Most people start showing signs of their adult personalities as children, and Leonardo was no different. With his childhood games he would flit from one project to the next, probably exasperating his teachers in his few attempts at formal education. Yet when projects interested him, Leonardo could spend hours, even days, working on fine details, seeming to lose track of time. These qualities remained with him throughout his life.
Giorgio Vasari's biography of Leonardo records one particular example from Leonardo's childhood; it demonstrated the work habits Leonardo became known for as an adult. According to this report, Leonardo's father received a request from a local peasant to decorate a wooden shield, and he decided to give the project to his young son. Leonardo decorated the shield with the face of Medusa, the mythological serpent-headed creature.
Rather than painting a pleasant, romanticized version of Medusa (which a “normal” painter at the time would have done), Leonardo gathered various snakes, lizards, and other creatures from outdoors, positioning them in a studio to use as models. After a few days of work, Leonardo's father came to see what progress his son was making. He was in for quite a shock! When he walked into the studio, Ser Piero was not only confronted with the shield's grotesque realism, he got hit with the stench of decomposing reptiles! As the story goes, Leonardo had been oblivious to his models’ offensive smell, and didn't seem to mind working amidst dead creatures. Now that's devotion to your work! Whether or not this story is actually true, it shows Leonardo's penchant for drawing nature accurately began when he was a child.
Although his illegitimate birth barred Leonardo from most formal education, including university study, his relatives and family friends probably tutored him. Though he seems to have tried studying Latin on his own, Leonardo never learned it very well. And not knowing Latin came with a heavy price, because it effectively prevented Leonardo from studying many ancient Roman writings. Although the revival of classical knowledge was a key element of the Renaissance, Leonardo was forced to innovate largely on his own. It's possible that his poor Latin skills inadvertently helped him; he was forced to use his own innovations and thought processes, and he was almost entirely free of precedent.
Studying the World
Much of Leonardo's early work focused on the interplay of light and shadow, and again, his careful scrutiny of nature gave him the detail he needed. His grandfather's notes mention that Leonardo spent time drawing animals and plants, indicating a keen awareness of the world around him.
For Leonardo, nature truly was the best teacher. He was particularly interested in margins, such as the line between the beautiful and the grotesque. Rather than drawing or painting the most beautiful things he could find, he searched for the unusual: strange hills and rocks, odd animals, and rare plants. He also continued to study and observe humans; the details he added to his drawings of faces and expressions made him stand out.
Throughout his career, Leonardo spent a lot of time sketching and painting images of mothers with children. Hundreds of years later, Sigmund Freud theorized that these works, while religious in nature, were actually Leonardo's attempt to deal with being abandoned by his mother at a young age. Maybe this is a stretch, but then again, maybe you can see his lack of a true maternal bond in some of his works, like the painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Here, the child is thought to be a self-portrait, while the Virgin and St. Anne might represent Leonardo's mother, Caterina, and his first stepmother, Albiera. Though such interpretations are only theories, they support the possibility that Leonardo's popular religious themes may have had personal underpinnings.