In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease. – Giorgio Vasiri
Leonardo da Vinci (1451 – 1519) was an Italian Renaissance polymath. Known as artist, creator of such elaborated works as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper or the Vitruvian Man, he was as well a gifted early age scientist, architect, inventor and philosopher. Because of his excellence in so many fields da Vinci is seen as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, a man of unquenchable curiosity and feverishly inventive imagination.
Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wed-lock in Vinci (thus his name da Vinci what simply means ‘from Vinci’). Vinci was a hill town in the territory of the Medici-ruled Republic of Florence. Little is known about his childhood. At one point he moved from the house of his mother, a peasant, to the estate of his father, a legal notary and gentlemen.
In 1466 he was apprenticed to the artist known as Verrocchio, who had been a student of the great sculptor Donatello. His workshop is also associated with other great artists of the time like Botticelli. Da Vinci’s training included, like the training of all apprentices of this time, art theory (the contemporary Piero della Francesca had made detailed studies of perspective and was the first to conduct scientific studies on light) and technical skills including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, carpentry as well as artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and modeling.
Da Vinci qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine in 1472 and was subsequently set up with his own work shop by his father. There are little facts available for the next 10 years of his life. He is said to have lived with the Medici and have worked in the Garden of the Piazza San Marco in Florence, a neo-Platonic academy of artists, poets and philosophers that the Medici had established. He was a particular favorite of the Medici family, once remarking himself “The Medici made me, and the Medici destroyed me.” Thus the assumption isn’t too far-fetched and it is easy to conclude that his success as a painter with such patrons was always assured.
In 1482 da Vinci was sent by the Medici as ambassador to the court of the Duke of Milan to secure peace. He stayed in Milan until 1499. During this time he was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks and the Last Supper as well as several projects for the Duke of Milan. His time in Milan ended with the start of the Second Italian War. Da Vinci fled to Venice, where he worked as advisor to the military, designing the city’s defense against a naval attack.
After his return to Florence in 1500, he entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander IV,in Cesena. Once again he acted as military architect and engineer – a job he secured by drawing a map, a rather unknown concept at this time.
His engagement with Cesare Borgia ended in 1503 when he returned to Florence. He reentered the guild, took commissions and was part of a committee formed to relocate, against the artist’s will, Michelangelo’s statue of David.
In 1506 he went once again to Milan, where he stayed until 1513. His life there was only interrupted in 1507, when he needed to return to Florence for a while to sort out problems with his brothers over his late father’s estate.
Between 1513 and 1516 da Vinci spent a lot of time living in the Belvedere in the Vatican, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at this time. After Francis I of France recaptured Milan in 1515 entered his service in 1516 and became a close friend of the king living in Clos Luce near the king’s residence at the royal Chateau d’Amboise. He died there in 1509 as the legend says in the king’s arms.
Da Vinci’s fame never faded. His work is as popular as ever. Together with Michelangelo and Raphael he makes up the holy trinity of High Renaissance art (though one shouldn’t forget that he was more than 20 years older than Michelangelo and almost 30 years older than Raphael, what doesn’t put them into the same generation and Michelangelo and da Vinci were far from being friends). And since he guarded his private life and his believes well, his life became the stuff that makes up myths and legends.