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Leonardo’s Life and Times
Leonardo was, first of all, a painter and an artist.
But he was also a great thinker.
There are few people today who have never heard the name Leonardo da Vinci. But it is five hundred years since he died, in a small town in northern France. Why is his name still so well known? Who was he, and what did he give to the world?
Leonardo was, first of all, a painter and an artist who wanted to examine, describe and show through his work the beauty of the natural world. But he was also a great thinker. He hoped to use his understanding of nature to invent and build machines that would improve the world he lived in. Leonardo was admired in his own time as an artist and as an inventor. Today, people still think that his paintings are beautiful, although only a small number of them exist. We also admire the cleverness of his inventions, although we only know these from his writings and his drawings.
In 1994 Bill Gates, then head of Microsoft, bought a book of Leonardo’s writings and drawings for $30.8 million. The book is thirty-six pages long and is filled with Leonardo’s scientific notes from the years 1508 and 1509. It is the only book of Leonardo’s writings owned by a private person in modern times.
Leonardo was born in 1452 and died in 1519. This was during the time that we now call the Renaissance. The word ‘renaissance’ is French and means ‘rebirth’. Renaissance was first used to describe this time in history, and especially Italian history, in the nineteenth century. But the idea of the Renaissance began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At this time, people were looking back to and admiring the literature and art of Greece and Rome from 2,000 or 1,500 years before. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists and writers wanted to copy what they thought was beautiful from that distant time. They also compared the art and books that they were producing with works from the past. Some even thought of it as a competition.
At the same time, a number of people were excited about questioning the world around them. The great thinkers did not want just to accept ideas and facts that were told to them. They wanted to find out for themselves what was and was not true. Leonardo belonged to this group of thinkers, and he was one of the most important. He was always looking at nature and thinking about ideas to help him understand the world better. Many artists and thinkers were interested in science as well as art, but Leonardo was unusual because he was interested in a large number of subjects and he studied them in great detail. He enjoyed the natural world and the wonderful things he saw in it, and he never missed an opportunity to learn. He led the way for others in his studies.
Childhood in Vinci
Leonardo was born on 15 April 1452. His mother was called Caterina and his father was a lawyer called Piero da Vinci. This surname means ‘from Vinci’, and Vinci is the name of the small country town in the west of Tuscany in Italy where Leonardo was born. We know the day and hour - Saturday at around 10.30 p.m. - because his grandfather wrote it down. His grandfather, who was also a lawyer, lived in Vinci, but Piero worked in the Tuscan capital, Florence. Leonardo’s parents were not married, but Leonardo was part of his father’s family from his birth.
Leonardo probably spent much of his childhood in Vinci and the countryside around it. You can see from the photograph of Vinci opposite that it is a small town on a hill. It is surrounded by green fields and trees and there are valleys and other low hills. It is certainly clear from Leonardo’s drawings and from his writings that he knew and loved countryside, birds and animals. He tells us that his first memory was of a bird.
Leonardo and his family
We do not really know much about Leonardo’s relationship with his father, or with his mother, who lived somewhere near Vinci. Leonardo lived with his grandparents in Vinci while he was young, in a house with a large vegetable garden. In 1457 his grandfather, Antonio, recorded that he shared his house with his wife, his son (Leonardo’s father), Piero’s wife and Leonardo. Leonardo’s uncle, Francesco, was twenty-two at the time and sometimes lived with them.
By 1469 Antonio had died and Leonardo, who was then seventeen, was living with his father and other family members in Florence. Leonardo’s first stepmother, Albiera, had died and Leonardo’s father was now married to Francesca, who was twenty. Uncle Francesco and his wife also lived with them. Francesco did not have any children of his own, so perhaps he thought of Leonardo almost as a son.
By the time Leonardo’s father died in 1504, at the age of eighty, Leonardo had nine half-brothers and two half-sisters. Piero did not leave anything to Leonardo when he died, but Francesco left all his property to Leonardo. Piero’s younger children were not pleased about this, so there was a legal argument between the brothers led by Giuliano, the eldest. But by late 1514 it seems the anger had gone because Leonardo met Giuliano in Rome and did his best to help him in a business matter. Giuliano’s wife wrote to Giuliano from Florence and sent her best wishes to Leonardo, who she said was ‘a most excellent and special man’.
