Leonardo da Vinci: Part 1 – The Archetype Renaissance Man

Myself . .

By T.V. Antony Raj


A B&W copy of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to the Italian painter Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490-1547) (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
A B&W copy of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to the Italian painter Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490-1547) (National Gallery of Art, Washington).  According to author Maike Vogt-Luerssen, this painting is a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and the National Gallery of Art has wrongly attributed it to the Italian painter Cariani who was not even born when the maestro created it.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the greatest painters of all time. He is perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. Leonardo was a polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. His genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo was the archetype of the Renaissance Man.

Title page of the 1568 edition of the Vite (Source: Wikipedia)
Title page of the 1568 edition of the Vite (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1550, the 16th-century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari published “Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri” (“The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times”). The title is often abridged to the Vite or the Lives. This work is considered perhaps the most famous, and even today the most-read work of the older literature of art. It was the first important book on the history of art.

In his work, Vasari described Leonardo as having qualities that “transcended nature” and being “marvellously endowed with beauty, grace and talent in abundance”.

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci. It is a Tuscan hill town in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of the Medici-ruled Republic of Florence. He was born out-of-wedlock to the wealthy Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine legal notary. His mother Caterina was a peasant. Though she nursed him as a baby, he never knew her because she soon got married to a craftsman in the region. Leonardo’s full birth name was Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci“, meaning “Leonardo, (son) of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci”. The inclusion of the title “ser” indicates that Leonardo’s father was a gentleman.

Leonardo's childhood home in Anchiano (Source: Lucarelli/Wikimedia)
Leonardo’s childhood home in Anchiano (Source: Lucarelli/Wikimedia)

Not much is known about Leonardo’s early life. He spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano in the home of his mother. Then, from 1457, he lived in the household of his father, in the small town of Vinci. He received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics. His lack of formal education encouraged him to develop the faculties that made him great.

According to Vasari, a local peasant requested young Leonardo to paint his round shield. Leonardo painted a terrifying monster spitting fire. It looked too good and Leonardo sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who in turn sold it to the Duke of Milan. Having made a profit, Leonardo bought a shield decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow and gave it to the peasant.

Leonardo began his artistic life, in 1466, at the age of fourteen. His father, Ser Piero, noticed his son’s extraordinary artistic talents. He showed some of Leonardo’s drawings to his friend, sculptor-painter Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was “one of the finest in Florence”. Verrocchio accepted Leonardo for an apprenticeship. Other famous painters apprenticed or associated with the workshop include Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.  They were all a bit older than Leonardo.

The artists during the Renaissance period occupied quite a humble status in the social hierarchy. They were just artisans like any other craftsmen such as tailors or saddle makers.  Verrocchio’s employees did most of the work on the paintings in his workshop. The master would paint the main figures in a picture and the apprentices would draw the secondary figures and fill in the details.

The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).
The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

According to Vasari, Leonardo collaborated with Verrocchio on his The Baptism of Christ. Botticelli painted the angel with clasped hands. Leonardo painted the other angel holding Jesus’ robe in a manner that was far superior. When Verrocchio saw the figure of the angel that Leonardo had painted he put down his brush and never painted again.

Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying paint medium. It consisted of colour pigments mixed with a water-soluble glutinous binder medium, such as egg yolk or some other size. Egg tempera was the primary method of painting until that time. Afterwards, the invention of oil paint superseded it.

On close examination, the painting reveals the new technique of oil paint has been used to paint or touch-up over the tempera. The landscape, the rocks that can be seen through the brown mountain stream, and much of the figure of Jesus bear witness to the hand of Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci as the model for David in Andrea del Verrocchio's "'David and Goliath"
Leonardo da Vinci as the model for David in Andrea del Verrocchio’s “David and Goliath”

The Medici family commissioned Verrocchio to create the statue of “David and Goliath“. According to a popular legend, the model for the statue was Leonardo da Vinci, a young artist from Verrocchio’s studio. The placement of Goliath’s head has been the subject of debate. Some historians say that the head should be placed between David’s feet while others claim that it belongs to the right. However, the statue has been exhibited using both placements.

In the 15th century, Italy was a violent place to live in. It was a turbulent age of wars and revolutions with tremendous upheavals in society. Florence was a bustling city of 40,000 inhabitants. It had a boisterous populace where rival merchant dynasties fought each other for power. During his lifetime, Leonardo was valued as an engineer.

A design for a flying machine (an Ornithopter) by Leonardo da Vinci, (c. 1488) Institut de France, Paris
A design for a flying machine (an Ornithopter) by Leonardo da Vinci, (c. 1488) Institut de France, Paris

According to many Renaissance authors Leonardo “may be the most universally recognized left-handed artist of all time”. This fact manifests in most of his drawing and his written works. Some say that he wrote in mirror image in his notebooks because he was left-handed. Some writers have accused him of trying to protect his works, which claim seems to be false. Early Italian art connoisseurs were divided in their opinion as to whether Leonardo also drew with his right hand. More recently, most Anglo-American art historians have discounted the suggestions that Leonardo was ambidextrous.

Giorgio Vasari, in the enlarged edition of “The Lives” (1568), introduced his chapter on Leonardo da Vinci with the following words:

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”

Next → Leonardo da Vinci: Part 2 – His Sexuality




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