The Renaissance Man- Leonardo da Vinci

All about the man who was a painter, sculptor, scientist, engineer, philosopher, and architect at the same time.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519 CE) was surely one of the most intellectual and influential figures of Europe in particular and the World in general. He was a genius scientist, an expert anatomist, a perfectionist military engineer, a keen painter, and a philosopher. However, he is mainly popular because of his paintings.

Early Life and Family Background

Leonardo da Vinci was born on 15 April 1452 in the region of Tuscany(Italy) where the Arno River flows __ near the town of Vinci. This area was part of the Florence Republic at that time. He was an illegitimate child of a famous lawyer__Piero da Vinci and a young orphan girl__ Caterine Di Meo Lippi of Tuscany. His parents never married each other instead they were married somewhere else. He spent his early childhood with his mother and then moved to Florence with his father and paternal grandparents. He completed his formal education of reading, writing, and basic maths skills at an early age. Later, during his teenage age in Florence he started learning technical and artistic skills at a workshop under the most celebrated painter and teacher of that time __ Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488 CE). Verrocchio was the most famous artist of that time and surely he is still recognized for some of his magnificent artistic works. Verrocchio was a student of Donatello. He taught Vinci and some other boys like Lorenzo the Credi, Pietro Peruginoin, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio in his workshop. Surely all of his students became experts later in their lives and played a major role during the Renaissance(1495-1520 CE). They all served art in its true sense and are still remembered for their services for arts and paintings. Later, they also influenced many others with their magnificent pieces of work. Renaissance was a period during which Italian artists did miracles in the field of arts. As all Renaissance artists viewed science and arts as interdisciplinary subjects and didn't separate science from arts. Verrocchio also taught his students to be experts in technical aspects of work so that their artistic skills also get improved. Florence was the center of civilization and arts at that time. This artistic environment polished the skills of young Vinci who already had an imaginative and artistic mind. He spent his entire teenage age under the supervision of his great teacher.

At the age of twenty, he was skilled in Arts so he was appointed to teach young painters and doctors. He could not pursue this and he made his separate workshop however he used to collaborate with Verrocchio even after that and assisted him in completing the painting of "Baptist of Christ" which greatly impressed Verrocchio. It was narrated by a historian that Verrocchio left painting when he saw the works of Vinci; however, this statement has no evidence.

Practical Life and Services

Leonardo was sent as an ambassador by Lorenzo de Medici to the ruler of Milan in 1481 AD. There he worked as an architect, engineer, and painter for the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sfroza. He visited Medici and there he studied the teachings and lives of greek ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. In Milan, he made some masterpieces of painting i.e The Last Supper and The Virgin of Rocks. He served the Sfroza family for almost 15 years . Here, he was also sent as an ambassador of Sforza to the king of Hungary and designed some architectural models for him as well. Milan was attacked by the French army and the Sfroza family fled from there. Vinci also left Milan and went to Venice where he spent 2-3 years of his life. At that time, Renaissance was at its peak specifically in cities like Rome, Florence, and Milan. Skilled painters like Michaelangelo Buonarroth (1475-1564) and Raphael(1483-1520 CE) were his contemporaries. They were both influenced by the skills and expertise of Vinci. In fact, many of Raphael's paintings showed resemblance with Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Michaelangelo, Vinci, and Raphael were surely the heart of the high Renaissance.

Leonardo then served Cesare Borgia who was the son of Pope Alexander 6 for some time. He designed many maps and models for his army and navy. He visited almost the entire Italy with Cesare. He was appointed the chief military engineer of his army. But, soon he left his service and returned back to Florence and started painting Mona Lisa. He also painted "The Battle of Anghiari" there while his contemporary Michaelangelo was painting "The Battle of Cascina".

In 1506 CE, he went to Milan for the second time. This time he was invited by the French governor of the city Charles II Amboise and spent 6-7 years there. Then, he was invited to Rome by Pope Leo X. He was such an important figure for both Pope and French king that he was present in the meeting between Pope Leo 10 and king Francis I of France. He was highly patronized by Francis 1 and became his intimate friend. He spent the last years of his life in Milan and brought some of his works like Mona Lisa along with him. At the age of 65, his right hand got paralyzed. He left Mona Lisa unfinished because of it. He repented at his death for not serving art wholeheartedly during his life. He died due to some strokes. It is narrated that he died in the arms of King Francis 1. According to his will, he was buried in the Palace of Saint Florentine Church. But during French Revolution, this Church was destroyed. Later in 1871, remains of his tomb and decayed skeleton were excavated and he was reburied in the Chapel of Saint Hubel, Amboise, France.

