Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, “at the third hour of the night” in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of Florence. He was the illegitimate son of Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant who may have been a slave from the Middle East. Leonardo had no surname in the modern sense, “da Vinci” simply meaning “of Vinci”: his full birth name was “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci”, meaning “Leonardo, son of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci.”
Little is known about Leonardo’s early life. He spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano, then lived in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle, Francesco, in the small town of Vinci. His father had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, who loved Leonardo but died young. In later life, Leonardo only recorded two childhood incidents. One, which he regarded as an omen, was when a kite dropped from the sky and hovered over his cradle, its tail feathers brushing his face. The second occurred while exploring in the mountains. He discovered a cave and was both terrified that some great monster might lurk there, and driven by curiosity to find out what was inside.
Leonardo’s early life has been the subject of historical conjecture. Vasari, the 16th century biographer of Renaissance painters tells of how a local peasant requested that Ser Piero ask his talented son to paint a picture on a round plaque. Leonardo responded with a painting of snakes spitting fire which was so terrifying that Ser Piero sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who sold it to the Duke of Milan. Meanwhile, having made a profit, Ser Piero bought a plaque decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow, which he gave to the peasant.
At the age of 15, da Vinci became the apprentice of the painter Andrea del Verrochio in Florence, where his skills as an artist developed, flourished and even intimidated his mentor. While always interested in inventions, it was a change of scenery in 1482 that truly unleashed the inventor in da Vinci.
Looking for a broader scope of work, da Vinci moved from Florence, widely considered the cultural capital of Italy, to Milan, a much more political and militaristic city. There, da Vinci sold himself to Duke Ludovico Sforza (a successful military leader called “the dark one”) as a military engineer. In the city that “lived and died by the sword”, da Vinci began developing many of his famous war inventions.
Da Vinci spent 17 years in Milan working for the Duke, inventing, painting, sculpting, studying science and conceiving an endless stream of innovative and daring ideas. Without a doubt, the 17 years spent in Milan were da Vinci’s most productive period. But, of course, all things must come to an end.
In 1499, the French invaded Milan and Duke Sforza was sent fleeing the city. Leonardo spent the remaining years of his life traveling to cities like Venice and Rome to work on different projects, with a greater concentration on his art (starting on his most famous piece, the Mona Lisa, in 1503) and studies in anatomy (da Vinci conducted over 30 autopsies in his lifetime).
After envisioning hundreds of inventions, bringing to life legendary works of art and making breakthroughs in a vast array of other fields (ranging from astronomy to architecture), da Vinci died in 1519 at the age of 67.