Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, at Anchiano, a hamlet near the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of Florence. He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant. Little is known about his early life, which has been the subject of historical conjecture by Vasari and others.
Leonardo was later to record only two incidents of his childhood. One, which he regarded as an omen, was when a hawk dropped from the sky and hovered over his cradle, its tail feathers brushing his face.
The second incident occurred while he was exploring in the mountains. He discovered a cave and recorded his emotions at being, on one hand, terrified that some great monster might lurk there and on the other, driven by curiosity to find out what was inside.
At the age of five, he went to live in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle, Francesco, in the small town of Vinci, where his father had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but unfortunately died young.
Vasari, the 16th century biographer of Renaissance painters, tells the story of how a local peasant requested that Ser Piero ask his talented son to paint a picture on a round plaque. Leonardo responded with a painting of snakes spitting fire which was so terrifying that Ser Piero sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who sold it to the Duke of Milan. Meanwhile, having made a profit, Ser Piero bought a plaque decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow which he gave to the peasant.
In 1466 Leonardo was apprenticed to one of the most proficient artists of his day, Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio. The workshop of this renowned master was at the centre of the intellectual currents of Florence, assuring the young Leonardo of an education in the humanities. Among the painters apprenticed or associated with the workshop and also to become famous, were Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.
In a Quattrocento workshop such as Verrocchio's, artists were regarded primarily as craftsmen and only a master such as Verrocchio had social standing. The products of a workshop included decorated tournament shields, painted dowry chests, christening platters, votive plaques, small portraits, and devotional pictures. Major commissions included altarpieces for churches and commemorative statues. The largest commissions were fresco cycles for chapels. As a fourteen-year-old apprentice Leonardo would have been trained in all the countless skills that were employed in a traditional workshop.
Although many craftsmen specialised in tasks such as frame-making, gilding and bronze casting, Leonardo would have been exposed to a vast range of technical skills and had the opportunity to learn drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics and carpentry as well as the obvious artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and modelling.
Although Verrocchio appears to have run an efficient and prolific workshop, few paintings can be ascertained as coming from his hand. And on one of those, according to Vasari, Leonardo collaborated.
The painting is the Baptism of Christ. According to Vasari, Leonardo painted the young angel holding Jesus’ robe. Verrocchio, overwhelmed by the sweetness of the angel’s expression, its moist eyes and lustrous curls, put down his brush and never painted again. This is probably an exaggeration. The truth is that on close examination the painting reveals much that has been painted or touched up over the tempera using the new technique of oil paint. The landscape, the rocks that can be seen through the brown mountain stream and much of the figure of Jesus bears witness to the hand of Leonardo.
The other creation of Verrocchio’s which is particularly pertinent to the young Leonardo is the bronze statue of David, now in the Bargello Museum. Apart from the exquisite quality of this work of art, it is significant in holding the claim to be a portrait of the apprentice, Leonardo. If this is the case, then in the figure of David we see Leonardo as a thin muscular boy, quite different to the rounded androgynous figure made by Verrocchio’s teacher, Donatello. It is also suggested that the Archangel Michael in Verrocchio's Tobias and the Angels is a portrait of Leonardo.
When Leonardo was twenty he joined the Guild of St Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine, but even after his father set him up in his own workshop, his attachment to Verrocchio was such that he continued to work with him.
The earliest known dated work of Leonardo's is a drawing done in pen and ink of the Arno valley, drawn on 5 August, 1473.
It is assumed that Leonardo had his own workshop in Florence between 1476 and 1481. He was commissioned in 1478 to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St Bernard and in 1481 by the Monks at Scopeto for The Adoration of the Magi. In 1482 Leonardo, whom Vasari tells us was a most talented musician, created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse's head. Lorenzo de’ Medici was so impressed with this that he decided to send both the lyre and its maker to Milan, in order to secure peace with Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan ,. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter to Ludovico, describing the many marvellous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing the Lord that he could also paint.
Between 1482 and 1499, when Louis XII of France occupied Milan, much of Leonardo’s work was in that city. It was here that he was commissioned to paint two of his most famous works, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. While living in Milan between 1493 and 1495 Leonardo listed a woman called Caterina as among his dependants in his taxation documents. When she died in 1495, the detailed list of expenditure on her funeral suggests that she was his mother rather than a servant girl.
For Ludovico, he worked on many different projects which included the preparation of floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral and a model for a huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s predecessor. Leonardo modelled a huge horse in clay. Known as the “Gran Cavallo”, seventy tons of metal were set aside for casting it in bronze. It surpassed in size the only two large equestrian statues of the Renaissance, Donatello’s statue of Gattemelata in Padova and Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice. The monument remained unfinished for several years, which was not in the least unusual for Leonardo. Michelangelo rudely implied that he was unable to cast it. In 1495 the bronze was used for cannons to defend the city from invasion under Charles VIII.
The French returned to invade Milan in 1498 under Louis XII and the invading French used the “Gran Cavallo” for target practice.
With Ludovico Sforza overthrown, Leonardo, with his assistant Salaino and friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled Milan for Venice. In Venice he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack.
Returning to Florence in 1500, he entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, acting as a military architect and engineer and travelling throughout Italy with his patron. In Forlì he met Caterina Sforza, of whom it is speculated by some that the Mona Lisa may be a portrait. At Cesenatico he designed the port. In 1506 he returned to Milan, which was in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenaries had driven out the French. Many of Leonardo’s most prominent pupils or followers in painting either knew or worked with him in Milan, including Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco D'Oggione
From 1513 to 1516, Leonardo lived in Rome, where Raphael and Michelangelo were both active at the time. In Florence, he was part of a committee formed to relocate, against the artist’s will, Michelangelo’s statue of David.
In 1515, François I of France retook Milan. Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (a mechanical lion) for the peace talks between the French king and Pope Leo X in Bologna. In 1516, he entered François' service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé next to the king's residence at the royal Chateau Amboise. It was here that he spent the last three years of his life. The King granted Leonardo and his entourage generous pensions: the surviving document lists 1,000 écus for the artist, 400 for Count Francesco Melzi, (his pupil, named as "apprentice"), and 100 for Salaino ("servant"). In 1518 Salaino left Leonardo and returned to Milan, where he eventually perished in a duel.
Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, France, on May 2, 1519. François I had become a close friend. Vasari records that the King held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he died, although this story, beloved by the French and portrayed by Ingres in a romantic painting, has been shown to be legend rather than fact. Vasari also tells us that in his last days, Leonardo sent for a priest to make his confession and to receive the Holy Sacrament. According to his wish, sixty beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Although Melzi was his principal heir and executor, Salaino was not forgotten, receiving half of Leonardo's vineyards and the Mona Lisa.