University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Life of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Volume XXXXIV · 1994
The Anthony J. and Frances A. Guzzetta Collection of Leonardo da Vinci: An Exhibition: 18 November 1993-31 March 1994
The Life of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo has no share in the myth of the unsung genius. Throughout his life, he enjoyed the admiration of his fellow artists and the patronage of nobles and prelates. When he wrote Leonardo's biography in the mid sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari had little need to magnify the reputation of a man who was "valued in his own day, but his renown has greatly increased since his death." In Vasari's account, Leonardo was universally acknowledged as an individual who can be spoken of only in superlatives. He was lavishly endowed with physical beauty, grace, and strength. Gifted with charm and talent, he also had a "divine and marvelous" mind in which "memory and intellect formed . . . a mighty union."  He was a musical virtuoso who could "sing and improvise divinely" and a dazzling conversationalist who "could so clearly express his ideas in discourse, that he was able to confound the boldest opponents."  Moreover, "his interests were so numerous that his inquiries into natural phenomena led him to study the properties of herbs and to observe the movements of the heavens."  Praising his brilliant draftsmanship, Vasari credits Leonardo with stylistic innovations that revolutionized Italian painting.1

Despite his fame, specific details concerning Leonardo's life are surprisingly meager. Evidence of his activities must be gleaned from documents discovered in the archives of the cities he visited during his peripatetic career and from dates scattered among Leonardo's now fragmentary manuscripts. From his lifetime, too, there are only a few literary and epistolary sources in which Leonardo may be glimpsed. These include sonnets by the Sforza court poet Bernardo Bellincioni (d. 1492), Francesco Albertini's guidebook Memoriale di moite statue e pitture che sono nell'inclyta ciptà di Fiorentia (Florence, 1510), and the Ricordi (Bologna, 1546) of Sabba da Castiglione. 2

The sixteenth century offers occasional references scattered in a variety of texts, but only four major sources of biographical information. The lineaments of Leonardo's career are briefly sketched in the Libro di Antonio Billi, a chronicle written about 1518. The humanist Paolo Giovio included a brief life of the artist in his unfinished De vins illustribus of about 1527, noting that "his genius for invention was astounding, and he was the arbiter of all questions relating to beauty and elegance."

The meager account offered by Antonio Billi is amplified in the Anonimo Gaddiano manuscript written about 1542. 3 The most important source is Giorgio Vasari's Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori . . (Florence, 1550) . Based upon earlier accounts, the memories of his informants, and a familiarity with autograph works, Vasari's biography- especially in the expanded second edition of 1568 - offers factual and anecdotal information coupled with an influential appraisal of Leonardo's accomplishments and character. For Vasari, Leonardo is a flawed genius: "His knowledge of art, indeed, prevented him from finishing many things which he had begun, for he felt that his hand would be unable to realize the perfect creations of his imagination, as his mind formed such difficult, subtle and marvelous conceptions that his hands, skilful as they were, could never have expressed them. " 4

Later scholars employed these contemporary and sixteenth-century sources to trace the course of Leonardo's life. He was born on April 15, 1452 in the tiny village of Anchiano, the illegitimate son of Catrina, a local peasant woman, and Piero, a member of a Florentine family of notaries with a house in nearby Vinci. Leonardo spent his childhood in the home of his paternal grandfather, where he learned to read and write Italian as well as the rudiments of mathematics, especially geometry. This commonplace instruction provided the foundation for a lifetime of ardent self-education.

After his grandfather's death in 1468, the young man joined his father in Florence. Beyond anecdotes affirming Leonardo's native talent, nothing is known of his artistic training until 1469 when he was apprenticed to Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488), a prominent sculptor and painter who also taught Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and Sandro Botticelli. Although the Anonimo Gaddiano claims that Leonardo was a member of Lorenzo the Magnificent's 'Academy" and therefore able to study his collection of classical sculptures, it is indicative of Leonardo's passion for nature that his first dated work, a drawing (Florence, Uffizi) inscribed 1473, is a landscape.

Leonardo became an independent master in 1472, but records relating to two accusations of sodomy (later dismissed) indicate that he remained in Verrocchio's studio, collaborating on the master's commissions for four years after joining the painter's guild, the Company of Saint Luke. Leonardo's first recorded independent commission, an altarpiece for the Palazzo Vecchio, was awarded by the Florentine government in 1478; why this project was abandoned is not known. Three years later a picture of the Adoration of the Magi was commissioned for the high altar of the monastic church of San Donato a Scopeto, but the canvas (Florence, Uffizi) was left unfinished as was the Saint Jerome in the Vatican. Among completed paintings accepted as autograph by most connoisseurs, the only surviving examples from this early period are the Benois Madonna (St. Petersburg, Hermitage), the Virgin with Flowers (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), a predella panel of the Annunciation (Florence, Uffizi), and the jewel-like portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (Washington, D.C., National Gallery).

