How Leonardo Da Vinci Became the Ultimate Renaissance Man
Eden Collinsworth on the Intellectual and Artistic Development of One of History’s Greatest Geniuses
Leonardo Da Vinci—arguably one of history’s most resourceful geniuses—was the unwanted result of casual sex between a local peasant girl and a young man from a prosperous family. Both were from Vinci, a small hill town not far from Florence with winding cobblestoned streets, wooden shutters, and spindling trees. It was in this village that Leonardo was conceived and surrendered by his mother as an infant to his father’s family.
In an era referred to as “the age of bastards,” Leonardo’s illegitimate birth would not have involved any injury to his future: his eighty-year-old paternal grandfather set down a few basic details unapologetically.
“A grandson of mine was born, son of Ser Piero, my son… his name was Leonardo.”
The entry of birth, through brief, was followed with the name of the priest who baptized the newborn and a list of the people present at the ceremony.
Leonardo’s grandfather had been a notary of repute, as had his great-grandfather. Leonardo’s father also entered the profession and married the daughter of another notary family. While the couple established their residence in Florence, Leonardo remained in Vinci with his grandparents, whose stolidly middle-class household provided a stability of routine but no formal education. The lack of structured schooling makes the abundant body of Leonardo’s entirely self-taught knowledge almost unfathomable.
He was an irrepressible force of nature and fortunate enough to have been nurtured in a time that was daring his country further and further. Revolutions in the sciences and the humanities tend to occur in clusters of extraordinary individuals: Giotto, Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, Marco Polo, and Columbus—all were Italians, each with a key role in paving the way for the future.He was an irrepressible force of nature and fortunate enough to have been nurtured in a time that was daring his country further and further.
Leonardo’s artistic creativity was irrefutable against the generational backdrop of the family’s conventional profession. It’s alleged that when, as a boy, he was asked by a local former to design a wooden sign, he set about capturing snakes, bats, and lizards found near the house—all to be obsessively studied, for he had already conceived the sign to be a dragon-like creature wriggling out of dark craggy rocks. Decades later, his notes would suggest that “if you wish to make an imaginary animal invented by you appear natural, let us say a dragon, take for the head that of a mastiff or hound, for the eyes a cat, and for the ears a porcupine, and for the nose a greyhound, and the brows of a lion, and the temple of an old cock, the neck of a terrapin.”
Assuming the story of the sign is even vaguely accurate, it hinted at the often-extravagant preparations Leonardo made later in life that were grander than his original assignments. It also spoke to the genuinely joyful spirit of inquiry he would always possess.
The death of Leonardo’s grandfather came the same year that his father’s wife dead in childbirth. Leonardo joined his father in Florence, where, at the age of twelve, he began to prepare for a trade as apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio.
Trained as a goldsmith, unsurpassed in his skill of rendering ornamental detail, and known for his industry and perseverance, Verrocchio, with his rigorous craftsmanship, cut a path toward a number of artistic pursuits. His studio was not just a workshop devoted to paintings and statuary: it was a factory of sorts. Nothing about the work environment might have suggested glamour. The space was probably dirty and noisy—more utilitarian than inspired—and it likely consisted of a large, open ground floor separated from the outside with an awning, under which were samples of the studio’s wares.
Inside, Verrocchio, along with sometimes up to a dozen of his employees and pupils at various levels of apprenticeships, could be found toiling on a wide variety of deliverables that ranged from paintings, sculptures, mechanical contrivances, musical instruments, theatrical costumes and stage sets, tombstones, and metalwork, including suits of armor.
In our mind’s eye, we tend to see Leonardo as he appears in the iconic, red-chalked Turin drawing that surfaced in the early 19th century: an old man with deep lines crisscrossing his face, winged eyebrows, and wispy hair. Earlier images of him testify that he stayed handsome into middle age, and it is said that as an adolescent he epitomized youthful male beauty: a number of art experts believe him to have been the model for Verrocchio’s 1466 bronze statue of David, the biblical hero who felled a giant with a well-thrown stone.
While the apprentices who assisted Verrocchio would not have ventured to sign their names to the studio work, Leonardo often did just that by placing tangles of vinchi in the pictures; Vinci, Leonardo’s town of birth, comes from the word vinchi, the reeds woven in the countryside of Tuscany. His other method could be seen in the L and V shapes of his subjects’ bent arms in a picture’s composition. At a later time, he would devise a deaf alphabet and position the fingers of the pictures’ subjects in such a way as to signal his initials. One of the more obvious traces that survive from this stage of his life was what he scrawled on the back of a drawing. Dated 1473, it declares in a fleeting moment of contentment, “I am happy.”
