“The most relentlessly curious man in history.”
Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.
His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.
Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder.
I learnt from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.
Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Walter lsaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it fiirted with fantasy.
He produced the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and technology. With a passion that sometimes became obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, fiying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. His ability to stand at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences, made iconic by his drawing of Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.
His creativity, like that of other great innovators, came from having wide-ranging passions. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, drew the muscles that move the lips, and then painted history’s most memorable smile. He explored the math of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced illusions of changing perspectives in The Last Supper.
Isaacson also describes how Leonardo’s lifelong enthusiasm for staging theatrical productions informed his paintings and inventions.
Leonardo’s delight at combining diverse passions remains the ultimate recipe for creativity. So, too, does his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical. His life should remind us of the importance of instilling, both in ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.
I Can Also Paint
Around the time that he reached the unnerving milestone of turning thirty, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons he should be given a job. He had been moderately successful as a painter in Florence, but he had trouble finishing his commissions and was searching for new horizons. In the first ten paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and public buildings. Only in the eleventh paragraph, at the end, did he add that he was also an artist. “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible,” he wrote.
Yes, he could. He would go on to create the two most famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But in his own mind, he was just as much a man of science and engineering. With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, water flows, and weaponry. Thus he became the archetype of the Renaissance Man, an inspiration to all who believe that the “infinite works of nature,” as he put it, are woven together in a unity filled with marvelous patterns. His ability to combine art and science, made iconic by his drawing of a perfectly proportioned man spread-eagle inside a circle and square, known as Vitruvian Man, made him history’s most creative genius.
His scientific explorations informed his art. He peeled flesh off the faces of cadavers, delineated the muscles that move the lips, and then painted the world’s most memorable smile. He studied human skulls, made layered drawings of the bones and teeth, and conveyed the skeletal agony of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. He explored the mathematics of optics, showed how light rays strike the cornea, and produced magical illusions of changing visual perspectives in The Last Supper.
By connecting his studies of light and optics to his art, he mastered the use of shading and perspective to model objects on a two-dimensional surface so they look three-dimensional. This ability to “make a flat surface display a body as if modeled and separated from this plane,” Leonardo said, was “the first intention of the painter.” Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.
As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation. When he groped for a theory of why the sky appears blue, it was not simply to inform his paintings. His curiosity was pure, personal, and delightfully obsessive.
But even when he was engaged in blue-sky thinking, his science was not a separate endeavor from his art. Together they served his driving passion, which was nothing less than knowing everything there was to know about the world, including how we fit into it. He had a reverence for the wholeness of nature and a feel for the harmony of its patterns, which he saw replicated in phenomena large and small. In his notebooks he would record curls of hair, eddies of water, and whirls of air, along with some stabs at the math that might underlie such spirals. While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.
I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology, is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius. Benjamin Franklin, a previous subject of mine, was a Leonardo of his era: with no formal education, he taught himself to become an imaginative polymath who was Enlightenment America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist. He proved by flying a kite that lightning is electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses, enchanting musical instruments, clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream, and America’s unique style of homespun humor. Albert Einstein, when he was stymied in his pursuit of his theory of relativity, would pull out his violin and play Mozart, which helped him reconnect with the harmonies of the cosmos. Ada Lovelace, whom I profiled in a book on innovators, combined the poetic sensibility of her father, Lord Byron, with her mother’s love of the beauty of math to envision a general-purpose computer. And Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of street signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. “He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, “and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”
Yes, he was a genius: wildly imaginative, passionately curious, and creative across multiple disciplines. But we should be wary of that word. Slapping the “genius” label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making it seem as if he were touched by lightning. His early biographer, Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth-century artist, made this mistake: “Sometimes, in supernatural fashion, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that his every act is divine and everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art.” In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.
Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering. His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.
At first I thought that his susceptibility to fantasia was a failing, revealing a lack of discipline and diligence that was related to his propensity to abandon artworks and treatises unfinished. To some extent, that is true. Vision without execution is hallucination. But I also came to believe that his ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy, just like his sfumato techniques for blurring the lines of a painting, was a key to his creativity. Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.
My starting point for this book was not Leonardo’s art masterpieces but his notebooks. His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.
Fortunately, Leonardo could not afford to waste paper, so he crammed every inch of his pages with miscellaneous drawings and looking-glass jottings that seem random but provide intimations of his mental leaps. Scribbled alongside each other, with rhyme if not reason, are math calculations, sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, siphons, plant stems, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, notes on the eye and optics, weapons of war, fables, riddles, and studies for paintings. The crossdisciplinary brilliance whirls across every page, providing a delightful display of a mind dancing with nature. His notebooks are the greatest record of curiosity ever created, a wondrous guide to the person whom the eminent art historian Kenneth Clark called “the most relentlessly curious man in history.”
My favorite gems in his notebooks are his to-do lists, which sparkle with his curiosity. One of them, dating from the 1490s in Milan, is that day’s list of things he wants to learn. “The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,” is the first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: “Draw Milan.” Others show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick: “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle. . . . Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled. . . . Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders. . . . Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner. . . . Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.” He is insatiable.
Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn. Some involve the type of close observation most of us rarely pause to do. “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.” Others involve why-is-the-sky-blue questions about phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”
Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you even find out? It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture or even to understand the flight of birds. But there it is, and, as we shall see, there are fascinating things to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker. The reason he wanted to know was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.
Oddest of all, there is this entry: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.” We can imagine Leonardo wanting to do that, for reasons both anatomical and aesthetic. But did he really need to remind himself to do it? The next item on the list is “Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width.” As the New Yorker art critic Adam Gopnik once wrote, “Leonardo remains weird, matchlessly weird, and nothing to be done about it.”
To wrestle with these issues, I decided to write a book that used these notebooks as its foundation. I started by making pilgrimages to see the originals in Milan, Florence, Paris, Seattle, Madrid, London, and Windsor Castle. That followed Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” I also immersed myself in the little-tapped trove of academic articles and doctoral dissertations on Leonardo, each of which represents years of diligent work on very specific topics. In the past few decades, especially since the rediscovery of his Codices Madrid in 1965, there have been great advances in the analysis and interpretation of his writings. Likewise, modern technology has revealed new information about his painting and techniques.
