what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci

By: History.com Editors

Updated: July 13, 2022 | Original: December 2, 2009

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, engineer, architect, inventor, and student of all things scientific. His natural genius crossed so many disciplines that he epitomized the term “ Renaissance man.” Today he remains best known for two of his paintings, " Mona Lisa " and "The Last Supper." Largely self-educated, he filled dozens of secret notebooks with inventions, observations and theories about pursuits from aeronautics to human anatomy. His combination of intellect and imagination allowed him to create, at least on paper, such inventions as the bicycle, the helicopter and an airplane based on the physiology and flying ability of a bat.

When Was Leonardo da Vinci Born?

Da Vinci was born in Anchiano, Tuscany (now Italy), in 1452, close to the town of Vinci that provided the surname we associate with him today. In his own time he was known just as Leonardo or as “Il Florentine,” since he lived near Florence—and was famed as an artist, inventor and thinker.

Did you know? Leonardo da Vinci’s father, an attorney and notary, and his peasant mother were never married to one another, and Leonardo was the only child they had together. With other partners, they had a total of 17 other children, da Vinci’s half-siblings.

Da Vinci’s parents weren’t married, and his mother, Caterina, a peasant, wed another man while da Vinci was very young and began a new family. Beginning around age 5, he lived on the estate in Vinci that belonged to the family of his father, Ser Peiro, an attorney and notary. Da Vinci’s uncle, who had a particular appreciation for nature that da Vinci grew to share, also helped raise him.

Early Career

Da Vinci received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing and math, but his father appreciated his artistic talent and apprenticed him at around age 15 to the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence. For about a decade, 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 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 shortly thereafter 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 earmarked for the sculpture into cannons, and the clay model was destroyed in the conflict after the ruling Sforza duke fell from power in 1499.

'The Last Supper' 

Although relatively few of da Vinci’s paintings and sculptures survive—in part because his total output was quite small—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. It depicts the Passover dinner during which Jesus Christ addresses the Apostles and says, “One of you shall betray me.”

One of the painting’s stellar features is each Apostle’s distinct emotive expression and body language. Its composition, in which Jesus is centered among yet isolated from the Apostles, has influenced generations of painters.

'Mona Lisa'

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. 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.

In the past she was often thought to be Mona Lisa Gherardini, a courtesan, but current scholarship indicates that she was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine merchant Francisco del Giocondo. Today, the portrait—the only da Vinci portrait from this period that survives—is housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, where it attracts millions of visitors each year.

Around 1506, da Vinci returned to Milan, along with a group of his students and disciples, including young aristocrat Francesco Melzi, who would be 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 (this time because Trivulzio scaled back his plan). Da Vinci spent seven years in Milan, followed by three more in Rome after Milan once again became inhospitable because of political strife.

Inventions and Philosophy 

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 was, wrote Sigmund Freud, “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”

Several themes could be said to unite da Vinci’s eclectic interests. Most notably, he believed that sight was mankind’s most important sense and that “saper vedere” (“knowing how to see”) was crucial to living all aspects of life fully. 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.

Probably because of his abundance of diverse interests, da Vinci failed to complete a significant number of his paintings and projects. He spent a great deal of time immersing himself in nature, testing scientific laws, dissecting bodies (human and animal) and thinking and writing about his observations. 

Da Vinci’s Notebooks

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.

The notebooks—often referred to as da Vinci’s manuscripts and “codices”—are housed today in museum collections after having been scattered after his death. The Codex Atlanticus, for instance, includes a plan for a 65-foot mechanical bat, essentially a flying machine based on the physiology of the bat and on the principles of aeronautics and physics.

Other notebooks contained da Vinci’s anatomical studies of the human skeleton, muscles, brain, and digestive and reproductive systems, which brought new understanding of the human body to a wider audience. However, because they weren’t published in the 1500s, da Vinci’s notebooks had little influence on scientific advancement in the Renaissance period.

How Did Leonardo da Vinci Die?

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 afforded 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.

Although accompanied by Melzi, to whom he would leave his estate, the bitter tone in drafts of some of his correspondence from this period indicate that da Vinci’s final years may not have been very happy ones. (Melzi would go on to marry and have a son, whose heirs, upon his death, sold da Vinci’s estate.)

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.

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what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

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Mark Cartwright

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian Renaissance artist, architect, engineer, and scientist. He is renowned for his ability to observe and capture nature, scientific phenomena, and human emotions in all media . Leonardo’s innovative masterpieces demonstrate a mastery of light, perspective, and overall effect. His most-loved works include the Mona Lisa portrait and The Last Supper mural.

Considered one of the greatest minds in history, Leonardo's approach to acquiring knowledge on everything from anatomy to mechanics involved understanding both the theory and practice of any given subject. In short, by combining the skills of the artisan with those of the scholar, Leonardo's vision demonstrated the benefits of a completely new approach to understanding the present world and just how to best create new and marvellous things for a future one.

Leonardo was born on 15 April 1452 CE, the illegitimate son of a lawyer from the town of Vinci near Florence. A gifted child, especially in music and drawing, c. 1464 CE the young Leonardo was sent off to pursue a career as an artist and study as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435-1488 CE). Other notable future artists then at the workshop included Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510 CE) and Pietro Perugino (c. 1450-1523 CE). Here Leonardo would have learnt to master sketching and painting techniques, as well as the latest trends like the use of classicising ornamental detail in paintings. One of the young Leonardo's first contributions to Renaissance art may have been the kneeling angel in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ painting (c. 1470 CE, Uffizi, Florence). Completing his apprenticeship in 1472 CE, Leonardo became a paid assistant to Verrocchio and was registered as a master in the painter's guild of Florence.

Other skills Leonardo perfected early on in his career included chiaroscuro (the contrasting use of light and shade) and sfumato (the transition of lighter into darker colours). The former technique is especially evident in his c. 1503 CE coloured charcoal illustration Virgin and Child with St. Anne (National Gallery, London) and its c. 1505 painted version (Louvre, Paris ). The technique of sfumato is well-illustrated in Leonardo's c. 1483 CE oil on panel painting Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre). Leonardo was also an innovator, though. His c. 1472 CE The Annunciation (Uffizi) illustrates the artist followed some Renaissance trends, for example, the classical details of Mary's book rest, but also ignored others such as his obvious rejection of symmetry in the background trees.

Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci

Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera, art historian and contemporary of Leonardo's, gives in his mini-biography the following summary of the artist's personality:

He had a character which was very amiable, impressive and generous, and he had the most beautiful appearance. He was a splendid critic and inventor of all things elegant and delightful, especially in theatrical displays. He sang to his own accompaniment on the lyre , and he was on excellent footing with all the princes of his time. (Woods, 269)

Notes & Sketches

Leonardo was far from being restricted to art and his interests were wide indeed, encompassing just about all the physical world. He studied architecture , engineering, geometry, perspective, mechanics, and hydraulics to satisfy himself just how things worked and why they appeared as they do to the human eye. The natural world was not neglected with studies in anatomy, botany, zoology, and geology. Leonardo kept notebooks throughout his life in which he recorded the results of his investigations and his ideas for new inventions. Machines the artist conjured up include cranes, paddlewheel boats, tanks, cannons, apparatus to breathe underwater, and even flying contraptions. The only element many of these designs lacked was an internal combustion engine, not to be invented, of course, until centuries later. The notes in these books are often interspersed with sketches, many being miniature masterpieces in themselves. Perhaps the most famous of all these sketches is the Vitruvian Man drawing (see below).

In addition, Leonardo wrote down his thoughts on painting and his observation of effects seen in nature he considered useful to the artist. As the man himself said, "a painter is not admirable unless he is universal", although he was appreciative that mastery of any subject takes time and noted that impatience was the mother of stupidity (Hale, 183). These notes and treatises were no doubt useful in Leonardo's role as a tutor to young artists in his own workshop. A curiosity of them is that many are written as mirror script , that is in the reverse direction of normal handwriting.

Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci

Besides stacks of notebooks, Leonardo built up an impressive personal library which, by 1503 CE, contained 116 books covering such subjects as medieval and Renaissance medicine , religion , and mathematics. The collection included such seminal works as Natural History by Pliny, Geography by Ptolemy I and On Warfare by Roberto Valturio. Leonardo was interested in languages, too, particularly Latin, which he attempted to teach himself in order to read medieval manuscripts in their original form; long lists of Latin words can be found in his notebooks.

Leonardo's versatility is further illustrated in his employment by Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508 CE), the Duke of Milan. Leonardo had moved to the city in 1482 CE and he acted as the principal Sforza military and naval engineer, on the one hand, and master painter and sculptor, on the other. Leonardo also produced ingenious automata for Ludovico's festivals and these included moving planets with their namesake gods inside. The master turned his hand to a massive bronze equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza (1401-1466 CE), founder of that dynasty, but the project never got beyond the terracotta model stage - by no means the only work Leonardo never finished. Sketches survive showing the general form and Leonardo attempting to work out just how to make and transport the massive pieces of bronze for final assembly.

Leonardo painted Ludovico Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani in his The Lady with an Ermine c. 1490 CE (National Museum Krakow, Poland). His greatest work in the 17 years he spent in Milan, though, was The Last Supper mural (see below). It was in this period, specifically the 1490s CE, that Leonardo pioneered the new medium of red chalk drawings on treated paper. The many surviving examples of these drawings include a famous self-portrait which shows the artist aged and long-bearded. The sketch is now in the Biblioteca Reale of Turin.

Further Travels & France

Leonardo visited Venice in 1500 CE. Around this time he painted his erotic version of the Leda and the Swan story from Greek mythology which is now lost, although sketches survive. In 1502 CE Leonardo worked in Rome where he was commissioned by the statesman Cesare Borgia (1475-1507 CE) to sort out the city's canals. He also mapped the city and surrounding regions, as well as planning improvements to harbours. One of his most celebrated maps is that of Imola which, made in 1502 CE, shows every structure from above on a precise scale, the first such map to be made. By 1503 CE Leonardo was back in Florence to work on proposals for a battle scene mural in the city's Council Hall. Leonardo's now lost 'cartoon' for the work showed the 1449 CE Battle of Anghiari between the armies of Florence and Milan. The early years of the 16th century CE also saw Leonardo complete a painting he had probably been working on sporadically, the Mona Lisa portrait (see below).

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci

In 1517 CE Leonardo moved on to France, where his skills were appreciated by Francis I of France (r. 1515-1547 CE), a great patron of Renaissance artists and architects. Leonardo, specifically invited by the French king, may have been involved in the initial design stage for Francis' Chateau de Chambord on the Loire River, built from 1519 to 1547 CE. The chateau's ingenious double spiral staircase is frequently credited to Leonardo even if firm evidence is lacking.

Leonardo's final work of art was his c. 1515 CE painting St. John the Baptist (Louvre), although he seems to have focussed more on scientific enquiry in the latter stages of his life. Leonardo died at his French home, Chateau Cloux (aka Clos Lucé), on 2 May 1519 CE and he was entombed within the Chapel of Saint Hubert just next to the Chateau d'Amboise.

Reputation & Legacy

The sheer diversity of work left by Leonardo has astounded historians and critics ever since his death . As the Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1887 CE) famously stated, "the colossal outlines of Leonardo's nature can never be more than dimly and distantly conceived" (104). Leonardo's artistic works were influential on fellow Renaissance artists because of their mastery of composition and light, the contrapposto posture of his figures (i.e. the asymmetry between the upper and lower body), and the sheer invention and variety of their compositions.

However, it is also true to say that some elements of Leonardo's works were so subtle and skilled that few artists had any hope of imitating them. Then, just as today, much of his art was greatly admired but not wholly understood by everyone. Nevertheless, those who could see did see. The master's work for the Battle of Anghiari, several copies of which were made, was influential on such gifted artists as Raphael (1483-1520 CE) who greatly admired the writhing mass of humanity seemingly captured at a moment frozen in time. This is but one example of the master's influence, just one product of what the mathematician and artists' frequent collaborator Luca Pacioli (c. 1447-1517 CE) already called "the divine left hand" (Campbell, 387). Leonardo's fame even reached as far as Constantinople where the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512 CE) invited him, without success, to his court.

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Leonardo's notebooks, not published until after 1570 CE, were influential both for their theories on painting and his diagrams on perspective but also on the pursuit of knowledge in general. Simply the way that Leonardo illustrated certain subjects (from an embryo to a cathedral), with his use of cross-section, perspective, scaled precision, and repeating the subject but from different viewpoints, would all influence draughtsmanship in architecture and the creation of diagrams in science ever after. Above all, Leonardo had shown that practice and theory could not and should not be separated. The great master demonstrated in his own person that a full knowledge of any subject required a combination of the skills of the artisan, the flair and imagination of the artist, and the meticulous research and reasoning of a scholar. Consequently, the approaches to a great many subjects, but especially art, architecture, engineering, and science, were fundamentally changed forever.

Death of Leonardo da Vinci


The Mona Lisa ( La Gioconda in Italian) is an oil on wood panel portrait of an unidentified woman made by Leonardo between c. 1503 and 1506 CE. It measures 98 x 53 centimetres (38 x 21 inches), a relatively small size that often surprises modern viewers used to seeing this iconic image in larger reprints. The painting, rather than merely capturing the physical features of the sitter, attempts to capture the very mood and thoughts of the subject at a specific moment in time, what Leonardo called "the motions of the mind" (Campbell, 257). Other effects include the use of aerial perspective such as the recession of colour into the furthest background of a watery-looking landscape and the difference in gradation of colour from the top to the bottom of the painting.

Mona Lisa

The casual posture of the lady and the position of her hands forms, with the head as the top point, the classic triangle shape that many Renaissance artists were experimenting with in their paintings. Light and dark colours are used expertly to emphasise the oval face and soft hands of the lady while the contours of these combine convex and concave lines which create an illusion of supple movement. Finally, the three-quarter view of the lady creates another suggestion of movement as she seems to have just that moment turned to regard the viewer. That Leonardo is exclusively interested in presenting a view of a living-breathing individual in intimate contact with the viewer is further evidenced by the lack of any identifying title and the total lack of jewellery or other symbols of wealth which were typical of portraits up to that point. The work was immediately influential, inspiring artists like the young Raphael in his own portrait painting such as Maddalena Strozzi and Baldassare Castiglione . Leonardo must have been pleased with the Mona Lisa as he never parted with it during his lifetime and the picture is today one of the star attractions in the Louvre museum in Paris.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper ( Il Cenacolo in Italian) is a depiction of the final meal of Jesus Christ and his apostles which Leonardo painted on the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a residence of the Dominican order in Milan. This was a traditional subject to decorate monastic refectories, and the work was very likely commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, whose arms appear at the top of the mural. The work was completed c. 1498 CE. The triumph of the mural is the variation in emotional reactions displayed by each of the apostles as they hear that one of them will soon betray Jesus .

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Like any great work of art, The Last Supper has been subjected to all manner of interpretations. Some, for example, have seen Mary Magdalene in the figure who is intended to be the youthful St. John the Evangelist, sitting to the left of Jesus. Despite the intense interest in the peripheral figures and their meaning, the star of the scene is, of course, Jesus, who, presented as a central triangular form, is further brought to the viewer's attention by the precise perspective of the background which leads the eye irresistibly to the picture's very centre. The triangular motif is further repeated by the marked division in colour of Jesus's clothing and Leonardo organising the apostles into four distinct groups, each forming an approximate triangle with their collective bodies. Finally, amongst all the action and bustle of the gesticulating apostles, Jesus, with both hands on the table, is a vision of immobility, a calm and knowing centre in a storm of outrage and incomprehension.

The work was immediately and hugely influential thanks to an engraving of it made by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534 CE) which was distributed far and wide to interested artists. Unfortunately, things went wrong within a decade after completion when the paintwork began to crumble away. This was because Leonardo had experimented with using oil paints and tempera on plaster in an undocumented technique instead of the familiar and much longer-lasting true fresco method. This dubious experimentation has challenged restorers of The Last Supper ever since. The mural also suffered in more recent times. First, a doorway was inexplicably made in the wall which intrudes into the bottom of the mural. Then, during the Second World War , the building was fire-bombed. Fortunately, the mural had been protected by a wall of sandbags and survived the bombing but it was exposed to the weather until adequate building repairs were made. A comprehensive restoration programme was conducted in the early 21st century CE, and it can be visited by the public, although numbers are limited and pre-booking is obligatory.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Vitruvian Man

Although not a finished work of art (or ever intended to be), Leonardo's pen and ink on paper sketch known as the Vitruvian Man has become so famous that it is one of the images most associated with his name. Measuring 34 x 25 centimetres (13.5 x 10 inches), it was drawn c. 1492 CE and is now in the Academia Gallery in Venice. The name of the work derives from Vitruvius (c. 90 - c. 20 BCE), the Roman architect who famously wrote De Architectura ( On Architecture ), an influential treatise which combines the history of ancient architecture and engineering with the author's personal experience and advice on the subject.

Vitruvius' work was popular during the Renaissance when artists were re-examining the classical world for ideas and inspiration. In one particular passage, Vitruvius recommends that correct architectural proportions should be derived from a study of the proportions of the human body. The passage describes a human body within a circle and a square. Several Renaissance artists and architects, attracted by the idea that there was some mysterious and perhaps even divine relationship between mathematics, the human body, and beauty, attempted to draw what Vitruvius had only described in words. Leonardo's Vitruvian Man is one such attempt. The man's naval is the centre of the circle and his fingertips and feet touch its circumference. A second male figure, superimposed on the other, is set within a square. The sketch is perhaps a metaphor for humanity's position at the centre of an ordered universe, and as such it has become a defining symbol of the Renaissance and the ongoing enquiry into the exact relation between religion, science, and art.

Subscribe to topic Related Content Books Cite This Work License


  • Anderson, Christy. Renaissance Architecture. Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Sagwan Press, 2015.
  • Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Hale, J.R. (ed). The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance by J. R. Hale. Thames & Hudson, 2020.
  • Paoletti, John T. & Radke, Gary M. Art in Renaissance Italy. Pearson, 2011.
  • Rundle, David. The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Hodder Arnold, 2000.
  • Welch, Evelyn. Art in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Woods, Kim W. Making Renaissance Art. Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Wyatt, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

About the Author

Mark Cartwright


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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance artist and engineer, known for paintings like "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa,” and for inventions like a flying machine.

Leonardo da Vinci


Who Was Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman — the epitome of a true Renaissance man. Gifted with a curious mind and a brilliant intellect, da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work. His drawings, paintings and other works have influenced countless artists and engineers over the centuries.

Da Vinci was born in a farmhouse outside the village of Anchiano in Tuscany, Italy (about 18 miles west of Florence) on April 15, 1452.

Born out of wedlock to respected Florentine notary Ser Piero and a young peasant woman named Caterina, da Vinci was raised by his father and his stepmother.

At the age of five, he moved to his father’s estate in nearby Vinci (the town from which his surname derives), where he lived with his uncle and grandparents.

Young da Vinci received little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction, but his artistic talents were evident from an early age.

Around the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He learned a wide breadth of technical skills including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting.

His earliest known dated work — a pen-and-ink drawing of a landscape in the Arno valley — was sketched in 1473.

Early Works

At the age of 20, da Vinci qualified for membership as a master artist in Florence’s Guild of Saint Luke and established his own workshop. However, he continued to collaborate with del Verrocchio for an additional five years.

It is thought that del Verrocchio completed his “Baptism of Christ” around 1475 with the help of his student, who painted part of the background and the young angel holding the robe of Jesus.

According to Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects , written around 1550 by artist Giorgio Vasari, del Verrocchio was so humbled by the superior talent of his pupil that he never picked up a paintbrush again. (Most scholars, however, dismiss Vasari’s account as apocryphal.)

In 1478, after leaving del Verrocchio’s studio, da Vinci received his first independent commission for an altarpiece to reside in a chapel inside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

Three years later the Augustinian monks of Florence’s San Donato a Scopeto tasked him to paint “Adoration of the Magi.” The young artist, however, would leave the city and abandon both commissions without ever completing them.

Was Leonardo da Vinci Gay?

Many historians believe that da Vinci was a homosexual: Florentine court records from 1476 show that da Vinci and four other young men were charged with sodomy, a crime punishable by exile or death.

After no witnesses showed up to testify against 24-year-old da Vinci, the charges were dropped, but his whereabouts went entirely undocumented for the following two years.

Leonardo da Vinci: Paintings

Although da Vinci is known for his artistic abilities, fewer than two dozen paintings attributed to him exist. One reason is that his interests were so varied that he wasn’t a prolific painter. Da Vinci’s most famous works include the “Vitruvian Man,” “The Last Supper” and the “ Mona Lisa .”

Vitruvian Man

Art and science intersected perfectly in da Vinci’s sketch of “Vitruvian Man,” drawn in 1490, which depicted a nude male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart inside both a square and a circle.

The now-famous sketch represents da Vinci's study of proportion and symmetry, as well as his desire to relate man to the natural world.

The Last Supper

Around 1495, Ludovico Sforza, then the Duke of Milan, commissioned da Vinci to paint “The Last Supper” on the back wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The masterpiece, which took approximately three years to complete, captures the drama of the moment when Jesus informs the Twelve Apostles gathered for Passover dinner that one of them would soon betray him. The range of facial expressions and the body language of the figures around the table bring the masterful composition to life.

The decision by da Vinci to paint with tempera and oil on dried plaster instead of painting a fresco on fresh plaster led to the quick deterioration and flaking of “The Last Supper.” Although an improper restoration caused further damage to the mural, it has now been stabilized using modern conservation techniques.

In 1503, da Vinci started working on what would become his most well-known painting — and arguably the most famous painting in the world —the “Mona Lisa.” The privately commissioned work is characterized by the enigmatic smile of the woman in the half-portrait, which derives from da Vinci’s sfumato technique.

Adding to the allure of the “Mona Lisa” is the mystery surrounding the identity of the subject. Princess Isabella of Naples, an unnamed courtesan and da Vinci’s own mother have all been put forth as potential sitters for the masterpiece. It has even been speculated that the subject wasn’t a female at all but da Vinci’s longtime apprentice Salai dressed in women’s clothing.

Based on accounts from an early biographer, however, the "Mona Lisa" is a picture of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. The painting’s original Italian name — “La Gioconda” — supports the theory, but it’s far from certain. Some art historians believe the merchant commissioned the portrait to celebrate the pending birth of the couple’s next child, which means the subject could have been pregnant at the time of the painting.

If the Giocondo family did indeed commission the painting, they never received it. For da Vinci, the "Mona Lisa" was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection, and he never parted with the painting. Today, the "Mona Lisa" hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, secured behind bulletproof glass and regarded as a priceless national treasure seen by millions of visitors each year.

Battle of Anghiari

In 1503, da Vinci also started work on the "Battle of Anghiari," a mural commissioned for the council hall in the Palazzo Vecchio that was to be twice as large as "The Last Supper."

He abandoned the "Battle of Anghiari" project after two years when the mural began to deteriorate before he had a chance to finish it.

In 1482, Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici commissioned da Vinci to create a silver lyre and bring it as a peace gesture to Ludovico Sforza. After doing so, da Vinci lobbied Ludovico for a job and sent the future Duke of Milan a letter that barely mentioned his considerable talents as an artist and instead touted his more marketable skills as a military engineer.

