Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is universally recognized as one of history’s great creative geniuses. Excelling in a variety of disciplines—painting, sculpture, architecture, music, engineering, and the physical sciences—he is often deemed the quintessential Renaissance man.
Born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy, da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci. Throughout his life he referred to himself simply as Leonardo; da Vinci means “from Vinci.” He began his artistic career in Florence as an apprentice to the sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488), for whom he worked from 1470 to 1477.
Da Vinci left Florence in 1481 in order to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. During his years in Milan, he worked on a variety of projects. He designed fortifications, made models of equestrian statues, and painted The Last Supper. Although he never completed any of the equestrian statues, he did make a full-scale model of one that was later smashed to bits when French troops used it for target practice. Da Vinci returned to Florence in 1499, where he worked on a number of paintings, most notably Mona Lisa. Between 1513 and 1516, he resided in Rome, lured there by the papal court. Next he moved to France, where he had been invited to live at the estate of the French king, Francis I, who had just recaptured Milan. He died at the Chateau of Cloux in 1519.
Although da Vinci is most famous for painting Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he is also known for his voluminous sketchbooks in which he compiled drawings and annotations on a wide range of subjects, from the physics of flight to human anatomy. Among these is even an illustration of a fetus in the womb. Da Vinci must have sketched it from his imagination since dissections of women were forbidden at the time.
Due to his genius and fame, da Vinci has served as a continual inspiration for other artists. His contemporary, Raphael, purportedly used his likeness for the figure of Plato in the famous Vatican fresco, The School of Athens. In more recent times, da Vinci has appeared as a character in a wide range of fiction, from the television series Star Trek to the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, a movie version of which was released in 2006.
- In 1999, two full-scale recreations of da Vinci’s model for a huge equestrian statue were erected, one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the other in Milan.
- In January 2005, a series of sealed-off rooms were discovered in a monastery next to the church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence. Some believe that they were the site of da Vinci’s secret workshop.