LEONARDO DA VINCI
 ON the sunny slopes of Monte Albano, between
Florence and Pisa, the little town of Vinci lay high
among the rocks that crowned the steep hillside. It
was but a little town. Only a few houses crowded
together round an old castle in the midst, and it
looked from a distance like a swallow's nest clinging
to the bare steep rocks.
Here in the year 1452 Leonardo, son of Ser Piero
da Vinci, was born. It was in the age when people
told fortunes by the stars, and when a baby was
born they would eagerly look up and decide whether
it was a lucky or unlucky star which shone upon
the child. Surely if it had been possible in this way
to tell what fortune awaited the little Leonardo, a
strange new star must have shone that night,
brighter than the others and unlike the rest in the
dazzling light of its strength and beauty.
Leonardo was always a strange child. Even his
beauty was not like that of other children. He had
the most wonderful waving hair, falling in regular
ripples, like the waters of a fountain, the colour of
bright gold, and soft as spun silk. His eyes were
blue and clear, with a mysterious light in them, not
the warm light of a sunny sky, but rather the blue
that glints in the iceberg. They were merry eyes
 too, when he laughed, but underneath was always
that strange cold look. There was a charm about
his smile which no one could resist, and he was a
favourite with all. Yet people shook their heads
sometimes as they looked at him, and they talked in
whispers of the old witch who had lent her goat to
nourish the little Leonardo when he was a baby.
The woman was a dealer in black magic, and who
knew but that the child might be a changeling?
It was the old grandmother, Mona Lena, who
brought Leonardo up and spoilt him not a little.
His father, Ser Piero, was a lawyer, and spent most
of his time in Florence, but when he returned to the
old castle of Vinci, he began to give Leonardo
lessons and tried to find out what the boy was fit for.
But Leonardo hated those lessons and would not
learn, so when he was seven years old he was sent to
This did not answer any better. The rough play
of the boys was not to his liking. When he saw
them drag the wings off butterflies, or torture any
animal that fell into their hands, his face grew white
with pain, and he would take no share in their
games. The Latin grammar, too, was a terrible task,
while the many things he longed to know no one
So it happened that many a time, instead of going
to school, he would slip away and escape up into the
hills, as happy as a little wild goat. Here was all
the sweet fresh air of heaven, instead of the stuffy
schoolroom. Here were no cruel, clumsy boys, but
all the wild creatures that he loved. Here he could
 learn the real things his heart was hungry to know,
not merely words which meant nothing and led to
For hours he would lie perfectly still with his
heels in the air and his chin resting in his hands, as
he watched a spider weaving its web, breathless with
interest to see how the delicate threads were turned
in and out. The gaily painted butterflies, the fat
buzzing bees, the little sharp-tongued green lizards,
he loved to watch them all, but above everything he
loved the birds. Oh, if only he too had wings to
dart like the swallows, and swoop and sail and dart
again! What was the secret power in their wings?
Surely by watching he might learn it. Sometimes
it seemed as if his heart would burst with the longing
to learn that secret. It was always the hidden
reason of things that he desired to know. Much as
he loved the flowers he must pull their petals of, one
by one, to see how each was joined, to wonder at the
dusty pollen, and touch the honey-covered stamens.
Then when the sun began to sink he would turn
sadly homewards, very hungry, with torn clothes and
tired feet, but with a store of sunshine in his heart.
His grandmother shook her head when Leonardo
appeared after one of his days of wandering.
'I know thou shouldst be whipped for playing
truant,' she said; 'and I should also punish thee for
tearing thy clothes.'
'Ah! but thou wilt not whip me,' answered
Leonardo, smiling at her with his curious quiet smile,
for he had full confidence in her love.
'Well, I love to see thee happy, and I will not
 punish thee this time,' said his grandmother; 'but
if these tales reach thy father's ears, he will not be
so tender as I am towards thee.'
And, sure enough, the very next time that a
complaint was made from the school, his father happened
to be at home, and then the storm burst.
'Next time I will flog thee,' said Ser Piero sternly,
with rising anger at the careless air of the boy.
'Meanwhile we will see what a little imprisonment
will do towards making thee a better child.'
Then he took the boy by the shoulders and led
him to a little dark cupboard under the stairs, and
there shut him up for three whole days.
There was no kicking or beating at the locked
door. Leonardo sat quietly there in the dark, thinking
his own thoughts, and wondering why there seemed
so little justice in the world. But soon even that
wonder passed away, and as usual when he was alone
he began to dream dreams of the time when he
should have learned the swallows' secrets and should
have wings like theirs.
