Leonardo, or Lionardo as he is generally called by earlier Florentine writers, was born in 1452 in the neighbourhood of the little mountain village of Vinci, a few miles from Empoli. His father, whose name was Piero d ‘Antonio, followed the profession of his sire and grandsire, that of notary, though he does not seem to have held any office up to the time when his firstborn son came into the world.
He was then barely more than a youth, twenty-five years of age, residing in his ancestral home at Vinci. Leonardo’s mother was a woman by the name of Catarina, of whom we know nothing except that she was “di bon sangue.” She seems to have had little opportunity to influence her son ‘s development for, the grandfather disapproving of the young Piero ‘s liaison as unworthy of his rank, Catarina, soon after the birth of the boy, was married to a peasant at Vinci, while Ser Piero, in his turn, wedded a lady of noble birth, Albiera Amadori.
The little Leonardo was received into his father’s home, which was probably the same house where the family had lived for generations. Whether this was identical with the plain stone building on the slope between Vinci and Anchiano which an inscription plate designates as the house where Leonardo was born, I will leave to thers to determine. In any case, the district is that in which Leonardo passed his childhood. A beautiful and fertile district it is indeed, situated half-way up the slope of Monte Albano. As far as the gaze reaches, the silver-gray olives spread their soft carpet over the hills, and between them the vines gleam forth when autumn is approaching and the grapes are taking on a blue tinge. Long, undulating contours bound the horizon as though the district had been modelled by some mighty artist’s hand, solemn and monumental yet without a trace of bleakness. Eound the thinly scattered houses stand orange and fig trees, bowed down with fruit, and corn to be harvested in abundance. The air is pure and fresh up there even in late summer and the people are cheerful and straightforward.
They lead a simple, strenuous life, in constant co-operation with the bounteous nature in the midst of which they live, but to this day there dwell in their memories strange legends which have doubtless fascinated many an imaginative boy. Such were the surroundings in which the little Leonardo grew up. The beauty of the soil and the light of the lofty skies were probably sources of greater delight to him than the human beings with whom he was thrown in contact. His stepmother died early and was succeeded by another who was even less capable of cherishing interest for the illegitimate child. He found little happiness at home, and, according to tradition, resorted for companionship to his grandfather, his “nonno.” In the course of the father’s third and fourth marriages the family circle (now removed to Florence) rapidly increased, making life at home almost unendurable to Leonardo. His step-brothers and sisters and even his father seem always to have regarded him as “the illegitimate one,” a kind of intruder, against whom they might freely vent their petty spite and bitterness. In fact, later on they did not even hesitate to bring an action against the famous artist for venturing to accept a small inheritance from his uncle.
These impressions of childhood cannot fail to have influenced Leonardo ‘s future development. His mind was more sensitive, more impressionable, than that of the majority, and he was destined from early years to experience more suffering than joy from contact with the outer world. He gradually learned to retire more and more within himself in order to escape being wounded and abused. The warm affection, the tender cherishing solicitude which may help a sensitive child-soul to unfold, did not fall to the lot of the little Leonardo. In the year 1469 we find the family settled in Florence, where Ser Piero had become “procuratore” to the monastery of SS. Annunziata and notary to the Florentine Signoria (the city magistracy).
His reputation as a lawyer increased rapidly and his income kept pace with it. In course of time Ser Piero became one of the most fashionable lawyers of Florence. He gave his children the usual education, and Leonardo, with the others, was sent to the “scuola delPabbaco, ” the primary grammar school, where the instruction, intended as a preparation for the mercantile profession, consisted chiefly of a course in arithmetic, while the humanities and classical languages were almost neglected. Perhaps for this reason Leonardo appears never to have devoted himself with any great interest to the study of the ancient writers or their modern imitators ; on the contrary, he seems to have carried away a certain contempt for booklearning. Observation and experience were his real teachers, and it is almost with an undercurrent of satisfaction that he thenceforward styled himself “uomo senza lettered ‘ Yet he was less the mere empiric than he supposed.
The city in which the young Leonardo’s lot was now cast, and where he received his artistic training, was in many respects a contrast to the quiet, lonely region in which he had passed his childhood. Florence was already at that time a city of stone, with narrow winding streets where footsteps echo hard and sharp between the obtrusive palace walls, and where only the walls and the roofs afford shade. Life here was bound to assume something of the uncompromising hardness and angularity of the stones, especially when we reflect that in democratic Florence everyone was his own master, and that each man had to look to his own fist and sharp tongue to vindicate his rights.
