Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) was an Italian Renaissance architect, musician, inventor, engineer, sculptor and painter. He has been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" and as a universal genius. Leonardo is famous for his masterly paintings, such as The Last Supper and Mona Lisa.
He is also known for designing many inventions that anticipated modern technology but were rarely constructed in his lifetime. In addition, he helped advance the study of anatomy, astronomy, and civil engineering.
His life was first described in Giorgio Vasari's biography Vite.
Leonardo was born in Anchiano, near Vinci, Italy. He was an illegitimate child. His father Ser Piero da Vinci was a young lawyer and his mother, Caterina, was probably a peasant girl, although it has been suggested, on scanty evidence, that she was a Middle Eastern slave owned by Piero.
This was before modern naming conventions developed in Europe. Therefore, his full name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", which means "Leonardo, son of Piero, from Vinci". Leonardo himself simply signed his works "Leonardo" or "Io, Leonardo" ("I, Leonardo"). Most authorities therefore refer to his works as "Leonardos", not "da Vincis". Presumably he did not use his father's name because of his illegitimate status.
Leonardo grew up with his father in Florence. He was a vegetarian throughout his life. His early sketches were of such quality that as soon as his father showed them to the painter Andrea del Verrocchio, the latter took the fourteen-year old on as apprentice. Later, he became an independent painter in Florence.
In 1476 he, along with three other young men, was anonymously accused of homosexual contact with a 17-year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, a notorious prostitute. After two hard months in jail, he was acquitted for lack of witnesses. For a time Leonardo and the others were under the watchful eye of Florence's "Officers of the Night" — a kind of Renaissance vice squad.
That Leonardo was homosexual is generally accepted. His longest-running relationship was with a handsome delinquent, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, whom he nicknamed Salai (Little Devil), who entered his household around 1488 at the age of 10, becoming his servant and assistant. In 1506 Leonardo meets Count Francesco Melzi, the fifteen year old son of a Lombard aristocrat, a youth of great personal beauty. After tempestous jealosy scenes, Salai accepts the new arrangement and the three undertake various journeys throughout Italy. Though Salai was always introduced as his "pupil" he never produced a stitch of work. Melzi, however, became his pupil and life companion.
From c. 1482 to 1499 Leonardo worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and maintained his own workshop with apprentices there. Seventy tons of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo's "Gran Cavallo" horse statue were cast into weapons for the Duke in an attempt to save Milan from the French under Charles VIII in 1495 — see also Italian Wars.
When the French returned under Louis XII in 1498, Milan fell without a fight, overthrowing Sforza. Leonardo stayed in Milan for a time, until one morning he found French archers using his life-size clay model for the "Gran Cavallo" for target practice. He left with Salai and his friend (and inventor of double-entry bookkeeping) Luca Pacioli for Mantua, moving on after 2 months for Venice, then moving again to Florence at the end of April 1500.
In Florence he entered the services of Cesare Borgia (also called "Duca Valentino" and son of Pope Alexander VI) as a military architect and engineer. In 1506 he returned to Milan, now in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries drove out the French.
From 1513 to 1516 he lived in Rome, where painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active at the time, though he did not have much contact with these artists. However, he has been assumed to be of pivotal importance in relocation of 'David', the great masterpiece of Michaelangelo. Michaelangelo was apparently quite unhappy about this.
In 1515 Francis I of France retook Milan, and Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (of a mechanical lion) for the peace talks in Bologna between the French king and Pope Leo X, where he must have first met the king. In 1516, he entered Francis' service, being given the use of the manor house next to the king's residence at the Royal Chateau at Amboise. The king granted Leonardo and his entourage generous pensions: the surviving document lists 1000 ecus for the artist, 400 for Melzi (named "apprentice") and 100 for Salai (named "servant"). In 1518 Salai left Leonardo and returned to Milan, where he eventually perished in a duel. The king became a close friend.
He died in Cloux, France in 1519 in the arms of king Francis. According to his wish, 60 beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Melzi was his principal heir and executor, but Salai was not forgotten: he received half of Leonard's vineyard.
Leonardo is well known for the masterful paintings attributed to him, such as Last Supper (Ultima Cena or Cenacolo, in Milan), painted in 1498, and the Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda, now at the Louvre in Paris), painted in 1503–1506. There is significant debate however, whether Leonardo himself painted the Mona Lisa, or whether it was primarily the work of his students. Only seventeen of his paintings, and none of his statues survive.
Leonardo often planned grandiose paintings with many drawings and sketches, only to leave the projects unfinished.
In 1481 he was commissioned to paint the altarpiece "The Adoration of the Magi". After extensive, ambitious plans and many drawings, the painting was left unfinished and Leonardo left for Milan.
He there spent many years making plans and models for a monumental seven-metre (24-foot) high horse statue in bronze ("Gran Cavallo"), to be erected in Milan. Because of war with France, the project was never finished. Based on private initiative, a similar statue was completed according to some of his plans in 1999 in New York, given to Milan and erected there. The Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland has a small bronze horse, thought to be the work of an apprentice from Leonardo's original design.
Back in Florence, he was commissioned for a large public mural, the "Battle of Anghiari"; his rival Michelangelo was to paint the opposite wall. After producing a fantastic variety of studies in preparation for the work, he left the city, with the mural unfinished due to technical difficulties.