But if there were complaints about Leonardo's
dislike of the boys and the Latin grammar, there
would be none about the lessons he chose to learn.
Indeed, some of the masters began to dread the boy's
eager questions, which were sometimes more than
they could answer. Scarcely had he begun the
study of arithmetic than he made such rapid
progress, and wanted to puzzle out so many problems,
that the masters were amazed. His mind seemed
always eagerly asking for more light, and was never
 But it was out on the hillside that he spent his
happiest hours. He loved every crawling, creeping,
or flying thing, however ugly. Curious beasts which
might have frightened another child were to him
charming and interesting. There as he listened to
the carolling of the birds and bent his head to catch
the murmured song of the mountain-streams, the
love of music began to steal into his heart.
He did not rest then until he managed to get a
lute and learned how to play upon it. And when he
had mastered the notes and learned the rules of
music, he began to play airs which no one had ever
heard before, and to sing such strange sweet songs
that the golden notes flowed out as fresh and clear
as the song of a lark in the early morning of spring.
'The child is a changeling,' said some, as they
saw Leonardo tenderly lift a crushed lizard in his
hand, or watched him play with a spotted snake or
great hairy spider.
'A changeling perhaps,' said others, 'but one that
hath the voice of an angel.' For every one stopped
to listen when the boy's voice was heard singing
through the streets of the little town.
He was a puzzle to every one, and yet a delight
to all, even when they understood him least.
So time went on, and when Leonardo was thirteen
his father took him away to Florence that he might
begin to be trained for some special work. But
what work? Ah! that was the rub. The boy
could do so many things well that it was difficult to
fix on one.
At that time there was living in Florence an old
 man who knew a great deal about the stars, and who
made wonderful calculations about them. He was
a famous astronomer, but he cared not at all for
honour or fame, but lived a simple quiet life by
himself and would not mix with the gay world.
Few visitors ever came to see him, for it was known
that he would receive no one, and so it was a great
surprise to old Toscanelli when one night a gentle
knock sounded at his door, and a boy walked quietly
in and stood before him.
Hastily the old man looked up, and his first
thought was to ask the child how he dared enter
without leave, and then ask him to be gone, but as
he looked at the fair face he felt the charm of the
curious smile, and the light in the blue eyes, and
instead he laid his hand upon the boy's golden head
and said: 'What dost thou seek, my son?'
'I would learn all that thou canst teach me,' said
Leonardo, for it was he.
The old man smiled.
'Behold the boundless self-confidence of youth!'
But as they talked together, and the boy asked his
many eager questions, a great wonder awoke in the
astronomer's mind, and his eyes shone with interest.
This child-mind held depths of understanding such
as he had never met with among his learned friends.
Day after day the old man and the boy bent eagerly
together over their problems, and when night fell
Toscanelli would take the child up with him to his
lonely tower above Florence, and teach him to know
the stars and to understand many things.
 'This is all very well,' said Ser Piero, 'but the boy
must do more than mere star-gazing. He must earn
a living for himself, and methinks we might make a
painter of him.'
That very day, therefore, he gathered together
some of Leonardo's drawings which lay carelessly
scattered about, and took them to the studio of
Verocchio the painter, who lived close by the Ponte
'Dost thou think thou canst make aught of the
boy?' he asked, spreading out the drawings before
The painter's quick eyes examined the work with
'Send him to me at once,' he said. 'This is
indeed marvellous talent.'
So Leonardo entered the studio as a pupil, and
learned all that could be taught him with the same
quickness with which he learned anything that he
cared to know.
Every one who saw his work declared that he
would be the wonder of the age, but Verocchio
shook his head.
'He is too wonderful,' he said. 'He aims at too
great perfection. He wants to know everything
and do everything, and life is too short for that.
He finishes nothing, because he is ever starting to
do something else.'
Verocchio's words were true; the boy seldom
worked long at one thing. His hands were never
idle, and often, instead of painting, he would carve
out tiny windmills and curious toys which worked
 with pulleys and ropes, or made exquisite little clay
models of horses and all the other animals that he
loved. But he never forgot the longing that had
filled his heart when he was a child—the desire to
learn the secret of flying.
For days he would sit idle and think of nothing
but soaring wings, then he would rouse himself and
begin to make some strange machine which he
thought might hold the secret that he sought.
'A waste of time,' growled Verocchio. 'See here,
thou wouldst be better employed if thou shouldst
set to work and help me finish this picture of the
Baptism for the good monks of Vallambrosa. Let
me see how thou canst paint in the kneeling figure
of the angel at the side.'
