Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci

Life and Works of Famous Painter and Sculptor Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian painter, draughtsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer, exemplified the Renaissance humanist ideal with his talent and brilliance. His Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19) are two of the Renaissance’s most well-known and essential paintings. His journals demonstrate a scientific curiosity and mechanical ingenuity that was millennia ahead of its time.

Leonardo da Vinci Work
Credit: Conversation

Life of Leonardo da Vinci

Early period: Florence

Leonardo’s parents were not married when he was born. Ser Piero, his father, was a Florentine notary and landlord, and Caterina, his mother, was a young peasant woman who married an artisan soon after. Instead, Leonardo grew up on his father’s family’s estate, where he was raised as a “legitimate” son and obtained a primary education in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Leonardo’s artistic proclivities must have surfaced early in his life. His father, well-known in Florence, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio when he was about 15 years old. As a result, Leonardo got a diverse education in Verrocchio’s famed studio, which covered painting, sculpting, and technical-mechanical arts. He also worked in artist Antonio Pollaiuolo’s workshop next door.

Leonardo was welcomed into the Florence Painters’ Guild in 1472, but he stayed in his teacher’s workshop for another five years before working independently in Florence until 1481. Many excellent extant pen and pencil drawings from this period exist, including many technical sketches—for example, pumps, military weaponry, and mechanical apparatus—that demonstrate Leonardo’s interest in and grasp of technical topics even early in his career.

First Milanese period (from 1482–99)

Leonardo moved to Milan in 1482 to work for the city’s duke. A surprising move has given that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first significant commissions from his native Florence. The fact that he abandoned both initiatives suggests that he had deeper motives for leaving Florence.

It’s possible that the sophisticated Neoplatonic attitude prevalent in the Medici’s Florence ran against Leonardo’s experience-oriented mind and that the more rigorous, academic culture of Milan drew him in. He was also likely lured by Duke Ludovico Sforza’s dazzling court and the crucial enterprises that awaited him there.

Leonardo da Vinci stayed in Milan for 17 years until Ludovico’s death in 1499. In the royal household registry, he was described as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”). In court circles, Leonardo’s cordial but quiet demeanour and elegant bearing were well welcomed. He was well regarded and kept busy as a painter, sculptor, and designer of court celebrations.

He also worked as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer and served as a technical adviser in architecture, fortifications, and military problems. Leonardo established lofty ambitions for himself, as he did throughout his life- tracing the outlines of his work for this period or his whole life.

Leonardo painted six pieces throughout his 17 years in Milan as a painter. First, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks from around 1483 to 1486, a project that resulted in a ten-year legal battle between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which commissioned it, and Leonardo; for unknown reasons, this legal battle led Leonardo to create a second version of the work in about 1508.

He also painted one of his most famous works, the enormous wall painting Last Supper (1495–98), at the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, during this first Milanese time (for more analysis of this work, see below Last Supper). His beautiful ceiling painting for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco (1498) is noteworthy.

During this time, Leonardo worked on a significant sculptural project, which appears to be the valid reason he came to Milan: a monumental bronze equestrian statue to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the Sforza dynasty’s founder. Leonardo worked on this project for 12 years, with breaks.

On the occasion of Emperor Maximilian’s marriage to Bianca Maria Sforza in 1493, the clay model of the horse was displayed in public, and preparations were made to cast the mammoth figure, which was to be 16 feet (5 metres) tall. However, due to the impending threat of war, the ready-to-pour metal was instead used to manufacture cannons. It brought the project to a halt. The collapse of Ludovico in 1499 sealed the death of this ill-fated project, which was possibly the most significant monument concept in the 15th century. The war reduced the clay model to the wreckage.

Leonardo da Vinci, as a master artist, ran a large workshop in Milan, employing apprentices and students. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d’Oggiono, and Salai were among Leonardo’s students at the time. Most of these associates’ roles are unknown, which raises the subject of Leonardo’s so-called apocryphal works, on which he cooperated with his aides. Scholars have been unable to agree on who these works belong to.

Leonardo da Vinci
Credit: Blog

Second Florentine period (from 1500–08)

Leonardo fled Milan in the company of mathematician Lucas Pacioli in December 1499 or, at the latest, January 1500, just after the French conquered the city. After visiting Mantua in February 1500, he travelled to Venice in March to advise the Signoria (ruling council) on preventing a Turkish incursion in Friuli. Leonardo advised that they prepare to flood the threatened area.

