Leonardo da Vinci Society

A Brief Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) was born in or near the small town of Vinci, in Tuscany, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary (notaio) and a local peasant girl. Nothing is known about his early years, but his talent for drawing must have been apparent and perhaps also his versatility, because his father arranged for him to become an apprentice in the most versatile Florentine workshop of the day, that of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 - 1488), who practised as a painter and as a sculptor, in stone, terracotta and bronze. Leonardo was still living in Verrocchio’s house in 1476, but he was by then no longer an apprentice: in 1472 he had been admitted to the painters’ guild, the Company of St Luke (Compagnia di San Luca). In 1481, Leonardo went to Milan as an emissary from the Medici court in Florence, living there as a musician and painter. However, probably some time between 1483 and 1485, when he was seeking employment from the ruler of Milan, Lodovico Sforza (1452 - 1508), called Lodovico Il Moro (‘the Moor’) because of his dark complexion, Leonardo chose to emphasize not his expertise as a painter but his skills as an engineer capable of building machines useful in warfare and in civil life.(1) It is not clear how far he was employed in this capacity, but surviving drawings testify to his lifelong fascination with machinery of all kinds, ranging from drawings of wheelwork from the elaborate astronomical clock constructed between 1348 and 1364 by Giovanni de Dondi (fl.1318, d.1389)(2) to a drawing that shows an application of the principle of the Archimedean screw, used for raising water, to moving air, and thus to powering a machine that might be supposed capable of flight (had there not been a few orders of magnitude between the actual lift that could be produced and that required for a vehicle of realistic weight). In fact, Leonardo's duties at the Sforza court included ephemeral projects such as designing costumes for masques as well as the grandiose scheme for a permanent memorial to the Duke’s dynasty in the form of a huge equestrian monument. The second version of this project reached the stage of a large plaster model, which was put on display in Milan Cathedral in November 1493.(3) The model was destroyed after the French captured Milan in 1499.

Leonardo seems to have made a habit of drawing, both in his studio and in notebooks that he carried around with him. Thanks to his great fame and the beginnings of a fashion for collecting drawings in the early sixteenth century, a huge mass of Leonardo's drawings survives. With the help of documentary evidence relating to Leonardo's activities, it is possible to read some of these drawings as evidence of the progress of various projects he is known to have worked on.

It was presumably before joining Verrocchio’s workshop that Leonardo learned to write. In any case, his handwriting has the constancy of style that one associates with someone who makes a habit of writing. However, we know that Leonardo used his left hand for drawing and, like many other left-handers, he apparently found it natural to write from right to left, in what we would call ‘mirror writing.’ He writes this way when he is writing for himself. If he is writing for others, say in the caption to a drawing for presentation, he writes in the manner normal for right-handed people. Thus, in today’s terms, Leonardo was ‘literate’; when he calls himself ‘a man without letters’ (uomo sanza lettere) this means simply that he did not read and write Latin, that he was not a scholar but a craftsman. This kind of statement is a fairly standard one, used to deflect criticism from experts. There are, nonetheless, extensive indications that Leonardo was in touch with, for instance, the medical and optical learning associated with the Latin scholarship of universities - most probably because there were people willing to help him to read the relevant texts or to explain to him what they contained. In any case, he was sufficiently confident in his own literacy that, among his many ongoing projects, he planned to write treatises on anatomy, painting, water, flight, geometry, machines and other subjects. The earliest evidence of the project for the series of treatises dates from 1489 and Leonardo continued to be concerned with them until his death in 1519. The project apparently originated with Leonardo himself rather than being suggested by a patron.

When he was working in Milan - where he painted his famous ‘Last Supper’ on the wall of the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie - Leonardo became friends with the mathematician Luca Pacioli (c.1445 - 1517) whom he had first met in Venice in 1494. Leonardo made a series of perspective drawings of polyhedra to illustrate the printed version of Pacioli’s treatise on “divine proportion.”(4) It is sometimes asserted that Pacioli stimulated Leonardo’s interest in mathematics, but Pacioli’s own mathematical interests seem to have been largely in arithmetic and algebra, subjects to which Leonardo does not seem to heave been attracted (indeed when employing arithmetic he seems rather accident-prone), and it is perfectly possible that the effect of the friendship was rather that Leonardo quickened Pacioli’s interest in geometry.

In 1500, Leonardo returned to Florence, where he was engaged as a painter, one project (never completed) being a huge painting, showing the Battle of Anghiari, on a wall of the largest room in the Town Hall (the Palazzo Vecchio). However, in 1502 and 1503 he worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia (1475/6 - 1507). From 1506 to 1513 Leonardo was again living in Milan, and in 1513 he moved to Rome. In 1516, at the invitation of François Iier, he went to live in France, where he died in the little château of Le Clos Lucé, a dependency of the large Royal château of Amboise.

1. Codex Atlanticus 391ra/1082r, in: Leonardo da Vinci, Il Codice Atlantico, Tom. III, Vol. XII, Florence: Guinti, 2000, pp. 1937-1938; Jean Paul Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II, New York: Dover, §1340, pp. 395-398. A text version of these notebooks is at http://leonardo-da-vinci.org.
2. G. H . Baillie, H. Alan Lloyd & F. A. B. Ward, The Planetarium of Giovanni de Dondi, London: The Antiquarian Horological Society, 1974; and H. C. King & J. R. Millburn, Geared to the stars. the evolution of planetariums, orreries, and astronomical clocks, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.
3. Beatrice Sforza wrote in a letter to her sister, Isabella d’Este, about the effigy in the cathedral; A. Luzio and R. Renier, in Archivo Storico Lombardo, XVII, 1890. The measurement of the total height is based on Windsor drawings 12342, 12343, 12344, and 12356, showing that the “eq[ue]stre statua” noted by Luca Pacioli is about two-thirds taller than the measure of twenty-three feet (twelve braccia) from the nape (cervice) to the ground (piana terra): De divina proportione, Milan, 1509, Pars prima, 1r. See also: http://www.open2.net/leonardo/essay_art1.htm and Carmen C. Bambach, ed. Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, New York, Metropolitan Museum, pp. 232 & 240.
4. De divina proportione, 1509.