Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer. Da Vinci was a great engineer and inventor who designed buildings, bridges, canals, forts and war machines. He kept huge notebooks sketching his ideas. Among these, he was fascinated by birds and flying and his sketches include such fantastic designs as flying machines. These drawings demonstrate a genius for mechanical invention and insight into scientific inquiry, truly centuries ahead of their time. His greater fame lies in being one of the greatest painters of all times, best known for such paintings as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
"There has never been an artist who was more fittingly, and without qualification, described as a genius. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo came from an insignificant background and rose to universal acclaim. Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a local lawyer in the small town of Vinci in the Tuscan region. His father acknowledged him and paid for his training, but we may wonder whether the strangely self-sufficient tone of Leonardo's mind was not perhaps affected by his early ambiguity of status. The definitive polymath, he had almost too many gifts, including superlative male beauty, a splendid singing voice, magnificent physique, mathematical excellence, scientific daring ... the list is endless. This overabundance of talents caused him to treat his artistry lightly, seldom finishing a picture, and sometimes making rash technical experiments.The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, for example, has almost vanished, so inadequate were his innovations in fresco preparation.
"Yet the works that we have salvaged remain the most dazzlingly poetic pictures ever created. The Mona Lisa has the innocent disadvantage of being too famous. It can only be seen behind thick glass in a heaving crowd of awe-struck sightseers. It has been reproduced in every conceivable medium; it remains intact in its magic, forever defying the human insistence on comprehending. It is a work that we can only gaze at in silence.
The first known biography of Leonardo was published in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari who wrote Vite de' piu eccelenti architettori, pittori e scultori italiani ("The lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors"), and later became an independent painter in Florence. Most of the information collected by Vasari was from first-hand accounts of Leonardo's contemporaries, (Vasari was only a child when Leonardo died), and it remains the first reference in studying Leonardo's life.
Leonardo was born in Anchiano, near Vinci, Italy. He was an illegitimate child. His father, Ser Piero da Vinci was a young lawyer and his mother, Caterina, was probably a peasant girl. It has also been suggested, albeit on scanty evidence, that she was a Middle Eastern slave owned by Piero. However, the latter theory is unlikely to be true.
As he was born before modern naming conventions developed in Europe, his full name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", which means "Leonardo, son of Mister Piero, from Vinci". Leonardo himself simply signed his works "Leonardo" or "Io, Leonardo" ("I, Leonardo"). Most authorities therefore refer to his works as "Leonardos", not "da Vincis". Presumably he did not use his father's name because of his illegitimate status.
Leonardo grew up with his father in Florence. Here, he started drawing and painting. His early sketches were of such quality that his father soon showed them to the painter Andrea del Verrocchio who subsequently took the fourteen-year old Leonardo on as an apprentice. Later, he became an independent painter in Florence.
In 1476, he was accused anonymously, along with three other men, of sodomy with a 17 year-old model, Jacopo Saltarelli, who was a notorious male prostitute. After two months in jail, he was acquitted because no witnesses stepped forward. For some time afterwards, Leonardo and the others were kept under observation by Florence's Officers of the Night - a kind of Renaissance vice squad, charged with suppressing the practice of sodomy, which a majority of male Florentines engaged in, as shown by surviving legal records of the Podest‡ and the Officers of the Night.