Leonardo's Life

Early Years

Leonardo was born on, "Saturday April 15, [1452] at three o'clock in the night". We know this to be correct as the quote is from notes written by Leonardo's grandfather. It should be noted that three o'clock in the night is the equivalent of 10.30 p.m. today. Confusion arises depending upon whether people use the Florentine style of time or the common style now used.

Leonardo's birthplace was the small village of Vinci located between the Tuscan cities of Pistoia and Empoli. He was the illegitimate son of notary (official), Ser Piero d'Antonio and a peasant woman named Caterina. Little is known of her, but she probably came from the village of Anchiano and may have been a barmaid. It is almost definite that she had contact with her son throughout her life.

After the baby's birth Ser Piero was quickly convinced to marry into a wealthy family while Caterina was married off to a cowherd. Initially, Leonardo lived with his grandparents on his father's side. After some years had passed Ser Piero realised that his wife could not have children; at this time Leonardo was taken to be raised and educated in his father's house.

Some authors have Leonardo as spending the first five years of his childhood living with his mother, and/or bearing the brunt of much misery from later arriving legitimate half-brothers. However, his grandfather's notes also show us that the child was baptised and accepted into his father's side of the family immediately. It is known that he could not have been the object of teasing from half-brothers as it was not until Ser Piero's third wife that there were to be any legitimate sons; by this time Leonardo was 24. During that period in history illegitimate and legitimate children were bought up together, even in the most noble of homes. Wives would not register any protest over this and there was no stigma attached.

Even as a young child Leonardo showed extraordinary talent, being quick at music and learning to play the lyre; he could also sing beautifully and was strong in the area of mathematics. At a young age he was often to be found out sketching plants and animals.


When, in 1468, his paternal grandfather died the family moved to Florence. It was at this stage that his father decided the boy had unusual artistic talents and decided to send him to study with the most sought after Florentine master of the time. Andrea Verrocchio was a renown sculptor, painter and goldsmith, all areas Leonardo would study while apprenticed to him. Little remains of Verrocchio's painted works and not much is known of Leonardo's activities during this stage though his apprenticeship would have been the same as those available to all of Verrocchio's students. This involved grinding and mixing pigments, learning geomatry and the mixing of colours, preparing panels correctly so they could receive paintings, the actual act of painting itself and the working of clay and casting bronze.

In 1472, Leonardo was enrolled as a master in the Company of Painters; this indicates that his actual apprenticeship to Verrocchio had probably ended by this time, though he stayed at his master's workshop. Although he is best remembered for his paintings, very few artists painted as little and drew as much as Leonardo. While very limited numbers of paintings have survived their creator, Leonardo's drawings of people, places and things are very numerous with over 10,000 being found in various parts of the world. He always wrote extensive notes on his subject and these were obviously never thought of by him as being for publication as they were often written in codes and mirror writing.


There are no records of Leonardo's activities between 1476-1478 and no documents to place him either in Florence or anywhere else. The best that is known is that an anonymous charge of homosexuality was made early in this period by a person who wrote a letter to the city governors. After some intervention by both the defendant's family and Verrocchio the charges were dismissed, but if true that may explain why he spent much of his life as a recluse. There is certainly no evidence that he ever showed any interest in women, except as mother figures. Many people have exhausted much time trying to prove or disprove the theory that Leonardo was a homosexual. According to Freud the following sentence, taken from one of Leonardo's notebooks, "indicates his frigidity".

"The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions."

In 1480 Leonardo became a member of the garden of San Marcos run under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. This was also the year that he was commissioned to paint the Adoration of the Magi for the church of San Donato Scopeto, just outside of Florence.  But Leonardo was ready to move on; exactly why is unknown but it may have been due to his disappointment at not being one of the four masters chosen to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Duke of Milan

1482 saw him writing to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza listing his capabilities as a designer of both civil and military machines. Italy was being afflicted by wars between the various city-states; this was followed by a French invasion. This was a time of rapid development of firearms and explosives and military engineers were important figures. Leonardo's had many ideas for fortifications, bridges, weapons, and river diversions to flood the enemy.

Leonardo's letter of introduction follows:

"Most illustrious Lord, having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use of the said instruments does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened without prejudice to anyone else to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below.

1. I have plans for bridges, very light and strong and suitable for carrying very easily, with which to pursue and at times defeat the enemy; and others solid and indestructible by fire or assault, easy and convenient to carry and place in position. And plans for burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. When a place is besieged I know how to cut off water from the trenches, and how to construct an infinite number of bridges, battering rams, scaling ladders, and other instruments which have to do with the same enterprise.

3. Also if a place cannot be reduced by the method of bombardment, either through the height of its glacis or the strength of its position, I have plans for destroying every fortress or other stronghold unless it has been founded upon rock.

4. I also have plans for making cannon, very convenient and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones in the manner almost of hail, causing great terror to the enemy  from their smoke, and great loss and confusion.