Some important dates and events in Leonardo’s Life
15 April 1452
Leonardo is born in Vinci, a small country town. Lives there with his grandparents, father and family.
He has moved to Florence. Living with his father and family and learning how to be an artist. Studying with the artist Andrea Verrocchio, who makes both paintings and sculpture.
He becomes an independent painter in Florence, although sometimes still works on paintings with Verrocchio.
By 25 April 1483, to December 1499
He has moved to Milan. Working for the Sforza family, who govern the city. Paints pictures, makes sculpture, works as an engineer and architect, and plans decorations for plays and parties.
The 16 March 1485
He sees the sun completely covered with the earth’s shadow. Very interested in understanding the movements of the sun, moon and stars.
The 2 April 1489
He draws the bones of a human head. Studying the human body as a scientist, which also helps him to be a better painter.
He moves away from Milan soon after the Sforza lose control of the government to the French. Travels to Mantua for a short stay, where he is welcomed as an artist. Then goes to Venice, where he gives the government advice on controlling an important river.
By 24 April 1500, to summer 1506
He has returned to Florence. Lives there most of the time - working for the government on a big painting in an important public building and on military jobs.
Summer and winter 1502
He is working for Cesare Borgia, the Pope’s son, as a military engineer in central Italy. Travels around looking at the defence of different towns. Also makes notes on all sorts of things that interest him - like the way boats with sails are moved by the wind, or the musical sound of falling water.
June 1506 to September 1513
He returns to live in Milan. Works for the French government there as a painter, engineer and architect. Makes a few visits back to Florence.
December 1513 to summer 1516
He moves to Rome because the Pope’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, has asked him to come there to work for him.
He goes to live in France to work for King Francois I in Amboise. Is much admired by the king and is called ‘The King’s Painter’, which is a sign of his special position.
By 10 October 1517
He is living in a house at Clos Luce, on the edge of Amboise, given to him by the French king.
2 May 1519
He dies at Clos Luce, to the sadness of his assistant and friend, Francesco Melzi, who has been with him for years.
Learning an artist’s skills
At some time in the 1460s - certainly before 1469 - Leonardo had moved to Florence. By 1472 he began training as an artist with the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, and sometime within the next four years he was living in Verrocchio’s house. It was quite usual at this time for both pupils and skilled assistants to live in the house of their employer and to pay for their living costs - a kind of rent.
Verrocchio was one of the chief artists in Florence at that time and he had a number of other artists working for him. Leonardo learned all the skills of a painter, which included how to make paints. This was an important skill because these could not be bought in shops. Instead, painters had to make paints from careful mixing of rocks and earth with egg or with plant oils. Leonardo probably also learned about sculpture from Verrocchio and his assistants. Verrocchio was a famous sculptor of bronze. Leonardo was taught how to mix and heat metals, how to make the shapes of the sculpture, and then how to clean and shine it when it was cold.
Leonardo had strong ideas about how people should study to be painters. A student needed to study carefully, detail by detail. It was important too to study only with people who shared your desire to learn. If you could not find people like this, you should work alone. Sometimes it was actually good to work alone: you could give your full attention to your study instead of listening to friends talking. But it could also be useful to draw with other people, because you would want to work as hard as they did, and you could learn from their successes and their mistakes.
A good pupil, Leonardo believed, tried to be better than his teacher and should never lose an opportunity to think about art or to learn. He wrote:
I have found it very useful when in bed in the dark to remember the details of the things I have studied; it helps to make them stay in the memory.
A student could imagine landscapes or fights or people’s faces and clothes in the marks on a wall or the different stones in a wall.
Leonardo’s pupils and assistants
When Leonardo started to work for himself, a number of people came to work for him. Some of them worked with him for a long time and travelled with him when he moved from one city to another to live. Others stayed a much shorter time.
