Leonardo Essay, Research Paper

Leonardo Da Vinci 2000-07-02

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the greatest and most ingenious men that history has produced. His

contributions in the areas of art, science, and humanity are still among the most important that a single

man has put forth, definitely making his a life worth knowing. Da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, is credited

with being a master painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, and scientist. He was born an

illegitimate child to Catherina, a peasant girl. His father was Ser Piero da Vinci, a public notary for the

city of Florence, Italy. For the first four years of his life he lived with his mother in the small village of

Vinci, directly outside of the great center of the Renaissance, Florence. Catherina was a poor woman,

with possible artistic talent, the genetic basis of Leonardo’s talents. Upon the realization of Leonardo’s

potential, his father took the boy to live with him and his wife in Florence (Why did). This was the start of

the boy’s education and his quest for knowledge. Leonardo was recognized by many to be a

Renaissance child” because of his many talents. As a boy, Leonardo was described as being handsome,

strong, and agile. He had keen powers of observation, an imagination, and the ability to detach himself

from the world around him. At an early age Leonardo became interested in subjects such as botany,

geology, animals (specifically birds), the motion of water, and shadows (About Leonardo). At the age of

17, in about 1469, Leonardo 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 techniques, from the painting of altarpieces and panel pictures to the creation of large sculptural

projects in marble and bronze. In 1472 he was accepted in the painter’s guild of Florence, and worked

there for about six years. While there, Leonardo often painted portions of Verrocchio’s paintings for him,

such as the background and the kneeling angel on the left in the Baptism of Christ (Encarta). Leonardo’s

sections of the painting have soft shadings, with shadows concealing the edges. These areas are

distinguished easily against the sharply defined figures and objects of Verrocchio, that reflect the style

called Early Renaissance. Leonardo’s more graceful approach marked the beginning of the High

Renaissance. However, this style did not become more popular in Italy for another 25 year (Gilbert 46).

Leonardo actually started the popularization of this style. For this reason Leonardo could be called the

“Father of the High Renaissance.” Leonardo’s leading skills emerged through his paintings and his

techniques. Leonardo’s talents soon drew him away from the Guild and in 1472 Leonardo finished his

first complete painting, Annunciation. In 1478 Leonardo reached the title of an Independent Master. His

first large painting, The Adoration of the Magi (begun in 1481), which was left unfinished, was ordered in

1481 for the Monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Florence. Other works ascribed to his youth are the

Benois Madonna (1478), the portrait Ginevra de’ Benci (1474), and the unfinished Saint Jerome (1481).

Leonardo expanded his skills to other branches of interest and in 1481 Leonardo wrote an astonishing

letter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In this letter he stated that he knew how to 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. Thus, he entered the service of the Duke in 1482, working

on Ludovico’s castle, organizing festivals, and he became recognized as an expert in military

engineering and arms. Under the Duke, Leonardo served many positions. He served as principal

engineer in the Duke’s numerous military enterprises and was active as an architect (Encarta). As a

military engineer Leonardo designed artillery and planned the diversion of rivers. He also improved many

inventions that were already in use such as the rope ladder. Leonardo also drew pictures of an armored

tank hundreds of years ahead of its time. His concept failed because the tank was too heavy to be

mobile and the hand cranks he designed were not strong enough to support such a vehicle. As a civil

engineer, he designed revolving stages for pageants. As a sculptor he planned a huge monument of the

Duke’s father mounted up on a leaping horse. The Horse, as it was known, was the culmination of 16

years of work. Leonardo was fascinated by horses and drew them constantly. In The Horse, Leonardo

experimented with the horses’ forelegs and measurements. The severe plagues in 1484 and 1485 drew

his attention to town planning, and his drawings and plans for domed churches reflect his concern with

architectural problems (Bookshelf). In addition he also assisted the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli in

the work Divina Proportione (1509). While in Milan Leonardo kept up his own work and studies with the

possible help of apprentices and pupils, for whom he probably wrote the various texts later compiled as

Treatise on Painting (1651). The most important painting of those created in the early Milan age was The

Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo worked on this piece for an extended period of time, seemingly unwilling to

finish what he had begun (Encarta). It is his earliest major painting that survives in complete form. 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. While painting The Last Supper, Leonardo rejected the

fresco technique normally used for wall paintings. An artist that uses this fresco method must work

quickly. Leonardo wanted to work slowly, revising his work, and use shadows-which would have been

impossible in using fresco painting. He invented a new technique that involved coating the wall with a

compound that he had created. This compound, which was supposed to protect the paint and hold it in

place did not work, and soon after its completion the paint began to flake away. For this reason The Last

Supper still exists, but in poor condition (Gilbert 46). Leonardo had at many times merged his inventive

and creative capabilities to enhance life and improve his works. Although his experiments with plastering

and painting failed, they showed his dissatisfaction with an accepted means and his creativity and

courage to experiment with a new and untried idea. Experimentation with traditional techniques is

evident in his drawings as well. During Leonardo’s 18 year stay in Milan he also produced other paintings

and drawings, but most have been lost. He created stage designs for theater, architectural drawings, and

models for the dome of Milan Cathedral. Leonardo also began to produce scientific drawings, especially

of the human body. He studied anatomy by dissecting human corpses and the bodies of animals.

