Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci (Leonardo, son of Mr Piero of Vinci) was born in Vinci on 15th April 1452. His father was Messer Piero Frousino di Antonio da Vinci, a wealthy notary and gentleman of the area. His mother was a local peasant girl, Caterina.
For the first few years of his life, Leonardo lived with his mother in Anchiano, but at the age of five went to live with his father, uncle and grandparents. His father had recently married a 16 year old girl, Albeira who died a few years later. His father married again, this time to a 20 year old, Francesca Lanfredini, Leonardo was 16 at this time. Leonardo remained the only child until his father’s subsequent third and fourth marriages. His mother had also married again, and between them his parents eventually gave Leonardo seventeen half-siblings.
Leonardo’s life with his father’s family gave him access to a wide range of academic material, and by the time he was fifteen he was demonstrating a talent for art, which his family were noted for. His father as a result had Leonardo apprenticed to famous Andrea del Verrochio of Florence whose workshop was renowned throughout Italy. Other artists associated with the workshop include Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. During the years he was there Leonardo learned many crafts such as metalwork, sculpture mechanics, chemistry, leatherwork and carpentry.
At the age of 20, da Vinci was accepted into the Guild of St Luke and set up his own workshop. He was later involved in a 1476 court case to answer charges of sodomy along with three contemporaries, against a known male prostitute but was acquitted and subsequently disappeared for two years. The question of da Vinci’s sexuality is one often raised and never answered, however to date no record of romantic liaisons with any woman, marriage or children have been discovered.
By 1478 he received his first two commissions, one for the Chapel of St Bernard in Palazzo Vecchio and the other at a monastery, however neither work was completed. By 1480, Leonardo was said to be in the employ of the Medici family from where he travelled around Milan firstly to present a gift to the Duke from Lorenzo de Medici and later to work on other commissions, most notably his famous ‘Last Supper’. His mother died in 1495, her funeral expenses are listed amongst his surviving effects.
The Duke commissioned da Vinci on a few large projects, a dome for the Cathedral and a bronze statue; Michelangelo insulted Leonardo by saying he wasn’t talented enough to build the statue, and the bronze was eventually given over to make cannon. The clay model of the horse which Leonardo built to work the statue from was used by the invading French as target practice in 1499. The French succeeded in ousting the Duke, and left Leonardo without his main sponsor. For the next sixteen years or so, Leonardo travelled Italy, working with various renowned figures, including Cesare Borgia and Niccolo Machiavelli.
Da Vinci’s most famous work is without a doubt the small panel Mona Lisa, which was never presented to the original commission. Leonardo began the piece in 1503 and carried it around with him for the rest of his life. Various theories surround its inspiration, including that it was the wife of a merchant, Lisa Gioconda. Rumours claim da Vinci may or may not have been intimately involved with the merchant, with his wife’s agreement. Other theories are that it is not the portrait of a woman at all, but a man, maybe da Vinci himself, in drag. The work was never completed to his satisfaction, and after being bequeathed to his friend, assistant and possible lover, Francesco Melzi, on his death, the priceless picture, arguably the most famous portrait in the world, resides behind bulletproof glass in the Louvre.
His father died in 1504, and his half-siblings banded together to ensure da Vinci was cheated of his inheritance, however Leonardo got his revenge when his Uncle died later, and became the sole heir to the land and money he left.
Da Vinci has since become famous not for the 15 recognised pieces of art he left, but works of other genre. With a posthumously estimated IQ of 220, greater than that of anybody else, da Vinci was an icon of anatomy, mechanics, mathematics and invention. His papers include designs for helicopters, armoured vehicles and contemporary detailed sketches of the human body at a time when dissection was frowned upon for religious and moral implications, and before the subsequent ground-breaking discoveries attributed to leaders in that field such as fellow Italian Andrea Vesalius. One of his other well-known works was Vitruvian man, based on the correlation of the proportions of man with geometry as per the teachings of ancient Roman Architect Vitruvius. Da Vinci died in on May 2nd 1519 in France. Legend has it that his close friend and sponsor, King Francis I of France was by his side as he passed away.
Da Vinci left behind thousands of notes and manuscripts, which were over time to become located in their present collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Windsor Castle, the Louvre and the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana. One collection is held by Bill Gates. Many of these notes are written in mirror-cursive which was originally thought to be some sort of code, but then was attributed to da Vinci’s left-handedness. Since his death, in more recent times, Leonardo has been linked with various secret religious cults, including the Illuminati, where he has been claimed as a keeper of the Holy Grail, the secret to Christ’s bloodline. But that’s another story, one probably best told by Dan Brown.