Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was one of the greatest painters of all times, but is also known as the ultimate Renaissance man because he was perhaps the most widely talented person ever to have lived. Da Vinci is a favorite with the children studying art history because of this Renaissance quality – not only was he a consummate painter and sculptor, he was a great inventor, military engineer, scientist, botanist, and mathematician.
There are volumes written about the genius of da Vinci, and it can be hard to know where to start, but if you’re interested in a unit study on this magnificent artist, I would begin with the Museum of Science website. This website neatly breaks up the study into sections, including Scientist, Inventor, and Artist. First, let’s explore his early life — and notice that I have included kids’ activities in each section, to bring some hands-on fun to the study of Leonardo da Vinci!
ONE: Childhood in Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452, in the small village of Vinci, in a region of Italy called Tuscany. He was the illegitimate son (unmarried parents) of a peasant woman named Caterina (some scholars believe her to be a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean slave) and an ambitious notary named Ser Piero da Vinci.
Probably because of his illegitimate status, Leonardo had little early education, other than the local priest teaching him how to read and write and use an abacus. He lived for a time with his grandparents (on his father’s side) Shuffled around to various family members as a child, Leonardo was left to himself quite often, and perhaps this solitude is what we’re still grateful for five centuries later, as he spent his days outdoors studying birds, plants, and nature.
Activity: Nature Study
Try a nature study! Find a quiet place outdoors where there is plenty of the natural world to observe. This may be in your front yard or near a local park. Keeping a Nature Journal is an excellent way to make this a habit, and the Handbook of Nature Study blog has just the right tools to get you started, including free downloads of several types of journal pages. Ideas for drawing in your nature journal — this link is fantastic, and includes pages on wildflowers, birds, trees, animals, and more. Leonardo da Vinci kept one of the very first nature journals history knows of, so why not give it a try?
Another type of Nature Journal is what I call a “Spring Book,” which I wrote about here. Also known as a Zip-Lock Bag Book, this type of nature journal collects actual specimens and labels each one in a small zip-lock bag which you then compile into a little booklet.
You may also want to check out the book Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie. It is part journal, with space for you to actually write and draw, part ideas and sketching lessons. Amazing resource.
TWO: Apprentice to Verocchio
When Leonardo was 14 or 15 years old, noting his son’s uncommon artistic talents, his father sent him to Florence, where the young boy became apprenticed to the renowned master Andrea del Verrocchio, who lived from 1435-1488, and was the leading artist of Florence and very influential in the early Renaissance period of art.
It was with Verrocchio that young Leonardo was trained in all the countless skills of a traditional workshop — not only drawing, painting, crushing and mixing pigments, sculpting and modelling, but drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics and carpentry.
According to the artist biographer Vasari, Leonardo and Verrocchio worked together on the painting Baptism of Christ (1472-1475). Vasari wrote that Leonardo painted the young angel holding Jesus’ robe so skillfully and with such superior quality to his master that Verrocchio put down his brush and never painted again.
New ideas in painting, and indeed culture, were rising up in Florence around this time, as the Renaissance was blossoming. Oil painting had just been introduced to Italy from northern Europe, and Leonardo spent a lot of time mixing different materials, and soon surpassed everyone in his use of the new medium. Leonardo also brought new perspective and depth to painting, as he used his skills in math and geometry to calculate the placement of lines in his drawings and paintings. And perhaps foremost to the new Rensaissance art was Leonardo’s passion to draw things as realistically as possible. He sketched incessantly and was an ardent observer of nature, animals, plants, people, as noted above.
Activity: Make Your Own Paint
In the days of da Vinci, everyone made their own paint. Artists would use paints made by hand from ground pigments of minerals and other elements, and sometimes with tempera paint made with egg whites. A fun activity to try is to make your own paint. This link has easy directions for making all kinds of homemade paints, including egg yolk paint, dishsoap paint, milk paint, yogurt paint, and more! If you are a serious painter or professional who wants to make paint, this site is for you.
THREE: Independent Master
When Leonardo da Vinci was 30 years old, he left Florence for Milan, where he spent the next 17 years. At the persuasion of Lorenzo de’ Medici (hoping to secure peace between Florence and Milan), Da Vinci presented himself to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro. In 1481 or 1482, Leonardo wrote a letter to Ludovico, offering himself as a military engineer, and came before the Duke with a lira da braccio, lute, which he made himself and beautifully played before the court. Leonardo’s letter told of all the weapons and fortifications he could design to keep the city safe. His letter began like this:
“Most illustrious Lord, having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use of the said instruments does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened without prejudice to anyone else to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below.
1. I have plans for bridges, very light and strong and suitable for carrying very easily, with which to pursue and at times defeat the enemy; and others solid and indestructible by fire or assault, easy and convenient to carry and place in position. And plans for burning and destroying those of the enemy.
2. When a place is besieged I know how to cut off water from the trenches, and how to construct an infinite number of bridges, battering rams, scaling ladders, and other instruments which have to do with the same enterprise.
3. Also if a place cannot be reduced by the method of bombardment, either through the height of its glacis or the strength of its position, I have plans for destroying every fortress or other stronghold unless it has been founded upon rock.
