Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1492 at a Tuscan farmhouse in Anchiano, Italy, near the town of Vinci where he spent most of his childhood. He was the son of Ser Piero and a girl called Caterina who worked for him. After Leonardo was born, the father and mother did not remain together. Only recently have details of Leonardo’s birth mother come to light. In 2002, Alessandro Vezzosi, Director of the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Vinci, Italy, told the press they had found substantial proof Leonardo’s mother was a slave girl and not a peasant girl, as previously believed.(1) Vezzosi went on to report that Leonardo’s father was a craftsman who owned a Middle-Eastern female slave named Caterina. And, according to their discovery, a few months after Caterina gave birth to Leonardo, she was married off to one of the workers.
Leonardo lived in Anchiana and in Vinci until he was eight years old. Afterward, he moved to Florence with his father. When Leonardo was 14, he became an apprentice under the famed sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. In that period, Verrocchio was the leading Florentine artist. By the time Leonardo was between 21 and 23 years old, he had become a very skilled painter. Verrocchio permitted Leonardo to help with an important painting, The Baptism of Christ (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Leonardo painted the background and the kneeling angel. It is said that when Verrocchio saw that Leonardo could paint better than anyone he had ever seen, including himself, he gave up painting for good. Verrocchio decided he would concentrate on sculpture.
Leonardo da Vinci was said to have a great love for animals, and his journals further illustrates this. He was a vegetarian, at least in the latter part of his life (we don’t have definite proof that he was a strict vegetarian in his early life). He wrote, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” He also remarked, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
In the 1480s, Leonardo painted Lady With The Ermine. The Lady in the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, the 17-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. She carries an ermine for three reasons. First, for the Duke of Milan, having been appointed to the Order of the Ermine by Ferdinand I of Naples, the ermine was the symbol of heraldry on his coat of arms. Second, the ermine was considered to be a symbol of virtue and purity. And finally, it was a play on Cecilia Gallerani’s name since the Greek name for ermine is “galee”.
In Leonardo’s notebooks, he wrote that the ermine eats every other day. Most likely the ermine, an animal related to the sable and weasel, stayed in the studio while the painting was being completed. In the Renaissance period, soft-hair paint brushes were made of ermine tail tips. Brushes were also made from squirrel fur and fastened into goose or hen feathers – another reason the ermine might have been at home in the studio.
Leonardo da Vinci included cats in many of his sketches. On one sheet of animal sketches in his notebook, the artist portrayed more than twenty cats, and one dragon. He drew cats in different poses, alone, with other cats, and being cuddled and held. His sketches are lively and reveal the solemn affection he had for felines.
Throughout the mid to late 1470s, Leonardo worked on a series of different studies relating to the theme of the Madonna and the Christ Child, holding a cat. It was originally thought that no paintings existed beyond his initial studies for these paintings. Recently; however, Madonna with the Cat, which is in the collection of industrialist Carlo Noya in Savona, Italy, was discovered to be a painting by none other than Leonardo.(2) The painting is based on a legend about a cat being born at the same moment as the baby Jesus.
Other sketches for paintings that feature animals and are based on a legend or myth is that of Leda and the Swan. Although no actual paintings exist, there are countless drawings. The story is that Leda was seduced by the God Zeus in the form of a swan and bore two eggs, which resulted in the creation of Helen of Troy with Clytemnestra, and Castor with Pollux.
Although there are countless studies and sketches made by Leonardo, only 13 or 14 actual paintings exist today. One of these is Madonna and Child with St. Anne, painted from 1508 to 1510. The figures depicted all relate to one another, and the baby Jesus is shown tightly holding a little lamb. Da Vinci painted the lamb with sensitivity and detail. The lamb is symbolic of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death for mankind. Leonardo’s animal subjects are based on reality and are filled with vitality.