Leonardo da Vinci – the universal man


Essay on the Italian Renaissance artists and scientist by Marc and Bhagawati.

Leonardo da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) was born in Vinci, in the Arno River’s lower valley; his hometown was within the territory of the Republic of Florence which was under the rule of the Medici. He was born out of wedlock, and his parents were Caterina, a peasant, and Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a notary.

Leonardo da Vinci

During his childhood, Leonardo da Vinci received informal education in mathematics, geometry and Latin. At age 14 he was trained as an apprentice in the arts under the guidance of Andrea di Cione, popularly called Verrocchio, who also trained Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was taught a wide range of areas including metallurgy, plaster casting, carpentry, chemistry, metal working, leather working, and mechanics. He also refined his artistic skills in modelling, sculpting, and painting.

When Leonardo turned 20, he was able to qualify in the Guild of St. Luke, which was an association of doctors of medicine and artists. However, he was more interested to maintain his collaboration with Verrocchio even if his father had already set up his very own workshop.

During the years 1482 until about 1499, Leonardo made a living with his artistic skills while in Milan. It was there that he was able to prove his superb talent as a painter, as he was commissioned to complete two significant paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper.

Giuliano de MediciPope Leo XBetween the years 1513 and 1516, Leonardo lived in Rome, where he went on behest of Giuliano de Medici, the pope’s brother and commander of the papal troops. He and his pupils Salai and Melzi lived in the Belvedere, a villa inside the walls of the Vatican, where also Raphael and Michelangelo resided; all three of them were under the patronage of Pope Leo X.

Francis IIn 1515, Milan was recaptured by Francis I of France; Leonardo became part of Francis’ service and one of his closest friends. He was given a permanent residence at the Clos Luce, which was the manor house located near the Chateau d’Amboise (the king’s royal residence) in the Kingdom of France. He lived there for the final years of his life.

Leonardo’s tremendous skills and ideas are reflected in his areas of interest that included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

Many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime exemplar of the ‘Universal Genius’ or ‘Renaissance Man’, an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination.” The scope and depth of his interests were without precedent in recorded history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote.” His view of the world was logical rather than mysterious, and the empirical methods he employed were unorthodox for his time.

I love those who can smile in trouble,
who can gather strength from distress,
and grow brave by reflection.
‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink,
but they whose heart is firm,
and whose conscience approves their conduct,
will pursue their principles unto death.

– Leonardo da Vinci

The Virgin of the Rocks
The Last Supper (restored)
Lady with Ermine
Mona Lisa
The Vetruvian Man

Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Among his works, the enigmatic Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the Euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Perhaps fifteen of his paintings have survived. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivalled only by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo.

Flying machine
Robot design drawing

Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualised flying machines, a type of armoured fighting vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible during his lifetime, as the modern scientific approaches to metallurgy and engineering were only in their infancy during the Renaissance. Some of his smaller inventions, however, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded. Notably he designed and built a mechanical lion that moved robot-like. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, geology, optics and hydrodynamics.

Fra Luca Pacioli

“There is no certainty in science where mathematics cannot be applied,” Leonardo once wrote. After his meeting with Fra Luca Pacioli, a professor of mathematics and regarded as the ‘father of accounting’, Leonardo eagerly plunged into a study of the subject. But this was only one of a thousand interests of an exceptionally versatile man who richly deserved to be called a ‘universal man’.


The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.
– Leonardo da Vinci

Just like Isaac Newton on physics, and Charles Darwin on the science of evolution, Leonardo’s impact on art is tremendous. Throughout his life, he avoided the intrigues of worldly ambitions and vanity. He was a reserved and withdrawn man, not concerned with glory, and yet absolutely sure of the value of his abilities. Along with Michelangelo, Donatello, Titian and a small band of contemporary Renaissance figures, Leonardo da Vinci became the center of a movement of artists that has permanently enriched western culture.

Credit source: Wikipedia and various online sites

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