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|Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) painter, architect, sculptor, engineer, scientist
In the 15th century, Italy was experiencing a period of cultural and intellectual vitality known as the RENAISSANCE. It was a time of brilliance in literature, science, and the arts. Among the great geniuses of this time was Leonardo da Vinci. He is remembered today not only as the creator of some of the greatest works of art in human history but also as a man whose interests and passions encompassed an incredibly wide variety of fields, including painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering, music, geology, anatomy, biology, astronomy, and cartography.
Leonardo was born on April 15 in the town of Vinci, just outside Florence.He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer and lived out his childhood with his grandparents.When he was an adolescent, his father brought him to Florence to learn a trade. Because his illegitimate birth prevented Leonardo from joining the legal profession, his father set him up as an apprentice artist in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, a respected artist and craftsman. Leonardo spent several years in Verrocchio’s workshop, gradually mastering the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
In his youth, Leonardo developed an overriding and passionate curiosity about the natural world. He had a strong affinity for animals, particularly birds and horses, and became a vegetarian. He was fascinated by flora and other plants, as well as scenes of natural beauty, such as mountains or waterfalls. He expressed this curiosity about the natural world in his sketchbooks. Leonardo customarily carried a notebook with him wherever he went and filled them with drawings of anything that caught his attention. Many of these sketchbooks survive to this day, filled with Leonardo’s observations and brilliant drawings.
By the late 1470s, Leonardo had left Verrocchio’s workshop and had set himself up as an independent artist. He was commissioned by the monks of San Donato to create a painting for their main altar. Although the Adoration of the Magi is considered by many art historians to have been Leonardo’s first great masterpiece, he never finished it. Indeed, a tragic element of his life was his seeming inability to complete many of his most important works. In the early 1480s, Leonardo left Florence and moved to the city-state of Milan, then ruled by Duke Ludovico Sforza. Leonardo spent nearly two decades in Milan, and it was during this period that his genius reached its height. He became a trusted adviser to Duke Ludovico Sforza on matters of art and culture, as well as military engineering. Leonardo’s scientific work soon became an important part of his life. His notebooks from this period are filled with sketches and jotted notes concerning his scientific theories. Although his scientific work was unknown to the general public, it can now be seen that his understanding of physics and many other fields of science far surpassed that of anyone else in his time.
It was also during his years in Milan that Leonardo attempted to fulfill one of his great dreams: building a machine that would allow him to fly. He had long been fascinated by the flight of birds and studied the subject intensely, hoping for knowledge that would allow him to build a flying machine. His notebooks are filled with sketches of proposed designs, including one for a helicoptertype machine and others of various gliders and machines with flapping wings. It is not known if he actually built prototypes of any of these machines or if he attempted to fly any of them.
Through all this time, Leonardo continued to work on his art. Indeed, in the late 1490s, he created one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, The Last Supper, in which he depicts the famous scene from the Bible in which Jesus announces to his apostles that one of them will betray him. Leonardo created the painting for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where it still exists today.
Leonardo’s other great artistic project during this period was the creation of a giant bronze statue of a horse and rider, which was to memorialize the father of Duke Ludovico. The artist spent many years on this project, which was to be of unprecedented size. His notebooks are filled with preparatory sketches, and he created a full-scale clay statue as a model. Unfortunately, just as Leonardo was to begin casting the bronze,Milan was attacked by its enemies and the bronze had to be used for cannon. Later, the highly regarded clay model was destroyed by soldiers using it for target practice. In 1499, fleeing a French invasion of northern Italy, Leonardo left Milan and spent the next few years wandering through Italy. He advised the leaders of Venice in how to defend their city from the Turks and spent a few months working as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, a warlord famous for both his brilliance and his cruelty. During this period, Leonardo met and befriended the political philosopher Niccolò MACHIAVELLI. During the next few years, Leonardo moved among Florence, Milan, and Rome. He painted some of his greatest works, including the portrait known as the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in history, and continued his scientific investigations into nature, filling his notebooks with his thoughts. Toward the end of his life, Leonardo left Italy and took up residence in France, living as a guest of the French king.He died in the town of Cloux on May 2. The life of Leonardo da Vinci has come to symbolize the great potential of the human mind. Leonardo himself has become the idealization of the “Renaissance Man,” one who does not concern himself with only one particular activity, but whose skills and talents embrace a wide variety of different fields and interests.
Although he is best known as a painter, Leonardo’s notebooks, taken collectively, constitute a great lit erary masterpiece. Throughout his life, he would record his observations about people or nature in these notebooks, and he eventually amassed an incredible amount of information.
Leonardo does not seem to have organized his notebooks in any particular manner. Each of themseems to be filled randomly, so that a single page might have preparatory sketches of horses, observations concerning the flow of a river, or even shopping lists. Nor do the individual notebooks concern any individual themes. In addition, for reasons which are not clear, the notebooks were written backward and in reverse, from right to left. One can read the notebooks clearly only by holding a mirror up to the page.
Apart from a story of seeing a kite as a boy and a possibly fictitious story about exploring a dark cave, there are remarkably few details about Leonardo’s personal life. This may be because he did not wish information about his private life to become known, or it may simply be that he did not consider such matters to be of particular importance. Leonardo’s notebooks are famous largely for the incredible scientific speculations they contain. Sketches of cannon firing projectiles demonstrate his knowledge of ballistics, while his numerous sketches of flowing rivers betray a highly advanced knowledge of hydrodynamics. He also recorded numerous astronomical observations, as well as astonishing designs for new inventions, including flying machines, proposals for submarines, tanks, bicycles, parachutes, gear shifts, and water pumps. Leonardo’s notebooks reveal a mind of the highest order and knowledge that was far in advance of his time.However, because his notebooks were not published until many centuries after his death, his discoveries did not make any significant impact on Western civilization. Had his scientific breakthroughs and inventions become widely known among his contemporaries, the course of history would likely have been very different.