Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, and is widely considered, not only to be one of the greatest painters of all time, but perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.
In the early sixteenth century, Leonardo painted a portrait of Janette DuCharme, who was then involved intimately with Nicholas de Brabant. When this relationship ended acrimoniously some years later, Nicholas insisted on retaining the painting as a memento, to the annoyance of Janette. She told him that she would commission a replacement from the artist, suggesting that the break-up must have happened prior to Leonardo's death in 1519.
In the late twentieth century, living in Toronto under the name Nick Knight, her old lover kept Janette's portrait in a picture cabinet in his loft. However, he eventually reconsidered his possession of it, and finally decided to return the picture to Janette. It is not known whether she took it with her when she decided to leave Toronto, or whether she put her possessions temporarily in storage. However, the painting returned to Nick's possession when she briefly returned to the city; and he later told LaCroix that she had given it back to him.
Leonardo was born 15 April 1452 at Vinci, in the region of Florence, the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina. ("Da Vinci" is not properly his surname, but simply says that he came "from Vinci".) In 1466, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to one of the most successful artists of his day, Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio. Verrocchio's workshop was at the centre of the intellectual currents of Florence, assuring the young Leonardo of an education in the humanities. By 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine; and his father set him up in his own workshop. It is assumed that Leonardo had this workshop in Florence between 1476 and 1481.
In 1482, Leonardo created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse's head. Lorenzo de’ Medici sent Leonardo—bearing the lyre as a gift—to secure peace with Ludovico Sforza, il Moro, Duke of Milan. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter to Ludovico, describing the many marvellous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering, and informing him that he "could also paint". Leonardo worked in Milan between 1482 and 1499. He worked on many different projects for Duke Ludovico, including the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral, and a model for a huge equestrian monument (which was never completed because the Duke needed to use the bronze for cannon when the duchy was invaded).
In 1499, invading French troops overthrew Ludovico Sforza; and Leonardo fled to Venice, where he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack. On his return to Florence in 1500, he and his household were provided with a workshop by the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata. In 1502, Leonardo briefly entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, travelling throughout Italy with his patron, for whom he acted as a military architect and engineer. After that his time was split between residence in Florence and Milan.
From 1513 to 1516, Leonardo spent much of his time living in the Vatican in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time. However, in 1516, he entered the service of François I, King of France, who gave him use of the manor house Clos Lucé, near the king's residence at the royal Chateau Amboise. It was here that Leonardo spent the last three years of his life. He died 2 May 1519. Legend says that the king, who had become a close personal friend, held Leonardo's head in his arms as he died.
Leonardo as Natural PhilosopherEdit
Renaissance humanism saw no mutually exclusive polarities between the sciences and the arts; and Leonardo's studies in science and engineering are as impressive and innovative as his artistic work. His notebooks comprise some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and natural philosophy (the forerunner of modern science). These notes were made and maintained daily throughout Leonardo's life and travels, as he made continual observations of the world around him. Leonardo's approach to science was an observational one: he tried to understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail, and did not emphasize experiments or theoretical explanation.
The journals are mostly written in mirror-image cursive. The reason may have been more a matter of practical expedience than for reasons of secrecy: since Leonardo wrote with his left hand, it is probable that it was easier for him to write from right to left
Leonardo's journals appear to have been intended for publication. Certainly, many of the sheets have a form and order that would have facilitated this. In many cases, a single topic (such as the heart or the human foetus) is covered in detail, both in words and pictures, on a single sheet. It appears that from the content of his journals he was planning a series of treatises to be published on a variety of subjects.
Despite the recent awareness and admiration of Leonardo as a scientist and inventor, for the better part of four hundred years his enormous fame rested on his achievements as a painter. Only a handful of works attributed to him survive. They are regarded as among the supreme masterpieces ever created for a variety of qualities which have both been imitated by later artists and discussed at length by connoisseurs and critics. These qualities include innovative techniques in laying on paint; a detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology; an interest in physiognomy, particularly in terms of the way in which emotions register in expression and gesture; an innovative use of the human form in figurative composition; and the use of the subtle gradation of tone. All these qualities come together in his most famous painted works: the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Virgin of the Rocks.
Although Leonardo was not a prolific painter, he kept numerous journals filled both with small sketches and detailed drawings that recorded all manner of things that took his attention. There also exist many studies for paintings, some of which can be identified as preparatory to particular works, not all of which were completed.
- Adapted from the Wikipedia article on Leonardo da Vinci.