Life and Works of Leonardo da Vinci

Whenever art is brought up, there are few names that spring to mind even for those with little interest in the subject. Perhaps one might think of Picasso, of Van Gogh.

Aug 8, 2019By Julia Margaret Lu, B.Arch w/ History-Theory Concentration
Studies of embryos, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and the Mona Lisa
From left: Studies of embryos, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and the Mona Lisa

Lenoardo da Vinci is one of the most influential artists with works such as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are world-renowned. Beyond his works of art, Leonardo da Vinci is also admired for his inspired observations and ideas, some scribbled quickly, some delicately rendered, across several notebooks that have been collected today into various codices.

From scrutinizing the flight of a bird to designing war machines for his employers, he captured reality and fantasy in mesmerizing ink drawings. Detailed mirrored writings accompany these drawings, his thoughts, and experiments sprawling from page to page. When he saw something he didn’t know, he went around to ask. What he could not glean from others, he set forth to examine and experiment with. 

Whether it was art or music, science or math, Leonardo da Vinci made no differentiation between all these areas of life. He studied all of them with a ferocious curiosity, interwove all disciplines as he saw fit to produce works that have stayed with us for over half a millennium- a true Renaissance man of the ages. 


Leonardo’s da Vinci’s Early Life

Landscape drawing of Arno Valley (1473)
Landscape drawing of Arno Valley (1473)

In 1452 in the town of Vinci, Leonardo was born to Caterina, a young peasant woman, and Piero da Vinci, a notary. Although born out of wedlock, the young Leonardo was treated well by his father’s family. If not for Piero da Vinci’s guild rejecting the membership of illegitimate children, Leonardo might have followed in his father’s footsteps to become a notary- as five generations of the family men already had been.

But it was just as well that he did not. Leonardo did not do well even in an informal local school- he was a poor student who was easily distracted and who far preferred self-directed study to the strictures of a classroom. 


Verrocchio’s Workshop

The Annunciation (c.a. 1472)
The Annunciation (c.a. 1472)

When he was 14, Piero da Vinci secured a place for him at the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, a well-known painter, and sculptor in Florence. Besides his personal work, famous artists of the period such as Botticelli and Ghirlandaio were also associated with the studio, having been apprentices there.

In such an environment, Leonardo refined his techniques and stepped into the world of commercial art. 

When he left the workshop after seven years of apprenticeship, Leonardo had already garnered fame for his skill and talent. Vasari, a contemporary biographer of famous artists, recounts a story of Leonardo’s skill with painting impressing his master so much that Verrocchio laid down his brush and swore never to paint ever again. While the veracity of the tale is uncertain, Verrocchio did indeed pass more and more commissions to Leonardo as a lead artist as the latter approached the end of his apprenticeship. 

Leonardo da Vinci: The Polymath

Studies of embryos  (c.a. 1510 to 1513)
Studies of embryos  (c.a. 1510 to 1513)

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

As an independent artist with his own studio however, Leonardo did not benefit from freedom. A perfectionist at heart, he took extended time with his commissions and dropped those that he no longer had an interest in. He was also prone to experimenting with surfaces and materials, even at the expense of his commissioners. At one point, his father attempted to tie him into a contract with a local monastery to paint some work for them- it did not work out. 

Over the course of his long career, Leonardo worked in various capacities not only as ahead of his own workshop but also as entertainer, cartographer, military architect and strategist and painter to powerful men like Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Cesare Borgia, the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince. While employed and thus supported, Leonardo was able to quench his scientific leanings and curiosities. These scientific inquiries made their way into practical applications, especially when he was in the employ of Cesare Borgia as a military architect, but they were also used to astonish and evoke wonder for the wealthy and noble of Milan while he worked for Sforza as a master of theatre. 

In the 1500s, Leonardo also began his study of the human body with the dissection of cadavers and procured a collaboration with a doctor named Marcantonio della Torre. While it was a grisly endeavor that provoked disapproval, the project also gave rise to some of the most beautiful anatomical studies that we know of today. Leonardo was relentless in his drive to understand the human body, the muscles that powered it, the nerves and organs that enabled it to move. A general consensus is that if his drawings had been published at the time, they would have contributed greatly to the field of medicine. 

While he was not a fast painter, with only 15 complete paintings and a few unfinished ones left to us today, Leonardo da Vinci produced an incredible amount of writing that would be published into various treatises and papers after his death- about 13,000 worth of pages in fact. 

In 1515, Francis I of France recaptured Milan where Leonardo was a resident. The king greatly admired Leonardo, and offered him a place of residence the following year in France. Leonardo da Vinci would remain there for the last few years of his life, working intermittently due to poor health until he passed away in 1519.