After immersing myself in Leonardo, I did the best I could to be more observant of phenomena that I used to ignore, making a special effort to notice things the way he did. When I saw sunlight hitting drapes, I pushed myself to pause and look at the way the shadows caressed the folds. I tried to see how light that was reflected from one object subtly colored the shadows of another object. I noticed how the glint of a lustrous spot on a shiny surface moved when I tilted my head. When I looked at a distant tree and a near one, I tried to visualize the lines of perspective. When I saw an eddy of water, I compared it to a ringlet of hair. When I couldn’t understand a math concept, I did the best I was able to visualize it. When I saw people at a supper, I studied the relationship of their motions to their emotions. When I saw the hint of a smile come across someone’s lips, I tried to fathom her inner mysteries.
No, I did not come anywhere close to being Leonardo, mastering his insights, or mustering a modicum of his talents. I did not get a millimeter closer to being able to design a glider, invent a new way to draw maps, or paint the Mona Lisa. I had to push myself to be truly curious about the tongue of the woodpecker. But I did learn from Leonardo how a desire to marvel about the world that we encounter each day can make each moment of our lives richer.
There are three major early accounts of Leonardo by writers who were almost contemporaries. The painter Giorgio Vasari, born in 1511 (eight years before Leonardo died), wrote the first real art history book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in 1550 and came out with a revised version in 1568 that included corrections based on further interviews with people who knew Leonardo, including his pupil Francesco Melzi. A Florentine chauvinist, Vasari gave Leonardo and especially Michelangelo the most fulsome treatments for creating what he dubbed, for the first time in print, a “renaissance” in art. As Huckleberry Finn said of Mark Twain, there were things that Vasari stretched, but he told the truth, mainly. The remainder is a mix of gossip, embellishments, inventions, and unintentional errors. The problem is knowing which picturesque anecdotes, such as Leonardo’s teacher throwing down his own brush in awe of his pupil, fall into which category.
An anonymous manuscript written in the 1540s, known as the “Anonimo Gaddiano” after the family that once owned it, contains colorful details about Leonardo and other Florentines. Once again, some of the assertions, such as that Leonardo lived and worked with Lorenzo de’ Medici, may be embellished, but it provides colorful details that ring true, such as that Leonardo liked to wear rose-colored tunics that reached only to his knee even though others wore long garments.
A third early source is by Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a painter who became a writer when he went blind. He wrote an unpublished manuscript called Dreams and Arguments in about 1560 and then published a voluminous treatise on art in 1584. He was the student of a painter who had known Leonardo, and he interviewed Leonardo’s pupil Melzi, so he had access to some firsthand stories. Lomazzo is especially revealing about Leonardo’s sexual proclivities. In addition, there are shorter accounts contained in writings by two Leonardo contemporaries, Antonio Billi, a Florentine merchant, and Paolo Giovio, an Italian physician and historian.
Many of these early accounts mention Leonardo’s looks and personality. He is described as a man of eyecatching beauty and grace. He had flowing golden curls, a muscular build, remarkable physical strength, and an elegance of bearing when he was walking through town in his colorful garb or riding on a horse. “Beautiful in person and aspect, Leonardo was well-proportioned and graceful,” according to the Anonimo. In addition, he was a charming conversationalist and a lover of nature, renowned for being sweet and gentle to both people and animals.
There is less agreement about certain specifics. In the course of my research I discovered that many facts about Leonardo’s life, from the site of his birth to the scene at his death, have been the subject of debate, mythology, and mystery. I try to give my best assessment and then describe the controversies and counterarguments in the notes.
I also discovered, at first to my consternation and then to my pleasure, that Leonardo was not always a giant. He made mistakes. He went off on tangents, literally, pursuing math problems that became timesucking diversions. Notoriously, he left many of his paintings unfinished, most notably the Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, and the Battle of Anghiari. As a result, there exist now at most fifteen paintings fully or mainly attributable to him.
Although generally considered by his contemporaries to be friendly and gentle, Leonardo was at times dark and troubled. His notebooks and drawings are a window into his fevered, imaginative, manic, and sometimes elated mind. Had he been a student at the outset of the twenty-first century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention-deficit disorder. One need not subscribe to the artist-as-troubled-genius trope to believe we are fortunate that Leonardo was left to his own devices to slay his demons while conjuring up his dragons.
In one of the quirky riddles in his notebooks is this clue: “Huge figures will appear in human shape, and the nearer you get to them, the more their immense size will diminish.” The answer: “The shadow cast by a man at night with a light.” Although the same may be said of Leonardo, I believe he is, in fact, not diminished by being discovered to be human. Both his shadow and his reality deserve to loom large. His lapses and oddities allow us to relate to him, to feel that we might emulate him, and to appreciate his moments of triumph even more.
The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own. That is why we have much to learn from Leonardo. His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity. So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, lefthanded, easily distracted, and at times heretical. Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people. Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it, to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.
Childhood: Vinci, 1452-1464
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.
His family roots can be traced to the early 1300s, when his great-great-great-grandfather, Michele, practiced as a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, about seventeen miles west of Florence. With the rise of Italy’s mercantile economy, notaries played an important role drawing up commercial contracts, land sales, wills, and other legal documents in Latin, often garnishing them with historical references and literary flourishes.
Because Michele was a notary, he was entitled to the honorific “Ser” and thus became known as Ser Michele da Vinci. His son and grandson were even more successful notaries, the latter becoming a chancellor of Florence. The next in line, Antonio, was an anomaly. He used the honorific Ser and married the daughter of a notary, but he seems to have lacked the da Vinci ambition. He mostly spent his life living off the proceeds from family lands, tilled by sharecroppers, that produced a modest amount of wine, olive oil, and wheat.