Patronage of the arts was responsible for a large part of the beauty during the Renaissance, but no illusions should be had about the status of the artists. They were treated little better than workmen, bound hand and foot to deeds that, when signed, often provided just enough payment to cover the costs of purchasing materials, with the balance paid once the client approved of the completed commission.
Leonardo was—and always would be—hopeless with money. Only when he was at a temporary loss for it did he consider it at all, and even then he resented his intrusion on his creativity. He didn’t like deadlines either but had no choice but to adhere to them while working in Verrocchio’s studio, where the first paining he conceived and painted entirely on his own is likely to be Madonna and Child with Flowers. It went missing for centuries before reappearing in Russia.
At twenty-one, Leonardo enrolled as a member of the city’s Painters’ Guild. By the time he was awarded independent commissions, he had become an instinctive procrastinator. He began no more than twenty pictures in a career that lasted nearly half a century; of the twenty, fifteen are agreed to be entirely his; of those fifteen, four are, to some degree, incomplete. His stubborn resistance to finishing the work he began was due to an incessant curiosity. This overriding characteristic would have led to the career failure of any other artist, but Leonardo was something more, and it defied summary.
His personal life was elusive. Working alongside his fellow artists should have given Leonardo a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; instead, he became a master at concealing his personal thoughts. Little is known of his attachment to any one human being; if, as has been suggested, he found satisfaction of an intimate nature in the company of men, it wouldn’t have been considered unusual in 15th-century Florence: the word Florenzer, or Florentine, came to mean “sodomite” in German.
Despite the city’s far-from-secret reputation, sex between two or more men was illegal, and a dedicated force, nefariously named “Office of the Night,” encouraged citizens to place anonymous denunciations in a box, or tamburo, located in Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. Leonardo was in his mid-twenties when he was identified by an unnamed accuser for immoral practices. After being summoned and interrogated, he was acquitted.
In his relentless pursuit of id, ego, and superego, Sigmund Freud was eager at one time to analyze Leonardo’s life in homoerotic terms. True, Leonardo spent his working days with other male assistants and apprentices. True, the figures in his paintings are of fungible gender. And, yes, his notebooks provide a few accidental glimpses; scattered throughout them are obscured images suggesting that Leonardo might not have been sexually binary. Regardless of whether he was emphatically gay by the standards of later centuries, evidence that he was self-aware appeared as a notation in his journal: “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
Obvious, as well, is that he was one of love’s victims, for another of his entries reads, “If liberty is dear to you, may you never discover that my face is love’s prison.” What is also certain is that Leonardo didn’t separate his artistic life from his scientific or personal life, and, like so many of his plural interests, he could have been boundary crossing within the landscape of sex, detaching himself from the pursuit of it in order to focus on his wider curiosity of what he considered the mysterious workings of the human body. No one would endeavor to argue his gender-neutral take on the penis, which he noted “follows its own course… and sometimes moves without permission or any thought by its owner.”
Regardless of his proclivities, Leonardo’s true nature revealed itself in his accumulation of knowledge. “The acquisition of any sort of knowledge is always useful to the intellect, because it will be able to dispense with useless things and preserve the good,” he wrote, which explains why the commissions he received were waylaid by his convoluted campaigns of trying out other things that had little or nothing to do with the commissions per se.
His analytical vision came from a constant questioning of the world, and determined to offset his lack of classical learning, he located books in a time when printing was still in its infancy. His private library would come to include the Bible, the Psalms, Aesop’s fables, and Dante, along with various books on natural history and mathematics, anatomy, astronomy, and botany.
His impressive collection of books notwithstanding, Latin remained the hallmark of social status at the time, and Leonardo’s lack of it kept him from the inner circles of the Florentine courts he served. He must have felt the sting of being judged when he wrote, “I am well-aware that certain presumptuous people think they can slight me because I am not learned, but through I cannot, like them, quote from all the best authors, it is better and more praiseworthy to be well-read in the book of experience, the teacher of the teachers. These men strut about, puffed up and pompous, clothed and ornamented with the result of other people’s work, not their own.”
Despite the resentment Leonardo expressed toward the Florentine courts, his experiences within them provided a working knowledge of the mechanics of great palaces—a knowledge that would serve him with what was next.
A next there had to be, for despite the immense talent shown in his youthful paintings, Leonardo had failed to establish a lucrative position for himself in his native city.
Excerpted from What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait by Eden Collinsworth. Copyright © 2022. Available from Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.