Leonardo: Quintessential Renaissance Man
NEW YORK — Five and a half centuries ago, Leonardo was born of unremarkable parents in the Tuscan village of Vinci. Humble birth didn't stop him from scaling the heights of the High Renaissance. If he sounds too perfect to be true, it's probably because man and myth long ago merged.
Apprenticed in his teens to the Florentine sculptor Verrocchio, Leonardo learned to paint alongside fellow students like Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio. He produced masterpieces of art like "The Virgin of the Rocks" (1483-86), "Virgin and Child With St. Anne" (1508-10), and "Mona Lisa" (1503-06), all now in the Louvre.
Leonardo considered painting a science, saying that to "see" and to "know" are the same. His studies of anatomy, geography, and light allowed him to create remarkably lifelike likenesses, modulated with layers of glazes. One of the first Italian painters to use oil, he was also first to invest portraits with psychological nuance.
Leonardo took all knowledge for his purview and designed an armored tank, magnetic compass, submarine, and weapons - like a repeating crossbow. Obsessed with the idea of flight, he bought cages of birds only to set them free, sketching their wings as they fluttered away. He planned to strap a winged contraption on his back (the first flying machine), jump off Mount Ceceri, and soar over Florence.
As a boy, Leonardo proposed to canalize the Arno River between Pisa and Florence. As a man, he made models and designs of levers, cranes, and winches to move mountains. Fascinated with odd-looking faces, he often followed people with interesting physiognomies, then returned home to sketch their heads.
With this surfeit of talent, it's unfortunate that fewer than 20 works by the master survive. He probably finished only 30 paintings in his career. Vasari called him "capricious and fickle" because Leonardo constantly yielded to distractions. When commissioned to paint an altarpiece, he studied tides in the Adriatic Sea and made recommendations on preventing landslides before moving on to paint the background.
Before Leonardo, painters were considered lowly craftsmen. To Leonardo, they were philosopher-scientists with two chief objects to paint: "Man and the intention of his soul."