Leonardo da Vinci
Before going deeper into the life of this Renaissance painter, we must take into account that he lived before Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Copernicus, which means that he was far ahead of his times. He was born in 1452 in the small town of Vinci, near Florence, and it is from there that his family took their surname.
His father was Piero and his mother was probably the servant at his grandfather`s house. Piero wisely managed the business of the town, making contacts and friends among the merchants, artists and craftsmen of Florence. He was very clever, full of energy and talent, and his marriages were to women of high position. Because of this uncertain origin and due to his great curiosity, Leonardo grew up with the feeling that he was different from his peers. He would walk and investigate the area surrounding Vinci, a city located on the slopes of the Albano Mountains that gave him two different visions as seen by each side: on one the fertile valley of Luca with its olive trees and bountiful countryside, and on the other, dangerous mountains of strange shapes. The necessity to see marvelous things and to understand their meaning guided Leonardo throughout his entire life. He also had a deep affection towards animals. It is said that he used to buy small birds at the market, but could not keep them in his hand for more than a few minutes without thinking of the freedom of which he was robbing them. Leonardo loved to fill his room with favoured objects, such as snake skins, skeletons of small animals, insects and rare plants. Whenever he was allowed to keep them, he used to draw them in their natural form. Leonardo`s collection was as numerous as his sketches, so much so that on one occasion his father, despite incurring his anger, entered his "sanctuary" in order to see what the young boy was keeping with so much care. On observing Leonardo`s drawings, he asked himself if he was not in front of an artist and took a sample of his son`s works to Florence. When this "genius" was 14 years old the samples were studied by some of his friends and artists of the city. Andrea Verochio, the owner of a workshop of many different items, immediately realised that he had found an extraordinarily talented young man. At his father`s suggestion, Leonardo started to work in his workshop as an apprentice in 1466. Verochio took advantage of the rapid improvement of his "new apprentice", and requested him to paint backgrounds, and even on occasions to paint complete human figures.
At this time he collaborated in making "The Baptism of Christ", in which he painted an angel which is kneeling to one side of Christ. This figure was so well painted that it has greater expression than his teacher could have given. This painting belongs to Leonardo`s earliest years of painting, as does "The Annunciation".
The background of "The Baptism of Christ" was also painted by him, with oil paints which, at that time, were quite a novelty in Italy. His figures are not hard and abruptly drawn as were those of former painters, and there are some hills, rocks and trees that are somewhat blurry and that would turn out later to be the technique of "Sfumattoo", a technique greatly used by the artist. He finished his apprenticeship when he was 20 years old in 1472. He was described as a tall man, quite handsome and elegant, and it seems that he was gifted with a good voice as well. He showed great interest in science, mathematics and above all, in mechanics - in how things moved. In his Milan period, he studied Human Anatomy for the first time, with the aim of finding out how muscles worked and what they were made of, as well the veins and the arteries. The viscera - the different organs and their systems - which were the greatest originality of his work on anatomy, resides in the graphic synthesis.
Leonardo was the summary of the spirit of his times: he was an inventor, engineer, painter, philosopher and scientist. He contemplated nature in a different manner, which was quite direct and not through the mind but rather through his eyes. On perceiving the movements performed by the muscles in the wings of birds, he wanted to study the mechanism of how they flew. These studies, of the structures of different things, of the muscles below the skin and the bones beneath the muscles, were finally carried out once he started to work on his own, transforming himself, in a certain sense, as a self-taught person. He loved to do things in a different way and a consequence of this was that some paintings were destroyed as experiments. He dedicated a good part of his time to astronomy, and had the ambition of writing an encyclopedia on knowledge for his own use. Leonardo thought of systematic treatments and processes, and wrote down the names in his notebooks. He did not trust the numerous manuals that existed, although nevertheless consulted them frequently. He sought beauty and ugliness in an attempt to find an everlasting trait to the fleeting expression of the effects of feeling and ideas. He left Florence in 1482, not very favored by the Medici, and went to Milan as a lyre player to take part in a festival. In a short time he became the organizer of Ludovico`s parties and also showed his talents as a hydraulic engineer. He said that he thought he satisfied his talent with works of architecture on public buildings and the designing of waterworks to take water from one place to another. He also had time to dedicate himself to painting and sculpture. With Borgia`s downfall, he returned to Florence, where he painted the portraits of the beautiful women of the city, including Guenevere of Benci and Mona Lisa, the third wife of Giocondo - and therefore known as "La Gioconda" (this latter one taking four years to be completed). Leonardo distilled herbs in the hope of finding a varnish that would protect his paintings. For him, whoever did not paint, did not observe. All his theoretical formulations are accompanied with drawings and a great number of "the discoveries" were put down in graphic form. He knew very little Latin and scientific language was unknown at that time. drawing was his language, his best mode of expression. Many specialized scientists have identified Leonardo`s notebooks and Codices, where he carefully wrote and drew all his projects. In the summer of 1509, he returned to his studies of mechanics and his work on geometry and mathematics. It was in this year that he did his geometric drawings for a treatise on mathematics that he was to name "The Divine Proportion" for a good friend Fra Lucca Pacioli. It contained 60 illustrations. That year also, he was appointed to the position of engineer. He left Milan upon realizing that his career was coming to an end. He collected his things together and as it was impossible for him to take them, sold them. He received many requests to paint portraits but rejected them systematically, saying that he was too busy to paint. He wrote long essays on forces and movements, and also constructed a sort of telescope with which he studied the moon. He experimented with the force of gravity and reached the conclusion that any falling body tended to fall to the center of the Earth by the shortest route. Through his studies on mechanics, Leonardo was able to make various inventions: mechanical weavers, an automatic press that could be worked by one man only and drawings from which later, the parachute, the tank (of war) and other things would evolve.
There is no known description of his physical body around the age of 50 years, although it is known that he dressed quite elegantly and with good taste, and was as attractive as he had been in his younger years. Wherever he went, he was always careful to take his notebooks and filled them with anything that called his attention: rocks, horses, cannon melting moulds, carriages and workers in the fields, etc. His drawings did not respond to any obligation, nor even to any justifiable reason - they only responded to his principle of observation and the need to write everything down. He worked on a small scale, the majority of his pages no bigger than his hand, showing that he possessed an introverted nature. Another characteristic that shows this was his passion for writing backwards, which he did with his left hand, although it is possible that he suffered some injury in his right hand in Florence and used it only for small details. At that time there was a sculptor 23 years younger than him whose sculptures were so realistic that they seemed to take on life. His name was Michelangelo Buonarrotti - a man of sombre and rough character - but they did not become friends and each time they met, they exchanged harsh and disagreeable words, as Michelangelo was disturbed at the correct personal appearance of Leonardo and probably envied his fame as a scientist. Another thing that separated them was religion, Michelangelo a fervent Catholic and Leonardo an atheist. In 1516 Francois I invited Leonardo to France and he settled down at his castle at Clouxt near Ambrosie. Three years later he died, on 2 May 1519, assisted by his favorite pupil Francesco Melzi. He was buried on 12 August in Italy.