Leonardo Da Vinci: Biography, Style and Work

Introduction

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the best-known artists of all time. Perhaps the most famous Renaissance figure, possessed of a broad variety of interests, he left a lasting impact on both science and art. This essay aims to highlight his most celebrated works, describe his aesthetic and explain his role in art history.

Short Biography and Career Highlights

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15th, 1452 in Vinci, a town in the Republic of Florence. After moving to Florence with his father at the age of 12, he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio. After finishing his apprenticeship, he worked on his own until 1482, when he was forced to leave the city for Milan. In Milan, Leonardo sought Ludovico il Moro as a patron (Isaacson 113). The latter accepted, and da Vinci would work for him until the duke’s fall from power in 1499. During that time, the artist would create some of his most famous works, including The Last Supper. When Milan fell, Leonardo fled to Venice, working there as an engineer.

In 1500, da Vinci returned to Florence, boarding at the church of Santissima Annunziata. There, he would begin work on the Mona Lisa and Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. For part of 1502, he would travel with Cesare Borgia, but soon left his service and returned to Florence. In 1506, da Vinci moved to Milan, supposedly temporarily, but refused to return. He would work there until 1513, moving to Rome afterward. In 1516, Leonardo entered the service of Francis I, moving to France, where he lived until his death in 1519.

Da Vinci never married, nor did he have any known relationships or children. The only source of information concerning his personal life is the anonymous accusation of sodomy for which Leonardo was tried and acquitted, which became one of the reasons Leonardo left Florence for the first time. His later writings contain a condemnation of pleasures enjoyed in a bed as possible reasons for one’s failings in life (Isaacson 169).

Da Vinci’s Aesthetic

Da Vinci is one of the few great artists to leave behind a significant amount of writing about art, claims Clark (70). The foremost of it is the Trattato della Pittura, which has partly survived to our time. In it, he expresses his opinion that a painting is a recreation of the visible world. As such, in order to paint something the artist has to first comprehend the principles on which it operates.

Like many other Renaissance artists, da Vinci valued smooth, realistic movement in his art. However, according to Capra, “Leonardo was the only one who attempted to understand it within a scientific framework” (211). He performed numerous dissections and made a large number of high-quality anatomical drawings. This understanding of the human body lends his drawings a particular realism.

Da Vinci also attached great importance to light and its effects. Trattato della Pittura devotes a considerable amount of attention to the formation of shadows as well as perspective, defining multiple kinds of each. It even describes a way of drawing figures in perspective using a sheet of glass, a technique far ahead of its time (Muntz 63). As such, Leonardo preferred using oil for painting, disliking frescoes, as they did not give him the opportunity to use his knowledge fully.

Despite da Vinci’s fascination with the mathematics of painting, his work often shows a sensitive and unacademic use of the very things for which he created a foundation. Clark describes Leonardo’s imagination as “deeply romantic” and compares his ideas with those of Goya, “one of the most anti-classical painters” (78). He also notes that some of da Vinci’s most non-academic works date from long after the writing of the Trattato.

Examples of da Vinci’s Work

Da Vinci was a prolific artist who created numerous paintings, worked on sculptures, dabbled in architecture, and made countless sketches. However, none of his large sculpture projects were ultimately realized, and the same is true of his ambitious architectural ideas, according to Isaacson (390). As such, paintings remain the best examples of his art. Some of the best known, though not necessarily surviving, of them are described below.

Mona Lisa

The most famous of da Vinci’s paintings, the Mona Lisa was finished in 1506. Although damaged by time, it is still often described as the most beautiful depiction of a woman in art. The landscape behind her, however, is also full of detail and attention. However, according to Muntz, some scholars believe that the painting was left unfinished in Leonardo’s eyes (119).

The Last Supper

Another work whose name is familiar to everybody is The Last Supper painted from 1495 to 1498. According to Isaacson, the mural “shows his mastery of complex rules of natural and artificial perspective, but it also shows his flexibility at fudging those rules when necessary” (317). The Last Supper is famous for managing to not only capture a moment in time but also depict the unfolding situation. It does so by making every character’s intentions immediately apparent using exaggerated expressions and hand gestures.

The Battle of Anghiari

The Battle of Anghiari was a fresco in the Sala del Gran Consiglio of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. After its completion in 1505, it was soon ruined due to the failure of the experimental techniques used by da Vinci in its creation. Many reproductions have been attempted based on Leonardo’s preparatory studies, all of them imperfect, and some believe the original fresco is still hidden in its original location, under newer murals.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

Originally drawn for the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, Saint Anne is a great mystery. The original painting is lost, and the cartoons depicted in the Burlington House and the Louvre are different. According to Isaacson, the current conclusion by the scholarly community is that the Burlington House painting was the first (355). Then Saint John was replaced with a lamb for the church cartoon, and in the final version, displayed in the Louvre, the figures are reversed, changing sides.

Conclusion

One of the most influential artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci was a complex figure with a multitude of interests. He approached art as a science and as a form of expression at the same time. This attitude is apparent in his masterpieces, which combine academic perfection with a sense of life and continuity. His works are being analyzed even today, and discoveries are made, which does credit to his genius and image as a true “Renaissance Man.”

Works Cited

Capra, Fritjof. Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

Clark, Kenneth M. Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2017.

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Muntz, Eugene. Leonardo da Vinci. Parkstone Press, 2011.