Using his inventive mind, da Vinci sketched war machines such as a war chariot with scythe blades mounted on the sides, an armored tank propelled by two men cranking a shaft and even an enormous crossbow that required a small army of men to operate.

The letter worked, and Ludovico brought da Vinci to Milan for a tenure that would last 17 years. During his time in Milan, da Vinci was commissioned to work on numerous artistic projects as well, including “The Last Supper.”

Da Vinci’s ability to be employed by the Sforza clan as an architecture and military engineering advisor as well as a painter and sculptor spoke to da Vinci’s keen intellect and curiosity about a wide variety of subjects.

Flying Machine

Always a man ahead of his time, da Vinci appeared to prophesy the future with his sketches of devices that resemble a modern-day bicycle and a type of helicopter.

Perhaps his most well-known invention is a flying machine, which is based on the physiology of a bat. These and other explorations into the mechanics of flight are found in da Vinci's Codex on the Flight of Birds, a study of avian aeronautics, which he began in 1505.

Like many leaders of Renaissance humanism, da Vinci did not see a divide between science and art. He viewed the two as intertwined disciplines rather than separate ones. He believed studying science made him a better artist.

In 1502 and 1503, da Vinci also briefly worked in Florence as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and commander of the papal army. He traveled outside of Florence to survey military construction projects and sketch city plans and topographical maps.

He designed plans, possibly with noted diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli , to divert the Arno River away from rival Pisa in order to deny its wartime enemy access to the sea.


Leonardo da Vinci Fact Card

Da Vinci’s Study of Anatomy and Science

Da Vinci thought sight was humankind’s most important sense and eyes the most important organ, and he stressed the importance of saper vedere, or “knowing how to see.” He believed in the accumulation of direct knowledge and facts through observation.

“A good painter has two chief objects to paint — man and the intention of his soul,” da Vinci wrote. “The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movement of the limbs.”

To more accurately depict those gestures and movements, da Vinci began to study anatomy seriously and dissect human and animal bodies during the 1480s. His drawings of a fetus in utero, the heart and vascular system, sex organs and other bone and muscular structures are some of the first on human record.

In addition to his anatomical investigations, da Vinci studied botany, geology, zoology, hydraulics, aeronautics and physics. He sketched his observations on loose sheets of papers and pads that he tucked inside his belt.

Da Vinci placed the papers in notebooks and arranged them around four broad themes—painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy. He filled dozens of notebooks with finely drawn illustrations and scientific observations.

Ludovico Sforza also tasked da Vinci with sculpting a 16-foot-tall bronze equestrian statue of his father and founder of the family dynasty, Francesco Sforza. With the help of apprentices and students in his workshop, da Vinci worked on the project on and off for more than a dozen years.

Da Vinci sculpted a life-size clay model of the statue, but the project was put on hold when war with France required bronze to be used for casting cannons, not sculptures. After French forces overran Milan in 1499 — and shot the clay model to pieces — da Vinci fled the city along with the duke and the Sforza family.

Ironically, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, who led the French forces that conquered Ludovico in 1499, followed in his foe’s footsteps and commissioned da Vinci to sculpt a grand equestrian statue, one that could be mounted on his tomb. After years of work and numerous sketches by da Vinci, Trivulzio decided to scale back the size of the statue, which was ultimately never finished.

Final Years

Da Vinci returned to Milan in 1506 to work for the very French rulers who had overtaken the city seven years earlier and forced him to flee.

Among the students who joined his studio was young Milanese aristocrat Francesco Melzi, who would become da Vinci’s closest companion for the rest of his life. He did little painting during his second stint in Milan, however, and most of his time was instead dedicated to scientific studies.

Amid political strife and the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan, da Vinci left the city and moved to Rome in 1513 along with Salai, Melzi and two studio assistants. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of newly installed Pope Leo X and son of his former patron, gave da Vinci a monthly stipend along with a suite of rooms at his residence inside the Vatican.

His new patron, however, also gave da Vinci little work. Lacking large commissions, he devoted most of his time in Rome to mathematical studies and scientific exploration.

After being present at a 1515 meeting between France’s King Francis I and Pope Leo X in Bologna, the new French monarch offered da Vinci the title “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.”

Along with Melzi, da Vinci departed for France, never to return. He lived in the Chateau de Cloux (now Clos Luce) near the king’s summer palace along the Loire River in Amboise. As in Rome, da Vinci did little painting during his time in France. One of his last commissioned works was a mechanical lion that could walk and open its chest to reveal a bouquet of lilies.

How Did Leonardo da Vinci Die?

Da Vinci died of a probable stroke on May 2, 1519, at the age of 67. He continued work on his scientific studies until his death; his assistant, Melzi, became the principal heir and executor of his estate. The “Mona Lisa” was bequeathed to Salai.

For centuries after his death, thousands of pages from his private journals with notes, drawings, observations and scientific theories have surfaced and provided a fuller measure of the true "Renaissance man."

Book and Movie

Although much has been written about da Vinci over the years, Walter Isaacson explored new territory with an acclaimed 2017 biography, Leonardo da Vinci , which offers up details on what drove the artist's creations and inventions.

The buzz surrounding the book carried into 2018, with the announcement that it had been optioned for a big-screen adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio .

Salvator Mundi

In 2017, the art world was sent buzzing with the news that the da Vinci painting "Salvator Mundi" had been sold at a Christie's auction to an undisclosed buyer for a whopping $450.3 million. That amount dwarfed the previous record for an art work sold at an auction, the $179.4 million paid for “Women of Algiers" by Pablo Picasso in 2015.

The sales figure was stunning in part because of the damaged condition of the oil-on-panel, which features Jesus Christ with his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a crystal orb, and because not all experts believe it was rendered by da Vinci.

However, Christie's had launched what one dealer called a "brilliant marketing campaign," which promoted the work as "the holy grail of our business" and "the last da Vinci." Prior to the sale, it was the only known painting by the old master still in a private collection.

The Saudi Embassy stated that Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud of Saudi Arabia had acted as an agent for the ministry of culture of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Around that time, the newly-opened Louvre Abu Dhabi announced that the record-breaking artwork would be exhibited in its collection.



Vincent van Gogh

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  • Name: Leonardo da Vinci
  • Birth Year: 1452
  • Birth date: April 15, 1452
  • Birth City: Vinci
  • Birth Country: Italy
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance artist and engineer, known for paintings like "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa,” and for inventions like a flying machine.
  • Science and Medicine
  • Writing and Publishing
  • Architecture
  • Technology and Engineering
  • Astrological Sign: Aries
  • Nacionalities
  • Interesting Facts
  • Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock to a respected Florentine notary and a young peasant woman.
  • Da Vinci used tempera and oil on dried plaster to paint "The Last Supper," which led to its quick deterioration and flaking.
  • For da Vinci, the "Mona Lisa" was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection, and he never parted with the painting.
  • Death Year: 1519
  • Death date: May 2, 1519
  • Death City: Amboise
  • Death Country: France

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  • Article Title: Leonardo da Vinci Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/artists/leonardo-da-vincii
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  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: August 28, 2019
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
  • Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.
  • Nothing is hidden beneath the sun.
  • Obstacles cannot bend me. Every obstacle yields to effort.
  • We make our life by the death of others.
  • Necessity is the mistress and guardian of nature.
  • One ought not to desire the impossible.
  • He who neglects to punish evil sanctions the doing thereof.
  • Darkness is the absence of light. Shadow is the diminution of light.
  • The painter who draws by practice and judgment of the eye without the use of reason, is like the mirror that reproduces within itself all the objects which are set opposite to it without knowledge of the same.
  • He who does not value life does not deserve it.
  • Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
  • Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Italian Painter, Designer, Sculptor, Inventor, Scientist, Architect, and Engineer

Leonardo da Vinci

Summary of Leonardo da Vinci

Only a select number of figures in the pantheon of art history can match the level of fame accorded Leonardo da Vinci. The very personification of the "Renaissance man", Leonardo searched for new knowledge within the burgeoning fields of the humanities and the sciences. One of the so-called "holy trinity" (with Michelangelo and Raphael ) of the Italian High Renaissance , Leonardo remains best known today as the painter of some of the world's greatest masterpieces, and for a series of notebooks and drawings that confirm his reputation as the most accomplished polymath of his time.


  • While his yearning for new knowledge that saw him excel in many fields within the humanities and sciences, Leonardo has achieved most acclaim as a painter. He has gained world-wide fame for his enigmatic portrait, the Mona Lisa , the religious fresco, The Last Supper , and his Vitruvian Man , a mathematically precise anatomical drawing. These priceless works are amongst the most known images of all time.
  • Leonardo surpassed the naturalistic techniques of Early Renaissance masters through his meticulous attention to detail and through the introduction of new methods. The most influential of these was his signature sfumato effect in which he blended shades of color to blur - or to "smoke" - the outlines of figures, facial features, and objects. Sfumato achieved such realistic effects it contributed significantly to the birth of the era referred to now as the High Renaissance .
  • Leonardo's intellectual curiosity and imagination produced many ideas and inventions that were described in his vast collection of notebooks. These contain scientific diagrams (predicting future inventions such as the parachute, the helicopter, and the military tank), anatomical and botanical sketches and drawings, and his philosophy on painting. As the art historian E. H. Gombrich put it, "the more one reads these pages, the less one can understand how one human being could have excelled in all these different fields of research and made important contributions to all of them".
  • Leonardo produced several ambitious architectural designs. In Milan, he designed an ingenious 32-mile waterway linking Milan and Lake Como. He is also credited with the design of the spectacular double-helix central staircase (two spirals winding around a glass column, allowing guests to acknowledge each other without physically passing). Through his ability to combine his creative vision with more practical problem-solving skills, Leonardo helped establish architectural principles that have passed down through the centuries.

The Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo stated that "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt", and as if to push home his point, he invented sfumato , an application of subtle colored glazes that were able to convey atmosphere and subtle shifts in moods and feelings in the human body and face.

Important Art by Leonardo da Vinci

Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474-78)

Ginevra de' Benci

Painted while still in his early 20s, Ginevra de' Benci is one of Leonardo's earliest known works. It gives us the first example of his signature portraiture technique whereby he abandoned the conventional "half face" profile pose in favor of a three-quarter pose. Through the three-quarter rotation of his sitter, Leonardo gives us a fuller facial portrait that places the personality of the subject above their status. It was a humanistic technique that would define his future portraits, including such works as the Mona Lisa . Indeed, Leonardo is thought to be the first Italian to represent his sitter in such a way and it would become a convention of High Renaissance portraiture. There is also a strong suggestion (traces of fingerprints on the painting's surface) that Leonardo used his fingers to delicately shade Ginerva's flesh tones. As the National Gallery of Art in Washington (NGAW) states, "The planes of her face subtly modeled, she may have 'come to life' before viewers in a fashion more vivid than any other painting they had seen before", and adds that, "One of Leonardo's contemporaries wrote that he 'painted Ginevra d'Amerigo Benci with such perfection that it seemed to be not a portrait but Ginevra herself'". Ginevra de' Benci was 16 years old and from an affluent family. She was well-educated and had earned a reputation as a fine poet and conversationalist. Her milk-white complexion is flawless, and her blank expression is difficult to read. But as NGAW explains, "Young women of the time were expected to comport themselves with dignity and modesty. Virtue was prized and guarded, and a girl's beauty was thought to be a sign of goodness. Portraitists were expected to enhance - as needed - a woman's attractiveness according to the period's standards of beauty". It is likely that Leonardo was commissioned to paint Ginerva's portrait on the occasion of her betrothal (thought to be to a man named Luigi Niccolini). But as the NGAW states, the painting also "reflects a cultural phenomenon of the Italian Renaissance period - platonic love affairs between well-mannered gentlemen and ladies. Such affairs, often conducted from afar, focused on effusive literary expressions that displayed the courtier's and lady's sophistication". Indeed, Ginevra is known to have had many admirers, including Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and Lorenzo de'Medici, who both composed poems in her honor. The painting is also of significance for its reverse side which carries an emblem in the form of a wreath of laurel and palm encircled with a sprig of juniper, and a scroll featuring the phrase "Virtutem Forma Decorat" ("beauty adorns virtue"). The NGAW states that "The central juniper, ginepro in Italian, a cognate of Ginevra's name and thus her symbol, also represents chastity. The palm stands for moral virtue, while the laurel indicated artistic or literary inclinations".

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86)

Virgin of the Rocks

This painting presents the Madonna, with infant versions of Christ and John the Baptist, and the archangel Gabriel. Like other Renaissance artists, Leonardo was interested in presenting proverbial religious narratives in a more naturalistic way. Here Leonardo's animate quartet sits amidst a mystical landscape that demonstrates his mathematical approach to picture perspective. Complementing the intimate group in the foreground, the scenery of desolate rocks and still water lends the narrative a dreamlike quality, infusing the scene at once with a sense of the heavenly and the human (a blurring, in other words, of the spiritual with the material). The composition utilizes a pyramidal arrangement common amongst High Renaissance artists, while Leonardo's perfection of anatomical movement and fluidity elevates the figures with a sense of naturalistic motion. Their gestures and glances, too, create a dynamic human interaction that was highly innovative. Leonardo's sfumato style, meanwhile, is present in the way colors and outlines blend into a soft smokiness. This technique brings a heightened intensity and more realistic depth-of-field. The painting is also an early example of the use of oil pigment, which was relatively new to Italy, and made the artist better able to capture such intricate details.

Oil on wood transferred to canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Lady with an Ermine (1489-90)

Lady with an Ermine

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned this portrait. In it, Leonardo depicts Sforza's sixteen-year-old mistress Cecilia Gallerani (Sforza being in his late thirties). She peers to the right, as if her attention has been caught by something just outside the picture frame. She bears a look of poise and knowing that is exceptional for a young lady of such tender years. The slightly coy smile seems to suggest her confidence in her position at the Court, and the knowledge of the power of her innate beauty. She holds an ermine, bearer of the fur that was used in Sforza's coat of arms. The ermine was a symbol of purity, and its inclusion was likely representative of Cecilia's fidelity to the Duke. Leonardo's genius in this work is evident in the way he captured the complexity of his sitter's psychology. Indeed, her three-quarter pose and gesture were unconventional for portraiture of the time. Leonardo's scientific study of the human body, and its movements and expressions, meanwhile, allowed him to represent the subtle human undertones that intrigue the viewer and invite them into the intimate mental world of the subject. As art critic Sam Leith put it, "Give the painting a really good, close look and you'll see she really does have the very breath of life in her...just distracted by a noise, caught in a living moment...". In 2014, Pascal Cotte, a French scientist, completed a three-year investigation of the painting in which Cotte discovered that it was completed in three distinct stages. Cotte discovered that Leonardo's first version was a simple portrait (with no animal). The second included a small grey ermine. In the third, the animal is transformed into a large white ermine. Commenting on Cotte's research, historian Lorenza Munoz-Aloñso writes, "The duke, who was da Vinci's patron and champion for eighteen years, was nicknamed 'the white ermine'. The progression in the painting might indicate a growing desire from the couple to affirm their relationship in a more public manner. The transformation of the ermine - from small and dark to muscular and white - could also indicate the duke's wish for a more flattering 'portrait' [of his mistress]". It is also widely believed that the ermine was included to conceal the secret pregnancy of Cecilia who later gave birth to Sforza's son - Cesare.

Oil on wood panel - Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland

The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485)

The Vitruvian Man

In the accompanying text to the drawing, Leonardo describes his intention to study the proportions of man as described by the first-century BC Roman architect Vitruvius (after whom the drawing was named) in his treatise De Architectura ( On Architecture , published as Ten Books on Architecture ). Vitruvius used his own studies of well-proportioned man to influence his design of temples, believing that symmetry was crucial to classical architecture. Leonardo used Vitruvius as a starting point for inspiration in his own anatomical studies and further perfected his measurements, correcting over half of Vitruvius's original calculations. The idea of relative proportion has influenced Renaissance architecture (and beyond) as a concept for creating harmony between the earthly and divine in churches, as well as the temporal in palaces and palatial residences. Ultimately, The Vitruvian Man is a mathematical study of the human body highlighting the nature of balance which proportion and symmetry lend us, an understanding that would inform all of Leonardo's output in art and architecture. It also underlines the goals of Renaissance Humanism which placed man in relation to nature, and as a link between the earthly (square) and the divine (circle). It also demonstrates, of course, the artist's thorough understanding of science and mathematics, and his excellence in draftsmanship. The image is truly iconic and has been referenced through several fine art sources. These include William Blake's, Glad Day (aka The Dance of Albion) (c.1794), Enzo Plazzotta's Homage to Leonardo (aka. Vitruvian Man ) (1984) - an outdoor statue in central London, and Andrew Leicester's giant robot-like Tin Man (2001) sculpture placed in the engineering faculty courtyard at the University of Minnesota. It has also provided a point of reference within popular graphic culture with the online comic book resource (Comiclist) displaying some twenty three comic-book covers - including issues of Spiderman, Wonder Woman and Ironman - that self-consciously align these superheroes with Leonardo's drawing. The drawing has even featured in an episode of The Simpsons (season 10) in which Homer Simpson is chased by the Vitruvian Man in a dream where he is attacked by famous artworks that have come to life.

Pen and ink on paper - Accademia, Venice, Italy

The Last Supper (1498)

The Last Supper

The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned The Last Supper for the dining hall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. It tells the famous biblical story of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, and specifically, the moment after he has told them that one of their own would betray him. Each of the apostles is individually rendered with different expressions of consternation and disbelief as Judas stands in the shadows clutching the purse containing silver he received for his betrayal (Leonardo was given permission to bring a criminal to his studio from prison to model as Judas). Jesus occupies the center frame, reaching for bread and a glass of wine referring to the Eucharist. Behind him, seen through the windows, lays an idealized landscape, perhaps alluding to heavenly paradise, and the three windows possibly denote the holy trinity. The intricate detail, coupled with the use of one point perspective, placing Jesus at the crux of the pictorial space, and from which all other elements emanate, was to herald in a new direction in High Renaissance art. Furthermore, the use of the vanishing point technique complimented the painting's position and setting, allowing for the artwork to mesh into the space as if it were a natural extension of the nuns' dining area. The art historian E. H. Gombrich said of the finished painting: "There was nothing in this work that resembled older representations of the same theme. In these traditional versions, the apostles were seen sitting quietly at the table in a row - only Judas being segregated from the rest - while Christ was calmly dispensing the Sacrament. There was drama in it, and excitement. Leonardo, like Giotto before him, had gone back to the text of the Scriptures, and had striven to visualize what it must have been like when Christ said, 'Verily I say unto you, that one of you will betray me'". Because the water-based paints typically used for frescos of this type were not conducive to Leonardo's sfumato technique, he opted instead for oil-based paints. However, the oil-on-plaster combination would prove disastrous as, even before the artist's death, the paint had begun to flake from the wall (a situation not helped by the steam and smoke emanating from the monastery's kitchens). Today, little of Leonardo's original paintwork remains with the last restoration, finished in 1999, lasting some twenty-one years. The art historian Khyati Rajvanshi describes how the fresco now sits in a strict temperature-controlled environment. Rajvanshi adds that "The management board allows just 1,300 people to visit the Last Supper each day" giving each person a maximum of fifteen minutes to enjoy the masterpiece (and not leave too much dust to cause it further harm).

Fresco - Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist (c. 1499-1500)

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist

This preliminary drawing shows the Virgin seated next to her mother, St. Anne, while holding the baby Jesus, and with the baby St. John the Baptist looking on. Mary's eyes peer down at her child who points to the heavens as he delivers a benediction. The piece is very large in size, consisting of eight papers glued together. Also known as the Burlington House Cartoon , it is presumed to be a sketch in planning for a painting, although the painting either no longer exists, or was never created. Leonardo often used a "cartoon" such as this as a stencil which he placed on the intended painting surface. Once fixed in place, a pin would be used to create an outline that would then guide the artist's brush. Because this piece is impeccably preserved, it is assumed that it was never put to use for this purpose. The drawing is notable in that it reflects Leonardo's search for perfection, even in planning for a painting. His acuity with anatomy is present in the realistic ways the figures' bodies are shown in various gestures of interaction with each other. Genuine tenderness is conveyed in the faces of the women and St. John as they reflect upon the focal point of Christ. The attention to detail for what was a preparatory drawing, underlines the artist's painstaking approach to producing art. Leonardo's cartoons are so technically perfect that they are regarded as highly as his finished masterpieces. Many were admired and shown both at the Court and in public exhibitions during his life and after.

Charcoal and chalk drawing on paper - The National Gallery, London

Salvatore Mundi (c. 1500)

Salvatore Mundi

King Louis XVII of France is said to have commissioned Salvator Mundi after his conquest of Milan in 1499. The painting is a portrait of Jesus in the role of savior of the world and master of the cosmos. His right hand is raised with two fingers extended as he gives divine benediction. His left hand holds a crystalline sphere, representing the heavens. This is an unusual portrait in that it shows Christ, in very humanist fashion, as a man in contemporary Renaissance dress, gazing directly out at the viewer. It is also a half-length portrait, which was a radical departure from full-length portraits of the time. Jesus's "closeness" to us lends the visage an intense intimacy. The painting is representative of the mastery of Leonardo's signature techniques. The softness of the gaze, acquired through sfumato , lends a spiritual quality, inviting veneration from the viewer, while Jesus's face encompasses an emotion and expressiveness defined by the artist's acuity with anatomical correctness. The darkness from which he emerges contrasts with the light that seems to emanate from Jesus's exposed upper chest. Thus, the painting still (in spite of his humanist outer shell) presents Christ as an awe-inspiring "bringer of light". Salvator Mundi was unaccounted for between 1763 and 1900 when it was bought by one Sir Charles Robinson as a work by Bernardino Luini. It later sold at Sotheby's, London, in 1958 for £45 ($125). The painting, which was badly damaged, was then bought by an independent U.S. auction house in 2005. Having undergone extensive restoration, it reemerged in the early 2000s when it was confirmed as a work by Leonardo (though some experts still questioned it attribution). The painting was sold at auction at Christies New York in 2017 for $450 million a new record for an artwork at that time.

Oil on wood panel - Louvre, Abu Dhabi

Mona Lisa (c. 1503)

The Mona Lisa , also known as La Gioconda , is said to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant named Francesco del Gioconda. The half-length portrayal shows the sitter, seated on a chair with one arm resting on the chair and one hand resting on her arm. The use of sfumato creates a sense of soft calmness, which emanates from her being, and infuses the background. There has been much speculation as to its origin of location, yet it is more widely construed that it is imaginary, a composition born in Leonardo's mind (that could also allude to our admittance into Mona Lisa's dreamlike interior world). But it is of course Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression that transfixes the viewer and the eternal mystery of what's lying behind that iconic smile. Portraits of the time focused on presenting the outward appearance of the sitter, the personality of the subject only hinted at through symbolic objects, clothing, or gestures. Yet Leonardo desired to capture more than mere likeness. He wanted to show something of her soul, which he accomplished by placing emphasis on her peculiar and unconventional smile. As Gombrich observed, "We see that Leonardo has used the means of his ' sfumato ' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly on two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us. Her expression always seems just to elude us". Leonardo's painting is probably the most famous single painting in history. It has inspired many artists. Raphael drew upon it for a drawing in 1504, while countless writers have written about her, including the 19 th century French poet Theophile Gautier who called her "the sphinx who smiles so mysteriously." She has been the subject of many popular songs (most famously, perhaps, Mona Lisa, by Nat "King" Cole), and has been parodied in art, from the 1883 caricaturist's Eugene Bataille's, Mona Lisa smoking a pipe , to the 1919 Marcel Duchamp readymade showing her with a mustache and beard. In 1954, Salvador Dalí created his Self-portrait as Mona Lisa and in 1963 Andy Warhol included her in his seminal silkscreen output Mona Lisa "Thirty are better than one" . Her image has also been reproduced endlessly on postcards, calendars, posters, and all manner of other commercial products.

