Leonardo da Vinci for Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities (For Kids series)

Leonardo da Vinci for Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities (For Kids series)

by Janis Herbert

ISBN: 9781556522987

Publisher Chicago Review Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z

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Sample Chapter


A Boy in Vinci

The baby's mother rushed out to the yard, waving her arms. A hawk was perched on her child's cradle. "Shoo!" she cried. The bird lifted its wings and flew off. For a moment she thought it would grasp the baby in its claws to carry him away over the hills — but the child was safe. When she reached down to pick him up, he was following the hawk's flight with his eyes and smiling.

The child, Leonardo, was born on April 15, 1452, in a mountainous region of Italy called Tuscany, near the small village of Vinci. His mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman, beautiful and poor. His father, Ser Piero, was an ambitious young man from a wealthy family, who was just beginning his career as a notary. Leonardo's parents did not marry each other. As a baby, Leonardo stayed with his mother. When he was almost two years old he was taken from her home and raised on his father's estate.

Ser Piero was often away on business, traveling to neighboring towns. Eventually he met and married a young, wealthy woman, Albiera di Giovanni Amadori, and they settled in her home in the city of Florence. It was decided that Leonardo would remain in Vinci, and he was raised by his grandparents and his uncle Francesco.

Uncle Francesco was only sixteen years older than Leonardo. Though he was young, he ran the family estate. He supervised the work in the fields, where they raised olives, grapes, and wheat. Leonardo adored his uncle and followed him everywhere. It seemed to Leonardo that Francesco knew everything. As the boy and his uncle tramped through the vineyards and fields, Francesco taught Leonardo the names and uses of plants and herbs, the signs of approaching weather, and the habits of the wild animals who lived in the hills around Vinci. Francesco never tired of the curious boy's constant questions. "Tell me," Leonardo would say, "where the river begins." "Tell me what makes lightning." "Tell me what happens to the caterpillar inside its cocoon."

The local priest taught Leonardo how to read and write and how to use an abacus, but that was the only education Leonardo received. Instead, he spent many of his days wandering the countryside and studying nature. He explored the rocky crevasses of the hills around Vinci. He climbed along the banks of the river Arno and behind the crashing waterfalls. He walked through the fields of red poppies and blue cornflowers. He would jump on the bare back of one of his grandfather's horses and ride furiously down the dusty roads. Sometimes he would lay for hours beneath a tree, watching leaves move against the blue sky. He envied the birds as they soared over the hills and vineyards.

Sometimes he would turn his horse past the home of his mother. She had married since he was taken from her thatch and mud home. With her husband, Accattabriga the Quarreller, she raised crops on a few acres of land outside of town. She had another son and four daughters. She was always kind to Leonardo, but whenever he saw her, he felt sad and left out. She had her new family, and his own father was so far away and concerned with other things. Ser Piero's young wife, Albiera, died and he soon remarried another Florentine woman, Francesca. Leonardo barely knew this family of his.

Observing nature

As a child, Leonardo was always outdoors studying birds and plants. He found out that the best way to learn about something was to observe it carefully.


Sketch pad or notebook


Crayons or chalk

Tape recorder (optional)

paper bag or small box

Take a walk to a nearby park or favorite place in nature and look for signs of animal life — birds' nests, anthills, cocoons, spiderwebs, animal tracks, and even dead bugs. Notice the different types of plants and trees and look closely at their bark, leaves, flowers, and seeds.

Observe the different colors, shapes, and textures all around you. When you find something that interests you, sit down with it a while and sketch it. Don't worry if you can't draw very well because this notebook is just for you.

Try making a bark rubbing by placing a piece of paper over the bark of a tree and rubbing over the paper with a crayon or chalk to pick up the pattern of the bark. Collect a leaf and seed from that tree. Do the same for other trees. Do the bark patterns differ? How many different shapes of leaves can you find?

Be as quiet as you can and listen attentively. Notice all the different sounds you hear. Do you hear birds, squirrels, planes, cars, running water, and your own breath? Use your tape recorder to record these sounds. Write down the time of day and all the sounds you hear in your notebook.

Collect interesting things you find like rocks, shells, leaves, flowers, and dead bugs. Place them in your bag or box. You might want to press your flowers under some heavy books and then glue them in your notebook. Later you will be able to study these things and use them in a still-life painting, collage, or other work of art as Leonardo did.

Instead, Leonardo concerned himself with the world around him. He found everything interesting and everything he saw made him want to know more. He took paper and chalk with him on his walks to make sketches of all he saw. He studied the movements of birds and animals, the way the trees and plants grew, the rocks he found in the riverbeds, the light on the fields, and the shadows of the dense forests.

