Science flourished. He studied anatomy to achieve a new dimension together with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia. Leonardo sketched out a detailed copy of the human body with its organs. 

From 1513 to 1516, due to François I’s invasion of Milan, he commissioned Leonardo to make a mechanical lion which can walk forward with an openable chest to show a bunch of lilies. He was housed in the manor house Clos Lucé near the royal Chateau Amboise. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in Rome together with his loyal friend and apprentice, Francesco Melzi with a pension of 10,000 scudo.

Leonardo died of a probable stroke at the age of 67 on May 2, 1519. Vasari records that King François I, who became Leonardo’s close friend held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he gave his last breath.

What makes him a genius?

Due to his diverse interest, he was able to observe his environment especially in nature, scientific laws, human and animal body. He did not have formal education but he used flaming desire study, learn, explore and eventually create inventions and masterpieces. He truly is ahead of his century because of his futuristic ideas and inventions.  

How did he change the world?

His influence inspired many scientists and artists. Also, he was able to spark the light in the brilliant minds of scientists, inventors and even artists to do more. He was limited by the resources and technology of his time. He allowed people in his future to know more about the human body, engineering sketches that paved way for humans to take the skies and many more. Living up to his quotation “The knowledge of all this is possible.”