5. And if it should happen that the engagement was at sea, I have plans for constructing many engines most suitable either for attack or defense, and ships which can resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon, and powder and smoke.

School of Athens by Raphael -- Vatican Church, Vatican City
School of Athens (detail)
by Raphael
Vatican Church, Vatican City

6. Also I have ways of arriving at a certain fixed spot by caverns and secret winding passages, made without any noise even though it may be necessary to pass underneath trenches or a river.

7. Also I can make armoured cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the serried ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and there is no company of men at arms so great that they will break it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.

8. Also, if need shall arise, I can make cannon, mortars, and light ordnance, of very beautiful and useful shapes, quite different from those in common use.

9. Where it is not possible to employ cannon, I can supply catapaults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other engines of wonderful efficacy not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances shall necessitate, I can supply an infinite number of different engines of attack and defense.

10. In time of peace I believe I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in architecture in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting, in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else whoever he may be.

Moreover, I would like to undertake the work of the bronze horse, which shall endue with immortal glory and eternal honour the auspicious memory of the Prince your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility."

It is interesting that the mention of Leonardo's artistic talents is almost an afterthought and it is considered he thought his abilities as an engineer were far more important that his talent with a brush or sketchpad.

To this letter there was actually no reply as princes only ever answered messages from those who were princes themselves. Nevertheless, Leonardo was summoned to court one day where it is said he was the least nervous of the pair.


In 1500, after many years serving in Milan, Leonardo returned to Florence. By this stage he was a celebrated genius in both painting and engineering. He was also known for a number of celebrated failures, including an overly ambitious design for a bronze equestrian statue. It was here that Leonardo met up with another great genius in the form of Michelangelo. He mocked Leonardo about the unfinished statue and Leonardo was deeply hurt. This would lead to a never ending rivalry between the two, although they had much in common.

In 1503, both were commissioned to produce major murals for the great council hall in the Palazzo Vecchio. Neither finished. Both would also help lead a revolution in anatomy. At that stage in history doctors still relied upon text books and tradition. Artists, as well as doctors, changed everything by beginning to dissect bodies and recording the results accurately. The work of artists and doctors during the Renaissance was often very similar.

Starting about this time, Leonardo developed his dreams of flying and over the next two years he filled a notebook with sketches and studies of bird flight. He also designed a parachute and a helicopter, amongst other flying machines.


Leonardo went to Rome in 1513 where he worked for Giuliano de' Medici and occupied rooms in the Belvedere Palace of the Vatican. The next two years involved much illness for the artist and he was often frustrated during this period. He experimented with flight a little by attempting to attach homemade wings to a lizard; other than this most of his time was spent working on geometric and optical puzzles or creating new types of art oils and varnishes. There is little evidence that Leonardo painted actively after he left Rome.

In 1516, the move was made to France where Leonardo was to work for Francois I. The King provided him with lodgings in a house called Cloux which still stands and has been carefully restored. Though still able to draw Leonardo was already a very sick man and his right hand was partially paralysed due to a stroke. Most of his time was spent organising his notebooks and the King did not require he carry out commissions, though Leonardo had to suffer frequent royal visits and produce plans for festivals and plays. The King would enter the manor house of Cloux via a stretch of tunnel connected to the castle at Amboise. One of the items Leonardo made for him during this period was a mechanical lion with a breast that opened to reveal lilies.


Leonardo died quietly on the 2nd May, 1519 just a few weeks after his 67th birthday. He was buried in the Church of St Florentine, but his remains were scattered during the Wars of Religion. Three centuries later the French artist Jean Auguste Dominique painted a romantic deathbed picture showing the King of France leaning over the dying Leonardo and cradling him in his arms. In reality, the king was not present at the death, but was off celebrating the birth of his second son.

Others also displayed their admiration of Leonardo at various times during and after his life. Italian painter Raphael depicted Leonardo as the Greek philosopher Plato in his famed work School of Athens. This was somewhat ironic since Greek and Latin were two languages Leonardo never mastered, despite making many attempts. The painting shows Plato holding his Timaeus while beside him stands Aristotle with his Ethics.


Giorgio Vasari would write in his biography on Leonardo that, "Everywhere, his mind turned to difficult matters". This was a recognition of Leonardo's great range of capabilities. Once he had mastered painting, he went on to anatomy, bridge building, flight, war machines, cartography, architecture, mathematics, geology, biology, natural history, music, philosophy, and even the telling of fables. He did so much that one article on the life of Leonardo da Vinci could only hope to skim the surface of this amazing man.

Note: Giorgio Vasari was best known for his work Lives of the Artists, the first edition being published in 1550, and the heavily expanded second edition following in 1568. Vasari particularly admired Michelangelo and his talents as a sculptor, painter, architect and poet. Vasari himself could claim to be an accomplished author, painter and architect.