4. I also have plans for making cannon, very convenient and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones in the manner almost of hail, causing great terror to the enemy from their smoke, and great loss and confusion.
5. And if it should happen that the engagement was at sea, I have plans for constructing many engines most suitable either for attack or defense, and ships which can resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon, and powder and smoke.”
The letter continues on with many more ideas! Because Italy at the time was involved in many wars, both between various city-states and an invasion from France, plans about better warfare would have been quite welcome. Firearms and explosives were already in use, and Leonardo’s military engineering ideas were actually well ahead of his time.
Leonardo was fascinated by technology and the workings of machines. He invented fire throwers and missiles, and made an early design for a machine gun. Hundreds of inventions were sketched out in his notebooks – tanks, helicopters, bicycles, submarines, hang gliders, pulleys, cranes, bridges, and more.
Leonardo’s love of music led him to study the science of sound, and he was one of the first to liken it to the motion of waves. He was also one of the first to note that il sole non si muove, the sun does not move – a remarkable observation in a day when people thought the sun revolved around the earth.
Anatomy was another passion of Leonardo. He went to hospitals to watch operations, he visited morgues to dissect bodies of the dead. He measured muscles, diagrammed organs, discovered the way blood flows through the body, and made important conclusions about lungs and oxygen. His knowledge surpassed the doctors of his time. Leonardo applied this deep understanding of the human body to his art, and excelled in drawing proportional anatomy.
In 1484 the plague struck Milan, and the thousands of dead people were left to rot in the streets. Leonardo, being the ultimate problem solver that he was, turned his attention to disease prevention. He designed a layout of the city that had wide streets and canals in place of the narrow ones, wide enough for proper sewage disposal, and a system for washing the streets automatically with locks and paddle wheels. It was a two-tiered town design, with the top streets for homes and churches, and the bottom streets to be used for deliveries and wagons.
Throughout all of these other pursuits, Leonardo da Vinci continued to paint. His patron, Ludovico, was invaluable during his time in Milan. Ludovico had Leonardo paint his friend Cecilia Gallerani, and Leonardo called the painting Lady with Ermine. It was so lifelike that a poet commented that “Nature herself was jealous.”
Leonardo also received a commission to paint an altarpiece, for which he created Virgin of the Rocks, a stunning work which reflects his interest in nature. One of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper, was also painted in Milan. It took him over three years to complete this painting. Leonardo’s work habits are best reflected in The Last Supper. He often didn’t even finish his work, so the world is fortunate to have this masterpiece. Here’s a description of his work on The Last Supper:
Leonardo’s work habits frustrated many of his patrons. Many times he was observed staring at his paintings for hours without ever lifting his brush to paint. When the prior of the Santa Maria delle Grazie hounded Leonardo to hurry up and finish his painting of the Last Supper, Leonardo in turn threatened to use the prior as his model for when he painted Judas.
When Leonardo finally finished, the painting was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, with superb design and characterisation. However, because Leonardo had used tempera paint over a ground of mostly gesso, instead of the more reliable fresco, it rapidly deteriorated. The Last Supper has undergone extensive restoration over the centuries, but is still one of the most reproduced works of art ever.
Activity: Make Your Own Fresco
Although The Last Supper was not created in a true Fresco style, many Renaissance artists used this method, and it’s fairly easy and fun for kids (and adults) to replicate! Here are detailed directions for making your own fresco, and the main ingredients are plaster of Paris and water colors. You are sure to enjoy this unique art experience.
FOUR: Later Life
With Italy at war with the French, Leonardo returned to Florence in 1500. In 1502, Leonardo entered the services of Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois. Borgia helped the French conquer Milan, and had ambitions to conquer all of central Italy. Borgia hired Leonardo da Vinci to be his military engineer, and Leonardo traveled all over Italy with him, examining castles and fortresses, and suggesting improvements for fortifications.
Around this time, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, beginning in 1503, the most famous painting in the history of art. Leonardo took the painting with him everywhere. Many historians say the Mona Lisa wasn’t finished when he left Florence, and that he completed it during his final stay in France. After Leonardo died, the painting was given to the king of France, and today, it hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
It is now believed that the identity of the woman in the portrait is Lisa di Gherardini, the third wife of a Florentine silk trader named Francesco del Giocondo. Lisa di Gherardini was 26 years old at the time of the sitting and had recently lost a child. Perhaps this is the reason for the gloomy look and the strange smile?
Leonardo was back in Milan by 1508, and then moved to France at the behest of King François in 1516. He settled in the Loire valley in the beautiful manor house Clos Lucé, near the royal chateaux in Amboise, France, and became First Painter and Architect and Engineer of the King. Leonardo and King François visited together often, discussing philosophy, art, science. Though now paralyzed in one arm, Leonardo could still draw and supervise the work of his pupil. Leonardo wrote in his notebooks, “I shall continue,” and he never gave up his studies or his work. Leonardo died on May 2, 1519, and French legend tells us that he died in the arms of King François.
Activity: Make Your Own Mona Lisa
Children will enjoy creating their own portraits, Mona Lisa style! Here are directions for kids to explore the special features of the Mona Lisa, and create their own portrait that has a mysterious aspect.