Oil on wood panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Childhood and education.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, widely considered one of the most gifted and inventive men in history, was born in 1452 in a village near the town of Vinci, Tuscany.

The illegitimate son of Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary and landlord, and Caterina, a peasant girl (who later married an artisan), Leonardo was brought up on the family estate in Anchiano by his paternal grandfather. His father married a sixteen-year old girl, Albiera, with whom Leonardo was close, but who died at an early age. Leonardo was the oldest of twelve siblings but was never treated as the illegitimate son. Like his siblings, Leonardo received a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, but he did not show his great passion for learning until adult life.

Early Training and Work

At the age of fourteen, Leonardo moved to Florence where he began an apprenticeship at the renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist who himself had been a student of the Early Renaissance master Donatello . It is a matter of record that Leonardo also visited the nearby workshop of Antonio Pollaiuolo. Verrocchio was an important artist in the court of the Medici, a family noted equally for its political power and its generous patronage of the arts. Indeed, Florence attracted many talented young artists, including Domenico Ghirlandaio , Pietro Perugino, and Lorenzo di Credi and it is indicative of his father's civic standing that Leonardo was able to take up his apprenticeship in such a prestigious workshop.

Although Leonardo gained only a basic grasp of Latin and Greek, Florentine artists of this period were compelled to the study the humanities as a way of more fully understanding man's place in the modern world, and Leonardo's curious and skeptical mind was nurtured under Verrocchio's mentorship (as art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote, "At a time when the learned men at the universities relied on the authority of the admired ancient writers, Leonardo, the painter, would never accept what he read without checking it with his own eyes").

Leonardo's name would become closely associated with the intellectual movement/philosophy known as Renaissance Humanism . It promoted a return to the values and ideals of the classical world but also laid emphasis on what it was to "be human". Great focus was placed on "higher" education and the promotion of "civic virtue" in the belief that by reaching one's full potential - which the Renaissance artist achieved by becoming learned in aesthetic beauty, ethics, logic, and scientific and mathematical principles - one could advance civilization. Leonardo would more than measure up to the title of "renaissance man" through his passionate interest in the disciplines of art, anatomy, architecture, geometry, chemistry, and engineering.

In 1472, after six years of apprenticeship, Leonardo became a member of the Guild of St. Luke, a Florentine group of artists and medical doctors. Although his father had set him up with a workshop of his own, Leonardo - now regarded by many of his peers, according to Gombrich, "as a strange and rather uncanny being" - continued to work with Verrocchio as an assistant for a further four or five years.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Customary to the times, the output of Verrocchio's workshop would have given rise to collaborative efforts between master and apprentice. Two pictures accredited to Verrocchio, The Baptism of Christ (1475) and The Annunciation (1472-75), are seen by art historians, such as the Renaissance chronicler, Giorgio Vasari , to evidence Leonardo's lighter brush strokes when compared with Verrocchio's heavier hand.

In 1476, Leonardo was accused of sodomy with three other men. Homosexuality was illegal and punishable, not only by imprisonment, but also by public humiliation and even death. Leonardo was acquitted through lack of corroborative evidence, which has been attributed to the fact that his friends/lovers came from powerful Florentine families. Perhaps because of the stigma and chastisement, Leonardo kept a low profile over the next few years, with little or no record of his activities during this time.

Leonardo's earliest commissions came in 1481 from the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto for a panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi (unfinished), and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria (never begun). However, Leonardo stopped work on the commissions to move to Milan after accepting an offer from the city's Duke to join his court. He was listed in the royal register as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis ("painter and engineer of the duke").

There is some speculation as to why the move to Milan was so appealing to the artist when his Florentine career was in the ascendency. It may have been that his decision was to put the earlier sexual scandal behind him. While that may have been a contributory factor, it seems more likely that what the historian Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich called Leonard's "gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing" was a better fit for the austere Milanese Court. As Heydenreich writes, "It may have been that the rather sophisticate spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo's experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza's brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there".

Mature Period

Da Vinci's notebooks reveal that he engaged in in-deptha deep study of anatomy, sketching countless images of both the internal and external working of the human body.

Leonardo worked in Milan between 1482 and 1499. Between 1483-86, he worked on the The Virgin of the Rocks , an altarpiece commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. For reasons that are unknown, Leonardo entered into a decade-long legal dispute with the Confraternity (leading Leonardo to paint a second version of the work in 1508). In 1485, he undertook a diplomatic mission to Hungary on behalf of the Duke. He met with the influential Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus, and worked on preparations for court festivals. While in Hungary he also worked on engineering and architectural plans, including for the dome of the cathedral in Milan.

While in Milan, Leonardo spent a great deal of time observing human anatomy. He closely studied the way in which human bodies moved, the way they were built and proportioned, how they interacted in social engagement and communication, and their habits of gesture and expression. This was a time-consuming and painstaking undertaking that helps explain perhaps why there are so few paintings dating from this period - just six in total, with suggestion of a further three commissions either now lost or never commenced - yet an extraordinarily large library of drawings. These are now testament to Leonardo's mastery of observation and his ability to convey human emotion.

It was during this period that he experimented with new and different painting techniques. One of the practices Leonardo is most famous for is his ability to create a "smoky" effect, which was coined sfumato . Through his deep knowledge of glazes and brushstrokes, he developed the technique, which allowed for edges of color and outline to flow into each other to emphasize the soft modulation of flesh or fabric, as well as the remarkable translucence of hard surfaces such as crystal or the tactility of hair. The intimate authenticity that resulted in his figures and subjects seemed to mirror reality in ways that had not been seen hitherto. A good example of this is his depiction of an orb in the painting Salvatore Mundi (1490-1500). It was during this period that Leonardo produced his great fresco masterpiece - what Gombrich called "one of the great miracles wrought by human genius" - The Last Supper (1495-98). It was painted on the dining hall wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

As an antidote to the beauty of his great masterpieces, Leonardo produced a series of drawings of deformed faces and bodies, perhaps the most famous of which are A Bald Fat Man with a Broken Nose (1485-90), and Grotesque Head of an old Woman (1489-90). The art historian Martin Kemp writes that Leonardo sometimes "followed ugly people around and drew them [in the belief] that the beautiful needed the grotesque [...] like light and shade". The art historian Jonathan Jones said of the former, meanwhile, that Leonardo's "repeated doodles of the same archetypal ugly visage [was] sometimes called his 'nutcracker' profile [...] This looks like a real man, and a fairly scary one: a street character, a violent, massive bald guy with a broken nose. And what makes it seem most real is that it is drawn quickly yet decisively, as in a sketch from life".

For his last unfinished project before leaving Milan, Leonardo was commissioned to cast a five-meter-high equestrian bronze sculpture - called Gran Cavallo - commemorating Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. In 1493, a clay model of the intended sculpture was displayed during the wedding of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, emphasizing the importance of the anticipated work. Unfortunately, the project was never finished and the conquering French Army, who had seized Milan in 1499, ended up using Leonardo's model for target practice. It is believed that the bronze reserved to cast the clay sculpture had been repurposed for cannon casting in what proved to be the unsuccessful defense of Milan against Charles VIII in the war with France.

Following the French invasion of Milan, and the overthrow of Duke Sforza in 1499, Leonardo left for Venice accompanied by his childhood friend and future assistant, Salai. In Venice, Leonardo was employed as a military engineer where his main commission was to design naval defense systems for the city under threat of a Turkish military incursion. Leonardo returned to Florence in 1500, where he received a warm and enthusiastic welcome. He lived as a guest of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata. Leonardo was employed as a senior architectural advisor for a committee working on a damaged foundation at the church of San Francesco al Monte, but he devoted most of his time to studying mathematics.

In 1502, Leonardo secured service in the Court of Cesare Borgia, an important member of an influential family, as well as son of Pope Alexander VI, and commander of the papal army. He was employed as a "senior military architect and general engineer" and accompanied Borgia on his travels throughout Italy. His duties included making maps to aid with military defense, as well as designs for the construction of a dam to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water to the canals from the River Arno. During the diversion of the river project, he met Niccolò Machiavelli, who was a noted scribe and political observer for Florence. It has been said that Leonardo introduced Machiavelli to the concepts of applied science, and that he had a great influence on the man who would go on to be called the Father of Modern Political Science.

Leonardo returned for a second time to Florence in the spring of 1503 and was enthusiastically welcomed into the Guild of St. Luke. He worked on landscape sketches for a canal that would bypass the "choppy" Arno River and connect Florence directly with the sea. As Heydenreich notes, "The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal". His return to Florence also spurred one of the most productive periods of painting for the artist including preliminary work on his Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503-19), the mural Battle of Anghiari (1503-05) (which was left unfinished and later copied by the artist Peter Paul Rubens ), and what was destined to become the world's most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa (1503-19). Of the latter, Gombrich wrote: "What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her [...] That great observer of nature knew more about the way we use our eyes than anybody who had ever lived before him".

In 1508, Leonardo returned to Milan where he remained for the next five years enjoying the generous patronage of Charles d'Amboise, the French Governor of Milan, and King Louis XII (of France). He was engaged in architectural projects, with notable commissions such as work on a Villa for Charles, bridge building, a project to create a waterway to link Milan with Lake Como, and preparatory sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana.

Leonardo ran a successful studio which included his former Milanese pupils, de' Conti and Salai, and new recruits, Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and a young aristocrat named Francesco Meizi. Although he created little as a painter, Leonardo did undertake a second aborted sculptural commission from the military commander, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. The preparatory sketches for the equestrian sculpture have survived, but the Trivulzio scrapped the project in favor of a more modest design.

A true Renaissance Man, Da Vinci's endeavors were not limited to art. He also produced designs for a wide range of mechanical devices, such as this flying machine (a precursor to today's aircraft).

Leonardo's second Milan period is best known for his scientific activities. He collaborated with the renowned anatomist, Marcantonio della Torre, which led to Leonardo's precise drawings of the human body and his excursions in comparative anatomy (differences between species) and the related field of physiology. Meanwhile, his manuscripts of this time included mathematic, mechanical, geological, optical, and botanical studies. He created plans for his famous flying machine, and also devised military weapons such as an early example of the machine gun and a large crossbow. Gombrich suggested that there were two reasons that Leonardo "never published his writings, and that very few can even have known of their existence." The first was because "he was left-handed and had taken to writing from right to left so that his notes can only be read in a mirror". The second relates to the possibility that Leonardo "was afraid of divulging his discoveries [such as his observation the 'the sun does not move'] for fear that his opinions would be found heretical".

It was also during the second Milan period that Leonardo and Francesco Melzi, his favorite pupil, became close companions and remained so until Leonardo's death. It may be reasonably surmised that at this point in his life, Leonardo was finally able to live discreetly as a gay man, his accomplishments and acclaim providing a safe shelter from the kind of traumatic and punitive stigmatization he experienced in his earlier years in Florence.

Late Period

A self-portrait by Da Vinci, produced some time around 1512

In 1513, after the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan, the sixty-year-old Leonardo relocated, taking Salai and Melzi with him, to Rome where he spent the next three years. He was given a generous stipend and residence in the Vatican by the Giuliano de' Medici, the brother of Leo X, the new pope. It was a depressing time for Leonardo, however, who struggled to secure any meaningful commissions. As Heydenreich writes, Leonardo arrived in Rome "at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter's, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope's new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, and many younger artists, such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma, were also active".

Heydenreich refers to "drafts of embittered letters" which confirmed Leonardo's disquiet and unhappiness which restricted his activities largely to "mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city". However, Leonardo did produce a "magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes" and drawings for a planned Florentine residence for the Medici (who had returned to power in 1512).

While in Rome he also made the acquaintance of King François I of France who offered Leonardo the permanent position of "first painter, architect and engineer to the King" at the French Royal Court. François is credited with doing more than any other individual to promote Renaissance art and architecture in France and Leonardo, having accepted the King's invitation, lived out the last three years of his life (with Melzi) at a small, but palatial, residence at Clos Lucé, close to the king's residence at Château d'Amboise. Leonardo brought with him a large cache of paintings and drawings, most of which stayed in France after his death (and which are now housed in Le Louvre as part of the world's largest single collection of Leonardo's art).

Da Vinci's last known painting was Saint John the Baptist (1513), now housed in the Louvre.

Leonardo did little painting in France, although his last painting, St John the Baptist (1513), was most likely made during this time. He worked on landscape plans for the palace gardens but all new work was abruptly halted following a region-wide outbreak of malaria. Leonardo found time to edit his scientific papers and to prepare his treatise on painting, including his Visions of the End of the World series which included his many cataclysmic storm drawings, known as the Deluges .

During these years, Leonardo and King François formed a close friendship - Vasari wrote that "The King ... was accustomed frequently and affectionately to visit him" - and, although he died shortly before construction began in earnest, it is likely that Leonardo designed the now famous double-helix staircase (two concentric spirals wind separately around a central column, allowing guests to pass without meeting while still being able to see one another through windows placed in a central column) of the Chateau de Chambord, a lavish Renaissance Chateau, commissioned by François (and which took 28 years to complete). Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at Clos Lucé, naming Melzi as principal beneficiary of his estate.

It is down to Melzi's efforts that Leonardo's notebooks and drawings were saved. After Leonardo's death, Melzi returned to Milan where he was visited by Vasari. Referring to Melzi as his "much beloved" pupil, Vasari wrote that "he holds them [the notebooks] dear, and keeps such papers together as if they were relics". Leonardo's vineyards (sixteen rows) in Milan, a gift to Leonardo from Sforza in 1482 (confiscated during the French invasion but returned to Leonardo's ownership at a later unknown date) were divided between Salai and a former servant. (The vineyards remain an ongoing concern and a Leonardo Museum to this day.)

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

The reverence with which Leonardo was regarded is epitomized by the apocryphal story of François I's attendance at his death. Vasari described Leonardo as having "breathed [his] last in the arms of the king". Their legendary friendship inspired the 1818 painting by Ingres , François I Receives the Last Breaths of Leonardo da Vinci , in which Leonardo is shown as dying in the arms of the King.

Leonardo was originally interred in the chapel of St Florentin at the Chateau d'Amboise in the Loire Valley, but the building was destroyed during the French revolution. Although it is believed that he was reburied in the smaller chapel of St Hubert, Amboise, the exact location remains unconfirmed.

The Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci

This engraved portrait of Leonardo da Vinci was produced by French artist Nicolas de Larmessin and printed in the 1682 book Académie des Sciences et des Arts, written by Isaac Bullart.

Leonardo's list of achievements is extensive. As a defining figure of the High Renaissance, he helped usher in a new dawning in Western art and civilization. Amongst his most influential techniques were his pioneering use of vanishing points, the soft clouding effect in his signature sfumato method, his profound understanding of the dynamics between light and dark in chiaroscuro , and the enigmatic facial expressions of his figures that created a mesmerizing and realistic quality. One can add to his paintings, his inventions, his precise anatomical and topographical drawings, as well as hydraulic and mechanical designs and his architectural achievements.

It is hard to encapsulate the achievements of an artist who, in the words of art historian Martin Kemp, had "got such a grip on people's imagination - whether they're engineers, medics, fans of art, or whatever". Nevertheless, Kemp gives us a good insight into Leonardo's genius through his account of the "spine tingling" privilege of studying the Mona Lisa on an easel (the painting having been temporarily released from its bulletproof glass casing). Kemp had been worried that the painting might have lost something of its uniqueness because of its excessive fame and overexposure. He need not have worried. "There is a sense of something happening between the picture and yourself", he said, and while acknowledging that his assessment "sounds entirely pretentious [...] it does happen". Kemp argued indeed, that when in the presence of the original work, "The picture becomes a kind-of living thing", and that any attempt to offer an analysis of Mona Lisa's aura was, in the end, a somewhat futile exercise.

Influences and Connections

Leonardo da Vinci

Useful Resources on Leonardo da Vinci

  • Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World By Shelley Frisch & Stefan Klein
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  • The lusts of Leonardo da Vinci By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / Oct 19, 2011
  • Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson review - unparalleled creative genius By Blake Morrison / The Guardian / Dec 16, 2017
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  • Psychology - The Smile of the "Mona Lisa" By Gustav Kobbé / The Lotus Magazine / November 1916
  • Anatomy and Leonardo da Vinci Our Pick By Antony Merlin Jose / Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine / 2001
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  • Who was Leonardo da Vinci and what can we learn from him? By Nicola Davis / The Guardian / April 22, 2019
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  • 5 Surprising Things We Learned About Leonardo da Vinci From Historian Martin Kemp's New Online Masterclass By Menachem Wecker / Artnet / November 25, 2022
  • The marvellous ugly mugs By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / December 4, 2002
  • Behind the Art: What hidden messages does Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper hold? By Khyati Rajvanshi / The Indian Express
  • Secrets of Leonardo's 'Lady with an Ermine' Finally Revealed By Lorenza Munoz-Aloñso / Artnet
  • Ginevra de' Benci National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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  • Christie's: The Last Leonardo da Vinci - Salvator Mundi
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  • The Da Vinci Code 2003 Novel by Dan Brown
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  • The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci 1900 Novel by Dimitri Mérejkowski / A fictionalized account of da Vinci's life
  • The Secret Supper 2004 Novel by Javier Sierra / This fictional thriller revolves around da Vinci's painting The Last Supper
  • Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci 2005 Graphic Novel by Pat McGreal and David Rawson / Da Vinci's life and possible homosexual relationship with the young artist Salai are narrated in this comic book series
  • Mr. Peabody and Sherman 2014 Film / In this animated children's film, da Vinci, his painting The Mona Lisa, and his flying machine, are central to the plot
  • My Favorite Martian S03E28 1966 TV Program / In this episode, main character Martin calls on da Vinci to help fix his spaceship, and da Vinci is upset to learn that many of his inventions have been credited to other people throughout history
  • Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood 2010 Video Game / In this game, da Vinci is a significant supporting character, outlining missions for players

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Leonardo da vinci (1452–1519).

A Bear Walking

A Bear Walking

  • Leonardo da Vinci

The Head of a Woman in Profile Facing Left

The Head of a Woman in Profile Facing Left

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio

The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right

The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right

Allegory on the Fidelity of the Lizard (recto); Design for a Stage Setting (verso)

Allegory on the Fidelity of the Lizard (recto); Design for a Stage Setting (verso)

The Head of a Grotesque Man in Profile Facing Right

The Head of a Grotesque Man in Profile Facing Right

After Leonardo da Vinci

Head of a Man in Profile Facing to the Left

Head of a Man in Profile Facing to the Left

Compositional Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child, with and without the Infant St. John the Baptist; Diagram of a Perspectival Projection (recto); Slight Doodles (verso)

Compositional Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child, with and without the Infant St. John the Baptist; Diagram of a Perspectival Projection (recto); Slight Doodles (verso)

Studies for Hercules Holding a Club Seen in Frontal View, Male Nude Unsheathing a Sword, and the Movements of Water (Recto); Study for Hercules Holding a Club Seen in Rear View (Verso)

Studies for Hercules Holding a Club Seen in Frontal View, Male Nude Unsheathing a Sword, and the Movements of Water (Recto); Study for Hercules Holding a Club Seen in Rear View (Verso)

Carmen Bambach Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2002

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of Western art. Trained in Florence as a painter and sculptor in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488), Leonardo is also celebrated for his scientific contributions. His curiosity and insatiable hunger for knowledge never left him. He was constantly observing, experimenting, and inventing, and drawing was, for him, a tool for recording his investigation of nature. Although completed works by Leonardo are few, he left a large body of drawings (almost 2,500) that record his ideas, most still gathered into notebooks. He was principally active in Florence (1472–ca. 1482, 1500–1508) and Milan (ca. 1482–99, 1508–13), but spent the last years of his life in Rome (1513–16) and France (1516/17–1519), where he died. His genius as an artist and inventor continues to inspire artists and scientists alike centuries after his death.

Drawings Outside of Italy, Leonardo’s work can be studied most readily in drawings. He recorded his constant flow of ideas for paintings on paper. In his Studies for the Nativity ( 17.142.1 ), he studied different poses and gestures of the mother and her infant , probably in preparation for the main panel in his famous altarpiece known as the Virgin of the Rocks (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Similarly, in a sheet of designs for a stage setting ( 17.142.2 ), prepared for a staging of a masque (or musical comedy) in Milan in 1496, he made notes on the actors’ positions on stage alongside his sketches, translating images and ideas from his imagination onto paper. Leonardo also drew what he observed from the world around him, including human anatomy , animal and plant life, the motion of water, and the flight of birds. He also investigated the mechanisms of machines used in his day, inventing many devices like a modern-day engineer. His drawing techniques range from rather rapid pen sketches, in The   Head of a Man in Profile Facing to The Left ( 10.45.1) , to carefully finished drawings in red and black chalks, as in The   Head of the Virgin ( 51.90 ). These works also demonstrate his fascination with physiognomy, and contrasts between youth and old age, beauty and ugliness.

The Last Supper (ca. 1492/94–1498) Leonardo’s Last Supper , on the end wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, is one of the most renowned paintings of the High Renaissance. Recently restored, The Last Supper had already begun to flake during the artist’s lifetime due to his failed attempt to paint on the walls in layers (not unlike the technique of tempera on panel), rather than in a true fresco technique . Even in its current state, it is a masterpiece of dramatic narrative and subtle pictorial illusionism.

Leonardo chose to capture the moment just after Christ tells his apostles that one of them will betray him, and at the institution of the Eucharist. The effect of his statement causes a visible response, in the form of a wave of emotion among the apostles. These reactions are quite specific to each apostle, expressing what Leonardo called the “motions of the mind.” Despite the dramatic reaction of the apostles, Leonardo imposes a sense of order on the scene. Christ’s head is at the center of the composition, framed by a halo-like architectural opening. His head is also the vanishing point toward which all lines of the perspectival projection of the architectural setting converge. The apostles are arranged around him in four groups of three united by their posture and gesture. Judas, who was traditionally placed on the opposite side of the table, is here set apart from the other apostles by his shadowed face.

Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–6 and later) Leonardo may also be credited with the most famous portrait of all time, that of Lisa, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and known as the Mona Lisa (Musée du Louvre, Paris). An aura of mystery surrounds this painting, which is veiled in a soft light, creating an atmosphere of enchantment. There are no hard lines or contours here (a technique of painting known as sfumato— fumo in Italian means “smoke”), only seamless transitions between light and dark. Perhaps the most striking feature of the painting is the sitter’s ambiguous half smile. She looks directly at the viewer, but her arms, torso, and head each twist subtly in a different direction, conveying an arrested sense of movement. Leonardo explores the possibilities of oil paint in the soft folds of the drapery, texture of skin, and contrasting light and dark (chiaroscuro). The deeply receding background, with its winding rivers and rock formations, is an example of Leonardo’s personal view of the natural world: one in which everything is liquid, in flux, and filled with movement and energy.

