He was born as Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci in 1452, in Vinci, Italy and was a leading artist and intellectual polymath of the Italian Renaissance. The work of Da Vinci, considered a brilliant painter, sculptor, engineer, architect, scientist, inventor, musician and literary, was one of the pillars on which later lay the fundamental branches of human knowledge. Pictorial findings such as the perfection of the chiaroscuro technique or the application of faded and evanescent shades had their counterpart in the accumulation of knowledge contained in their enormous collection of anatomical, architectural, zoological or engineering-related drawings.
He was an illegitimate son of Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine legal notary, and Caterina, a local peasant. Unlike other well-known Renaissance artists, da Vinci never received any kind of academic education. However, Leonardo received instruction at home in subjects such as reading, writing and mathematics. His artistic inclinations appeared soon, because at the age of fifteen he entered the studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio. In this period he was already showing signs of talent, an example of which is the angel performed by Leonardo for the work of Verrocchio The Baptism of Christ (1472–75), followed by Madonna of the Carnation (1478–1480) and Ginevra de ‘Benci (1474-1478).
In 1482 Leonardo entered the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. At this stage of his life, Da Vinci displayed all his artistic and scientific creativity and outlined an admired stylistic singularity.
In Milan he made several pictorial works, among them the Lady with an Ermine (1489–1490), Virgin of the Rocks (1483–1486) and The Last Supper (1495-1498). In this first Milanese period, Leonardo also devoted himself strongly to scientific studies. At this time he felt the need to write literary and illustrated with drawings each of his precepts and experiences. Between 1490 and 1495, Leonardo began his activities as a writer and from the outset he could distinguish some main themes that fascinated him for the rest of his life: pictorial art, architecture, mechanics and anatomy. He also researched in areas such as geophysics, botany, hydrology and aeronautics.
In 1499, after the French occupation of Milan and the fall of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo went to Venice and then returned to Florence.
Soon after, he began his work The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1503-1513), whose composition admired the artists of the city. In 1502, Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia. For ten months he served as a military architect and engineer, drew some city plans and topographic maps that constitute a good part of the basis of modern cartography. In 1503 Leonardo began the mural, now lost, The Battle of Anghiari (1503-1506), where he worked for three years. It is also in 1503 when he began his famous portrait The Mona Lisa (1503-1506), in which the traits and the symbolic suggestion of his character reach the highest levels of artistic synthesis. In this painting Leonardo portrayed the wife of a Florentine official who never gave the portrait, and it’s believed to have been painted between 1503 and 1506. Leonardo may have continued working on it as late as 1517. Da Vinci was a slow painter and many of his works remained unfinished. During this period Leonardo concluded a second version of Virgin of the Rocks (1495–1508).
Leonardo continued to deepen his research: he made important observations on the flight of birds and projects of flying machines; he interpreted the significance of fossils and the life of plants.
In 1516 he traveled to France, invited by Francis I of France and spent the last years of his life in the French town of Cloux, where he died on May 2, 1519.
In all facets of his art, Leonardo’s works constituted a legacy of inestimable value, even though its magnitude has been reduced by the numerous losses experienced over the centuries.
Enciclopedia hispánica: Macropedia. Encyclopædia Britannica Publishers, 1992 (1989,1990)