A Renaissance Artist:
          Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael were probably the three greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. They were also great rivals and at times competed with each other.

Leonardo da Vinci is seen as the perfect example of a ‘Renaissance - man’. That is to say he was an all rounder and showed a great interest in every aspect of life. His skills range - from not-only being, a great artist but also a successful inventor, architect, musician, botanist, mathematician and sportsman.

Early career

Leonardo was born near Florence in 1452. He attended school between the ages of five and 12 but seems to have found it unchallenging and spent much of his time drawing sketches. The quality of these drawings convinced his father that Leonardo should consider becoming a full time artist. He showed the sketches to Andrea del Verocchio, a well known artist in Florence, who agreed to take the 14 year old Leonardo as one of his apprentices. Verocchio was not only an artist but a gifted sculptor and goldsmith as well. He had a great influence on the young Leonardo. It was he who insisted that Leonardo study anatomy (the study of how the human body works) so that he could paint portraits and sculpt in a more realistic manner.

Leonardo was born in Vinci, near Florence. He lived in Florence, Milan and Rome

Leonardo helped Verocchio to paint The Baptism of Christ for the friars of Vallombrosa. Leonardo painted the angel at the front of the picture and the landscape in the background. The difference between the style and quality of the work was soon recognised, leading to offers for Leonardo to paint on his own. In June 1472 Leonardo was accepted as a member of the painters’ guild in Florence. This meant that; his apprenticeship was over and he was now free to work for anyone he chose.

The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

The Milan Years

From 1482 to 1499 Leonardo moved to Milan to work for his new patron Duke Ludovico Sforza. These were the most productive years of Leonardo’s artistic career. The Duke gave Leonardo free rein to work on any project he chose. Leonardo had so many ideas that he often planned and drew sketches for great works of art only to leave them unfinished, as he moved on to his next project. Only 17 of his paintings survive. Among his great works of art during this period are The Virgin on the Rocks (1494) and The Last Supper (1498) which is painted on the wall in the dining room of a monastery in Milan.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci


As well as being a gifted artist Leonardo da Vinci was also a brilliant inventor. It was during his time in Milan that  Leonardo drew many sketches of machines. Leonardo was fascinated by the ability of birds to fly. He produced a number of sketches including a helicopter, a hand glider and a parachute. Leonardo also acted as a military engineer for Duke Sforza. Accordingly, many of his drawings in his notebooks include plans for such things as machine guns, an armoured tank and a cannon that fired mortar bombs.

Throughout his lifetime Leonardo kept his notebooks secret. He a1so used mirror writing in his diaries,  that is he wrote from right o left and reversed every letter. This may have been done to prevent hi ideas from being copied by other. He would also have been aware that people were suspicious of scientific explanations, especially the Church, and that this could place him in danger.’

Here is a sample of Leonardo's writing as it appears in his drawings.

This is how it would look reversed by a mirror.


Try it yourself!

Leonardo continued with his interest in anatomy during his time in Milan. Throughout his working life he dissected up to 30 bodies of both men and women of different ages. He drew images of the lung, heart, brain and various muscles. He had discovered that the heart included a number of valves but was unaware that it acted as a pump for the circulation of blood throughout the body.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Jn 1499 Ludovico Sforza lost control of Milan following a war with France, forcing Leonardo to leave the city in search of a new patron. Leonardo moved back to Florence. It was here that he painted his most famous painting — the Mora Lisa. It is believed that the Mona Lisa is a painting of the wife of a wealthy silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and that the painting was commissioned to celebrate the birth of their second child. The painting is famous because of its use of sfumato and the woman’s strange smile. She also seems to be looking at you from whichever angle you view the portrait.

The Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, by Leonardo da Vinci

Sfumato is the Italian term for a painting technique which overlays translucent layers of colour to create perceptions of depth, volume and form. In particular, it refers to the blending of colours or tones so subtly that there is no perceptible transition.

Last Years

From 113 to 1516 Leonardo moved to Rome where he hoped to work for the Pope. However he was disappointed to discover that two of his rivals, Michelangelo and Raphael, were already working in the Vatican and there was no great demand for his services. In 1516 Leonardo accepted an invitation from King Francis I of France to come and live at the royal palace at Chateau Amboise. He lived there until his death in 1519. He took three paintings, including the Mona Lisa, with him. The Monad Lisa can be seen today in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Throughout his entire life Leonardo da Vinci raised many questions for which he sought answers. For instance, it was he who discovered that the age of a tree can be measured by counting its rings. Although he left behind 120 notebooks with over 7000 pages of notes and diagrams, most of his plans were not or could not be invented during his lifetime. However, many subsequent inventions and teachings were based to a certain extent on some of his designs and theories, and he is therefore considered to be ‘a man before his time’.

Revision Questions

I. Why is Leonardo da Vinci considered to be the perfect example of a ‘Renaissance man’?
2. How did Andrea del Verocchio influence Leonardo da Vinci?
3. Name two paintings Leonardo did in Milan.
4. Read the source below and answer the questions that follow. This is an extract from a letter sent by Leonardo da Vinci to Duke Sforza of Milan in 1581 seeking work.


I can construct bridges very light and strong, capable of easy transportation, and with them you may pursue, and on occasion, flee from the enemy.
When a place is besieged I know how to remove the water from the moats. I have also plans of mortars most convenient and easy to carry, with which to hurl small stones similar to a storm, and with their smoke cause great terror to the enemy and great damage and confusion.
And should it happen that the fight were at sea I have plans for many instruments capable of offence and defence, and vessels which will resist the fire of the largest cannon, powder and smoke.
Also I will make covered cars, safe and unassailable (free from attack) which will enter among the enemy with their artillery and break up the largest body of men.
Also I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay; similarly, in pointing I can do whatever caa be done as well as any other, whoever he may be.

(a) Is this letter a primary or secondary source? Explain your answer.
(b) How does Leonardo suggest that he has the methods to end a siege?
(c) Mention two weapons that Leonardo proposes to build for the duke.
(d) Apart from building military weapons, mention two other skills that Leonardo claimed to have.
(e) Do you think that Leonardo is exaggerating the level of his skills in this letter? Explain your answer.

5. Give two reasons why Leonardo used mirror writing in his notebooks.
6. Mention one medical discovery made by Leonardo as a result of his study of the
human body.
7. Give two reasons why the Mona Lisa is such a famous painting.
8. Why did Leonardo da Vinci move to France in 1516?


Lesson Assignment

Set up a Powerpoint presentation which include a short biography of Michelangelo and Raphael (about ten lines) and their most important artworks (painting, sculpture, architecture)