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Da Vinci was one of the great creative minds of the Italian Renaissance, hugely influential as an artist and sculptor but also immensely talented as an engineer, scientist and inventor.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on 15 April 1452 near the Tuscan town of Vinci, the illegitimate son of a local lawyer. He was apprenticed to the sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence and in 1478 became an independent master. In about 1483, he moved to Milan to work for the ruling Sforza family as an engineer, sculptor, painter and architect. From 1495 to 1497 he produced a mural of ‘The Last Supper’ in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
Da Vinci was in Milan until the city was invaded by the French in 1499 and the Sforza family forced to flee. He may have visited Venice before returning to Florence. During his time in Florence, he painted several portraits, but the only one that survives is the famous ‘Mona Lisa’ (1503-1506).
In 1506, da Vinci returned to Milan, remaining there until 1513. This was followed by three years based in Rome. In 1517, at the invitation of the French king Francis I, Leonardo moved to the Château of Cloux, near Amboise in France, where he died on 2 May 1519.
The fame of Da Vinci’s surviving paintings has meant that he has been regarded primarily as an artist, but the thousands of surviving pages of his notebooks reveal the most eclectic and brilliant of minds. He wrote and drew on subjects including geology, anatomy (which he studied in order to paint the human form more accurately), flight, gravity and optics, often flitting from subject to subject on a single page, and writing in left-handed mirror script. He ‘invented’ the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute some 500 years ahead of their time.
If all this work had been published in an intelligible form, da Vinci’s place as a pioneering scientist would have been beyond dispute. Yet his true genius was not as a scientist or an artist, but as a combination of the two: an ‘artist-engineer’. His painting was scientific, based on a deep understanding of the workings of the human body and the physics of light and shade. His science was expressed through art, and his drawings and diagrams show what he meant, and how he understood the world to work.