How Leonardo Da Vinci became the most famous italian artist in France

Léonard de Vinci

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci’s spent his last 3 years in France?

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15th, 1452 in the samll village of Vinci in Tuscany, he died age 67 on May 2nd 1519 in a french chateau called Le Clos Luce, right next to Amboise in the Loire Valley. He was a painter, an inventor, an engineer, and a scientist know til today for his for universal spirit, who still fascinates people 500 years after his death.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Childhood

Leonardo Piero da Vinci is the result of an illegitimate love affair between Mr Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a notary, and a poor 22 year old woman, Caterina. To avoid gossip about this relationship, her father arranged for Caterina to be married quickly to a local farmer, a friend of da Vinci’s family, Antonio di Piero del Vaccha. His father married 5 times and in total, Leonardo had 10 brothers and 2 sisters!

Leonardo was not raised by his parents: his father lived mainly in Florence and his mother took care of the five other children she had after her marriage. It is therefore rather his uncle Francesco and his paternal grandparents who ensure his education.

Leonardo could not attend one of the large Latin schools. Consequently, he received a free education with the other villagers of his age. Around the age of ten, in 1462, he entered a “school of arithmetic” for the sons of merchants and artisans.

At the age of 15, Leonardo entered the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where he met Sandro Botticelli and learnt how to paint. In 1472, Leonardo completed his apprenticeship and became a master at the age of 20.

How Leonardo da Vinci’s career began

He was a fan of the new art of chiaroscuro, he perfected his sfumato (misty) technique which softens contrasts and improves the realism of landscapes or portraits. He already produced exceptional works, including The Baptism of Christ, painted between 1472 and 1475.

In 1481, he left for Milan and entered into the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza. At the time he was working on several topics: he was paiting the last supper which he started in 1494 but he also worked as an engineer.

A passion for anatomy, physics and sciences

He worked on various technical projects, from the weaving loom to the improvement of clocks and was interested in mathematics. He conceived projects for flying machines and hydraulic machines, imagining the concepts of the diving suit, the helicopter, the parachute… We also find him in a study on the irrigation of crops by rivers and canals. Urbanist before the time, he thought about an ideal city.

After the invasion of Tuscany by the French, he went to Venice. He first entered into the service of the Venetian government as an engineer, to develop a defense of the city against potential invaders. It was there that he designed a helmeted diving suit to evolve under water which was never tested.

In the 1500s, he returned to Florence and took part in hydraulic works. But painting was always at the center of his work and it was in 1503 that he began the Portrait of Mona Lisa, which would become “La Joconde”, a painting that would never leave him. It is said to have been commissioned by the merchant Francisco del Giocondo to Leonardo da Vinci.

At that time, Leonardo was a science enthusiast. He studied mathematics, animal and human anatomy, as well as the flight of birds. Between 1508 and 1510, he carried out several studies that were brought together in a single document, the Codex Leicester. This 72-page work is written in specular script (from left to right, which can be read with the help of a mirror). It summarizes scientific observations in several fields.

In all these studies, Leonardo da Vinci followed a rational and rigorous method based on observation. Untiring and eclectic, he drew, as the documents that have come down to us testify, almost everything he encountered, humans, animals, plants, mechanisms… He had the rare privilege of having access to human cadavers, whose internal anatomy he studied in detail, such as the famous Vitruvian Man. In geometry, he explored new forms. His drawing of the rhombicuboctahedron became famous.

Leonardo lived his last Italian years in Rome, in the service of the Medici, and had long protected the artist. But the competition from Raphael and Michelangelo, rising stars of painting and sculpture, is tough…

His most famous paintings :

The Christ baptism


This painting was painted during his apprenticeship with Verrochio. This work was started by Verrochio and completed by da Vinci. It represents St. John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the Jordan River. It is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Madonna with the rocks


There are 2 versions of this magnificent painting (one is in the Louvre, the other in the National Gallery). It represents Mary and Jesus in a cave. We see St John the Baptist who seems to be blessed by the baby Jesus. Surprising because nothing says that St John the Baptist did not really meet Christ before his baptism in the Jordan River…

The Vitruvian man

Drawing made around 1490

The Vitruvian Man is a famous drawing which represents the human body and anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci’s diagram conveys the idea that man is the ideal geometric model for architecture!

La Belle Ferronière


But who is this young woman? Certainly not the wife of an ironmonger! It is Lucrezia Crivelli, Ludovico Sforza’s mistress.
This is one of da Vinci’s most beautiful paintings! The beauty of the model, the perfection of her facial features and the bright color of her clothes that stand out on the black background make it a very lively painting!
This work is exhibited in the Louvre.

The last supper


The last supper illustrates a verse of the Gospel where Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, reveals that one of them will soon betray him, the artist highlights the reactions of the apostles. The perspective and symmetry are fabulous in this painting! This masterpiece can be seen on its original wall, in Milan at the convent Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The Virgin, St Anne and Jesus

1501 – 1519

This painting represents Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child Jesus playing with a lamb.
It is one of the 3 paintings that Leonardo da Vinci brought with him when he came to France in 1516. This painting is full of sweetness, which is underlined by the colors of the canvas and by the expression of Mary’s face.
The details are extraordinary! Look at the pebbles and the folds of the clothes!

Mona Lisa


The Mona Lisa represents Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a rich merchant. The Mona Lisa is known for the quality of the perspective, the beauty of the “sfumato”, her melancholic smile and of course for her look that seems to follow the viewer with her eyes. The Mona Lisa is exhibited in the Louvre Museum.

St John the baptist


St. John the Baptist recognizable thanks to his cross made of rush and his animal skin. This work was commissioned by Pope Leo X.. The painting would be a tribute to the patron saint of Florence. The reason for the enigmatic smile of St. John is not known, but some see it as Da Vinci’s model!

Leonardo Da Vinci and king Francis the first

In 1515, Francois I was victorious at the battle of Marignan, during his stay, he met Leonardo, he was very impressed by his talent and invited him to the Court of France, in the countries of the Loire. Leonardo arrived in Amboise one year later in 1516 and brought back his paintings, notably the Mona Lisa, which he never wanted to part with. Francis I, interested in the work, bought it from him and Leonardo da Vinci gave his painting to the monarch. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived at the Manoir du Cloux (today the Château du Clos Lucé), was handicapped by problems with his right hand and could no longer paint. He died there on May 2nd, 1519. He is buried in the Chapel of Saint Hubert in Amboise.

The tens of thousands of documents, handwritten notes, studies, drawings, were quickly dispersed and only partially recovered over the centuries. Leonardo da Vinci painted only a limited number of works, less than twenty in all (the Louvre has the most). He also left numerous theoretical writings and notebooks of drawings, of inestimable value.

There is, for example, the Codex Atlanticus, which is a collection of drawings and notes and which gathers the main technical studies of Leonardo da Vinci. There are many hydraulic devices for transporting or pumping water.

Did you know: Court records from 1476 show that, along with three other men, he was accused of sodomy on Jacopo Saltarelli, a practice that was illegal in Florence at the time. All were acquitted of the charges, probably thanks to the intervention of Laurent de Medici, but Leonardo had to spend two months in prison during the judicial investigation. Tried for acts considered unnatural at the time, Leonardo da Vinci was exiled from 1476 to 1478.

In summary, Leonardo da Vinci invented several objects and devices that we still use today but in a more improved way!


We hope you enjoyed this post!

If you like Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and would like to learn more about his last few years in France, book our tour Discovering the Loire valley castles in da Vinci’s footsteps!

See you soon and…Be curious

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