Antonio’s son Piero made up for the lassitude by ambitiousiy pursuing success in Pistoia and Pisa, and then by about 1451, when he was twenty-five, establishing himself in Florence. A contract he notarized that year gave his work address as “at the Palazzo del Podesta,” the magistrates’ building (now the Bargello Museum) facing the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government. He became a notary for many of the city’s monasteries and religious orders, the town’s Jewish community, and on at least one occasion the Medici family.
On one of his visits back to Vinci, Piero had a relationship with an unmarried local peasant girl, and in the spring of 1452 they had a son. Exercising his littleused notarial handwriting, the boy’s grandfather Antonio recorded the birth on the bottom of the last page of a notebook that had belonged to his own grandfather. “1452: There was born to me a grandson, the son of Ser Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, at the third hour of the night [about 10 p.m.]. He bears the name Leonardo.”
Leonardo’s mother was not considered worth mentioning in Antonio’s birth notation nor in any other birth or baptism record. From a tax document five years later, we learn only her first name, Caterina. Her identity was long a mystery to modern scholars. She was thought to be in her mid-twenties, and some researchers speculated that she was an Arab slave, or perhaps a Chinese slave.
In fact, she was an orphaned and impoverished sixteen-year-old from the Vinci area named Caterina Lippi. Proving that there are still things to be rediscovered about Leonardo, the art historian Martin Kemp of Oxford and the archival researcher Giuseppe Pallanti of Florence produced evidence in 2017 documenting her background. Born in 1436 to a poor farmer, Caterina was orphaned when she was fourteen. She and her infant brother moved in with their grandmother, who died a year later, in 1451. Left to fend for herself and her brother, Caterina had a relationship in July of that year with Piero da Vinci, then twenty-four, who was prominent and prosperous.
There was little likelihood they would marry. Although described by one earlier biographer as “of good blood,” Caterina was of a different social class, and Piero was probably already betrothed to his future wife, an appropriate match: a sixteen-year-old named Albiera who was the daughter of a prominent Florentine shoemaker. He and Albiera were wed within eight months of Leonardo’s birth. The marriage, socially and professionally advantageous to both sides, had likely been arranged, and the dowry contracted, before Leonardo was born.
Keeping things tidy and convenient, shortly after Leonardo was born Piero helped to set up a marriage for Caterina to a local farmer and kiln worker who had ties to the da Vinci family. Named Antonio di Piero del Vacca, he was called Accattabriga, which means “Troublemaker,” though fortunately he does not seem to have been one.
Leonardo’s paternal grandparents and his father had a family house with a small garden right next to the walls of the castle in the heart of the village of Vinci. That is where Leonardo may have been born, though there are reasons to think not. It might not have been convenient or appropriate to have a pregnant and then breast-feeding peasant woman living in the crowded da Vinci family home, especially as Ser Piero was negotiating a dowry from the prominent family whose daughter he was planning to marry.
Instead, according to legend and the local tourist industry, Leonardo’s birthplace may have been a gray stone tenant cottage next to a farmhouse two miles up the road from Vinci in the adjacent hamlet of Anchiano, which is now the site of a small Leonardo museum. Some of this property had been owned since 1412 by the family of Piero di Malvolto, a close friend of the da Vincis. He was the godfather of Piero da Vinci and, in 1452, would be a godfather of Piero’s newborn son, Leonardo, which would have made sense if Leonardo had been born on his property. The families were very close. Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio had served as a witness to a contract involving some parts of Piero di Malvolto’s property. The notes describing the exchange say that Antonio was at a nearby house playing backgammon when he was asked to come over for that task. Piero da Vinci would buy some of the property in the 1480s.
At the time of Leonardo’s birth, Piero di Malvolto’s seventy-year-old widowed mother lived on the property. So here in the hamlet of Anchiano, an easy two-mile walk from the village of Vinci, living alone in a farmhouse that had a run-down cottage next door, was a widow who was a trusted friend to at least two generations of the da Vinci family. Her dilapidated cottage (for tax purposes the family claimed it as uninhabitable) may have been the ideal place to shelter Caterina while she was pregnant, as per local lore.
Leonardo was born on a Saturday, and the following day he was baptized by the local priest at the parish church of Vinci. The baptismal font is still there. Despite the circumstances of his birth, it was a large and public event. There were ten godparents giving witness, including Piero di Malvolto, far more than the average at the church, and the guests included prominent local gentry. A week later, Piero da Vinci left Caterina and their infant son behind and returned to Florence, where that Monday he was in his office notarizing papers for clients.
Leonardo left us no comment on the circumstances of his birth, but there is one tantalizing allusion in his notebooks to the favors that nature bestows upon a love child. “The man who has intercourse aggressively and uneasily will produce children who are irritable and untrustworthy,” he wrote, “but if the intercourse is done with great love and desire on both sides, the child will be of great intellect, witty, lively, and lovable.” One assumes, or at least hopes, that he considered himself in the latter category.
He split his childhood between two homes. Caterina and Accattabriga settled on a small farm on the outskirts of Vinci, and they remained friendly with Piero da Vinci. Twenty years later, Accattabriga was working in a kiln that was rented by Piero, and they served as witnesses for each other on a few contracts and deeds over the years. In the years following Leonardo’s birth, Caterina and Accattabriga had four girls and a boy. Piero and Albiera, however, remained childless. In fact, until Leonardo was twenty-four, his father had no other children. (Piero would make up for it during his third and fourth marriages, having at least eleven children.)
With his father living mainly in Florence and his mother nurturing a growing family of her own, Leonardo by age five was primarily living in the da Vinci family home with his leisure-loving grandfather Antonio and his wife. In the 1457 tax census, Antonio listed the dependents residing with him, including his grandson: “Leonardo, son of the said Ser Piero, non legittimo, born of him and of Caterina, who is now the woman of Achattabriga.”