Bambach, Carmen. “Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/leon/hd_leon.htm (October 2002)

Further Reading

Bambach, Carmen C., ed. Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman . Exhibition catalogue.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Additional Essays by Carmen Bambach

  • Bambach, Carmen. “ Anatomy in the Renaissance .” (October 2002)
  • Bambach, Carmen. “ Renaissance Drawings: Material and Function .” (October 2002)

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Biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Inventor and Artist of the Renaissance

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Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452–May 2, 1519) was an artist, humanist, scientist, philosopher, inventor, and naturalist during the Italian Renaissance . His genius, says his biographer Walter Isaacson, was his ability to marry observation with imagination and to apply that imagination to intellect and its universal nature.

Fast Facts: Leonardo da Vinci

  • Known For : Renaissance-era painter, inventor, naturalist, philosopher, and writer
  • Born : April 15, 1452 in Vinci in Tuscany, Italy
  • Parents : Piero da Vinci and Caterina Lippi
  • Died : May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France
  • Education : Formal training limited to "abacus school" in commercial math, an apprenticeship at the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio; otherwise self-taught

Leonardo da Vinci was born in the village of Vinci in Tuscany, Italy, on April 15, 1452, the only child of Piero da Vinci, a notary and eventually chancellor of Florence, and Caterina Lippi, an unmarried peasant girl. He is properly known as "Leonardo" rather than "da Vinci," although that is a common form of his name today. Da Vinci means "from Vinci" and most people of the day who required a last name were given it based on their place of residence.

Leonardo was illegitimate, which, according to biographer Isaacson, may well have assisted his skill and education. He was not required to go to formal school, and he passed his youth in experimentation and exploration, keeping careful notes in a series of journals that have survived. Piero was a well-to-do man, descended from at least two generations of important notaries, and he settled in the town of Florence. He married Albierra, the daughter of another notary, within eight months of Leonardo's birth. Leonardo was raised in the da Vinci family home by his grandfather Antonio and his wife, along with Francesco, Piero's youngest brother only 15 years older than his nephew, Leonardo himself.

Florence (1467–1482)

In 1464, Albierra died in childbirth—she had no other children, and Piero brought Leonardo to live with him in Florence . There, Leonardo was exposed to the architecture and writings of the artists Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472); and it was there that his father got him an apprenticeship to the artist and engineer Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio's workshop was part art studio and part art shop, and Leonardo was exposed to a rigorous training program that included painting, sculpture, pottery, and metalworking. He learned the beauty of geometry and the mathematical harmony that art can leverage. He also learned chiarroscuro and developed the sfumato technique for which he would become famous.

When his apprenticeship ended in 1472, Leonardo registered in the Florentine painter's confraternity, the Compagnia di San Luca. Many of the works he did in Verocchio's workshop were often completed by several of the students and/or the teacher, and it is clear that by the end of his tenure, Leonardo had surpassed his master.

Verocchio's workshop was sponsored by the duke of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici  (1469–1492), also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Some of the works painted by Leonardo in his 20s include the "Annunciation" and the "Adoration of the Magi," and the portrait of "Ginevra di Benci."

Milan (1482–1499)

When Leonardo turned 30, he was sent by Lorenzo on a diplomatic mission to bring a lute in the shape of a horse's head that he himself had crafted to be given to Ludovico Sforza, the powerful duke of Milan. With him was Atalante Migliorotti (1466–1532), the first of his long-term companions who acted as a friend, assistant, secretary, and romantic partner.

When Leonardo arrived in Milan, he sent a letter to Ludovico, a letter that was more or less a job application, laying out in detail the type of job he envisioned being useful to the duke: military and civil engineering. Instead, Leonardo ended up an impresario, producing elaborate pageants for the royal court such as the "Masque of the Planets." He designed scenery and costumes and developed fantastic mechanical elements for the plays that would fly, descend, or animate for the audience. In this role, he was part court jester: he sang and played the lute, told stories and fables, played pranks. His friends described him as gentle and entertaining, handsome, precise, and generous, a valued and beloved companion.

The Genius in the Notebook

It was also during this period that Leonardo began keeping regular notebooks. More than 7,200 single pages exist today, estimated to be one-quarter of his total output. They are filled with expressions of sheer genius: flights of fancy, precognitive sketches of impossible technologies (scuba gear, flying machines, helicopters); careful, analytical anatomical studies of dissections he performed on humans and animals; and visual puns. In his notebooks and his canvases, he played with shadow and light, perspective, motion, and color. His drawings of humans at the time are fascinating: an old warrior with a nutcracker nose and an enormous chin; grotesquely old men and women; and a thin, muscular, curly-haired androgynous figure, the opposite avatar of the old warrior who would provide centuries of delight and speculation for art historians.

Of course, he painted while he was in Milan: portraits included several of Ludovico's mistresses, "The Lady with the Ermine and La Belle Ferronnière," and religious works such as "Virgin of the Rocks" and the astonishing "Last Supper." He also made the famous drawing "Vitruvian Man," the best of numerous attempts of the day to illustrate what the Roman architect Vitrivius (c. 80–15 BCE) meant when he said the layout of a temple should reflect the proportions of a human body. Leonardo ditched most of Vitrivius' measurements and calculated his own ideal of perfection.

In 1489, Leonardo finally earned the job he had wanted in 1482: he received an official court appointment, complete with rooms (albeit not at Ludovico's castle). His first commission was to make an immense sculpture of the duke of Milan's father Francesco sitting on a horse. He made the model of clay and worked for years planning the casting, but never completed the bronze sculpture. In July 1490, he met the second companion of his life, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, known as Salai (1480–1524).

By 1499, the duke of Milan was running out of money and no longer consistently paying Leonardo, and when Louis XII of France (1462–1515) invaded Milan, Ludovico fled the city. Leonardo stayed in Milan briefly—the French knew him and protected his studio from the mobs—but when he heard rumors that Ludovico was planning to return, he fled home to Florence.

Italy and France (1500–1519)

When Leonardo returned to Florence, he found the city still shaken from the after-effects of the brief and bloody rule of Savonarola (1452–1498), who in 1497 had led the "Bonfire of the Vanities"—the priest and his followers collected and burned thousands of objects such as artworks, books, cosmetics, dresses, mirrors, and musical instruments as forms of evil temptations. In 1498, Savonarola was hanged and burned in the public square. Leonardo was a different man when he returned: he dressed like a dandy, spending almost as much on clothing as he did on books. His first patron was the notorious military ruler Cesare Borgia (1475–1507), who conquered Florence in 1502: Borgia gave Leonardo a passport to travel wherever he needed, as his personal engineer and innovator.

The job only lasted about eight months, but during that time Leonardo built a bridge supporting a garrison of troops out of a pile of lumber and nothing more. He also perfected the art of maps, drawing villages as they would be seen from the air, accurate, detailed birds-eye views of cities measured with a compass. He also established a friendship with Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), who would base his classic "The Prince" on Borgia. By 1503, though, Borgia was running amok, requiring mass executions in the towns he occupied. At first, Leonardo seemed oblivious, but when Machiavelli left, so did Leonardo: back to Florence.

In Florence, Leonardo and Machiavelli worked on an astonishing project: they planted to divert the Arno river from Pisa to Florence. The project got started, but the engineer changed the specs and it was a spectacular failure. Leonardo and Machiavelli also worked on a way to drain the Piombino Marshes: the movement and force of water was a fascination for Leonardo throughout his life, but the marsh project was also not completed.


Artistically, Florence had a huge drawback: Leonardo had acquired a nemesis, Michelangelo . Twenty years younger, Michelangelo was a pious Christian convulsed by agony over his nature. The two artists' communication devolved into a bitter feud. The two men were each commissioned to do battle scenes: hung in separate galleries, the paintings were depictions of frenzied faces, monstrous armor, and mad horses. Isaacson suggests that the upshot of the war of the battle scene was useful to both artists because they were now both luminaries, rather than interchangeable parts.

From 1506–1516, Leonardo wandered back and forth between Rome and Milan; another one of his patrons was the Medici Pope Leo X (1475–1521). In 1506, Leonardo adopted Francesco Melzi, the 14-year-old son of a friend and civil engineer, as his heir. Between 1510 and 1511, Leonardo worked with anatomy professor Marcantonio della Torre, whose students dissected humans while Leonardo made 240 meticulous drawings and wrote 13,000 words of description—and probably more, but those are what survived. The professor died of the plague, ending the project before it could be published.

And of course, he painted. His masterpieces during this period in his life include the "Mona Lisa" ("La Gioconda"); "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne," and a series of images of Salai as St. John the Baptist and Bacchus.

In 1516, Francis I of France commissioned Leonardo for another astounding, impossible task : design a town and palace complex for the royal court at Romorantin. Francis, arguably one of the best patrons Leonardo ever had, gave him the Chateau de Cloux (now the Clos Luce). Leonardo was by now an old man, but he was still productive—he made 16 drawings over the next three years, even if the city project was not completed—but he was visibly ill and had likely suffered a stroke. He died on May 2, 1519, at the Chateau.

  • Clark, Kenneth and Martin Kemp. "Leonardo da Vinci: Revised Edition." London, Penguin Books, 1989.
  • Isaacson, Walter. "Leonardo Da Vinci." New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. 
  • Farago, Claire. "Biography and Early Art Criticism of Leonardo da Vinci." New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.
  • Nicholl, Charles. "Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind." London, Penguin Books, 2005.
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Da Vinci — The Renaissance Man

The inventor. the scientist. the artist..

The illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl, Caterina, Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, just outside Florence. His father took custody of him shortly after his birth.

Growing up in his father's Vinci home, Leonardo had access to scholarly texts owned by family and friends. He was also exposed to Vinci's longstanding painting tradition, and when he was about 15 his father apprenticed him to the renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrochio in Florence. Even as an apprentice, Leonardo demonstrated his great talent. Indeed, his genius seems to appear in a number of pieces produced by the Verrocchio's workshop from the period 1470 to 1475. For example, one of Leonardo's first big breaks was to paint an angel in Verrochio's "Baptism of Christ," and Leonardo was so much better than his master's that Verrochio allegedly resolved never to paint again. Leonardo stayed in the Verrocchio workshop until 1477.

Seeking to make a living, and new challenges, he entered the service of the Duke of Milan in 1482, abandoning his first commission in Florence, "The Adoration of the Magi". He spent 17 years in Milan, leaving only after Duke Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499. It was during these years that Leonardo reached new heights of scientific and artistic achievement.

The Duke kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, but he also had Leonardo design weapons, buildings, and machinery. From 1485 to 1490, Leonardo produced studies on many subjects, including nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics, municipal construction, canals and architecture (designing everything from churches to fortresses). His studies from this period contain designs for advanced weapons, including a tank and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and even submarines. Also during this period, Leonardo produced his first anatomical studies. His Milan workshop was abuzz with apprentices and students.

Unfortunately, Leonardo's interests were so broad, and he was so often compelled by new subjects, that he usually left projects unfinished. As a result, he only completing about six works in these 17 years, including "The Last Supper" and "The Virgin on the Rocks," leaving dozens of paintings and projects unfinished or unrealized (see "Big Horse" in sidebar). He spent most of his time studying science, either by going out into nature and observing things or by locking himself away in his workshop cutting up bodies or pondering universal truths.

Between 1490 and 1495 he developed his habit of recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy. These studies and sketches were collected into various codices and manuscripts, which are now collected by museums and individuals (Bill Gates once paid $30 million for the Codex Leicester!).

Back to Milan — after Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499 — Leonardo searched for a new patron. Over the next 16 years, Leonardo worked and traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers, including the infamous Cesare Borgia. He traveled for a year with Borgia's army as a military engineer and even met Niccolo Machiavelli, author of "The Prince." Leonardo designed a bridge to span the "golden horn" in Constantinople during this period and received a commission, with the help of Machiavelli, to paint the "Battle of Anghiari."

About 1503, Leonardo reportedly began work on the "Mona Lisa." From 1513 to 1516, he worked in Rome, maintaining a workshop and undertaking a variety of projects for the Pope. He continued his studies of human anatomy and physiology, but the Pope forbade him from dissecting cadavers, limiting his progress.

Following the death of his patron Giuliano de' Medici in March of 1516, he was offered the title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King by Francis I in France. His last and perhaps most generous patron, Francis I provided Leonardo with a stipend and manor house near the royal chateau at Amboise.

Although suffering from a paralysis of the right hand, Leonardo (who wrote with his left-handed) was still able to draw and teach. He produced studies for the Virgin Mary from "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne", studies of cats, horses, dragons, St. George, anatomical studies, studies on the nature of water, drawings of the Deluge, and of various machines.

Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Legend has it that King Francis was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms.

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Europe 1300 - 1800

Course: europe 1300 - 1800   >   unit 4, about leonardo.

  • Letter to the Duke of Milan
  • Leonardo: Anatomist - by Nature Video
  • Leonardo and his drawings
  • Virgin of the Rocks
  • Adoration of the Magi
  • “Vitruvian Man”
  • Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (Burlington House Cartoon)
  • The Last Supper

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, but sometimes they bestow with lavish abundance upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his greatness is a gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo. (Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects )

Leonardo: from Florence to Milan

Having until now sufficiently studied and examined the experiments of all those who claim to be experts and inventors of war machines, and having found that their machines do not differ in the least from those ordinarily in use, I shall make so bold, without wanting to cause harm to anyone, as to address myself to Your Excellency to divulge my secrets to him, and offer to demonstrate to him, at his pleasure, all the things briefly enumerated below.
In time of peace, I believe I am capable of giving you as much satisfaction as anyone, whether it be in architecture, for the construction of public or private buildings, or in bringing water from one place to another. Item, I can sculpt in marble, bronze or terracotta; while in painting, my work is the equal of anyone’s.

Return to Florence, then France

Leonardo’s death and the changing status of the artist.

Finally, having grown old, he remained ill many months, and, feeling himself near to death, asked to have himself diligently informed of the teaching of the Catholic faith, and of the good way and holy Christian religion; and then, with many moans, he confessed and was penitent; and although he could not raise himself well on his feet, supporting himself on the arms of his friends and servants, he was pleased to take devoutly the most holy Sacrament, out of his bed. The King, who was wont often and lovingly to visit him, then came into the room; wherefore he, out of reverence, having raised himself to sit upon the bed, giving him an account of his sickness and the circumstances of it, showed withal how much he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done. Thereupon he was seized by a paroxysm, the messenger of death; for which reason the King having risen and having taken his head, in order to assist him and show him favour, to then end that he might alleviate his pain, his spirit, which was divine, knowing that it could not have any greater honour, expired in the arms of the King. (Vasari)

Leonardo's Naturalism

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci Timeline

April 15, 1452.

Leonardo da Vinci: self-portrait

May 2, 1519

Leonardo da Vinci

Biography Online


  • Leonardo da Vinci Biography


In addition to art, Da Vinci studied all aspects of life from anatomy to mathematics and astronomy; his far-reaching investigations and discoveries sought to show an underlying unity of the universe. Da Vinci is considered to be a key person in the birth of the European Renaissance , which saw an emergence of new ideas, scientific discoveries and the creation of beautiful art.

Short Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo was born an illegitimate son of a Florentine noble and peasant woman; he grew up in Vinci, Italy. In his formative years, he developed a love of nature and from an early age began to display his remarkable academic and artistic talents.


Adoration of the Magi by Da Vinci

In 1466, he moved to Florence where he entered the workshop of Verrocchio. Initially, his formative style reflected his teacher but he soon developed an artistic sense which went far beyond his master’s rigid style. His first work of significance was the “Adoration of the Magi” commissioned by monks of San Donato a Scopeto. Although unfinished, the work was a masterpiece and introduced several new ideas. In particular, he introduced themes of movement and drama. He also pioneered the use of Chiaroscuro ; this is the technique of defining forms through the contrast of light and shadow. This would be later used to great effect in the Mona Lisa.

“Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Richter, 1888)

In 1482, Leonardo went to the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan, where he stayed for 16 years. Here he continued painting and also branched out into other interest such as engineering and anatomy.  During this period he painted the famous artworks “Madonna on the Rocks” and also “The Last Supper.”


Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

The Last Supper has been described as one of the greatest religious paintings. With Christ at the centre of the picture, it embodies great feeling and emotion as Christ is about to announce his imminent betrayal by Judas. The painting is held at the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, Milan, but unfortunately over time the quality of the original painting has deteriorated, despite frequent restoration attempts.

Leonardo Da Vinci and Mona Lisa


In 1499, his patron L. Sforza was defeated by the French invasion, causing Leonardo to return to Florence. During this period, he painted the fresco of the Battle of Anghiari. This artwork was to exert tremendous influence over future artists. However, it was never completed and was later destroyed. It was also during this period that Leonardo completed The Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is one of the world’s most famous and intriguing pictures. The Mona Lisa is a portrait of a wife of a Florentine noble. For several days she came to Leonardo and sat for her portrait to be painted; however, she refused to smile. Leonardo even tried hiring musicians but to no avail. One day, just for a fleeting second, she gave a faint smile, and Leonardo was able to capture it. Her smile encapsulates a mysteriousness which is both fascinating and intriguing. Sri Chinmoy said of the Mona Lisa.

“That smile has immortalized her, immortalized the artist and immortalized the art. Artist and art have been immortalized by just a faint smile, a smile that has an enigmatic touch. Even now a soul-touch is there, and that soul-touch has conquered the heart of the world.” (1)

In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo masters the techniques of sfumato and chiaroscuro . Sfumato enables a gradual transition between colours – allowing delicate and expressive images. In the Mona Lisa, the use of chiaroscuro is evident in the contrast between her face and the dark background.


Glider design by Da Vinci

In this period Leonardo also extended his studies into engineering, science and other subjects. There seemed to be no end to his interests. He made copious notes in his complex mirror handwriting, much of which wasn’t deciphered in his lifetime. He also drew complex models of machines; in particular, he was fascinated by flight. He used to buy birds just so that he could release and enjoy watching them fly away. Da Vinci also attempted to build a flying object himself. Machines that he drew on paper, such as helicopters, would become a reality many centuries later. If his medicinal studies had been published, it would have revolutionised the science, as he was one of the first to understand the circulation of blood within the body. He also realised the earth revolved around the sun, anticipating the future work of Copernicus and Galileo .  Da Vinci was driven to contemplate all aspects of life and the world, it left him with a great love and fascination with the universe.

“Here forms, here colours, here the character of every part of the universe are concentrated to a point; and that point is so marvellous a thing … Oh! marvellous, O stupendous Necessity — by thy laws thou dost compel every effect to be the direct result of its cause, by the shortest path. These are miracles…” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Through different fields, Da Vinci sought to see an underlying unity in the universe and took an optimistic view of human potential.

“Things that are separate shall be united and acquire such virtue that they will restore to man his lost memory.”

The Vitruvian Man


Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

This is a drawing of the proportions of man. Da Vinci used earlier work and notes by the Roman architect Vitruvius. The picture combines art, man and science – illustrating the beauty of geometrical proportions and the human form. It is symbolic of Da Vinci’s work, and the Renaissance he inspired, to combine these art forms into one diagram. In the simplicity of a line drawing, there are many different factors brought into play; it has become an iconic image.

Da Vinci fame grew during his lifetime, though he was not a wealthy man and he had to rely on the patronage of his patrons. This included powerful men, such as Cesare Borgia, who in the early 1500s demanded Da Vinci design instruments of war. Da Vinci designed a crossbow, prototype tank and ‘machine gun.’

Personal life of Da Vinci

Leonardo remained single throughout his life. He did not marry or have children. He kept his personal life private and shared few details. He was close with his pupils Salai and Melzi, but appeared to be mostly absorbed in his far-reaching investigations, work and paintings. In his day, contemporary reports indicated Da Vinci was a unique person, with a physical beauty, dignified presence and strong moral character. Da Vinci expresses his love of truth:

“To lie is so vile, that even if it were in speaking well of godly things it would take off something from God’s grace; and Truth is so excellent, that if it praises but small things they become noble.” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

His first biographer, Giorgio Vasari, writes on the person of Da Vinci in 1550.

“..Besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.” ( Source text )

A notable characteristic of Da Vinci was his wide-ranging respect and reverence for truth, life and living creatures. He adopted a vegetarian diet and would buy caged birds just so he could release them. He is quoted as saying:

“ The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”

Between 1506-1510, Leonardo spent time in Milan working on behalf of the very generous French King Lois XII. In 1513 he travelled to the Vatican, Rome where he enjoyed the patronage of the new Medici Pope, Leo X. Here, Da Vinci worked in proximity to contemporaries such as the great Masters Michelangelo and Raphael . However, an intense rivalry soon developed between the younger Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

The religion of Da Vinci

Despite being the patron of the Pope, Da Vinci was not an orthodox Catholic. Vasari writes of Da Vinci that he was:

“cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian.”

Madonna of the Rocks by Da Vinci

Madonna of the Rocks (cropped) by Da Vinci

Vasari removed this quote in the second edition but, from his life’s work, we can see Da Vinci valued reason and was willing to question dogma passed down through the ages. Da Vinci wrote criticisms of the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. The religious paintings of Da Vinci also indicate a religious faith expressed in a non-conformist way. His Madonna on the Rocks incorporates a Virgin Mary, not dressed regally or surrounded with a halo, but simply dressed in the surroundings of nature. Da Vinci did believe in God, but his religious sensibilities were expressed through seeing God in art, science and nature.

“We, by our arts may be called the grandsons of God.” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci was a great perfectionist – one reason why he completed so few paintings was that he never felt he had satisfactorily finished anything. He said towards the end of his life:

“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

In 1515, Da Vinci left to settle at the castle of Cloux, near Amboise by the kind invitation of Francis I of France. Here Da Vinci, spent his remaining years, free to pursue his own studies. He died in 1519 leaving behind one of the greatest body of artistic and scientific works.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan . “ Biography of Leonardo da Vinci ”, Oxford, UK – www.biographyonline.net . Published: 12th Jan 2014. Last updated 15th February 2018.

Related pages


Leonardo Da Vinci

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Leonardo Da Vinci by Martin Kemp at Amazon

Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks

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Leonardo Da Vinci Notebooks at Amazon

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Leonardo da Vinci – The Life and Artworks of Leonardo da Vinci

Avatar for Isabella Meyer

Leonardo da Vinci was a prime example of the kind of person who, throughout the Italian High Renaissance, was completely committed to studying the humanities in order to continuously improve himself as a member of society. Although Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments span many different principles and mediums, he is most well-known for his paintings, such as the Leonardo da Vinci portrait known as the Mona Lisa (1503). So, where was Leonardo da Vinci born? Where did he die? In this article, we will take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s biography and answer these questions and more.

