Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo was born in Vinci, Italy. His father Ser Piero da Vinci was a well-off landowner or craftsman and his mother a peasant girl called Caterina. It has been suggested that Caterina was a slave of middle eastern origin owned by Piero, but the evidence is scant.
This was before modern naming conventions developed in Europe. Therefore, his full name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", which means "Leonardo, son of Piero, from Vinci". Leonardo himself simply signed his works "Leonardo" or "Io, Leonardo" ("I, Leonardo"). Most authorities therefore refer to his works as "Leonardos," not "da Vincis." Presumably he did not use his father's name because he was an illegitimate child.
Leonardo grew up with his father in Florence. He was a vegetarian throughout his life. He became a painter's apprentice and later an independent painter in Florence.
From 1482 to 1499 he worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and maintained his own workshop with apprentices there. Seventy tons of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo's "Gran Cavallo" horse statue was cast into weapons for the Duke to save Milan from the French under Charles VIII in 1495 - see also Italian Wars.
When the French returned under Louis XIII in 1498, Milan fell without a fight, overthrowing Sforza. Leonardo stayed in Milan for a time, until one morning he found French archers using his life-size clay model for the "Gran Cavallo" for target practice. He left with Salai and his friend (and inventor of double-entry bookkeeping) Luca Pacioli for Mantua, moving on after 2 months for Venice, then moving again to Florence at the end of April 1500.
In Florence he entered the services of Cesare Borgia (also called "Duca Valentino" and son of Pope Alexander VI) as military architect and engineer. In 1506 he returned to Milan, now in the hands of Maximilian Sforza after Swiss mercenries drove out the French. There he met Francesco Melzi, who would become a close friend and companion until Leonardo's death, and later his heir.
From 1513 to 1516 he lived in Rome, where painters like Raphael and Michelangelo were active at the time; he did not have much contact with these artists, however.
In 1515 Francis I of France retook Milan, and Leonardo was commissioned to make a centrepiece (of a mechanical lion) for the peace talks in Bologna between the French king and Pope Leo X, where he must have first met the king. In 1516, he entered Francis' service, being given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé next to the king's residence at the Royal Chateau at Amboise, and receiving a generous pension. The king became a close friend.
He died in Cloux, France in 1519. According to his wish, 60 beggars followed his casket. He was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the castle of Amboise.
Leonardo appears to never have had intimate relations with women. In 1476 he was anonymously accused of homosexual contact with a 17-year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, a notorious prostitute. He was, together with three other young men, charged with homosexual conduct and acquitted because of lack of evidence. For a time Leonardo and the others were under the watchful eye of Florence's "Officers of the Night" - a kind of Renaissance vice squad.
Science and Engineering
Maybe even more impressive than his artistic work are his studies in science and engineering, recorded in notebooks comprising some 13,000 pages of notes and drawings which combine art and science. He was left-handed and used mirror writing throughout his life.
His approach to science was an observatory one: he tried to understand a phenomenon by describing and depicting it in utmost detail and did not emphasize experiments or theoretical explanations. Throughout his life, he planned a grand encyclopedia based on detailed drawings of everything. Since he lacked formal education in Latin and mathematics, Leonardo the scientist was mostly ignored by contemporary scholars.
He was always fascinated by the topic of flight, producing detailed studies of the flight of birds and plans for several flying machines, including a helicopter powered by four men (which would not have worked since it would have rotated) and a light hang-glider which could have flown. On January 3, 1496 he unsuccessfully tested a flying machine he had constructed.
He participated in autopsies and produced many extremely detailed anatomical drawings, planning a comprehensive work of human and comparative anatomy.
Vitruvian man: Leonardo da Vinci
In 1502 Leonardo da Vinci produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (240 m) bridge as part of a civil engineering project for Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The bridge was intended to span an inlet at the mouth of the Bosphorus known as the Golden Horn. It was never built, but Da Vinci's vision was resurrected in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.
His notebook also contain several inventions in the military field: machine guns, an armored tank powered by humans or horses, cluster bombs, etc. even though he later held war to be the worst of human activities. Other inventions include a submarine, a cog-wheeled device that has been interpreted as the first mechanical calculator, and a car powered by a spring mechanism. In his years in the Vatican, he planned an industrial use of solar power, by employing concave mirrors to heat water.
In astronomy, Leonardo believed that the Sun and Moon revolve around the Earth and that the Moon reflect the sun light because its being covered by water.
Leonardo did not publish or otherwise distribute the contents of his notebooks. They remained obscure until the 19th century, and were not directly of value to the development of science and technology until that time. On this basis, L. Sprague de Camp, in his book, The Ancient Engineers, considered Leonardo not the first modern engineer, but "the last of the ancient ones", pointing out that after Leonardo's time the practice of disseminating and publishing scientific discoveries began in earnest.
In 1994, one of da Vinci's notebooks was purchased by American entrepreneur Bill Gates for US$25 million. A lot of his drawings are now owned by the British Royal family.