For a while the boy stood motionless before the
picture as if he was looking at something far away.
Then he seized the brushes with his left hand and
began to paint with quick certain sweep. He
never stopped to think, but worked as if the angel
were already there, and he were but brushing away
the veil that hid it from the light.
Then, when it was done, the master came and
looked silently on. For a moment a quick stab of
jealousy ran through his heart. Year after year
had he worked and striven to reach his ideal. Long
days of toil and weary nights had he spent, winning
each step upwards by sheer hard work. And here
was this boy without an effort able to rise far above
him. All the knowledge which the master had
groped after, had been grasped at once by the
wonderful mind of the pupil. But the envious
 feeling passed quickly away, and Verocchio laid his
hand upon Leonardo's shoulder.
'I have found my master,' he said quietly, 'and
I will paint no more.'
Leonardo scarcely seemed to hear; he was thinking
of something else now, and he seldom noticed
if people praised or blamed him. His thoughts had
fixed themselves upon something he had seen that
morning which had troubled him. On the way to
the studio he had passed a tiny shop in a narrow
street where a seller of birds was busy hanging his
cages up on the nails fastened to the outside wall.
The thought of those poor little prisoners beating
their wings against the cruel bars and breaking their
hearts with longing for their wild free life, had
haunted him all day, and now he could bear it no
longer. He seized his cap and hurried off, all
forgetful of his kneeling angel and the master's
He reached the little shop and called to the man
'How much wilt thou take for thy birds?' he
cried, and pointed to the little wooden cages that
hung against the wall.
'Plague on them,' answered the man, 'they will
often die before I can make a sale by them. Thou
canst have them all for one silver piece.'
In a moment Leonardo had paid the money and
had turned towards the row of little cages. One
by one he opened the doors and set the prisoners
free, and those that were too frightened or timid to
fly away, he gently drew out with his hand, and sent
 them gaily whirling up above his head into the blue
The man looked with blank astonishment at the
empty cages, and wondered if the handsome young
man was mad. But Leonardo paid no heed to him,
but stood gazing up until every one of the birds
'Happy things,' he said, with a sigh. 'Will you
ever teach me the secret of your wings, I wonder?'
It was with great pleasure that Ser Piero heard of
his son's success at Verocchio's studio, and he began
to have hopes that the boy would make a name for
himself after all. It happened just then that he was
on a visit to his castle at Vinci, and one morning a
peasant who lived on the estate came to ask a great
favour of him.
He had bought a rough wooden shield which he
was very anxious should have a design painted on
it in Florence, and he begged Ser Piero to see that
it was done. The peasant was a faithful servant,
and very useful in supplying the castle with fish and
game, so Ser Piero was pleased to grant him his
'Leonardo shall try his hand upon it. It is time
he became useful to me,' said Ser Piero to himself.
So on his return to Florence he took the shield to
It was a rough, badly-shaped shield, so Leonardo
held it to the fire and began to straighten it. For
though his hands looked delicate and beautifully
formed, they were as strong as steel, and he could
bend bars of iron without an effort. Then he sent
 the shield to a turner to be smoothed and rounded,
and when it was ready he sat down to think what
he should paint upon it, for he loved to draw strange
'I will make it as terrifying as the head of
Medusa,' he said at last, highly delighted with the
plan that had come into his head.
Then he went out and collected together all the
strangest animals he could find—lizards, hedgehogs,
newts, snakes, dragon-flies, locusts, bats, and glow-
worms. These he took into his own room, which
no one was allowed to enter, and began to paint from
them a curious monster, partly a lizard and partly
a bat, with something of each of the other animals
added to it.
When it was ready Leonardo hung the shield in
a good light against a dark curtain, so that the
painted monster stood out in brilliant contrast, and
looked as if its twisted curling limbs were full of life.
DRAWING BY LEONARDO DA VINCI
A knock sounded at the door, and Ser Piero's
voice was heard outside asking if the shield was
'Come in,' cried Leonardo, and Ser Piero
He cast one look at the monster hanging there
and then uttered a cry and turned to flee, but
Leonardo caught hold of his cloak and laughingly
told him to look closer.
'If I have really succeeded in frightening thee,'
he said, 'I have indeed done all I could desire.'
His father could scarcely believe that it was
nothing but a painting, and he was so proud of the
 work that he would not part with it, but gave the
peasant of Vinci another shield instead.
Leonardo then began a drawing for a curtain
which was to be woven in silk and gold and given
as a present from the Florentines to the King of
Portugal, and he also began a large picture of the
Adoration of the Shepherds which was never
The young painter grew restless after a while, and
felt the life of the studio narrow and cramped.
He longed to leave Florence and find work in some
He was not a favourite at the court of Lorenzo
the Magnificent as Filippino Lippi and Botticelli
were. Lorenzo liked those who would flatter him
and do as they were bid, while Leonardo took his
own way in everything and never said what he did
But it happened that just then Lorenzo wished
to send a present to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of
Milan, and the gift he chose was a marvellous
musical instrument which Leonardo had just
It was a silver lute, made in the form of a horse's
head, the most curious and beautiful thing ever seen.
Lorenzo was charmed with it.
'Thou shalt take it thyself, as my messenger,' he
said to Leonardo. 'I doubt if another can be found
who can play upon it as thou dost.'
So Leonardo set out for Milan, and was glad to
shake himself free from the narrow life of the
 Before starting, however, he had written a letter
to the Duke setting down in simple order all the
things he could do, and telling of what use he could
be in times of war and in days of peace.
There seemed nothing that he could not do. He
could make bridges, blow up castles, dig canals,
invent a new kind of cannon, build warships, and
make underground passages. In days of peace he
could design and build houses, make beautiful
statues and paint pictures 'as well as any man, be
he who he may.'
The letter was written in curious writing from
right to left like Hebrew or Arabic. This was how
Leonardo always wrote, using his left hand, so that
it could only be read by holding the writing up to
The Duke was half amazed and half amused when
the letter reached him.
'Either these are the words of a fool, or of a man
of genius,' said the Duke. And when he had once
seen and spoken to Leonardo he saw at once which
of the two he deserved to be called.
Every one at the court was charmed with the
artist's beautiful face and graceful manners. His
music alone, as he swept the strings of the silver
lute and sang to it his own songs, would have
brought him fame, but the Duke quickly saw that
this was no mere minstrel.
It was soon arranged therefore that Leonardo
should take up his abode at the court of Milan
and receive a yearly pension from the Duke.
Sometimes the pension was paid, and sometimes
 it was forgotten, but Leonardo never troubled about
money matters. Somehow or other he must have
all that he wanted, and everything must be fair
and dainty. His clothes were always rich and
costly, but never bright-coloured or gaudy. There
was no plume or jewelled brooch in his black velvet
beretto or cap, and the only touch of colour was
his golden hair, and the mantle of dark red cloth
which he wore in the fashion of the Florentines,
thrown across his shoulder. Above all, he must
always have horses in his stables, for he loved them
more than human beings.
Many were the plans and projects which the
Duke entrusted to Leonardo's care, but of all that
he did, two great works stand out as greater than
all the rest. One was the painting of the Last
Supper on the walls of the refectory of Santa Maria
delle Grazie, and the other the making of a model
of a great equestrian statue, a bronze horse with
the figure of the Duke upon its back.
'Year after year Leonardo worked at that wonderful
fresco of the Last Supper. Sometimes for weeks
or months he never touched it, but he always
returned to it again. Then for days he would
work from morning till night, scarcely taking time
to eat, and able to think of nothing else, until
suddenly he would put down his brushes and stand
silently for a long, long time before the picture.
It seemed as if he was wasting the precious hours
doing nothing, but in truth he worked more
diligently with his brain when his hands were idle.
Often too when he worked at the model for the
 great bronze horse, he would suddenly stop, and
walk quickly through the streets until he came to
the refectory, and there, catching up his brushes,
he would paint in one or perhaps two strokes, and
then return to his modelling.
Besides all this Leonardo was busy with other
plans for the Duke's amusement, and no court fete
was counted successful without his help. Nothing
seemed too difficult for him to contrive, and what
he did was always new and strange and wonderful.
Once when the King of France came as a guest
to Milan, Leonardo prepared a curious model of a
lion, which by some inside machinery was able to
walk forward several steps to meet the King, and
then open wide its huge jaws and display inside a
bed of sweet-scented lilies, the emblem of France,
to do honour to her King. But while working at
other things Leonardo never forgot his longing
to learn the secret art of flying. Every now and
then a new idea would come into his head, and he
would lay aside all other work until he had made
the new machine which might perhaps act as the
wings of a bird. Each fresh disappointment only
made him more keen to try again.
'I know we shall some day have wings,' he said
to his pupils, who sometimes wondered at the
strange work of the master's hands. 'It is only a
question of knowing how to make them. I
remember once when I was a baby lying in my
cradle, I fancied a bird flew to me, opened my lips
and rubbed its feathers over them. So it seems to
be my fate all my life to talk of wings.'
