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The man behind that intriguing smile

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has one of the highest recall values.

LEONARDO DA VINCI has a very high recall value and this is not because of Dan Brown. If one ever needed a personification of the Renaissance man, it was Da Vinci, excelling as he did in various fields such as astronomy, architecture, engineering, geometry, anatomy, botany, zoology, geology, optics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, palaeontology and, of course, art.

Early genius

Born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci in Italy, Leonardo was apprenticed to the famous Andrea Del Verrochio when he was 15. His genius was already showing through and legend has it that when Verrochio saw the angel Leonardo had painted on his Baptism of Christ, he swore never to paint again.

Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan in 1482 and was busy producing a wide variety of paintings and sculptors as well as designing buildings, machinery and weapons. Leonardo's wide variety of interests resulted in his completing only six paintings in 17 years, including the famous The Last Supper and The Virgin on the Rocks.

Between 1490 and 1495, he started maintaining notebooks where he scrupulously recorded his observations. These profusely illustrated texts are snapped up by collectors worldwide, with Bill Gates reportedly paying $30 million for Codex Leicester.

From 1499, Leonardo travelled all over Italy working for different employers, including the notorious Caesar Borgia and the Pope. In 1516, he was made the Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King by Francis I of France. He remained in the king's service till his death on May 2, 1519.

A strict vegetarian, Leonardo loved animals and often bought birds from the market to set them free. A left-hander, he often wrote in reverse and his writings can be only decoded by reading them in a mirror.

Leonardo studied nature to arrive at universal truths. His pictorial representation of anatomy heralded the birth of the systematic descriptive method of natural sciences. His fascination for levers and gears saw him make blueprints for bicycles, telescopes, automobiles and helicopters. A committed pacifist (he called war a "beastly madness"), Leonardo nevertheless designed a veritable armoury including missiles, grenades, machine guns and a tank.

Nearly ruined

The Last Supper is one of Leonardo's paintings that suffered because of his experimentation. He used a new kind of paint, and the painting began to deteriorate in the artist's lifetime. It took an army of restorers to repair it.

Leonardo was the first to study the physical proportions of his subjects. He used chiaroscuro, the play of light and shade, to create a three-dimensional perspective to great effect. He believed an artist needed to know the rules of perspective as well as the rules of nature. He felt the eye was the perfect instrument for learning these laws and the artist the perfect person to illustrate them. As Sigmund Freud said: "Leonardo da Vinci was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep."


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