April 15, 1452 Leonardo was born in Vinci, a village near Florence, Italy. He was illegitimate. His father Piero was a notary from a good family and his mother Caterina was a poor peasant girl.
Until he was five Leonardo lived with his mother in this stone house in the beautiful hills of Vinci.
His father married another woman and had little Leonardo brought to live with them. So Leonardo grew up an only child in a comfortable house with his father, his grandfather, his uncle, and his step-mother. He played happily with his friends and animals in the vineyards of Vinci.
He had lessons in math, geometry, grammar, music, and Latin; and he astounded his math teacher with smart questions. But what he really liked doing was his own experiments, singing and playing the lyre, and drawing and painting.
He once painted a scary monster on a neighbor’s shield that was so impressive that his father sold it to a Duke.
1469? Piero apprenticed Leonardo to the painter and sculptor Andrea di Cione, called Verrocchio. Verrocchio ran a workshop that produced other great artists such as Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s first teacher) and Botticelli. This was Leonardo’s real university.
While helping his master with a painting called the BAPTISM OF CHRIST (1472—1475) he painted an angel so beautiful that Verrocchio gave up painting after seeing it because he realized it was better than anything he himself could do.
1472 Leonardo passed the test as a master artist and became a member of the Guild of St. Luke. This qualified him to work on his own but he stayed on with his old master Verrocchio. About this time he painted the ANNUNCIATION (1472—1475 )and made a DRAWING OF THE ARNO VALLEY (1473).
1476 When he was twenty-four someone accused him and three other young men of going to a male prostitute. But the accuser was anonymous and there wasn’t good evidence so the judge shelved the case.
He painted a portrait of GINEVRA DE’ BENCI (1476).
His interests were much wider than painting. He made his own observations, studies, and drawings in botany, anatomy, architecture, engineering, and warfare.
1478 He left Verrocchio’s workshop and probably went to live at the Medici Palace in Florence, invited by Lorenzo the Magnificent. He received his own first commission, an altarpiece for the chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio, but did not carry it out. According to his notebooks, he painted two Madonnas: probably the BENOIS MADONNA (1478) and the MADONNA OF THE CARNATION (1478—1480). He also started a painting of ST. JEROME IN THE WILDERNESS (1480).
1481 The monks of San Donato at Scopeto gave him an order to paint the ADORATION OF THE MAGI(1481). He prepared the canvas and drew on the underpainting but never applied the color. All his life he had so many ideas and experiments going that he just couldn’t stick to one job for long. Luckily his notebooks with observations, drawings, and studies of all kinds have survived.
1482 He could sing and play the lyre like a professional. His patron Lorenzo de’ Medici asked him to perform at a party he was planning for the Duke of Milan (Ludovico il Moro). Leonardo invented a silver lyre shaped like a horse’s head and played it at the party. His performance and his lyre impressed everyone.
Leonardo saw his chance to get a good job and wrote to the Duke. In his LETTER he claimed to be an expert in civil and military engineering. He said he had many inventions (like the tank and the battleship with a double hull) that would help the Duke beat his enemies and defend his city. He said he could do nearly anything as well or better than anyone and he would prove it to the Duke. The Duke called him to Milan and made him Director of Festivities. Leonardo started inventing ingenious decorations and floats for the Duke’s plays and pageants. He promised to make a giant EQUESTRIAN MONUMENT to Ludovico’s father, Francesco Sforza.
1485 He painted a portrait of the Duke’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, the LADY WITH AN ERMINE.
1483—1486 He picked up other commissions. He began the VIRGIN OF THE ROCKS for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.
1490 A ten-year-old boy named Giacomo Salai came to live in Leonardo’s household. In time Salai became a faithful servant, apprentice painter, model, and friend who accompanied Leonardo everywhere for years.
1492 Leonardo finished the clay model of the horse for the EQUESTRIAN MONUMENT to Ludovico’s father but couldn’t figure out a way to cast it in bronze. Two years later Ludovico used the bronze for a cannon. The clay horse stood around in a courtyard for years and was greatly admired until the French soldiers who invaded Milan finally destroyed it. They used it for target practice.
1495 The friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie ordered THE LAST SUPPER (1495—1498) for their refectory (dining hall). Leonardo worked long on sketches and preliminary studies, to the exasperation of the prior, who couldn’t believe how long Leonardo needed to paint it. He never did finish it.
His notebooks show his first design for a flying machine: “Make trial of the actual machine over the water,” he warned, “so that if you fall you do not do your self any harm.”
