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da Vinci was the embodiment of the "Renaissance man", a man who had attained
mastery over all branches of art and science. He was a painter, sculptor,
architect and engineer besides being a scholar in the natural sciences,
medicine and philosophy. Leonardo is probably most famous for painting
the Mona Lisa, which is one of the world's best-known and
most widely recognized works of art.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on the 15th of April, 1452, as the illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina, in a small town called Vinci, near Empoli, Tuscany. Although last names were already in use in Europe at the time, Leonardo never had one. His full name "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci" means "Leonardo son of Piero from Vinci."
The first four years of his life were spent in a village near Vinci with his mother. After 1457, he lived with his father's family, which soon moved to Florence. Leonardo showed promise early on, with an innate talent in art and music and excellent social skills. In 1467, at the age of 15, he became an apprentice to the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, the foremost artist of his day. Leonardo entered the San Luca guild of painters in Florence in 1472, indicating that he had attained a degree of professional independence, but he remained with Andrea del Verrocchio until as late as 1480. His first known work, which he painted as an assistant, is the angel kneeling on the left of Verrocchio's picture The Baptism of Christ (c.1472-1475). Verrocchio, it is said, was so impressed by the implications of his pupil's genius that he gave up painting.
Another work of this period, The Annunciation(c.1472-1475) was attributed to Leonardo, but it is likely that the picture was not painted entirely by him. However, it is generally accepted that the overall composition, the figure of the angel and the landscape are his work. Other surviving works from this period include Madonna with the Carnation (c.1475), Madonna Benois (c.1475-1478), Portrait of Ginevra de'Benci (c.1478-1480). Leonardo received a commission to paint an altar piece St. Hieronymus (c.1480-1482), which was never finished, and to create a large panel Adoration of the Magi (1481-1482) for the church in San Donato a Scopeto, which was not finished either. Unfortunately, Leonardo's tendency to leave work unfinished was as characteristic of him as his artistic genius.
In 1482, Leonardo moved to Milan in the hope of obtaining the patronage of the ruler of the city, Ludovico Sforza, also known as Ludovico il Moro ("Ludovico the Moor" or "Ludovico the Dark") for his swarthy features. Leonardo offered his services as a military engineer, sculptor and painter. Ludovico accepted gladly, financing an independent workshop for the artist. Leonardo would stay in Ludovico's service for 18 years.
In 1483, he was commissioned to make the large altar piece The Virgin of the Rocks (1482-1486) for the Franciscan Confraternity in the Church of S. Francesco Grande. Another version of this picture was created later. Working as court painter and sculptor, he created the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine) (c.1490), Portrait of an Unknown Woman (La Belle Ferroniere) (c.1490), several small Madonnas, such as Madonna Litta (c. 1490), and worked on the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza (father of Ludovico Sforza). Though he created a huge clay model for the horse, the project was abandoned and never cast in bronze. During this time, Leonardo painted The Last Supper (c.1495-1498) for the refectory of the Dominican Monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is considered the first work of the High Renaissance and is one of his defining works. His representation of the theme has become the epitome of all Last Supper compositions. Unfortunately, he experimented with the medium of the painting and this led to damage to the fresco, as the paint began to crumble almost immediately after the fresco was finished. You can see one of the contemporary copies here.
In the mid- to late- 1480s, when Leonardo was attempting to establish himself as a court artist, he seemed to have started on his huge range of scientific studies, dabbling in botany, anatomy, medicine, architecture, military engineering, geography and many, many other subjects. We know about his studies from the enormous amount of drawings and sketches that he left behind. He worked on the Treatise on Painting, a collection of practical and theoretical instructions for painters, throughout his entire adult life.
In 1499, after the defeat of Ludovico Sforza by the French, Leonardo left Milan. After briefly visiting Mantua, he moved on to Venice where he served as a military engineer. In 1500, he returned to the city of his childhood, Florence. There, he worked on a commission for the Servite monastery, which was probably Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c.1502-1516). In 1502, he was employed by General Cesare Borgia as an architect and military engineer, with whom he traveled, mainly through Central Italy, studying terrain and preparing maps for Borgia's future military campaigns. It was also around that time that the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (1501) was created.