After a long absence, he returned to Florence from Venice, where he was greeted with applause and hailed as a distinguished native son. In the same year, he was assigned as an architectural consultant to a committee looking at the foundation and structure of San Francesco al Monte church. However, Leonardo appears to have been focused more on mathematical studies than painting as a guest of the Servite order in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, according to Isabella d’Este’s representative in Florence, Fra Pietro Nuvolari, who had tried in vain to procure a picture by him.

Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1502 to join Cesare Borgia’s service as “principal military architect and general engineer,” maybe due to his voracious thirst for life. Leonardo journeyed across the condottiere’s territory for ten months, surveying them. He sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps as part of his work, providing early instances of modern mapping. Leonardo also met Niccol Machiavelli, who was temporarily stationed there as a political observer for Florence, in Cesare Borgia’s court.

In the spring of 1503, Leonardo da Vinci returned to Florence to conduct an expert inspection of a plan to redirect the Arno River behind Pisa, cutting off the city’s access to the sea, which was under siege by the Florentines time. The proposal fell through, but Leonardo’s activities prompted him to explore a scheme proposed in the 13th century to build a massive canal that would circumvent the Arno’s impassable portion and connect Florence to the sea by water.

In a series of studies, Leonardo developed his ideas. He produced a map showing the canal’s route (with its transit through the Serravalle mountain pass), using his panoramic views of the riverbank, which can be seen as landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and using exact measurements of the terrain. The idea was never completed, though it was proposed several times over the ages. However, decades later, the express motorway from Florence to the sea was built over Leonardo’s precise route for his canal.

In 1503, Leonardo was also awarded a prestigious contract to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, a colossal historical picture (at 23 56 feet [7 17 metres] would have been twice as massive as the Last Supper). He laboured on this Battle of Anghiari for three years, but it remained unfinished like its intended companion piece, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina. Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19) during these years.

The second Florentine era was also a period of intense scientific investigation. In the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Leonardo performed dissections and expanded his anatomical studies to include a complete study of the structure and function of the human organism. In addition, he performed systematic studies of avian flying, which he intended to write about in a dissertation. Even his hydrological study, which focused on “the nature and movement of water,” expanded to include studies of water’s physical qualities, particularly the rules of currents, which he linked to those of air.

Second Milanese period (from 1508–13)

In May 1506, the French ruler of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, requested the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo might travel to Milan. The Signoria released Leonardo, and the great Battle of Anghiari remained incomplete. Unsuccessful technical trials with paints appear to have prompted Leonardo to quit the mural; there is no other explanation for his abandonment of such a monumental work. Leonardo spent the winter of 1507–08 in Florence when he assisted sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici in creating bronze statues at the Florence Baptistery before returning to Milan.

Leonardo appreciated his duties, mostly limited to architectural advice, and was honoured and admired by his affluent sponsors in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII. Plans for a palace-villa for Charles exist, and it is thought that he drew some ideas for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria Alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also investigated an old proposal revived by the French governor: the Adda River, which would provide a water link between Milan and Lake Como.

Leonardo da Vinci produced virtually little as a painter during his second stint in Milan. Instead, Leonardo gathered his students once more around him. Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai, two of Leonardo’s older students, were back at his studio. In addition, new students arrived, including Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most devoted friend and companion until his death.

During this time, Leonardo received a significant commission. As the marshal of the French army and a passionate foe of Ludovico Sforza, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victorious to Milan. He asked Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to be shaped like an equestrian statue and put in the mortuary chapel that Trivulzio had donated to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore. Unfortunately, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one after years of preparatory work on the memorial, for which several notable sketches have survived. As a sculptor, this was Leonardo’s second failed endeavour.

During this time, Leonardo’s scientific activity was at its peak. In partnership with Marcantonio Della Torre, a well-known anatomist from Pavia, his studies in anatomy took on a new dimension. Leonardo sketched out a concept for a larger project that would include perfect, realistic replicas of the human body and organs and comparative anatomy and the entire subject of physiology. In the winter of 1510–11, he even planned to finish his anatomical work.

His manuscripts are also chock-full of mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical sciences. The assumption that force and motion, as basic mechanical activities, produce all external forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape became increasingly central to these discoveries. Furthermore, he felt that these operating forces follow a set of organised, harmonic principles.

