The Renaissance dominated art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was experienced both consciously and unconsciously among artists and intellectuals. Some artists like Leonardo da Vinci were more conscious than others. Da Vinci’s genius equaled other influential thinkers like Copernicus and Benjamin Franklin.
Born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci. Growing up in the Florentine cultural center, da Vinci attempted many studies to occupy his brilliant mind. Early in life, his father sent him to train with a Renaissance artist, Andrea del Verocchio. To understand how influential that Leonardo da Vinci became as a thinker, scientist, mathematician, engineer, and artist, consider his escapades in 1502. In this year, he was hired by Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, to serve as the chief engineer on a special trip through the Romagna in the northeastern region of Italy. Da Vinci’s job would be to fortify castles and build war machines during Borgia’s attempt to secure his own kingdom. Along for the ride was none other than Niccolo Macchiavelli, an envoy from Florence.
According to Paul Strathern, author of The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2004), while on the trip with Borgia, da Vinci “came across the mountainous landscape in the upper Arno valley that would form the mysterious background to the Mona Lisa.” Strathern also describes da Vinci’s pathological problem of not keeping his thoughts organized. His ideas were scattered over a variety of notebooks. Many drawings, including helicopters and submarines, were made on this trip and lost after his death. Together, the works would have revolutionized science.
La Gioconda (1503-1506), also known as the Mona Lisa, is housed permanently in the Louvre. The eyes of Mona Lisa are more appealing than her enigmatic smile, but she looks like a woman with a secret. La Gioconda is da Vinci’s most recognized work, and it echoes the Renaissance fascination with portraits.
Da Vinci contributed many more paintings, including The Last Supper (1495-1498) and Virgin on the Rocks (1483-1486). In The Last Supper, you can see another familiar pattern—the Renaissance custom of horizontally staging an important scene with numerous participants. Here da Vinci paints Jesus having the final supper with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection. Da Vinci achieves both realism and religious power in both The Last Supper and Virgin on the Rocks.
In the same century that Columbus discovered the New World, Renaissance artists like da Vinci produced tons of masterpieces. The great Leonardo died in 1519 in France.