Let us for a moment climb in fancy one of those towers, still existing at the present day, though erected during the Middle Ages as a necessary defence in the midst of continually recurring feuds. Thence let us gaze out over the surrounding country. On three sides the eye encounters high crests of hills, standing out sharply in long uniform lines against the clear sky, with nothing to round off or soften the severe plastic forms. During the greater part of the year the atmosphere is transparent. The vegetation of the slopes consists merely of the silver-gray mantle of the olives, while upon the crest of the hills hardly a tree is seen so that these gigantic formations stand out in sharp relief. It is but natural then that the strongest and hardiest generation which grew up in Florence should have something of this plastic character moulded into its inner being. Its imagination was to a great extent nourished by impressions which took shape in stone, its view ever bounded by bold outlines. To the Florentines of the fifteenth century stone- and marble-work were what flowers and gardening were to the seventeenth-century men of Haarlem.
Nevertheless it was La Citta dei fiori! For beauty had ever its abode here though its gentler, more delicate, flower-like forms were concealed behind the thick palace walls. Outwardly it presented only a harsh and manly face, and it was this latter aspect which asserted itself during the years of the early Florentine Renaissance, years of struggle and stress and yet of abounding joy. Thus was it expounded by Leonardo’s teachers and predecessors. It was reserved for the following generation to interpret the softer, feminine beauty. In Leonardo’s art both these aspects of human beauty attain their consummation.
Authentic information in regard to Leonardo’s youth and earliest artistic training is extremely scarce. Besides the meagre facts to be gleaned from a couple of Ser Piero’s taxation returns, we have practically only Vasari’s account to build on. This account may be exaggerated, but in its main features seems to reflect the opinion formed of Leonardo by his contemporaries ; for Vasari obtained his data from artists who had known Leonardo personally, and had worked in the afterglow of the great master’s achievements. If we strip his account of the legendary halo which invests it, there still remains a core worth preserving as a good summary of several characteristic aspects of Leonardo’s complex nature. Vasari, for instance, writes :
Marvellous and celestial was in truth Leonardo, Ser Piero da Vinci ‘s son. He would have made great proficiency in learning and in the elements of science had he not been so many-sided and unstable. He set himself to learn many things and, having begun them, abandoned them. Thus, in the course of a few months he made such progress in arithmetic that he often confused his teacher by the objections and doubts which he was continually bringing forward. He applied himself a little to music and presently made up his mind to learn to play the lyre, and being endowed by nature with a sublime soul and great charm, he sang on it in his heavenly way his improvised songs. In spite of his multifarious activities he never entirely laid aside drawing and modelling, pursuits which captivated his fancy beyond all others. When Ser Piero perceived this and considered the brilliance of his gifts, he one day took one of his drawings to Andrea del Verrocchio, with whom he was on terms of great friendship, and besought him urgently to tell him whether Leonardo would be likely to achieve success in case he devoted himself to Art. Andrea was amazed when he saw Leonardo’s extraordinary beginning and encouraged Ser Piero to let him continue. The latter then arranged for him to visit Andrea’s workshop, which he did not need any persuasion to do, and he practised not merely one, but all the arts which are founded on drawing. He possessed such divine and marvellous gifts, being also an excellent geometrician, that he worked not merely in sculpture, modelling in clay smiling women ‘s heads, from which plaster casts are still taken, and boys ‘ heads which seem to have proceeded from the hand of a master, but also made numerous architectural drawings, both ground-plans and facades ; he was also the first though but a youth to bring forward the proposal for making the Arno navigable from Florence to Pisa. He made drawings of flour-mills, fullingmills and other works which can be driven by water-power; however, as he wished in the first place to make painting his profession, he drew much from nature, occasionally making models of the human form in clay. These he covered with pieces of soft cloth dipped in plaster, and then set himself to reproducing them with the greatest care on a very fine kind of Reims cloth or prepared linen. These he executed in black and white with a sharp-pointed brush with marvellous dexterity, as is attested by some studies from his hand in my collection of drawings. Moreover, he drew on paper with such care and skill that no one equalled him in perfection of finish ; I possess, for instance, a head drawn by him with silver point in chiaroscuro which is quite divine.
