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The Life And Times of Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452 in the small town of Vinci, some 40 kilometers from Florence, the capital of Tuscany. He was the love child of a successful Florentine notary and a young woman about whom little is known other than her first name: Caterina. In his early childhood, he was raised by his paternal grandparents, and he might have followed in his father's professional footsteps had his illegitimacy not disqualified him from membership in the notary's guild. As it was, his youthful enthusiasm for the mysteries of nature had been cultivated by a beloved uncle, on whose farm he happily spent his formative years.

At the age of 17 or so--largely self-taught, with a smattering of formal education at the hands of the local priest--Leonardo went to Florence, securing a position as apprentice to a prominent designer and sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio, whose patron was Tuscany's ruling family, the Medicis. Over the next eight years, Leonardo learned every aspect of the artist's craft--from costume and set design for the Medicis' many carnivals and celebrations, to architecture and mechanics for Verrocchio's commission on the city's Duomo, to metallurgy for goldsmithing and sculpture, to the myriad aspects of painting. (By all accounts a young man of extraordinary handsomeness, he may also have served as one of his mentor's models.) In 1472, Leonardo officially graduated from apprentice to master, but, strangely, he showed no impatience to make a name for himself. Finally, with Verrocchio's encouragement and blessing, he struck out on his own in 1478 with his first personal commission, a painting for the chapel in Signoria.

For all his prodigious skills and imaginative power, it is said that Leonardo liked nothing better than to lie in bed and daydream. Ideas seemed to excite him more than their execution. Certainly, once out on his own, he displayed a mystifying inability to complete projects--including such masterpieces as The Adoration of the Magi, The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. (Likewise, most of his inventions, such as the water-powered alarm clock, the leather scuba-diving suit or the bicycle, remained theoretical.) But sometimes outside circumstances conspired to alter his course of action. At age 29, he moved to Milan, pitched himself to Ludovico Il Moro as a military engineer and architect (Il Moro was facing yet another battle for his turf) and was nicely positioned as the city's most important artist when plague broke out. Leonardo immediately changed hats, becoming an urban planner to design, on paper at least, a remarkable new city that took into account questions of sewage, heating, automated street washing and transportation. But he most had his heart set on creating a gigantic equestrian statue in honor of Il Moro's father. He worked for 15 years, on and off, on the project, only to have it scuttled when Il Moro diverted the necessary tonnes of bronze to make cannons in anticipation of war against the French. (Among other factual elements, this disappointment is reflected in Leonardo: A Dream of Flight.)

Throughout his adult life, Leonardo was an obsessive chronicler, filling notebook after notebook with sketches of men, animals and machines, and thoughts written--from right to left--in mirror image. These books display a profound fascination, a blend of understanding and wonder, with everything under the sun: acoustics, anatomy, astronomy, automation, botany, hydraulics, mathematics, optics, physics--and, above all, flying. In a rare personal reminiscence he wrote of being mesmerized as an infant by the swooping of a kite, and as of the mid-1480s his notebooks reflected a growing fascination with flight, first that of birds, then of man-made contraptions. A reference in January of 1496 suggests he may actually have experimented with some sort of flying machine himself. This preoccupation is, of course, central to the film.

Unfortunately, the turbulence of Italian politics over the last 20 years of Leonardo's life afforded him little peace in which to work. With the fall of Il Moro in 1499, Leonardo moved on again, returning to Florence and the court of Cesare Borgia (where he met and quite got along with Nicolo Machiavelli), before once again settling for life in Milan under French rule; there, King Louis XII honored him with the title "royal painter and engineer." At 61, he restlessly pulled up stakes and sought the patronage of Pope Leo X in Rome, where, famously, he debuted a mechanical lion that presaged the modern robot. But in 1516, in ailing health (he had partial paralysis of his upper torso), he finally settled for life in France; his last major (unfulfilled) project was to design a model city in the exact centre of the country. He died on May 2, 1519 at Cloux.

Twice in his life, Leonardo had taken on young proteges--the first in 1490, a 10-year-old Milanese boy named Giacomo Caprotti, whom he nicknamed Salai (Tuscan for "demon," since the boy was reportedly a handful), the second in 1505, a 15-year-old Florentine named Francesco Melzi. He remembered both in his will, leaving Salai a house and half a vineyard, and naming Melzi executor, leaving him, among other things, all of his notebooks, which numbered some 13,000 pages. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of these precious artifacts of genius have yet to be found.  

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