Leonardo da Vinci: mankind’s greatest genius

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper: as well as his paintings, Leonardo also worked on a number of other creative projects Credit: Fineart / Alamy

Born in 1452 in the Tuscan village of Vinci, Leonardo was the epitome of the “Renaissance man”. From the humblest of beginnings he became the period’s most famous artist, creating masterpieces including The Last Supper, The Vituvian Man and the Mona Lisa – perhaps the most celebrated painting in history. 

Fewer than 20 of his paintings have survived, just a fraction of his output. Leonardo was more than an artist: he was a scientist, mathematician, inventor and biologist, making substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics and hydrodynamics. 

According to art historian Helen Gardner, in her book Art Through the Ages, the sheer scope and depth of his interests were unprecedented, and “his mind and personality seem… superhuman, the man himself mysterious and remote”. 

Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a poor family and never received any kind of formal education. He received instruction at home in reading, writing, Latin, geometry and mathematics, but spent most of his childhood outdoors. After his death his journals show that he was fascinated by the natural world – especially birds of prey. 

As a child he also started to experiment with drawing – and in 1466, aged 14, he showed such promise that he was apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine painter. 

It was here that Leonardo’s talent blossomed. His natural gifts were enhanced by an education in technical skills and theoretical training and it didn’t take long for the student to become the master. 

He is not only one of the greatest artists to have ever lived, but also stands as one of the most diversely talented individuals in the history of our species

When Verrocchio invited the teenager to contribute to his painting The Baptism of Christ, Leonardo’s depiction of an angel was so superior to the rest of the canvas, the older artist is said to have put down his brush and never painted again. 

Leonardo qualified aged 20 and worked as an artist in Florence for another decade – but his big break came in 1482. Lorenzo de Medici, arguably one of the most powerful men in Florence at the time, sent him to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, bearing a gift Leonardo had made – a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head. 

By this time Leonardo was not only a gifted artist, but also a canny salesman. He wrote a letter to Sforza, extolling his own virtues not only as a painter and sculptor, but as an engineer. 

He offered plans to build numerous “war devices” for the duke – and in his sketchbooks and journals are plans for cannons, smoke machines, portable bridges and even armoured vehicles. Leonardo would also devise blueprints for flying machines – 400 years before the Wright brothers had a similar idea. 

Unfortunately, however, there is no evidence of any of these machines ever having been constructed. It could be that for Leonardo, the design and invention of the things was reward enough, or it could simply be that the mathematics and engineering involved was so far ahead of its time that none of his contemporaries could understand them. 

As well as painting two of his most famous works while in Sforza’s service, The Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo also worked on creative projects as diverse as the design and choreography of pageants, a dome for Milan Cathedral and the design for a huge statue of a war horse that was to tower over the city. 

Genius: Leonardo was the model of the Renaissance man and one of the most talented individuals in our history Credit: Fineart / Alamy

Seventy tons of bronze were set aside for the casting – but the work was never completed and after Michelangelo refused to cast it, the bronze was given to the army, to be used for cannon to defend the city from invasion by Charles VIII of France. 

The many wars and conquests of the time meant Leonardo never stayed too long in the same city – or in the service of the same man. After the fall of Milan he first moved to Venice (where he was employed as a military architect and engineer) and then Florence. 

It was at a workshop in a Florentine monastery that he created the charcoal drawing of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist. Despite the fact it was essentially an unfinished sketch as preparation for painting, it became a sensation, with the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari noting that “men and women, young and old,” clamoured to see it, “as if they were attending a great festival”. 

He later worked for the Borgias – for whom he drew maps and designed dams – and frequently moved between Florence and Milan. His most famous work, The Mona Lisa, was started around this time but, frustratingly, historians are divided about exactly when. What is known is that he continued to work on it throughout the rest of his life. 

After a time spent at the Vatican, living and working for Pope Leo X with fellow artists Raphael and Michelangelo, Leonardo finally settled in Amboise, France, under the patronage of King Francis I. 

The king and the artist became great friends: after his death in 1519, Francis is reported to have said: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.”

After his death, his journals were discovered. Over the course of 13,000 pages of meticulous notes and drawings, Leonardo set out an enormous range of interests and disciplines. The sketches, designs, and notes in there are astonishing. 

There are compositions for paintings, anatomical and botanical studies, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, invention, geology, astronomy, history, and cartography. There are concepts for flying machines, tanks, solar power, adding machines, hydrodynamics and a theory of plate tectonics. 

Interspersed with these are grocery lists, to do lists, and the names of people who owed him money. For Leonardo, it was all the same. 

Leonardo da Vinci is not only one of the greatest artists to have ever lived, producing some of the most beautiful, soulful, passionate and mysterious paintings in Western art – he also stands as one of the most diversely talented individuals in the history of our species. He was the model of the Renaissance man – and a true genius.

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