Leonardo's simple life in the country came to an end after his grandfather died and his Uncle Francesco married. His family decided he didn't belong in Vinci anymore and they agreed he should move in with his father and his new wife. The fourteen-year-old boy packed his few belongings and left the countryside for Florence.

Brush Up on Birds

When you draw or paint something, you notice things you may not have seen before. That's why Leonardo grew up to be a great artist and a great scientist. He was one of the first artists to draw things exactly as he saw them in nature. While sketching and painting birds, he learned a lot about their anatomy, or body structure.


Watercolor paints



Cup of water

Absorbent paper

Play with your paints! Get used to holding your brush and trying different strokes. See what it's like to use a little water or a lot on your brush. Mix paints to get new colors. Then, take your tools outside. Sit in your yard near a bird feeder or go to a park or the zoo — anyplace where you can find birds. Sit quietly until a bird lands nearby to model for you.

For the head, dab a wet brush into the paint. Hold the brush so it is vertical (straight up and down) to the paper. Press it down, then twist it to the right with your fingers. (These instructions are for right-handed artists. If you're left-handed, just reverse them.) To paint the bird's breast, dab some more paint on the brush and hold it horizontally (sideways) to the paper. Place it on the paper and pull it down toward you. For the wing, hold the brush vertically, press it down and draw it toward you. Taper off at the end by lifting up your hand. Paint the tail feathers by starting at the end of the tail. Hold the brush vertically and touch just the tip of it to the paper. Paint up toward the body. Fill in the details of the bird's legs, feet, and beak. Look for the distinctive markings and paint them in, using just a small amount of paint on the brush. Some birds have black eye masks, some have striped wings. Some birds have spotted breasts — hold the brush vertically and dot the paint onto the paper. To paint streaked markings, hold the brush the same way and make very small lines. You'll see that birds come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes.


The Young Apprentice

The great city of Florence! High walls topped by great towers circled the town. As he approached, Leonardo could see the roofs, towers, and steeples of Florence and the great dome of a cathedral. He couldn't wait to explore. As the guards at the city gate inspected his meager belongings, he fidgeted with excitement.

Florence was a trading center, a big and prosperous town, and people and goods from many different lands could be found there. Vendors hawked their wares in loud voices. Their tables were piled with beautifully dyed cloth, silks, and spices from faraway lands. Donkeys pulled heavy carts down the paved streets. Peasant folk shopped at stalls full of fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses. The crowds parted as priests and great lords in velvet cloaks swept by. Leonardo gaped at all the people, the noise, and the confusion. He stared up at the large stone buildings of Florence, many topped with steep towers. He walked up the broad Via Larga on his way to his father's house, along with the donkeys and carts and throngs of people. The road took him past the famous Medici Palace and he wondered if he would ever see the powerful people who lived inside. The Medicis, a family of bankers and wealthy merchants, had ruled Florence for over one hundred years. Leonardo's new home was a great city, so different from his quiet village in the hills.

When he reached his father's home, he discovered he wasn't to remain there for long. Ser Piero decided it was time for the young man to learn a trade. At that time, it was normal for a boy of twelve or thirteen years to work. Girls worked at home until they were married, but families sent their sons to work as apprentices to merchants or craftsmen for a period of years.

What could Leonardo do? He had no real education, having been brought up in the country. His illegitimate birth prevented him from entering his father's profession as well as many others. Children whose parents were not married were not allowed to become doctors or lawyers or even to attend the university. Many guilds would not accept a young man of Leonardo's background.

But when Ser Piero looked at the drawings his son carried in his knapsack, he knew what Leonardo should do. He put the drawings in a fold of his sleeve and carried them to the "bottega" (which is the Italian word for studio or workshop) of the famous artist Andrea del Verrocchio.

Verrocchio was the greatest sculptor of the time and the official sculptor of the powerful Medici family. He had a square face, dark curly hair, and a serious expression that showed that work was his life. His eyes missed nothing, and as he looked at Leonardo's drawings he knew that this young man would come to be an artist even greater than he was. Verrocchio's bottega on Via de Agnolo was as busy as the streets of Florence. His workshop received orders for paintings, sculpture, household decorations, armor, jewelry, and many other items.

A Beaker for Brushes

This decorative jar for holding paintbrushes will look great in your bottega, or studio.



