This Week in History: May 2, 1519


Leonardo da Vinci Dies in France

Leonardo da Vinci has been called one of the world’s few universal geniuses because of his knowledge and abilities in so many different areas of intellectual and artistic pursuit. While perhaps best known as the artist who created the paintings, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he also was an accomplished sculptor, engineer, mechanic, inventor and architect. His detailed drawings of the human body linked art with science to provide a means for investigation into the human form and anatomy.

Leonardo was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy, near the larger city of Florence. He began his formal artistic studies when he was 15, as an apprentice for a local artist named Andrea del Verrocchio. He studied painting, mechanical arts and sculpture, all of which served him well when he started his first job in 1482 as artist and engineer in residence for the duke of Milan, Italy. During his 17 years there, he became well-known for his painting abilities, as well as his designs for artillery, fortresses, canal locks and other mechanical needs. During this time he completed six paintings, including The Last Supper, painted on a wall in a Milan monastery. When the duke was forced out of Milan by the French in 1499, Leonardo returned to Florence.

While in Florence, Leonardo continued his artistic and engineering work. He painted one wall of the new city hall while Michelangelo worked on another; however, because he tried to use a new technique that didn’t work, his portion was never completed. While working on that project he painted the Mona Lisa, probably the most famous painting in the world. At the same time his interest in scientific areas greatly expanded, and he dissected human and animal corpses to identify the form and function of each body part. His detailed drawings of the human body are considered the first accurate portrayals of the human anatomy.

Leonardo painted more than 17 paintings over his lifetime, and started several sculptures. His best legacy, however, are the prolific workbooks he wrote and sketched in constantly from his earliest years. He focused on four primary themes–the science of painting, architecture, mechanics, and human anatomy–as well as adding notes about botany, geology and hydrology. The greatness of his artistic and intellectual abilities are evident throughout the 31 volumes. For example, he created plans for a helicopter, airplane, parachute, war tank and machine gun, all of which were not invented until hundreds of years later. The drawing of human proportions called Vitruvian man is almost as famous as his paintings. Unlike most texts, the illustrations provide the primary information and the words further explain the drawings. He also wrote the text backwards, so that the page can only be read by another person when held up to a mirror. The best explanation for this is that Leonardo was left-handed, as it was not his intention to keep the notebooks private.

Leonardo spent the last part of his life living as a guest of Pope Leo X at the Vatican Palace, from 1513 to 1515, as did several of the prominent artists of the time. While there, he completed a series of drawings entitled The Deluge, which portrayed the world’s destruction by a flood. These drawings combine the two elements that were the focus of Leonardo’s life: the forces of life and nature. In 1515 he accepted an invitation to live and work at the palace of the French king, Francis I, where he virtually stopped all painting to focus on scientific topics. He lived in France until his death on May 2, 1519.

Leonardo da Vinci. (2006). In World of Biology. Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from

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