Article abstract: Leonardo da Vinci was the most outstanding painter of the Italian Renaissance; some authorities consider him the best painter and draftsman of all time. In addition, he made a number of discoveries in botany, anatomy, mechanical engineering, and medicine which were unprecedented and unparalleled until the twentieth century.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci, descendant of a long line of Florentine minor officials, and a local woman known only as Caterina. Nevertheless, he was reared as a member of his father’s household, first in Vinci and then in Florence; a notarized attestation of his birth by his grandfather signifies his family’s recognition of him and of its responsibilities toward him. Still, there are few documented facts about his early life. Further, since the first biography of him—by the historian Giorgio Vasari—appeared only some thirty years after his death, conjectural reconstructions have flourished.
Leonardo himself recorded only one event from his childhood, recalled years later, when he was compiling notes on the flight of birds in his notebooks. He simply comments that he was probably fated to write about the flight of kites “because in the earliest memory of my childhood it seemed to me that as I lay in my cradle a kite came down to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me with its tail many times between the lips.” As open to Freudian reconstruction as this seems to be, it may only document Leonardo’s memory of the closeness of the physical environment natural to an upbringing in a Tuscan hill village. This is more likely, since his fascination with horses also seems to date from this period. Both interests continued throughout his life.
There is no evidence earlier than Vasari’s biography that Leonardo served an apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrocchio, but legend, as well as some internal evidence, seems to make this likely. Under Verrocchio, Leonardo would have worked with fellow apprentices Perugino, later the teacher of Raphael, and Lorenzo di Credi, both to become masters in their own right.
Of Leonardo’s work at this early period little survives, other than some sketches in his notebooks. One page of these, consisting of a series of portraits of the same head—a head which also appears in some of his earlier paintings—seems to record various impressions of himself. If they are self-portraits, they correspond to early reminiscences on the part of his contemporaries of his remarkable beauty and grace; the delicacy of his profile coincides with memories of fluid, dancer-like movement, of a luminous presence and carriage, of an unusually sweet singing voice, of considerable ability as a lutanist, together with quite unexpected physical strength. One early account credits him with contributing the head of an angel to Verrocchio’s painting The Baptism of Christ (c. 1474-1475), and one head is clearly by a hand subtler and more delicate than Verrocchio’s; Vasari reports improbably that Verrochio was so dismayed by the contrast that he refused to paint thereafter, confining himself to sculpture.
A final event from this period deserves mention. While staying at the house of Verrocchio—long after his apprenticeship had come to an end—Leonardo was twice accused of having visited the house of a notorious boy prostitute, which was tantamount to being accused of sodomy, a crime punishable at best by exile, at worst by being burned at the stake. In neither case was the evidence necessary for conviction brought forth, but the incident suggests something about Leonardo’s sexual orientation and foreshadows his failure to develop a deep relationship with a woman.
Leonardo remains best known for his painting, even though it is now nearly impossible to restore his works to their original splendor. Yet his qualities announce themselves almost immediately in his first Florentine period (1472-1482). In The Baptism of Christ of Verrocchio, for example, his hand can be seen not only in the angel’s head long attributed to him but also in the delicate treatment of the watercourse in the foreground and in the fantastic mountain landscape to the rear. Two similar paintings, both called The Annunciation—one in the Louvre, one in the Uffizi, both c. 1475—display advances in structure, delicacy of detail, and a personal iconography unlike that of any previous painter.
Among other masterpieces from this period are a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474), Head of a Woman (c. 1475), and the Madonna Benois (c. 1478). Here the distinctive element is sensitivity of character, so that the figures rendered seem to take on a life of their own, almost as if establishing eye contact through the pictorial plane. Great as these are, the Adoration of the Magi (1481) completely transcends them. This unfinished painting occupied Leonardo’s attention for the remainder of his stay in Florence, yet he completed only the preliminary underdrawing. Nevertheless, it displays an absolutely unprecedented sense of fantasy and imagination, all accomplished within the norms of accurate Albertian perspective. With this painting, Leonardo broke free from the confines of traditional Nativity iconography, relegating the ruined stable to the background and replacing it with the powerful symbol of the broken arch. He also regrouped the figures of the traditional scene so that they could appear both as individuals with distinct motives and as participants in a communal activity. Leonardo gives a theological doctrine a real psychological dimension.
Following this stay in Florence, Leonardo resided in Milan for nearly twenty years. Although he apparently hoped to be taken into the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza as military engineer, his...
(The entire section is 2430 words.)