Leonardo da Vinci was born on the 14th or 15th of April, 1452. Da Vinci refers to the town he was born in (Vinci, which is in the Florence region). His full name is Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which translates to Leonardo, son of Piero, from Venice. His father was a notary, which was an upper middle class position and his mother was a peasant woman. Because he was born out of wedlock he wasn’t considered part of the family and not much was recorded of his early life. Around the age of 14, he went to work in the studio of a local artist, Verrocchio. His studies included drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, and wood-work, as well as artistic skills like drawing, painting, sculpting, and modeling. He finished his apprenticeship and was accepted into Guild of Saint Luke, for artists and doctors of medicine around age 20. He continued to work and live closely with Verrocchio whom he admired greatly. (We know this from his extensive writings).

Around the late 1400-early 1500’s he worked primarily as a military architect and engineer, designing weaponry and defenses in Milan and Venice. In 1502 he created a map of the Imola region for Cesare Borgia (the son of the Pope and a great military leader). Maps were extremely rare at this point and it was this project that put Leonardo into a position of recognition. By 1503, he was back in Florence and working with the Guild of St. Luke again. This was when he began the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, which would become known as the Mona Lisa. He would continue to work on this piece for the rest of his life. Many people comment on Lisa’s mysterious smile, but there are many other reasons why this piece is so impressive. The background is an unusual mythical landscape, unlike anything Leonardo would have seen in his lifetime. Such inventive painting was never done in Leonardo’s time. Most importantly though, is his mastery of the sfumato technique of painting. This is a painstaking method of subtly shading to a very fine point. There aren’t any solid lines in the Mona Lisa; the edges are created with very precise shading. This gives everything, a well turned three dimensional feel.

In 1513, he was invited to Rome and was the guest of the Pope’s family (the Medicis) where Raphael and Michelangelo were both working. Here he was free to pursue anything that interested him, from gardening, to dissecting cadavers to write a treatise on how vocal chords work. It was during this time that historians think he had the first of a series of strokes that eventually lead to his death. However he was still prolific during this time; creating the plans for palace for King Francis I of France (he was one of the King’s favorite people). He also built a mechanical lion that walked toward the king during a ceremony, then when it was tapped with a special wand, the chest opened revealing a cluster of lilies. Reports of him becoming more ill, as well the loss of mobility in his right arm are recorded over the next few years. He died at Clos Lucé, France on 2 May 1519 at the age of 67, possibly of a stroke.

It is interesting that popular culture remembers Leonardo da Vinci most for his paintings because he produced relatively few painted works. Although he was among the first to use oil paint, which replaced tempera as the most popular medium in the late 1400s and continues to be the most common media for fine art. Da Vinci produced many, many more drawings. He was a skilled draftsman and came up with ideas for an armored tank, flying machine, hydraulic pump, crossbow, and parachute that inspired the real creations when technology finally caught up to his imagination. He even created his own mirrored, short hand “language” to write in. Even though he had little formal education growing up, he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and sought out answers to all of the questions that came to mind. It was his interest in so many different disciplines that made Leonardo da Vinci such a remarkable person and one of the greatest thinkers in history.

Today we will try thinking like Leonardo. Take a moment to think about what you do on a daily basis. What could you make to make life run more smoothly, make a job you don’t like easier, or just make your daily routine a little more interesting? Draw all of the specifications for your invention with any explanations needed written next to your drawings.

See what students can think of, then spend a little time letting the students share their ideas with each other.