Engraving of Leonardo da Vinci

On this day in history: Death of Leonardo da Vinci

Culture History of Italy News

Leonardo da Vinci, born on April 15, 1452, in Anchiano near Vinci, Republic of Florence (Italy), passed away on May 2, 1519, in Cloux (now Clos-Lucé), France. He remains an icon of the Renaissance era.

Da Vinci’s multifaceted talents as a painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer epitomize the ideals of Renaissance humanism. Among his most celebrated works are “The Last Supper” (1495–98) and the “Mona Lisa” (c. 1503–19), both of which have left an indelible mark on art history.

Leonardo’s insatiable thirst for knowledge was the driving force behind his remarkable career. His keen sense of observation and scientific inquiry, far ahead of his time, are evident in his extensive notebooks, which document his studies in anatomy, mechanics, and various other fields.

He considered sight as humanity’s most potent sense, believing it to be the primary source of knowledge, and his motto, “saper vedere” (“knowing how to see”), underscores his commitment to understanding the world around him.

Early Life

Raised on his father’s estate, Leonardo received a traditional education before apprenticing under the esteemed artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. His formative years in Verrocchio’s workshop exposed him to a diverse range of artistic and technical skills, laying the foundation for his future endeavours.

In 1482, Leonardo ventured to Milan, where he served Duke Ludovico Sforza as a painter, sculptor, and engineer for 17 prolific years.

First Milan period (1482-99)

The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
The Virgin of the Rocks

During his first Milanese period, Leonardo produced several notable works, including “The Virgin of the Rocks” and the monumental mural “The Last Supper.” His works also extended to engineering projects, such as the ambitious design for an equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, although this project remained unfinished due to the outbreak of war. Despite facing setbacks, Leonardo’s influence continued to grow, attracting a cadre of talented disciples and collaborators.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper

Second Florentine Period (1500-08)

The subsequent years saw Leonardo’s artistic output diversify, as evidenced by commissions for the “Mona Lisa” and “The Battle of Anghiari.” The latter was a mural for the Palazzo Vecchio, which remained unfinished, as was the complementary painting by Michelangelo of the Battle of Cascina.

Read: The Battle of the Frescoes

However, his interests extended far beyond the realm of art; he pursued scientific studies in anatomy, hydrodynamics, and optics with equal fervour.

At the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Leonardo conducted dissections, expanding his anatomical investigations to encompass a thorough examination of the human body’s structure and function. Additionally, he meticulously observed bird flight, intending to compile his findings into a treatise.

His studies on hydrology, initially focused on the nature and movement of water, evolved into a comprehensive exploration of water’s physical properties, particularly the principles governing currents. These diverse pursuits were meticulously documented in his personal collection of data, known as the Codex Hammer (formerly referred to as the Leicester Codex).

Second Milanese Period (1508-13)

 Da Vinci’s second stint in Milan was marked by further scientific exploration, including collaborations with prominent anatomists and ambitious plans for architectural projects.

Leonardo received honours and admiration from his patrons in Milan, including Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, who valued his expertise primarily in architectural consultations.

Evidence of his contributions can be found in his plans for a palace-villa commissioned by Charles, along with speculated sketches for an oratory funded by Charles for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana.

Additionally, Leonardo revisited a previous project endorsed by the French governor: the development of the Adda River as a water route connecting Milan to Lake Como.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Years

In 1513, political upheavals prompted Leonardo to depart for Rome, where he sought patronage from Pope Leo X. Despite the vibrant artistic atmosphere of the city, Leonardo’s time in Rome yielded few major commissions. Disillusioned, he eventually accepted an invitation from King Francis I of France in 1516, spending his final years in the royal court at Amboise.

While in France, Leonardo devoted himself primarily to scientific pursuits, organising and refining his extensive research. Though his artistic output dwindled during this period, his influence remained profound, as evidenced by his enduring reputation as a master of the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci passed away at Cloux in 1519, leaving behind a legacy that transcends disciplines and generations.

Summary of the works of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s painting oeuvre is relatively modest; only 17 surviving paintings can be definitively attributed to him, with several left incomplete. Notably, key works such as “The Battle of Anghiari” and “Leda” remain known only through copies, their original versions lost to time.

However, despite this limited output, Leonardo’s artistic legacy is unparalleled. Revered as the High Renaissance’s progenitor by Giorgio Vasari, his works have transcended changing aesthetic trends, universally recognized as exemplars of painting mastery across centuries and cultures.

The years between 1490 and 1495 marked the inception of Leonardo’s prolific literary endeavours. During this period, his passion for both art and science flourished, laying the groundwork for his future accomplishments and fostering a unique creative duality that fuelled his ingenuity in both realms.

He began to outline four principal themes that would dominate his lifelong pursuits: treatises on painting and architecture, a work on mechanics, and a rudimentary exploration of human anatomy.

Pages from one of da Vinci's notebooks

Additionally, his exploration into geophysics, botany, hydrology, and aerology commenced during this time, forming integral components of his expansive “visible cosmology,” a distant aspiration he continually pursued.

Rejecting speculative knowledge, Leonardo embraced firsthand experience – saper Vedere – valuing the undeniable truths derived from direct observation over mere book learning.

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