Also living in the household was Piero’s youngest brother, Francesco, who was only fifteen years older than his nephew Leonardo. Francesco inherited a love of country leisure and was described in a tax document by his own father, in a pot-calling-the-kettle way, as “one who hangs around the villa and does nothing.” He became Leonardo’s beloved uncle and at times surrogate father. In the first edition of his biography, Vasari makes the telling mistake, later corrected, of identifying Piero as Leonardo’s uncle.
“A GOLDEN AGE FOR BASTARDS”
As Leonardo’s well-attended baptism attests, being born out of wedlock was not a cause for public shame. The nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt went so far as to label Renaissance Italy “a golden age for bastards.” Especially among the ruling and aristocratic classes, being illegitimate was no hindrance. Pius II, who was the pope when Leonardo was born, wrote about visiting Ferrara, where his welcoming party included seven princes from the ruling Este family, among them the reigning duke, all born out of wedlock. “It is an extraordinary thing about that family,” Pius wrote, “that no legitimate heir has ever inherited the principate; the sons of their mistresses have been so much more fortunate than those of their wives.” (Pius himself fathered at least two illegitimate children.) Pope Alexander Vl, also during Leonardo’s lifetime, had multiple mistresses and illegitimate children, one of whom was Cesare Borgia, who became a cardinal, commander of the papal armies, an employer of Leonardo, and the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
For members of the middle classes, however, illegitimacy was not as readily accepted. Protective of their new status, merchants and professionals formed guilds that enforced moral strictures. Although some of the guilds accepted the illegitimate sons of their members, that was not the case with the Arte dei Giuduci e Notai, the venerable (founded in 1197) guild of judges and notaries to which Leonardo’s father belonged. “The notary was a certified witness and scribe,” Thomas Kuehn wrote in Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. “His trustworthiness had to be above reproach. He had to be someone fully in the mainstream of society.”
These strictures had an upside. Illegitimacy freed some imaginative and free-spirited young men to be creative at a time when creativity was increasingly rewarded. Among the poets, artists, and artisans born out of wedlock were Petrarch, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, his son Filippino, Leon Battista Alberti, and of course Leonardo.
Being born out of wedlock was more complex than merely being an outsider. It created an ambiguity of status. “The problem with bastards was that they were part of the family, but not totally,” wrote Kuehn. That helped some be, or forced them to be, more adventurous and improvisational. Leonardo was a member of a middle-class family but separate from it. Like so many writers and artists, he grew up feeling a part of the world but also detached. This limbo extended to inheritance: a combination of conflicting laws and contradictory court precedents left it unclear whether a son born out of wedlock could be an heir, as Leonardo was to find out in legal battles with his halfbrothers many years later. “Management of such ambiguities was one of the hallmarks of life in a Renaissance city-state,” explained Kuehn. “It was related to the more celebrated creativity of a city like Florence in the arts and humanism.”
Because Florence’s guild of notaries barred those who were non legittimo, Leonardo was able to benefit from the note-taking instincts that were ingrained in his family heritage while being free to pursue his own creative passions. This was fortunate. He would have made a poor notary: he got bored and distracted too easily, especially when a project became routine rather than creative.
DISCIPLE OF EXPERIENCE
Another upside for Leonardo of being born out of wedlock was that he was not sent to one of the “Latin schools” that taught the classics and humanities to wellgroomed aspiring professionals and merchants of the early Renaissance.” Other than a little training in commercial math at what was known as an “abacus school,” Leonardo was mainly self-taught. He often seemed defensive about being an “unlettered man,” as he dubbed himself with some irony. But he also took pride that his lack of formal schooling led him to be a disciple of experience and experiment. “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia,” he once signed himself. This freethinking attitude saved him from being an acolyte of traditional thinking. In his notebooks he unleashed a blast at what he called the pompous fools who would disparage him for this:
“I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. Foolish folk! . . . They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others. . . . They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe, but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”
Thus was Leonardo spared from being trained to accept dusty Scholasticism or the medieval dogmas that had accumulated in the centuries since the decline of classical science and original thinking. His lack of reverence for authority and his willingness to challenge received wisdom would lead him to craft an empirical approach for understanding nature that foreshadowed the scientific method developed more than a century later by Bacon and Galileo. His method was rooted in experiment, curiosity, and the ability to marvel at phenomena that the rest of us rarely pause to ponder after we’ve outgrown our wonder years.
To that was added an intense desire and ability to observe the wonders of nature. He pushed himself to perceive shapes and shadows with wondrous precision. He was particularly good at apprehending movement, from the motions of a flapping wing to the emotions flickering across a face. On this foundation he built experiments, some conducted in his mind, others with drawings, and a few with physical objects. “First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further,” he announced, “because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.”
It was a good time for a child with such ambitions and talents to be born. In 1452 Johannes Gutenberg had just opened his publishing house, and soon others were using his moveable-type press to print books that would empower unschooled but brilliant people like Leonardo. Italy was beginning a rare forty-year period during which it was not wracked by wars among its citystates. Literacy, numeracy, and income were rising dramatically as power shifted from titled landowners to urban merchants and bankers, who benefited from advances in law, accounting, credit, and insurance. The Ottoman Turks were about to capture Constantinople, unleashing on Italy a migration of fleeing scholars with bundles of manuscripts containing the ancient wisdom of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, and Aristotle. Born within a year of Leonardo were Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who would lead an era of exploration. And Florence, with its booming merchant class of status-seeking patrons, had become the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism.
The most vivid memory Leonardo had of his infancy was one he recorded fifty years later, when he was studying the flight of birds. He was writing about a hawk-like bird called a kite, which has a forked tail and elegant long wings that allow it to soar and glide. Observing it with his typical acuity, Leonardo perceived precisely how it opened its wings and then spread and lowered its tail when it landed. This aroused a memory from when he was a baby: “Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since among the first recollections of my infancy, it seemed to me that, as l was in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.” Like much of what came from Leonardo’s mind, there was probably some fantasy and fabulism in the brew. It is hard to imagine a bird actually landing in a cradle and prying open a baby’s mouth with its tail, and Leonardo appears to acknowledge this by using the phrase “it seemed to me,” as if it were perhaps partly a dream.
