Leonardo da Vinci
- Leonardo lived from 1452–1519. "Da Vinci" refers
to the fact that he was born in or in the vicinity of the town
of Vinci. He was the son of Ser Piero di Antonio and Caterina.
He never married and was most likely homosexual. He was one of
the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance but unfortunately
fewer than a dozen paintings by Leonardo have survived. He was
also very interested in science, and left behind copious notebooks
including studies of anatomy, hydraulics, engineering, and many
other fields. Little is known of his personal life.
Ser Piero di Antonio
- Leonardo's father. "Di Antonio" means son of Antonio.
While his father was primarily a farmer, Ser Piero came from a
long line of notaries, and he himself was a young notary when Leonardo
was born. A notary is similar to a lawyer; in quatrocento Italy,
a notary had a fair amount of privilege. By the time he died in
1504, Ser Piero was fairly wealthy, with twelve legitimate children
in addition to the illegitimate Leonardo: Leonardo's mother was
a peasant woman named Caterina, who was never married to his father.
was Leonardo's mother, though little else is known about her. She
married shortly after giving birth to Leonardo, as did Leonardo's
father, Ser Piero, and probably had little to do with her son's
upbringing: Leonardo seems to have been raised primarily by his
uncle. However, Caterina grew to be an old woman, remaining in
the vicinity of the village of Vinci, and there is some speculation
that in 1493 she came to live her final two or three years with
- Leonardo's uncle. It is likely that while Ser Piero
was away in Florence on business, Francesco was responsible for
raising Leonardo. He was a farmer, and so Leonardo probably spent
a great deal of time outdoors.
Andrea del Verrocchio
- Leonardo served as an apprentice in Verrochio's workshop
for roughly 15 years. As a boy, Verrocchio accidentally killed
another boy while idly throwing rocks; although he was not prosecuted,
guilt followed him all his life, and when he sculpted his famous David,
refused to give the giant-slayer the traditional slingshot, instead
giving him a sword. Of all the workshops, or studios, in Florence,
Verrochio's was one of the two most respected. Verrocchio's primary
talent lay in his sculpture work, and he collaborated with an aged Donatello,
eventually replacing him as the Medici family's personal sculptor.
He had a very strong teaching style, and Leonardo seems to have
been very loyal to him.
The Medici Family
- For most of Leonardo's life, Florence, capital of
the republic of Tuscany was in practice not a republic at all.
Instead, it was controlled by the Medici family. It had originally
been a family of doctors, hence their name ("Medici" is related
to our English words "medic," "medicine," "medical"). Their rule
began with Cosimo the Elder, who often employed Verrocchio's sculpting
skills. He gained control of the town through business. His feeble
son, Piero di Cosimo de Medici, or Piero the Gouty, ably ruled
Florence from 1464–69. His sons Lorenzo and Giuliano took power
in 1469; in 1478 Giuliano was assassinated and Lorenzo became the
sole ruler, until his own death in 1492. He was known as Lorenzo
the Magnificent for his grace and his ability to avoid war through
diplomacy. Although Lorenzo does not seem to have had a significant
relationship with Leonardo, he was a key patron for many world-class
artists, especially for the young Michelangelo.
Lorenzo himself was more interested in scholars than in painters.
He also threw frequent public festivals. His eldest son Piero
ruled until 1494, when the outspoken religious zealot Savonarola
temporarily took power. Lorenzo's second son, Giovanni, was at
that time a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, and he used
his influence with the pope to restore the Medicis to power. Giovanni
later became Pope Leo X, the pope who excommunicated Martin Luther
and dealt with the early stages of the Reformation.
Leo X was pope when Leonardo lived in the Vatican. The pope's
brother, Giuliano de Medici was head of the papal armies and was
Leonardo's patron from 1513 to 1516. He was a depressed man who
held Leonardo in great esteem. For more information on the Medici
family, see the SparkNote on the Italian
Sforza (Il Moro, or The Moor)
was the Duke of Milan. He was called "Il Moro" because of his dark
skin. The Sforza power had gained control of Milan a few generations
earlier, and Ludovico himself wrested power from his nephew's mother.
He was ruthless in politics but fostered a world-renowned court.
He was patron to Leonardo from 1482 until 1499, when he was conquered by
- Giacomo (Salai) entered Leonardo's household in April
1490, when he was 10 years old. He was the son of a penniless
farmer. The master's notebooks are almost devoid of notes about
other persons, but in April 1491 Leonardo wrote a detailed list
of all the expenses Giacomo had cost him. Indeed, the boy had engaged
in so much petty thievery and general bad behavior that Leonardo
gave him the nickname "Salai," demon, or limb of Satan. The relationship
between the two is unclear: Salai had ravishing good looks and
curly hair, and Leonardo showered him with fine clothes–this would
have been unusual behavior toward a servant or pupil. Salai's
presence was probably a source of vanity and perhaps pleasure to
the older man. Salai remained devoted to Leonardo until his death.
Fra Luca Pacioli
- A monk famous for his mathematical work, and his
treatise Summa de Arithmetica.
He spent time
in Milan from 1496–99 and taught Leonardo mathematics; Leonardo
eeagerly illustrated his book De Divina Proportione.
He wanted to develop a master-theory of math that would unite everything
from the ancient theories of Euclid to the everyday task of bookkeeping.
Borgia's name is synonymous with cruelty. An Italian soldier, politician,
and ecclesiastic, Borgia killed his own brother to achieve his
position as commander of the pope's armies. He employed Leonardo
as chief military engineer to the pope's armies in the Romagna
campaign, in 1502, which he eventually proved successful in, making
himself Duke of Romagna.
- An Italian historian, statesman, and political philosopher
who probably met Leonardo in 1502 and may have worked with him
in 1503 on a project to divert the course of the Arno River. He
is famous for his book The Prince.
- Melzi joined Leonardo's household in 1507, at the
age of 15. Like Salai, he was a beautiful young boy, and one suspects
that it was his beauty and not his talent that made Leonardo choose
him as an assistant. All the same, Melzi did produce a few paintings,
whereas Salai did not. Also unlike Salai, his parents were aristocrats
from the countryside around Milan; the fact that they allowed him
to become a painter's assistant may testify to Leonardo's fame.
He remained devoted to Leonardo until his death, at which time
he received a large inheritance from his late master.
- Francis I was King of France from
1515–47. He conquered Milan at the age of 19, a broad-shouldered,
tall youth in gilded armor. Leonardo probably met him at the Bologna
peace talks of 1515, where, according to Vasari, the painter presented
the king with a mechanical lion. In 1516, Leonardo entered into
his service, permanently leaving Italy for Amboise. The King enjoyed
the aging master's conversation, calling him a great philosopher.
When Leonardo died in 1519, legend has it that he died in the
arms of Francis I.
- Vasari wrote what were probably the first biographies
of artists, and perhaps the first modern criticism, in his work Lives
of the Artists.
He wrote thirty years after Leonardo's
death, and his writings brim with rumors and legends. Many of
his facts have been proven wrong by modern historians, who have
better techniques and more resources at their disposal. For example,
Vasari never saw the Mona Lisa,
and thus had to
write about it from second-hand reports. Moreover, because biography
was such a new genre, he probably did not feel compelled to restrict
himself to the purely literal or factual. On the other hand, Vasari
knew men who had actually known Leonardo, and so he must have had
a better grasp on the character of Leonardo than any modern-day
historian. And his Lives
gained such influence
that whether or not they adhere to literal fact becomes secondary:
they informed so many readers for so many years that they created