Little is known about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. He kept copious notebooks, but these contain only sketches and speculations. Much of what we know of him comes from tax records, legal documents, and secondhand sources.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the town of Vinci. His father was Ser Piero, a notary; his mother, Caterina, came of a peasant family. They were not married. The boy’s uncle Francesco may have had more of a hand in his upbringing than by either of his parents. When Leonardo was about 15, he moved to the nearby city of Florence and became an apprentice to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He was already a promising talent. While at the studio, he aided his master with his Baptism of Christ, and eventually painted his own Annunciation. Around the age of 30, Leonardo began his own practice, starting work on the Adoration of the Magi; however, he soon abandoned it and moved to Milan in 1482.
In Milan, Leonardo sought and gained the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, and soon began work on the painting Virgin of the Rocks. After some years, he began work on a giant bronze horse, a monument to Sforza’s father. Leonardo’s design is grand, but the statue was never completed. Meanwhile, he was keeping scrupulous notebooks on a number of studies, including artistic drawings but also depictions of scientific subjects ranging from anatomy to hydraulics. In 1490, he took a young boy, Salai, into his household, and in 1493 a woman named Caterina (most likely his mother) also came to live with him; she died a few years later. Around 1495, Leonardo began his painting The Last Supper, which achieved immense success but began to deteriorate physically almost immediately upon completion. Around this same time, Fra Luca Pacioli, the famous mathematician, moved to Milan, befriended Leonardo, and taught him higher math. In 1499, when the French conquered Lombard and Milan, the two left the city together, heading for Mantua.
In 1500, Leonardo arrived in Florence, where he painted the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. He was very interested in mathematics at this time. In 1502, he went to work as chief military engineer to Cesare Borgia, and also became acquainted with Niccolo Machiavelli. After a year he returned to Florence, where he contributed to the huge engineering project of diverting the course of the River Arno, and also painted a giant war mural, the Battle of Anghiari, which was never completed, largely due to problems with the paints. In 1505 Leonardo probably made his first sketches for the Mona Lisa, but it is not known when he completed the painting.
In 1506, Leonardo traveled to Milan at the summons of Charles d’Amboise, the French governor. He became court painter and engineer to Louis XII and worked on a second version of the Virgin of the Rocks. In 1507, he returned to Florence to engage in a legal battle against his brothers for their uncle Francesco’s inheritance. In this same year, he took the young aristocratic Melzi as an assistant, and for the rest of the decade he intensified his studies of anatomy and hydraulics. In 1513, he moved to Rome, where Leo X reigned as pope. There, he worked on mirrors, and probably the above self- portrait. In 1516, he left Italy for France, joining King Francis I in Amboise, whom he served as a wise philosopher for three years before his death in 1519.