The Anonimo Gaddiano and Vasari report that Leonardo was sent to Milan as a sort of cultural ambassador by Lorenzo the Magnificent, but the Codex Atlanticus (f.391r.a) contains the draft of a résumé in which Leonardo summarizes his abilities and offers his services to the Milanese ruler. In any case, Leonardo settled there in 1481/82 and for the next seventeen years was an esteemed member of the circle of humanists and scientists associated with the court of Ludovico Sforza. During this time Leonardo completed his first version of the Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86; Paris, Louvre), painted the Last Supper (1495-97) in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazia, produced several portraits including the Lady with an Ermine (1490-95; Cracow, Czartoryski Museum) which is thought to represent Ludovico's mistress Cecilia Gallerani, and decorated the Sala delle Asse (1498) in the Castello Sforzesco. Throughout his sojourn, Leonardo was engaged in creating a bronze equestrian monument commemorating the duke's father, Francesco Sforza. The colossal clay model was displayed in 1493 but never cast.

In addition to his work as a painter, Leonardo's advice was solicited by Ludovico on various architectural and engineering projects. He executed a model for the dome of Milan cathedral and with Donato Bramante helped supervise construction of the new cathedral at Pavia. He also designed fortifications and diabolical military machines, and made plans for an elaborate series of canals to improve trade and agriculture in Lombardy. In 1490 he designed complicated stage machinery for the production of Bellincioni's Il Paradiso, which entertained guests at the marriage of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella of Aragon. During this time, too, Leonardo composed important sections of his planned treatise on painting and undertook important scientific studies of botany and mechanics. He pursued his anatomical studies and collaborated with the mathematician Luca Pacioli, investigating problems relating to geometry.

With the defeat of the Sforza by the French in 1499, Leonardo left Milan, traveling to Florence by way of Mantua and then Venice. In Venice, he executed a plan of defense against a threatened Turkish invasion and presumably influenced the course of Venetian painting through contact with Giorgione. In 1502 he entered the service of Cesare Borgia, serving as his military engineer for ten months. In making military maps and city plans for the leader of the papal forces, Leonardo contributed to the development of cartography by adopting an imaginary viewpoint and applying mathematical perspective in order to project a rational representation of the actual landscape and by using gradations of color to suggest topographic fluctuations in the terrain.

At the height of his fame when he returned to Florence in 1503, he was commissioned to decorate a wall in the large audience hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo's skill in portraying violent emotions and rendering complicated postures of men and animals made the struggle for the standard in the Battle of Anghiari a consummate expression of the fury of battle. Unfortunately, Leonardo took the opportunity to experiment and the medium he developed failed to adhere properly. The painting began to deteriorate before it was completed and the project was abandoned. Nevertheless, Leonardo's vivid design - like its counterpart, Michelangelo's lostBattle of Cascina - became a "school for artists." 5 At this time the Florentine government also engaged Leonardo to help in its war against Pisa. He devised a plan to divert the Arno River around the enemy city, but this vast undertaking was abandoned soon after excavations began in 1504.

While in Florence Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (Paris, Louvre) as well as the lost Leda and Madonna with a Yarnwinder (known today only through copies) but he was increasingly preoccupied with scientific matters. Isabella d'Este sought a painting from Leonardo, but her agent, Fra Pietro da Novellara, explained, "he is working hard at geometry and has absolutely no patience to spare for painting." 6 Manuscripts from this period reveal that Leonardo carried out systematic dissections in preparation for a treatise on the structure of the human body. Giving equal importance to text and illustration, Leonardo's Notebooks mark an important advance in the design of technical literature. In Florence, too, Leonardo studied the principles of flight and the laws governing air currents and the movement of water in preparation for a comprehensive treatise on the primary forces of nature.