Top Works Sold

Salvator Mundi (c.a. 1500)
Salvator Mundi (c.a. 1500)

Leonardo da Vinci has remained largely famous since his death 500 years ago. Unfortunately, records concerning the sale and trade of his works are not always clear or accurate due to the passage of time. As of now, there have only been two known paintings of Leonardo’s sold in the last century.


Salvator Mundi

Ginevra de’ Benci (1474 to 1478)
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474 to 1478)

In 2017, this long-lost painting rocked the art world when it was sold for a record-breaking $450.3 million. Thought to have been lost somewhere in the mid to late 1600s, Salvator Mundi was likely commissioned by Louis XII of France in 1500. It shows Christ dressed in Italian fashion of the 1500s, with a glass orb symbolizing a celestial sphere and his right hand held up in the sign of the cross.

Despite its high price and the excitement around a new da Vinci being discovered, experts are still divided on its attribution. Several copies of the painting exist, painted by Leonardo’s students and followers, but there is still doubt on whether this particular piece is the original or how much of it was actually worked on by the artist himself.

Currently, Salvator Mundi holds the top spot on the list of most expensive paintings ever sold and is in line to be displayed at a cultural center in Saudi Arabia upon the center’s completion.


Ginevra de’ Benci

Another record-breaker, this portrait of a young aristocratic woman, Ginevra de’ Benci, made waves with a $5 million (roughly $38 million today) price tag when it was sold in 1967 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. The portrait is one of Leonardo’s earlier works attributed solely to him rather than to Verrocchio’s workshop, and he began work on it when he was 22. 

Solemn and austere in this painting with juniper leaves creating a frame around her head, Ginevra de’ Benci was widely considered a renowned beauty in her time, with poetry written to commemorate and celebrate her. Two poems have even been ascribed to Lorenzo de’ Medici himself, the de facto ruler of Florence from 1469 to 1492. 

Although it was likely that the portrait was commissioned to celebrate her betrothal, Leonardo took 4 years to finish it, constantly going back to refine and rework passages as he saw fit.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Famous Works

Mona Lisa (1503 to 1506)
Mona Lisa (1503 to 1506)

While many of Leonardo da Vinci’s works are well-known, the most famous of them is probably the Mona Lisa. There are differing opinions as to why this painting, out of all his works, has garnered such interest in the popular imagination. Is it her enigmatic smile? The haunting quality of the portrait? The skilled rendering and dreamy haziness of the beautifully worked landscape winding behind her? 

It’s tempting to lay story after story at the feet of (arguably) the most well-known painting in the world. However, the truth is that it was not particularly singled out amongst all of da Vinci’s works until its theft and subsequent return to the Louvre in the early 1900s, and when countless copies and parodies were made of it, cementing its fame in today’s pop culture. 

That is not to disparage the skill and beauty infused into the painting- it is absolutely undeniable that the Mona Lisa was an innovative work in its day for its use of colour, sfumato and composition, and a legendary masterpiece today having survived 500 years. 


The Last Supper (1495 to 1498)
The Last Supper (1495 to 1498)

Another work that is nearly as famous is The Last Supper, a scene Leonardo was commissioned for in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Widely admired when it was first finished, The Last Supper is, unfortunately, one of  Leonardo’s most diminished works. This is largely due to the experimental process he painted it with- a testimony to his creativity and dedication towards perfection, but also a reminder of how said creativity didn’t always work out. 

Italian frescoes of the time consisted of pigment painted on a wet base, ensuring that the paint was well bound to the surface and would last hundreds of years. In his pursuit of an illuminated look to the painting and greater detail than traditional fresco techniques would allow, Leonardo chose instead to paint on a dry base. This sadly meant that the paint started flaking within a few years. Time, neglect and intentional vandalism ravaged the painting until it was finally restored to its current state in the 1990s. 



Head of a girl (c.a. 1483)
Head of a girl (c.a. 1483)
  • Leonardo loved colorful clothing. Rather than the stereotypical artist’s black, he delighted especially in rose and pink colored clothing.
  • He was left-handed- which explains the mirrored writing in his notebooks, which was a method to avoid smudging the ink.
  • Although he designed war machines and strategies for his employers, Leonardo was vegetarian, wishing to avoid the suffering of others. He thought of his designs as being deterrents rather than encouragement to further war. 

Author Image

By Julia Margaret LuB.Arch w/ History-Theory ConcentrationJulia is a Senior Editor at TheCollector. She is a native New Yorker and bikes, writes, reads, draws, and makes books and other things in her spare time. Julia earned her B.Arch from City College with an architectural history and theory concentration.