Leonardo’s World

We, by our arts, may be called the grandsons of God.

—Leonardo da Vinci

Five hundred years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci continues to intrigue us. He is the most famous and revered artist of all time. Leonardo was a prolific artist, yet he left fewer than twenty paintings—the most famous being The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. He was the ultimate Renaissance man: an artist, a scientist, a designer, and an inventor whose imagination and scientific prowess were centuries ahead of his time. Artists, designers, and engineers still study the meticulous drawings in Leonardo’s notebooks for their innovative technique and anatomical precision.

As I contemplated the possibility that I was holding in my hands the product of Leonardo’s work, my thoughts were consumed with images of the artist’s remarkable journey. Thanks to the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, we have some insight into Leonardo’s life. From a very young age, he was something special.

Physically, Leonardo was a beautiful child, tall and sturdy, with curling hair that made him seem angelic. He had been born out of wedlock to his father Ser Piero’s mistress, Caterina, who soon left the picture. However, being a motherless child did not seem to hold Leonardo back. This was largely because of the great love and admiration of Ser Piero, and also because of Leonardo’s unearthly genius. He was gifted in a way that produced both pride and worry in his father, who wondered what would become of him.

This dreamy, brilliant, sunny boy could not seem to settle down to any single pursuit. He picked up an interest—mathematics, the flute, clay modeling—only to put it down and start on another. The detritus of partly completed projects was scattered around the property. Beneath the whimsy of Leonardo’s varied exploits, Ser Piero could see that his son’s talent for drawing and modeling was quite exceptional, especially given his age of fourteen. But he needed a guiding hand, and although his father, a notary, could provide him with a stable home, he could not help him on that journey.

One day, while gazing at the lovely artistry of a series of Leonardo’s drawings, Ser Piero decided to seek the opinion of his close friend Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist and a sculptor who oversaw the best workshop in Florence. Membership in it was greatly coveted. Handing Andrea Leonardo’s drawings, Ser Piero asked him, “Do you think if he gave himself entirely to drawing he would succeed?”

Andrea studied the drawings with a growing sense of astonishment. A mere child of fourteen had mastered form and face with a maturity and skill that Andrea had never seen. Who was this boy? On the question of his future, Andrea had no doubt. He agreed to make a place for Leonardo in his workshop.

Leonardo’s father was ebullient and relieved. He felt sure his boy’s talent would be safely nurtured under Andrea’s tutelage. Leonardo was also quite eager to go. He was glad to be immersed in art and design at every level.

Leonardo thrived in Andrea’s workshop, and he would ultimately spend ten years in its comfortable creative embrace. He was not in a hurry to strike out on his own, and his father did not pressure him. In spite of his son’s clear genius, Ser Piero believed that his distracted manner and instability made him a poor candidate for independent work.

There were plenty of opportunities to be had in the workshop, however. The first significant one was a painting of the baptism of Christ by St. John. Andrea gave Leonardo the task of painting one of two angels holding Christ’s robe. Although Leonardo was quite young, he managed it so well that his angel was better than Andrea’s figures. When Andrea saw Leonardo’s angel, he could not contain his feelings of anger. How could this mere apprentice outshine him? It was reported that he petulantly vowed to never touch a brush again after being outshone by his pupil. (The Baptism ofChrist is currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Leonardo’s angel is the one on the left.)

Leonardo was something of a loner among his peers. He would later write:

The painter or draughtsman must remain solitary, and particularly when intent on those studies and reflections which will constantly rise up before his eye, giving materials to be well stored in the memory. While you are alone you are entirely your own [master] and if you have one companion you are but half your own, and the less so in proportion to the indiscretion of his behavior. And if you have many companions you will fall deeper into the same trouble. If you should say: “I will go my own way and withdraw apart, the better to study the forms of natural objects,” I tell you, you will not be able to help often listening to their chatter. And so, since one cannot serve two masters, you will badly fill the part of a companion, and carry out your studies of art even worse. And if you say: “I will withdraw so far that their words cannot reach me and they cannot disturb me,” I can tell you that you will be thought mad. But, you see, you will at any rate be alone. And if you must have companionship, find it in your studio. This may assist you to have the advantages, which arise from various speculations. All other company may be highly mischievous.1

According to Vasari, while Leonardo was at work one day, his father brought him a round piece of wood. He had been asked by a friend in the country to have something painted on it, perhaps to be used as a shield, and Ser Piero thought Leonardo might take on the task. Leonardo, finding the wood crooked and rough, straightened it by means of fire and then smoothed its rough surface. Having prepared it for painting this way, he began to think what he could paint on it.

He wanted to create the most dramatic and frightening image, so he considered the effect of a Medusa-like head. For models for the image, he brought into his private room lizards, grasshoppers, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange animals, and from them he produced a great animal image so horrible and fearful that it seemed to poison the air with its fiery breath. He portrayed it coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its open jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils—a monstrous and horrible thing, indeed. He was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t even notice the terrible smell emanating from the rotting carcasses of his animal models.

Finally he was finished, and he sent word to his father that he could come and get it. Ser Piero arrived early one morning at Leonardo’s room; when he knocked, Leonardo told him to wait a moment, and he staged the scene—placing the picture in the light and darkening the window around it to create an ominous effect. Ser Piero stepped into the room, saw the image, and turned to run, not realizing that the terrible creature was painted and not real. Leonardo called after his father and brought him back, saying, “That was exactly the effect I was trying to create.”2 He was quite pleased with himself that the painting was realistic enough to scare his father.

The thing seemed marvelous to Ser Piero, and he praised Leonardo’s whimsical idea, but he didn’t want to give it to his friend, so he secretly bought another circular piece of wood, already painted with a heart pierced with a dart, and gave it to the friend in the country, who remained grateful to him as long as he lived. Ser Piero sold Leonardo’s work to some merchants in Florence for a hundred ducats, and it soon came into the hands of the Duke of Milan, who bought it from the merchants for three hundred ducats—both considerable sums at that time.

Even when Leonardo was a young man, his genius was well understood—and it didn’t hurt that he was also quite charming and agreeable. Many fell under his spell, only to learn that his work ethic was as ethereal as the wind. It was said that he was a procrastinator, but it was probably more true that he was a perfectionist and a generalist, easily distracted by his many different interests. For the young Leonardo, daydreams were not wasteful drifts, they were exercises for the imagination and interior building blocks for his work. One of his patrons once grumbled that he spent more time thinking than doing, and when he finally got going, the road to completion was a virtual obstacle course.

Leonardo soon gained a reputation for leaving work unfinished. (As Vasari lamented in a rare criticism, “In erudition and letters he would have distinguished himself, if he had not been variable and unstable. For he set himself to learn many things, and when he had begun them gave them up.”3A lesser talent would have been ruined by the flightiness, but to this day Leonardo’s unfinished works are counted as some of his greatest.

One of these, Adoration of the Magi, was a commission in 1481 by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence, which he received thanks to his father’s influence.4 The job was to create a large altarpiece, measuring 9 by 8 feet, depicting the adoration of baby Jesus by the three magi. Leonardo was given thirty months to complete the complex task, and he spent nearly a year sketching out the plans. Even in the sketches it was plain to see that Leonardo’s vision was very different from that of others who had portrayed the scene. His view was more humanistic, emotional, and egalitarian, with many figures whose expressions were vivid and dramatic. Instead of narrowing his focus to the magi or the Holy Family, he explored all of the action going on around them.

While Leonardo was working on Adoration of the Magi, he was sidetracked by a request from Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, that he go on a diplomatic mission to the court of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza. It seems that Leonardo had learned to play the lyre as a child, and in early adulthood he had created a marvelous silver lyre, shaped like a horse’s head, that had a beautiful resonance when played. When de’ Medici saw the lyre, probably through Leonardo’s father, whom he knew, he decided that it would make the perfect gift for the duke—especially if Leonardo would play it for him.

So Leonardo left for Milan, and his performance so far surpassed the performances of the Milanese court musicians that the duke was charmed and intrigued. His eye turned with great interest on the fascinating young man with so many talents in plain evidence. Leonardo obviously felt similarly intrigued, for shortly after this event he sent Ludovico il Moro Sforza the following letter—arguably the most famous job application in history:

Most Illustrious Lord: Having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors in the instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened . . . to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets. I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable with which to pursue and defeat an enemy. . . . I can also make a kind of cannon, which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail. . . . I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages—either straight or winding—passing if necessary under trenches or a river. . . . I can make armored wagons carrying artillery, which can break through the most serried ranks of the enemy. In time of peace, I believe I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings, both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another. I can execute sculpture in bronze, marble, or clay. Also, in painting, I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be. If any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make a trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.5

How to explain Leonardo’s interest in being on hire to the court? A man of his extreme talent could have had as many independent commissions as he chose. Perhaps he was aware of his own failings, his tendency to lose heart in the midst of a job, his need for structure and discipline. Perhaps, too, he required the regular reinforcement and support of his superiors, for he struggled with self-esteem and often questioned his own abilities. On a practical level, he was constantly worrying about money, and the Court of Milan probably seemed like a guarantee of job security.