Table of Contents

  • 1.1 Childhood and Education
  • 1.2 Early Training and Work
  • 1.3.1 Development of Techniques
  • 1.3.2 Continuing Work for Monarchs
  • 1.3.3 Interest in Science
  • 1.4 Late Period
  • 2.1 Leonardo da Vinci’s Accomplishments
  • 3 Notable Leonardo da Vinci Artworks
  • 4.1 Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks (2008) by Leonardo da Vinci
  • 4.2 The Complete Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (2016) by Leonardo da Vinci
  • 5.1 Where Was Leonardo da Vinci Born?
  • 5.2 What Was Leonardo da Vinci Known For?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Biography

15 April 1452
2 May 1519
Anchiano (near Vinci), Tuscany, Florence

Leonardo da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity and creative imagination used both of his brain’s left and right sides to their full potential to create a number of innovations that were far ahead of their time. The earliest sketches that predicted the helicopter, parachute, and military tank are attributed to him. His journals are almost as well-regarded as his works of art. They feature scientific graphs, sketches, and painting ideas and are a summation of his life’s work and brilliant intellect.

Today, scholars, artists, and scientists from all around the world continue to admire and study them.

Leonardo da Vinci Biography

Childhood and Education

In a hamlet close to the Tuscan town of Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci – one of the most talented and creative people in history – was born in 1452. The son of a Florentine attorney named Piero da Vinci and a poor farm girl named Caterina, he was raised by his grandfather on the family estate in Anchiano. Leonardo da Vinci was close to Albiera, a 16-year-old girl his father wedded but who passed away early.

Leonardo da Vinci was the eldest of 12 children, and his family never treated him any differently for being born out of wedlock.

Where Was Leonardo da Vinci Born

Early Training and Work

Leonardo da Vinci relocated to Florence at the age of 14 to pursue a traineeship with Andrea del Verrocchio, a painter who had studied under Donatello, a prodigy of the Early Renaissance . Verrocchio was a significant artist at the court of the Medici, a wealthy family that is sometimes credited with fostering the Renaissance through its lavish support of the arts and political participation . Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Lorenzo de Credi were among the many outstanding young artists who were drawn to Florence, an important creative hub in Renaissance Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ability to start his apprenticeship in such a famous art studio is a sign of his father’s clout in the community.

Leonardo da Vinci and Verrochio

In order to completely comprehend man’s role in the world, artists of this era immersed themselves in the humanities. Leonardo da Vinci had considerable mentoring from Verrocchio, who helped to develop his early talent. He became interested in biology, architecture, chemistry, arithmetic, and engineering in addition to sketching, painting, and sculpting.

This schooling helped him develop a keen imagination that subsequently led to the design of wonderful inventions, as seen by the numerous sketches of mechanical devices and military weaponry that serve to maintain his image as a genius today.

The production of Verrocchio’s workshop would have been a joint effort between the apprentices and the master, as was customary at the period. Art historians, such as Giorgio Vasari , believe that some paintings attributed to Verrocchio really show traces of Da Vinci’s softer brushstrokes contrasted with the heavier hand of Verrocchio. After serving as an apprentice for six years, Da Vinci joined the Guild of St. Luke, an organization of Florentine painters and physicians, in 1472. Although his father provided him with a workshop of his own, Da Vinci spent the following four years working as an assistant at Verrocchio’s workshop.

Leonardo da Vinci was suspected of sodomy in 1476 together with three other men, but due to a lack of supporting evidence, he was exonerated. This is sometimes linked to the fact that Leonardo da Vinci’s associates hailed from wealthy families. At the time, homosexuality was against the law and could result in death as well as jail and public disgrace. He may have kept a low profile during the following several years, about which not much is known, due to the consequence that came after such a terrible incident.

The monks of San Donato a Scopeto provided him with one of his first solo contracts to depict the Adoration of the Magi between 1480 and 1482. After accepting a job offer from the Duke of Milan to serve in his court, Da Vinci would pause work on the commission to relocate to Milan. Many theories have been put up as to why the shift to Milan was required at this particular time, some of which refer to the sodomy charge from a few years before.

However, it is more probable that Da Vinci was lured by the extravagant Milanese Court’s invitation and the chance to advance his name and profession.

Works by Leonardo da Vinci

Mature Period

From 1482 through 1499, Da Vinci was employed by the Milanese Court. He was a well-known perfectionist who devoted a lot of time to studying human anatomy, especially how people’s bodies moved, were assembled, and were proportioned, how they interacted with one another during social interactions and communication, as well as how they expressed themselves through gestures.

This was undoubtedly a laborious process, which may explain in part why there are so few completed works despite an extraordinary amount of intricately detailed sketches and drawings that served as full-scale preliminary drawings for canvases.

In addition to demonstrating his unmatched powers of observation, these sketches also demonstrate his aptitude as an artist for deciphering and expressing human emotion.

Leonardo da Vinci Drawings

Development of Techniques

Leonardo da Vinci dabbled with profoundly novel and distinctive painting approaches throughout this time. The artist is renowned for a number of skills, including his ability to produce the smokey effect known as sfumato .

He created a method that enabled margins of color and outline to merge together to accentuate the gentle variation of skin and material as well as the astonishing translucence of hard surfaces like crystal or the textures of hair through his in-depth understanding of brushstrokes and glazes.

Leonardo da Vinci’s themes and characters had an intimate genuineness that seemed to reflect reality in novel ways. Da Vinci’s painting, Salvator Mundi (1500), in which he depicts an orb, is a good illustration of this.

Famous Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci

However, some of his experiments, like many other ground-breaking breakthroughs, would only become problematic afterward. The Last Supper (1498), one of his greatest fresco masterpieces of the time, was the most outstanding.

However, Da Vinci had used oil paints on wet plaster to create the sfumato aesthetic, which finally caused the pigment to peel off the refectory wall of the monastery of Santa Maria del Grazie in Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci Accomplishments

He was sent on a mission to meet the powerful Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, in 1485 on behalf of the duke. While there, he was required to use his rigorous creative abilities to start preparing court festivals as well as architectural and engineering projects, such as the Milan cathedral’s dome design .

Continuing Work for Monarchs

Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to produce a five-meter-high equine bronze sculpture named Gran Cavallo in 1482 honoring the founder of the Sforza family as his final unfinished project before departing Milan.

During Emperor Maximilian’s wedding to Bianca Maria Sforza in 1503, a clay model of the planned sculpture was presented, stressing the significance of the upcoming work.

However, the project was never completed, and the victorious French Army used the figure for target practice after taking Milan in 1499. According to legend, the bronze intended for the sculpture was reused for cannon production during the inevitable failure of Charles VIII’s defense of Milan during the war with France.

Leonardo da Vinci Incomplete Works

After the 1499 French invasion and the fall of the Duke of Milan, Da Vinci traveled to Venice with Salai, his long-time companion, and helper who had lived with Da Vinci since he was 10 years old and stayed with him until his death. Da Vinci worked as a military engineer at Venice, where his major task was to construct naval defensive systems for the city, which was under threat from Turkish military advancements in Europe. He returned to Florence in 1500, where he resided as a visitor of the Servite monks in the abbey of Santissima Annunziata with his partner.

Da Vinci obtained employment at the Court of Cesare Borgia, a prominent member of a powerful family, in addition to being the son of Pope Alexander VI and leader of the papal army, in 1502. As a military engineer, he followed Borgia on his travels around Italy.

His responsibilities included creating maps to help in military defense and building a dam to assure an unbroken flow of water from the River Arno to the canals.

Leonardo da Vinci Map

Interest in Science

During the river diversion project, he met Niccolò Machiavelli, a prominent writer, and political analyst for Florence at the time. Leonardo da Vinci is considered to have introduced Machiavelli to the notions of applied science.

Thus, Da Vinci seemed to have made a significant effect on the man who would go on to be referred to as the founder of modern political science.

In 1503, Da Vinci came to Florence for the second time and was greeted as a superstar when he rejoined the Guild of St Luke. This homecoming triggered one of the artist’s most creative years of artwork, such as preparatory work on his Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1519).

Leonardo da Vinci Paintings

Da Vinci returned to Milan in 1508, where he spent the following five years under the sponsorship of the French Governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, and King Louis XII. During this time, he was highly involved in scientific pursuits such as anatomical, mathematical, mechanical, and botanical research, as well as the development of his renowned flying machine.

During this time, notable projects included the development of a villa for Charles, bridge construction, and a project to develop a canal between Lake Como and Milan.

He also invented effective military weapons, including an early prototype of the machine gun and his well-known huge crossbow. During this period, Da Vinci also met his apprentice Francesco Melzi, who became his partner until his death. It’s possible that at this moment in his career and life that Da Vinci was eventually able to live openly as a homosexual man, his successes and renown offering a safe haven from the type of painful and punishing stigmatizing he faced in his youth.

Late Period

After the French were temporarily expelled from Milan in 1513, Da Vinci traveled to Rome and spent the next three years there. He was called to the attention of French King François I, who gave him a permanent post as the French Royal Court’s principal artist and engineer.  He was sent to Clos Lucé, near the king’s Château d’Amboise. François I, a significant character in the French Renaissance, would not only become the kind of patron Da Vinci required in his later years, requiring little of Da Vinci’s time but he was also said to be a good friend of the artist. “The King was accustomed to regularly and cordially seeing him,” Vasari said of the bond.

Leonardo da Vinci spent much of his last years organizing his scientific papers and notes rather than painting.

Leonardo da Vinci Sketches

His final picture, St John the Baptist (1513), was most likely completed around this time. This collection of notes, reflecting a lifetime’s worth of outstanding research and aptitude throughout a wide range of fields, has proven to be his most lasting legacy.

His views on mathematics, architecture, engineering, human anatomy, and physics, as well as his perspective on art and Humanism, demonstrated a depth of brilliance that earned him the title of real genius.

Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci passed away on the 2nd of May, 1519, in Clos Lucé, leaving his artistic and academic assets to his partner, Francesco Melzi. Salai and his brothers shared ownership of his vines. The mythical narrative of François I attending his death epitomizes the veneration with which he was held.

“Leonardo da Vinci breathed his last breath in the arms of the monarch,” according to Vasari.

Leonardo da Vinci was buried at the church of St Florentin at the Chateau d’Amboise, but the structure was damaged due to the effects of the French Revolution . While it is thought he was reburied at the smaller chapel of St Hubert in Amboise, the exact site is unknown.

Leonardo da Vinci Grave

Da Vinci’s Legacy

It is difficult to sum up Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy in a few words. He perfected his creative skills. The gentle blurring effect in his sfumato approach, his utilization of the vanishing point, his mastery of the interplay between dark and light in chiaroscuro, and his mysterious facial expressions gave his works a captivating and lifelike aspect that had never been seen before.

Although the majority of his painting centered on religion and portraiture during the High Renaissance , which marked the end of the medieval era in Western culture, it was his skills, along with his masterful composition, that had the most effect on Western art.

Indeed, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are still among the world’s most known and iconic masterpieces of art, constantly reproduced on prints and firmly established in current popular culture as pieces of eternal historical importance.

Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci

But what about his innovations, anatomic studies, topographical sketches, and technical, industrial, and architectural accomplishments? While many of his innovations, such as the helicopter, flying machine, and parachute, stayed in concept form and were impractical in practice, Da Vinci’s inquiring mind was recognized as being centuries ahead of its time.

The same can be said for the precision of his figure drawings, his early inquiry into topography, interest in blood circulation, and other mechanical engineering wonders.

This is not to forget his contributions to precise time-keeping, or the bobbin winder, which at the time had a significant effect on the local industry. His research towards improving military weapons also ushered in the tanks and guns that are so well-known to us today.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Accomplishments

Invention, art, science, architecture, music, engineering, mathematics, literature, geology, astronomy, anatomy, writing, botany, history, and cartography are just a few of the disciplines where Leonardo da Vinci excelled.

Learning never exhausts the intellect, according to a quote attributed to him.

Despite his extensive excursions into other fields of specialization, Da Vinci is most known as a painter. Some of his paintings, like Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, the Mona Lisa , have continuously been considered ageless and universally famous.

Famous Leonardo da Vinci Paintings

Early Renaissance principles such as chiaroscuro, linear perspective, naturalism, and emotional expressionism were influenced by his contributions to the aesthetics and methods of High Renaissance painting.

With his careful technique and the use of innovative methods, he outperformed many previous painters, such as with his sfumato method, his new approach to combining glazes that produced works that were so lifelike, it was as if his figures lived from within the pictorial plane.

Notable Leonardo da Vinci Artworks

Now that we have covered Leonardo da Vinci’s biography, let us take a look at a few of his most noteworthy artworks. This is just a list as we will also have an article featuring his works in more depth. We all know about Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait Mona Lisa , but let’s see what else he is known for:

1483 – 1508Oil on wood transferred to canvasMusée du Louvre, Paris
1485Pen and ink on paperAccademia, Venice, Italy
1498FrescoConvent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
1500Charcoal and chalk drawing on paperThe National Gallery, London
1500Oil on wood panelLouvre, Abu Dhabi
1503Oil on wood panelMusée du Louvre, Paris

Top Leonardo da Vinci Paintings

Recommended Reading

If you would like to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments and art, then we can recommend checking out these books. They provide even more insight into Leonardo da Vinci’s biography and artworks.

Whether you are already a fan of his works, or just being introduced to this master, there is no better way to celebrate his works than with a book.

Leonardo da Vinci Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks (2008) by Leonardo da Vinci

The majority of what is understood about Leonardo da Vinci comes from his famous notebooks, compiled around 1487 to 1490. Approximately 6,000 pages of notes and sketches have survived, representing approximately one-fifth of the actual work he created. He chronicled his studies on the flow of water and the development of rocks, the physics of aviation and optics, anatomy, building, painting, and sculpture in these volumes with an artist’s keen eye and a scientist’s curiosity.

Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks (Oxford World's Classics)

  • A compilation of the famous notebooks kept by Leonardo da Vinci
  • Includes some 6,000 sheets of the artist's notes and drawings
  • Fully updated edition with a preface by Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp

The Complete Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (2016) by Leonardo da Vinci

Many people see Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the leading figure of the Renaissance, as a man of mystery. Despite the fact that we have an unrivaled collection of records that illustrate his intellectual interests, processes, and innermost convictions. This compilation allows the reader insight into hundreds of his notes, drawings, doodles, musings, even book lists, and financial information.

The Complete Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Includes all known Da Vinci papers as of the mid-19th century
  • Illuminates the artist's thought processes, interests, and beliefs
  • With hundreds of pages of notes, sketches, musings, and more
That concludes our exploration of the incredibly talented Renaissance man known to the world as Leonardo da Vinci. A man of many skills, Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments have made him one of the most well-known figures in human history. Yet, it is his art for which he is most well-known, specifically his paintings.

Take a look at our Leonardo da Vinci art webstory here!

Frequently Asked Questions

Where was leonardo da vinci born.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of human history’s most gifted and innovative prodigies, was born in 1452 in a small village near the town of Vinci. He grew up in a very large family and was the oldest of 12 siblings. He then moved to Florence when he was only 14 years of age. He passed away on the 2nd of May, 1519.

What Was Leonardo da Vinci Known For?

He had many talents and interests and was an exceptionally intelligent individual. Yet, it was painting for which he was most renowned. Besides that, he also showed an interest in architecture, biology, science, history, mathematics, maps, and countless other fields of study. His contribution to the principles and techniques of High Renaissance painting inspired early Renaissance ideas such as chiaroscuro , linear perspective, realism, and emotional expressionism. Many of his artworks have been regarded as timeless.

isabella meyer

Isabella studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature & Language and Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate years, she took Art History as an additional subject and absolutely loved it. Building on from her art history knowledge that began in high school, art has always been a particular area of fascination for her. From learning about artworks previously unknown to her, or sharpening her existing understanding of specific works, the ability to continue learning within this interesting sphere excites her greatly.

Her focal points of interest in art history encompass profiling specific artists and art movements, as it is these areas where she is able to really dig deep into the rich narrative of the art world. Additionally, she particularly enjoys exploring the different artistic styles of the 20 th century, as well as the important impact that female artists have had on the development of art history.

Learn more about Isabella Meyer and the Art in Context Team .

Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Leonardo da Vinci – The Life and Artworks of Leonardo da Vinci.” Art in Context. October 27, 2022. URL: https://artincontext.org/leonardo-da-vinci/

Meyer, I. (2022, 27 October). Leonardo da Vinci – The Life and Artworks of Leonardo da Vinci. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/leonardo-da-vinci/

Meyer, Isabella. “Leonardo da Vinci – The Life and Artworks of Leonardo da Vinci.” Art in Context , October 27, 2022. https://artincontext.org/leonardo-da-vinci/ .

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  • World Biography

Leonardo da Vinci Biography

Born: April 15, 1452 Vinci, Italy Died: May 2, 1519 Amboise, France Italian artist, painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist. He was one of the greatest minds of the Italian Renaissance, and his influence on painting was enormous to the following generations.

Early years

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, near the village of Vinci about 25 miles west of Florence. He was the illegitimate (born to unmarried parents) son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a prominent notary (a public official who certifies legal documents) of Florence, and a local woman, Caterina. Not much is known about Leonardo's childhood except that when he was fifteen, his father apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488), the leading artist of Florence and the early Renaissance.

Verrocchio, a sculptor, painter, and goldsmith, was a remarkable craftsman. He had great concern for the quality of execution in expressing the vitality of the human figure. These elements were important in the formation of Leonardo's artistic style. It should be noted that much in Leonardo's approach to art originated from using tradition, rather than rebelling against it.

Assistant in Verrocchio's workshop

Leonardo, after completing his apprenticeship, stayed on as an assistant in Verrocchio's shop. His earliest known painting is in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (c. 1475). Leonardo executed one of the two angels as well as the distant landscape, and he added the final touches to the figure of Christ, determining the texture of the flesh.

Collaboration on a major project by a master and his assistant was standard procedure in the Italian Renaissance. What is special is that Leonardo's work is not a slightly less skilled version of Verrocchio's manner of painting, but an original approach which changed the surface effects from hard to soft, making the edges less cutting, and increasing the slight changes of light and shade.

Independent master in Florence

About 1478 Leonardo set up his own studio. In 1481 he received a major church commission for an altarpiece, the Adoration of the Magi. In this unfinished painting, Leonardo's new approach is far more developed. A crowd of spectators, with varied faces, looks at the main group of the Virgin and Child. There is a strong sense of continuing movement. Leonardo placed the Virgin and Child in the center. Traditionally in paintings of this theme they had appeared at one side of the picture, approached by the kings from the other side.

Earlier Renaissance artists had applied the rules of linear perspective, by which objects appear smaller in proportion as they are farther away from the eye of the spectator. Leonardo joined this principle to two others: perspective of clarity (distant objects are less distinct) and perspective of color (distant objects are more muted in color). He wrote about both of these principles in his notebooks.

The Magi alterpiece was left unfinished because Leonardo left Florence in 1482 to accept the post of court artist to the Duke of Milan. In leaving, Leonardo followed a trend set by masters of the older generation who went to Venice and Rome to execute commissions larger than any available in their native Florence.

Milan (1482–1499)

Leonardo presented himself to the Duke of Milan as skilled in many crafts, but particularly in military engineering. He also produced remarkable machinery for stage set-ups. Both activities point to his intense interest in the laws of motion and propulsion (the movement or push forward), a further aspect of his interest in things and their workings.

Leonardo's first Milanese painting is the altarpiece Virgin of the Rocks. It makes use of a respected tradition in which the Holy Family is shown in a cave. This setting becomes a vehicle for Leonardo's interests in representing nature in dimmed light, which blends together the outlines of separate objects. He once commented that artists should practice drawing at dusk in courtyards with walls painted black.

Leonardo da Vinci.

When the Duke of Milan was overthrown by the French invasion in 1499, Leonardo left Milan. He visited Venice briefly, where the Senate consulted him on military projects, and traveled to Mantua.

Florence (1500–1506)

In 1500 Leonardo returned to Florence, where he was received as a great man. Florentine painters of the generation immediately following Leonardo were excited by his modern methods, with which they were familiar through the unfinished Adoration of the Magi. Leonardo had a powerful effect on the younger group of artists.

Leonardo even served a term as military engineer for Cesare Borgia in 1502, and he completed more projects during his time in Florence than in any other period of his life. In his works of these years, the concentration is mostly on portraying human vitality, as in the Mona Lisa. It is a portrait of a Florentine citizen's young third wife, whose smile is called mysterious because it is in the process of either appearing or disappearing.

Leonardo's great project (begun 1503) was a cavalry battle scene that the city commissioned to adorn the newly built Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The work is only known today through some rapid rough sketches of the groups of horsemen, careful drawings of single heads of men, and copies of the entire composition. Leonardo began to paint the scene but was called back to Milan before the work was completed. A short time thereafter, the room was remodeled and the fragment was destroyed.

Milan (1506–1513)

Leonardo was called to Milan in 1506 by the French governor in charge to work on an equestrian statue (a sculpture of a leader riding a horse) project, but he produced no new paintings. Instead he turned more and more to scientific observation. Most of Leonardo's scientific concerns were fairly direct extensions of his interests as a painter, and his research in anatomy (the structure of a living organism) was the most fully developed. Early Renaissance painters had attempted to render the human anatomy with accuracy. Leonardo went far beyond any of them, producing the earliest anatomical drawings still followed today.

Leonardo filled notebooks with data and drawings that reveal his other scientific interests: firearms, the action of water, the flight of birds (leading to designs for human flight), the growth of plants, and geology (the study of earth and its history). Leonardo's interests were not universal, however. Theology (the study of religion), history, and literature did not appeal to him. All his interests were concerned with the processes of action, movement, pressure, and growth. It has been said that his drawings of the human body are less about how bodies are and more about how they work.

In 1513 Leonardo went to Rome, where he remained until 1516. He was much honored, but he was relatively inactive and remarkably aloof (apart) from its rich social and artistic life. He continued to fill his notebooks with scientific entries.

The French king, Francis I (1494–1547), invited Leonardo to his court at Fontainebleau, gave him the title of first painter, architect, and mechanic to the king, and provided him with a country house at Cloux. Leonardo was revered for his knowledge more than for any work he produced in France. He died on May 2, 1519, at Cloux.

Leonardo's influence on younger artists of Milan and Florence was enormous. Among these were Filippino Lippi (1457–1504) and Andrea del Sarto (1486–1531) who were able to absorb and transmit his message rather than merely copy the unimportant aspects of his style.

On a more significant level, Leonardo influenced the two greatest young artists to come in contact with him. Raphael (1483–1520) came to Florence in 1504 at the age of twenty-one, and quickly revealed Leonardo's influence in his portraits and Madonnas. Also, about 1503, Michelangelo (1475–1564) changed from a sculptor of merely grand scale to one whose figures are charged with energy. This may be seen in the contrast between Michelangelo's early David and his later St. Matthew.

From this time on Leonardo influenced, directly or indirectly, all painting. However, most of Leonardo's scientific observations remained unproven until the same questions were again investigated in later centuries.

For More Information

Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1988.

Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci, the Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Turner, A. Richard. Inventing Leonardo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

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Nonfiction Books » Art » Art History

The best books on leonardo da vinci, recommended by martin kemp.

Mona Lisa. The People and the Painting by Martin Kemp

Mona Lisa. The People and the Painting by Martin Kemp

Every generation has its own Leonardo, and for many he remains a man of mystery. Martin Kemp , Emeritus Professor in Art History at Oxford and the author of Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, helps us identify the non-mythical Leonardo. What might Leonardo be doing were he alive today, in our own digital age?

