Overview
Religion and Spirituality
Science and Technology
Art, Literature and Music
Daily Life
Key Personalities

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: an architect, musician, anatomist, inventor, engineer, sculptor, geometer, and painter. He has been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" and as a universal genius, a man infinitely curious and infinitely inventive. He is also considered one of the greatest painters that ever lived. In his lifetime, Leonardo was an engineer, artist, anatomist, physiologist and much more. His full birth name was "Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci", meaning "Leonardo, of ser Piero from Vinci". Leonardo is famous for his paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as for influential drawings such as the Vitruvian Man. He designed many inventions that anticipated modern technology, such as the helicopter, tank, use of solar power, the calculator, etc., though few of these designs were constructed or were feasible in his lifetime. In addition, he advanced the study of anatomy, astronomy, and civil engineering. Of his works, only a few paintings survive, together with his notebooks (scattered among various collections) containing drawings, scientific diagrams and notes.

Leonardo was born the illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl, Caterina, in Vinci, Italy. His father took custody of him after his birth, while his mother married someone else and moved to a neighboring town. Growing up in his father's Vinci home, Leonardo had access to scholarly texts owned by family and friends. He was also exposed to Vinci's longstanding painting tradition. At age fifteen, his father apprenticed him to the renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrochio in Florence. Even as an apprentice, Leonardo exhibited great talent, so much so that his master Verrochio allegedly resolved never to paint again after seeing his young apprentice's handiwork. In 1482, Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan in 1482, abandoning his first commission in Florence, "The Adoration of the Magi". He spent seventeen years in Milan, leaving only after Duke Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499. It was during these years that Leonardo hit his stride, reaching new heights of scientific and artistic achievement.

The Duke assigned Leonardo to paint, sculpt, and design elaborate court festivals, as well as to work on designing weapons, buildings and machinery. From 1485 to 1490, Leonardo produced studies on various subjects, including nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics, municipal construction, canals and architecture (designing everything from churches to fortresses). His studies from this period contain designs for advanced weapons, including a tank and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and submarines. Also during this period, Leonardo produced his first anatomical studies. His interests were so broad, however, that Leonardo often left paintings and projects unfinished. Between 1490 and 1495, he began recording his studies in meticulously illustrated notebooks. His work covered four main themes: painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and human anatomy.

After the invasion by the French and Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499, Leonardo was left to search for a new patron. Over the next sixteen years, Leonardo worked and traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers, including Cesare Borgia. He traveled for a year with Borgia's army as a military engineer and met Niccolo Machiavelli, author of "The Prince." Leonardo also designed a bridge to span the "golden horn" in Constantinople during this period and received a commission, with the help of Machiavelli, to paint the Battle of Anghiari. In about 1503, Leonardo reportedly began work on the Mona Lisa. From 1513 to 1516, he worked in Rome, maintaining a workshop and undertaking a variety of projects for the Pope. Following the death of his patron Giuliano de' Medici in March of 1516, he was offered the title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King by Francis I in France. His last and perhaps most generous patron, Francis I provided Leonardo with a generous stipend and manor house near the royal chateau at Amboise. Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Legend has it that King Francis was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

Michelangelo Buonarroti was perhaps the greatest sculptor of the sixteenth century, as well as one of the most prolific painters, architects, and poets of his generation and beyond. He was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Italy. His father, Ludovico Buonarroti, was a minor Florentine official and the local governor of the small towns of Caprese and nearby Chiusi. After his six-month term of office, Ludovico moved the family back to Florence, where they owned a good-size farm in the little village of Settignano overlooking Florence. Here, and in the surrounding hills pock-marked with quarries, Michelangelo grew up and was first exposed to stone carving. Although his father was initially opposed his son's predilection toward the arts (since art was considered a manual craft and a lowly occupation), Ludovico finally, if reluctantly, acquiesced and had his son apprenticed to the most fashionable painter in Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio ran a large and extremely successful workshop (bottega) where Michelangelo learned drawing and painting, in both tempera and fresco. At the age of fifteen, Michelangelo began to spend time in the home and in the gardens of Lorenzo de' Medici, where he studied sculpture under Bertoldo di Giovanni. It was during this time that he completed the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs. The political climate in Florence following the death of Lorenzo de' Medici may have led Michelangelo to leave the city, going first to Bologna and, after a brief return to Florence, to Rome.

In 1496, the twenty-two-year-old artist arrived in Rome for the first time. Thanks to his letters of introduction, Michelangelo presented himself to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the richest and most powerful man in Rome, second only to the pope. At the time of Michelangelo's arrival, the cardinal was completing a great new palace, today known as the Cancelleria. Given that Riario's household consisted of some 250 persons, it is actually not surprising that Michelangelo was given temporary lodging in the cardinal's considerable entourage. In Rome, he carved the "Bacchus" and then the "Pieta", which is in St. Peter's basilica in Rome.

