Leonardo da Vinci
A Famous Italian Artist and Inventor

Leonardo da Vinci


The famous Italian artist, mathematician, scientist, writer and inventor, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci,
was born on 15 April, 1452.  It is written that he was born 'at the third hour of the night'

Leonardo da Vinci

The name 'da Vinci' actually means 'from Vinci' because Vinci is the name of the village, near to Florence, where Leonardo was born.  The first part of his name, Leonardo di ser Piero , means 'Leonardo the son of Mr. Peter.' 
Piero (Peter) was his father's first name and he worked as a notary (a bit like a solicitor.) 

Italia Vinci

Leonardo's mother was called Caterina and she was a peasant-girl.  She was not married to Leonardo's father.
Instead, Leonardo's father was persuaded to marry a sixteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family.

Poor Caterina was made to marry a farmer and the baby was looked after by his grandparents: the parents of
Leonardo's father.

When Leonardo was about five years old, it became obvious that his father's young wife was unable to have children, so the boy was taken from his grandparents' home and went to live with his father and stepmother.

Soon, everyone could see that the boy was very talented.  As a child, he played the lyre, sang beautifully, was excellent at maths and enjoyed drawing animals and nature. 

Leonardo''s drawings

At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Florence to work with Verrocchio who was a very well-known and highly-considered artist, sculptor and goldsmith. 

Just like his fellow artist Michelangelo, Leonardo was chosen to join the Medici family's select group of artists who practised in the gardens of their palace in Florence.  The garden of San Marco had many classical Greek and Roman statues.  Artists, including Michelangelo, would go there for art lessons and to be inspired by the artistic environment.

One of Leonardo's most famous paintings is The Last Supper (1498).  In Italian, it is called Il Cenacolo.  It is the most reproduced painting in the world.  It is painted on a wall inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.  This method of painting is called 'fresco'.  In Italian it is 'affresco' - meaning 'fresh'. 
Why is this method of painting called 'fresh?'   It requires applying paint to wet, fresh plaster on a wall.  However, Leonardo did not use the best quality ingredients when he created 'The Last Supper' and it deteriorated very quickly.  It became flaky and mouldy. 
Below is a photo of The Last Supper.

The Last Supper

Another famous painting by Leonardo is the Mona Lisa.  Mona means 'my lady'.  The painting is called La Gioconda in Italian.  The woman in the painting is generally believed to be Lisa Gherardini and she was the wife of a wealthy businessman called Francesco del Giocondo, from Florence.  It is said that the painting was requested by the Giocondo family to decorate their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son. 

The portrait was nicknamed La Gioconda because of a double meaning:-
   1.  'Gioconda' is the feminine form of the family surname.
2.  The family surname 'Giocondo' also means 'joyful' in Italian.  In the painting, the lady is smiling - in other words, she is the 'joyful one.'

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa  (La Gioconda)

Leonardo started to paint the Mona Lisa around 1502 and he spent many years working on it.  It belongs to the French Government.  It can be seen at Le Musée du Louvre, Paris.

However, there is always a great deal of mystery about the true identity of the woman in the Mona Lisa.  Who was she really?  Was she Lisa Gherardini, as generally believed? Some historians believe that she could be Caterina, Leonardo's mother!  Will the mystery ever be solved?..........

Leonardo's most famous drawing is The Vitruvian Man (around 1487).  It is kept in the Gallerie dell' Accademia in Venice and is displayed only on special occasions.  The drawing was a study of proportion and geometry in the human shape.  The drawing is named after the Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius who had studied geometry and had also applied geometry to study the human shape.

Vitruvian Man 
The Vitruvian Man   (L'Uomo Vitruviano)

The Vitruvian Man on a Euro coin.

Leonardo wrote lots of notes in 'mirror writing'.  This means that they can only be read by holding them in front of a mirror and reading the reflection.  As Leonardo was left-handed, he had the ability to write from the right side of the page towards the left.  Leonardo was also known to write notes in code. 

In the early 1500s, Leonardo dreamed of being able to build 'a flying machine.'  He sketched ideas for a parachute, helicopter and made observations of how birds fly.  In an experiment, he attached home-made wings to a lizard in an attempt to make it fly!  Below is one of Leonardo's designs for a flying machine.

Verdi''s flying machine

He had amazingly original ideas and drew up designs for lots of inventions - including automobiles, submarines, battle machines, two-tiered bridges and weapons.  It is quite fascinating to think that those ideas that seemed weird or impossible then, now exist as normal objects that are used everyday.

In 1516, Leonardo moved to France where he was asked to paint for the French King Francis I.  He took the unfinished Mona Lisa with him and worked on it until shortly before he died.  King Francis bought the painting from Leonardo for 4000 écus.  It has belonged to France ever since!  Below is a portrait of Francis I.

Francis I of France

Leonardo never married and did not have any children.  He died in France on 2 May 1519 at the royal manor house called Clos Lucé (below) where he had resided as a guest of the King Francis I throughout his years in France. 

Leonardo''s house in France

King Francis had become a close friend and was at Leonardo's bedside when he died.  Below is a painting by Ménageot, depicting the death of Leonardo in the presence of the French king.

Death of Leonardo

At Leonardo's funeral, sixty beggars followed the procession.  (This had been one of Leonardo's requests.) 

Leonardo's tomb is in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert inside the Château d'Amboise, (below), which was the residence of King Francis I. 

Chateau d'' Amboise
Leonardo said many wise and interesting things.  One of his most famous quotations is this:
come una giornata bene spesa da lieto dormire, così una vita bene usata da lieto morire.
Just as a day well-spent brings happy sleep, so does a life well-used bring happy death.

The French King Francis I, who had been such a great friend and admirer of Leonardo, said after the artist's death:
'There has never been another man born into the world who knew as much as Leonardo.'

Grazie, Leonardo da Vinci! 

Thank you, Leonardo, for all your amazing art and inventions.  Your work gives everyone lots of interesting and mysterious things to discuss!
Grazie mille!


Italian Zone         Famous Italians