Authors: Leonardo da Vinci

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Italian artist and scientist

April 15, 1452

Vinci, Republic of Florence (now in Italy)

May 2, 1519

Cloux (now Clos-Lucé), near Amboise, France


Leonardo da Vinci, the illegitimate but not unacknowledged son of Piero da Vinci, was born in 1452. Little is known of his childhood before his father took him to Florence to be the pupil of Andrea del Verrochio in 1469. Sigmund Freud seized upon one of the few autobiographical references in Leonardo’s notebooks—a dream he experienced as a child of a kite sticking its tail in his mouth—to hypothesize a possible childhood and furnish the foundation for a repressed homosexuality he was convinced had played an important role in Leonardo’s creative process and achievement. The absence in general of any relevant information about Leonardo’s personal life and his reticence to speak of it in his notebooks have left him open to speculation and to such myth makers as Giorgio Vasari, who have endeavored to make Leonardo as superhuman and mysterious as his art. Perhaps it was this self-imposed isolation that enabled him to perceive, as he seemed to do, the universal order that was manifest in every living thing.

Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1472, Leonardo was admitted to the painters’ guild in Florence and about that time painted The Annunciation and the angel on Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ. This period of apprenticeship was also a time in which he learned about architecture, sculpture, and metal working. In 1482, approximately, Leonardo offered his services to Ludovico Sforza (“Il Moro”) and went to Milan, not as an artist but as a military engineer. His notebooks reveal some of the weapons he designed as well as some of the fantastic military projects and gadgets his inquiring mind devised. His ability as a military engineer did not make either Sforza or Milan impregnable, however, for Milan fell to the soldiers of Louis XII in 1499. During his long period in Milan, Leonardo distinguished himself as a man with wide-ranging abilities, including as portrait painter, pageant producer, architect, sculptor, and engineer. His mind seemed obsessed with a Faustian craving for knowledge of all sorts. His chief artistic works of this period were his plaster model of a gigantic horse, too large to be cast, finished in 1493 and planned as part of an equestrian statue in honor of Ludovico’s father, and his painting The Last Supper, painted on the walls of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The model was destroyed by the invading French army and the painting partially lost by the paint’s lack of durability.

The impermanence of two of his greatest masterpieces is somehow emblematic of Leonardo’s total achievement. Much of the mystery that seems to shroud his life and art comes from the gap between his ability and his achievement. The list of his work includes many items now lost or never completed. Even his notebooks, which remain the best source on the workings of his mind, are incomplete. Some have claimed that he was constitutionally unable to finish anything he began. Others have said that his love of the scientific method and fascination with experimentation explain why, in some instances, his projects dragged on so long that he was forced to abandon them and why, in others, the tinkering with new methods caused the work to fail, as was the case with The Battle of Anghiari, which was stopped in 1506 because the paint was beginning to come off the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Combining these two views, it has been postulated that his love of the infinite and the perfect, as evidenced by the numerous drawings of interlaced knots in his notebooks, made it almost a foregone conclusion that the corpus of finished work would be small and his search for new forms never completed.

If this demand for perfection caused many projects to remain unfinished, it also accounts for the lasting value of those works of art that remain. The portraits of Ginevra de’ Benci, Cecilia Gallerani, and Mona Lisa, together with The Madonna of the Rocks, Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and St. John the Baptist, reveal that the man who dissected more than thirty bodies in order to satisfy his craving to know and to prepare himself for painting the human figure was not wasting his time. He mastered all that the eye could see, but, along with the scientific precision and mathematical perfection that he claimed were essential for artistic success, he was able to convey that essence of the human mystery the eye cannot see. In the faces of his portraits it can be seen that, as one of his favorite maxims put it, “the eye is the window of the soul.”

Leonardo returned to Florence in 1503 with a plan to change the course of the Arno and the intended project The Battle of Anghiari. Although he failed in both of these endeavors, he painted Mona Lisa at this time. After returning to Milan, he went to Rome in 1513, in the company of Francesco Melzi, to whom he later bequeathed his notebooks. About 1517, he left for France and died there two years later.

Author Works Nonfiction: Notebooks, wr. c. 1490-1519 (The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, 1833; The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, 1906, 1938) Trattato della pittura, 1651, complete edition 1817 (A Treatise on Painting, 1721) Bibliography Bramly, Serge. Leonardo: The Artist and the Man. Translated by Sian Reynolds. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. An acclaimed biography that attempts to present a psychological portrait of the artist. Brown, David Alan. Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A very detailed study of da Vinci’s early life, illustrating the personal and environmental influences that led to his later genius. Farago, Claire, ed. Biography and Early Art Criticism of Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Garland, 1999. A bibliography of biographies of Leonardo and early criticism of his work. Farago, Claire, ed. Leonardo’s Projects, c. 1500-1519. New York: Garland, 1999. A collection of scholarly essays on Leonardo's artistic works in the titular time period. Farago, Claire, ed. Leonardo’s Science and Technology: Essential Readings for the Non-scientist. New York: Garland, 1999. A book focusing on Leonardo's scientific work and inventions. Farago, Claire, ed. Leonardo’s Writings and Theory of Art. New York: Garland, 1999. A volume of essays about Leonardo's notebooks. Farago, Claire, ed. An Overview of Leonardo’s Career and Projects Until c.1500. New York: Garland, 1999. A multivolume collection of essays covering all aspects of da Vinci’s life, organized by genre. Kemp, Martin. Leonardo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A solid biography written by a da Vinci scholar. Kemp, Martin, ed. Leonardo on Painting. Yale UP, 1989. A collection of Leonardo's writings on painting. Nuland, Sherwin B. Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Viking Press, 2000. Focuses on da Vinci’s work as an anatomist. Turner, Richard. Inventing Leonardo. New York: Knopf, 1993. An eloquent and wide-ranging study that aims to create an outline history of Western thought by reviewing the life and legacies of da Vinci. White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Focuses on da Vinci’s life and his work as a scientist rather than as a painter. Whiting, Roger. Leonardo, a Portrait of the Renaissance Man. Secaucus, N.J.: Wellfleet Press, 1992. A well-illustrated biography.

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