Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 in Vinci, Tuscany, during a time called the Renaissance. His creations of art and advancements in science not only surpassed those of his time, but have contributed to the fundamentals of modern day technology and are arguably the greatest in history. Many of da Vinci’s paintings remain today as proof of his pioneered techniques, brilliance, and talent. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “renaissance man” as “a man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences.” This is a term still used today, and its derivation is obvious. Many people in the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries were skillful artists and scientists, but Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man.
The Renaissance was a time of economic stability. Originating in Italy and eventually expanding to other parts of Europe such as Germany, France, and England, the Renaissance was an era of renewed interest in literature and art and emphasized autonomous thought and creations. The philosophy of humanism, an idea stressing the importance and distinction of individuals, is thought to have originated during this time (“Renaissance” Encarta). Italian writers struggled to discover and preserve earlier works by Romans and Greeks.
There was one main cause for the Renaissance and the economical boom; a population increase. The Crusades caused a spark in trade due to interactions with other cultures. Trade routes were established and eventually became crowded. Therefore, existing towns grew into cities, and new ones were conceived. As towns grew and became crowded, there arose a need for expansion. People traveled more and interacted with other cities and cultures, which was forbidden under the feudal system. This interaction and constant traveling, along with military encounters, increased trade even more. The feudal system began to break down.
The exports brought money, and Italian rulers and nobles, as well as the governments of cities, became wealthier because of the merchants: “These merchants exerted both political and economic leadership and their attitudes and interest helped to shape the Italian Renaissance” (“Renaissance” World History 345). They also donated generously in support of the arts. Soon, cities became commercial centers and banks were established. The increased funds of cities were used for cultural endeavors, partially because the competing city-states of Italy wanted their strength and power to be acknowledged. Italian inventors and artists realized that this was ” a new age, free from the darkness and ignorance characterized by the preceding era”(“Renaissance” Encarta).
There were three distinct periods of the Renaissance, each identified by the works of different individuals. In order to comprehend the extraordinary greatness of Leonardo da Vinci, it is also important to become familiar with the achievements of his predecessors and colleagues. The early Renaissance introduced a new style of painting. Masaccio, born in 1401, was the first great painter of the Italian Renaissance, and his use of perspective and natural lighting portrayed an important step in the development of modern painting: “In his life, he made several important innovations in the art of painting. His treatment of space and light influenced generations of Italian artists, earning him the title Founder of the Renaissance'” (Who and When? 24).
According to John R. Hale, Bencivieni di Pepo was an Italian painter and mosaic craftsman from Florence. He was one of the most important artists of his time, breaking with the formalism of Byzantine art, then predominant in Italy, and introducing a more lifelike treatment of traditional subjects. His style preceded the realistic Florentine school of the early Renaissance founded by Giotto, and he is believed to have been Giotto’s teacher. Among di Pepo’s works are Crucifix and Madonna and Child. He also made a mosaic of Saint John and painted fresco cycles of saints, apostles, and scenes from the Apocalypse in the churches of San Francesco (Hale 161).
James Snyder states that Paolo Uccello was one of the most innovative artists of the early Renaissance. He dedicated his life to art and neglected his friends and family. Uccello worked obsessively to represent depth, distance, and three dimensions on paper. In 1425 he traveled to Venice to design mosaics for Saint Mark’s Cathedral. After his return to Florence, he painted a fresco of English mercenary Sir John Hawkwood for the city’s cathedral. He also executed a series of stained-glass windows for the cathedral, one of which is still in place (Snyder 53-54).
Piero della Francesca was also an Italian painter whose style was one of the most individual of the early Renaissance. Piero was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, a small city in southern Tuscany, around 1420. He studied art in Florence, but his career was spent in other cities. His solid, rounded figures are derived from Masaccio and added an innate sense of order and clarity. He studied solid geometry and perspective, and his works reflect these interests. The outlines of his subjects have the grace, abstraction, and precision of geometric drawings (“Francesca” Bookshelf).
Other artists of the early Renaissance include Andrea Mantegna, Giotto di Bondone, Domenico Veneziano, Giovanni Bellini, and Giorgione. All of these talented people rose to become leading painters of their day. Their realistic and dramatic religious paintings set new standards in Western art and provided an inspiration for later artists (“Renaissance” Bookshelf).
