[Authors note: Leonardo was so multi-talented that his accomplishments look almost unbelievable: Artist, Inventor, Sculptor, Engineer, Architect, Musician, Writer, Philosopher, and more. Of one thing, there is no doubt; he was an outstanding observer. His observations fed a bright, fertile mind and artistic hands. I have divided this chapter into a brief history of his life followed by four illustrated pages showing him as Inventor, Scientist, Painter and Sculptor.]


Leonardo was born in the small town of Vinci near Florence, Italy. His parents were not married and almost nothing is known of his mother. Although there was some stigma to being illegitimate, it was not uncommon (Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, had at least four bastard children) and it does not appear to have affected Leonardo adversely.

Leonardo grew up in his grandfather’s house and spent much time with his uncle Francesco. He learnt to love the outdoors, nature and drawing at a young age. He disliked Latin and Greek but was brilliant at Math. Then, as a teenager in Florence, he studied with the master artist Verrochio, developing his painting, sculpting and metalworking skills.

People came to notice this talented young man, not only for his artistic and musical skills (he sang and played the viola well) but, because of his striking appearance. Tall and handsome he had long curly hair, like his namesake, the lion.

The beautiful city of Florence had a population of 100,000 people at the height of the Renaissance and although it was a time of creativity, learning and discovery (America was found and the printing press was invented) it was also a time of war. Any artist wanting to participate in grand projects had to put himself at the mercy of rich people in power, and Leonardo would see his own fortunes rise and fall along with those of his sponsors.

But for the moment, Leonardo was enjoying life, he loved parties and entertained friends with songs, stories and conjuring tricks. He could make people laugh and would sometimes draw their expressions in his notebook. He kept notes of his observations all his life, and being left-handed found it easier to write from right-to-left (easily decipherable by holding the manuscript to a mirror). He was so skilled at drawing, it was said he could start at a point and continue drawing one line until he returned to that point, leaving behind a horse rendered in perfect proportion.

In 1478, with Leonardo aged 26, peace was shattered when the ruler of Florence, “Lorenzo the Magnificent” and his brother were attacked in church. Lorenzo survived but his brother was killed and the king of Naples was thought to be behind the plot. War broke out between Naples and Florence and Leonardo began studying weapons of war.


His notebooks became filled with armored tanks, repeating guns and carts with wheels holding razor sharp scythe blades.

Needing allies, Lorenzo sent Leonardo to Milan to befriend its leader Duke Ludovico Sforza, a crude but powerful man. Leonardo offered his help as a military engineer and started a new phase in his life.

The Duke however, became fascinated with Leonardo as an artist and gave him the task of creating a huge statue “The Great Horse” to honor the Duke’s late father. Leonardo planned the statue for years and eventually in 1493 completed a 26ft high clay model of “The Great Horse.” Unfortunately just as he was about to execute the statue, the French invaded North Italy and when French soldiers entered Milan they used the clay model as target practice, destroying it in the process.

In 1495 the Duke commissioned Leonardo to decorate the dining hall of a monastery near the Sforza castle with a picture of Christ’s “Last Supper.” This famous painting has survived the ravages of time and war, including a bombing during World War II, when the whole building was destroyed except the wall on which the Last Supper was painted.


Leonardo had demonstrated that he could paint a masterpiece on a grand scale as well as he could in miniature.

In 1499 Leonardo returned to Florence where he was requested to submit drawings for a large mural commemorating a famous battle. A second battle scene was commissioned from a 29 year-old — Michelangelo Buonarotti.

When the full-scale drawings by these two artistic giants were exhibited, both sets of drawings were admired for their very different styles. Leonardo’s was more delicate and subtle, while Michelangelo featured his usual powerful muscular figures. Both artists were called away from Florence before they could finish the paintings.

Leonardo headed back to Milan where the French governor required his services. About this time he painted the “Mona Lisa” probably the most recognizable painting in the world. She wears a dark mourning veil but people have long debated whether she is smiling or not.

The mechanics of the human body were one of the many things that intrigued Leonardo and around 1510 he filled his notebooks with drawings and notes on the body’s complicated functions. He introduced graphic devices like “cut through” and “see through” sections to explain the body structure. His rendering of an unborn baby in the womb, (although a little inaccurate) is still used in medical schools today. He was not the first to dissect the human body, but he was one of the first to draw it accurately in some 200 drawings.

He loved birds and marveled at their powers of flight. Sometimes he would buy birds from the market and immediately set them free. He tried earnestly to replicate their ability to fly.


Leonardo, like Copernicus 35 years later, did not believe the earth was the center of the universe, but that it was the sun. He also made complex observations about the nature of “time” and the flow of water and other liquids.

When the French were finally ejected from Milan, Leonardo’s previous cooperation with the French caused him to be cut off from ruling patronage. In 1513 an aging Leonardo moved to Rome where he was given a laboratory and workshop. Now 61, his eyes and general health were starting to fail, but he kept up his intellectual enquiries and attempted to build an enormous reflector to study the stars.

Then in 1515, the French again entered Leonardo’s life when Louis XII, King of France, died and his 19 year-old cousin, Francois took the throne. Young Francois’ army reentered Milan and, as a lover of the arts, he became Leonardo’s last benefactor by setting him up in residence at the new French Kings Court in the Loire valley in France.

Leonardo died there in 1519 with the French king at his bedside and was buried in the village of Amboise, France.

Leonardo left less than 20 paintings, none of which he titled or signed. To his devoted pupil Francesco Melzi went his manuscripts. Scholars took some of his pages, but in 1651 passages about his painting were published as “The Treatise on Painting.” Other pages are spread all over Europe but many have been lost. It is thought that about seven thousand of the thirteen thousand pages he wrote are accounted for.

In his 67 years he produced an enormous body of varied works. Although it is true that he dealt mostly with concepts and not with their implementation (he did not build models of his inventions), it is clear his insights were hundreds of years ahead of his time. He was the true Renaissance man.