Leonardo got his start as an artist around 1469, when his father apprenticed him to the fabled workshop of Verocchio. Verocchio's specialty was perspective, which artists had only recently begun to get the hang of, and Leonardo quickly mastered its challenges. In fact, Leonardo quickly surpassed Verocchio, and by the time he was in his early twenties he was downright famous.

Renaissance Italy was centuries away from our culture of photographs and cinema, but Leonardo nevertheless sought a universal language in painting. With perspective and other realistic elements, Leonardo tried to create faithful renditions of life. In a culture previously dominated by highly figurative and downright strange religious paintings, Leonardo's desire to paint things realistically was bold and fresh. This call to objectivity became the standard for painters who followed in the 16th century.

No slouch when it came to the techniques of the day, Leonardo went beyond his teaching by making a scientific study of light and shadow in nature. It dawned on him that objects were not comprised of outlines, but were actually three-dimensional bodies defined by light and shadow. Known as chiaroscuro, this technique gave his paintings the soft, lifelike quality that made older paintings look cartoony and flat. He also saw that an object's detail and color changed as it receded in the distance. This technique, called sfumato, was originally developed by Flemish and Venetian painters, but of course Super-Genius Leonardo transformed it into a powerful tool for creating atmosphere and depth.

Ever the perfectionist, Leonardo turned to science in the quest to improve his artwork. His study of nature and anatomy emerged in his stunningly realistic paintings, and his dissections of the human body paved the way for remarkably accurate figures. He was the first artist to study the physical proportions of men, women and children and to use these studies to determine the "ideal" human figure. Unlike many of his contemporaries -- Michelangelo for example -- he didn't get carried away and paint ludicrously muscular bodies, which he referred to as "bags of nuts."

All in all, Leonardo believed that the artist must know not just the rules of perspective, but all the laws of nature. The eye, he believed, was the perfect instrument for learning these laws, and the artist the perfect person to illustrate them.

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Mona Lisa da Vinci
People just can't stop talking about that Mona Lisa. Why is she smiling? What's her story? Some people think her mysterious grin meant she was secretly pregnant, but that would be unlikely in conjunction with another theory: that Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo! X-rays of the painting and close comparison with drawings of Leonardo suggest that this may actually be true.
The Last Supper
Vanishing Supper

The Last Supper is one of Leonardo's best-known and worst-preserved pieces. Doomed from the start by Leonardo's experimental technique, the mural began to deteriorate even before the artist's death. Within 50 years it was almost indecipherable, and it was repainted twice during the 18th century. Its suffering continued through the 19th century, first at the hands of Napoleon's soldiers, then from the monks who actually cut a door through the bottom. After miraculously surviving the Allied bombs of World War II, the beleaguered mural's luck began to change. Restorers discovered that much of the original work remained, and it is once again a joy to behold.
 

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