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Childhood: 1452-1467

Leonardo recorded his earliest childhood memory in his notebooks. Explaining his obsession with devising a machine for flying, he explains that as a baby, a kite (a kind of hawk with long tail-feathers), landed on him and stuck its tail feathers into his mouth, repeatedly hitting his lips with its feathers. This experience was certainly traumatic, and historians believe that it would indeed have influenced the boy to gain interest in flight.

What historians do not know is in whose cradle the baby Leonardo was resting when the bird landed on him. Was he in the custody of his mother, or his father? An illegitimate child, he was born on April 15, 1452, in the town of Vinci. His father, Ser Piero, an up-and-coming notary, definitely took Leonardo into his home when the child was three; before then, he may well have been living with his mother, Caterina, so that she might breast-feed the baby: it is unlikely that Ser Piero could have afforded a wet nurse.

At any rate, Leonardo probably spent most of his time as a child with neither parent, but with his paternal uncle Francesco, who would later remember Leonardo in his will. Ser Piero was busy in the nearby city of Florence, and Caterina had married a man named Accattabriga. Francesco worked as a farmer, and Leonardo probably spent a great deal of his childhood out of doors, observing nature and possibly sketching it.


Leonardo's status as an illegitimate child certainly affected his personal development. Although the upper classes of the quatrocento usually ignored illegitimacy, allowing bastard sons to inherit their fathers' property and power, the middle classes were quite particular. As a notary, Leonardo's father Ser Piero was positioned quite solidly within the developing middle classes, which were full of clubs, guilds, and unions that carefully regulated the opportunities of a boy like Leonardo. As a bastard, he would never be able to attend a university or even become a notary like his father. Also, Leonardo no doubt felt neglected by his parents. Not only was he illegitimate, but his mother was soon distracted by her legitimate children, and Ser Piero probably spent most of his time away from Leonardo, in Florence.

Thus lacking anyone in whose footsteps he was expected to follow, Leonardo could develop freely into the universal man he would become. He spent his days with his uncle Francesco, tending to animals and exploring farmland, observing the nature and landscapes that he would later sketch and study. Because he was not expected to become a notary, he was free to pursue drawing. Also, although as a notary Ser Perio probably ensured that the boy had a proper "elementary" education, Leonardo had to learn many things for himself, thus initiating what would become his habitual autodidacticism; he would later teach himself Latin, physics, and human anatomy.

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