Final years (from 1513–19)

Political circumstances in 1513, including the temporary eviction of the French from Milan, prompted the now 60-year-old Leonardo to relocate once more. He travelled to Rome towards the end of the year with his pupils Melzi and Salai and two studio helpers to find work through his patron, Giuliano de Medici. Giuliano provided him with a suite of apartments in his Vatican villa, the Belvedere. He also provided Leonardo with a substantial monthly allowance, but no significant commissions followed.

Leonardo stayed in Rome for three years at a time when there was a lot of artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to finish Pope Julius II’s tomb, and many younger artists like Timoteo Viti and Sodoma were also working. So the aged maestro kept a low profile while working in his studio on mathematical research and technical experiments or surveying historical monuments while strolling across the city, as evidenced by draughts of furious letters.

Although Leonardo da Vinci appears to have spent time with Bramante, the latter died in 1514, and no trace of Leonardo’s interactions with other artists in Rome exists. Nevertheless, according to a magnificently produced map of the Pontine Marshes, Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project authorised by Giuliano de’ Medici in 1514. He also drew plans for a large home for the Medici family, who had reclaimed control in Florence in 1512. The tower, however, was never completed.

By 1516, Vinci and Melzi, his most loyal pupil, had departed Italy for good. Leonardo spent the final three years of his life in Cloux (after Clos-Lucé), a small villa near the king’s summer palace in Amboise on the Loire. Premier peintre, architecte et mécanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”) was his proud title.

Leonardo continued to draw for court celebrations, but the king treated him as an honoured guest and gave him complete freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I discussed Leonardo with artist Benvenuto Cellini, who held him in the highest regard. Leonardo designed the palace and garden of Romorantin for the king, which would become the Queen Mother’s widow’s abode. However, because the region was threatened by malaria, the carefully planned project, which combined the best aspects of Italian and French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be terminated.

While in France, Leonardo spent most of his time organising and editing his scientific research, his painting treatise, and a few pages of his anatomy book. However, he showed the primal forces that dominate nature with powerful imagination in the so-called Visions of the End of the World series (c. 1517–18), including the drawings A Deluge and possibly, indicates his developing pessimism.

Leonardo died in Cloux and was buried in the Saint-Florentin Palace Church. Unfortunately, his burial can no longer be found because the church was destroyed during the French Revolution and wholly demolished at the turn of the century. Melzi was the artistic and scientific successor to Leonardo da Vinci’s patrimony.

Mona Lisa
Credit: Wikipedia

Works of Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa, the world’s most renowned painting, attracts thousands of people to the Louvre Museum each day, many of whom are drawn to the sitter’s cryptic stare and enigmatic grin. The seemingly commonplace photo of a young woman dressed modestly in a thin veil, grey colours, and tiny jewellery may also perplex viewers, who may ask what the commotion is all about. Yet, Leonardo’s aptitude for realism is hidden under the painting’s simplicity.

The subject’s delicately modelled face demonstrates his mastery of sfumato, an artistic technique that models form using subtle gradations of light and shadow rather than line. Leonardo’s tireless devotion in replicating his studied observations is seen in the delicately painted veil, perfectly crafted tresses, and precise representation of folded linen. Furthermore, the sitter’s befuddling look adds to her authenticity. Her smile might be kind or mocking—viewers aren’t sure which because, as humans, she is a complicated figure who embodies opposing traits simultaneously.

Last Supper

The Last Supper, one of the most renowned paintings globally, was commissioned for the Dominican abbey of Santa Maria Delle Grazie by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron during his first stay in that city. Leonardo depicts numerous closely related incidents in the Gospels in a sequential narrative, including Matthew 26:21–28, in which Jesus declares that one of the Apostles would betray him and later institutes the Eucharist.

Leonardo represented each disciple’s reaction to the announcement, fascinated by how a man’s character may be revealed through posture, expression, and gesture. As they appear to whisper, yell, grieve, and debate around Jesus, who sits serenely in the midst, the Apostles’ postures rise, fall, expand, and interweave. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s work began to crumble soon after finishing it due to his experimental painting style. He utilised tempera or oil paint on two layers of prepared ground. Yet, on the other hand, viewers can still perceive it as a profound study of a wide range of human emotion, hidden under a deceptively simple composition.

