The consummate Renaissance man was born on April 15, 1452 in rural Anchiano, a hamlet near the town of Vinci. His mother, Caterina, was an unmarried country girl. His father Piero, a legal professional called a notaio, moved to Florence shortly thereafter and wed a socially suitable bride. Young Leonardo, listed as “non legittimo” in the local tax records, grew up in his paternal grandparents' home.
The country boy learned to read and write Italian, memorized long sections of the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and studied the fundamentals of math and science. However, Leonardo never mastered Latin, the hallmark of a well-educated Renaissance man, nor did he learn to write with his right hand, as a tutor would have demanded of a left-handed pupil.
Beginning in childhood, nature served as Leonardo’s greatest classroom. As he roamed through forests and fields, the curious lad must have peppered his uncle Francesco, just sixteen years older, with questions about the animals and creeks that fascinated him with their every move.
How did birds fly? Why did water spin into a vortex as it cascaded over rocks? How did horses, one of Leonardo's lifelong loves, gallop so fast that their hooves seemed to soar above the ground? He would spend a lifetime searching for answers—and sketching whatever caught his eye and ignited his imagination.
At some point in the 1460s, Piero da Vinci brought his son’s sketches to the owner of the busiest bottega (workshop) in Florence. Maestro Andrea del Verrocchio immediately urged him to bring Leonardo to train with him.
Even before the Florentines sensed the enormity of his genius, the boy from Vinci dazzled everyone with his remarkable good looks. Tall and wiry, with long golden locks, dawn-blue eyes, and fair skin, Leonardo, as the sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari puts it, “displayed great physical beauty, which has never been sufficiently praised.” With an amiable personality that rivaled his appearance, he entertained friends by singing in an “exceptionally harmonious” voice and playing the lyre with skill.
Surrounded by the soaring works of Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, and so many other masters, the teenager breathed in the big ideas and grand visions that circulated in the air like cerebral oxygen. In Verrocchio’s bottega, Leonardo saw them emerge in tangible form.
Under the scrutiny of his keen-eyed maestro, Leonardo learned the technical skills of an artist’s trade: how to make a pen from a goose quill, carve wood, draw figures, grind stone, mold plaster, chisel marble, sculpt clay, and select dyes as well as the fundamentals of chemistry, metallurgy, and engineering.
At Verrocchio’s insistence, Leonardo worked for years with a metal-point stylus before picking up a paintbrush. When he did, his talent astounded even his teacher. According to Vasari, the luminous angel (above) that Leonardo added to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ so surpassed anything from the painter’s own hand that he “never touched colors again, angered that a young boy understood them better than he did.”
Leonardo realized that this was the natural order of things. “He is a poor pupil,” he wrote, “who does not progress beyond his master.”
In 1472 Leonardo progressed, along with Botticelli and Perugino, to membership in the Compagnia di San Luca, the guild of artists named for the apostle believed to have painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Not long after the twenty-year-old scrawled a rare expression of emotion on the back of a drawing of the Arno valley: “Sono contento” (I am happy).
This post is adapted from MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, an Amazon Best Book of the Year.