In 1503, Leonardo came back to Florence. He was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, a friend of Leonardo's father, to paint a portrait of the man's wife, Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. The result was the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503-1506), which was to become one of the most famous pictures in the world, although the portrait was not finished in time and never delivered to the client. Leonardo received several more important commissions, including the commission to decorate the Grand Council Chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government of Florence. The wall-painting, which Leonardo left unfinished in the spring of 1506 and which was destroyed in the middle of the XVI century, depicted the Battle of Anghiari of 1440, when Florentine forces, together with their papal allies, defeated their Milanese opponents near the town of Anghiari. At the same time Michelangelo was commissioned to create a painting on the other wall of the same hall (the so-called Battle of Cascina), which was never finished either.
From 1506 to 1512, Leonardo lived mostly in Milan under the patronage of Charles D'Amboise, the French governor of the city. During these years he created Leda and the Swan (c.1505-1510), which is now known only through a number of copies, and the second version of The Virgin of the Rocks (1506-1508). He worked on the equestrian statue for General Giangiacomo Trivulzio, which was -- once again -- never realized. He also continued his anatomical studies.
After the death of Charles d'Amboise in 1511, Leonardo accepted the protection of Giuliano de Medici, brother of the future Pope Leo X, with whom he then traveled to the papal court in Rome. Leonardo, by now 61 years old, apparently hoped to become a court painter there. However, he never received any major commissions, comparable to those that the Pope had given to Raphael and Michelangelo. Both these artists were working in Rome at the time, but Leonardo had little direct contact with them. During this time, he probably created St. John the Baptist (c.1513-1516), and there is one more John the Baptist (featuring many attributes of Bacchus, c. 1513-1516), which is also identified with Leonardo.
In 1515, Leonardo was called to Bologna and commissioned to make a centerpiece for the peace negotiations between the French King Francis I and Pope Leo X. This is where he probably first met the French king, who would go on to become the patron of his latter years.
In 1516, Leonardo received an invitation from Francis I to come to the French court, which he accepted. He was given residence in Cloux, not far from the King's residence in Amboise, and was appointed "the first painter, engineer and architect of the King". However, his only obligation was to converse with the 22-year old King, who visited him almost daily. Leonardo died on the 2nd of May, 1519 in Cloux and was buried in the Church of St. Florentine in Amboise.
Leonardo's reputation in his lifetime was immense, and his work visibly influenced many contemporary artists - not only the foremost Florentine painters of the time - Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto and, above all, Raphael - but also painters from Milan and northern Italy - Correggio in Parma, and Giorgione in Venice.
Leonardo da Vinci. by V. Zubov. Moscow-Leningrad. 1961.
Leonardo da Vinci. by A. Gastev. Moscow. 1972.
The Art of the Italian Renaissance. Architecture. Sculpture. Painting. Drawing. Könemann. 1995.
Painting of Europe. XIII-XX centuries. Encyclopedic Dictionary. Moscow. Iskusstvo. 1999.
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Volume 1) by Leonardo Da Vinci. Dover Pubns, 1975.
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Volume 2) by Leonardo Da Vinci.. Dover Pubns, 1975.
How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb. Dell Books, 2000.
The How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci Workbook and Notebook : Your Personal Companion to How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb. Bantam Books, 1999.
Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance (Discoveries) by Alessandro Vezzosi (Editor). Harry N Abrams, 1997.
Leonardo on Painting: An Anthology of Writings by Leonardo da Vinci with a Selection of Documents Relating to His Career by Martin Kemp (Editor), Margaret Walker (Translator). Yale Univ Pr, 2001.
Leonardo: The Artist and the Man by Serge Bramly, Sian Reynolds. Penguin USA, 1995.
Leonardo Da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings by Frank Zollner, Johannes Nathan. TASCHEN America Llc, 2003.
Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper by Vito Zani. Rizzoli, 2003.
Biography by Olga Mataev and Yuri Mataev