Clear glass jar, empty and clean

acrylic paints


Spread newspaper out on your work surface. Hold the jar with one hand inside of it and paint a design on it. It's easiest to start at the bottom of the jar and work up. Let it dry for an hour. Use the jar to store brushes and pencils. (To help your brushes last longer, always clean them right after you've finished painting, then store them in your jar with the brush ends in the air.)

Leonardo's eyes opened wide when he saw Verrocchio's studio for the first time. The doors were open to the street and the teeming life of the city spilled inside. Playing children and their dogs ran through the rooms. Sometimes a pig or a chicken wandered in! Maestro Verrocchio stood in the middle of all the activity, alert to everything that was going on and directing the work of his young apprentices. Brushes and mallets and chisels hung on the walls, along with the sketches and plans of works in progress. One young man was firing up a kiln. Others hammered armor and pounded stone to powder. Easels, workbenches, and models stood everywhere.

Leonardo's father and Verrocchio shook hands. Young Leonardo was now apprenticed to the great artist. He would be a "discepolo" (which is the Italian word for an apprentice) and would spend many years learning to be an artist under the direction of Verrocchio.

Those years flew by. Leonardo grew up to be a handsome and strong young man. He worked long days and slept at night in the upstairs living quarters with the other apprentices. Maestro Verrocchio was kind but strict, and his apprentices worked very hard. For the first few months Leonardo did nothing but sweep the floor, clean paintbrushes, and listen to the talk of the other apprentices and craftsmen. He watched everything that was going on. And in Verrocchio's bottega, there was so much going on! The wealthy people of Florence would come in to have their portraits painted. They asked Verrocchio to make items of silver and gold, armor and coats of arms, statues, dishes, and furniture. Verrocchio and his apprentices even made bells for churches and cannons used to guard the town. This work was done by the older apprentices.


Pretend you're an apprentice in Verrocchio's bottega and make a picture frame. With these instructions you can make a frame for a small photograph of yourself or a friend.



Aluminum pie tin


Pen (optional)

Piece of cardboard, 8½ by 11 inches (you can use the back of an empty cereal box) Photograph, about 3 by 2½

White glue


Cut out the bottom circle from an aluminum pie tin. (Be very careful not to hurt yourself on the sharp edges of the tin.) Cut a rectangle in the center of the circle measuring 3 by 2½ inches. This will be the front of your frame. Many pie tins have a design on them, but if yours doesn't, make a design on your frame by punching the tin from the back with a pen, being careful not to push the pen all the way through. Make a pattern all around the frame.

For the back, cut a piece of cardboard the same size as the front circle. Cut another piece of cardboard into a rectangle measuring 3 by 2½ inches. This will be the backrest for the frame. Center and glue your photograph onto the cardboard back. Place the tin front over the cardboard back, centering it over your photo. Staple the two pieces together along the edges of the circle. Glue ½ inch of the cardboard backrest to the back of the frame, about a third of the way from the bottom.

Leonardo cleaned and swept. Eventually he was given the daily task of grinding pigments to make paint. After he mastered each task he was given a harder one. He polished bronze statues. He learned how to make paintbrushes. He prepared wooden panels for painting. He longed for the day when he would be able to use these materials and not just prepare them for another artist. In the meantime he sketched whenever he had time.

One day Verrocchio received a very important commission. Florence's cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, was nearly finished after almost two hundred years of construction. The final touch needed was a great bronze globe to be placed on the top. It would be a challenge to create, for the globe was to be twenty feet across and weigh over two tons. And not only would it be difficult to make — Verrocchio and his apprentices also had to figure out a way to install it on the top of the cathedral! Leonardo learned there was more to art than holding a paintbrush. The artists had to cast the globe in bronze, develop architectural plans, and even design the cranes and pulleys needed to install it. For this commission, art and engineering went hand in hand. In the workshop the apprentices calculated and designed for months. Plans covered the walls. On the spring day when it was installed, the whole town turned out to watch.

Meanwhile, there were still tombstones to create out of marble, death masks to make out of plaster, and coats of arms and banners to design. Leonardo was finally allowed to help on small assignments and he was happy to be using the brushes he had made. He painted the backgrounds of pictures. He also posed for a statue by Verrocchio. The Maestro captured Leonardo's fine features and thick, wavy hair in a figure of David.

The bottega was a favorite place for artists to gather and talk. Verrocchio's great talent attracted many artists who came to learn from him. Sometimes one of the apprentices would pick up a lute and sit in a corner and play. The young men argued about their ideas, teased each other about their progress, and taught each other new techniques.

Excerpted from "Leonardo da Vinci for Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities (For Kids series)" by Janis Herbert. Copyright © 2013 by Janis Herbert. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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