Rediscover Leonardo da Vinci: his life, his works and his inventions

Margaux Jouault
Publié le 4 February 2023
Rediscover Leonardo da Vinci: his life, his works and his inventions

What do Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Asimov, and Imhotep all have in common? All three are polymaths, universal thinkers who excel in both science and art. If Leonardo da Vinci had to fill out an administrative form, what would he have written under the category of profession: painter, sculptor, musician, architect, engineer, inventor...? Because, despite works like The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci was much more than a great painter. He was a scientific and artistic genius. Rediscover the life of one of those men who left their mark on human history.

The story of a universal genius, Leonardo da Vinci

Everyone knows the name Leonardo da Vinci, but... did you know that he didn't actually have a surname?

A native of the Tuscan village of Vinci

Little Leonardo was born on the night of 14 April 1452, near the village of Vinci, as the illegitimate child of a young notary and a farmer's daughter. He did not return to his father's house, however, until he was five years old, when his father decided to entrust his son's education to his immediate family. On the one hand, Leonardo's grandmother Lucia, a ceramist, introduced him to art; on the other, his grandfather Antonio taught him to observe nature. Together they contributed to the development of this polymathic mind, turned as much to science as to art, near the small village of Vinci which gave its name to this child born out of wedlock.

From student to master

Is this how geniuses are born? Like Einstein, the young Leonardo's education proved to be rather chaotic: as a free thinker, he was ill suited to the strictures of traditional education. His master Ferrochio (who also worked with Botticelli) sent him on an apprenticeship at a very early age, but he saw in him a genuine talent. He encouraged him in this way, introducing him to the art of painting as well as to goldsmithing and blacksmithing. At the age of 20, Leonardo became a master and began to take on his first commissions, notably for Lorenzo de' Medici, known as the Magnificent.

From Italy to France, an artist at the heart of the Renaissance.

Was it the disappointment of not being selected for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or, more prosaically, a denunciation for an act of sodomy with a male prostitute? In any case, Leonardo chose to leave Florence for Milan. Officially an " Organiser of festivals and shows ", he tried to come up with ingenious solutions while completing his scientific studies in a jack-of-all-trades mode: mathematics, anatomy, geology and mechanics fascinated him. Despite his first paintings, he considered himself more of an engineer than a painter.

It was on his return to Florence that he painted the Mona Lisa (1513-1514) and began to take on prestigious commissions. He had been spotted a few years earlier by the French authorities. In what we would call today an artistic mercato, Louis XII made Leonardo his "ordinary painter and engineer", a guarantee of royal recognition and a regular salary. This patronage was continued by Francis I.

It was during this period that Da Vinci flourished, in the spirit of the Renaissance which combined aestheticism and invention. Curious and creative, Leonardo da Vinci moved from Milan to Rome, from Florence to Le Clos-Lucé: inventions, painting, sculpture and even medicine did not escape his sagacity and his fresh eye. Did you know that the creator of The Last Supper was also the one who, for the first time, demonstrated and understood the mechanisms of atherosclerosis, moving seamlessly from the dining table to the dissection table?

How did Leonardo da Vinci die?

There is every reason to believe that Leonardo da Vinci, aged 67, died of a stroke on 2 May 1519 at the Manoir du Cloux. King François I was present, according to the 1781 painting by François-Guillaume Ménageot. But in reality, only the master's servant, Mathurine, and his disciple, Francesco Melzi, were with Leonardo in his gentle agony. Da Vinci, on the other hand, died like a prince. Not only was his funeral lavishly planned, but the king also granted him a privilege normally reserved for nobles or clergy: Da Vinci was buried in Amboise.

The Death of Leonardo da Vinci - François-Guillaume Ménageot
The Death of Leonardo da Vinci - François-Guillaume Ménageot

Leonardo da Vinci, the universal artist

Without a doubt, Leonardo da Vinci was a great painter, pioneering new pictorial techniques that are still studied today, such as sfumato and chiaroscuro. He revolutionised the approach to painting by theorising concepts that are now unquestionable, such as proportions, light play, and perspective. Few people have never seen a work of art by Leonardo da Vinci, such as The Last Supper in Milan's church of Santa Maria delle Grazie or, of course, the Mona Lisa, which draws more than 7 million visitors to the Louvre in Paris each year. However, Leonardo was not a prolific painter; his career is said to have produced no more than 25 paintings. This shows that favouring quality over quantity pays off!

However, we all too often forget that behind the mystery of the Mona Lisa, or the passion of The Last Supper lies a complete artist, or as we would say today, a multi-tasker. This genius of the senses, whether a painter, draughtsman, sculptor, or musician, required emotions to express himself. However, Leonardo da Vinci's overflowing creativity is also expressed through another facet of his talent, that of visionary inventor.

Leonardo da Vinci, the visionary scientist

Da Vinci liked to define himself as an "inventor and builder of machines", as engineers were then defined. He was just as interested in concepts that would take centuries to realise (flying wings, double hulls for ships, tank turrets, etc.) as he was in the construction of complex machines in acoustics, hydraulics or military engineering.

Visionary in his thinking, pragmatic and technical in his execution, Da Vinci was able to let his creativity speak for itself in order to explore the possible, find innovative solutions, understand the mysteries of nature... He is undoubtedly a great explorer of the imaginary.

As shown for example in The Vitruvian Man, this intellectual quest was fuelled by a double vision, that of the aesthete in search of harmony, and that of the observer, seeking to model his discoveries. Like all geniuses, Da Vinci wished to offer a unique view of the world.

Leonardo da Vinci, the Platonic philosopher

For it is ultimately the hallmark of universal geniuses that they do not confine themselves to their field of expertise, but instead try to integrate their knowledge into a comprehensive and holistic way of thinking that makes sense. In the wake of the Platonic school of philosophy, to which artists such as Michelangelo and Botticelli also belonged, Da Vinci was never interested in spiritual phenomena.

Defining himself as a disciple of experience, he sought instead to understand natural phenomena, and both art and science should lead to this knowledge. His aim was to understand the world and make it more beautiful.

There is no doubt that in 2023 Leonardo da Vinci would have had an original point of view to help us face the challenges of our planet. Wasn't he a forerunner back then, even pointing out some of the advantages of veganism! A visionary, we say!

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