Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. His genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time, with their fame approached only by Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon.

Little is known about Leonardo's early life. Leonardo received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics. In 1466, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, whose workshop was "one of the finest in Florence". According to Vasari, Leonardo collaborated with Verrocchio on his The Baptism of Christ, painting the young angel holding Jesus' robe in a manner that was so far superior to his master's that Verrocchio put down his brush and never painted again. Leonardo may have been the model for two works by Verrocchio: the bronze statue of David in the Bargello and the Archangel Raphael in Tobias and the Angel.

By 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke. Leonardo's earliest known dated work is a drawing in pen and ink drawn in 1473. In 1476, the Florentine court records that Leonardo and three other young men were charged with sodomy and acquitted. From that date until 1478 there is no record of his work or even of his whereabouts. In 1480 Leonardo was living with the Medici and working in the Garden of the Piazza San Marco in Florence, a Neo-Platonic academy of artists, poets and philosophers which the Medici had established.

Lorenzo de' Medici sent Leonardo to Milan, to secure peace with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Leonardo worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499. Leonardo was employed on many different projects for Ludovico, including the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico's predecessor. Seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. The monument remained unfinished for several years. Leonardo began making detailed plans for its casting; however, Michelangelo insulted him by implying that he was unable to cast it. In 1494 Ludovico gave the bronze to be used for cannon to defend the city from invasion by Charles VIII.

In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer and travelling throughout Italy with his patron. Leonardo created maps to give his patron a better overlay of the land and greater strategic position. Leonardo returned to Florence where he rejoined the Guild of St Luke in 1503, and spent two years designing and painting a mural of The Battle of Anghiari for the Signoria, with Michelangelo designing its companion piece, The Battle of Cascina.

From September 1513 to 1516, under Pope Leo X, Leonardo spent much of his time living in the Belvedere in the Vatican in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time. In October 1515, Francis I of France recaptured Milan. Leonardo was commissioned to make for Francis a mechanical lion which could walk forward, then open its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies. In 1516, he entered François' service. It was here that he spent the last three years of his life. Francis I had become a close friend. Leonardo da Vinci was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d'Amboise, in France.

Despite the recent awareness and admiration of Leonardo as a scientist and inventor, for the better part of four hundred years his fame rested on his achievements as a painter and on a handful of works, either authenticated or attributed to him that have been regarded as among the masterpieces. These paintings are famous for a variety of qualities which have been much imitated by students and discussed at great length by connoisseurs and critics. Among the qualities that make Leonardo's work unique are the innovative techniques which he used in laying on the paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology, his interest in physiognomy and the way in which humans register emotion in expression and gesture, his innovative use of the human form in figurative composition, and his use of the subtle gradation of tone. All these qualities come together in his most famous painted works, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks.

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