Leonardo da Vinci, the consummate Renaissance man, was born on April 15, 1452 near the town of Vinci. Nothing about this artist and architect, musician and mathematician, scientist and sculptor, engineer and inventor, geologist and botanist was ever ordinary.
The illegitimate son of an unmarried country girl and a prosperous legal professional, Leonardo began his apprenticeship in Florence. From an early age, he sketched, designed, painted and sculpted like no one else. He looked like no one else, with carefully curled locks in his youth and a prophet’s chest-long beard in age. He rode like a champion, so strong that a biographer claimed he could bend a horseshoe with his hands.
“I wish to work miracles,” Leonardo wrote. But his creative designs were often so technically complex that he never could complete them. Despite some major commissions, he never carved a niche for himself in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Florence.
Around 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan and the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. For almost two decades, he pursued his quest to penetrate the secrets of light, water, air, dreams, madness, even the nature and location of the soul. He calculated the ideal proportions for a human figure, based on the geometry of the ancient architect Vitruvius. He dreamed of soaring like an eagle and drew plans for gravity-defying “flying machines.”
True to his mantra of saper vedere (knowing how to see), Leonardo filled notebooks with lists and pithy observations and designed prototypes for an armored tank and a submarine. Awed by life in all its forms, he ate no animal flesh and bought caged birds only to set them free. In The Last Supper, Leonardo brought to painting such remarkable verisimilitude that Christ and his apostles seemed to breathe as they gathered to share their final meal together.
In 1500 a French invasion of Milan forced Leonardo to flee to Florence. Over the next few feverish years, he would join the employ of the infamous Cesare Borgia as an engineer, spar with the upstart sculptor Michelangelo, attempt unparalleled artistic feats and suffer ignominious failures.
Through these years and beyond, he lavished time and attention on the one portrait he would keep with him for the rest of his life. Italians call it La Giocanda, which may translate into the “laughing girl” or merely be a variation on her married name of Giocondo. Its English name, Mona Lisa, translates as “Madame” Lisa, the proper title for a woman of her stature in Renaissance Florence.
Political upheavals once again forced Leonardo to move. Around 1516 he settled in Rome, even as he began to feel the bite of the “hard teeth of the years,” as he put it. Still fascinated by the human body, he continued his anatomical studies — until they drew the pope’s ire. The artist needed a new home.
No place in Italy offered Leonardo refuge, but the French King Francis I volunteered his patronage. In 1516, at age 64, Leonardo embarked on the longest journey of his life — a three-month trek from Rome to Amboise. There he found a safe harbor in a handsome manor house adjacent to the monarch’s great chateau. In this serene setting Leonardo continued to think, advise, sketch and teach until his death on May 2, 1519.
The world’s fascination with Leonardo never faded. His name remains synonymous with genius; his Mona Lisa, the most recognized painting of all time; his works, the inspiration of generations of admirers. Why? Leonardo himself offers an explanation.
“Beauty in life perishes,” he wrote in his journals, “not in art.” And so the beauty of Leonardo’s works and of his brilliant mind lives on — 568 years after his birth.
The London-based Corona Crisis Collective, which is bringing together an international array of contributors, asked me to write and record a tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci on the occasion of his April birthday. You can watch the video on YouTube.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World, LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.