Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about the great master? Explore our interactive timeline here and discover what Leonardo was doing at your age.
Leonardo da Vinci died 500 years ago at the age of 67. He was a universal genius driven by insatiable curiosity that led him to explore ideas in science, math, architecture, design, engineering, geology, cartography, sculpting, drawing and, of course, painting.
His surviving body of work as a painter is remarkably slim: Fewer than 20 artworks can be comfortably attributed to him, although two of them – the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” – are easily among the most famous in the world.
Such scarcity led to the record-breaking auction of “Salvator Mundi,” believed to be a long-lost Leonardo, which sold for $450 million in 2017. The painting, which some scholars say is not entirely Leonardo’s work, has been making headlines ever since. After plans to exhibit it at the Louvre Abu Dhabi were announced, and then canceled, in 2018, even the artwork’s whereabouts have become uncertain, adding further to its mystique.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Anchiano, a hamlet near the Tuscany town of Vinci, about 25 miles west of Florence. His full birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which means “Leonardo, son of Piero, from Vinci,” which is generally shortened to just Leonardo da Vinci.
His mother was a local peasant named Caterina and his father was a wealthy notary. Leonardo was born out of wedlock, and both parents married other people after his birth, but he spent his childhood on his father’s estate, where he was educated and treated like a legitimate son.
He then joined the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where he would study painting and sculpture and work for over a decade. It was during this period that Leonardo was accused of sodomizing a male prostitute, following an anonymous tip-off. The charges carried a possible death penalty, though they were eventually dropped.
Throughout his life, Leonardo, who never married, had several assistants who may also have been lovers – most prominently Gian Giacomo Caprotti, nicknamed Salaì, who went on to become an artist himself. It is believed that Salaì inherited the paintings Leonardo still owned at the time of his death: “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne,” “St. John the Baptist” and the “Mona Lisa,” which now all hang at the Louvre in Paris. The French museum has two more Leonardos – one of which is currently on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi – forming the largest collection in the world.
Building on its collection, the Louvre will host a grand exhibition, starting in October, that it hopes will unite the largest ever number of Leonardo artworks under one roof. Organizers anticipate so much demand that a reservation will be required to attend, and tickets will go on sale in June.
Celebrations are already underway in Italy. The Museo Leonardiano, in Leonardo’s hometown of Vinci, is hosting a special exhibition featuring his earliest known drawing, which depicts the surrounding Arno valley. In Milan, where Leonardo lived for over 20 years, celebrations will center around the Sforza Castle and the restored Sala delle Asse, where visitors can see original wall and ceiling decorations by Leonardo. In Venice, his most famous drawing, the “Vitruvian Man,” will be on display until July – a rare occurrence, as the item’s fragility means it’s seldom exhibited.
In London, visitors will be able to see over 200 original drawings at the “Leonardo da Vinci: Life in drawing” exhibition, which opens at Buckingham Palace on May 24. They form just a fraction of the 7,200 notebook pages – all filled to the edges with annotations and drawings, on subjects as varied as anatomy, astronomy and the physics of flight – owned by the Royal Collection Trust, though organizers say this is the largest exhibition of Leonardo’s work in over 65 years.
After living most of his life between Florence, Milan and, briefly, Rome, Leonardo moved to France, where he spent his final three years serving at the court of King Francis I as a painter and sculptor. He died in the town of Amboise on May 2, 1519. His grave has been lost, as the church of St. Florentin, where he was buried, was damaged during the French revolution and then demolished in the early 19th century. Remains found on the site decades later are now buried in a nearby chapel, but it’s uncertain whether they are his.
The uncertainty that surrounds so many aspects of Leonardo’s life and work has undoubtedly fueled the world’s fascination with the Renaissance master. Five hundred years on, it seems to be stronger than ever.
Want to learn more about the great master? Explore our interactive timeline and discover what Leonardo was doing at your age.