 Very slowly the great fresco of the Last Supper
grew under the master's hand until it was nearly
finished. The statue, too, was almost completed,
and then evil days fell upon Milan. The Duke was
obliged to flee before the French soldiers, who
forced their way into the town and took possession
of it. Before any one could prevent it, the soldiers
began to shoot their arrows at the great statue,
which they used as a target, and in a few hours the
work of sixteen years was utterly destroyed. It is
sadder still to tell the fate of Leonardo's fresco, the
greatest picture perhaps that ever was painted.
Dampness lurked in the wall and began to dim and
blur the colours. The careless monks cut a door
through the very centre of the picture, and, later on,
when Napoleon's soldiers entered Milan, they used
the refectory as a stable, and amused themselves by
throwing stones at what remained of it. But though
little of it is left now to be seen, there is still enough
to make us stand in awe and reverence before the
genius of the great master.
Not far from Milan there lived a friend of
Leonardo's, whom the master loved to visit. This
Girolamo Melzi had a son called Francesco, a little
motherless boy, who adored the great painter with
all his heart.
Together Leonardo and the child used to wander
out to search for curious animals and rare flowers,
and as they watched the spiders weave their webs
and pulled the flowers to pieces to find out their
secrets, the boy listened with wide wondering eyes
to all the tales which the painter told him. And
 at night Leonardo wrapped the little one close
inside his warm cloak and carried him out to see
the stars—those same stars which old Toscanelli had
taught him to love long ago in Florence. Then
when the day of parting came the child clung
round the master's neck and would not let him go.
'Take me with thee,' he cried, 'do not leave me
behind all alone.'
'I cannot take thee now, little one,' said
Leonardo gently. 'Thou art still too small, but later
on thou shalt come to me and be my pupil. This I
It was but a weary wandering life that awaited
Leonardo after he was forced to leave his home
in Milan. It seemed as if it was his fate to begin
many things but to finish nothing. For a while
he lived in Rome, but he did little real work there.
For several years he lived in Florence and began
to paint a huge battle-picture. There too he painted
the famous portrait of Mona Lisa, which is now in
Paris. Of all portraits that have ever been painted
this is counted the most wonderful and perfect
piece of work, although Leonardo himself called it
By this time the master had fallen on evil days.
All his pupils were gone, and his friends seemed to
have forgotten him. He was sitting before the
fire one stormy night, lonely and sad, when the
door opened and a tall handsome lad came in.
'Master!' he cried, and kneeling down he kissed
the old man's hands. 'Dost thou not know me?
I am thy little Francesco, come to claim thy
 promise that I should one day be thy servant and
Leonardo laid his hand upon the boy's fair head
and looked into his face.
'I am growing old,' he said, 'and I can no longer
do for thee what I might once have done. I am
but a poor wanderer now. Dost thou indeed wish
to cast in thy lot with mine?'
'I care only to be near thee,' said the boy. 'I
will go with thee to the ends of the earth.'
So when, soon after, Leonardo received an
invitation from the new King of France, he took the
boy with him, and together they made their home
in the little chateau of Claux near the town of
The master's hair was silvered now, and his long
beard was as white as snow. His keen blue eyes
looked weary and tired of life, and care had drawn
many deep lines on his beautiful face. Sad thoughts
were always his company. The one word 'failure'
seemed to be written across his life. What had
he done? He had begun many things and had
finished but few. His great fresco was even now
fading away and becoming dim and blurred. His
model for the marvellous horse was destroyed. A
few pictures remained, but these had never quite
reached his ideal. The crowd who had once hailed
him as the greatest of all artists, could now only
talk of Michelangelo and the young Raphael.
Michelangelo himself had once scornfully told him
he was a failure and could finish nothing.
He was glad to leave Italy and all its memories
 behind, and he hoped to begin work again in his
quiet little French home. But Death was drawing
near, and before many years had passed he grew too
weak to hold a brush or pencil.
It was in the springtime of the year that the
end came. Francesco had opened the window and
gently lifted the master in his strong young arms,
that he might look once more on the outside world
which he loved so dearly. The trees were putting
on their dainty dress of tender green, white clouds
swept across the blue sky, and April sunshine
flooded the room.
As he looked out, the master's tired eyes woke
'Look!' he cried, 'the swallows have come
back! Oh that they would lend me their wings
that I might fly away and be at rest!'
The swallows darted and circled about in the
clear spring air, busy with their building plans, but
Francesco thought he heard the rustle of other
wings, as the master's soul, freed from the tired
body, was at last borne upwards higher than any
earthly wings could soar.