Leonardo Da Vinci is arguably history’s greatest multi-tasker. Possessor of a curious mind and keen intellect, Da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work as a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman.
Young Leonardo received little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction, but his artistic talents were evident from an early age. Around the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He learned a wide breadth of technical skills including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting. It is thought that Verrocchio was so humbled by the superior talent of his pupil that he never picked up a paintbrush again.
In 1482, Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici commissioned Da Vinci to create a silver lyre and bring it as a peace gesture to Ludovico Sforza, who ruled Milan as its regent. After doing so, Da Vinci lobbied Ludovico for a job and sent the future Duke of Milan a letter that barely mentioned his considerable talents as an artist and instead touted his more marketable skills as a military engineer. Using his inventive mind, Da Vinci sketched war machines such as a war chariot with scythe blades mounted on the sides, an armored tank propelled by two men cranking a shaft and even an enormous crossbow that required a small army of men to operate. The letter worked, and Ludovico brought Da Vinci to Milan for a tenure that would last 17 years.
Da Vinci began to seriously study anatomy and dissect human and animal bodies during the 1480s. His drawings of a fetus in utero, the heart and vascular system, sex organs and other bone and muscular structures are some of the first on human record. In addition to his anatomical investigations, Da Vinci studied botany, geology, zoology, hydraulics, aeronautics and physics. He filled dozens of notebooks with finely drawn illustrations and scientific observations. A man ahead of his time, da Vinci appeared to prophesize the future with his sketches of machines resembling a bicycle, helicopter and a flying machine based on the physiology of a bat.
Around 1495, Ludovico commissioned Da Vinci to paint “The Last Supper” on the back wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. The masterpiece, which took approximately three years to complete, captures the drama of the moment when Jesus informs the Twelve Apostles gathered for Passover dinner that one of them would soon betray him.
After brief stays in Mantua and Venice, Da Vinci returned to Florence. In 1502 and 1503, he briefly worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and commander of the papal army. He traveled outside of Florence to survey military construction projects and sketch city plans and topographical maps. He designed plans to divert the Arno River away from rival Pisa in order to deny its wartime enemy access to the sea.
Da Vinci started working in 1503 on what would become his most well known painting—and arguably the most famous painting in the world—the “Mona Lisa.” The privately commissioned work is characterized by the enigmatic smile of the woman in the half-portrait.
Da Vinci moved to Rome in 1513. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of newly installed Pope Leo X and son of his former patron, gave Da Vinci a monthly stipend along with a suite of rooms at his residence inside the Vatican. His new patron, however, also gave Da Vinci little work. Lacking large commissions, he devoted most of his time in Rome to mathematical studies and scientific exploration.
After being present at a 1515 meeting between France’s King Francis I and Pope Leo X in Bologna, the new French monarch offered Da Vinci the title “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.” Da Vinci did little painting during his time in France. One of his last commissioned works was a mechanical lion that could walk and open its chest to reveal a bouquet of lilies. He continued work on his scientific studies until his death at the age of 67 on May 2, 1519.