Leonardo’s drawings did not only clarify the appearance of bones, tendons, and other body parts but their

function in addition. These drawings are considered to be the first accurate representations of human

anatomy. Leonardo is also credited with the first use of the cross section, a popular technique for

diagramming the human body. Leonardo wrote, “The painter who has acquired a knowledge of the nature

of the sinews, muscles, and tendons will know exactly in the movement of any limb how many and which

of the sinews are the cause of it, and which muscle by its swelling is the cause of this sinew’s

contracting” (Wallace 131). In December, 1499, the Sforza family was driven out of Milan by French

forces and Leonardo was forced to leave Milan and his unfinished statue of Ludovico Sforza’s father,

which was destroyed by French archers that used it for target practice. Leonardo then returned to

Florence in 1500 (Bookshelf). When Leonardo returned to Florence the citizens welcomed him with open

arms because of the fame he acquired while in Milan. The work he did there strongly influenced other

artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo. The work he was to produce would influence other

masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1502 Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia,

Duke of Romagna and son and Chief General of Pope Alexander VI. For this post he supervised work on

the fortress of the papal territories in central Italy. In 1503 he was a member of a commission of artists to

decide on the proper location for the David by Michelangelo (Encarta). Towards the end of the year

Leonardo began to design a decoration for the Great Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo chose the

Battle of Anghiari as the subject of the mural, a victory for Florence in a war against Pisa. He made

many drawings and sketches of a cavalry battle, with tense soldiers, leaping horses and clouds of dust.

In painting The Battle of Anghiari Leonardo again rejected fresco and tried an experimental technique

called encaustic. Once again the experiment was unsuccessful. Leonardo went on a trip and left the

painting unfinished. When he returned he found that the paint had run and he never finished the painting.

The paintings general appearance is known from Leonardo’s sketches and other artists’ copies of it

(Creighton 45). During the period of time that Leonardo spent painting the Palazzo Vecchio he also

painted several other works, including the most famous portrait ever, the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa, also

known as La Gioconda, (after the presumed name of the model’s husband) became famous because of

the unique expression on Lisa del Gioconda’s face. She appears to have just started to or finished

smiling. This painting was one of Leonardo’s favorites and he carried it with him on all of his subsequent

travels (Clark 133). In 1506, Leonardo returned to Milan to finished up some of his projects that he had to

abandon during his hasty departure. He stayed there until 1516 when he moved to Cloux, France, where

he stayed with his pupil Melzi. While in Milan he was named Court Painter to King Louis XII of France,

who was then residing in Milan. For the next six years he traveled from Milan to Florence repeatedly to

look after his inheritance. In 1514 he traveled to Rome under the patronage of Pope Leo X. During this

time Leonardo’s energy was focused mainly on his scientific experiments. He then moved to France to

serve King Francis I. It is here in Chateau de Cloux that he died on May 2,1519 (Wallace 127). Leonardo

constantly reworked his drawings, studies and mechanical theories. His observations of the motion of

water are amazingly accurate. In Leonardo’s Studies of Water Formation, the flow patterns observed are

swirling around , then below as it forms a pool. Using modern slow motion cameras’ scientists now study

the same effects that Leonardo wrote about and observed with his naked eye (Encarta). Another study of

water and wind is his Apocalyptic Visions. This is a collected study of hurricanes and storms. In these

highly detailed drawings the pen lines so carefully marked explode into action similar to the storms

themselves. Leonardo’s mathematical drawings are also highly skilled. In a math formula Leonardo

proved the theory of perpetual motion false but it still intrigued him. Among his vast notes were small

ideas for a perpetual motion machine. His ideas for completing this task involved an unbalanced wheel

that would revolve forever, conserving its energy. However these machines were never constructed.

Another mathematical drawing was the Polyhedron. This three dimensional figure represented

proportions to him “not only in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights, positions and in

whatsoever power there may be” (Wallace 59). The notebooks of Leonardo contain sketches and plans

for inventions that came into existence almost five-hundred years after the Renaissance. Leonardo

practiced a technique of writing backwards. It has been postulated that he did this, being left-handed, so

that he wouldn’t smear the ink by his left hand running across newly-written words. Moreover, the

individual words are spelled backwards. In order to read the Notebooks one must hold the pages up to a

mirror and it is believed by some that Leonardo did this to keep his writing and theories secret. In any

event, contained in the Notebooks are plans and drawings for what we recognize today as the first

working propeller, a submarine, a helicopter, a tank, parachutes, the cannon, perpetual motion machines,

and the rope ladder. There are perfectly executed drawings of the human body, from the proportions of

the full figure to dissections in the most minute detail. It was observed, however, that Leonardo’s interest

in the human body and his ability to invent mechanical things were actually not as paramount to him as

was his fascination and awe of the natural world (Clark 133). Leonardo lived to be 67 years old. He is not

known to have ever married or had children. In fact, it was said of him that he only saw women as

“reproductive mechanisms” (Clark 134). If there is one quality that characterizes the life of Leonardo da

Vinci it would be his curiosity for life and the world around him. Curiosity is the force that motivated him

to observe, dissect and document every particle of matter that warranted his attention. From babies in

the womb to seashells on the beach, nothing escaped his relentless intellect. The mind of Leonardo

transcends the period of the Renaissance and every epoch thereafter. It is universally acknowledged that

his imagination, his powers of reason, and his sheer energy surpass that of any person in history. The

study of Leonardo is limited only by the inadequacy of the student.

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