A prodigy, warmaster, weapons designer, prompter, scene designer, costume maker, mathematician, inventor, philosopher; Leonardo da Vinci, is the very same name that inspired a whole era. Leonardo da Vinci is largely synonymous with the word renaissance, the mystical and interesting character whose persona has allured the interest of many who seek to find a classical master of prevailing skill.
Among the many masters of renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci stands out as an eccentric, heartfelt and soulful character. The nuance of his personality from the rest of the renaissance artists is so distinct that his name feels like a whole movement by itself rather than being part of a contribution. His common points with his compatriots being the vanguard of an era of enlightenment, humanism and creativeness. The differences however are not mainly of theory but more about his style.
He has been interested in the knowledge of the old masters, philosophers, alchemists, mathematicians, esotericists and medicinists, even though he himself had never been subject to formal education, ever since he was a child. Being born into constricting circumstances, he was not able to be registered into the formal education like his father, who would probably have sent him to school for accounting, but instead he was sent for art education. This education was the atelier of the famous Andrea del Verrocchio, who worked in the town center of Florence, a famous renaissance artist himself.
What we understand from Leonardo’s own notes, which still survive to this day, is that his curiosity about the natural world around him started as soon as he became self aware. His childhood was full of curious adventures around his village, where he took note of the motion of fluids with the flow of rivers, the spiraling hydrolytic movement. This curiosity about the movement of water never ceased for the rest of his life, causing him to study the shape and mathematics of spirals which seemed to astonish him in every period of his life. He was keen on observing these spirals in everything he observed, like the curls of the hair.
His village was Vinci, in the countryside of Florence, an hour distance from the town center. He was born in the neighborhood of Empoli. A river would divide the meadow, separating the settlement from the hilly terrain. Strong winds would beat this settlement across the river, with nothing to protect the residents from the cold of the winter season other than that of high elevation. It was a landlocked country with a complex terrain, which made farming and husbandry the main income of the village. Life here was not easy in this place where walls were covered in rugged plaster; luxury or comfort was far from being the norm.
Even though he was a notary by trade, Leonardo’s father was a man with an interest in art, which enabled his discovery of his son’s artistic talent. That, combined with the problems surrounding his birth certification, caused him to register him into the workshop of the Verrochio in the town center of Florence. Many workers choose this route of working in the town centers in those days, the skilled craftsmen and traders preferring to work in the centers rather than in the countryside. It was a time of machinations and discovery, new vocations were opening up in the cities and skilled workers were commonly sought after. Not all of them, however, were able to be employed in the city and therefore everyone with a talent or trade was being directed into the town centers.
Leonardo’s notebook reveals an incredibly inquisitive character, curious about almost anything like why the clouds looked like a straight line to our eyes, or if the wings of a bird fluttered faster while going down or going up. These were clear indications that he was a prodigy, which must have been recognized by his father as he sent Leonardo to the workshop of a famous artist in Florence to start his education. This artist was Andrea del Verrochio, the famed renaissance master who had painted countless works for a variety of patrons. When Verrochio created his David sculpture in 1475, the model was none other than a 12 year old Leonardo da Vinci himself.
The natural skill of Leonardo shone in the same studio. As he started helping the works of his master and created figures on his own, his skill started to outshine Verrochio’s himself. The main difference was the soft transitions Leonardo would paint, using his famed technique of sfumato, that allowed him to depict images with soft edges and give them a better human expression and a more realistic outline. The most vivid example of this difference can be seen in the work of Baptism of Christ, where Verrochio painted one angel and right next to it is the angel painted by Leonardo. The difference in quality is very clear. The reference model used for this image of the angel was later used for the Virgin of the Rocks painted by Leonardo in 1483-93.
He was able to employ this method because of the material available to him. Oil painting had surfaced in northern Europe but wasn’t as widely popular in Italy at the time. Painters preferred their classical technique of mixing the pigments directly with egg yolk. This would cause the paint to dry quickly - too quickly to create soft color transitions. Oil painting however took a long time to dry, giving the artist the opportunity to work on the gradient for a long while. Leonardo found the opportunity to use this foreign style and adopt it to his own skill, working on his paintings for as long as it would take and finally mastered it to the level of ultimate realism.
Leonardo was a dreamer and an innovator. He was incredibly curious. This caused him to look like he was stalling his works, perhaps a leftover habit of helping his master Verrochio on paintings partially, never having been taught to finish works but to work on them indefinitely. In truth he was taking an incredible amount of time to find the right models for his works, sometimes taking months around the city to see the right face. He thought that there would always be something to add to the painting, constantly revisiting the work to make a correction. How we learn all this is by the notes he took with his own hand, notebooks that miraculously survived to this day and total an amount of 7200 pages, written in his own mirrored right-to-left writing style he created by himself as he was a child.
His early life has been a complete reflection of his interesting personality, curiosity and undeniable genius. He was a seeker ever since he was a child and at a very early age he became an artist, surpassing his own master in skill and innovation. Leonardo da Vinci, with his fascinating personality, has been a living legend in his own time just as he is a symbol of innovation and creativity in the contemporary age. Those who look to compose art, technology and design together find themselves inspired by this undisputed master of the classical ages.