All of this, a childhood with two mothers, an often absent father, and a dreamlike oral encounter with a flapping tail, would provide great fodder for a Freudian analyst. And it did, from Freud himself. In 1910 Freud used the kite tale as the foundation for a short book, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.
Freud got off to a stumbling start by using a poor German translation of Leonardo’s note that mistakenly called the bird a vulture rather than a kite. This sent him into a long tangential explanation about the symbolism of vultures in ancient Egypt and the etymological relationship of the words for vulture and mother, all of which was irrelevant and, Freud later admitted, embarrassing. Leaving aside the bird mix-up, the main thrust of Freud’s analysis was that the word for tail in many languages, including Italian (coda), is slang for “penis” and that Leonardo’s memory was related to his homosexuality. “The situation contained in the fantasy, that a vulture opened the mouth of the child and forcefully belabored it with its tail, corresponds to the idea of fellatio,” Freud wrote. Leonardo’s repressed desires, he speculated, were channeled into his feverish creativity, but he left many works unfinished because he was inhibited.
These interpretations have prompted some devastating critiques, most famously by art historian Meyer Schapiro, and they seem, at least to me, to reveal more about Freud than about Leonardo. Biographers should be cautious about psychoanalyzing someone who lived five centuries earlier. Leonardo’s dreamlike memory may have simply reflected his lifelong interest in the flight of birds, which is how he framed it. And it does not take a Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality,” he wrote in one of his notebooks.
A better source for insight into Leonardo’s formative character and motivations is another personal memory he recorded, this one about hiking near Florence. The recollection involved chancing upon a dark cave and pondering whether he should enter. “Having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire, fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”
Desire won. His unstoppable curiosity triumphed, and Leonardo went into the cave. There he discovered, embedded in the wall, a fossil whale. “Oh mighty and once-living instrument of nature,” he wrote, “your vast strength was to no avail.” Some scholars have assumed that he was describing a fantasy hike or riffing on some verses by Seneca. But his notebook page and those surrounding it are filled with descriptions of layers of fossil shells, and many fossilized whale bones have in fact been discovered in Tuscany.
The whale fossil triggered a dark vision of what would be, throughout his life, one of his deepest forebodings, that of an apocalyptic deluge. On the next side of the sheet he described at length the furious power once held by the long-dead whale: “You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships.” Then he turned philosophical. “Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kings, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished.”
By this point Leonardo’s fears were about a realm far different from whatever dangers might be lurking inside the cave, instead they were driven by an existential dread in the face of the destructive powers of nature. He began scribbling rapidly, using a silverpoint on a redtinted page, describing an apocalypse that begins with water and ends with fire. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die,” he wrote. “In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.”
The dark cave that Leonardo’s curiosity compelled him to enter offered up both scientific discoveries and imaginative fantasies, strands that would be interwoven throughout his life. He would weather storms, literally and psychologically, and he would encounter dark recesses of the earth and soul. But his curiosity about nature would always impel him to explore more. Both his fascinations and his forebodings would be expressed in his art, beginning with his depiction of Saint Jerome agonizing near the mouth of a cave and culminating in his drawings and writings about an apocalyptic deluge.
Until he was twelve, Leonardo had a life in Vinci that, despite the complexities of being part of an extended family, was quite settled. He lived primarily with his grandparents and his idle uncle Francesco in the family house in the heart of Vinci. His father and stepmother were listed as living there when Leonardo was five, but after that their primary residence was in Florence. Leonardo’s mother and her husband lived with their growing brood of children, along with Accattabriga’s parents and his brother’s family, in a farmhouse an easy walk from town.
But in 1464 this world was disrupted. His stepmother, Albiera, died in childbirth, along with what would have been her first child. Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio, the head of the Vinci household, also had recently died. So just as Leonardo was reaching the age when he needed to prepare for a trade, his father, living alone and probably lonely, brought him to Florence.
Leonardo rarely wrote in his notebooks about his own emotions, so it is hard to know what he felt about the move. But the fables he recorded sometimes give a glimpse of his sentiments. One described the sad odyssey of a stone perched on a hill surrounded by colorful flowers and a grove of trees, in other words, a place like Vinci. Looking at the crowd of stones along the road below, it decided it wanted to join them. “What am I doing here among these plants?” the stone asked. “I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.” So it rolled down to the others. “After a while,” Leonardo recounted, “it found itself in continual distress from the wheels of the carts, the iron hoofs of horses, and the feet of the passers-by. One rolled it over, another trod upon it. Sometimes the stone raised itself up a little as it lay covered with mud or the dung of some animal, but it was in vain that it looked up at the spot whence it had come as a place of solitude and tranquil peace.” Leonardo drew a moral: “This is what happens to those who leave a life of solitary contemplation and choose to come to dwell in cities among people full of infinite evil.”
His notebooks have many other maxims praising the countryside and solitude. “Leave your family and friends and go over the mountains and valleys into the country,” he instructed aspiring painters. “While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” These paeans to country living are romantic and, for those who cherish the image of lonely genius, quite appealing. But they are infused with fantasy. Leonardo would spend almost all of his career in Florence, Milan, and Rome, crowded centers of creativity and commerce, usually surrounded by students, companions, and patrons. He rarely retreated alone to the countryside for an extended period of solitude. Like many artists, he was stimulated by being with people of diverse interests and (willing to contradict himself in his notebooks) declared, “Drawing in company is much better than alone.” The impulses of his grandfather and uncle, who both practiced the quiet country life, were imprinted in Leonardo’s imagination but not practiced in his life.
During his early years in Florence, Leonardo lived with his father, who arranged for him to get a rudimentary education and would soon help him get a good apprenticeship and commissions. But there is one significant thing that Ser Piero did not do, which would have been easy enough for a well-connected notary: go through the legal process of having his son legitimated. This could be accomplished by the father and child appearing before a local official known as a “count palatine,” usually a dignitary who had been granted power to act on such matters, and presenting a petition as the child knelt. Piero’s decision not to do this for Leonardo is particularly surprising, since he then had no other children of his own.
