“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
April 15th is Leonardo Da Vinci’s birthday! Born in Italy in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci is considered the ultimate “Renaissance man” – an artist and scientist who helped us look at ourselves and our world in new ways. Inspire your students with the story of this remarkable historic figure who dared to imagine new possibilities – like machines that can fly.
The Kid from Vinci
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
Leonardo’s father, Messer Piero, was a Florentine notary who never married Leonardo’s mother, Caterina. Caterina is commonly believed to have been a local peasant, but may actually have been Messer Piero’s slave. Leonardo lived with his mother until he was 5, and then moved to his father’s family estate in nearby Vinci, a village in Tuscany. Hence his name: Leonardo from Vinci.
Although he was taught basic reading, writing, and math as a child, Leonardo never received a formal education. However, his artistic talent was evident at an early age. When he was 14, he moved to Florence for an apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio. There, in addition to honing his artistic abilities, he acquired technical skills, working with metal, leather, and wood.
Leonardo’s Philosophy of Art
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”
Like many Renaissance men, Leonardo believed the fields of art and science were intimately intertwined, and that studying science made him a better artist. His curiosity and passion for knowledge led to meticulous research in a wide variety of subjects, which he sought to understand by direct observation.
“A good painter has two chief objects to paint—man and the intention of his soul,” Leonardo wrote. In order to capture the essence of both with accuracy, he began an in-depth study of anatomy, which included dissection. His drawings of the vascular system, a fetus in utero, the heart, and other organs and muscles were some of the earliest on record.
His most recognized anatomical drawing is the “Vitruvian Man,” showing superimposed sketches of a man inscribed in both a circle and a square. This anatomical study is considered the perfect intersection between art and science, as it illustrates that a human is roughly as tall as the distance between the tips of his two outstretched arms. This concept helped Leonardo perfect the proportions of the people in his paintings.
Know Your Audience
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply.”
In 1482, Florentine statesman and art patron, Lorenzo de' Medici commissioned Leonardo to create a lyre as a peace offering to the future Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Leonardo viewed this job as a networking opportunity, and after finishing the work, sent Ludovico a letter that was, in effect, a resume. In this resume, however, Leonardo focused not on his artistic talents, but instead marketed the skills he thought would be most interesting to his prospective boss: his abilities as a military engineer. Also a portfolio, his letter included sketches of a war chariot, an armored tank, and an enormous crossbow that required several men to operate. This calculated self-positioning won Leonardo the job! Ludovico brought him to Milan and employed him for 17 years as an advisor, inventor, and draftsman.
Leonardo the Scientist
“I have always felt it is my destiny to build a machine that would allow a man to fly.”
Leonardo’s scientific interest was not limited to anatomy; nor was his penchant for engineering limited to military applications. He was also fascinated by botany, geology, zoology, hydraulics, aeronautics, and physics. He created notebooks totaling more than 6000 pages of observations, sketches and lists of books, along with personal musings, grocery lists, and even lewd jokes.
Some of his most notable scientific sketches include machines resembling a bicycle and a helicopter. His famous depiction a flying machine was based on the physiology of a bat.
The Most Famous Paintings in the World
“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.”
Leonardo’s patron Ludovico commissioned one of his most enduring masterpieces, The Last Supper, to be painted on the wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. Started in approximately 1495, it took Leonardo 3 years to complete. He simplified the painting’s architecture and background details in order to amplify the spirituality of the subject: Christ and his apostles.
Of course, it’s a gal who may or may not have been named Mona Lisa who made Leonardo perhaps the most famous painter in history. Although no one knows for sure who actually posed for the Mona Lisa painting, many art historians believe it was Lisa del Giocondo, the pregnant wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant. Others hypothesize that the painting’s subject was Princess Isabella of Naples, an anonymous mistress, or even Leonardo’s mother.
Leonardo started the Mona Lisa in 1503, using his famous sfumato technique, but he never considered it perfect enough to give it to whoever commissioned it. He kept it until his death in 1519. Today this invaluable work resides at the Louvre in Paris.
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