Leonardo da Vinci 1452–1519 Italian Artist and Scientist

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Leonardo da Vinci
Italian artist and scientist

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the best-known figures of the Renaissance, is remembered for his achievements as a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, and engineer. Because of the broad range of his interests, he has come to be seen as the supreme example of the universal genius, curious and knowledgeable about many things. A pioneer in both art and science, Leonardo left a body of work that stretches from the famous painting of Mona Lisa to drawings of birds in flight and designs for flying machines.


Although Leonardo completed relatively few artworks, he played a key role in shaping Renaissance art. Other major artists of the time, such as Raphael and Michelangelo, recognized Leonardo's mastery in painting. They learned from his insights into the arrangement of figures, the use of light and shade, and the distinct personalities of individuals. Many painters, especially those who worked with him, copied his designs.

Early Career. Leonardo was born in Anchiano, near the city of Vinci in the Tuscan region of Italy. By the age of 20 he was living in Florence, where he had joined the painters' guild*. As an apprentice* in the workshop of artist Andrea del Verrocchio, he had opportunities to practice sculpture, metal-casting, drawing, and nature study as well as painting.

Leonardo's earliest surviving painting, the Annunciation, dates from 1473. His desire to understand and reproduce elements of nature appears in many aspects of this work, from the effect of light on human faces to the fine details of plants. Around 1476 Leonardo also worked on Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, contributing the face of one of the angels and the landscape. The scene—a body of water framed by rock in a misty atmosphere—reveals Leonardo's interest in nature and his ability to portray it.

The masterpiece of Leonardo's early years was the Adoration of the Magi (1481), painted for a monastery outside Florence. He placed the figures in the picture in a new and unusual arrangement, with a pyramid-shaped group of individuals in the foreground surrounded by a circle of onlookers. Leonardo paid great attention to every gesture and facial expression in the scene, making each figure distinct. He also used chiaroscuro—the interplay of light and shadow—to give objects a sense of form and weight. However, the artist moved away from Florence about 1482, leaving the Adoration unfinished.

Leonardo went to Milan and eventually worked for Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of the duchy* of Milan. In a letter to Ludovico, Leonardo described himself as a civil and military engineer and a sculptor. In Milan, the artist painted portraits, designed costumes and stage sets for theatrical presentations at court, helped decorate the Sforza palace, and developed architectural plans for churches. He also designed a massive statue of a man on horseback as a monument to Ludovico's father, Francesco Sforza. However, this work was never completed because Ludovico Sforza was driven from Milan in 1499.

Leonardo's greatest project of the 1490s was the fresco* of the Last Supper, painted for a Milanese convent. The fresco deteriorated badly over the centuries, but a 1999 restoration brought back much of the original color and light. The Last Supper is notable for its carefully balanced arrangement of figures, the skillful use of perspective*, and the individuality of the characters around the table.

Later Career. Leaving Milan in 1500, Leonardo spent time in Venice, Mantua, and Florence. He also served as architect and engineer to the nobleman Cesare Borgia. By 1503 Leonardo had returned to Florence, where he was invited to paint a large fresco in the newly built council chamber. The result was the Battle of Anghiari, celebrating a 1440 Florentine victory. Unfortunately, Leonardo used an experimental painting technique that proved unsatisfactory because the paint did not dry. When artist Giorgio Vasari tried to restore the fresco's central section in 1565, he destroyed it. The work is known only from drawings and copies made by other artists. In the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo used details such as distorted human faces and horses with gnashing teeth to show the extreme physical strain of battle. The fresco's design was a complex interplay of many parts, studied by numerous later artists. Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini called the Battle of Anghiari, along with a fresco by Michelangelo in the same chamber, "the school for the world."

While working on the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo painted his best-known work, the Mona Lisa. A portrait of the wife of a prominent Florentine citizen, Mona Lisa harmoniously blends human and natural elements. Leonardo painted the subject's head and torso in sfumato, a style that uses gentle variations of tones to show the outlines of shapes. The shadowy landscape creates a mood that perfectly matches the woman's mysterious smile.

By 1508 Leonardo had returned to Milan, which had been taken over by the French. He worked on several projects there, including plans for a monument to include a group of horses on an elaborate base. Although the work was never completed, the drawings for it show Leonardo's ongoing interest in the movements of horses and riders. Leonardo also worked on several paintings, including St. John the Baptist, in Milan.

After 1513 Leonardo spent some time in Rome. Compared with such artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donato Bramante, he contributed little to the city's artistic life. However, he did work on the painting Virgin and Child with St. Anne and a Lamb, another composition featuring tightly packed figures arranged in a pyramid. In 1517 Leonardo went to France at the invitation of the new king, Francis I. The artist may have taken some paintings with him to work on, including the MonaLisa and St. John the Baptist. At the French court, Leonardo drew up plans for a huge royal palace. However, it was never built because he died in 1519. Long after Leonardo's death, a collection of his writings on art were published as a Treatise on Painting (1651).


Leonardo believed that art theory and scientific investigation were closely linked. He thought that artists were better equipped than anyone else in society to observe reality and communicate their perceptions of it to others. He embraced scientific investigation, basing ideas and theories on his own experience and keen observation.

As an artist, Leonardo wanted to understand the human form so that he could paint it. This led him to a passionate interest in anatomy and to dissecting human corpses to find out how muscles worked. Between the 1490s and about 1515 he made many notes on the subject, including drawings to illustrate a scientific work on anatomy (never written).

Leonardo was also interested in machines. He designed a number of devices, such as a gun with three racks of barrels and an armored vehicle. As an inventor, though, he is best known for his work in the field of human-powered flight. Drawings in Leonardo's notebooks show that he carefully studied bird flight and air movements and that he made numerous designs for flying machines.

Geology, the study of the earth's history and features, also captured Leonardo's attention. Using his astonishing powers of observation, he investigated questions such as the origin of fossils and the role of water in shaping the land.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; Mathematics; Science; Technology. )

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

Leonardo the Mathematician

Leonardo da Vinci is remembered as an artist and an inventor, but he was also a mathematician. In fact, the study of mathematics was central to many of his activities. He used mathematics to analyze the structure of elements in nature. He also expressed his theories of vision and his study of optics, the science of light, in mathematical terms. As an artist, Leonardo used mathematics to create the illusion of perspective, making an image seem three-dimensional. By following the principles of geometry and proportion, he created a sense of order and harmony in his works.

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

see color plate 8, vol. 4

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Leonardo da Vinci 1452–1519 Italian Artist and Scientist

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