Perhaps one reason that Piero did not legitimate Leonardo was that he hoped to have as his heir a son who would follow family tradition and become a notary, and it was already clear, by the time Leonardo turned twelve, that he was not so inclined. According to Vasari, Piero noticed that his son “never ceased drawing and sculpting, pursuits which suited his fancy more than any other.” In addition, the notary guild had a rule, which may have been difficult to circumvent, that denied membership even to out-of-wedlock sons who had been legitimated. So Piero apparently saw no reason to go through the process. By not legitimating Leonardo, he could hope to have another son who would be his heir as a notary. A year later Piero married the daughter of another prominent Florence notary, but it would only be after his third marriage, in 1475 to a woman six years younger than Leonardo, that he would produce a legitimate heir who indeed became a notary.
There was no place then, and few places ever, that offered a more stimulating environment for creativity than Florence in the 1400s. Its economy, once dominated by unskilled wool-spinners, had flourished by becoming one that, like our own time, interwove art, technology, and commerce. It featured artisans working with silk makers and merchants to create fabrics that were works of art. In 1472 there were eighty-four woodcarvers, eighty-three silk workers, thirty master painters, and forty-four goldsmiths and jewelry craftsmen working in Florence. It was also a center of banking; the florin, noted for its gold purity, was the dominant standard currency in all of Europe, and the adoption of double-entry bookkeeping that recorded debits and credits permitted commerce to flourish. Its leading thinkers embraced a Renaissance humanism that put its faith in the dignity of the individual and in the aspiration to find happiness on this earth through knowledge. Fully a third of Florence’s population was literate, the highest rate in Europe. By embracing trade, it became a center of finance and a cauldron of ideas.
“Beautiful Florence has all seven of the fundamental things a city requires for perfection,” the essayist Benedetto Dei wrote in 1472, when Leonardo was living there. “First of all, it enjoys complete liberty; second, it has a large, rich, and elegantly dressed population; third, it has a river with clear, pure water, and mills within its walls; fourth, it rules over castles, towns, lands and people; fifth, it has a university, and both Greek and accounting are taught; sixth, it has masters in every art; seventh, it has banks and business agents all over the world.” Each one of those assets was valuable for a city, just as they are today: not only the “liberty” and “pure water,” but also that the population was “elegantly dressed” and that the university was renowned for teaching accounting as well as Greek.
The city’s cathedral was the most beautiful in Italy. In the 1430s it had been crowned with the world’s largest dome, built by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, which was a triumph of both art and engineering, and linking those two disciplines was a key to Florence’s creativity. Many of the city’s artists were also architects, and its fabric industry had been built by combining technology, design, chemistry, and commerce.
This mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled. Silk makers worked with goldbeaters to create enchanted fashions. Architects and artists developed the science of perspective. Wood-carvers worked with architects to adorn the city’s 108 churches. Shops became studios. Merchants became financiers. Artisans became artists.
When Leonardo arrived, Florence’s population was 40,000, which is about what it had been for a century but down from the 100,000 or so who lived there in 1300, before the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague. There were at least a hundred families that could be considered very wealthy, plus some five thousand guild members, shopkeepers, and merchants who were part of a prosperous middle class. Because most of them were new to wealth, they had to establish and assert their status. They did so by commissioning distinctive works of art, buying luxurious clothes of silk and gold, building palatial mansions (thirty went up between 1450 and 1470), and becoming patrons of literature, poetry, and humanist philosophy. Consumption was conspicuous but tasteful. By the time Leonardo arrived, Florence had more wood-carvers than butchers. The city itself had become a work of art. “There is no place more beautiful in all the world,” the poet Ugolino Verino wrote.
Unlike some city-states elsewhere in Italy, Florence was not ruled by hereditary royalty. More than a century before Leonardo arrived, the most prosperous merchants and guild leaders crafted a republic whose elected delegates met at the Palazzo della Signoria, now known as the Palazzo Vecchio. “The people were kept amused every day by shows, festivals, and novelties,” the fifteenth-century Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini wrote. “They were well fed from the provisions with which the city abounded. Industry of every sort flourished. Talented and able men were maintained, and a welcome and a position secured to all teachers of literature, art, and every liberal pursuit.”
The republic was not, however, democratic or egalitarian. In fact, it was barely a republic. Exercising power from behind its façade was the Medici family, the phenomenally wealthy bankers who dominated Florentine politics and culture during the fifteenth century without holding office or hereditary title. (In the following century they became hereditary dukes, and lesser family members became popes.)
After Cosimo de’ Medici took over the family bank in the 1430s, it became the largest in Europe. By managing the fortunes of the continent’s wealthy families, the Medici made themselves the wealthiest of them all. They were innovators in bookkeeping, including the use of debit-and-credit accounting that became one of the great spurs to progress during the Renaissance. By means of payoffs and plotting, Cosimo became the de facto ruler of Florence, and his patronage made it the cradle of Renaissance art and humanism.
A collector of ancient manuscripts who had been schooled in Greek and Roman literature, Cosimo supported the rebirth of interest in antiquity that was at the core of Renaissance humanism. He founded and funded Florence’s first public library and the influential but informal Platonic Academy, where scholars and public intellectuals discussed the classics. In art, he was a patron of Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, and Donatello. Cosimo died in 1464, just as Leonardo arrived in Florence from Vinci. He was succeeded by his son and then, five years later, his famous grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici, aptly dubbed Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Lorenzo had been tutored in humanist literature and philosophy under the watchful eye of his mother, an accomplished poet, and he patronized the Platonic Academy, launched by his grandfather. He was also an accomplished sportsman, distinguishing himself in jousting, hunting, falconry, and breeding horses. All of this made him a better poet and patron than he was a banker; he took more delight in using wealth than in making it. During his twenty-three-year reign, he would sponsor innovative artists, including Botticelli and Michelangelo, as well as patronize the workshops of Andrea del Verrocchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, which were producing paintings and sculptures to adorn the booming city.
