Leonardo da Vinci Biography

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci is quite possibly one of the most talented people the world has ever known. Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, such as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper remain extremely well known and popular. Engineering sketches da Vinci made for bridges and solar technology are only now being understood and acted upon. And anatomical studies da Vinci executed continue to add to our understanding of how the human body works and how diseases can be treated.


Leonardo da Vinci was born in Italy in 1452. Details of his birth and youth weren't recorded in any early version of a da Vinci biography, so it is unclear how the youth was educated. Biographers do know that he was born out of wedlock, and his father took possession of the boy after his birth and moved with him to Florence. Leonardo da Vinci artwork from this time shows a young boy preoccupied with sketching and capturing the world around him. His father showed these sketches to a local artist, Andrea del Verrocchio when Leonardo was 14 or 15, and del Verrocchio quickly took the young boy into his shop as an apprentice. This apprenticeship would last about 10 years, during which time the da Vinci paintings occasionally eclipsed the master's work. Da Vinci was allowed to paint angels in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ. Da Vinci softened the hard edges in the painting, and slightly shifted the color palette in the distance, to allow figures farther away to seem darker and less distinct. It is this sort of realism that defines all Leonardo da Vinci artwork, but it was considered quite novel at the time. Da Vinci opened his own shop in Florence on or around 1478, and continued to refine his techniques.


In 1482, da Vinci moved to Milan to work for the Duke of Milan. The skill shown in the da Vinci paintings did not secure the position. Rather, da Vinci presented himself as an engineer and machinist. No biography of Leonardo da Vinci would be complete without a mention of the artist's notebooks. The artist began the practice of writing down his inventions, thoughts and sketches during his Milanese years, and these provide invaluable insight to the artist's thought process and technical prowess. During this time, da Vinci's notebooks are full of descriptions of tanks, weapons, bombs and submarines. Da Vinci also began his anatomical studies during this time, and began to perform autopsies and report his findings in his notebooks.

While his time was quite full with these activities, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci were generated during this time. For example, the Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper was generated in Milan in 1498. For Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper was an opportunity to experiment. He used a novel sort of oil-based paint on a fresco surface. This experiment wasn't one of his best, as the painting quickly deteriorated. The image we see now has largely been recreated from sketches and photographs.

In 1483, da Vinci painted The Virgin on the Rocks. The Madonna is square in the middle of this painting, with her baby at her feet and the young St. John the Baptist to her right. Behind the group, a fantastical landscape stretches, with trees, rocks and a river fading to the distance. This is a technique seen again in another Leonardo da Vinci painting, Mona Lisa.

Nomadic Life

The French invaded Milan in 1499, leaving da Vinci without steady employment. For Leonardo da Vinci, art would provide him with solace during the next several years as he moved from location to location to look for work. He lived in Mantua, Florence, Rome, Venice and France during this period of time, along with other locations perhaps lost to biographers. During his frequent moves, he continued to work in his notebooks, and he also began what would be his masterwork. The Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa was begun in 1503. Da Vinci kept this painting with him while he traveled, and continued to work on it until his death. In the Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa, the model sits in front of an open window. Her enigmatic smile has been the focus of many studies and writings; it's difficult to know whether she is beginning to smile, has just finished smiling, or is sharing some sort of secret with the viewer. Behind her, a fantastically detailed landscape stretches to the distance. Leonardo da Vinci paintings often have unexpected details, but this landscape is truly revolutionary in its use of perspective and color.


Leonardo da Vinci's reputation was still quite positive, and he was regarded as a hero in Florence and elsewhere. In 1516, the French king Francis I offered da Vinci the title of "Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King." This wide-reaching job title was perfect for the multi-talented artist, and would allow him to spend his last years in comfort and security. Da Vinci did need the assistance; he lost the use of his right hand due to illness and was, in general, in failing health. He did continue to write in his notebooks during this time, producing studies on the anatomy of cats and horses, and studying how water moves and can be controlled. Leonardo da Vinci artwork from this time is slightly scarce, but does include sketches of the Virgin Mary. Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519. The cause of his death isn't known.

Da Vinci artwork left behind includes fantastical sketches and engineering designs from his notebooks. While the artist considered these personal works, and didn’t publish them during his lifetime, they are considered a major part of the artist's body of work. A design for a bridge found in the da Vinci notebooks was resurrected in 2001 in Norway when engineers were designing a small bridge. A glider design he generated in his books was built for a television program within this decade, and was found to fly farther than the Wright Brothers' airplane. It is likely that more innovations will be discovered in these books as scholars continue to pore through them for ideas.