Mona Lisa Meets War Machines: Details on the Driven Life and Lesser-Known Talents of Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa Meets War Machines: Details on the Driven Life and Lesser-Known Talents of Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, known more commonly as Leonardo da Vinci, is arguably one of the most well-known figures of the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo’s primary claim to fame is in the field of painting, and he is regarded by many as one of the greatest painters of all time. Two of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper . Still, Leonardo’s genius was not restricted to the realm of painting, as he was interested in  numerous other areas of knowledge, including architecture, mathematics, engineering, music, botany, and geology.

Lack of Formal Education but a Good Apprenticeship

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci, which is located in the Republic of Florence. Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a notary by the name of Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman by the name of Caterina. Leonardo lived with his mother until he was five years old, after which he moved to his father’s house. He did not receive much of a formal education apart from basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills. His uncle had a hand in rearing him during his childhood years, and his uncle’s love for nature had an influence on the young Leonardo.

Despite the lack of a formal education, Leonardo’s potential as an artist was recognized by his family. Thus, at the age of 14 or 15, Leonardo was sent to apprentice under the renowned Florentine sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo would spend the next six years in Verrocchio’s workshop, honing his technical skills, which, in addition to painting, included metal-working, sculpting, and carpentry.

The Baptism of Christ. (1475) By Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio. Uffizi Gallery.

The Baptism of Christ. (1475) By Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio. Uffizi Gallery. ( Public Domain )

An Independent Master

In 1472, at the age of 20, Leonardo became a member of the Guild of St. Luke. For the following six years, Leonardo continued to collaborate with Verrocchio, becoming an independent master only in 1478. It has been claimed, based on Florentine court records that in 1476, Leonardo (and three other young men) was charged with sodomy, though he was later acquitted. Based on this episode of Leonardo’s life, it has been argued by some that Leonardo was gay.

As an independent master, Leonardo’s first commissioned work was to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. In the same year, i.e. 1478, Leonardo received his second commission, The Adoration of the Magi , which was for the monks of San Donato a Scopeto. Neither work was completed, as Leonardo left for Milan around 1483 to work for the ruling Sforza family.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Leonardo da Vinci. Uffizi Gallery.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Leonardo da Vinci. Uffizi Gallery. ( Public Domain )

Leonardo would work in Milan until 1499, when the city was invaded by the French, and the Sforzas were forced to flee. During this period, Leonardo continued to work as an artist, and one of his most famous works, The Last Supper , which is found in Milan’s Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is generally accepted to have been completed in the 1490s.

The Last Supper, (1495-1498). By Leonardo da vinci, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

The Last Supper, (1495-1498). By Leonardo da vinci, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. ( Public Domain )

War Machines, Mechanics, and Moving

Interestingly, whilst Leonardo was seeking the patronage of the Sforza family, he did not highlight his credentials as an artist, but emphasized his skills as a military engineer, which probably got him the job.

This skill can be seen in the sketches of war machines made by Leonardo throughout his life. Examples of such machines include an armored car - which is often dubbed as the precursor to the modern tank, a giant crossbow, and a type of machine gun.

Design for an enormous crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci.

Design for an enormous crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci. ( Public Domain )

Despite these interests, it has been said that Leonardo was a pacifist. This is supported by the observation that many of his designs contained simple, though easily correctible, flaws. However, the reason behind the flaws may have actually been because Leonardo did not want anyone else stealing his ideas. A third argument suggests that Leonardo simply did not understand the principals involved in making his war machines work.


In a long letter to his patron (almost wholly filled with more important information), Corsali made an off-hand reference to Leonardo while describing followers of Hinduism:

"Alcuni gentili chiamati Guzzarati non si cibano dicosa alcuna che tenga sangue, ne fra essi loro consentono che si noccia adalcuna cosa animata, come it nostro Leonardo da Vinci."

In English:

"Certain infidels called Guzzarati are so gentle that they do not feed on anything which has blood, nor will they allow anyone to hurt any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci."

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