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Born in 1452 in Florence, Italy, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was the son of a notary and a peasant woman. He was born out of wedlock, received no formal education, and yet he went on to become not only one of the world’s greatest artists but a leading scientist, architect, inventor, mathematician, poet, engineer, composer, and sculptor. When someone is extremely talented in different fields, we call them a polymath or a Renaissance Man. Leonardo da Vinci is literally the first Renaissance Man, as the term was coined to describe people like him. If there ever was a person worthy of the term ‘genius,’ Leonardo da Vinci earned it. As a person, he was noted for being tall, strong, and handsome; he attracted many friends. He was a gentle animal-loving person and a vegetarian, which was very unusual for the time. He wore both his beard and his hair long and preferred brightly colored clothes, all of which made him stand out as someone who was different and unafraid to show it.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Early Life

As a child, Leonardo da Vinci lived first with his mother and then with his father and a succession of stepmothers in the home of his father’s family. He didn’t receive a formal education, but as a teenager, he studied with the artist Verrocchio in his studio. Da Vinci learned how to paint and also skills such as woodworking, metalworking, and other crafts. He showed great talent for painting, and by the age of 20, he had set up his own workshop and was a member of a prestigious guild.

Da Vinci’s Career

The Last Supper

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie

Leonardo da Vinci had a number of commissions in his early career, but it appears that he was easily distracted by new offers of work and left many projects incomplete. He moved to Milan around 1483 to work for the powerful ruling family, the Sforza. The Duke of Milan employed him as a painter and sculptor and as an engineer and architect. He created artworks but also designed and produced military designs and theatrical stages. It was during this time in Milan that he completed some of his most famous paintings; ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ in 1483 and ‘The Last Supper’ in 1495-1497. ‘The Last Supper’ is one of the most reproduced paintings of all time and demonstrates that Da Vinci was experimenting with different types of paint. He was one of the first Italian painters to use oil paints.

Florence

The Mona Lisa painting beside a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci

1499 – Milan was invaded by French troops, and the Sforza family had to escape. Leonardo da Vinci had been in Milan for 16 or 17 years, but he now traveled to Venice, where he was employed for a brief time as a military mind, planning, and engineering to defend the city. In 1500 he returned to his Florence home, and this is where his most famous work of art – perhaps THE most famous work of art – was produced. ‘La Gioconda’ or the ‘Mona Lisa’ is believed to have been painted around 1503-1506, but possibly later. It is now owned by France and attracts millions of visitors from all around the world who flock to see the famous enigmatic smile for themselves.

Da Vinci the First Map Maker

Leonardo Da Vinci’c map of imola

1502 – Leonardo began working for The Borgias, the powerful family of Pope Alexander VI. In this role, he worked as a military engineer. He impressed his employers and the rest of the community with his incredible map-making skills. Maps were not widely used during the 16th century in Italy, and Leonardo’s drawings, and the advantages they gave to military planning, earned him a privileged position. During this time, he formulated an ingenious plan to build a dam in order to improve the water supply in Florence, but this was never carried out. Hundreds of years later, the route he proposed for his canal was precisely the one chose for the express highway.

Designs

Page from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci showing a geared device

1506 – Leonardo da Vinci was called back to Milan by the French governor there. He worked on various artworks and projects, as well as his personal drawings and writings. Da Vinci was a prolific producer of drawings, sketches, and designs, and while these were kept private during his lifetime, they would later reveal his true genius to the world. He then went to Rome for some time before accepting an invitation from the French King, Francis I, to move to France, where he passed away in 1519.

Throughout his career, Leonardo gathered students and followers who studied with him. He was a generous tutor, and while he never married or had children, his legacy continued through the many people he inspired and taught.

A Man of Almost Unbelievable Vision

A page from One of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Sketchbooks

The notebooks, sketch pads, and other works of Leonardo da Vinci revealed him to be a man of almost unbelievable vision. His work revealed designs that would have been impossible to create using the scientific knowledge of the time, and yet technology hundreds of years later appears to mirror his ideas. He is credited with early designs for such wide-ranging things as flying machines like planes and the helicopter, solar power, a calculator, parachutes, and armored military vehicles. He made discoveries in the fields of mathematics, engineering, optics, and many others. His work on anatomy, informed by many detailed and painstaking dissections, was far beyond that of his peers and goes some way to explaining the incredible perfection of many of his works of art. These discoveries and inventions were never published. While he did contribute many artworks, inventions, and innovations to the society he lived in, many more went undiscovered and unappreciated until the rest of the world caught up with his incredibly forward-thinking ideas.

Vasari Describes Leonardo Da Vinci

In 1567, writer Vasari described Leonardo da Vinci as “an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease