I don't know about you, but I'm more of a fan of Leonardo da Vinci's non-painting work. I can appreciate the Mona Lisa and his fresco, The Last Supper, but his copious genius sketches and inventions are more my line of interest. Just the thought of getting to look through some of his notebooks... the mirror writing so no one could read his notes... AMAZING!
One might think there just aren't many surviving works by da Vinci given that he was born April 15, 1452. Which makes sense, because he moves a few times due to unrest in the regions he was living. Leonardo was born to an unwed peasant mother in Anchiano, Tuscany (now Italy), close to the town of Vinci and his father, Ser Peiro, an attorney and notary lived in Vinci, (where the surname came from).
Leonardo's mother, Caterina, married another man while da Vinci was very young and began a new family. Aaround the age of five, da Vinci lived on the estate in Vinci that belonged to the family of his father. Da Vinci’s uncle, who had a particular appreciation for nature (that da Vinci grew to share), also helped raise him.
Leonardo Da Vinci received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing and math, but his father appreciated his artistic talent and got him an apprenticeship around age 15 with the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio, of Florence. Da Vinci refined his painting and sculpting techniques and trained in mechanical arts. When he was 20, in 1472, the painters’ guild of Florence offered da Vinci a membership, but he remained with Verrocchio until he became an independent master in 1478.
Around 1482, he began to paint his first commissioned work, The Adoration of the Magi, for Florence’s San Donato, a Scopeto monastery. However, da Vinci never completed that piece, because he relocated to Milan to work for the ruling Sforza clan, serving as an engineer, painter, architect, designer of court festivals and, most notably, a sculptor. The family asked da Vinci to create a magnificent 16-foot-tall equestrian statue, in bronze, to honor dynasty founder Francesco Sforza. Da Vinci worked on the project on and off for 12 years, and in 1493 a clay model was ready to display. Imminent war, however, meant repurposing the bronze for the sculpture into cannons, and the clay model was destroyed in the conflict after the ruling Sforza duke fell from power in 1499.
In part, few of da Vinci's pieces remain because his total output was limited—two of his extant works are among the world’s most well-known and admired paintings.
The first is da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” painted during his time in Milan, from about 1495 to 1498. A tempera and oil mural on plaster, “The Last Supper” was created for the refectory of the city’s Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Also known as “The Cenacle,” this work measures about 15 by 29 feet and is the artist’s only surviving fresco. One of the painting’s incredible features is each Apostle’s distinct emotive expression and body language. Its composition has influenced generations of painters.
When Milan was invaded by the French in 1499 and the Sforza family fled, da Vinci escaped as well, possibly first to Venice and then to Florence in 1503. There, he painted a series of portraits that included “La Gioconda,” a 21-by-31-inch work that’s best known today as “Mona Lisa.” Painted between approximately 1503 and 1506, the woman depicted, especially because of her mysterious slight smile, has been the subject of speculation for centuries. It was thought she was Mona Lisa Gherardini, a courtesan, but current scholars indicates that she was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine merchant Francisco del Giocondo.
Around 1506, da Vinci returned to Milan, along with a group of his students and disciples, including young aristocrat Francesco Melzi, who was Leonardo’s closest companion until the artist’s death. Ironically, the victor over the Duke Ludovico Sforza, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, commissioned da Vinci to sculpt his grand equestrian-statue tomb. It, too, was never completed, but this time it was because Trivulzio scaled back his plan. Da Vinci spent seven years in Milan, followed by three more in Rome after Milan became inhospitable again because of political strife.
Da Vinci’s interests ranged far beyond fine art. He studied nature, mechanics, anatomy, physics, architecture, weaponry and more, often creating accurate, workable designs for machines like the bicycle, helicopter, submarine and military tank that would not come to fruition for centuries. He saw science and art as complementary rather than distinct disciplines, and thought that ideas formulated in one realm could—and should—inform the other. Sigmund Freud wrote of da Vinci, “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”
Likely due to his abundance of interests, Leonardo da Vinci failed to complete a significant number of his paintings and projects. He spent a great deal of time immersed in nature, testing scientific laws, dissecting bodies (human and animal) and thinking and writing about his observations. At some point in the early 1490s, da Vinci began filling notebooks related to four broad themes—painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy—creating thousands of pages of neatly drawn illustrations and densely penned commentary, some of which (thanks to left-handed “mirror script”) was indecipherable to others at the time.
Da Vinci left Italy for good in 1516, when French ruler Francis I generously offered him the title of “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King,” which gave him the opportunity to paint and draw at his leisure while living in a country manor house, the Château of Cloux, near Amboise in France.
Da Vinci died at Cloux (now Clos-Lucé) in 1519 at age 67. He was buried nearby in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The French Revolution nearly obliterated the church, and its remains were completely demolished in the early 1800s, making it impossible to identify da Vinci’s exact gravesite.
Leonardo da Vinci's work will likely be studied for centuries to come, and possibly new works discovered or uncovered, but my favorites will still be his sketches and inventions. What about you? Do you have a favorite da Vinci piece?