Leonardo Da Vinci

“Once you have tasted the sky, you will forever look up.”


About Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 in a place outside of Florence, Italy, called Anchiano. Anchiano was a small village near the town of Vinci. Da Vinci actually means “from Vinci”! Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, was a notary, a person who prepares legal papers. His mother, Caterina, came from a farming family. Leonardo’s parents were never married to each other, but they were married to other people. All together Leonardo had seventeen half brothers and sisters!

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As a boy, Leonardo lived with his grandfather, but when he was eight, he moved with his father and step-mother to Florence. When he was about fourteen, Leonrado went to train in the workshop of an artist named Andrea del Verrochio. There, Leonardo learned about painting, sculpture, and metalwork. He also met a number of other artists-in-training including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Pietro Perugino. They would grow up to be famous artists too! After studying at Verrochio’s workshop for six years, Leonardo officially became a professional artist by joining the painter’s guild of Florence. A guild was a like a club for people who practiced the same or related trades.
When Leonardo was around thirty years old, he wrote a letter to the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He offered to work for the duke as an engineer, architect, sculptor, painter, and even a musician! The duke took him up on the offer. Leonardo worked for Ludovico Sforza for seventeen years doing all sorts of things. Sometimes, the duke asked him to make paintings or sculptures. Other times, Leonardo was called on to design festivals, weapons, or buildings.
Leonardo liked to experiment. Unfortunately, his experiments didn’t always turn out so well. While working for the duke of Milan, Leonardo was charged with painting a picture on the wall of a dining room where monks ate. Leonardo decided to try a new technique. But not long after his famous Last Supper was completed, the paint started to flake off! Leonardo was much more successful in his experiments with sfumato, a special way of blending areas of dark and light.
Leonardo was very curious about the world and how things worked. For example, he was interested in the mathematical relationship between different parts of the human body (Did you know the length of you body when you stretch your arms out is roughly the same as your height?). But he also wanted to know about real bodies. So he dissected them! In addition to his fascination with people and nature, Leonardo enjoyed learning about machines. Along with people, plants, animals, and the landscape, Leonardo studied levers, gears, and other mechanical parts.
For many years, Leonardo kept notebooks in which he made sketches of things he observed and also of ideas he dreamt up in his head. The notebooks cover everything from art and anatomy to math and science. In his books, you can find pictures of human skeletons, horses, flowers, and facial expressions. But you can also find designs for inventions like a bicycle, a helicopter, and a diving suit. Leonardo was left-handed and he wrote his notes in these books backwards! Most people today need a mirror to read them.
In his later career, Leonardo traveled around Italy, taking up different projects.
Some involved making art. Others put his engineering skills to use. Finally, in 1516, he was invited to France by the French king. The king gave him the title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect and a castle to live and work in. By that point, Leonardo’s right hand was paralyzed, but that couldn’t stop him from drawing, teaching, learning, and thinking.

Licensed Images Information

The Last Supper, 1495-1498 | Tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic | 15 x 29 feet | Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
Mona Lisa, around 1503-1505 | Oil on poplar wood | 30 1/6 x 20 ¾ inches | The Louvre
Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder, around 1510-1511 | Black chalk, pen and ink on paper | 11 1/3 x 7 2/3 inches | Royal Library, Windsor
Study of a Flying Machine (ornothopter), around 1487 | Metalpoint, pen and ink on paper | 9 ¼ x 7 inches | Institut de France, Paris
Study of horses, around 1490 | Silverpoint on prepared paper | 9 2/3 x 7 ¼ inches | Royal Library, Windsor


Before Leonardo da Vinci, most Italian painters used solid outlines filled with colors to represent things (think of a coloring book). Leonardo took a different approach. He developed something called “sfumato.” The word “sfumato” comes from the Italian “sfumare,” which means to soften, to fade into, or to vanish gradually like smoke. In painting or drawing, sfumato means a gradual blending between areas of light to dark. The idea is to create images where you can’t see any sharp edges, lines, or borders. In Leonardo’s work, sfumato creates a soft, almost hazy effect.

Activities and Questions

  • Keep your own notebooks. Record your observations and ideas in them.
  • Experiment! Mix up your own new color of paint or play with different amounts of flour, water, and salt until you have a useable clay.
  • Think up a new invention. Draw what it would look like.
  • Ask someone to be a model for you. Focus on one part of their body—their face, hand, foot, or ear. Look carefully and draw what you see.
  • Design a mural for one of the rooms in your house. (If your parents let you, paint it!)
  • The “Renaissance” refers to a period of history, but it also used to describe a certain kind of person. Leonardo da Vinci is often referred to as a “Renaissance” man because he knew so much about so many things and had so many different skills. Do you know any “Renaissance” men or women? Would you prefer to learn a little bit about a lot of things or a lot about one thing? Why?
  • Leonardo da Vinci experimented a lot. Not all of his experiments worked out, but that didn’t stop him from trying to think up new ways of doing things. Do you think it’s important to experiment, even if you don’t accomplish what you set out to do? Why or why not?