We have no positive knowledge as to the exact year in which Leonardo entered Andrea del Verrocchio ‘s studio, but the date should probably be put between 1466 and 1469. Florentine boys were usually put to some trade when they had reached the age of fourteen. Leonardo was doubtless not kept at home longer than was customary. He remained with Verrocchio almost ten years (at any rate until 1476). During this time he enjoyed the best possible opportunity of familiarizing himself thoroughly with all the different aspects of the artistic work of those days. Verrocchio was not merely a sculptor but also a goldsmith, a wood-inlayer, a master of perspective, and a musician. However, what Leonardo learned from Verrocchio was not limited to technical and practical accomplishments ; he obtained also support and guidance in his scientific researches from that experienced and discerning artist. Moreover, in Verrocchio ‘s studio he was introduced to the society of the most eminent contemporary artists. Not merely young men such as Lorenzo di Credi, Francesco Botticini, and Francesco di Simone, but older and more independent painters, such as Botticelli and Perugino, appear to have periodically lent their assistance to the heavily taxed master. Verrocchio ‘s studio formed, in fact, the rallying-point of the Florentine artistic world of those days. Near neighbours to Verrocchio were the brothers Pollajuolo, who also exercised an important influence on Leonardo’s development.
But Leonardo evidently did not approve of all that he saw and heard in the studio. Even in his later Milanese period, when writing down his precepts for painting, he takes his stand against certain theories enunciated by Botticelli, and in more than one instance he maintains an opinion in the face of the latter. There is reason to believe that the discussions which took place in the humble workshop in the Via dell’Agnolo were often rather heated.
At the age of twenty he became a member of the Compania di San Luca. His name occurs in the account book of this Society of Artists, the so-called Libro Eosso (in the National Library at Florence), for the year 1472, with an entry indicating that he had neglected to pay his member’s fee. The fact is worth noting, particularly as it shows that the pronounced religious character of the Society did not deter Leonardo from applying for membership.
Leonardo plainly was not one of those who were influenced by the religious fanaticism which at that time was excited in so many sensitive minds by the passionate preacher of San Marco. Leonardo ‘ clear intellect, sane judgment, and habitual balance of mind preserved him from those violent plunges which occur in the lives of Botticelli, Fra Bartolommeo, and the young Michelangelo, not to speak of several minor artists who, for longer or shorter periods, were numbered among Savonarola’s adherents. Leonardo’s independent attitude toward all kinds of pietistic and dogmatic religious zeal is illustrated by the following lines from the ” Treatise on Painting”:
… On such as abuse those who draw on Holy days and examine the works of God. . . . Fools, deceiving themselves and others, are those who blame the painters for studying on Holy days such things as appertain to the true knowledge of nature. . . . These fault-finders should rather keep silence, for it is by such study that one learns to know the master-artificer of so many marvellous things; this is the way to learn to love the great Inventor. . . . Great love comes only from knowledge of things ; without knowledge true love is impossible.
While Leonardo was working in Verrocchio’s studio, accusations of sodomy were levelled against him. There existed at this time in Florence an institution called “Uffiziali di notte e dei monasteri,” whose mission was to look after the morals of the community and of the religious societies in particular. As an aid in this purpose they had, among other devices, set up on the Palazzo della Signoria a kind of letter-boxes called tamburini, in which anyone could drop anonymous accusations (tamburationi) without the slightest responsibility or obligation to bring forward evidence in support of theaccusation. On the 8th of April, 1476, Leonardo’s name occurs, together with those of some other artists, in one of these tamburationi.
They were all accused of sodomy. However, upon trial they were acquitted on condition that they should appear at a fresh trial in case the accusation were renewed. This actually happened two months later, but the new hearing yielded quite as meagre result. There is thus no means of ascertaining whether any truth lay at the bottom of this anonymous indictment. The majority of critics leans to the belief that the accusation was simply an exhibition of envy and spite against Leonardo who was beginning to be a recognized force in the world of art.
Vasari’s statements that Leonardo in his youth devoted himself particularly to sculpture, and executed busts of smiling women ‘s and boys’ heads have not yet been confirmed by historical investigation. Have all these busts been lost, or are they hiding behind anonymous works of the school of Verrocchio and Desiderio? The question might well repay more thorough special research than has hitherto been accorded to it. This subject will receive further comment in connection with the discussion of the work executed by Leonardo in Verrocchio ‘s bottega.
The project for making the Arno navigable from Florence to Pisa, which Vasari mentioned in the passage cited above, was put forward by Leonardo quite seriously, though not till his return to Florence in 1500. From early youth his interest was manifest in the construction of waterways and in the utilization of water-power for industrial purposes, and this side of his activity was perhaps appreciated more than any other by his own generation. In fact, Leonardo’s inventive powers and extraordinary mechanical skill seem to have been most instrumental in investing him with that halo of halfsupernatural ability which so dazzled his contemporaries.