Leonardo da Vinci was a Florentine artist, one of the great masters of the High Renaissance, who was also celebrated as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, "at the third hour of the night" in 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 Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant who may have been a slave from the Middle East. Leonardo had no surname in the modern sense, "da Vinci" simply meaning "of Vinci": his full birth name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", meaning "Leonardo, son of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci."
Outside of Italy, Leonardo's work can be studied most readily in drawings. He recorded his constant flow of ideas for paintings on paper. In his Studies for the Nativity ,he studied different poses and gestures of the mother and her infant, probably in preparation for the main panel in his famous altarpiece known as the Virgin of the Rocks (Paris, Louvre). Similarly, in a sheet of designs for a stage setting (Allegorical Design, verso), prepared for a staging of a masque (or musical comedy) in Milan in 1496, he made notes on the actors' positions on stage alongside his sketches, translating images and ideas from his imagination onto paper. Leonardo also drew what he observed from the world around him, including human anatomy, animal and plant life, the motion of water, and the flight of birds. He also investigated the mechanisms of machines used in his day, inventing many devices like a modern-day engineer. His drawing techniques range from rather rapid pen sketches, in the Head of a Man in Profile to Left , to carefully finished drawings in red and black chalks, as in the Head of the Virgin.These works also demonstrate his fascination with physiognomy, and contrasts between youth and old age, beauty and ugliness.
Leonardo's Last Supper, on the end wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, is one of the most renowned paintings of the High Renaissance. Recently restored, The Last Supper had already begun to flake during the artist's lifetime due to his failed attempt to paint on the walls in layers (not unlike the technique of tempera on panel), rather than in a true fresco technique. Even in its current state, it is a masterpiece of dramatic narrative and subtle pictorial illusionism.
Leonardo chose to capture the moment just after Christ tells his apostles that one of them will betray him, and at the institution of the Eucharist. The effect of his statement causes a visible response, in the form of a wave of emotion among the apostles. These reactions are quite specific to each apostle, expressing what Leonardo called the "motions of the mind." Despite the dramatic reaction of the apostles, Leonardo imposes a sense of order on the scene. Christ's head is at the center of the composition, framed by a halo-like architectural opening. His head is also the vanishing point toward which all lines of the perspectival projection of the architectural setting converge. The apostles are arranged around him in four groups of three united by their posture and gesture. Judas, who was traditionally placed on the opposite side of the table, is here set apart from the other apostles by his shadowed face.
The Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous work, is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. This work is a consummate example of two techniques—sfumato and chiaroscuro—of which Leonardo was one of the first great masters. Leonardo deserves, perhaps more than anyone, the title of Homo Universalis, Universal Man.
Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, France, on May 2, 1519. Fran?ois I had become a close friend. Vasarirecords that the King held Leonardo's head in his arms as he died, although this story, beloved by the French and portrayed in romantic paintings by Ingres, Ménageot and other French artists, may 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. In accordance to his will, sixty beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise. Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving as well as money, Leonardo's paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salai and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo's vineyards, his brothers who received land, and his serving woman who received a black cloak of good stuff with a fur edge.