Vitruvian Man

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is a pen-and-ink drawing from several notebooks he kept on hand throughout his later years. It comes with annotations written in mirror script on the ideal human proportions by Roman architect Vitruvius in a book on architecture from the first century BCE. The image depicts Vitruvius’ hypothesis that the ideal human may fit within two incompatible shapes: a circle and a square.

Leonardo da Vinci solved the problem by painting a man in two postures, one with his arms outstretched to fit into a square and the other with his legs and arms spread out in a circle. Leonardo’s work demonstrates his drive to comprehend important literature and his ambition to expand on them. He was not the first to depict Vitruvius’ ideas. Still, his drawing became the most famous, partially because of its blend of mathematics, philosophy, and art, which seemed to be a perfect symbol of the Renaissance. The drawing is now stored in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. It is maintained in a climate-controlled archive rather than on display.

Self Portrait

The red chalk painting of an older man with long wavy hair and a beard, long viewed as a self-portrait, has been so often replicated that it has come to define how most people think of Leonardo’s appearance. However, other experts claim that the figure’s craggy face, wrinkled brow, and downcast eyes make it appear considerably older than Leonardo’s actual age of 67. They speculate that the drawing is one of his grotesque drawings, sketches of persons with unusual traits that he kept in his notebooks. Regardless of who the picture depicts, it is a change from Leonardo’s usual compelling subjects, yet he managed to endow the person with the grandeur and knowledge of an older age.

Virgin of the Rocks
Credit: BBC

The Virgin of the Rocks

Many academics regard Leonardo’s painting The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre to be the first of two paintings depicting the Holy Family meeting Saint John the Baptist as they fled to Egypt from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents based on stylistic evidence. However, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned the painting, was embroiled in years of litigation with Leonardo. The conflict eventually led Leonardo to paint another version of the subject in about 1508, now housed in the National Gallery of London.

Head of a Woman

A slight brush sketch with pigment depicts a young woman with her head inclined and her eyes downcast in a Woman’s Head. Her position is similar to Virgin Mary in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, implying that the drawing was used as a model. The nickname for the artwork, La scapigliata, means “dishevelled” and relates to the young woman’s stray hair strands. From her heavy eyes to her soft lips, the woman’s delicate features are contrasted by the highly finished face, where Leonardo lovingly modelled the woman’s delicate features, from her loosely sketched tendrils and shoulders to her highly finished face. It demonstrates Leonardo’s fluid working style, incorporating dynamic drawing and disciplined layering to create form and detail.

Lady with an Ermine

Many art historians believe the young woman in Lady with an Ermine is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s patron, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. The ermine was frequently employed as a duke’s insignia. The woman shifts her head to the right, her sparkling eyes looking out of the frame. Despite the painting’s heavy overpainting, particularly the black backdrop, it demonstrates Leonardo’s mastery of anatomy and his ability to depict the character in posture and expression. Her innocent features, attentive look, and soft embrace of the ermine, which sits regally and vigilant, portray the girl’s freshness and amiable disposition.

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, a head-on picture, made news in 2017 when it sold for a world-record-breaking $450.3 million at auction. The painting was in terrible condition, had a shady past, and its attribution was a point of contention among scholars and critics. Thus the exorbitant price was all the more shocking.

Ginevra de Benci

Ginevra de Benci is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci publicly displayed in the Western Hemisphere. It is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is one of Leonardo’s first works, completed in his early twenties, and it demonstrates some of the unorthodox techniques he would employ throughout his career.

Inspired by his Northern predecessors, Leonardo defied convention by portraying the earnest young woman in a three-quarter attitude rather than the traditional profile, possibly making him the first Italian artist to do so. He used the three-quarter angle in all of his portraits, including the Mona Lisa, and it swiftly established the norm for portraiture, becoming so commonplace that viewers today take it for granted. Leonardo may have modelled Ginevra’s face with his fingers while the paint was still tacky, as evidenced by fingerprints found on the paint surface.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

Some experts believe The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was Leonardo’s final painting. He depicted three generations of the Holy Family—Saint Anne, her daughter, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child—using many of his established standards throughout his career. At the very top of the pyramidal structure, Anne is watching Mary, sitting on her lap, lovingly restraining the Christ Child from mounting a lamb. The Christ figure in The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne appears innocent, in contrast to the knowing infant Leonardo depicted in The Virgin of the Rocks. The figures’ interactions are intimate, demonstrating Leonardo’s talent to represent effective human relationships.

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