His letter was obviously an effective résumé, for the duke brought Leonardo to his court, where he remained for seventeen years. He was a young man of thirty when he accepted the position of painter and engineer of the duke.


It was a wonderful era in Milan, a golden age of art and science. The duke, a benevolent dictator with a love of the arts and a fascination with urban modernization, was happy to attract the great master painters, poets, and engineers to his city.

Sforza’s court, at the massive Castello Sforzesco, was renowned for its spectacular pageants and festivities celebrating marriages and births; court poets recorded flowery verses, and Leonardo himself was involved in executing elaborate stage designs for theatrical productions at the court. Pomp, circumstance, and glitter reigned at the court, evidenced by the elaborate gold embroidery on the gowns of the highest court ladies. One cannot emphasize enough the beauty and splendor of the court during Ludovico’s reign. The company that gathered in the Castello of Milan seemed, according to the chronicles of the writer Baldassare Castiglione, “the flower of the human race.”6

The enormous prosperity was reflected in the lifestyle of Milan’s citizens, who lived chiefly by trade and manufacturing, and all benefited from the fertility of the soil. Two main industries formed the basis of Milan’s success as a manufacturing center: Milanese armor and the woolen industry (which included silk weaving, embroidery, and gold and silver cloth). This created a merchant class, which bought up all the wares and then sold them to the consumer. Trade generated great wealth for the top echelons of society, and they lived in noble houses—if they were not quite royalty, they were the closest thing to it. The aristocracy of Milan was based on wealth, not birth.

It was a rich intellectual culture for Leonardo. The Court of Milan became a sort of academy, which united writers, poets, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers. Illustrious scholars from throughout Italy gathered there.

Visitors to Milan were impressed by the splendor of the ladies’ dresses, often made entirely of cloth of gold, adorned with rich embroidery and laden with jewels. Technically, there were laws governing rank, which determined manner of dress, but it seems that these prohibitions were rarely enforced, because to have done so would have destroyed an important Milanese trade. Luxury was encouraged in the interest of a strong trading community.

Outside the court, the citizenry lived a frugal existence, but for the privileged class, luxury was on the increase throughout the Sforza period. Note, for example, the splendor that marked the birth of Duchess Beatrice d’Este’s firstborn child in 1493: a gilded cradle, a rich brocaded quilt, and a grand show of gifts.

Society modeled itself on the court, because the two were tightly connected. Unlike the city of Florence, which at this time had experienced a religious revival, Milan tended to emphasize the material side of life through outward magnificence and commercial interest. Piety manifested itself less in devotional fervor than in such practical works as building hospitals and founding schools. And always there were the lavish pageants, which drew visitors from across the country.

This was the universe Leonardo stepped into when he arrived in Milan to offer his skills as a painter, an inventor, an engineer, and a sculptor to the duke. Leonardo adapted well to the Milanese court. It was there that he was able to let his imagination and skills fully develop. It was there too that he developed his full appreciation of art—things observed—and of the artist as the greatest communicator. “If you, historians, or poets, or mathematicians, had not seen things with your eyes, you could not report of them in writing,” he wrote sensibly, continuing:

If you, O poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness and less tedious to be understood. And if you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting. Now which is the worse defect? To be blind or dumb? Though the poet is as free as the painter in the invention of his fictions, they are not so satisfactory to men as paintings; for, though poetry is able to describe forms, actions, and places in words, the painter deals with the actual similitude of the forms, in order to represent them.7

Leonardo’s contribution to the court was eclectic and exciting. His schemes for civic engineering were far ahead of his time, and so were his plans for war machines. He designed sets and costumes for many festivals and plays. Among his most ambitious projects was the creation of a massive equestrian monument in honor of Francesco Sforza, the founding father of the Sforza dynasty.8 Over a period of ten years he constructed the model in clay, but, sad to say, before it could be cast in bronze, the French invaded Milan and destroyed it.

Occasionally, at the request of his benefactor the duke, Leonardo set aside his drawings and his building and spent his afternoons with a favored court lady, bringing life to her features with his pens, paints, and chalks. Although other artists could have handled the task quite competently, Sforza had confided that he trusted only Leonardo to capture the countenances of his beloved ones. Sometimes Sforza would stand in the doorway, smiling his encouragement to the young lady, for whom the sitting required great poise. Indeed, in the finished works, sitters seemed to be turning their gazes upon another person, and the result was a softening of their features so unlike the expressions in the stiff formal portraits that were common at the time. This, then, was Leonardo’s signature—the animating quality that would allow these special ladies to stand apart even centuries later.

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