Here’s an interesting game for your next party: invite your guests to speculate on who they would like to meet if they could travel back in time.
In fact, you could ask them to present three such people and the reasons they’d like to meet them.
For me, Leonardo is invariably the first on my list; if said question were limited to only one famous personage long dead to meet, da Vinci would be my pick.
This quintessential Renaissance man was possessed of such an active and curious mind that no topic was off-limits for him.
He envisioned machines that would not be built for several hundreds of years as easily as he expounded on the scientific concepts of the day.
There was no discipline he wouldn’t turn his mind to: science and mathematics, astronomy and cartography – mapping the stars, the world and the human body.
His Vitruvian Man, a study of human proportions reflects his meticulous nature and patterns of parallel thought.
As a drawing, it is perfectly scaled but its premise compelled him to delve into deeper philosophical questions by postulating that the human body is analogous of the greater cosmos.
For all that da Vinci was a polymath – he was the very definition of ‘wide-ranging learning’, he was only incidentally an artist.
That is to say: unlike Michelangelo or any other of his contemporaries, art was not his only – or even his first focus.
Seen through these filters, it is rather strange that da Vinci would be considered one of the world’s most famous artists when he didn’t think of himself as an artist at all!
We now look at Leonardo: his life, his works and his most famous paintings.
A Short Biography
Leonardo of Vinci was born either on the 14th or the 15th of April, 1452. He was the illegitimate son of a well-to-do legal notary and a woman named Caterina.
For the first years of his life, Leonardo lived with his mother. Records show that he lived with his father starting at least in 1457.
For a long time, he was the household’s only child; his father’s first two young wives died without producing any heirs.
His third and fourth wives were apparently more fertile; each one bore him six children, all of them substantially younger than Leonardo.
There are no records of Leonardo da Vinci marrying or fathering children, nor is anything indicated about any romantic relationships.
Except for one court record indicting him and three other males – a charge that was quickly dismissed, da Vinci seemed to have no life outside of work.
Interesting fact: like Leonardo da Vinci, Dutch Painter Vincent van Gogh did not have a true last name.
How to Educate a Genius
Was his precocity evident from an early age?
Despite being born to an unwed mother, Leonardo was treated as ‘legitimate’; he received a standard education in reading, writing and arithmetic. He did not study higher math until much later.
Barely into his teens, Leonardo landed a position as a studio boy for a leading Florentine painter and sculptor. There is also speculation that, during this time, the handsome Leonardo posed for a few artworks.
It wasn’t until three years later that he formally apprenticed under his mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio, alongside another future artist named Botticelli.
After his three-year apprenticeship, the Guild of Saint Luke qualified 20-year-old Leonardo as a master among artists.
His father, eager for his return, built him a workshop but, presumably enjoying the warmth and collaboration of Verrocchio’s digs, Leonardo opted to continue working there.
Paul Cezanne, an outcast of the impressionist art scene, would have loved to have enjoyed that level of camaraderie!
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Leonardo the Working Man
By all indications, da Vinci was happy as a studio artist for the next six years.
Landing his first commission in 1478 from the chapel in what is now the town hall in Florence gives an idea of when he felt ready to strike out on his own.
Young Leonardo travelled in very influential circles; the kind that helped him land a second commission: to paint The Adoration of the Magi.
French impressionist Claude Monet – or, for that matter, any of the Renaissance painters would have sold their soul for such assignments but, apparently, Leonardo did not think very much of them because he left them both incomplete.
Now we get to why Leonardo did not think of himself as an artist...
Perhaps feeling stifled by the philosophies embraced by the Medici court he was a part of, he travelled to Milan and endeavoured to establish himself in Duke Sforza’s court.
In his letter of introduction to the duke, da Vinci averred he could achieve great things in the field of weapon design and engineering, only mentioning as an afterthought that he could also paint.
The gambit must have worked; Leonardo stayed in Milan for 17 years.
While there, he was commissioned to paint The Virgin on the Rocks as well as The Last Supper – the most famous religious painting in art history.
Da Vinci and friends fled Milan when the Duke was overthrown. They sojourned in Venice, where he was employed as an engineer, devising ways to protect the city from naval attacks.
Records show that his next court appointment came in Cesena in 1502. There, the son of Pope Alexander VI hired Leonardo as a military architect and engineer.
Leonardo, along with his patron, travelled all over Italy drawing maps – a rare commodity at the time, and engineering a dam to keep inland water levels steady.
His quest for work as anything but a painter and leaving commissioned work unfinished is why, in spite of his renown, Leonardo likely did not consider himself an artist.
Believe it or not, of all the French artists, Henri Matisse had the most in common with da Vinci.
Who was Lisa del Giocondo?
Born into a family of good repute in Florence, she married a fairly well-to-do cloth merchant while still a teen. In spite of their great age difference, they were happy and devoted to each other.
Lisa mothered her five children and Francesco’s son from a previous marriage while Francesco went on to become a public official.
There are indications that this was a love match from the get-go rather than a marriage of convenience: her family paying an exceedingly low dowry, for one, and her raising his son as her own for another.
By far the greatest testament of Francesco’s love for his wife was the commission of an oil painting of her by none other than the great Leonardo da Vinci.
We know why Francesco commissioned the painting: to celebrate their new home and the birth of their new child. Why Leonardo accepted the commission is actually a mystery.
It might have been because, at that time, he had no patronage and no money... but the truth is lost to history.
Clearly, he already had plenty on his plate: he was under commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari (which he didn’t finish) and had several engineering projects in the works.
Whatever his reasons, he accepted the commission. Lisa sat for her portrait, and they waited. They waited in vain.
Like so many other oil paintings Leonardo agreed to paint, the Mona Lisa did not see completion until 1519 and was never delivered. He took her on his travels (the painting, not the actual woman), eventually ending up in France, where she has been ever since.
Today, the Mona Lisa reigns supreme among famous works of art; at the Louvre, her permanent home, and around the world.
Reproductions of her likeness can be seen on everything from coffee mugs to shopping bags; even Andy Warhol got in on the painting reproduction act, titling his version Thirty are Better than One.
Da Vinci is the artist behind not one but two of the world’s masterpieces – well, actually more than two, but, as illustrated by the events of his working life, he didn’t seem to appreciate he was one of the most famous painters of his time.
He probably doesn’t care that he may well be the most talented painter in the history of art.
Time to challenge your knowledge of the art world: what did Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and da Vinci have in common?
Leonardo da Vinci trained as a painter and artist in an actual artist’s workshop, yet he treated his ability to create amazing works of art in an almost offhand manner.
As his reputation grew and he travelled around, he billed himself not as an itinerant artist but as an engineer... at the time of the High Renaissance, when any original oil painting was highly sought after.
Thanks to the excellent reputation da Vinci enjoyed, his must have been some expensive paintings indeed!
We have to wonder what would possess such an intellect to swear off virtually all relationships and forego the possibility of having a family – a very dire prospect at the height of the Italian Renaissance.
Clearly, da Vinci knew to conform to the societal norms of his day; equally clear is that he only did so to earn his keep.
No matter whose court he enlightened or which town he improved through his feats of engineering, his mind was always on the next idea, the next project... the next thing he could realise.
Probably, in light of that, landscape painting and portraiture would have seemed dull indeed.
I often wonder what it would have been like to know da Vinci. Could one even keep up with his lightning-quick thoughts and staggering intellect?
Leonardo always thought himself a failure; one wonders what his reaction would be to finding his work on display in The Hermitage museum, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – where you can see The Annunciation, his first work, and the National Gallery in London.
Are you interested in expressionism or does impressionism strike you more? Learn about the best paintings and the artists that created them.