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Mona Lisa. The People and the Painting by Martin Kemp

The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci - Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation by E.H. Gombrich

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation by E.H. Gombrich

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci - Leonardo da Vinci: i documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee by Edoardo Villata

Leonardo da Vinci: i documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee by Edoardo Villata

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci - The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci by Jean Paul Richter

The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci by Jean Paul Richter

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci - Leonardo da Vinci by Kenneth Clark

Leonardo da Vinci by Kenneth Clark

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci - The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

1 The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

2 art and illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation by e.h. gombrich, 3 leonardo da vinci: i documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee by edoardo villata, 4 the literary works of leonardo da vinci by jean paul richter, 5 leonardo da vinci by kenneth clark.

F irstly, congratulations on your Leonardo da Vinci book in collaboration with Giuseppe Pallanti. The press release announces boldly that we’re to learn the secrets at the heart of the world’s most iconic work of art. Of course, an air of mystery is perhaps fitting for a book with a subject like Leonardo da Vinci, whose life and work are suffused with myth and speculation. And yet, almost as a final punctuation in your closing paragraph, you state that “There is one Mona Lisa. It was painted by Leonardo. And it is in the Louvre ”. I love this passage! Which summarises so well the spirit of the book. The facts speak for themselves, and they lead us to some very grounded conclusions about the painting, and also about Leonardo.

There is also an important element of mystery which is embedded in the picture, that is to say the ultimate unknowingness of the beloved woman. There Leonardo’s technique induces a sense that we think we can see more than we can. We, then, as viewers, fill it in. There’s this genuine sense that he is leaving something intangible, ineffable, unsaid. So, there is a genuine element of mystery which he has contrived.

The fact that the Mona Lisa in some ways was the product of an unspectacular, almost mundane middle class Renaissance milieu, makes the cultural phenomenon of the painting that much more remarkable. This relatively humble soil was able to give root to this extraordinary flower. In reading the book, I found myself thinking that you could say something similar about Leonardo da Vinci himself.

The portrait is extraordinary because, at that time particularly, portraits were portraits. They were of interest inherently because of the value, status or public profile of the person who is being portrayed. So, to have this sort of painting of a bourgeois woman and for it to become famous almost immediately is extraordinary.

“There’s this genuine sense that he is leaving something intangible, ineffable, unsaid”

Let’s turn to the reading list for our discussion of a ‘non-mythical’ Leonardo. To set the stage, let’s begin with a compatriot of his. Why is Dante important for us to understand Leonardo’s art, and perhaps his scholarly and scientific work as well?

I think Dante  is of importance to Leonardo in two respects. One is a fairly obvious one in that he really set in train – not wholly individually but he gave a great impetus to – the standard Florentine poetic genre of the beloved lady. In his work, Beatrice is never really somebody he knows that well but she is idealised and sublimated into this extraordinary object of rarefied desire. He set in motion a tradition that goes through Petrarch and beyond, and one that was still thriving in the Leonardo courts.

As we know, poets wrote about Leonardo’s portraits using this language. So, that Dantesque figure of the beloved lady goes into a Leonardo portrait and then is extracted – as it were – by the poets who were writing about Leonardo. It’s not been noticed very much before but it is obvious to the close observer.

The other aspect to it is that Dante is the supreme poet-natural philosopher. We know about Dante’s imagination, we know his great storytelling abilities, but we tend to take into account rather less that in The Divine Comedy and in all his works – the Convivio (the Banquet) not least – there is an enormous amount of learning about objects, about physics, about the behaviour of things in the natural world and about light, above all. The Paradiso is about light. And also about the act of seeing.

Natural philosophy as a precursor to what we would regard as hard science ….That leads quite naturally to a discussion of E.H. Gombrich’s Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation  (1960) where he discusses art as a sort of experimental process – an iterative and improvised pursuit – that seems to echo what you’ve described as Dante’s marrying of poetry and science : the transformation of knowledge into poetic vision.

Absolutely. Gombrich was kind of mentor of mine; I never studied with him but he was always immensely encouraging. There are a number of people who are pressing on with art-science agendas and who are interested – both historically and in contemporary terms – with issues of seeing and knowing, which lie behind Gombrich’s The Story of Art . It’s the fact that you don’t just see things and know what they are; you have to have a hypothetical framework, you have to have an interpretive framework, to get leverage on the world. That was very important. I trained as scientist so, in a sense, I knew about hypotheses but less about the philosophical underpinnings which meant that the standard notion of empiricism wouldn’t do the job, that you need schemata models, you need a framework that you can then modify heroically.

“You don’t just see things and know what they are; you have to have an interpretive framework, to get leverage on the world”

For Gombrich, Leonardo was the historical embodiment of that process. He was somebody who had this amazing stock of schemas inherited from the art which he knew but an extraordinary ability to work with the grit of observation and the imagination to see that the old wisdom needed challenging, both on grounds of empirical testing but also on grounds of theoretical constructions. In Gombrich’s “making and matching” formula, there’s the idea that you basically have a way of portraying things; if I wanted to paint a portrait of your face, I have a series of pictorial motifs that I can use and combine to do it. “Matching”, then, is the process which is non-obvious and much more difficult than people realise: to make your eye look like your eye, rather than the general eye which I know how to draw.

If you read Gombrich’s writings – The Story of Art not least but other essays of his as well – then Leonardo is like the light cavalry. When Gombrich gets into a difficult area of argument, then the Leonardo light cavalry come racing over the hill towards the enemy to win the argument.

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Importantly for me, Gombrich also gave a sanction for looking at non-art as being as profound as high art in terms of its potential analysis. He would put an advertisement for a rotary shaver beside Raphael’s Madonna della sedia because they’re both using rounds. That sounds trivial but he makes a lot of it. So, that ability to fashion a visual history rather than more restrictedly an art history is of immense importance, and is very much in the spirit of Leonardo’s endeavour.

If we consider the way that the framework is deployed to make sense of and accentuate the aesthetic qualities of our experienced environment, some would argue that this is what sets Leonardo apart from a long lineage of extremely talented and extremely visionary artists. Would you say that’s one reason why he’s had such lasting influence and importance?

I think he tries to embed in painting all the knowledge – this extraordinary wide ranging encyclopaedic knowledge which he gleans. He wants painting to be a recreation of the visual world on the basis of this encyclopaedic understanding. Ultimately, it’s an unrealisable dream. Even film and moving images can’t do everything. One of the difficulties he had with finishing paintings, is that the ultimate ambition to make the painting into a universal picture, to carry all this immense baggage of knowledge and fantasy, is in a way unrealisable. There’s a kind of unrealistic aspect to the agenda which is always recognisable with Leonardo.

“He wants painting to be a recreation of the visual world on the basis of this encyclopaedic understanding. Ultimately, it’s an unrealisable dream.”

Under Gombrich’s rubric, the culture informs artistic production. So we stand to learn a lot about Leonardo’s milieu in reading from primary sources. The books you’ve chosen are Jean Paul Richter’s  The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (1883) , and Edoardo Villata’s Leonardo da Vinci – i documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee (1999) . Why these two compendia specifically, when the Leonardo scholarship is so vast? Even the primary source material is sprawling, and not even all of Leonardo’s notebooks have survived.

I always emphasise primary sources. If you teach Leonardo, you are faced with this enormous amount of material. My Leonardo library is too big for my house; it’s in the research hall of the history faculty, and there are bigger libraries than that obviously in professional libraries. So, what do you do? The answer, for me, is go to the primary sources as your first port of call: get a sense of them, naturalise yourself in this extraordinary ability he has to cross boundaries, to move fluidly from the motion of hair to the motion of water and so on, and get a feel for that.

Obviously, you need to have an interpretive framework. Historians and accounts that one can recommend range from something like Kenneth Clark’s very beautiful biography which is about Leonardo as an artist – it doesn’t do more than that – to works which tackle different aspects of his intellectual legacy. What has tended to be missing, at least when I did my first synoptic book on Leonardo da Vinci, was a synthetic gathering together of all these things.

Are there particular segments or chapters or letters that provide a unique insight or summary understanding of who Leonardo was and what made him tick?

It is a tough one but let’s do three passages from the Richter book. One is the letter Leonardo wrote to Ludovico Sforza – Ludovico il Moro, the ruler of Milan – and he’s selling his services. This is a draft letter, it presumably went in a fairer copy to Ludovico, but he details all the military things he can do. He can build bridges for crossing moats and he can dig tunnels and he can construct weapons the sort of which are outside the common usage, as he puts it. It gives an idea of this slightly crazy ambition that he has.

At the end, he says by the way, also in sculpture and painting, I can do things as well as anyone else can and will be happy to do the equestrian memorial – the rider on the horse – for your father which I happen to know you want doing . That’s a flavour of the man who was insanely ambitious, very willing to promote himself and recognised he was special. But it’s endearing, this sheer enthusiasm of listing all the different things that he can do, as though he can’t get it out fast enough.

“What is the core of this person’s artistic personality? And how far is it common across all this enormous range of diverse pursuits?”

The second one would be something from the “Paragone” – the comparison between the arts. This was a set piece debate he indulged in at the court of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. It was a kind of courtly knockabout dispute between poets, musicians, sculptors, painters, and writers more generally. And he was very rude about poetry. It was a serious challenge: they were challenging for the attention of the duke, challenging for prestige in the court, and they were challenging for salaries. And Leonardo is determined to give poetry a tough time.

He parades these arguments – some of them really pretty tenuous – and ultimately comes down to the assertion that the ear is not as good as the eye. The eye is the great vehicle through which we see the world and it’s the primary sense. He then assigns a descriptive role to poetry and says that poetry cannot describe a battle as well as a painting can. Which if taken as a visual description, is undebatable. But is poetry really about visual description? So, that gives you a sense of Leonardo in a court: very brilliant, very agile, and willing to bend the evidence rather creatively in his direction and to his advantage.

The other passage would be one of the later writings ‘On the Eye’ from Manuscript D which is the in the Institute de France. I’m not going to give you a specific passage – they are quite a number of them – and the Richter volumes have very brilliant indices, so you can go and see where the Manuscript D Dell’occhio (‘On the Eye’) is. That is relatively well into his career, it is around 1507-1508, and he was to die in 1519. It deals with the complexities of seeing. There is geometry out there, and he is in thrall to geometry. Mathematics , but above all geometry, is the key to understanding the universe, much like Galileo said “the book of nature is written in mathematics”.

For Leonardo, it is written primarily in geometry. So, there’s enormous attention to working out the reflection, refraction, aerial perspectives of objects, and how the atmosphere works and so on. But he says, and this is relatively later in his life, that we have to understand how the eye works in how we see things. The eye, he observes, is optically a very complicated instrument. He doesn’t have a focussing lens which limits what he can accomplish with his explanation. Before Kepler in the early 17th century, there’s no sense of the lens as an active focussing device. So, he tries to work out how the components of the eye –  the humours as they were called: the aqueous humour, the liquid stuff, and the crystalline humour or more gelatinous stuff like the lens in particular – how these combine to create the optics to get an image.

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Most people would think of Leonardo principally as an artist – famous for the Mona Lisa amongst other works – but he seemed to have been quite scathing not only about poets but also his painterly rivals. While most praise was reserved for architects who, I suppose, were the civil scientists of the age. Your own research has been about the relationship between scientific visions of nature and how these are applied to art in practice. In the book  Leonardo da Vinci Kenneth Clark describes at length and in very graceful language Leonardo’s constant negotiation between science and symbolism. This monograph was first published in 1939. This is still a canonical work for you in Leonardo studies?

Yes. Leonardo da Vinci is a beautiful book. And Leonardo has been fortunate in some of the writers who have tackled him, like Walter Pater and like Théophile Gautier in France. He has attracted some fine pens to write about him. Kenneth Clark is up there with them. In terms of art history, Clark is rather sniffily regarded by academics. He’s been called Lord Clark of Civilisation because of his famous television series. He has also written Landscape into Art and The Nude which he saw as very much about the intellectual history of art. They’re regarded as popularising. Now, for me, communicating in a broader framework is terrific and to do it as well as Clark is wonderful. But there is a natural sniffiness amongst  academics when he rides roughshod over some beloved subtleties that they hold dear.

The book as a whole conveys wonderful shape to Leonardo’s art and life. And Clark is more right about aspects of his science and engineering than he has any right to be. He kept clear of the science, he didn’t really tackle it head on, yet via the art and via the drawings, he gets an enormous amount right about Leonardo’s scientific opus. There’s also his great catalogue, which he did before the monograph, of the drawings at Windsor Castle which holds the greatest set of Leonardo drawings. Most of the anatomical drawings for example are at Windsor.

If you look at what he says about them, even when he doesn’t really deal with the science, he gets things extraordinarily right by intuition. Clark had that instinctive penetration into how Leonardo worked even when he was short of detailed knowledge of the area that he was looking at. To me, that’s a testimony of a certain kind of intuitive insight; having got a toehold Leonardo’s art, he was able to make more of the rest of Leonardo’s work than he really should have been able to do.

At one point, he writes that “there is a Leonardo for every generation”. In Leonardo’s approach to science and art, and the interrelation of the two, could Leonardo’s oeuvre be seen as an antidote to some of the very reductionist thinking that characterises many disciplines, compartmentalisation in the academy, and even in the ways that our daily lives seem to have become hyper-specialised? Do we need to recover this Renaissance notion of the interconnectedness of human knowledge, be it scientific, aesthetic, or otherwise?

Absolutely, yes. He was a lateral thinker to a kind of pathological degree. He couldn’t be contained in an area without seeing its implications for other areas. But it has to be done on a different basis now. In Leonardo’s era, though you couldn’t know everything about everything, this universal knowledge – that is to say, understanding the rudiments of physics, optics, anatomy and so on – could potentially be understood to an effective level by someone with Leonardo’s ambitions. And he wasn’t the only person who aimed at universal understanding. Roger Bacon in the middle ages was the Doctor Mirabilis who aspired to universal wisdom.

A theory has been advanced that the last human to have known everything – to have grasped all knowledge – was Goethe . Since then, the production of knowledge has outstripped our ability to digest and retain it.

Yes, Goethe is a supreme manifestation of that ability to work across boundaries and, indeed, to make your understanding of one area stronger because you’ve really got a sense of what is analogous elsewhere. Hermann von Helmholtz, the nineteenth-century physicist and physiologist is rather good as well and rather underrated. We should at least be able to understand what is going on in other areas, even if we can’t be experts on them.

“Leonardo was a lateral thinker to a kind of pathological degree. He couldn’t be contained in an area without seeing its implications for other areas”

I reviewed a book on quantum mechanics for the Times Literary Supplement which, in a sense, is barmy but it was about the beauty of quantum mechanics. Could I teach students about quantum mechanics? Perhaps not in ways that would be conducive to work in the laboratory. However, I would argue that whatever the discipline, we should know the nature of the enterprise: what kind of thing is going on, what criteria are being used, and so on.

Above all, in terms of Leonardo’s search for universal knowledge, he relies upon a profound respect for the orders of nature and how nature works. He doesn’t see us as separate from that natural world. We are in our bodies. As a microcosm, we embody the nature of the wider world. We are locked into its imperatives, and into how nature works. If you’re a canal engineer and you’re trying to alter the flow of rivers, the way to do it is to work in a friendly and cooperative way with the nature of water, rather than trying to push it around.

Leonardo has a profound respect for the order of nature and the human being’s integral place in that. There is a big message here, which is embedded in that notion of trying to get a universal understanding of how nature works.

In an age where our access to and perception of the world is increasingly being mediated by silicon and glass and software, what place is there for a da Vincian method?

Since we did Leonardo show at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1989, I’ve been immensely interested in getting Leonardo to talk to computers, not just as a database but in thinking how can we effectively put computers in dialogue with Leonardo. If you look at Leonardo’s drawings, he clearly wanted them to move. There’s a clearly an inherent sense of animation. For our show at the V&A, I worked with a very brilliant animator called Steve Maher and we animated some of Leonardo’s drawings to tremendous effect. We found that some of his serial drawings – drawings of serial movement – just needed smoothing out; he got the key stages.

“If you look at Leonardo’s drawings, he clearly wanted them to move. There’s a clearly an inherent sense of animation”

For 2019, I’m talking further to Steve for the five hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death about doing a virtual reality reconstruction of aspects of Leonardo. Now, that doesn’t mean to say that he anticipated computer graphics or whatever, but it’s a question of what is inherent in his work and how it can be put into a dialogue with the new media, which he would have been completely sold on. This is not – I hope – an anachronistic enterprise. We are always looking back. We also have to be careful as historians that we’re not manipulating the historic Leonardo and coming up with something which is simply a mirror of our own time. But, provided we’re responsible about that dialogue, then I think it can be immensely stimulating and good public communication as well.

So, very much a Renaissance man for the digital age as well?

People often ask me what would Leonardo be doing if he were around at the moment? which is unanswerable in a way. I say he would certainly be in moving media. He would be doing something with images that move and with virtual reality. He would have been spectacularly impressed with that.

June 8, 2017

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Martin Kemp

Martin Kemp FBA is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford University. One of the world's leading authorities on Leonardo da Vinci, he has published extensively on his life and work, including the prize-winning Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man (2006) and Leonardo (2004), La Bella Principessa (2010), written with Pascal Cotte and, most recently, Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting , with Giuseppe Pallanti (2017).

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was many things: a painter, an architect, an engineer, a theatrical producer—and gay, illegitimate, and wildly popular in Renaissance-era Italy.

What Made Leonardo da Vinci a Genius?

Hint: The great Italian artist was interested in everything.

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci sold for $450.3 million at Christie's , by far the highest price for any work of art sold at auction—and a sign of the lofty place the great Italian artist holds in our imagination.

Today, the term “ genius ” is bandied about to describe pop stars, stand-up comedians, and even footballers. But Leonardo da Vinci earned the description, explains Walter Isaacson in his lavishly illustrated new biography. From iconic paintings—“ Mona Lisa ” and “ The Last Supper ”—to designs for flying machines and ground-breaking studies on optics and perspective, Leonardo fused science and art to create works that have become part of humanity’s story. [Find out what science tells us about geniuses .]

the cover of a book

When National Geographic caught up with Isaacson by phone at his home in Washington, D.C., he explained why Mona Lisa’s smile is the culmination of a lifetime of inquiry; how Michelangelo and Leonardo couldn’t stand each other; and why being curious was Leonardo’s defining trait.

We have to start with the most famous smile in the world. Where does the “ Mona Lisa ” fit into Leonardo’s life and work—and how has she managed to bewitch us for 500 years?

The Mona Lisa’s smile is the culmination of a lifetime spent studying art, science, optics, and every other possible field that he could apply his curiosity to, including understanding the universe and how we fit into it.

Leonardo spent many pages in his notebook dissecting the human face to figure out every muscle and nerve that touched the lips. On one of those pages you see a faint sketch at the top of the beginning of the smile of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo kept that painting from 1503, when he started it, to his deathbed in 1519, trying to get every aspect exactly right in layer after layer. During that period, he dissected the human eye on cadavers and was able to understand that the center of the retina sees detail, but the edges see shadows and shapes better. If you look directly at the Mona Lisa smile, the corners of the lips turn downward slightly, but shadows and light make it seem like it’s turning upwards. As you move your eyes across her face the smile flickers on and off.

He carried his notebook around as he walked through Florence or Milan, and always sketched people’s expressions and emotions and tried to relate that to the inner feelings they were having. You see that most obviously in “The Last Supper.”

the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'

But the “Mona Lisa” is the culmination because the emotions that she’s expressing, just like her smile, are a bit elusive. Every time you look at her it seems slightly different. Unlike other portraits of the time, this is not just a flat, surface depiction. It tries to depict the inner emotions.

His other most famous masterpiece is “ The Last Supper ,” which you call “the most spell-binding narrative painting in history.” Take us inside its creation—and explain why it is such a supreme work of art.

The Duke of Milan asked him to paint it on the wall of a dining hall of a monastery. Unlike other depictions of “The Last Supper,” of which there were hundreds at the time, Leonardo doesn’t just capture a moment. He understands that there is no such thing as a disconnected instant of time. He writes that any instant has what’s come before it and after it embodied into it, because it’s in motion.

So he makes “The Last Supper” a dramatic narrative. As you walk in the door, you see Christ’s hand then, going up the arm, you stare at his face. He’s saying, “One of you shall betray me.” As your eyes move across the picture, you see that sound almost rippling outward as each of the groups of apostles reacts.

The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'

Those nearest to him are already saying, “Is it me, Lord?” The ones further away have just started to hear it. As the drama ripples from the center to the edges, it seems to bounce back, as Christ reaches for the bread and wine, the beginning of what will be the institution of the Eucharist.

Despite these achievements, in his own day Leonardo wasn’t primarily known as a painter, was he, but as an architect—and even what we would today call a special effects guy. Unbraid these different strands of his life.

He was mainly, despite what he sometimes wished, a painter. He liked to think of himself as an engineer and architect, which he also did with great passion. But his first job was as a theatrical producer.

From that he learned how to do tricks with perspective because the stage in a theatre recedes faster and looks deeper than it is. Even a table onstage would be tilted slightly so you can see it, which is also what we see in “The Last Supper.” Likewise, on the stage, the theatrical gestures of the characters would be exaggerated, which is what you also see in “The Last Supper . ”

drawings of flying machines by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci filled his notebooks with sketches of inventions, including flying machines.

His theatrical production led him to mechanical props, like flying machines and a helicopter screw , which were designed to bring angels down from the rafters in some of the performances. Leonardo then blurred the line between fantasy and reality when he went on to try to create real flying machines that were engineering marvels! So, what he picked up in the theatre he brought both to his art and real-life engineering.

What about Leonardo, the man? He was a vegetarian and openly gay, in an age when sodomy was a crime, and quite a dandy. Unpack these different aspects of his character.

He was gay, illegitimate, left handed, a bit of a heretic, but the good thing about Florence was that it was a very tolerant city in the 1470s. Leonardo would go around town wearing short, purple and pink outfits that were somewhat surprising to the people of Florence, but he was very popular. He had an enormous number of friends both in Florence and Milan. He records many dinners with close friends, who were a diverse group: mathematicians, architects, playwrights, engineers, and poets. That diversity helped shape him.

Finally, he was a very good-looking guy. If you look at “ Vitruvian Man, ” the guy standing nude in the circle and square, that’s largely a self-portrait of Leonardo with his flowing curls and well-proportioned body.

There was a well-known, and mutual, dislike between Leonardo and Michelangelo. Explain the animosity —and set the scene for what became a kind of painterly “high noon” between them.

Leonardo and Michelangelo were very different. Leonardo was popular, sociable, and comfortable with all his eccentricities, including being gay. Michelangelo was also gay but deeply felt the agony and the ecstasy of his identity. He also was very much of a recluse. He had no very close friends, wore dark clothes, so they were polar opposites in look, style, and personality.

They were also very different in their art styles. Michelangelo painted as if he were a sculptor, using very sharp lines. Leonardo believed in sfumato , the blurring of lines, because he felt that was the way we actually see reality.

The rulers of Florence created a competition for both of them to paint battle scenes in the Council Hall. By that point, the rivalry had become bad.

Leonardo had voted to have Michelangelo’s statue of David hidden away in some arcade rather than placed in the middle of the plaza. Michelangelo had been publicly rude to Leonardo. All of this had caused a certain electricity, so the rulers of Florence pitted them against each other to do these two battle drawings.