Lorenzo de’ Medici’s patronage of the arts, autocratic rule, and ability to maintain a peaceful balance of power with rival city-states helped to make Florence a cradle of art and commerce during Leonardo’s early career there. He also kept his citizenry amused with dazzling public spectacles and grandly produced entertainments, ranging from Passion Plays to pre-Lenten carnivals. The work done for these pageants was ephemeral, but it was lucrative and stimulated the creative imagination of many of the artists involved, most notably young Leonardo.
Florence’s festive culture was spiced by the ability to inspire those with creative minds to combine ideas from disparate disciplines. In narrow streets, cloth dyers worked next to goldbeaters next to lens crafters, and during their breaks they went to the piazza to engage in animated discussions. At the Pollaiuolo workshop, anatomy was being studied so that the young sculptors and painters could better understand the human form. Artists learned the science of perspective and how angles of light produce shadows and the perception of depth. The culture rewarded, above all, those who mastered and mixed different disciplines.
BRUNELLESCHI AND ALBERTI
The legacy of two such polymaths had a formative influence on Leonardo. The first was Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the designer of the cathedral dome. Like Leonardo, he was the son of a notary. Desiring a more creative life, he trained to become a goldsmith. Fortunately for his wide-ranging interests, goldsmiths were lumped together with other artisans as members of the guild of silk weavers and merchants, which also included sculptors. Brunelleschi’s interests soon embraced architecture as well, and he traveled to Rome to study classical ruins with his friend Donatello, another young Florentine goldsmith, who later achieved fame as a sculptor. They measured the Pantheon dome, studied other great buildings, and read the works of ancient Romans, most notably Vitruvius’s paean to classical proportions, De Architectura. Thus they became embodiments of the multidisciplinary interests and rebirth of classical knowledge that shaped the early Renaissance.
To build his cathedral dome, a self-supporting structure of close to four million bricks that is still the largest masonry dome in the world, Brunelleschi had to develop sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques and invent an array of hoists and other engineering tools. In an example of the diverse forces that were animating creativity in Florence, some of these hoists were then used to stage Lorenzo de’ Medici’s magnificent theatrics involving flying characters and moving scenery.
Brunelleschi also rediscovered and greatly advanced the classical concepts of visual perspective, which had been missing in the art of the Middle Ages. In an experiment that foreshadowed the work of Leonardo, he painted a panel that depicted the view of the Florence Baptistery across the plaza from the cathedral. After drilling a small hole in the panel, he put the back of it up to his eye while he faced the Baptistery. Then he took a mirror and held it at arm’s length, reflecting back on the painting. As he moved the mirror in and out of his line of sight, he would compare the reflection of his painting to the real Baptistery. The essence of realistic painting, he thought, was to render a three-dimensional view onto a two-dimensional surface. After accomplishing this trick on a painted panel, Brunelleschi showed how parallel lines seemed to converge in the distance toward a vanishing point. His formulation of linear perspective transformed art and also influenced the science of optics, the craft of architecture, and the uses of Euclidean geometry.
Brunelleschi’s successor as a theorist of linear perspective was another of the towering Renaissance polymaths, Leon Battista Alberti (1404 -1472), who refined many of Brunelleschi’s experiments and extended his discoveries about perspective. An artist, architect, engineer, and writer, Alberti was like Leonardo in many ways: both were illegitimate sons of prosperous fathers, athletic and good-looking, never-married, and fascinated by everything from math to art. One difference is that Alberti’s illegitimacy did not prevent him from being given a classical education. His father helped him get a dispensation from the Church laws barring illegitimate children from taking holy orders or holding ecclesiastical offices, and he studied law at Bologna, was ordained as a priest, and became a writer for the pope. During his early thirties, Alberti wrote his masterpiece analyzing painting and perspective, On Painting, the Italian edition of which was dedicated to Brunelleschi.
Alberti had an engineer’s instinct for collaboration and, like Leonardo, was “a lover of friendship” and “open-hearted,” according to the scholar Anthony Grafton. He also honed the skills of courtiership. Interested in every art and technology, he would grill people from all walks of life, from cobblers to university scholars, to learn their secrets. In other words, he was much like Leonardo, except in one respect: Leonardo was not strongly motivated by the goal of furthering human knowledge by openly disseminating and publishing his findings; Alberti, on the other hand, was dedicated to sharing his work, gathering a community of intellectual colleagues who could build on each other’s discoveries, and promoting open discussion and publication as a way to advance the accumulation of learning. A maestro of collaborative practices, he believed, according to Grafton, in “discourse in the public sphere.”
When Leonardo was a teenager in Florence, Alberti was in his sixties and spending much of his time in Rome, so it is unlikely they spent time together. Alberti was a major influence nonetheless. Leonardo studied his treatises and consciously tried to emulate both his writing and his demeanor. Alberti had established himself as “an avatar of grace in every word or movement,” a style that very much appealed to Leonardo. “One must apply the greatest artistry in three things,” Alberti wrote, “walking in the city, riding a horse, and speaking, for in each of these one must try to please everyone.” Leonardo mastered all three.
Alberti’s On Painting expanded on Brunelleschi’s analysis of perspective by using geometry to calculate how perspective lines from distant objects should be captured on a two-dimensional pane. He also suggested that painters hang a veil made of thin thread between themselves and the objects they are painting, then record where each element falls on the veil. His new methods improved not only painting but endeavors ranging from mapmaking to stage designs. By applying mathematics to art, Alberti elevated the painter’s status and advanced the argument that the visual arts deserve a standing equal to that of other humanist fields, a cause that Leonardo would later champion.
Leonardo’s only formal learning was at an abacus school, an elementary academy that emphasized the math skills useful in commerce. It did not teach how to formulate abstract theories; the focus was on practical cases. One skill that was emphasized was how to draw analogies between cases, a method that Leonardo would use repeatedly in his later science. Analogies and spotting patterns became for him a rudimentary method of theorizing.
