Leonardo da Vinci: "All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions"

Self-portrait, circa 1512

Leonardo da Vinci was a Florentine artist, one of the great masters of
the High Renaissance, who was also celebrated as a painter, sculptor,
architect, engineer, and scientist. His profound love of knowledge and
research was the keynote of both his artistic and scientific endeavors.
His innovations in the field of painting influenced the course of
Italian art for more than a century after his death, and his scientific
studies—particularly in the fields of anatomy, optics, and hydraulics—
anticipated many of the developments of modern science.

Early Life in Florence
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the small Tuscan town
of Vinci, near Florence. He was the son of a wealthy Florentine
notary and a peasant woman. In the mid-1460s the family settled in
Florence, where Leonardo was given the best education that Florence,
the intellectual and artistic center of Italy, could offer. He rapidly
advanced socially and intellectually. He was handsome, persuasive
in conversation, and a fine musician and improviser. About 1466 he
was apprenticed as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio,
the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. In Verrocchio's
workshop Leonardo was introduced to many activities, from the
painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large
sculptural projects in marble and bronze. In 1472 he was entered in
the painter's guild of Florence, and in 1476 he is still mentioned as
Verrocchio's assistant. In Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (circa 1470,
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), the kneeling angel at the left of the
painting is by Leonardo.
In 1478 Leonardo became an independent master. His first
commission, to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of the Palazzo
Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was never executed. His first large
painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481, Galleria degli
Uffizi), left unfinished, was ordered in 1481 for the Monastery of San
Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the
so-called Benois Madonna (c. 1478, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), the
portrait Ginerva de' Benci (c. 1474, National Gallery, Washington,
D.C.), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (c. 1481, Pinacoteca, Vatican).

Leonardo da Vinci

Years in Milan
About 1482 Leonardo entered the service of the duke of Milan,
Ludovico Sforza, having written the duke an astonishing letter in
which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the
techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that
he could build ships as well as armored vehicles, catapults, and other
war machines; and that he could execute sculpture in marble, bronze,
and clay. He served as principal engineer in the duke's numerous
military enterprises and was active also as an architect. In addition, he
assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in the celebrated work
Divina Proportione (1509).

Evidence indicates that Leonardo had apprentices and pupils in Milan,
for whom he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as
Treatise on Painting (1651; trans. 1956). The most important of his
own paintings during the early Milan period was The Virgin of the
Rocks, two versions of which exist (1483-85, Musée du Louvre, Paris;
1490s to 1506-08, National Gallery, London); he worked on the
compositions for a long time, as was his custom, seemingly unwilling
to finish what he had begun. From 1495 to 1497 Leonardo labored on
his masterpiece, The Last Supper, a mural in the refectory of the
Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately, his
experimental use of oil on dry plaster (on what was the thin outer wall
of a space designed for serving food) was technically unsound, and by
1500 its deterioration had begun. Since 1726 attempts have been made,
unsuccessfully, to restore it; a concerted restoration and conservation
program, making use of the latest technology, was begun in 1977 and
is reversing some of the damage. Although much of the original
surface is gone, the majesty of the composition and the penetrating
characterization of the figures give a fleeting vision of its vanished
splendor. During his long stay in Milan, Leonardo also produced other
paintings and drawings (most of which have been lost), theater
designs, architectural drawings, and models for the dome of Milan
Cathedral. His largest commission was for a colossal bronze
monument to Francesco Sforza, father of Ludovico, in the courtyard of
Castello Sforzesco. In December 1499, however, the Sforza family
was driven from Milan by French forces; Leonardo left the statue
unfinished (it was destroyed by French archers, who used it as a target)
and he returned to Florence in 1500.

Return to Florence
In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, duke of
Romagna and son and chief general of Pope Alexander VI; in his
capacity as the duke's chief architect and engineer, Leonardo
supervised work on the fortresses of the papal territories in central
Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists who were to
decide on the proper location for the David (1501-04, Accademia,
Florence), the famous colossal marble statue by the Italian sculptor
Michelangelo, and he also served as an engineer in the war against
Pisa. Toward the end of the year Leonardo began to design a
decoration for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was
the Battle of Anghiari, a Florentine victory in its war with Pisa. He
made many drawings for it and completed a full-size cartoon, or
sketch, in 1505, but he never finished the wall painting. The cartoon
itself was destroyed in the 17th century, and the composition survives
only in copies, of which the most famous is the one by the Flemish
painter Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1615, Musée du Louvre). During this
second Florentine period, Leonardo painted several portraits, but the
only one that survives is the famous Mona Lisa (1503-06, Musée du
Louvre). One of the most celebrated portraits ever painted, it is also
known as La Gioconda, after the presumed name of the woman's
husband. Leonardo seems to have had a special affection for the
picture, for he took it with him on all of his subsequent travels.

Later Travels and Death
In 1506 Leonardo went again to Milan, at the summons of its French
governor, Charles d'Amboise. The following year he was named court
painter to King Louis XII of France, who was then residing in Milan.
For the next six years Leonardo divided his time between Milan and
Florence, where he often visited his half brothers and half sisters and
looked after his inheritance. In Milan he continued his engineering
projects and worked on an equestrian figure for a monument to Gian
Giacomo Trivulzio, commander of the French forces in the city;
although the project was not completed, drawings and studies have
been preserved. From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in Rome under
the patronage of Pope Leo X: he was housed in the Palazzo Belvedere
in the Vatican and seems to have been occupied principally with
scientific experimentation. In 1516 he traveled to France to enter the
service of King Francis I. He spent his last years at the Château de
Cloux, near Amboise, where he died on May 2, 1519.

Although Leonardo produced a relatively small number of paintings,
many of which remained unfinished, he was nevertheless an
extraordinarily innovative and influential artist. During his early years,
his style closely paralleled that of Verrocchio, but he gradually moved
away from his teacher's stiff, tight, and somewhat rigid treatment
of figures to develop a more evocative and atmospheric handling of
composition. The early The Adoration of the Magi introduced a new
approach to composition, in which the main figures are grouped in
the foreground, while the background consists of distant views of
imaginary ruins and battle scenes.

Leonardo's stylistic innovations are even more apparent in The Last
Supper, in which he re-created a traditional theme in an entirely new
way. Instead of showing the 12 apostles as individual figures, he
grouped them in dynamic compositional units of three, framing the
figure of Christ, who is isolated in the center of the picture. Seated
before a pale distant landscape seen through a rectangular opening in
the wall, Christ—who is about to announce that one of those present
will betray him—represents a calm nucleus while the others respond
with animated gestures. In the monumentality of the scene and the
weightiness of the figures, Leonardo reintroduced a style pioneered
more than a generation earlier by Masaccio, the father of Florentine

The Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous work, is as well known for
its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its
legendary smiling subject. This work is a consummate example of two
techniques—sfumato and chiaroscuro—of which Leonardo was one
of the first great masters. Sfumato is characterized by subtle, almost
infinitesimal transitions between color areas, creating a delicately
atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident in the
delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic smile.
Chiaroscuro is the technique of modeling and defining forms through
contrasts of light and shadow; the sensitive hands of the sitter are
portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while color
contrast is used only sparingly.
An especially notable characteristic of Leonardo's paintings is his
landscape backgrounds, into which he was among the first to introduce
atmospheric perspective. The chief masters of the High Renaissance in
Florence, including Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Fra Bartolommeo,
all learned from Leonardo; he completely transformed the school
of Milan; and at Parma, Correggio's artistic development was given
direction by Leonardo's work.
Leonardo's many extant drawings, which reveal his brilliant
draftsmanship and his mastery of the anatomy of humans, animals,
and plant life, may be found in the principal European collections;
the largest group is at Windsor Castle in England. Probably his most
famous drawing is the magnificent Self-Portrait (c. 1510-13, Biblioteca
Reale, Turin).

Sculptural and Architectural Drawings
Because none of Leonardo's sculptural projects was brought to
completion, his approach to three-dimensional art can only be judged
from his drawings. The same strictures apply to his architecture; none
of his building projects was actually carried out as he devised them. In
his architectural drawings, however, he demonstrates mastery in the
use of massive forms, a clarity of expression, and especially a deep
understanding of ancient Roman sources.

Scientific and Theoretical Projects
As a scientist Leonardo towered above all his contemporaries. His
scientific theories, like his artistic innovations, were based on careful
observation and precise documentation. He understood, better than
anyone of his century or the next, the importance of precise scientific
observation. Unfortunately, just as he frequently failed to bring to
conclusion artistic projects, he never completed his planned treatises
on a variety of scientific subjects. His theories are contained in
numerous notebooks, most of which were written in mirror script.
Because they were not easily decipherable, Leonardo's findings were
not disseminated in his own lifetime; had they been published, they
would have revolutionized the science of the 16th century. Leonardo
actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times. In anatomy he
studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. He made
discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon
on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation,
and surmised the nature of fossil shells. He was among the originators
of the science of hydraulics and probably devised the hydrometer;
his scheme for the canalization of rivers still has practical value. He
invented a large number of ingenious machines, many potentially
useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying devices,
although not practicable, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.
A creator in all branches of art, a discoverer in most branches of
science, and an inventor in branches of technology, Leonardo deserves,
perhaps more than anyone, the title of Homo Universalis, Universal