Paintings and Drawings

Vinci was not at all a prolific painter or perhaps his works have been lost. However, about 25 of his paintings are still saved. Some of which are given below:

The Vitruvian Man (Image source: Wikipedia )

Lady with an Ermine (Image source: Wikipedia)

The Mona Lisa (Image Source: Wikipedia)
"Mona Lisa" is his most famous painting. It was a sketch of a Florentine woman. This painting remained in Royal Palace for many years then Napoleon 1 owned it. It was later placed in the Louvre Museum. It was once stolen from the museum and Pablo Picasso was accused of stealing it however after some years, it was found out by someone else. Now, it is again present in the Louvre Museum, France.

His painting “Salvator Mundi” has been the most expensive painting ever sold in the world for an astounding $450.3 million in 2017.

Some More Aspects of Vinci’s Life

He used to keep notebooks with him to note down his observations, experimentations, and imaginations. His notebooks unveil some more skills and expertise. Mainly, there were four sections of his notebooks __architecture, mechanical science, human anatomy, and painting. Later, all the scientific writings and diagrams of his notebooks were compiled in a single book "Codex Leicester". This book is the 3rd most expensive book in the world. In 1994, Bill Gates bought it for 30. 8 Million US $.

Vinci as an Anatomist and Botanist

He drew several diagrams of the internal structures of the human body. He was so expert at anatomy that he was allowed to dissect human corpses for experiments. He dissected dozens of human corpses and observed human organs and their working. Based on his observations, he made diagrams of the human heart, muscles, bones, tissues, and reproductive organs. His drawing " Vitruvian Man" shows his knowledge about internal human structure. This painting is literally a world icon. He believed that the universe worked on almost the same principles on which the human body works. He studied plants and carried out experiments on plants in the Gardens of Vatican City.

Vinci As an Inventor

Several pages of his notebooks reveal his interest in zoology, botany, geology, hydraulics, optics, astronomy, aeronautics, civil and military engineering. Vinci was so fond of engineering and science that he said that understanding science has helped him in improving his art.

He used to observe the flights of birds keenly and drew many postulates from them. Based upon these observations, he made designs of several flying machines which resemble modern-day helicopters and parachutes. His concepts influenced many others. His ideas were brought into practical shape after some 450 years of his death by the Wright Brothers. Several sketches of bicycles, cars, and some interesting war machines can also be seen in his notebooks. Truly, he made paintings based on his intense knowledge and love of science and his scientific works reflect his love for arts.

Vinci As a Philosopher

Vinci had a philosophical mind. His paintings reflect his intellect. He believed that art should be communicable enough to depict the thinking and intentions of the artists who made them. Thus he proved the most beautiful lines of Plutarch about poetry and art,

"Painting is silent poetry and poetry is a painting that speaks."

He made logical and reasonable works for he believed that nothing in this world is without reason and that reasoning frees one from the need for experience. An art without reason was considered useless by Vinci. For him, outward features of an image are easy to draw but the real complexity lies in reflecting the hidden character and intentions of the personality.

Personal Life and Appearance

He was a charming and charismatic man with beautiful physical features. He was able to impress and influence people easily that's why he was a lovable personality. He was also a very kind-hearted and courteous man. He was a good listener and had great communication skills that's why he was sent on various diplomatic missions by different rulers.

As far as his personal life is concerned, he never married and had no children. However, he had very good relations with some of his students like Salai, Marco d Oggiono, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Francesco Melzi, Bernardino Luini. Melzi was the son of an aristocrat and his most favorite pupil. Salai served him for 30 years and inherited "Mona Lisa" after his death.

His assets and paintings were received by Salai, Melzi, and his brothers after his death. There has been a debate between various historians regarding him as either a homosexual or a celibate. However, most of them term him as a homosexual as some of his paintings also showed his inclination towards homosexuality.

His biography has been written by several historians. Historian Giorgio Vasari wrote about him in the section " Life of Leonardo da Vinci" in his book " Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects". Sigmund Freud also wrote his biography in the book "Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood". One of the relatively recent and the best accounts of his life is written by Walter Isaacson in the book "Leonardo da Vinci". Walter Isaacson has also written biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. If you want to explore more about Vinci’s life, here is a link to Walter’s book :

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