Leonardo was born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina in Vinci in the region of Florence, and he was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I.
Leonardo was born on 14/15 April 1452[a] in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, in the lower valley of the Arno river in the territory of the Medici-ruled Republic of Florence. He was the out-of-wedlock son of Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a wealthy Florentine legal notary, and a peasant named Caterina,[c] identified as Caterina Buti del Vacca and more recently as Caterina di Meo Lippi by historian Martin Kemp. There have been many theories regarding Leonardo's mother's identity, including that she was a slave of foreign origin or an impoverished local youth.[d] Leonardo had no surname in the modern sense—da Vinci simply meaning 'of Vinci'; his full birth name was Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci, meaning 'Leonardo, (son) of ser Piero from Vinci'.[e]
Leonardo spent his first years in the hamlet of Anchiano in the home of his mother, and from at least 1457 lived in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle in the small town of Vinci. His father had married a 16-year-old girl named Albiera Amadori, who loved Leonardo but died young in 1465 without children. In 1468, when Leonardo was 16, his father married again to 20-year-old Francesca Lanfredini, who also died without children. Piero's legitimate heirs were born from his third wife Margherita di Guglielmo, who gave birth to six children,[f] and his fourth and final wife, Lucrezia Cortigiani, who bore him another six heirs.[g]
In all, Leonardo had 12 half-siblings, who were much younger than he was (the last was born when Leonardo was 40 years old) and with whom he had very little contact.[h]
Leonardo received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics. In later life, Leonardo recorded few distinct childhood incidents. One was of a kite coming to his cradle and opening his mouth with its tail; he regarded this as an omen of his writing on the subject. The second occurred while he was exploring in the mountains: he discovered a cave and was both terrified that some great monster might lurk there and driven by curiosity to find out what was inside. He also seems to have remembered some of his childhood observations of water, writing and crossing out the name of his hometown in one of his notebooks on the formation of rivers.
Leonardo's early life has been the subject of historical conjecture. Vasari, the 16th-century biographer of Renaissance painters, tells a story of Leonardo as a very young man: A local peasant made himself a round shield and requested that Ser Piero have it painted for him. Leonardo, inspired by the story of Medusa, responded with a painting of a monster spitting fire that was so terrifying that his father bought a different shield to give to the peasant and sold Leonardo's to a Florentine art dealer for 100 ducats, who in turn sold it to the Duke of Milan.
In the mid-1460s, Leonardo's family moved to Florence, and around the age of 14, he became a garzone (studio boy) in the workshop of Verrocchio, who was the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his time. Leonardo became an apprentice by the age of 17 and remained in training for seven years. Other famous painters apprenticed in the workshop or associated with it include Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi. Leonardo was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, and wood-work, as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting, and modelling.[i]
Much of the painting in Verrocchio's workshop was done by his employees. 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, although this is believed to be an apocryphal story. Close examination reveals areas of the work that have been painted or touched-up over the tempera, using the new technique of oil paint, including the landscape, the rocks seen through the brown mountain stream, and much of the figure of Jesus, bearing witness to the hand of Leonardo. 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 20, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine,[j] but even after his father set him up in his own workshop, his attachment to Verrocchio was such that he continued to collaborate and live with him. Leonardo's earliest known dated work is a 1473 pen-and-ink drawing of the Arno valley, which has been cited as the first 'pure' landscape in the Occident.[k] According to Vasari, the young Leonardo was the first to suggest making the Arno river a navigable channel between Florence and Pisa.
In January 1478, Leonardo received an independent commission to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio, an indication of his independence from Verrocchio's studio. One anonymous writer claims that in 1480, Leonardo was living with the Medici and often worked in the garden of the Piazza San Marco, Florence, where a Neoplatonic academy of artists, poets and philosophers organized by the Medici met. In March 1481, he received a commission from the monks of San Donato in Scopeto for The Adoration of the Magi.
Neither of these initial commissions were completed, being abandoned when Leonardo went to offer his services to Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza. In 1482, he casted a silver stringed instrument from a horse's skull and ram horns to bring to Sforza, whom he wrote a letter describing the diverse things that he could achieve in the fields of engineering and weapon design, and mentioning that he could paint.
Leonardo worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499. He was commissioned to paint the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In the spring of 1485, Leonardo travelled to Hungary on behalf of Sforza to meet Matthias Corvinus, and was commissioned by him to paint a Madonna.
Leonardo was employed on many other projects for Sforza, 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 Ludovico's predecessor Francesco Sforza. This would have surpassed in size the only two large equestrian statues of the Renaissance, Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio's Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, and became known as the Gran Cavallo. Leonardo completed a model for the horse and made detailed plans for its casting, but in November 1494, Ludovico gave the bronze to his brother-in-law to be used for a cannon to defend the city from Charles VIII.
