Leonardo da Vinci: Unveiling the Genius

Every now and then we encounter humans with incredible abilities. I don’t mean superpowers–no one can fly without special equipment, nor can they turn invisible. These abilities are acquired through study. Mastering an art form, throwing oneself into a field of science, or sailing around the world–these can be done by any human.

They can be done–but not without study and courage.

We have little hope of reaching the expertise of Leonardo da Vinci. He dabbled in everything–art, science, architecture, and more. All of these were his superpowers. They were trades and disciplines that he had a firm grip on because curiosity drove him to tireless study. Though he is best known for having painted the Mona Lisa, you could spend a lifetime learning about his achievements.

How did Leonardo da Vinci stand out as the genius of his time? Since I’m covering La Gioconda, I have decided to limit this blog post to his life as a painter. Maybe later I can explore his other talents.

Self-Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci

Priceless Education

Leonardo da Vinci did not go to school.

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Since he was born to unwed parents, he wasn’t allowed to study in the parish school. This might have been his great advantage: he had the opportunity to teach himself. This allowed him to open doors that his ‘luckier’ peers never thought of.

Da Vinci learned reading, writing and arithmetic at home–three skills that were to be the foundation for his achievements later on. At the age of twenty, he left to become an apprentice at the studio of painter Andrea Verrocchio. He was taught painting, sculpture, and mechanical skills.

16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote a fascinating account from da Vinci’s time as an apprentice. Historians today believe that he embellished the tale, but there is something charming in pondering legend.

Vasari writes that da Vinci collaborated with Verrocchio to paint The Baptism of Christ (1474-1478). According to Vasari, Verrocchio saw the great talent of his own apprentice and was struck with despair. He allegedly threw down his own brush and never painted again.

Baptism of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci and Verrocchio

Enduring Art

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, possessing great talent in many fields that we consider difficult or obsolete today. Since this trilogy focuses on the Mona Lisa, I thought it appropriate to summarize da Vinci’s life and success as a painter.

Only 18 original paintings attributed to him survive. They fall into categories–those universally accepted to be his work, those traditionally accepted, and widely accepted. These categories hinge on existing evidence of his being the painter.

The Annunciation (1472-1476) is widely accepted to have been his first completed painting. The Baptism of Christ, his collaboration with the ill-tempered Verrocchio, is widely accepted as the third.

La Gioconda, or Mona Lisa, is universally accepted as his twenty-second work. He was in his sixties when he took on this commission. What you might not have known, though, is that Mona Lisa is an unfinished painting.

Historical accounts from visitors and acquaintances tell us that da Vinci had a stroke. This caused a paralysis in his right hand which frustrated him while he was painting La Gioconda. How did he manage to paint what can be seen of her now? He was ambidextrous, which must have come in useful, but the paralysis still troubled him enough for the work to be unfinished.

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci

Where To Find His Work

Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings have taken on lives of their own long after the death of the master. Lovers of La Gioconda claim that her eyes appear to be following them. Stories exist of men who fell in love and brought her flowers.

If you want to see his most famous works of art, you’ll have to travel the world. Mona Lisa reigns in a chamber of her own at the Museum of the Louvre in Paris. The famous Last Supper is located in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

His pen-and-ink drawing, Vitruvian Man, is an image that most people have seen. It was taken from one of the many notebooks that he filled during his mature years. It isn’t on display because it is so brittle that photographs would do it severe damage. Vitruvian Man is kept safe in the archive of the Venetian Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Do you want to go on a pilgrimage and see his surviving works? Here is a list of where to locate them.

Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are available for the fanatic to read and bask in his wisdom. Gutenberg offers them for free, but they can also be purchased in book form for more comfortable reading.

There has been a renewed interest in the journals themselves and how he wrote in them. This compelling article makes me wish I knew how to keep smarter diaries, because the article says:

It is estimated that da Vinci produced between 20,000 to 28,000 pages of notes and sketches spanning across 50 different notebooks about work related to whatever topics that interested him – painting, engineering, philosophy, warfare, engineering, physiology, landscape, proportion, perspective, geography, geology, light and shade, inventions and various other topics.

In my lifetime I have filled about 28 notebooks properly–meaning that I finished them cover-to-cover rather than skipping around. However, I did not cover all the topics listed above.

If you want to know more about da Vinci, I can tell you as a diarist that journals are a great place to search. With this useful footnote I will close my attempt to capture Leonardo’s brilliance in a blog post. I hope I did some justice to his life as a painter.


My first post about La Gioconda was an introduction to the mysterious lady and the controversy over who posed as her model. In my next article, I will review and comment on the book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti.

Canvas could not keep La Gioconda from going on an adventure, and I’d like to tell the story. After all, how often do paintings go on vacation?

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