Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Leonardo da Vinci: The man, the myth, the mystery

By Laura Allsop, for CNN
November 11, 2011 -- Updated 1751 GMT (0151 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Few historical figures continue to enchant like Leonardo da Vinci
  • Renaissance man considered mysterious and inscrutable
  • Intitally a painter, towards end of life he became a scientist
  • Works show a questing, never satisfied mind, according to art historians

London (CNN) -- There are few historical figures that can compete with Leonardo da Vinci's celebrity. This, despite what little we actually know about him.

Other than the complex and often mysterious works of art and writings that are his legacy, what's left today amounts to a few basic facts, and anecdotes told by 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari.

And yet, nearly 500 years after his death, da Vinci continues to fascinate, standing in popular culture as a totem of the supernaturally gifted individual.

An exhibition, which opened in London this week, includes nine of da Vinci's 15 surviving paintings -- the first time so many of his paintings have been shown off together -- with an estimated insurance value of $2 billion.

"The big cultural figures like Dante and Shakespeare and Goethe and Einstein, they all have their cults and their 'loonies' as I call them -- but Leonardo is in a league of his own," he said.

The quintessential Renaissance man who was brilliant in the fields of both science and art, da Vinci is widely regarded as a genius.

Detail of drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, by Francesco Melzi (1493-1570), c. 1515. \n
Detail of drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, by Francesco Melzi (1493-1570), c. 1515.

"He really was a polymath," said art historian Richard Stemp.

"He worked on everything -- he studied anatomy, he studied the natural world, he saw himself as a painter-philosopher really," he continued.

Da Vinci was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a Florentine landlord and notary, on his father's estate in Vinci.

He was apprenticed at the workshop of Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio when he was just a teenager.

In 1482, he entered into service of the Duke of Milan as an official painter and engineer and remained there for 17 years, during which time he created such masterpieces as the first version of "The Virgin of the Rocks" and the "Last Supper."

It was also in this period that he turned to scientific studies.

The mystery will always be there, because he wanted to create a mystery
Mina Gregori, art historian

"In his mid-30s, he starts to diversify and towards the end of his life he would have seen himself essentially as a scientist who also did a bit of painting on the side," said Martin Clayton, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection in the UK, which contains an extensive collection of drawings by da Vinci.

Da Vinci's mechanical drawings included prototype designs for such modern contraptions as helicopters and tanks.

But it was during his second stint in Florence, from 1500 to 1506, that he painted his masterwork, the "Mona Lisa."

Though we are now so used to this image of the smiling noblewoman, the painting's "startling originality," according to Clayton, is still visible today.

"There's simply nothing out there like it before, this sense of looking at an individual and yet taking the individual out of the context of her own life and presenting her as this mystical, idealized figure who stands outside of time," he said.

Da Vinci spent his last years in France, serving as a painter, architect and engineer to the King of France, and died there in 1519.

The "Mona Lisa," which he brought with him to France, stayed. Today, the portrait -- with its notoriously enigmatic smile -- remains the star attraction at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

On a religious level, I think he was a probing person, he questions (things) a lot
Monsignor Renato Bellini, a priest in Vinci

The aura of mystery around the "Mona Lisa" and, indeed, the artist himself could be what draws people into the cult of Leonardo, according to Italian art historian Mina Gregori.

"Even he could not explain himself completely," she said, referring to the unfinished nature of many of his works.

"He continued to create question marks, he always created problems, he created the curiosity to know more," she continued.

Perhaps our best clues to who da Vinci really was are to be found in his paintings, writings and drawings. But as with all art, his works are open to interpretation.

"On a religious level, I think he was a probing person -- he questions (things) a lot," said Monsignor Renato Bellini, a priest in Vinci, where Leonardo was born and baptized.

However, according to art historian Pietro Marani, the idea that Leonardo was either a divine talent or a supernatural being detracts from what we are able to read in the works themselves.

"(We) no longer (have) an image of Leonardo that is all one piece -- a semi-God, a magician -- but a multi-faceted Leonardo, a contradictory Leonardo, who changes (his) ideas," he said.

Many of the drawings featured in the "Leonardo -- The Lost Painting" are held in the Royal Collection: royalcollection.org.uk

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 11, 2011 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
A newly discovered painting by the Renaissance master has prompted speculation that more of his paintings could be as yet undiscovered.
November 10, 2011 -- Updated 1546 GMT (2346 HKT)
There are few people in the world lucky enough to form a close relationship with a Leonardo da Vinci painting.
November 11, 2011 -- Updated 1111 GMT (1911 HKT)
Photo taken on November 7, 2011.
An "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition of paintings by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci opened in London Wednesday.
November 9, 2011 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Painting conservator Dianne Modestini tells CNN about restoring Leonardo da Vinci's Christ.
November 11, 2011 -- Updated 1751 GMT (0151 HKT)
There are few historical figures that can compete with Leonardo da Vinci's celebrity. This, despite what little we actually know about him.
November 7, 2011 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Neglected for centuries, a Leonardo da Vinci painting has been rediscovered -- sending shockwaves through the art world.
November 2, 2011 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
A little earlier this year the art world made an extremely rare discovery -- a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
November 9, 2011 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
After centuries of neglect, a painting is identified as da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi." Photographs courtesy Robert Simon.
November 4, 2011 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Da Vinci was a prolific inventor as well as a painter, and designed a helicopter, tank and crossbow among others.
November 16, 2011 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
CNN's guide to Florence's world-renowned trove of art and architecture, the legacy of Renaissance masters like da Vinci and Botticelli.
November 30, 2011 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Think you know all about the Renaissance master? Take our da Vinci quiz and find out.
November 4, 2011 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Some of the world's greatest works of art, among them the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper" have come from the master painter's hand.
ADVERTISEMENT