Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man, whose contributions to the world stretched far beyond his art and included some of the most forward thinking inventions in history. He was skilled in sculpture, architecture, science, history, mathematics, and is also considered one of the greats painters ever to live. His knowledge of these many different disciplines sums up the Renaissance humanist ideal that emphasized critical thought.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 and little is known about his early life until he was fourteen years old, when he was made the apprentice of Andrea di Cione, an artist who was known as Verrocchio. This was a prestigious position to be given as Verrocchios workshop was considered to be “one of the finest in Florence” (Rosci 13). It was during his time under the tutelage of Verrocchio that Leonardo painted The Baptism of Christ which was painted as a collaboration between Verrocchio and Leonardo. He stayed under the guidance of Verrocchio for six years before being made a master in his guild and establishing his own workshop.
After this happened, Leonardo began to receive commissions for his art work creating several pieces for various parties, most notably The Last Supper which was commissioned by a monastery and is widely considered one of his finest works and is one of the most recognizable pieces of artwork in the world. In 1502 he was hired by the son of the pope who put him in the position of military engineer. His main role was to create maps of areas and to designate strategic positions within certain areas. After this time he returned to Florence and continued to create art and work on his theories and inventions.
In his later years he lived in the Vatican and worked for Pope Leo X when the French conquered Milan. He was called to a meeting between the king of France and Pope Leo X and was commissioned to build a walking mechanical lion, which impressed the King Francis I, the king of France, greatly and he hired Leonardo and gave him a residence near his own. He lived there until his death in 1519 at the age of 67. Leonardo da Vinci may be best known for his paintings which featured detailed portrayals of the human form due to his studies into anatomy and his innovative uses of tone to show emotions in his work.
One of his most famous works is The Last Supper, which was commissioned by the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie and shows the scene in the bible were Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples. He worked tirelessly and erratically on this piece, working for days on end before stopping and not picking up a brush for several days. Once he was finished with the painting it was considered one of the finest pieces made up to that point but unfortunately the years would not be kind to it and it deteriorated quickly, due to Leonardo choosing to use tempera instead of fresco.
The other of his widely known works is the Mona Lisa, which in more modern times is considered the most famous painting on the planet. It shows a woman sitting with a faint smile on her face, which creates the allure of the painting. The painting has a mysterious quality to it because the subject of the painting shows a mix of emotions. It is hard to tell if she is happy or sad and much debate has been had about who the subject is and what her facial expressions portray. This painting featured a technique of Leonardos which gave a smoky quality to certain aspects of her face and this clouded what her face is truly portraying.
The background of the painting is also very elaborate in that it seems to have all aspects of the natural world in it, with dry land in the foreground and snowy mountains in the background with a river dividing the two. This in combination with he mystery of the woman smile created one of the most famous images in human history and is the subject of countless academic study and debate. Leonardo is considered one of the greats painters of all time and his contributions to the world of art helped shape the Renaissance Era.
Leonardo was well versed in many forms of science and applied them to his art, as well as having independent works that studied many different forms of science. The Humanism of the Renaissance Era thought of art and science as the two were thought of as intertwined studies and as such Leonardo became proficient in the application and study of many disciplines of science. His knowledge of the human anatomy greatly influenced his art and he drew very detailed descriptions of the muscles and tendons of the body.
He used his status as a well known and respected artist to study and dissect human corpses and made highly detailed sketches of the human body. His notes contain “more than 240 meticulous drawings as well as 13,000 words of notes written in his idiosyncratic mirrorscript” (Sooke). The mirror script that Sooke is referring to was Leonardos interesting method of writing from right to left. Some theorize that this is meant to encrypt the writing, but it is most likely that Leonardo found it easier to write like this since he was left handed.
Leonardo often dissected the bodies of executed criminals and this” period marks something of a crux in Leonardo’s career, when he shifts from being an artist doing a little bit of science on the side to what he is for the last 12 years of his life: primarily a scientist who also does a bit of art” (Sooke). This was a major turning point in Leonardos career where he started to focus on his scientific research. His training and incredible skill in art was incredibly useful when it came to his research because he was able to make incredibly detailed sketches of intricate systems in the human body.
For instance, Leonardo made a glass model of the aortic valve in which he would put water and seeds through and watch as vortices formed, which was later shown “alongside a real-time MRI scan of blood flowing through the aortic valve, confirming that his description was almost entirely correct” (Sooke). It is incredible that he managed to make such detailed observations with the limited scientific technology that he had at his disposal, instead relying on his own genius and artistic skill to make incredibly detailed observations about the human body.
This separated him from future scientists because as Capra states Leonardo integrated art into his scientific study. Sadly, these discoveries never got published during his lifetime, if they had medical science may have advanced much more quickly than it did. Leonardo also dabbled in inventing and engineering and created some plans for designs that were revolutionary for his time. Perhaps his most famous purposed invention was what looked like an early version of a helicopter. Leonardo was fascinated by flying and studied birds in depth and wanted to make a machine that was capable of flight by using methods similar to those found in nature.
He found that his idea of did not work when applied in the real world, but he did have some success with other inventions. He designed inventions spanning from war machines to public structures. Leonardo da Vinci was greatly respected by many future generations and many of his works came to be greatly respected and admired as time wore on. Painters were inspired by his work and style and has been credited with introducing modern art to the world, “Such was the dawn of modern art, when Leonardo da Vinci broke forth with a splendor that distanced former excellence: made up of all the elements that constitute the essence of genius” (Fuseli).
In the five centuries that have passed since Leonardos life the appreciation for his work has grown as his contributions to the modern world become more apparent, be it his scientific discoveries or his art. As Bortolon said, “Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century.
Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe” (Bortolon). Leonardo was a truly a modern man and a Renaissance man because he managed to influence so many and combine the many disciplines that he had passion for. He was a humanist and combined his love of science with art to create some of the most detailed anatomical drawings of his day. His “mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote” (Gardner 454) and he truly was the quintessential Renaissance man.