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.
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.
Caterina 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 her son.
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.
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, he 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.
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 Renaissance.
Ludovico 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 the French.
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.
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.
Cesare 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 Leonardo's biographical legacy.