Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath from Tuscany, died 500 years ago this year. He was both an artist and scientist, who, despite his lowly origins, kept company with the most powerful men of the Renaissance.
Science and art belonged together for Leonardo da Vinci. Actually, for him, everything belonged together. He was curious and wanted to understand the world, and let his scientific knowledge flow into his art. Even as a child, he sat down outside with a little book, watched the clouds float by and wrote down what he saw. As an adult, he secretly dissected corpses to expand his knowledge of body composition, muscles, joints and proportions.
From the countryside into pulsating Florence
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Anchiano, a district of the municipality of Vinci in Tuscany. His parents, a notary and a 16-year-old maid, were not married, so Leonardo grew up with his grandfather. He loved to draw and managed to reap an apprentice position in the studio of renowned sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio carried out commissions from the Medici family —merchants and bankers who controlled Florence with their power and money for centuries.
Revolution in portrait painting
Leonardo da Vinci entered the higher circles and became a member of the Guild of St. Luke, a Florentine artists' association. He peacefully painted portraits and images of the Madonna, keeping some of them in his studio for decades, reworking them again and again. One such painting is likely the most famous artwork in the world, the Mona Lisa, which hangs in Paris' Louvre museum.
Women seemed to have a particular hold on the painter, whether looking out at him in dreamy fashion or with a self-confident gaze. But that was only on canvas. In his private life, he was more interested in men. He also went against conventions in his portrait painting, choosing to depict his female sitters looking straight out at the viewer rather than in profile, which was customary at the time.
Works removed from traditional art
But to reduce Leonardo da Vinci only to his painting does not do him justice. For one thing, he did not leave so many paintings behind. Only a good dozen are clearly attributed to him today. In addition, there are far more anatomy studies as well as sketches, blueprints and texts written in mirror writing that have nothing to do with art per se, such as designs for tanks, aircraft or diving equipment. He constructed bridges and designed an entire city, but most of his ideas were never realized.
Florence, Milan and Rome — the capital cities of the Renaissance were his domain. He found his clients there: rich families and even the Pope was among them. In 1516, King Francis I of France invited him to his home, paid him well and gave him every freedom to devote himself to his projects. One of his tasks was to organize pompous festivities there.
On May 2, 1519, the universal genius died in Château Clos Lucé — according to legend, in the arms of the French king.
Numerous exhibitions in Europe this year focus on the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. The Louvre in Paris is showing a retrospective from October 24, 2019 to February 24, 2020. Hamburg's Kunsthalle features the da Vinci drawings in its collection from June 5 to June 19. From May 24 to October 13, 200 of the artist's drawings will also be exhibited at Buckingham Palace in London. And, of course, Italy is organizing a series of events to celebrate the genius born in Tuscany; Milan is the central hub of the "Leonardo500" program.