Leonardo Da Vinci
We wrote an art history article a few issues ago about the mystical Mona Lisa painting created by the equally mysterious artist Leonardo Da Vinci. Much has been written about his art but not so much about the artist, so the topic of today’s post is all about Leonardo.
Leonardo was a complex, solitary man and had it not been for the biography written about him in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari, his character would have been kept a mystery.
It is well known that Leo was a superman - he was a painter, sculptor, physicist, botanist, writer and a musician, a genius in all of these fields, and well ahead of his time too. He was described by Vasari as a man with great personal appeal, kindness, and generosity and was generally well loved by his contemporaries.
According to Vasari, "Leonardo's disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone's affection". He was "a sparkling conversationalist" who charmed with his wit. Vasari sums him up by saying: "In appearance he was striking and handsome, and his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. He was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead. He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor.... Through his birth, Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss."
Vasari writes of Da Vinci’s habit of purchasing caged birds and releasing them. Leonardo was also a cat person and did many feline studies. He is famously quoted as saying “the smallest cat is a masterpiece’’ referring to the domesticated cat.
So what did this man look like? As Vasari pointed out - it was agreed Leonardo was considered very handsome, and chose to wear a long beard even though the fashion at the time was for men to be clean shaven, he also chose to wear his hair at shoulder length. Vasari comments on his clothing being unusual due to his choice of bright colours; again this would have been at odds with the fashion of the time. It is not unrealistic to assume that he would have been thought of as a bohemian hipster at the time.
Leonardo was born an illegitimate and only child to a notary named Piero and a humble peasant girl, Caterina, in 1452 in the village of Da Vinci. The seriousness of illegitimacy during that time would be hard for us to relate to, but in the middle ages, there was a very heavy stigma attached to it. This situation dictated that because Leonardo’s mum was of a lower socio-economic standing, his father could not marry a woman of this class. Her role as a mother was sadly never acknowledged. Being an illegitimate child made it impossible to get a job in those days, and to compound the problem, Leonardo was left handed which was seen as a sign of the devil.
Leonardo’s father was very busy with his growing businesses and had no time for poor Leo, and the boy was taken under his wing by his uncle Francesco. In fact Francesco was the only person who took interest in him. Francesco was a laid back, carefree young man with no ambitions, no wish to study and no desire to become a notary, but he gave Leonardo love and affection. Many have speculated that this bohemian grounding influenced his artistic style.
When Leonardo was approximately 7 years old the family moved to the much larger city of Florence. Leonardo’s first years in Florence were spent in the school of music where he made such progress that it was said he confused his tutors. It was around this same time Leonardo’s father noticed some of Leonardo’s drawings, and was incredibly impressed. Leonardo’s father took his drawings to renowned Florentine painter Maestro Verrocchio, and it was at this point that his life changed as the Maestro took Leonardo on as an apprentice.
The Maestro’s studio was a huge area and it housed many apprentices there. The apprentices lived on site and made paintings, furnishings and cast metal objects for wealthy people. In those days an artist didn't just paint, they had to be a lot more versatile and practical. The items Leonardo made were used every day. Although designed by Maestro Verrocchio, everything was made by the apprentices. During his time there, Leonardo met many of the most important artists to work in Florence in the late fifteenth century including Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino.
Leonardo thrived studying under the Maestro and before too long showed himself to be the most talented of all the apprentices. Soon after he was working on complex life studies on panels that the Maestro had been commissioned to do; in fact he was the only one who was allowed to work on commissioned painting jobs. As the story goes Maestro Verrocchio saw the talent of Leonardo as vastly superior to his own after painting with him on “The Baptism of Christ”, and so put down his brush never to paint again. Although this is unsubstantiated, suffice to say he had again bettered his master.
These were the happiest days of Leonardo’s life, his quest for knowledge was insatiable and he became the undisputed expert of anatomy due to the passion he had for dissecting cadavers and drawing the various organs, bones and muscles to see how they worked.
Leonardo also took this time to educate himself as his time with Maestro Verrocchio meant that he had to give up his studies. He taught himself Latin and began to spend time with educated men and extracted as much knowledge as he could. Despite the quest for learning Leonardo didn’t forget he was a painter and this era of his life was very productive. Unfortunately this creative fertility didn’t last too long and Leonardo became despondent and tired of Florence and decided to move to Milan leaving behind two large commissions unfinished. As soon as he got to Milan he was employed by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and worked there from 1481 to 1499, during which time many important works were created as well as the huge model horse for an equestrian monument which was never completed.
Leonardo’s father died in 1504 and Leonardo received nothing of his father’s estate due to his illegitimacy. In the years following his father’s death and the estrangement from his family, Leonardo was truly alone in the world. But it didn’t seem to worry him, in fact he relished this alone time and it was what he strove for and for the rest of his life, he took solace in the nature around him.
On the 2nd of May 1519 Leonardo Da Vinci died a painless death at the age of 67. It is reported that the king held Leonardo’s head as he passed.
Bortolon, Liana (1967). The Life and Times of Leonardo. London: Paul Hamlyn.
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists.
Join our creative community for free art lessons, awesome competitions and a bunch of content you can’t get anywhere else.