Born in 1452, Leonardo grew up in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci (from which he took his name). The illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl, he moved to Florence in his early teens, where he joined the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
Leonardo went on to become one of the great empiricists of art history. He said his aim was to be ‘the universal master of representing every form produced by nature.’
In thousands of drawings, he meticulously depicted what he saw in the world around him, from drooping flowers to sleeping cats. Thanks to innovative techniques such as sfumato, he brought great realism to his paintings too. The most famous example is the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife (today found in the Louvre Museum).
In 1481, Leonardo quit Florence for the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan, where he stayed for almost two decades. It was in that city that he produced his fresco, The Last Supper, on a refectory wall at the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery. This masterpiece of psychological characterisation and geometric control captures the meal that Jesus had with his apostles the night before his Crucifixion.
It was during his spell in Milan that Leonardo also came up with a host of inventions, producing designs for flying machines, parachutes and tanks.
He returned to Florence in 1500, the year in which he is believed to have painted Salvator Mundi. This is a half-length figure of Christ as Saviour of the World. He faces us frontally and holds a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right in benediction. In November 2017, the picture sold at Christie’s for $450,312,500, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
Leonardo spent the final few years of his life in the service of Francis I, the King of France. He was given the royal residence of Château du Clos Lucé in the Loire Valley to live in. Leonardo died there in 1519, aged 67.
'La Columbine': Portrait of a woman as Flora , half-length, in a white, embroidered dress with a ruby brooch and a blue wrap, holding an aquilegia in her left hand, with jasmine and anemones on her lap, fern and kenilworth ivy climbing a wall beyond
Portrait of a lady, half-length, in profile
Portrait of Isabella of Aragon, Duchess of Milan (1470-1524), half-length, in profile to the right
Portrait d'homme de profil vers la gauche, portant un bonnet
Caricatures of an old woman, wearing a carnation as a corsage, an old man wearing a cap, an old man with his mouth open, and an old woman shouting
The Holy Family Meeting the Infant St John the Baptist ('The Madonna del Passeggio')