It’s very difficult to put the life story of a man as great as Leonardo Da Vinci into a few words. He was the archetypal Renaissance man, who was interested in more fields than most people have had hot dinners. He was a true polymath as he not only painted, but was also interested in design, architecture, music, sculpture and many, many other creative disciplines. A real innovator, Da Vinci was a man who was not concerned with material successes or fame, preferring to think outside the box and accomplish all he could in the little time he’d been given on this earth.
Da Vinci was born in 1452 as the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Antonio Da Vinci and a beautiful peasant girl, Caterina. Little is known about his early life other than he lived in a small village where he used his spare time to train in the subjects of geometry and painting, although history tells us that he didn’t display any particular proficiency in either of these arts at this time. However, legend has it that Da Vinci made his first artistic impression at this time, painting a shield with a monster he’d imagined to inhabit a cave in the hills far above his village. He gave this shield to a wealthy merchant who managed to turn a great profit on the work.
At the tender age of fourteen Da Vinci took an apprenticeship with a famous artist called Verrocchio. It was in this workshop that the young Leonardo would get his first tastes of metallurgy, chemistry, mechanics and carpentry. He quickly excelled at his studies and his work and was allowed to work with Verrocchio on his masterpiece, The Baptism of Christ. According to the story, when Verrocchio saw him paint a piece of Christ’s cloak he swore that he would never pick up a paintbrush again, as he could never hope to paint with the same grace as the boy. To this day, when experts analyse this picture, they claim that the brushed oil marks of the young Da Vinci are all over this work, especially present on the figure of Christ, adding depth and quality of tone to the image. It was no doubt this kind of work that saw Da Vinci qualify as a master in the Guild of St Luke (a guild of artists and craftsmen) at the incredibly early age of twenty.
After his apprenticeship Da Vinci assumed professional life painting many religious wonders, the first of which, The Adoration of the Magi, captures the three wise men visiting the birth of Christ. Working in Milan he went on to produce the masterwork, The Last Supper in his early years following his creation of the Virgin on the Rocks. He was also noted for creating a silver lyre that was sent to the Duke of Milan as a gift from one of the D’Medici family in order to secure peace between the two factions. Leonardo was never one to chase money or glory, so whilst some of his peers, such as Michelangelo were making a colossal fortune for paintings, such as those occupying the Sistine chapel, Da Vinci was prepared to work for poorer patrons who would give him much more creative control so that he could achieve his own aims.
Da Vinci was also renowned for his skill and art in war. He was happy to work with the military and first served as an architect and engineer in the second Italian war. It was his composition of maps that really won him friends in the military as such devices were rare and were not often seen. However Leonardo produced maps with such clarity and detail he immediately became a prized member of the army serving with Cesare Borgia, the son of the pope of the time.
Later Years And His Death
In 1516 Francis I of France captured Milan and made Da Vinci his personal artist. Despite the fact that Francis was quite difficult to handle (he once requested that Leonardo create a metal lion that could fire flowers) the two became great friends. Da Vinci was not long for the world, dying in the king’s arms some three years later in 1519. Even though we look back at Da Vinci as one of the truly great artists of all time, he was a man who struggled for accolades in his own day. Many people would argue that this is a true mark of greatness, as genius is so rarely recognised until years after an artist’s death. However, Da Vinci was a man who claimed he never actually finished a piece of work and was never content with his productions. Perhaps if had he been given the adoration he deserved in during his lifetime the world would have been so much richer for his presence.