LEONARDO DA VINCI: The Evergreen Polymath

While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die… The one quote which I love from the well noted artist, who was also an architect, inventor and chronicler of science, among other outlets for his talents…

A self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci done in red chalk. Credit: Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1510-1515
A self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci done in red chalk.
Credit: Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1510-1515

It will sound fishy if we say there is an artist more legendary than Leonardo.. In the whole History of Art, no other name has created more discussions, debates and studies than the genius born in Vinci in 1452.. Also the figure of Leonardo has generated multiple legends, myths, and rumours about everything. The most rumored and discussed was his possible homosexuality and  or even his allegedly weird relationship with many of his models, forming the Leonardesque Mythology …

Beyond basic reading, writing and mathematical skills, Da Vinci did not receive much of a formal education. Recognizing his potential as an artist, he was sent to apprentice with sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence.

He spent six years honing his technical skills, including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing and sculpting, and became member of the Guild of Saint Luke by the age of 20.. He remained with Verrocchio until he became an independent master in 1478..

With his diversified interests, including scientific law and nature, he was often side-tracked and didn’t not complete many of his paintings and other works..

Notable Works

One of the most interesting and serious debates in recent years about the authenticity of a work by Leonardo is the one involving the two versions of the original -allegedly lost- of the “Madonna dei fusi”, also known as the “Madonna of the reel” or the “Madonna of the yarnwinder”. One of them is in the Drumlanrig Castle collection in Scotland (it had been stolen and then recovered) and another one -of an exceptional quality- was previously in the Reford collection of Montreal, until it was recently acquired by an American private collector (there are rumours that talk about a price of over $150 million, which is really hard to believe.)


“Portrait of a woman (Ginevra Benci)” 1474-76
Little jewel which is in Washington , National Gallery. Appropriately called “cossa belissima (very beautiful thing)”

“Saint Jerome” c.1480
Unfinished work which is in Roma, Pinacoteca Vaticana

“The adoration of the magi” 1481-82

“The Virgin of the rocks” 1483-86
Paris , Louvre

“The Virgin of the rocks” 1483-86

London , National Gallery. The work was probably unfortunately repainted, and it is even possible that the two wings of the triptych were painted by a pupil, but the central panel is free of any doubts.

“The last supper”  1495-97
Milano, Convento de Santa Maria

“Saint Anne, the Virgin, the child and Saint John” c.1498

London , National Gallery

“Portrait of Isabella d’Este”  c.1500
Unfinished and in a mediocre state of preservation which is in Paris.

“Portrait of a woman (Gioconda, the Monna Lisa)” 1503-05
Paris , Louvre

“Head of a girl (La Scapigliata)” 1508
Mastery Drawing is in Parma, Galeria Nacionale

“Saint Anne, the Virgin and child with the lamb” c.1510
Paris , Louvre

“Saint John the Baptist” 1513-16
Paris , Louvre. A supreme masterwork, with an astonishing technical perfection, and never discussed in a serious way, although Müller-Walde and Berenson (who later changed his opinion) considered it a work by the workshop.

Final Years

Da Vinci left Italy 1516, when French ruler Francis I offered him the chance to paint and draw at his own pace while living at Château of Cloux, a country house near Aboise, France.  It is said that he may have been unhappy in his final years (his correspondence with his assistant indicates). He spent just three years in France and died there on May 2, 1519.

Leonardo da Vinci's design for a tank.
Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a tank.

Though he was still regarded as an artist, the thousands of surviving pages of his notebooks reveal his brilliance of mind.  He wrote and drew about many especially human anatomy, flight, gravity and geology. It is interesting to know that he studied human anatomy to paint the human form… I would say that he ‘invented’ the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute with his drawings..

pen-and-ink sketch of a flying machine designed by da Vinci.
pen-and-ink sketch of a flying machine designed by da Vinci.

If all this work had been published in an intelligible form, da Vinci’s place as a pioneering scientist would have been beyond dispute. Yet his true genius was not as a scientist or an artist, but as a combination of the two: an ‘artist-engineer’. His painting was scientific, based on a deep understanding of the workings of the human body and the physics of light and shade. His science was expressed through art, and his drawings and diagrams show what he meant, and how he understood the world to work.


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