There were two people who came to Leonardo when they were boys, probably as pupils, and then spent many years working and living in his house. The first was Gian Giacomo Caprotti. He came to Leonardo in 1490, aged ten, from a small village near Milan. Leonardo recorded how much he paid for clothes and shoes for Giacomo in the first ten months, but mainly he listed Giacomo’s bad behaviour and what and how he stole from Leonardo, Leonardo’s friends and others. Around 1494 in one of his notes, Leonardo called him Salai, and this was the name that he always used for him after this.
Salai stayed with Leonardo for many years. In 1497 in Milan Leonardo recorded the cost of a very expensive coat for him, silver in colour with green edges. He gave Salai the money to buy it; but Salai could still behave badly because he stole the change! Salai probably learned to behave better because Leonardo sent him from Florence to Milan as his messenger on business matters, and also, later, a number of times from Rome to Milan. Salai stayed in service with Leonardo when he moved to France in 1516, and was paid 100 ecus’ a year by the French government. He was described by them as Leonardo’s ‘servant’, but this amount of money was much more than a house servant was paid, so they probably meant that Salai was an assistant to Leonardo. It is not certain, though, where he was when Leonardo died.
The second person was Giovanni Francesco Melzi, known as Francesco. He was Milanese and probably came to Leonardo aged thirteen or fourteen when Leonardo lived in Milan for the second time. Francesco had been to school but probably learned to paint with Leonardo. But, just as importantly, he helped him with writing things down. In France with Leonardo, Francesco was described as ‘the Italian gentleman who is with Leonardo’ and he was paid 400 ecus a year by the French - four times as much as Salai. Francesco helped Leonardo in his studies and Leonardo valued him a lot, as we shall see later. Francesco’s feelings about Leonardo are clear from the letter he wrote to Leonardo’s eldest half-brother on Leonardo’s death: He was like the best father to me,
I cannot say how much pain his death gave me.
As long as I live, I will always be sad.
What was Leonardo like?
We have a number of documents about the life of Leonardo, as well as his own writings. In the late 1520s Paolo Giovio, who perhaps knew Leonardo in Milan or Rome, said that Leonardo was very polite, generous and spoke in a pleasant way; he was also very handsome. Another writer also said that Leonardo was very attractive and that he had beautiful long hair. He tells us that Leonardo normally wore a short rose-pink jacket, at a time when the fashion was for long jackets. In 1550 another writer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was very strong and that he loved horses and riding.
Leonardo was unusual for the time because by 1516 he did not eat meat, although we do not know if this was true all his life. He was also left-handed and his writing almost always ran backwards. This means that his sentences are read from right to left instead of from left to right. You will notice this in some of the pictures in this book. You can read Leonardo’s writing by holding it in front of a mirror and then reading it. If you do this, all the letters and words are perfectly formed. He wrote like this because it was the natural way for him to use his pen, but we do not know if he painted only with his left hand.
Perhaps Leonardo described his idea of a perfect life when he wrote:
The painter sits relaxed in front of his work. He holds a very light brush with soft colour on it. He is well dressed in clothes he likes.
His house is clean and full of lovely pictures. He often listens to people playing music for him or reading to him from good books.
‘Good books’ suggests serious works, and a list of Leonardo’s own books tells us that he did have many that were serious. But his idea of enjoyable reading also included popular adventures and humorous stories.
Leonardo’s life and travels
Although he was born in Vinci, Leonardo thought of himself as a Florentine; in documents he called himself ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine’ or even just ‘Leonardo Florentine’. He probably lived there for about twenty years of his life, at different times. Florence was famous in Italy and beyond for its artists, and it was the place where he learned his art.
Leonardo lived through times of peace and war in Italy. Florence was mostly peaceful while he lived there. The city, and a large area of Tuscany round it, was governed by a big group of rich businessmen. There was a strong interest in art, literature and learning in Florence and much of Italy at this time. Many rich men and women wanted to spend money on new paintings and sculpture for their houses and for the churches and other buildings where they went to religious services. Leonardo’s first paintings were for men and women like these.
We do not know why Leonardo decided to leave Florence, but some time between autumn 1481 and spring 1483 he moved to Milan. Milan was a rich capital city in northern Italy, and one of the biggest cities in Europe - only Paris and London were larger. It was governed by the Sforza family. They wanted good architects, artists, musicians, historians and writers to work in their city because it showed their own importance and the importance of their state: the arts were almost as important as money and military power at that time. When a single family or person governed a city, there was the chance of big jobs because they could spend large sums of money as they wished.
