Leonardo da Vinci – The Early Years

It is fair to say that no one in the history of mankind has accomplished and contributed as much in so many diverse fields as Leonardo da Vinci.

A painter, architect, sculptor, designer and inventor, Leonardo also designed bridges, roads and highways, invented weaponry and machinery never seen before and which is still in use today. He also created a number of scientific instruments, the diving bell and tank, as well as flying machines, which unfortunately, could not be tested in his lifetime as the designs were too advanced for the materials available.

Cause and Effect

Leonardo’s approach to science and art was of a precise, systematic nature. He would analyse and study the subject matter, sketch the substance of the problem, and use his sketches to help him to find a solution. Whether he was sculpting a work of art, designing a building or planning a machine, his approach was disciplined, precise and orderly, and he became an expert in every field he had an interest in.

Leonardo was born in Italy on April 15, 1452, in the town of Vinci near Florence. He was the illegitimate son of a peasant girl, Caterina and a government official, Peiro da Vinci. His early years were spent in an idyll of discovery, exploring the fields and streams on his family’s farm. Leonardo learnt a love of and keen interest in the natural world around him. He came to hate the sight of caged birds at the village markets, and would buy them simply to set them free. At the same time he was learning the mechanics of flight.


By 1466, Leonardo and his father had left Vinci and moved to Florence, where the young Leonardo was apprenticed to the painter and sculptor Andrea Del Verroccio, whose workshop was considered one of the greatest in Florence. Leonardo spent more than seven years with his teacher, and was especially inspired by Verroccio’s imaginative and innovative sculpture work. It is said that Leonardo and Verrocchio worked in partnership on the Baptism of Christ, and Verrocchio believed that the young angel painted by Leonardo so far surpassed his own work, that the master put down his paintbrush, giving up his painting for good.

By 1472, Leonardo became master of the painter’s and artist’s guild, Guild of St Luke. His father set up a workshop for him, although his attachment to his teacher and mentor Verroccio was so great that he continued to liaise with him on his projects. An ink illustration of the Arno Valley dated August 5, 1473 comes from this time period, and is one of Leonardo’s earliest known dated works.

Leonardo’s Influence

By this time, Leonardo’s skill as a painter was well known. He painted an altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi, for the monks at San Donato a Scopeto, which significantly influenced young and fledgling artists for years to come. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary and the three kings in a large landscape, emphasized in contrast to the many other figures portrayed due to the use of chiaroscuro, which is the contrast between light and dark. Leonardo was a forerunner in the use of tonal value in art.

Unfortunately, the commission was never completed as Leonardo was called away to Milan while still in the process of finishing it. In 1482, Leonardo created a silver lyre in the form of the head of a horse, and was commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici to give the lyre, as a gift, to Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, in an effort to secure peace. It is at this time that Leonardo’s famous letter to Ludovico was written.

The letter could possibly be seen as a forerunner to the greatness of a man who was under no illusions as to his abilities. In it, he spoke not only of his artistic ability but of the many varied and wonderful things he could invent, create and design, in the fields of art, science and engineering. Despite the fact that Leonardo often abandoned works and left them unfinished, it was most often due to the fact that he had solved a specific problem. He would study and isolate the precise nature of a particular issue, and once resolved move on to other projects that intrigued him, thus paving the way for a life of study and discovery.

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