Leonardo da Vinci
(1452-1519)
   Tuscan painter, sculptor, scientist, and engineer, the oldest of the three most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. He was also a polymath whose insatiable curiosity led him to investigate many aspects of his world. Born near the Tuscan town of Vinci, the son of a notary and a peasant girl, he was reared by his paternal grandfather and sometime before 1472 was apprenticed to the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea Verocchio. His earliest surviving painting, an Annunciation, dates from 1473. Perhaps the best known of his early paintings is his portrait Ginevra de'Benci (ca. 1475). Leonardo left Florence around 1482 and by 1483 was in Milan, where he began the earlier version of his Virgin of the Rocks. He sought the patronage of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza; his letter applying for employment emphasized his skills as a civil and military engineer as well as his qualities as an artist. By 1489 he was at work on a huge equestrian statue of Ludovico's father, Francesco Sforza; many sketches survive in his notebooks, but the statue was never completed. His most famous painting of this period was the fresco The Last Supper, painted (ca. 1495-1497) for a monastery patronized by the Sforza dynasty.
   The fall of the Sforza from power ended Leonardo's stay in Milan. He travelled to several cities, including Mantua, where he made a portrait of the duchess Isabella d'Este. He then spent about two years in Florence, undertaking several projects but finishing little. Next he went to Rome, serving Cesare Borgia, the ambitious son of Pope Alexander VI, as an architect, engineer, and city planner. Returning to Florence in 1503 after the death of the Borgia pope, he was commissioned to produce a battle scene, The Battle of Anghiari, commemorating a great Florentine military victory of the preceding century. The painting has been completely destroyed, though copies by other painters survive. Leonardo also began his most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa, whose subject was the wife of a prominent Florentine citizen. In 1508 he completed the second version (the London version) of the Virgin of the Rocks. By 1508 he was frequently employed by the French governor of Milan. Another political upheaval at Milan forced him to renew his migrations, going first to Florence and then to Milan, but he completed few of the projects he undertook. In 1517 he accepted the invitation of the new king of France, Francis I, to move to the French court. He designed settings for court ceremonies and worked on plans for a new royal palace, but he died in 1519 without completing his French projects.
   Leonardo was constantly at work, not only on works of art but on scientific investigations of many kinds. Many of these are preserved in his voluminous notebooks, not published until centuries afterward but in themselves constituting a masterpiece in the art of drawing. The most numerous drawings were anatomical, often based on dissections. Leonardo was also interested in mechanical contraptions of all kinds. He made many drawings of flying machines and other machines including a horse-driven armored vehicle, a multi-barreled gun, and other military devices. His notebooks include studies in the science of optics, in mathematics, and in geology. His investigations of fossils, especially of marine shells found on mountain tops, caused him to speculate on geology and on the power of water to shape the earth.
   The price paid for Leonardo's many-sided interests was that he completed only a relatively small number of the paintings and statues he undertook, and of these, many have perished. Nevertheless, his rather few completed and surviving paintings are monuments of High Renaissance art at its peak. The scientific findings documented in his notebooks constitute a problem for historians of Renaissance science: the drawings are accurate and clearly prove that he knew scientific facts not "discovered" until later times, yet the notebooks were not published until centuries later, so that it remains questionable whether his discoveries had any significant impact on later scientific investigators.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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