With Ludovico Sforza overthrown at the dawn of the Second Italian War, Leonardo, with his assistant Salaì and friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice. There, he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack. On his return to Florence in 1500, he and his household were guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop where, according to Vasari, Leonardo created the cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, a work that won such admiration that "men and women, young and old" flocked to see it "as if they were attending a great festival".[l]
In Cesena 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 a map of Cesare Borgia's stronghold, a town plan of Imola in order to win his patronage. Maps were extremely rare at the time and it would have seemed like a new concept. Upon seeing it, Cesare hired Leonardo as his chief military engineer and architect. Later in the year, Leonardo produced another map for his patron, one of Chiana Valley, Tuscany, so as to give his patron a better overlay of the land and greater strategic position. He created this map in conjunction with his other project of constructing a dam from the sea to Florence, in order to allow a supply of water to sustain the canal during all seasons.
Leonardo writes about his globe
: “El mio mappamondo che ha Giovanni Benci
” in Codex Atlanticus, page 331 recto, dating from 1504.
Leonardo returned to Florence, where he rejoined the Guild of Saint Luke on 18 October 1503. By this same month, Leonardo had begun working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo—the model of the Mona Lisa, which he would continue working on until his twilight years. In January 1504, he was part of a committee formed to recommend where Michelangelo's statue of David should be placed. He then spent two years in Florence designing and painting a mural of The Battle of Anghiari for the Signoria, with Michelangelo designing its companion piece, The Battle of Cascina.[m] While in Florence, Leonardo wrote in the Codex Atlanticus of the Da Vinci Globe (1504), which proves that he was aware of the discovery of the Americas.
In 1506, Leonardo was summoned to Milan by Charles II d'Amboise, the acting French governor of the city. The Council of Florence wished Leonardo to return promptly to finish The Battle of Anghiari, but he was given leave at the behest of Louis XII, who considered commissioning the artist to make some portraits. Leonardo may have commenced a project for an equestrian figure of d'Amboise; a wax model survives and, if genuine, is the only extant example of Leonardo's sculpture. Leonardo was otherwise free to pursue his scientific interests. Many of Leonardo's most prominent pupils either knew or worked with him in Milan, including Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, and Marco d'Oggiono.
In 1507, Leonardo was in Florence sorting out a dispute with his brothers over the estate of his father, who had died in 1504. By 1508, Leonardo was back in Milan, living in his own house in Porta Orientale in the parish of Santa Babila.
Old age and death
In 1512, Leonardo was working on plans for an equestrian monument for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, but this was prevented by an invasion of a confederation of Swiss, Spanish and Venetian forces, which drove the French from Milan. Leonardo stayed in the city, spending several months in 1513 at the Medici's Vaprio d'Adda villa. In March of that year, Lorenzo de' Medici's son Giovanni assumed the papacy (as Leo X); Leonardo went to Rome that September, where he was received by the pope's brother Giuliano. From September 1513 to 1516, Leonardo spent much of his time living in the Belvedere Courtyard (designed by Donato Bramante) in the Apostolic Palace, where Michelangelo and Raphael were both active. Leonardo was given an allowance of 33 ducats a month, and according to Vasari, decorated a lizard with scales dipped in quicksilver. The pope gave him a painting commission of unknown subject matter, but cancelled it impatiently when the artist set about developing a new kind of varnish.[n]
In October 1515, King Francis I of France recaptured Milan. Leonardo was present at the 19 December meeting of Francis I and Leo X, which took place in Bologna. In 1516, Leonardo entered Francis' service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé, near the king's residence at the royal Château d'Amboise. Being frequently visited by Francis, he drew plans for an immense castle town the king intended to erect at Romorantin, and made a mechanical lion, which during a pageant walked toward the king and—upon being struck by a wand—opened its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies.[o] Leonardo was accompanied during this time by his friend and apprentice, Francesco Melzi, and supported by a pension totalling 10,000 scudi. At some point, Melzi drew a portrait of Leonardo; the only others known from his lifetime were a sketch by an unknown assistant on the back of one of Leonardo's studies (c. 1517) and a drawing by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino depicting an elderly Leonardo with his right arm assuaged by cloth.[p][q] The latter confirms an account of Leonardo's right hand being paralytic at the age of 65, which may indicate why he left works such as the Mona Lisa unfinished. He continued to work at some capacity until eventually becoming ill and bedridden for several months.
Leonardo died at Clos Lucé on 2 May 1519 at the age of 67, possibly of a stroke. Francis I had become a close friend. Vasari describes Leonardo as lamenting on his deathbed, full of repentance, that "he had offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done." Vasari states that in his last days, Leonardo sent for a priest to make his confession and to receive the Holy Sacrament. Vasari also records that the king held Leonardo's head in his arms as he died, although this story may be legend rather than fact.[r][s] In accordance with his will, sixty beggars carrying tapers followed Leonardo's casket.[t] Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving, as well as money, Leonardo's paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salaì, and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo's vineyards. His brothers received land, and his serving woman received a fur-lined cloak. On 12 August 1519, Leonardo's remains were interred in the Collegiate Church of Saint Florentin at the Château d'Amboise.
Some 20 years after Leonardo's death, Francis was reported by the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini as saying: "There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher."