"He made models of mills and presses, and machines to be worked by water, and designs for tunneling through mountains, and levers and cranes for raising great weights, so that it seemed that his brain never ceased inventing"
- Giorgio Vasari, describing the young Leonardo

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in the Tuscan village of Vinci on April 15, 1452. He was the illegitimate son of a local notary, who quickly abandoned his mother to marry a richer woman. Illegitimacy was a handicap Leonardo would have to fight most of his life. He quickly showed his intelligence, asking questions of his professors that they were unable to answer. When he showed talent for painting, his father apprenticed him to Andrea Del Verrochio, in Florence. Leonardo learned much from Verrochio, and eventually surpassed him. Vasari tells how Verrochio decided to never paint again, after Leonardo painted an angel that was better than what he was capable of.

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Leonardo first attempted to join the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to pierce through in Lorenzo's court. Was it his illegitimacy that played against him, at a time when illegitimacy was considered shameful? Or was it his lack of knowledge of greek and latin , at the court of a man who loved all things Greek and Roman? Or was it his frankness, in a court dominated by flatterers? Whatever the cause, Leonardo was sent away by Lorenzo: one day, when he offered him a harp he had built in the shape of a horse's skull, Lorenzo disdainfully told him to take it to Ludovico the Moor.

With the bitter taste of defeat in his mouth, Leonardo turned to the court of Ludovico the Moor, in Milan. He sent the dictator a letter, presenting himself as a military expert, with knowledge in art. Ludovico, always in need of military expertise, eagerly accepted him.

Leonardo was happy in Milan, where he was respected. He created a number of his masterpieces there, including the famous last supper. He also worked on an 80 ton equestrian statue in honor of Ludovico's father, cast in bronze. At the time, such a large statue was considered impossible. Leonardo's work progressed only slowly, and it was murmured that he was putting off the actual casting because he knew it could not be done. He silenced the rumors when he compelted the clay model. According to Vasari, "All who saw the large model in clay which Leonardo made for the work, declared that they had never seen anything more beautiful or more majestic." Leonardo then built four forges to melt the alloy, and drew molds to pour the enormous mass of metal into. All that was left was for Ludovico to provide the bronze, but he refused: he needed it to make cannons.

Related Links:
Leonardo's Letter to Ludovico the Moor
Leonardo's Joke on the Prior

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In 1499, Milan fell to the French. Yet again, Leonardo was forced to travel. After a brief stay at Mantua at the court of Isabella d’Este, he went to Venice. In those days, Venice was in fear of an invasion by the Turks. It was in this context that Leonardo invented the submarine.

Leonardo then went to Florence, where his friendship with Nicolo Machiavelli earned him a contract to paint the Battle of Anghiari in the Great Hall of the Council. However the younger Michelangelo, intent on surpassing Leonardo, intrigued to obtain the contract for the opposite wall, setting the stage for a contest.

Leonardo was a perfectionist, and liked to take his time when painting; however frescoes require rapid work, because the painting must be finished before the wet mortar on which the paint is applied dries. In order to get around this problem, Leonardo tried to invent a way to do oil painting on walls. Unfortunately, the paint would not dry, and eventually started trickling, ruining the painting. Leonardo, discouraged, left Florence without finishing the painting. Michelangelo then also left, taking with him the money paid for his painting, even though it had not been finished either. A tribute to Leonardo’s talent is that even in its unfinished and half ruined state, his battle of Anghiari became famous, and a copy by Rubens survives. Yet, at the time, his failure to complete the work was viewed as a defeat. As though this were not enough, soon after, his father died, and his younger brothers intrigued to disinherit him, taking advantage of the fact that he was a bastard.

After a brief passage in Rome, Leonardo came back to Florence, where he received an invitation from Charles d’Amboise, the French governor of Milan. The Florentines were reluctant to let him go because of the unfinished Battle of Anghiari. However, Charles d’Amboise forcefully re-iterated his request, telling the Florentines that if the French were able to appreciate Leonardo's value, even if the Florentines were not. When the king of France in person sent a letter to them, the Florentines realized they had no choice, and let Leonardo go.

While Leonardo was in Milan, his uncle Francesco died, leaving him all of his properties. Again, Leonardo's brothers stepped in, trying to disinherit him. This time, Leonardo fought back. The lawsuit dragged on, but Leonardo did win in the end. On his deathbed Leonardo showed his magnanimity by forgiving the brothers who had tried to disinherit him twice and succeeded once , and left them a part of his own inheritance.

Soon after the death of Charles d’Amboise, the French were expelled from Milan, and Leonardo was forced to flee once more. He returned to Rome, where he lived some sad years, viewed by many with suspicion, as a sorcerer.

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In 1515, Francis I conquered Milan. On meeting with Leonardo, he invited him to France, granting him the manor of Cloux, and a salary of 700 pieces of gold per year. Leonardo lived there his last, and perhaps happiest years. He turned his mind to philosophy and religion, and had long conversations on those topics with Francis I, who said he “did not think there was ever on earth a man so learned as Leonardo, not so much in sculpture, architecture and painting as in philosophy, were he has excelled.” On May 2, 1519, after having devoutly had communion, he expired in the arms of the king.

Related Links:
Leonardo's Will

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Leonardo's Letter to Ludovico the Moor

Most illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different to those in common use: I shall endeavour, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency showing your Lordship my secrets, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments as well as all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

1) I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2) I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3) Item. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock.

4) Again I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these causing great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

9) [8] And when the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offence and defence; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

5) Item. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise to reach a designated [spot], even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

6) Item. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

7) Item. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

8) Where the operation of bombardment should fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, _trabocchi_ and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offence and defence.

10) In time of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

Item: I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and also in painting whatever may be done, and as well as any other, be he whom he may.

[32] Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any one of the above-named things seem to any one to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency--to whom I commend myself with the utmost humility.

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Leonardo's Will.

Be it known to all persons, present and to come that at the court of our Lord the King at Amboise before ourselves in person, Messer Leonardo da Vinci painter to the King, at present staying at the place known as Cloux near Amboise, duly considering the certainty of death and the uncertainty of its time, has acknowledged and declared in the said court and before us that he has made, according to the tenor of these presents, his testament and the declaration of his last will, as follows. And first he commends his soul to our Lord, Almighty God, and to the Glorious Virgin Mary, and to our lord Saint Michael, to all the blessed Angels and Saints male and female in Paradise.

Item. The said Testator desires to be buried within the church of Saint Florentin at Amboise, and that his body shall be borne thither by the chaplains of the church.

Item. That his body may be followed from the said place to the said church of Saint Florentin by the _collegium_ of the said church, that is to say by the rector and the prior, or by their vicars and chaplains of the church of Saint Denis of Amboise, also the lesser friars of the place, and before his body shall be carried to the said church this Testator desires, that in the said church of Saint Florentin three grand masses shall be celebrated by the deacon and sub-deacon and that on the day when these three high masses are celebrated, thirty low masses shall also be performed at Saint Gregoire.

Item. That in the said church of Saint Denis similar services shall be performed, as above.

Item. That the same shall be done in the church of the said friars and lesser brethren.

Item. The aforesaid Testator gives and bequeaths to Messer Francesco da Melzo, nobleman, of Milan, in remuneration for services and favours done to him in the past, each and all of the books the Testator is at present possessed of, and the instruments and portraits appertaining to his art and calling as a painter.

Item. The same Testator gives and bequeaths henceforth for ever to Battista de Vilanis his servant one half, that is the moity, of his garden which is outside the walls of Milan, and the other half of the same garden to Salai his servant; in which garden aforesaid Salai has built and constructed a house which shall be and remain henceforth in all perpetuity the property of the said Salai, his heirs and successors; and this is in remuneration for the good and kind services which the said de Vilanis and Salai, his servants have done him in past times until now.

Item. The said Testator gives to Maturina his waiting woman a cloak of good black cloth lined with fur, a ... of cloth and two ducats paid once only; and this likewise is in remuneration for good service rendered to him in past times by the said Maturina.