The influence of the Italian Renaissance affected northern Europe at the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, called the Northern Renaissance. This renewal of cultural activity was marked by an acute interest in human beings and by the use of natural detail in paintings. An interest in ancient art and a knowledge of linear perspective did not develop in the north until the Sixteenth Century; and even then, not all artists used the discoveries that were made in Italy.
Another statement from James Snyder is that one of the most important of Fifteenth Century Netherlandish painters was Jan van Eyck, who painted the remarkable Ghent Altarpiece. It contains hundreds of figures, as well as a variety of vegetation so carefully rendered that more than thirty plant species can be identified. Other outstanding artists of the period were Rogier van der Weyden, who focused on emotional drama in his religious paintings; Hans Memling, who created delicate, graceful figures against ethereal backgrounds; and Hugo van der Goes, who painted a superb altarpiece with a wealth of precise details for the Italian Portinari family. Characteristic of all these artists was the use of symbols, or iconography (57).
Three other artists from this period, as described by the book Who and When? The Renaissance: Artists and Writers, are Pieter Brueghel, Albrecht Durer, and Hieronymus Bosch. Brueghal is famous for his lively, colorful, and humorous paintings of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. While they seem light-hearted, the works contain serious moral messages (74). Durer was one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance because he brought Italian achievements in art to Germany. His detailed prints established his reputation throughout Europe (52). Bosch created disturbing paintings. As a Netherlandish artist, he sent out a strong moral message by using a mixture of horribly vivid images and highly realistic details (40).
The High Renaissance was the peak of the Renaissance in the Sixteenth Century. Raphael and Michelangelo are most frequently associated with this period, as is da Vinci. All were in competition, and arguably, any one of the three could be declared the greatest artist of the era. Raphael perfected earlier Renaissance discoveries in matters of color and composition. He created ideal representations of the Virgin and Child. The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome, with its ceiling frescoes of the Creation, the Fall, and the vast wall fresco of the Last Judgment, attest to Michelangelo’s genius as a painter (“Renaissance” Encarta).
Leonardo da Vinci could be considered the epitome of the Renaissance because of the diversity of his intellectual and artistic accomplishments. One source describes him in the following way: “Perhaps the most versatile genius who ever lived, Leonardo reached the heights of human achievement. Not only one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, he was also a talented scientist, designer, and musician” (Who and When 46). He was born April 5th, 1452, near Vinci, the illegitimate son of Piero di Antonio, a notary, and his companion Caterena. Richard A. Turner conveys that because his father was literate, it is assumed that Leonardo had a good elementary education despite the fact that no information or evidence exists (12). During his early life, he abhorred formal education and preferred learning through direct experience. He called himself “omo sanza lettre,” a man without letters (12). At age fifteen, da Vinci was an apprentice to Andrea del Verrochio, an artist, in 1467. Verrochio’s workshops were the most prestigious in Florence. During this time, little is known of da Vinci’s work. In 1473, his first recorded landscape drawing was created and 1478 was the first year that Leonardo showed a substantial reputation. He was paid to do an altar painting for the chapel at Saint Bernard (13-19). Another initial sign of interest for Leonardo was a drawing of a silver point warrior in 1478, suggesting his fascination with machinery and war. He contributed a famous angel to one of Verrochio’s paintings, which was his first famous creation. Some paintings done in Verrochio’s workshop include the Annunciation, Genivra Benci, and the Madonna with a Carnation (Inventing Leonardo 12-19).
In 1472, Leonardo became a member of the painter’s guild of Florence (Museum on the Web). One of his most popular works, The Adoration of the Magi was painted in 1481 for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. It was left unfinished because he went to Milan. The unfinished painting is the most important of all the early paintings. In it, Leonardo displays, for the first time, his method of organizing figures into a pyramid shape, so that interest is focused on the principal subject. This is one technique pioneered by Leonardo. Once in Milan, Da Vinci was asked to paint Madonna of the Rocks. This exists in two identical versions. One in the Louvre in France and the other in London. The figures in the picture are again grouped in a pyramid. Another accomplishment was the great Last Supper made for the Ducal church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Unfortunately, Da Vinci experimented with a new fresco technique, which started to show signs of decay as early as 1517. His innovation was a failure, and repeated attempts at restoration were unsuccessful. However, this signifies his inventive nature and yearning for creativity, which are characteristics of the Renaissance.
