Leonardo da Vinci is considered a genius as he created spectacular artwork, unbelievable sketches, and all kinds of inventions
His work had such influence in the other disciplines that researchers would distinguish the periods “before” and “after” Leonardo da Vinci in the various fields of art, engineering, or architecture.
More popularly known as Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most remarkable artists in the Italian Renaissance that occurred in the mid-15th century and spread to Europe in the 16th century. The Renaissance aimed to restore ancient traditions and knowledge, about ancient Greek and Latin texts, to a more distinguished level in society.
The Renaissance was dominated by great thinkers and artists in those times who would like to place greater emphasis on the actual value of humanity, and the priority was to increase knowledge to put man on a higher pedestal. The Renaissance led to a renewed focus on many artistic and cultural artifacts and expertise dating back to ancient times. This was a time of rich research and discovery linking science and the arts and what was called a craft in those times. Artists and architects initiated theories and techniques that provided perspective and proportions that have helped present-day artists and designers – including medical students – work on new procedures.
Date and Place of Birth
On April 15, 1452, Leonardo was born in Vinci, a few miles from Florence, Italy. In the words of Eugene Müntz (2015), Leonardo is a combination of “the thinker, the poet, the wizard whose fascination is unrivalled” (p. 9). He was the son of unwed parents: his mother, Caterina, was an uneducated, rural girl, the daughter of a tenant farmer, who was unaware of the future of a soon-to-be talented Renaissance man.
Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, later married another woman by the name of Albiera di Giovanni Amadori, while Caterina was also arranged for marriage to another peasant. Leonardo was named after Pope Leo, and he grew up in the town of Vinci, where Ser Piero and Albiera moved after marriage in the rich natural setting of Tuscany. Vinci was mainly agricultural but also filled with political, commercial, and cultural contexts associated with Florence. In Vinci, we could find the 11th-century castle of the feudal Count Guidi, which became under the control of Florence in the mid-13th century (Feinberg, 2011).
Early Life and Education
When Leonardo and his family came to live permanently in Florence, he found the place intimidating. In Florence, the airy public squares had countless winding streets and blind passages, impassable because of stalls and dirty shacks. On the roads, wild animals like horses, donkeys, cattle, and livestock were scattered all around. However, many people owned fine horses, hounds, and other pets, while the more affluent owned beautiful gardens with growing flowers and exotic varieties of jasmine (Feinberg, 2011).
Although there were many scholars in different disciplines, Leonardo was most renowned because of the many fields he indulged in, including painting, sculpture, architecture, hydraulics, optics, mathematics, botany, military engineering, anatomy, and physics. He is more renowned because of his paintings on portraits and landscapes. He created the first actual landscape painting in the history of art, an ink sketch of the Arno Valley drawn in 1473. Using his pen and simple shading, he presented the rushing of the water along the riverbed and the wind blowing through the trees, intelligently employing perspective and chiaroscuro (the interaction between light and shadow), which displayed a fantastic image of reality. Before this, landscapes were not the usual subject by painters, while others used them as background for portraits. But Leonardo successfully used it as the main focus of the art (Sgalbiero et al., 2018).
His notebooks bore a record of thousands of notes, theories, drafts, drawings, and much more about these many subjects that are still used today by artists, sculptors, and medical students. Leonardo is considered a genius as he created spectacular artwork, unbelievable sketches, and all kinds of inventions, some of which were new ideas and theories of his time than any other artist or scholar did not yet introduce in those times. He recorded all this in his notebooks which numbered more than 7000 pages, many of which have disappeared while some found their place in the different parts of the world.
His work had such influence in the other disciplines that researchers would distinguish the periods “before” and “after” Leonardo da Vinci in the various fields of art, engineering, or architecture. In painting, Leonardo contributed to several techniques, for example, the sfumato and atmospheric perspective. Nevertheless, Leonardo developed a problematic relationship with some of his artistic patrons, including French King Francis I, because he could not meet the demands of his commissioned work and his own creative vision. This could be one of the reasons why many of his paintings remained unfinished until his death.