Item. He desires that at his funeral sixty tapers shall be carried which shall be borne by sixty poor men, to whom shall be given money for carrying them; at the discretion of the said Melzo, and these tapers shall be distributed among the four above mentioned churches.

Item. The said Testator gives to each of the said churches ten lbs. of wax in thick tapers, which shall be placed in the said churches to be used on the day when those said services are celebrated.

Item. That alms shall be given to the poor of the Hotel-Dieu, to the poor of Saint Lazare d'Amboise and, to that end, there shall be given and paid to the treasurers of that same fraternity the sum and amount of seventy soldi of Tours.

Item. The said Testator gives and bequeaths to the said Messer Francesco Melzo, being present and agreeing, the remainder of his pension and the sums of money which are owing to him from the past time till the day of his death by the receiver or treasurer-general M. Johan Sapin, and each and every sum of money that he has already received from the aforesaid Sapin of his said pension, and in case he should die before the said Melzo and not otherwise; which moneys are at present in the possession of the said Testator in the said place called Cloux, as he says. And he likewise gives and bequeaths to the said Melzo all and each of his clothes which he at present possesses at the said place of Cloux, and all in remuneration for the good and kind services done by him in past times till now, as well as in payment for the trouble and annoyance he may incur with regard to the execution of this present testament, which however, shall all be at the expense of the said Testator.

And he orders and desires that the sum of four hundred scudi del Sole, which he has deposited in the hands of the treasurer of Santa Maria Nuova in the city of Florence, may be given to his brothers now living in Florence with all the interest and usufruct that may have accrued up to the present time, and be due from the aforesaid treasurer to the aforesaid Testator on account of the said four hundred crowns, since they were given and consigned by the Testator to the said treasurers.

Item. He desires and orders that the said Messer Francesco de Melzo shall be and remain the sole and only executor of the said will of the said Testator; and that the said testament shall be executed in its full and complete meaning and according to that which is here narrated and said, to have, hold, keep and observe, the said Messer Leonardo da Vinci, constituted Testator, has obliged and obliges by these presents the said his heirs and successors with all his goods moveable and immoveable present and to come, and has renounced and expressly renounces by these presents all and each of the things which to that are contrary. Given at the said place of Cloux in the presence of Magister Spirito Fieri vicar, of the church of Saint Denis at Amboise, of M. Guglielmo Croysant priest and chaplain, of Magister Cipriane Fulchin, Brother Francesco de Corion, and of Francesco da Milano, a brother of the Convent of the Minorites at Amboise, witnesses summoned and required to that end by the indictment of the said court in the presence of the aforesaid M. Francesco de Melze who accepting and agreeing to the same has promised by his faith and his oath which he has administered to us personally and has sworn to us never to do nor say nor act in any way to the contrary. And it is sealed by his request with the royal seal apposed to legal contracts at Amboise, and in token of good faith.

Given on the XXIIIrd day of April MDXVIII, before Easter.

And on the XXIIIrd day of this month of April MDXVIII, in the presence of M. Guglielmo Borian, Royal notary in the court of the bailiwick of Amboise, the aforesaid M. Leonardo de Vinci gave and bequeathed, by his last will and testament, as aforesaid, to the said M. Baptista de Vilanis, being present and agreeing, the right of water which the King Louis XII, of pious memory lately deceased gave to this same de Vinci, the stream of the canal of Santo Cristoforo in the duchy of Milan, to belong to the said Vilanis for ever in such wise and manner that the said gentleman made him this gift in the presence of M. Francesco da Melzo, gentleman, of Milan and in mine.

And on the aforesaid day in the said month of April in the said year MDXVIII the same M. Leonardo de Vinci by his last will and testament gave to the aforesaid M. Baptista de Vilanis, being present and agreeing, each and all of the articles of furniture and utensils of his house at present at the said place of Cloux, in the event of the said de Vilanis surviving the aforesaid M. Leonardo de Vinci, in the presence of the said M. Francesco Melzo and of me Notary Borean.

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