Other notebook entries record that he paid for the funeral of a woman named Caterina, probably his housemaid; that he designed the scenery for a play put on for the Duke of Milan; and that he painted the portrait of the Duke’s new mistress Lucrezia Crivelli. Maybe it is LA BELLE FERRONIERE (1490—1496).
1497 He made the illustrations for a book called On Divine Proportions by Luca Pacioli, a mathematician and good friend. Leonardo’s VITRUVIAN MANis one of his most famous drawings. It is based on an old Roman treatise on architecture that also treated the ideal proportions of the human body.
1499 Milan was threatened by attack from French troops and Leonardo fled with Pacioli and his apprentice Salai to Venice. On the way he stopped at Mantua and drew a portrait of the Marchesa, ISABELLA D’ ESTE. In Venice the Doge asked him to use his military engineering skills to help defend the city against a threatened naval attack by the Turks.
He went back to Florence and accepted a commission from the monastery of the Santissima Annunziata to paint THE VIRGIN AND CHILD WITH ST. ANNE AND ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST (1499—1500). He set up his workshop at the monastery and actually finished the cartoon, which was so beautiful that crowds of people of all conditions came to see it and marvel. He never painted it.
1502 He went to work for Cesare Borgia, a powerful despot. Leonardo drew A MAP OF HIS TOWN IMOLA, near Bologna. No one had ever drawn a good map of the town and Borgia at once saw its usefulness and asked Leonardo to become his military architect and engineer. They travelled around Italy together and Leonardo gave him brilliant ideas for civil and military projects. He became friends with Macchiavelli, the famous author of The Prince.
1503 He returned to Florence and rejoined the Guild of St. Luke (painter’s society) on October 18. The City of Florence commissioned him to paint a mural in the Council Room of the Palazzo Vecchio or Town Hall. The subject was a scene from one of the great Florentine military victories, the BATTLE OF ANGHIARI. From Michelangelo they commissioned a mural on another wall in the same hall. Michelangelo chose the Battle of Cascina. Leonardo seems to have tried to use heat to make the oil paint stick to the wall. The colors ran and spoiled his painting.
He began portraits of Messer Giocondo’s wife, MONA LISA (1503—1506). Vasari says to keep her smiling he had musicians play while he painted her.
1504 Leonardo was asked to be part of a committee to decide where to set up Michelangelo’s statue of David, which had been commissioned by the city.
His father Piero died on July 9.
1506 The French governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, invited Leonardo to work for him and Leonardo went back to Milan and set up shop with some of his former collaborators and pupils. A Milanese nobleman named Trivulzi left money in a will for a monument and Leonardo got the commission but the project never got beyond some drawings.
In 1507 he made a short trip to Florence to settle up with his brothers the estate left by his uncle and his father. He had eight (half-) brothers and sisters, all born after he was twenty-four. After the settlement he went back in Milan and bought a house in Porta Orientale.
1513—1516 He lived mostly in Rome, in the Belvedere. He painted ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST (1513—1516).
King Francis of France recaptured Milan and the new Pope (Leo X) decided to meet him in Bologna and make an alliance. He asked Leonardo to accompany him and come up with some curious gift for the King. Leonardo invented a mechanical lion that could walk and roar. When it opened its mouth great bouquets of lilies burst forth.
1516—1519 Leonardo went to France to serve King Francis. By now Leonardo was the most famous artist in the world. The King was delighted to finally have the great genius in his service and gave him a lordly pension and a house to live in (the Cloux Lucé) near his castle at Amboise. Leonardo lived and worked with his companion Francesco Melzi.
1519 He died on May 2. The King treated him as a close friend and visited him at his manor during his last illness. Legend has it that the King was present at his death and even held him in his arms when he expired. He was buried in the Castle (Château d’Amboise) chapel of Saint-Hubert.
He left most of his paintings, books, and personal effects to his friend and apprentice Francesco Melzi; his Italian vineyards to two other helpers and companions, Salai and Battista di Vilussis; and his land to his brothers. And he didn’t forget his poor serving woman: he left her a fur cloak.
Note: Leonardo did not sign or date his paintings. He often started one and then abandoned it for months or years. At times his assistants helped him. So scholars do not agree on the authorship of some of his works or the year of their execution. See a complete list and the scholarly opinion of them here.
My chief source is The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, selected and edited by Irma A. Richter, Oxford University Press, 1952 , in which the author gives a biography of Leonardo composed of his writings on his personal affairs and their dates.