His enthusiastic early biographer Vasari wrote, with what seems to be typical exaggeration, “In arithmetic, during the few months that he studied it, he made so much progress, that, by continually suggesting doubts and difficulties to the master who was teaching him, he would very often bewilder him.” Vasari also noted that Leonardo was interested in so many things that he got easily distracted. He turned out to be good in geometry, but he never mastered the use of equations or the rudimentary algebra that existed at the time. Nor did he learn Latin. In his thirties he would still be trying to remedy this deficiency by drawing up lists of Latin words, painstakingly writing out awkward translations, and wrestling with grammar rules.
A left-hander, Leonardo wrote from right to left on a page, the opposite direction of the words on this and other normal pages, and drew each letter facing backward. “They are not to be read save with a mirror,” as Vasari described these pages. Some have speculated that he adopted this script as a code to keep his writings secret, but that is not true; it can be read, with or without a mirror. He wrote that way because when using his left hand he could glide leftward across the page without smudging the ink. The practice was not completely uncommon. When his friend the mathematician Luca Pacioli described Leonardo’s mirror writing, he made the point that some other lefthanders wrote likewise. A popular fifteenth-century calligraphy book even shows left-handed readers the best way to do lettera mancina, or mirror script.
Being left-handed also affected Leonardo’s method of drawing. As with his writing, he drew from right to left so as not to smudge the lines with his hand. Most artists draw hatching strokes that slope upward to the right, like this: ////. But Leonardo’s hatching was distinctive because his lines started on the lower right and moved upward to the left, like this: \\. Today this style has an added advantage: the left-handed hatching in a drawing is evidence that it was made by Leonardo.
When viewed in a mirror, Leonardo’s writing is somewhat similar to that of his father, indicating that Piero probably helped Leonardo learn to write. However, many of his numerical calculations are written in conventional fashion, showing that the abacus school probably did not indulge his use of mirror script for math. Being left-handed was not a major handicap, but it was considered a bit of an oddity, a trait that conjured up words like sinister and gauche rather than dexterous and admit, and it was one more way in which Leonardo was regarded, and regarded himself, as distinctive.
Around the time Leonardo was fourteen, his father was able to secure for him an apprenticeship with one of his clients, Andrea del Verrocchio, a versatile artist and engineer who ran one of the best workshops in Florence. Vasari wrote, “Piero took some of his drawings and carried them to Andrea del Verrocchio, who was his good friend, and asked if he thought it would be profitable for the boy to study drawing.” Piero knew Verrocchio well, and he notarized at least four legal settlements and rental documents for him around this time. But Verrocchio probably gave the boy an apprenticeship on merit, not just as a favor to his father. He was, Vasari reported, “astonished” at the boy’s talent.
Verrocchio’s workshop, which was nestled in a street near Piero’s notarial office, was the perfect place for Leonardo. Verrocchio conducted a rigorous teaching program that involved studying surface anatomy, mechanics, drawing techniques, and the effects of light and shade on material such as draperies.
When Leonardo arrived, Verrocchio’s workshop was creating an ornate tomb for the Medici, sculpting a bronze statue of Christ and Saint Thomas, designing banners of white taffeta gilded with flowers of silver and gold for a pageant, curating the Medici’s antiques, and generating Madonna paintings for merchants who wanted to display both their wealth and their piety. An inventory of his shop showed that it had a dining table, beds, a globe, and a variety of books in Italian, including translated classical poetry by Petrarch and Ovid as well as humorous short stories by the fourteenth-century popular Florentine writer Franco Sacchetti. The topics of discussion in his shop included math, anatomy, dissection, antiquities, music, and philosophy. “He applied himself to the sciences, and particularly geometry,” according to Vasari.
Verrocchio’s bottega, like those of his five or six main competitors in Florence, was more like a commercial shop, similar to the shops of the cobblers and jewelers along the street, than a refined art studio. On the ground floor was a store and workroom, open to the street, where the artisans and apprentices mass-produced products from their easels, workbenches, kilns, pottery wheels, and metal grinders. Many of the workers lived and ate together in the quarters upstairs. The paintings and objects were not signed; they were not intended to be works of individual expression. Most were collaborative efforts, including many of the paintings commonly attributed to Verrocchio himself. The goal was to produce a constant flow of marketable art and artifacts rather than nurture creative geniuses yearning to find outlets for their originality.
With their lack of Latin schooling, the artisans in such shops were not considered to be part of the cultural elite. But the status of artists was beginning to change. The rebirth of interest in the ancient Roman classics had revived the writings of Pliny the Elder, who extolled classical artists for representing nature so accurately that their grapes could fool birds. With the help of the writings of Aiberti and the development of mathematical perspective, the social and intellectual standing of painters was rising, and a few were becoming sought after names.
Trained as a goldsmith, Verrocchio left much of the brushwork of painting to others, most notably a crop of young artists that included Lorenzo di Credi. Verrocchio was a kind master; students such as Leonardo often continued to live with and work for him after their apprenticeships were completed, and other young painters, including Sandro Botticelli, became part of his circle.
Verrocchio’s collegial nature did have one downside: he was not a tough taskmaster and his workshop was not renowned for delivering commissions on time. Vasari noted that Verrocchio once made preparatory drawings for a battle scene of nude figures and other narrative works of art, “but for some reason, whatever it may have been, they remained unfinished.” Verrocchio held on to some paintings for years before completing them. Leonardo would far exceed his master in all things, including in his propensity to get distracted, walk away from projects, and linger over paintings for years.
One of Verrocchio’s most captivating sculptures was a four-foot bronze of the young warrior David standing in triumph over the head of Goliath. His smile is tantalizing and a bit mysterious, what exactly is he thinking?, like the ones Leonardo would later paint. It quavers between expressing a childlike glory and a dawning realization of future leadership; a cocky smile is caught in the moment of being transformed into resolution. Unlike Michelangelo’s iconic marble statue of a muscular David as a man, Verrocchio’s David seems to be a slightly effeminate and strikingly pretty boy of about fourteen.
. . .
by Walter Isaacson
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