The Artist Birthday Series

Leonardo da Vinci

Today’s Artist Birthday: Leonardo da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519)

An introduction to the man that needs no introduction:

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, more commonly Leonardo da Vinci or simply Leonardo, was an Italian polymath whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of paleontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Sometimes credited with the inventions of the parachute, helicopter and tank, his genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal.

Leonarda da Vinci, Self Portrait (n/d)

Many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime exemplar of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”. According to art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were without precedent in recorded history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote”. Marco Rosci, however, notes that while there is much speculation regarding his life and personality, his view of the world was logical rather than mysterious, and that the empirical methods he employed were unorthodox for his time.
Born out of wedlock to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by King Francis I of France.

Vinci, Italy, the town where Leonardo was born, located in central Italy, near Florence
Vinci, Italy, the town where Leonardo was born, located in central Italy, near Florence

Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time, with their fame approached only by Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts.

The "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci, created sometime between 1503-1517
The “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci, created sometime between 1503-1517
Just some of the myriad parodies of Leonardo's famous painting
Just some of the myriad parodies of Leonardo’s famous painting

Not much of Leonardo’s work has actually survived the centuries, with only perhaps fifteen of his paintings still with us today. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivaled only by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo.

Study for the Sforza monument, 1488-9 by Leonardo da Vinci
Study for the Sforza monument, 1488-9 by Leonardo da Vinci
Anatomical drawing from Leonardo da Vinci (n/d)
Anatomical drawing from Leonardo da Vinci (n/d)

Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, a type of armored fighting vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull, also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, as the modern scientific approaches to metallurgy and engineering were only in their infancy during the Renaissance, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded. A number of Leonardo’s most practical inventions are nowadays displayed as working models at the Museum of Vinci. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, but he did not publish his findings and they had no direct influence on later science.

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Leonardo died on 2 May 1519 in Amboise, France. Artist and historian Giorgio Vasari records that King Francis the I of France, held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he died, although this story, beloved by the French and portrayed in romantic paintings by Ingres, Ménageot and other French artists, as well as by Angelica Kauffman, may be legend rather than fact. Vasari states that in his last days, Leonardo sent for a priest to make his confession and to receive the Holy Sacrament. In accordance with his will, sixty beggars followed his casket. Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects and money were left to his close friend Count Francesco Melzi. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salai and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo’s vineyards, his brothers who received land, and his serving woman who received a black cloak “of good stuff” with a fur edge. Leonardo da Vinci was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise, in France.

The gravesite of Leonardo da Vinci,
The gravesite of Leonardo da Vinci, Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise, France

Some 20 years after Leonardo’s death, Francis was reported by the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini as saying: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.” Today, Leonardo is widely recognized as one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived.

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(This is an edited version of only the introduction to the full bio found here:

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