He started work on the ferocious Battle of Anghiari in Florence on June 6, 1505, facing a fresco by Michelangelo, his younger rival. Once again, he attempted to use a new technique. The mural deteriorated while he was working on it, and so he was forced to abandon the project. While in Florence, he painted classic masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa.
Afterward, he devoted his time to scientific studies and engineering projects such as the channeling of the course of the Adda River. His observations and experiments into the workings of nature include the stratification of rocks, the flow of water, the growth of plants, and the action of light. The mechanical devices that he sketched and described were also concerned with the transmission of energy. Leonardo’s solitary investigations took him from surface to structure, from catching the exact appearance of things in nature to visually analyzing how they function. Though once believed so, da Vinci’s art and science are not separate. They belong to the same lifelong pursuit of knowledge. His paintings, drawings, and manuscripts show that he was the foremost creative mind of his time (Museum on the Web).
Two works, the Benois Madonna and the unfinished St. Jerome show two hallmarks of Leonardo’s mature style, contraposto, or twisting movements, and chiaroscuro, or modeling in light and shade. Irma A. Richter perfectly describes da Vinci and his style:
It was not only the beauty of nature but also the spirit at work beneath the world of appearance that fascinated him. Combining an artist’s sensitivity with a scientist’s desire for knowledge, he analyzed the objects of vision and the way in which vision functioned. This entailed the study of nature, its structure and life. As he proceeded, his interest in natural science deepened. He used scientific methods of research in order to ascertain nature’s laws and introduce them in his own work. He pursued these studiesfor the attainment of creative power. His compositions expressed actions, emotions; faces were molded by the life within. He was a precursor of a new age in science and a civil and military engineer who used the basic ideas of modern machinery (v).
Leonardo’s obsession with knowledge led him to studies and hypotheses in literally hundreds of areas of science and art. There was practically no limit to his famous range of contemplation, as evidenced in his notebooks. Covered in sketches of flowers, clouds, and birds, they contained designs for flying and military machinery, fortifications, waterways, and dozens of other useful originally engineered inventions. He predated Sir Isaac Newton in such physics dissertations as “What is Impetus” and “Of Movement and Percussion.” Impetus (which Newton explained in his physical laws of inertia), Leonardo explained, “under another name is called derived movement which arises out of primary movement, that is to say when the movable thing is joined to its mover” (Notebooks 74).
In his notes on applied mechanics, da Vinci covered such topics as friction, gearing, weighing instruments, and the science of wheels and weight, which included pulleys (84). Aside from the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces, what Leonardo is probably most recognized for today is his incredible collection of notes and sketches dealing with flight. He based his flight hypotheses on that of the birds movement and of this he wrote the following:
To speak of this subject, you must in the first book explain the nature of the resistance of the air, in the second the anatomy of the bird and its wings, in the third the method of working the wings in their various movements, in the fourth the power of the wings and of the tail when the wings are not being moved and when the wind is favorable to serve as guide in various movements (89).
Obviously, the breadth and scope of this mans abilities were so vast that one could go on almost indefinitely proving the aforementioned thesis. Other artists, inventors, scientists, and writers existed during this time and contributed to mankind as well as throughout history. However, none have received the overwhelming critical accolades that da Vinci has. For example, Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote in 1869 of da Vinci’s paintings the following:
Of Leonardo, the examples are choice and few; full of that indefinable grace and grave mystery which belonged to his slightest and wildest world. Fair strange faces of women full of dim doubt and faint scorn; touched by the shadows of an obscure fate; eager and weary as it seems at once, pale and fervent with patience and passion; allure and perplex the eyes and thoughts of men (118).
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 and died in 1519. He was a Florentine artist and one of the great masters of the Renaissance. Revered as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist, his profound love of knowledge and research was the essence of both his artistic and scientific endeavors. His innovations in the field of painting influenced the course of art in Western civilization, and his scientific studies in the fields of anatomy, optics, and hydraulics were the basis for many of the developments of modern science. The variety of his interests and the depth of his brilliance made him the quintessential Renaissance man.
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