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Leonardo da Vinci was one of the foremost artists of the Italian Renaissance and a visionary genius who anticipated a host of modern innovations, from the tank and the helicopter to the bicycle.
When Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, contemporaries mourned the passing of a genius who had come to epitomise the spirit and ideals of the Renaissance. Yet this celebrated public figure was at the same time one of the most enigmatic and secretive characters of his day.
Leonardo was a brilliant painter, but he often became ‘bored of working with the brush’ and left many of his canvasses incomplete. Possibly because he found it hard to work for people in positions of authority, he seldom finished a commission successfully.
His quick mind led him to make or foresee many important scientific discoveries, but he never published his ideas. A gentle vegetarian who loved animals, he despised war, yet spent a considerable part of his career devising weaponry that could maim or kill.
Rising to greatness
Born on April 15, 1452, in the small town of Vinci, just outside Florence, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero d’Antonio, an ambitious 25-year-old notary, and a peasant girl, Caterina.
Shortly after the boy’s birth, his father took legal custody of him and he was brought up by his paternal grandparents for a few years until his father realised that the woman he had married could not bear children of her own. He then took Leonardo into his own home to raise and educate him.
Even as a young boy, Leonardo showed extraordinary talent. He learned to play the lyre and sing beautifully, and was often found sketching animals and plants.
A universal genius
In 1468, when his grandfather died, Leonardo’s family moved to Florence. Leonardo’s father realised that his son had unusual artistic gifts and apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio, a renowned painter, sculptor and goldsmith, who was the most sought-after Florentine artist of the day. The foremost artists and thinkers in the city were habitués of his studio.
Even as a humble apprentice he was quick to demonstrate his phenomenal talents. He contributed an angel to his master’s Baptism of Christ. The result was so superior to the rest of the painting that Verrocchio apparently resolved never to paint again.
In 1477, Leonardo decided to strike out on his own. In 1482 he applied for a post at the court of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, abandoning The Adoration of the Magi, his first important commission in Florence, when his application succeeded.
In his letter, Leonardo stressed his military expertise, claiming that he could provide the Milanese forces with everything from ‘bombards, mortars and fire-throwing engines’ to ‘catapults, mangonels, trabocchi or other unusual machines of marvellous efficiency.’
In time of peace, he could give his master ‘as complete satisfaction as anyone else in architecture, in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another’.
Finally, he could ‘execute sculpture in marble, bronze or clay and also painting in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else whoever he may be’. Leonardo mentioned his artistic talents almost as an afterthought. He obviously believed that his abilities as an engineer would count for far more in the duke’s eyes.
From 1485 until he returned to Florence in 1499, he delved into a host of subjects, including the workings of nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics, canals and architecture, designing everything from churches to fortresses. The weapons included embryonic designs for a tank and ideas for the design of submarines. His interests, talents and abilities seemed limitless.
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