Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the painter of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. He was one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. He was also an inventor and a man of science, as we know from his marvellous notebooks. He is the definition of genius. Although his art made him famous, it was his military inventions that made him the most money.
Until the French Revolution in 1789, his most famous painting was the Last Supper: the Mona Lisa was the private possession of the king of France. It was not until the overthrow of the king that the Mona Lisa became well known.
Although we have seen the Mona Lisa countless times in countless ways, somehow it still has a pull on us. It was certainly the painting that Leonardo liked best: he took it with him everywhere and kept working on till the end of his life.
He learned to paint from Verrocchio, who taught him to observe closely and think about the underlying structure. This became the foundation not only of his painting but also his science.
We take this sort of thinking for granted now, but up until his time men got their science from old books and painted nature the way they thought of it, not the way it really looked. So, while both Leonardo and Botticelli knew how to paint a woman, Botticelli’s trees look man-made.
And Leonardo’s eye was quick: he drew pictures of birds in flight that we did not know were right till centuries later when we slowed down films of flying birds.
Leonardo’s mind was very fertile, maybe too fertile:
- He found it difficult to finish what he started.The Last Supper took him years to finish. Two of his greatest works were never finished.
- He invented new ways of painting but used them before they were proven.This led to the ruin of his Battle of Anghiari, which might have turned out to be his greatest work. It is also why the Last Supper has not held up over the years.
Throughout his life he kept notebooks. He carried them everywhere. In them he drew and wrote about his ideas, observations, inventions and paintings.
He had a vast curiosity. He wanted to know the secrets of nature. Why does the wind blow? How is the human body made? How do birds fly? He was especially interested in water, wind, the earth, shadows, plants, animals and the human body.
Leonardo wanted to learn how to fly. He watched birds endlessly to figure out how they did it. He finally made wings for himself. They were enough to keep him in the air for a bit, but not enough to fly.
Even though a lot of his paintings were religious (the Church had money), he was not all that religious himself. He doubted Noah’s Flood and had a low opinion of the Church. But in his final years he became more serious about religion.