The most powerful man in Milan was Ludovico Sforza, although he did not officially govern the city until 1495. Leonardo wrote about himself around 1483 in a letter to Ludovico:
In times of peace I believe I can give complete satisfaction, equal to any other man, in architecture in the planning of both public and private buildings, and in guiding water from one place to another. Also I can make sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and in painting I can do everything that it is possible to do, as well as any other man.
Ludovico and Milan therefore offered Leonardo exciting opportunities. He painted pictures and staged theatrical events. He began work on some big bronze sculptures. He gave his opinions on building and engineering problems. He surveyed land and he advised how to control rivers and water. In the 1490s he was listed as one of Ludovico’s top four engineers.
In 1499, though, Ludovico Sforza lost control of Milan and all its land to the French army. Leonardo moved a large sum of money from Milan to a bank in Florence and left the city soon afterwards.
Mantua, Venice and return to Florence
Leonardo did not go straight back to Florence. Instead he went east to Mantua to paint for Isabella d’Este, the wife of the man who governed there. He then continued to Venice for a short time. Leonardo probably had not been to Florence for many years, but a few months after leaving Milan he was back in the city. A man called Pietro Novellara later reported from Florence that Leonardo had only done one, unfinished drawing; ‘His mind is filled with geometry. He is not pleased by painting.’ Leonardo was also probably advising on a number of architectural and engineering jobs during this time.
From the summer to the winter of 1502, Leonardo was out of Florence working in central Italy for Cesare Borgia, the son of the Pope, as a military engineer and architect. He did the same kind of job for the Florentines six months later near the city of Pisa and the Tuscan coast.
Back in Florence after this, Leonardo started making drawings for a large painting in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was the main public building in Florence. Leonardo, with several assistants, continued working on this job for three years but only finished some of it. During this time he did a number of other jobs as well. For example, in early 1504 he was in an official group of Florentines - mostly artists - who had to decide where to place the marble sculpture of David that Michelangelo had sculpted for the government.
Milan and Rome
In June 1506 Leonardo returned to Milan. He was welcomed by the French, who now governed the city. Leonardo was paid well by the French to work for them in Milan as an artist, engineer and architect. But the Sforza family wanted Milan back and Leonardo was there in December 1511 when Swiss soldiers, fighting for the Sforza family, attacked the area. Leonardo drew pictures of a village called Desio near Milan as it burned. There was more fighting in the area around Milan all through the next year. We are not sure where Leonardo was, but he stayed in or near Milan for much of the following year after the French had lost control of the city. In the autumn, though, Leonardo left Milan for Rome, where he lived for about three years as a guest of the Pope. Leonardo was sixty-one when he left Milan this time. He had spent about twenty-three years of his life there and it was a very important place to him.
But Leonardo had not been forgotten by the French. In the autumn of 1516 Leonardo accepted an invitation to go to France to the court of King Francois I in Amboise in the Loire Valley. Leonardo was much admired by Francois and was paid very well by him. He was given the title of ‘The King’s Painter’. The king also gave him a large house at Clos Luce, on the edge of Amboise. In October 1517 it was reported that Leonardo had a weak right hand so he could not paint easily, but that he was still drawing and teaching.
Ten days before he died, Leonardo recorded what he would like to happen to his property after his death. He asked for his body to lie at the church of St Florentin in Amboise. Leonardo never married and there is no record that he had any children. He left all his books, painting equipment, portraits, his clothes and his money in France to Francesco Melzi. He gave a servant half of a garden on the edge of Milan, all the furniture from his house at Clos Luce and money collected from boats using a canal in Milan. The other half of the Milanese garden Leonardo gave to Salai; Salai had already built a house there and Leonardo gave him that as well. He gave Maturina, a female servant, a good quality black coat with fur on the inside and two ducats. To his brothers in Florence, Leonardo gave quite a large sum of money that was in a bank in Florence. From Melzi’s letter we know they also got a farm at Fiesole, just north of Florence.
Leonardo died in his house at Clos Luce on Monday, 2 May 1519.
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