Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance man, was born April 15, 1452 in the small Tuscan town of Vinci. Even though his father, a well known notary, did not marry his mother, a young peasant, Leonardo remained with his father in Vinci where he attended the local schools. Young Leonardo da Vinci’s beauty, grace and genius were well renowned throughout the countryside. Although his intelligence astounded his teachers, da Vinci was a fickle student. He would quickly become dissatisfied with one subject and then find a new passion, only to later abandon it. Unfortunately, this particular flaw would follow da Vinci throughout his career, and countless works would be left unfinished and ill-attempted.
At age 15, da Vinci became an apprentice of the famous artist Andrea del Verrocchio where he quickly surpassed his master. In 1476, Leonardo was asked to paint an angel in the “Baptism of Christ”. Leonardo da Vinci’s angel far surpassed Verrocchio’s and it is believed that Verrocchio vowed to never paint again for fear of more humiliation from his prodigious student. Leonardo da Vinci soon began to employ novel forms of chiaroscuro and contraposto and is credited with sparking the High Renaissance period. In 1482, da Vinci began to work under the tutelage of the Duke of Milan. During this period, Leonardo da Vinci worked on his “Adoration of the Magi” as well as sculptures, buildings and mechanical drawings. While under the Duke’s patronage from 1482-1489 da Vinci only completed 6 works. These pieces included “The Last Supper” and “The Virgin on the Rocks”.
Leonardo da Vinci spent most of his time studying science and entering his findings in meticulous notebooks. Many of these notebooks were written right to left and could only be properly read with the aid of a mirror. It is speculated that da Vinci wrote in this manner either so that no one could read his notes or so that smudging from his left-handed writings would be reduced. During the last part of the 15th century, da Vinci became so fascinated with human anatomy that he frequently dissected and studied human cadavers, in order that he might be able to more accurately represent the human form in his art.
After the Duke of Milan was overthrown in 1499, da Vinci traveled Europe looking for a new patron. While on his travels, da Vinci worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia. Borgia was later used as an exemplar in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Leonardo da Vinci’s involvementin military engineering markedly opposed his own beliefs. As a peace-loving vegetarian who would routinely buy caged animals so that he could set them free, da Vinci abhorred war and referred to it as “beastly madness”. This did not, however, deter him from inventing military weapons and working beneath military rulers. Leonardo da Vinci is credited with inventing early forms of the helicopter and submarine as well as a variety of gruesome weapons.
Leonardo da Vinci began his famous “Mona Lisa” in 1503, and worked on the painting for four years. In 1513 Leonardo da Vinci began to work for the Pope in Rome, who forbade him from dissecting cadavers. During his last years, da Vinci became afflicted with paralysis on his right hand, but this did not dissuade him from continuing to create and to study. Leonardo da Vinci’s last patron was King Francis I, who is speculated to have rushed to da Vinci’s deathbed when he died on May 2, 1519.