Returning to Milan in 1506 at the request of the French governor Charles d'Amboise, Leonardo became involved in another frustrating sculptural project, a monumental equestrian statue commemorating Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the military commander who had ousted Leonardo's former patron. This enterprise never advanced beyond preliminary drawings. However, Leonardo continued his anatomical studies in collaboration with the physician Marcantonio della Torre of Pavia University and also proceeded with his hydraulic and geophysical investigations. In connection with the planning of a canal to link Milan with Lake Como, Leonardo discovered fossils. His study of the disturbed stratification of the earth's crust in this area led him to hypothesize in theCodex Hammer that tremendous geophysical forces had raised the land which had once been covered by the sea. Drawings at Windsor of the peculiar rock formations suggest the unique integration of scientific and aesthetic observation characteristic of Leonardo. These studies, in combination with his observations concerning the movement of water and air, serve as the point of departure for his late, visionary drawings at Windsor that represent apocalyptic cataclysms.

The allied armies of Spain, Venice, and the papacy forced the French from Milan in 1512, precipitating Leonardo's departure as well. In 1513 he settled in Rome where he enjoyed the patronage of Giuliano de' Medici, brother of Pope Leo X. Given a workshop in the Belvedere palace, Leonardo made plans for the draining of the Pontine marshes and studied mirrors and mechanics. Notebooks from this period feature mathematical puzzles and Vasari describes elaborate practical jokes Leonardo perpetrated in Rome. For example, "on a curious lizard. . . he fastened scales taken from other lizards, dipped in quicksilver, which trembled as it moved, and after giving it eyes, a horn and a beard, he tamed it and kept it in a box. All the friends to whom he showed it ran away terrified." 7 That he produced little of an artistic nature reflects, perhaps, a definitive shift in focus from art to science or perhaps an unwillingness to enter into the political machinations necessary to compete with Michelangelo and Raphael for commissions.

While in Rome Leonardo maintained contact with the French and following the death of Giuliano in 1516 he accepted an offer from François I, who gave him the château of Cloux. According to the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the king believed that no other man "knew as much as Leonardo. . . in the spheres of painting, sculpture and architecture" and "that he was a very great philosopher" as well. 8 For the king, he made theatrical designs, contrived a system of canals for the Loire, and planned a residence for the queen-mother at Romorantin. Around this time Leonardo was partially paralyzed by a stroke and though he was no longer able to paint, he continued to teach and to record the results of his scientific inquiries. In 1517 he was visited by Cardinal Louis of Aragon whose secretary, Antonio de'Beatis, reported seeing three paintings, a treatise on anatomy, and "an infinite number of volumes" on a variety of subjects. The following year Leonardo made a will in which his papers were left to Francesco Melzi, a decision that resulted eventually in the complicated history of these precious manuscripts. Leonardo died in 1519 after sixty-seven years of ceaseless intellectual endeavor.

Vasari's biography was the first extended effort to explain an extraordinarily complicated individual. Since he wrote, studies devoted to Leonardo have multiplied exponentially and the Guzzetta Collection of Vinciana is but one of several repositories that testify to Leonardo's enduring fascination. In the centuries since his death, artists as distinct as Rubens and Poussin were influenced by his accomplishments and men of such differing temperaments as Goethe, Valéry, and Freud have conjured with his towering genius. Generations of scholars have struggled to compensate for the paucity of facts and the tantalizingly fragmentary form in which his work survives. They have traced the sources and development of his ideas, analyzed his artistic and scientific accomplishments, and documented his influence. This activity has unearthed new information pertaining to Leonardo's multifarious pursuits and elicited new insights into his personality. As a result, the course of his life and the significance of his achievements can be defined more precisely than before. Nevertheless, the extraordinary scope of Leonardo's interests and the compelling beauty of his paintings and drawings continue to inspire artists as well as new analyses. The Guzzetta Collection will surely continue to grow because Leonardo and his work remain as beguiling and enigmatic as the smile with which he endowed his most famous painting.



  1. Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. A. B. Hinds, 4 vols. (London, 1970), II, pp. 158-68 passim.
  2.  The documentary sources are gathered in Beltrami, Documenti (No. 89).
  3.  English translations of the Giovio and Gaddiano texts and a summary of Billi's notes are gathered in Ludwig Goldscheider, Leonardo da Vinci: Life and Work (London: Phaidon, 1959), pp. 28-32.
  4.  Vasari, Lives, II, pp. 157-58.
  5.  Ibid., IV, p. 119.
  6.  Cited in D. S. Chambers, Patrons and Artists in the Renaissance (Columbia, S.C., 1971), p. 145.
  7.  Vasari, op. cit., p. 166.
  8.  Benvenuto Cellini, "Della architettura," in Opere, ed. Bruno Maier (Milan: Rizzoli, 1968), p. 859, cited in Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (No. 389), p. 156.