In the end they both flinched, quitting before they finished the paintings. Then Leonardo moved back to Milan and Michelangelo moved to Rome to work on the Sistine Chapel.

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Does this ‘secret room’ contain Michelangelo’s lost artwork? See for yourself.

Leonardo never signed his paintings, which has sometimes caused confusion. tell us the amazing story of “ la bella principessa ”—and the sherlock holmes-type investigation to establish its authenticity..

“La Bella Principessa” is a chalk drawing that turned up at auction a few decades ago. It was never thought to be a Leonardo, and sold very inexpensively because they thought it was a German copy of a Florentine artist.

But one art collector was convinced that it was an authentic Leonardo. He bought it and took it around the world to experts to determine whether it truly was a Leonardo. It was pretty much confirmed when they found fingerprints because Leonardo often smudged his work using his thumb.

Then it turned out that the guy who made that claim was a bit unreliable and perhaps even fraudulent so the claim was withdrawn. Finally, with the help of Martin Kemp , the great Oxford Leonardo scholar, they discovered that it was a drawing made by Leonardo, which had been the front piece of a book that was in a library in Poland where somebody had cut it out.

More recently, we have the tale of Salvator Mundi , a beautiful painting that goes on sale November 15th at Christies . For a long time, we also thought this was a copy but in the past ten years it’s been authenticated. It was sold a decade ago for about $100. In November, it’ll probably go for more than $100 million. [It sold for $450.3 million .]

It’ll be a major event because it’s the only Leonardo painting in private hands. Nobody will probably ever be able to buy a Leonardo painting again.

One of the natural elements that most fascinated Leonardo, and to which he returned at the end of his life, was water. What did he see in it?

He was a self-taught kid. He didn’t go to school because he was born out of wedlock and among the things he loved was the flow of the streams that went into the Arno River. He studied those, and from his childhood to his deathbed, he was still drawing the spiral forms and trying to figure out the math behind them.

That translates both into a science and his art. He loved how air currents formed little flurries when they went over the curved wings of birds and realized that they helped keep the bird aloft, something we now know about airplanes.

In any of his masterworks, including the “Mona Lisa,” you see a winding river, as though it connects to the blood veins of the person in the portrait, like a connection of the human to the earth.

What do you think is the defining trait of Leonardo’s genius? And what can he teach us?

In the last chapter, I try to answer that with 25 lessons from Leonardo, that also distill lessons from previous books I’ve written on Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein. In all those books, I’ve noticed that creativity comes from connecting art to science. To be really creative, you have to be interested in all sorts of different disciplines rather than be a specialist.

The ultimate example of that is Leonardo da Vinci, who is interested in everything that could possibly be known about the universe, including how we fit into it. That made him a joyous character to write about.

In his notebooks, we see such questions as, describe the tongue of the woodpecker. Why do people yawn? Why is the sky blue? He is passionately curious about everyday phenomenon that most of us quit questioning once we get out of our wonder years and become a bit jaded.

Being curious about everything and curious just for curiosity’s sake, not simply because it’s useful, is the defining trait of Leonardo. It’s how he pushed himself and taught himself to be a genius. We’ll never emulate Einstein’s mathematical ability. But we can all try to learn from, and copy, Leonardo’s curiosity.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk . Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com .

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what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

The History Hit Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

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10 of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Important Inventions

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Jon Bauckham

26 jan 2021.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

It’s something of an understatement to say that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a ‘genius’.

As well as being responsible for world-famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper , the Renaissance man was also a highly talented anatomist, zoologist, geologist, mathematician and military engineer (to name but a few), whose insatiable curiosity about the world around him knew no bounds.

During the course of his life – from his early days in Florence, right through to his final years in France – the polymath sketched out ideas and recorded scientific investigations on thousands of sheets of paper, gathered today in volumes known as codices.

In this article we delve into Leonardo’s notes and pick out 10 of his most impressive inventions and feats of engineering – some of which foreshadow innovations of more recent times.

1. Ornithopters

Among his numerous scientific interests, Leonardo harboured a particular obsession with flight. By studying the anatomy of birds, he hoped to build a machine that would one day allow humans to join them in the skies.

Towards the end of his life, the polymath gathered his thoughts on the topic in a text known as the Codice sul volo degli uccelli (‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’), written around 1505–06.

However, concepts for so-called flying machines were sketched throughout Leonardo’s career. Typically, the contraptions he drew were ‘ornithopters’, with membrane-covered wings designed to flap up and down.

Whether lying horizontally or standing in an upright position, the pilot would have operated the machines using pedals and levers – very much relying on their physical strength to get off the ground and stay airborne.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Detail from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s many flying machine designs, c1485. The drawing appears in a collection of sketches and notes known as Manuscript B , held by the Institut de France in Paris (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

2. Helical air screw

Another notable flying machine design (pictured below) can be found in a collection of Leonardo’s papers known today as Manuscript B . Sketched during the 1480s, the device – sometimes dubbed the ‘helical air screw’ – bears more than a passing resemblance to a modern helicopter.

Instead of individual rotor blades, however, Leonardo’s invention features a single, screw-shaped blade, designed to ‘bore’ into the air and allow the machine to ascend vertically.

Unfortunately, none of Leonardo’s flying machines would have actually worked. Not only would the materials have been too heavy, but human muscle power alone simply isn’t sufficient for such devices to take flight.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

A modern-day model of Leonardo’s helical air screw, which predates the invention of the helicopter by more than 400 years (Image Credit: Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

3. Parachute

As well as building machines that would enable humans to soar up into the clouds, Leonardo was also interested in creating devices that would allow people to descend from great heights.

In a drawing found in the Codex Atlanticus , Leonardo depicts a contraption resembling a parachute, constructed from reinforced cloth and wooden poles. Designed to be “12 arms wide and 12 tall”, the device, Leonardo writes, would enable a man to leap off a tall structure “without hurting himself”.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

A miniature version of Leonardo’s pyramid-shaped parachute, which was successfully tested by a British skydiver in 2000. The original design is found in the Codex Atlanticus in Milan (Image Credit: Nevit Dilmen / CC).

In June 2000, a British skydiver named Adrian Nicholas constructed his own replica of Leonardo’s ‘parachute’, which he tested by jumping out of a hot-air balloon positioned 10,000 feet above the province of Mpumalanga in South Africa.

Although he deployed a conventional parachute shortly before landing, Nicholas sailed towards earth strapped to Leonardo’s device for a total of five minutes, reporting a surprisingly smooth descent.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

4. Self-supporting bridge

Leonardo was employed by a number of powerful patrons throughout his life, including Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Cesare Borgia , son of Pope Alexander VI.

Of the numerous contraptions Leonardo invented for his patrons, one of the simplest – but most effective – is a portable wooden bridge that appears in the Codex Atlanticus .

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

A modern incarnation of Leonardo’s self-supporting bridge, constructed in Denmark. The simple structure was designed to be erected in a matter of minutes, making it ideal for military use (Image Credit: Cntrading / CC).

Designed to help armies cross bodies of water, the bridge is made up of several notched wooden poles, erected without the need for any screws or other fastenings.

As demonstrated by modern replicas (like that pictured above), the pressure created by the interlocking beams keeps the whole structure firmly in place.

5. Giant crossbow

A more famous military invention, sketched c1490, is also found in the Codex Atlanticus .

Commonly dubbed the ‘giant crossbow’, the ludicrously large contraption (as demonstrated by the size of the man in the drawing, below) was designed to launch projectiles such as boulders.

While there is no evidence to suggest a working prototype was ever built, Leonardo believed that the sheer sight of such weapons would strike fear into the hearts of the enemy.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Leonardo’s ‘giant crossbow’, accompanied by notes written in his characteristic mirror-writing script. The weapon – although never built – was deliberately designed to be intimidating (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

Overall, the crossbow was one of a number of siege weapons that Leonardo drew after studying the works of an earlier military engineer named Roberto Valturio, who published a treatise named De re militari (‘On the Military Arts’) in 1472.

Other such contraptions are depicted on the same sheet as the crossbow, improving on Valturio’s designs.

6. Armoured fighting vehicle

Alongside his so-called ‘helicopter’ and ‘parachute’, Leonardo designed several other contraptions that foreshadow innovations of more recent times.

Among them is the armoured car that appears in the Codex Arundel (below), which has often been likened to a modern tank.

Conceived in c1487, the conical vehicle is depicted with cannons around its full circumference, allowing it to attack from 360 degrees.

Crucially, the soldiers inside the tank would have been protected from enemy fire thanks to metal plates reinforcing its wooden shell.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

Leonardo’s sketch of a fighting vehicle or ‘tank’, which appears among the pages of the Codex Arundel at the British Library (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

Unusually for a man of his engineering ability, the gears in Leonardo’s supporting drawings are configured in such a way that renders the vehicle immobile.

This may have been a genuine mistake, but some historians have posited that Leonardo incorporated the error on purpose, just in case in his notes were ever stolen and someone else tried to copy the design.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

7. Equestrian sculpture

Although ostensibly employed by Ludovico Sforza as a military engineer, Leonardo also pledged that he would build a huge equestrian monument as a memorial to the duke’s late father, Francesco.

In order to create the sculpture – intended to be 24 feet high – Leonardo carefully studied the anatomy of horses, and undertook calculations to work out how much bronze would be needed.

Most crucially of all, Leonardo also came up with innovative new methods for the casting process, which involved designing complex machinery to construct the moulds required.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

An early study for Leonardo’s equestrian monument for the Duke of Milan, dated c1490. He later simplified the design, realising that it would be too complicated to make a reality (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

Unfortunately, the scheme was put on hold following the outbreak of the Italian Wars in the 1490s, and Milan’s bronze supplies were diverted to make weapons instead.

Then, when French troops entered Milan in 1499 and Sforza was overthrown, the project was abandoned for good. According to one story, the invading soldiers used Leonardo’s massive clay model of the sculpture for target practice.

8. Diving suits

Following the invasion of Milan, Leonardo fled the city state and spent a brief stint in Venice.

As his temporary new home was also under threat from foreign powers (this time by the Ottoman empire), the polymath again offered his services as a military engineer.

In the  Codex Arundel , Leonardo depicts designs for diving suits made from leather, complete with glass goggles and cane tubing.

In theory, the suits would have allowed Venetian soldiers to walk on the seabed and sabotage enemy ships from below – their breathing made possible by air tanks floating on the water’s surface.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

One of Leonardo’s designs for underwater breathing apparatus (found in the Codex Arundel ), alongside a modern museum exhibit showing how the mask would have fit over the diver’s head (Image Credit: Public Domain / Public Domain ).

9. The ‘robot’

As well as flying machines, bridges and weapons, Leonardo also made contraptions designed purely for entertainment.

Around 1495, he drew up plans for a mechanical knight – an armour-clad ‘robot’ that could sit up, move its head, and even wave a sword in its hands.

Having immersed himself in the study of anatomy, Leonardo knew how to make the knight’s complex system of gears and pulleys emulate the movements of the human body as closely as possible.

While a complete drawing of the knight doesn’t survive, American robotics expert Mark Rosheim managed to construct a successful working replica in 2002 using Leonardo’s notes.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

A miniature model of Leonardo’s mechanical knight and its inner workings on display in Berlin. Fragments of the original design were not discovered until the 1950s (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

10. Mechanical lion

Another impressive automaton was conceived towards the end of Leonardo’s life, when – under the employ of Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Pope Leo X) – he built a mechanical lion as a diplomatic gift for King Francis I of France.

According to contemporary reports, the beast could walk, move its head, and open its chest to reveal fleurs-de-lys .

As it happens, Leonardo entered the king’s service in 1516. He was given his own house in the Loire Valley, where he died three years later, aged 67.

Leonardo was buried in Amboise inside a small chapel located within the grounds of the royal castle – a relatively modest final resting place for one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

A drawing of the castle at Amboise, France – the town where Leonardo spent the final years of his life. The sketch is attributed to his assistant, Francesco Melzi (Image Credit: Public Domain ).

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5 definitive books on Leonardo da Vinci

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

  • Over 7,000 pages have survived of Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook collection.
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches, ruminations and theories make for a thrilling read.
  • Many biographers have attempted to figure out what made da Vinci such a great artist.

Centuries have passed and yet we still sing the praises of the quintessential Renaissance man , Leonardo da Vinci. The historic figure, the legend and the man fits the bill for our reverence, intrigue and near worship at times. Da Vinci was an intelligent, creative and complicated figure. Within just the past century alone, a countless numbers of books have been written about him.

Those who wish to learn more about him and about the time period in which he flourished would do well to dive into these five select books on Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci’s Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian man is a world renown sketch found in one of Leonardo’s notebooks. The image is named after the famous Roman architect Vitruvius. While this image has been parodied a million times over and stamped on trinkets galore, the true genius and history of this piece eludes most people. Historian Toby Lester scours the historical record and recounts the many figures and forces that made this image a reality in 1490, when da Vinci first drew it.

The history is fascinating, as the roots of the picture go back to proto-Christian imagery in which the author finds compelling evidence that the Christ figure owes its prestige and presentation from how statesmen originally presented a godlike Augustus Caesar to the Roman populace. Vitruvius was an instrumental force in ancient times and would come to greatly influence Leonardo, as he also drew on ideas such as the microcosm and macrocosm.

Da Vinci’s Ghost is at once both an intimate personal story of da Vinci and a far-ranging historical tale which contextualizes his greatness and creative mind.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of his Childhood

In typical Freudian fashion, Sigmund Freud goes to work on his most famous attempt at a psychoanalytic biography. Reconstructing da Vinci’s early life from a few references in his journals, Freud argues the point that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, da Vinci’s greatness stemmed from sexual repression. No surprise there, considering this was Freud’s modus operandi.

“Observation of men’s daily lives shows us that most people succeed in directing very considerable portions of their sexual instinctual forces to their professional activity. The sexual instinct is particularly well fitted to make contributions of this kind since it is endowed with a capacity for sublimation.”

Freud wrote this book in 1910. Rather than putting this book off as outdated, there are a number of keen observations and thought-provoking ideas that Freud puts forth. Like the many biographers that came both before and after him, Freud is desperately searching to understand where Leonardo’s otherworldly artistry and genius stems from. Freud also concedes the point pretty heavily throughout the book that, in the end, these are just simply his own observations. This is by no means a definitive answer on the enigmatic figure da Vinci still evokes.

Leonardo’s Notebooks

What better place to learn about a man than from the words written in his own hand. These are the personal notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci – the books he poured the contents of his mind into, so that he could both be understood and understand himself. The authors have organized this remnant of his writing into a cohesive and categorical layout, so that you can glide from his thoughts on painting, sculpting and anatomy to his interests in philosophy, natural science and much more.

“The mind of a painter must resemble a mirror, which always takes the color of the object it reflects and is completely occupied by the images of as many objects are in front of it.”

These books give you the privilege to embark into the mind of the Renaissance master and experience something incredible. Nearly all of these pieces of writing are accompanied with some kind of artwork.

Professor Martin Kemp is considered to be the world’s leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci. This treatise offers us an incredible amount of insight on what made him such a great artist and scientist. Kemp goes on to explain in great detail the artistic merit within masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The book is both a journey on the winding and disparate career path da Vinci would take throughout his life, his many dreams left undone and a who’s who of the cultural milieu of 15th century Florence and Italy. Kemp draws heavily from da Vinci’s notebooks to paint a full picture of the genius behind the creations.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind

Charles Nicholl’s book paints a rich picture of the Italian Renaissance worldview, one da Vinci existed in and shaped while he was alive. He expertly traces da Vinci’s birth as an illegitimate child in Tuscany to his infamous ties and time with the ruling families of Renaissance Europe.

Nicholl also manages to write an even-keeled portrait of da Vinci the man. He doesn’t spend too much time pouring his energy into psychological analysis or going deep into art interpretation. Utilizing his notebook entries, as many biographers before, he fleshes out a general day-to-day life of the master, which makes for an intimate portrayal of the man. While the mystery is still there, reading Nicholl’s work is a humbling admission into the daily minutiae of man who affects us all.

Anatomy of the foot by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci: Facts & Biography

Leonardo da Vinci sketches and code.

Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps most noted as an artist, was also an architect, inventor and chronicler of science, among other outlets for his talents.

Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci was the son of a prominent attorney notary and a young peasant girl. Born out of wedlock, he was raised by his father, Ser Piero, and several stepmothers.

His early years were spent living on his father’s family estate in Vinci. During this period of his life, he was also influenced by his uncle, who had a love of nature and had a hand in rearing him during his formative years.

Beyond basic reading, writing and mathematical skills, da Vinci did not receive much of a formal education. Recognizing his potential as an artist, his father sent him at the age of 14 or 15 to apprentice with sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence.

He spent six years honing his technical skills, including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing and sculpting, and became member of the Guild of Saint Luke by the age of 20. His whereabouts went undocumented for a few years after being accused and acquitted of sodomy in Florence when he was 22.

He remained with Verrocchio until he became an independent master in 1478. Around that time, he took on his first commissioned work, The Adoration of the Magi, for Florence’s San Donato, a Scopeto monastery. However, he never finished this work as he was soon lured to Milan to serve as an engineer, painter, architect and sculptor for the ruling Sforza dynasty. He worked on a bronze equestrian statue to honor dynasty founder Francesco Sforza off and on for 12 years, but war ultimately interfered and that project never came to fruition.

His role as a Renaissance Man

While war stopped the Sforza project, da Vinci also did not complete many of his paintings and other works. His diversified interests, including scientific law and nature, often sidetracked him. In the early 1490s, da Vinci began chronicling his thoughts about painting, architecture, mechanics and human anatomy. These notebooks contained wide-ranging ideas, including plans for a “flying machine,” bicycle and drawings of a fetus in utero and the human skeleton.

His interests and intellect traversed so many disciplines that he symbolized the term “Renaissance Man.” Unfortunately, these notebooks were not published and his ideas did not advance scientific understanding in the Renaissance period. [ Album: Anatomy Meets Art: Da Vinci's Drawings ]

His greatest works

This is a retouched picture of the Mona Lisa, a painting by Leonardo DaVinci, currently housed at the Louvre museum in Paris, France. It has been digitally altered from it's original version by modifying its colors.

The "Mona Lisa" is da Vinci’s best-known work and some historians argue it is his greatest artistic achievement. While it has been speculated that the half-length painting was a man in drag or not even based on a living model, many accounts identify the subject as Lisa del Gioconda, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant. 

While historians believe the painting was commissioned for their home and to commemorate the birth of their second child, it never hung in their home, as da Vinci never delivered it. It is thought that it was completed sometime between 1505 and 1507, but there are indications that da Vinci continued to work on it as he tried to achieve perfection.  Today, the painting hangs behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Leonardo's "Last Supper," which he worked on from 1492 to 1498 by most accounts, was painted on the dining room wall of the of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan. It depicts the dramatic moment when Jesus tells the apostles that one of them will betray him soon. It was not done with the fresco technique —where water-based paint is applied to fresh plaster — but da Vinci instead chose to try to paint on the wall in layers. As a result, the masterpiece began to deteriorate during his lifetime and has undergone an extensive restoration.

Leonardo da Vinci's design for a tank.

The work identified as "portrait of a man in red chalk" is believed to be a self-portrait of da Vinci from about 1510, when he would have been 60. There was speculation that this drawing in red chalk on paper was that of his father or uncle or another older man, but now has been widely accepted as da Vinci and has come to represent his image as Renaissance Man.

Da Vinci left Italy 1516, when French ruler Francis I offered him the chance to paint and draw at his own pace while living at Château of Cloux, a country house near Aboise, France.  Correspondence with Francesco Melzi, his assistant at the time — and some speculate, his lover— indicate that he may have been unhappy in his final years. He spent just three years in France and died there on May 2, 1519.

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Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science and sister site Space.com, writing mainly evergreen reference articles that provide background on myriad scientific topics, from astronauts to climate, and from culture to medicine. Her work can also be found in Business News Daily and KM World. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University) in New Jersey. 

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The 10 Best Documentaries About Leonardo Da Vinci

Aug 19, 2023 | Art , Best Of

what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

The art, science, and genius of the great Leonardo da Vinci have captivated scholars for centuries. From his iconic Mona Lisa to the designs of innovative machines hundreds of years ahead of their time, Da Vinci’s story is one that has inspired countless generations. Fans of his work now have the opportunity to dive even deeper into this remarkable life with a variety of documentaries about the man himself. Here, we’ve rounded up the best Leonardo da Vinci documentaries to explore his life and legacy even further. From in-depth interviews with experts to fascinating archival footage, each of these films offer a unique perspective into the incredible world of Da Vinci. So if you’re ready to learn more about this iconic figure, read on to discover the top Leonardo da Vinci documentaries.

1. Decoding da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was a true Renaissance man, inspiring the world with his art and inventions centuries before anyone else could have thought of them. A master of his craft, he dabbled in science and mathematics while creating some of history’s most iconic pieces. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his passing, acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson delved deep into the mind of one of history’s greatest geniuses to uncover his secrets. How did Leonardo Da Vinci amass such a wealth of knowledge, and how did he use it to create works of art that would go on to be treasured forever?

2. The Renaissance – The Age of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (1/2)

The Renaissance was a time of drastic change and growth throughout Europe. The “Renaissance factor” is what triggered this pivotal period in history, making it unlike any other era before or since. What was the secret ingredient that brought such immense progress with it? We explore this through the events that preceded it, from Ancient Rome to the Crusades and the Black Death in the 14th century. We visit Michelangelo’s construction site of St. Peter’s Basilica, the banking houses of the Medicis and Johannes Gutenberg’s workshop to experience firsthand the innovations that developed during this time: linear perspective, the printing press and double-entry bookkeeping. Our journey also takes us to modern-day trendsetters, scientists, business tycoons, fashion designers and artists to discover how the Renaissance has impacted our lives today. How have these achievements of almost half a millennium ago changed us? What is the lasting legacy of the “Renaissance factor”?

3. The Renaissance – The Age of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (2/2)

The Renaissance has been described as a unique period in human history, with art, culture and science developing faster than at any other time. But what caused the so-called “Renaissance factor” to spark this era of unprecedented progress? To answer this question, we must travel back in time from Ancient Rome to the Crusades and the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Join us as we explore the events and innovations of this pivotal period, from Michelangelo’s work on St. Peter’s Basilica to the Medicis’ banking houses and Johannes Gutenberg’s workshop. We’ll discover the transformations caused by linear perspective, the printing press and double-entry bookkeeping, before looking at how these legacies continue to shape our world today. Through spectacular reenactments and interviews with modern-day trendsetters, scientists, business tycoons, fashion designers and artists.

4. Leonardo DaVinci, behind a Genius

Leonardo Da Vinci was an unprecedented figure in the Renaissance era, a genius with abilities that seemed almost supernatural at times. His paintings have been treasured throughout the centuries for their unparalleled beauty, while his inventions and ideas remain some of the most groundbreaking works of engineering to this day. Da Vinci’s repertoire was impressive, to say the least. He had a keen eye for detail and could capture even the subtlest nuance of light in his paintings. His engineering projects included designs for war machines like tanks and flying machines that were centuries ahead of their time, but he also designed many everyday objects that we use today such as locks, scissors, and even the modern bicycle .

5. Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious masterpiece

Set against a mysterious backdrop, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ is an enigmatic masterpiece. Its two versions have puzzled art historians for centuries – what made the Renaissance genius create them? Glimpses into his life suggest he was driven by a greater ambition that took him from Florence to Milan in pursuit of more ambitious projects. But the painting also holds clues to its secrets. Through exploring da Vinci’s personal notebooks – known as the Codex Atlanticus – we can unravel some of the mysteries surrounding it. From symbols and allegories, to interpretations of other works, they may provide answers to why he depicted a Madonna in a cave and what hidden messages lie within the unusual backdrop.

6. Decoding da Vinci FULL SPECIAL

For centuries, the world has been captivated by Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable works. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings have long held a level of mystery that even the most intelligent minds struggle to comprehend. Now, with Decoding da Vinci, viewers will be taken on a journey to explore his genius like never before! From interviews with art historians to virtual reality simulations of some of his most iconic pieces, this documentary offers an unprecedented look into the life and body of work of one of history’s greatest innovators. Learn about da Vinci’s unique techniques for creating depth in his paintings, the inspiration behind some of his creations, and how he revolutionized the way we think about art today.

7. What did Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” really look like?

Leonardo da Vinci was a man truly ahead of his time – one of the most iconic Renaissance Man. He has created many world famous works, and most notable among them is The Last Supper. This painting is 4.60 meters high and 8.80 meters wide, it can be found on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. But what does the original painting look like? In 2019, which marks 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, a secret has been unveiled – only 20 percent of the original work is still visible today. To solve this mystery and uncover what it originally looked like, the documentary attempts to reconstruct it with a thriller-like flair. In addition to this, a mysterious copy of da Vinci’s work has been found in the small Belgian abbey of Tongerlo. This painting on canvas is believed to have been commissioned by French King Louis XII from da Vinci’s workshop, and it could be the key to unravelling the centuries-old secret. The Last Supper is an iconic work of art that has captivated many generations.

8. Da Vinci’s Darkest Secret – Documentary Movie

The Merovingians are shrouded in mystery, their power known only to those of the ruling elite. Preparing to unlock Da Vinci’s hidden secret, one must be ready for the unexpected and remarkable – they will uncover an ancient relic, a relic that is said to hold magic beyond any one person’s comprehension: The Holy Grail. Believed to have once been the cup of Jesus Christ himself, it is said to possess power that can transform the world. It’s a relic that has fascinated generations and sparked the imagination of many an artist, scientist, philosopher and theologian. Legends speak of its ability to open portals between worlds, bring forth wealth beyond measure and unlock hidden knowledge.

9. Leonardo da Vinci The Universal Man Documentary Exclusive TV

A truly inspirational figure, Leonardo da Vinci remains revered in the modern era as a brilliant innovator and master artist. He has been described as a universal genius with extraordinary powers of observation, memory, creativity, and imagination. From painting the world-renowned Mona Lisa to inventing the first helicopter, Leonardo da Vinci’s life was dedicated to pushing the boundaries of human achievement. This exclusive TV documentary takes viewers on a journey through his remarkable life and accomplishments. From early sketches to mysterious notebooks, you’ll uncover the secrets behind his masterpieces and inventions. Step into the world of the great genius himself as he continues to inspire us centuries later with his extraordinary legacy. Learn about Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering experiments in anatomy, engineering, and astronomy as the documentary explores a remarkable range of new discoveries. Uncover how he attempted to create flying machines hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers , designed innovative weapons for war, and wrote treatises on faith, knowledge, and philosophy.

10. How Leonardo da Vinci Changed the World

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest and most talented people ever to live. He is best known for his iconic painting, the Mona Lisa, but his brilliance extended far beyond art. Leonardo was a true polymath; an inventor, scientist, architect, mathematician and much more. Born in 1452 he lived for 67 years until 1519 and during that time he made incredible discoveries and inventions, many of which we are still learning from today. Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in so many different fields, embodying the spirit of the Renaissance. He observed with clarity and insight; his notebooks full of observations, information and inventions that still astound us to this day. His art was comparable or even greater than the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and Botticelli. The Mona Lisa is perhaps his most famous work, but it’s far from all he gave the world. Leonardo da Vinci was truly a genius and for centuries has deservedly been held up as one of the most influential figures in history.

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what is the best biography of leonardo da vinci

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Books about Leonardo da Vinci: my favorite ones

Leonardo da Vinci is an inspiration for people all over the world since 500 years . So many books were written about him, and many others were made publishing his notes, drawings and paintings. I am often asked what are my favorite or the best books about Leonardo da Vinci and which ones I would recommend. So I have put together the best titles about him that you can find around in English language .

Books about Leonardo da Vinci

best books about leonardo da vinci

I picked some biographies, some art and photo books and a couple of children’s books.

You can buy them on Amazon by clicking on the links in this post. Or ask them to your local bookshop !

Biographies about Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da vinci – by walter isaacson.

From the bestselling author and biographer Walter Isaacson, this book is an intimate and historically accurate portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. His childhood, family, passions and troubles come alive from the pages of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson .

No need to say that Isaacson knows how to turn people’s lives into fascinating adventures, but the life of Leonardo was really adventurous and interesting so there was no need to spice it up. It deserved to be told with every detail!

books about leonardo da vinci

Oil and Marble – by Stephanie Storey

Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey is a fictional biography, but the story really happened and the way that the author tells it is very plausible. The story revolves around the competition and rivalry between Leonardo and the younger Michelangelo, both busy painting the walls of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in 1503.

  • Here you can find also the best books about Michelangelo !

oil and marble book cover

Art and photography books

Complete paintings and drawings – taschen.

I love Taschen’s art books, so full of beautiful images, and the one on Leonardo is no exception. Complete Paintings and Drawings by Taschen it’s a book to leaf through often and to show to friends.

As the title says, it collects all the paintings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, thus offering a complete picture of the artistic work of the Renaissance genius.

 book cover with mona lisa

Leonardo’s Notebooks

A collection of all the known papers that Leonardo wrote during his life. Hundreds of pages of his notes, jottings, sketches, doodles, and musings, including lists of books he read and even scraps of financial records.

Lenoardo’s notebooks doesn’t includes the drawings. You can find those in the Taschen’s volume mentioned above.

leonardo da vinci complete notebooks

Leonardo da Vinci. The 100 Milestones. By Martin Kemp

Author Martin Kemp is a world renowned da Vinci expert . In this book he explores 100 of the master’s milestones in science, art, engineering, anatomy and architecture.

Leonardo da Vinci. The 100 Milestones is beautifully illustrated, and to me is definitely one of the best books about Leonardo da Vinci . Highly recommended!

book cover of 100 milestones

Children’s books about Leonardo da Vinci

The story of leonardo da vinci: a biography book for new readers.

I love giving this book to children, they always enjoy it. This humorous biography has colorful illustrations, a lot of fun and less known facts , and it’s highly engaging.

Children will be surely inspired by The Story of Leonardo da Vinci – a biography for new readers , learning how he turned from a curious kid to a full grown genius.

cover of children's book about leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci. Extraordinary Machines – Pop-up book

Pop-up books are a perfect gift both for kids and for grown-up kids. The pages of this one brings up to tridimensional life some of the most extraordinary and futuristic machines that Leonardo designed, giving an insight on how they work. Leonardo da Vinci Extraordinary Machines pop-up book .

pop-up book aobut leonardo's machines

I hope that you found some useful reading tips here, I wish you happy reading!

Searching for more books? Here are some of the best books about the Medici of Florence !

If you want to know more about the Renaissance genius read also:

  • Fun facts about Leonardo da Vinci
  • Leonardo’s Flying machines
  • Leonardo’s first painting
  • What to do in Vinci

books and biographies of Leonardo da vinci

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  • What to do in Florence and Tuscany

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The 13 Most Significant Leonardo da Vinci Paintings in 2024

Sarah Cook

Leonardo da Vinci Paintings are without a doubt some of the most famous in history. From the ‘Mona Lisa’ to ‘The Last Supper,’ da Vinci revolutionized art and has fascinated people for centuries. In this guide to the famous Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, we’ll share a short biography and dive into his most world-famous works.

If you are an aspiring artist trying to decide the age-old question of acrylic vs oil painting or looking for acrylic painting ideas for beginners , there is no better way to expand your artistic understanding than by soaking up all of the great art that has come before us.

According to the University of California, Berkeley , “Leonardo was and is best known as an artist, the creator of such masterpieces as the ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ and ‘The Last Supper’. Yet Leonardo was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time.”

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The Life of Leonardo da Vinci

There is no question that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest Renaissance painters and thinkers. Before we can dive into his most inspiring and influential artwork, here is a quick overview of Leonardo da Vinci’s history. 

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. During his youth, he trained in the city of Florence and learned how to be a painter and sculptor. While many people might struggle to learn oil painting for beginners , da Vinci flourished under the tutelage of his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio.

He began learning at age 14, and according to a popular legend, when his teacher saw the beauty of da Vinci’s artwork, he never painted again. By the time he was 20 years old, da Vinci had begun his own career in earnest, painting pictures of angels and other religious themes as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. During his adulthood, he began to study more and produce scientific drawings and writings.

Over the course of his career, many prominent people of the Renaissance like King Francis I of France, the infamous Medici family and Pope Leo X, became friends and patrons of the famous artist. Throughout his life, da Vinci lived in Milan, Florence, Rome and France, but besides these basic biographical facts and the art and writings he left behind, very little is known about his personal life.

Some people wonder about Leonardo da Vinci's wife, but the famous thinker never married. Even in his thousands of pages of writing, there is little mention of relationships or personal affairs. Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 at the age of 67, but his reputation as a polymath, inventor, artist and all-around genius has lasted for centuries.

Vitruvian man da vinci painting

Because of his wide variety of interests and his cultural influence across the years, many view da Vinci as the founder of the Renaissance and one of the most influential thinkers in history. He was undoubtedly a genius, and his life, works and name have been the focus of intense interest for centuries. 

When examining the art career of Leonardo da Vinci, almost all experts agree that he was one of the greatest painters in history. This is high praise, but da Vinci deserves it! One proof of this claim is that his artwork is treasured and regarded as highly skillful even though hundreds of years have passed since he painted the works. It is also remarkable to think that his fame has lasted when you consider how much of his art has been lost over the centuries. 

So, how many Leonardo da Vinci paintings are left? Given that da Vinci lived so long ago, there are only around 25 major paintings still in existence that were verifiably painted by the Renaissance master. This is a tiny number!

There are around 900 Van Gogh paintings in existence, around 300 Rembrandts, and even 182 from da Vinci’s Renaissance contemporary, Michelangelo. With only 25 verified paintings to study, the fact that da Vinci is still regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time is remarkable.

The good news is that even though there are only a few paintings to examine, we do still have some unfinished paintings, a wide array of drawings (over 2,500) and da Vinci’s famous notebooks, where he wrote and drew about an incredibly wide variety of topics.

So while there may only be a tiny number of Leonardo da Vinci paintings left, we still have plenty of evidence of his remarkable curiosity and powers of observation. 

1. Mona Lisa

Many say that da Vinci is one of the most famous painters in history, and there is no question that his painting ‘Mona Lisa’ is the most famous portrait of all time. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is a painting of a woman named Lisa, who was the wife of a man named Francesco del Giocondo. 

The portrait, which was painted sometime after 1503, shows a woman with a mysterious smile who looks right at the viewer. ‘Mona Lisa’ shows all of da Vinci’s skill as an oil painter, and it has served as an inspiration for many who would like to learn how to start oil painting . 

How much is the ‘Mona Lisa’ painting worth? Best estimates of the painting’s value begin at an overwhelming $860 million price tag, but some would say that it is worth billions of dollars. The best answer to this question, however, is that this most famous work by da Vinci is truly priceless.

Mona Lisa Painting

2. The Last Supper

Sometime between 1495 and 1498, da Vinci painted ‘The Last Supper’. One of his most famous works, it was completed on a wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The painting is 15 feet tall and is a masterpiece of painting technique . 

The painting depicts Jesus telling his disciples that one of them will betray him, and you can see different reactions on the faces of each of the 12 disciples, which adds elements of drama to this religious masterpiece. 

3. Vitruvian Man

What are the three famous paintings of Leonardo da Vinci? Along with ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’, da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ completes his top three most famous works. Although ‘Vitruvian Man’ is a drawing rather than a painting, it is one of the most recognizable works by da Vinci. The drawing shows a man in two different positions superimposed on top of each other. 

Leonardo used this image to illustrate concepts about the ideal human figure found in a text he was studying at the time, and it shows how much of a thinker da Vinci was. The famous image is so fragile that it is not displayed to the public, rather it is kept in a special climate-controlled facility.

4. The Baptism of Christ

Because so few of da Vinci’s paintings remain and there is such a large gap between his time and ours, it can be difficult to know Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. Of the 25 we have available to study, the earliest created work is ‘The Baptism of Christ’. 

This painting is a collaboration created with his instructor, Andrea del Verrocchio. It is a depiction of Jesus being baptized, and the bright colors and gold halos on the angels in the painting make this work stand out from some of his later works. Leonardo da Vinci’s first known painting shows us his skill and natural ability.

5. Lady With an Ermine

One of the best Leonardo da Vinci paintings is ‘Lady With an Ermine’, which many scholars believe to be a portrait of a lady named Cecilia Gallerani. Some people speculate that da Vinci was involved in a romantic relationship with Cecilia, but it is impossible to know for sure.

Speculation aside, the detail of this painting is astounding, from the delicate brushwork on the ermine to the anatomical precision of the lady’s face.

The Lady with an Ermine da Vinci Painting

6. Salvator Mundi

Because it can be difficult to place Leonardo da Vinci paintings in order, we have to estimate the dates or years he finished pieces. For his famous painting ‘Salvator Mundi', our best guess is that the painting was created around the year 1500. 

Have you ever wondered how much an original Leonardo da Vinci painting is worth?” This painting sold for $450 million in 2017, despite being in pretty bad condition. In fact, when the painting sold at auction there was a lot of debate about whether or not it actually was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. We may never find out the truth, but this painting certainly belongs in the hall of fame of Renaissance artwork.

7. Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci

If you’ve ever wanted to see one of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings for yourself, you don’t have to travel to Italy or France. In fact, there is a da Vinci work on display in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art. 

That painting, ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’, shows a young woman in what is known as a three-quarter pose. A three-quarter pose, for those looking for acrylic painting tips for beginners , means that the subject’s face is turned slightly towards the viewer, rather than being shown in complete profile. Many scholars believe that da Vinci was the first person to ever paint people in this position, although now it is so common that we don’t even think of it as being that revolutionary. 

8. The Virgin of the Rocks

If you are willing to travel to see some of Lenoardo da Vinci’s paintings, consider visiting the National Gallery of London or the Louvre in Paris to see one of the two versions of his painting ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’. 

This religious work depicts an apocryphal story from the days of Jesus, and the complex poses and expressions of the subjects show the change of art as Leonardo da Vinci helped move art history into the High Renaissance era. 

9. Self-Portrait

Another one of da Vinci’s most famous works is a drawing made in red chalk that is supposed to be a self portrait da Vinci drew during his old age. 

As with most of his surviving works, there is some debate about whether or not this is a self-portrait, but the work does have a dignified, somber expression that shows his masterful ability to capture the human form on paper.

self portrait da vinci painting

10. Portrait of a Musician

‘Portrait of a Musician’ is somewhat of a mystery, as are so many of da Vinci’s paintings. In this portrait, da Vinci has paid a great deal of attention to the young man’s eyes. 

This makes sense, given what we know of da Vinci’s studies of anatomy. Other parts of the painting, however, seem to be a bit rushed and less-than-perfect. 

11. Saint John the Baptist

As we have mentioned, it is difficult to put Leonardo da Vinci paintings in order. However, da Vinci’s painting ‘Saint John the Baptist’ is widely believed to be his last painting. 

It is an oil painting created on walnut wood, and it shows a rather unique version of John the Baptist. The overall feeling created by this painting is one of spiritual awareness mixed with a slight discomfort at the ambiguity of John’s face in the painting.

12. The Adoration of the Magi

Leonardo da Vinci’s history is often wrapped in mystery, and as a result we don’t have a lot of insight into his painting procedures. Instead, we have to examine his unfinished works for hints at how he created his masterpieces. 

The painting ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ is one such work. It depicts the Magi and many others leaning in close to examine the Virgin Mary and the newborn baby Jesus.

13. Annunciation

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings from early in his career is a beautiful painting called Annunciation. This word refers to the moment in the Bible the Virgin Mary hears from the angel Gabriel that she is going to miraculously conceive Jesus, the Son of God. The beautiful details on the angel’s wings and the expression on Mary’s face show da Vinci’s skill as a painter, even early in his career.

annunciation da vinci painting

We hope this guide to the best Leonardo da Vinci paintings has inspired you to complete your next art project. 

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    Early Life. Leonardo was born on 15 April 1452 CE, the illegitimate son of a lawyer from the town of Vinci near Florence. A gifted child, especially in music and drawing, c. 1464 CE the young Leonardo was sent off to pursue a career as an artist and study as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435-1488 CE). Other notable future artists then at the workshop included ...

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    Best Known For: Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance artist and engineer, known for paintings like "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa," and for inventions like a flying machine. Industries Art

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    The Life of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo stated that "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt", and as if to push home his point, ... Leonardo's second Milan period is best known for his scientific activities. He collaborated with the renowned anatomist, Marcantonio della Torre, which led to Leonardo's precise drawings of the human body ...

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    Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of Western art. ... 1508-13), but spent the last years of his life in Rome (1513-16) and France (1516/17-1519), where he died. His genius as an artist and inventor continues to inspire artists and scientists alike centuries after his death. Drawings

  7. Biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man

    Fast Facts: Leonardo da Vinci. Known For: Renaissance-era painter, inventor, naturalist, philosopher, and writer. Born: April 15, 1452 in Vinci in Tuscany, Italy. Parents: Piero da Vinci and Caterina Lippi. Died : May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Education: Formal training limited to "abacus school" in commercial math, an apprenticeship at the ...

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    The Artist. Biography. The illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl, Caterina, Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, just outside Florence. His father took custody of him shortly after his birth. Growing up in his father's Vinci home, Leonardo had access to scholarly texts owned by family and friends.

  9. Leonardo da Vinci summary

    Leonardo da Vinci, (born April 15, 1452, Anchiano, Republic of Florence—died May 2, 1519, Cloux, France), Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, draftsman, architect, engineer, and scientist.. The son of a landowner and a peasant, Leonardo received training in painting, sculpture, and mechanical arts as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio.In 1482 he entered the service of the duke of ...

  10. About Leonardo (article)

    Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, c. 1504-06, pen and ink over black chalk, 14.7 x 17.7 cm (Royal Collection trust, UK) Because of his family's ties, Leonardo benefited when Lorenzo de' Medici (the Magnificent) ruled Florence. By 1478 Leonardo was completely independent of Verrocchio and may have then met the exiled Ludovico Sforza, the ...

  11. Leonardo da Vinci

    A timeline of significant events in the life of Leonardo da Vinci. A genius in many fields, Leonardo excelled at painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, and engineering. He was a leading figure of the Renaissance, a period of great achievement in the arts and sciences.

  12. Leonardo da Vinci Biography

    Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) is one of the world's greatest thinkers, artists and philosophers. Seeking after perfection, he created rare masterpieces of art such as 'The Mona Lisa' and The Last Supper.' In addition to art, Da Vinci studied all aspects of life from anatomy to mathematics and astronomy; his far-reaching investigations and discoveries […]

  13. Leonardo da Vinci

    Leonardo da Vinci, one of human history's most gifted and innovative prodigies, was born in 1452 in a small village near the town of Vinci. He grew up in a very large family and was the oldest of 12 siblings. He then moved to Florence when he was only 14 years of age. He passed away on the 2nd of May, 1519.

  14. Leonardo da Vinci Biography

    Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, near the village of Vinci about 25 miles west of Florence. He was the illegitimate (born to unmarried parents) son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a prominent notary (a public official who certifies legal documents) of Florence, and a local woman, Caterina.

  15. The best books on Leonardo da Vinci

    F irstly, congratulations on your Leonardo da Vinci book in collaboration with Giuseppe Pallanti. The press release announces boldly that we're to learn the secrets at the heart of the world's most iconic work of art. Of course, an air of mystery is perhaps fitting for a book with a subject like Leonardo da Vinci, whose life and work are suffused with myth and speculation.

  16. What Made Leonardo da Vinci a Genius?

    Leonardo da Vinci was many things: a painter, an architect, an engineer, a theatrical producer—and gay, illegitimate, and wildly popular in Renaissance-era Italy.

  17. 10 of Leonardo da Vinci's Most Important Inventions

    9. The 'robot'. As well as flying machines, bridges and weapons, Leonardo also made contraptions designed purely for entertainment. Around 1495, he drew up plans for a mechanical knight - an armour-clad 'robot' that could sit up, move its head, and even wave a sword in its hands.

  18. 5 definitive books on Leonardo da Vinci

    Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man. The Vitruvian man is a world renown sketch found in one of Leonardo's notebooks. The image is named after the famous Roman architect ...

  19. Leonardo da Vinci: Facts & Biography

    Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps most noted as an artist, was also an architect, inventor and chronicler of science, among other outlets for his talents. Born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy ...

  20. The best books about Leonardo da Vinci (from an art lover)

    The most significant creations of Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci come to life in the pages of this lavishly illustrated pop-up book. Published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death, this elaborate collectible reveals the intricacy and importance of his designs for robots, flying machines, and other timeless inventions.

  21. The 10 Best Documentaries About Leonardo Da Vinci

    10. How Leonardo da Vinci Changed the World. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest and most talented people ever to live. He is best known for his iconic painting, the Mona Lisa, but his brilliance extended far beyond art. Leonardo was a true polymath; an inventor, scientist, architect, mathematician and much more.

  22. Books about Leonardo da Vinci: my favorite ones

    Leonardo da Vinci. The 100 Milestones. By Martin Kemp. Author Martin Kemp is a world renowned da Vinci expert. In this book he explores 100 of the master's milestones in science, art, engineering, anatomy and architecture. Leonardo da Vinci. The 100 Milestones is beautifully illustrated, and to me is definitely one of the best books about ...

  23. List of works by Leonardo da Vinci

    The Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the founding figure of the High Renaissance, and exhibited enormous influence on subsequent artists.Only around eight major works—The Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, The Last Supper, the ceiling of the Sala delle Asse, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist ...

  24. Leonardo Da Vinci Paintings

    The Life of Leonardo da Vinci. There is no question that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest Renaissance painters and thinkers. Before we can dive into his most inspiring and influential artwork, here is a quick overview of Leonardo da Vinci's history. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452.

  25. The extraordinary life of Leonardo da Vinci

    Leonardo da Vinci was born in Italy in the region of Tuscany. He lived near a town called Vinci, hence his name da Vinci, meaning "from Vinci.". Follow us and access great exclusive content every day

  26. Rome's airport is named for da Vinci, Venice's for Marco Polo. Milan's

    Malpensa is Italy's second-busiest passenger airport, with 26 million passengers passing through last year, compared to the 40 million passengers who transited Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport ...

  27. Davao Medical School Foundation Inc. Commencement Exercises ...

    Today is the day! Join us as we welcome the DMSFI Batch 2024 in achieving their endeavor. Congratulations, Class of 2024! #DMSFI...