After five years in Rome, Michelangelo returned to Florence where he began work on the David. Called the "Giant" by his fellow Florentines, this statue was completed in 1504. With the twin achievements of the Pieta in Rome and the David in Florence, Michelangelo's reputation was now firmly established; he would never again lack for commissions. He was a creator of marvels and by far the greatest living sculptor; patrons, commissions, and opportunities proliferated. Between 1500 and 1508, Michelangelo sustained an astonishing level of productivity. Altogether in the eight years of this Florentine sojourn, Michelangelo accepted eighteen different commissions for works of varying importance, from a bronze dagger to the grandiose tomb he envisaged for Pope Julius II, from the Piccolomini commission to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II to create a tomb for him which was to contain forty lifesize figures, an endeavor that was never fully realized. In 1508, Michelangelo began work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, a task that would occupy him until 1512. Upon completing the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to the work on Julius' tomb, completing the figure of Moses and leaving unfinished two Slaves. Following Julius' death in 1513, he worked for Pope Leo X, Lorenzo de' Medici's son. At the Medici family's parish church in Florence, San Lorenzo, Michelangelo created tombs for Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici (II) and designed the Laurentian library, an annex to San Lorenzo. In 1534, Michelangelo left Florence for Rome, where he spent the remainder of his life. He returned to the Sistine Chapel where he created the Last Judgment, another fresco, on the end wall. He designed the dome for St. Peter's and the Capitoline Square. He also worked on the Palazzo Farnese. His last paintings were the frescoes of the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564.


Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther was a German theologian, an Augustinian monk, and an ecclesiastical reformer whose teachings inspired the Protestant Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. Luther's call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible led to the formation of new traditions within Christianity and to the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic reaction to these movements. His contributions to Western civilization went beyond the life of the Christian Church. His translations of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage on June 13, 1525, to Katharina von Bora began a movement of clerical marriage within many Christian traditions.

Luther was born to Hans and Margarette Luther on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, and was baptized on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His father owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld. Having risen from the peasantry, his father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach. At the age of seventeen, in 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt. The young student received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree in 1505. According to his father's wishes, he enrolled in the law school of that university. However, his life changed course in the summer of 1505, when a lightning bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help, Saint Anne! I'll become a monk!" His life spared, Luther left his law school and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

From that time forward, Luther fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness. Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from excessive rumination. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508, he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther received his Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies on March 9, 1508, and a Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages), in 1509. On October 19, 1512, Martin Luther received the degree Doctor of Theology and on October 21, 1512, he was "received into the senate of the theological faculty" and called to the position of Doctor in Biblia.

The demanding discipline of earning academic degrees and preparing lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Influenced by Humanism's call ad fontes ("to the sources"), he immersed himself in the study of the Bible and the early Church. Soon terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning for Luther, and he became convinced that the Church had lost sight of several of the central truths of Christianity taught in Scripture, the most important of them being the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther began to teach that salvation is completely a gift of God's grace through Christ received by faith. Later, Luther defined and reintroduced the principle of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that undergirded his theology of grace. Overall, Luther believed that this principle of interpretation was an essential starting point in the study of the Scriptures. Luther saw failure to distinguish Law and Gospel properly as the cause of the obstruction of the Gospel of Jesus in the Church of his day, which, he believed, gave rise to many fundamental theological errors in turn.

Luther's condemnation of indulgences (remissions (either full or partial) of temporal punishment still remaining for sins that were sold by the Catholic church) sparked the Protestant Reformation. He viewed the selling of indulgences as an abuse that could mislead people into relying simply on the indulgences themselves to the neglect of the confession, true repentance, and satisfactions. Beginning in 1516, Luther preached against indulgences and on October 31, 1517, his 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them. The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant. The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed. Within two weeks, they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents easier and more widespread. The dissemination of the 95 Theses also led to the Catholic Church's denunciation of Luther's teachings as heresy, and began a controversy that led to the Protestant Reformation.


Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Born in 1491, Henry VIII was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His reign was overshadowed by his six marriages and numerous romantic indiscretions. In 1509, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother's widow. In 1533, the King married Anne Boleyn, a noblewoman, after he moved to annul his marriage with the Queen, and in time to legitimize their daughter, Elizabeth. After three years of marriage, King Henry took another mistress, Jane Seymour, and condemned the Queen Regent Anne to execution with unfounded charges of witchcraft and adultery. He married Jane Seymour the same month that Anne Boleyn died, who in turn died giving birth to Henry's lone male heir, Edward. Early in 1540, Henry arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves, after viewing Hans Holbein's beautiful portrait of the German princess. Upon meeting her in person, Henry found her homely and the marriage was never consummated. In July 1540, he married the adulterous Catherine Howard, and she was soon after executed for infidelity in 1542. Catherine Parr became Henry's sixth wife in 1543 and remained by his side until his death in 1547.

As for his governance, Henry was known to be energetic and preferred to journey the countryside hunting and reviewing his subjects. Matters of state were left in the hands of his advisors, most notably Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York. During the early part of his reign, the King invaded France, defeated Scottish forces at the Battle of Foldden Field, and wrote a treatise denouncing Martin Luther's Reformist ideals, for which the pope awarded Henry the title "Defender of the Faith." By the 1530s, Henry became increasingly more involved in government, particularly with the rift between the Church of England from Roman Catholicism (which was a by-product of Henry's maneuvering to seek an annulment of his first marriage from the pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn). The break from Rome was accomplished through law, and England moved into an era of "conformity of mind" with the new royal supremacy. By 1536, all ecclesiastical and government officials were required to publicly approve of the break with Rome and take an oath of loyalty. The king moved away from the medieval idea of ruler as chief lawmaker and overseer of civil behavior, to the modern concept of ruler as the ideological icon of the state.