Major Works and Accomplishments
Leonardo can be principally considered a painter, but his paintings and drawings were related to “the causal relationships of the physical world” (Palmer, 2019, p. xiii). Leonardo created sketches about the physical world, man, and his theories and understanding of mathematics. In his Treatise on Painting, he said, “Don’t you see that the eye embraces the beauty of the whole world?” This means that there is a relationship between the visual or what the eye sees and how this can be translated into art with the principles of mathematics. His drawing of an eye, seen at an oblique angle, is an example of an anamorphic drawing. The sketch appears in the Codex Atlanticus, one of Leonardo’s notebook contents. In this drawing, we could see two eyes, one on the viewer’s right stretched slightly but easy to recognize. In contrast, the other is enlarged and extended further, which can be recognizable if the viewer holds the paper at a 45-degree angle (Palmer, 2019, p. 7).
One of Leonardo’s early works was the Tobias and the Angel (1472-73), which is now stored in the National Gallery, London (Feinberg, 2011). This was a collaboration of two painters, a feat familiar in the Renaissance period in which a painting is the work of two or more painters. Leonardo was an apprentice at the Verrocchio shop, and the Tobias and the Angel could be a collaboration of student and mentor.
Leonardo’s significant accomplishments were: Annunciation (1472-1475); Adoration of the Magi (1481-1482); Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486); The Last Supper (1494-1498); and Mona Lisa (1503-1505). The Annunciation is Leonardo’s earliest surviving painting, done in oil and tempera on a poplar panel, and measures 38.5 x 85.5 inches and is now kept at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The Last Supper is a fresco and was a commission for the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It showed the first communion when Jesus was to be betrayed by Judas. In the painting, Leonardo had Judas seated with the rest of the apostles and having no reaction upon Jesus’ telling them that he would be betrayed by one of them.
The Mona Lisa is a painting of an Italian noblewoman, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. Leonardo left this painting to his pupil Salai, who later sold it to Francis I. It was painted on a large frame and made to lean forward to allow the viewer to view her from different angles. The painting seems larger than life, but it is only a small painting. The Mona Lisa smile is a mystery because it makes her show a calm demeanor and displays shyness.
Leonardo traveled to many places, in Italy, France, and other sites where the Renaissance was rooted. Some of the well-renowned Italian artists that Leonardo could be comparable with are: Donato Bramante (1444-1514), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520) (Sgalbiero et al., 2018).
Retirement and Death
This great man and painter retired in France. In 1508, he returned to Milan when summoned by Charles d’Amboise, a French nobleman acting as governor of the duchy. Leonardo was made a “painter and engineer to the King of France” (Sgalbiero et al., 2018, p. 11). In 1516, he left Rome and settled in Amboise in France upon the invitation of King Francis I.
He brought along with him his paintings Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Francis admired Leonardo and gave a generous salary that made Leonardo retire comfortably in the Château de Clos Lucé. Leonardo continued to help coordinate social gatherings and some construction projects (Sgalbiero et al., 2018). His health was slowly taking hold of him and his activities. He suffered a mild stroke until he died on May 2, 1519, leaving behind some of his works such as sketches and notes to his friend and student Francesco Melzi, his money to his siblings, and his vineyard to Salai.
Feinberg, L. (2011). The young Leonardo: Art and life in fifteenth-century. Cambridge University Press.
Sgalbiero, T., Piront, J., & Hanna, E. (2018). Leonardo da Vinci: The quintessential Renaissance man. 50Minutes.com.
Palmer, A. (2019). Leonardo da Vinci: A reference guide to his life and works. Rowman & Littlefield.
Müntz, E. (2015). Leonardo Da Vinci – Artist, thinker, and man of science. Parkatone International.