10 Interesting Facts About Leonardo da Vinci

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Self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci – presumed self-portrait
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

We all know Leonardo da Vinci as an extremely brilliant artist and scientist. He has created some of the most well-known art pieces in history; The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, and The Virgin of the Rocks only scrape the surface of his many talents. From his modest upbringing in 1452 to his lavish final days in 1519, Leonardo consistently came up with ideas and created works of art that were ages ahead of his time. Leonardo da Vinci is a common subject of study, but here are 10 facts that you may not have known about him.

1. Leonardo da Vinci had very humble beginnings.

Baby by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci – study of a baby in its mother’s arms
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Being born in 1452 the illegitimate son of his father and a peasant woman, Leonardo da Vinci did not start life with a formal surname. His name “da Vinci” translates to “of Vinci” because his birthplace, a small village named Anchiano, was close to Vinci. He lived the first few years of his life in a small village called Anchiano and then moved in with his father. During his time at his father’s estate, he received a basic level of education. Leonardo learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic until his teen years and then became an apprentice to Andrea Verrocchio. During his apprenticeship, he started teaching himself new skills through experience.

2. Leonardo da Vinci viewed sight as his most important sense.

Eye by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci – An eye in profile
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today, we would classify Leonardo da Vinci as a visual learner. Leonardo greatly valued the power of observation, and he adopted the process of saper vedere which means “knowing how to see”.  Saper vedere would be Leonardo’s greatest tool in his quest for knowledge; meaning anything that he was able to see firsthand would be a source of instant and accurate information to build a body of knowledge on. Leonardo would then use the knowledge he just gained in his artwork or to further his understanding of many scientific fields and promote the scientific study of painting.

3. Leonardo da Vinci dissected human bodies to be a better artist.

Vitruvian Man
Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Later in Leonardo da Vinci’s life, he began to combine the methodologies of art and science together. Leonardo fully supported the concept of mathematical laws of painting such as proportion and perspective. He claimed that painters had the innate ability to utilize saper vedere and understand the world and then be able to portray it accurately. Leonardo took this a step further and started studying anatomy to make his art as realistic as possible. He wanted to know everything about how a body worked, so he dissected just about 30 bodies of deceased people and drew everything he saw. Much like everything Leonardo studied, anatomy changed from something to make his paintings better to a separate passion altogether.

4. Leonardo da Vinci exemplified the spirit of the Renaissance.

Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Leonardo da Vinci wanted to understand and learn just about every field there was. He studied architecture, engineering, aeronautics, anatomy, mathematics, and everything in between and then used his knowledge in these fields to create better paintings, sculptures, and inventions. Leonardo ended up being a jack-of-all-trades and offered his talents to many different leaders for many different reasons. These leaders regularly commissioned him for paintings or sculptures, but he also provided military advice, architectural plans, and engineering ideas. Being in such high demand for a multitude of disciplines, Leonardo often struggled to complete his work.

5. A lot of Leonardo da Vinci’s work remains unfinished.

Unfinished painting by Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci – Adorazione dei Magi
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Leonardo da Vinci was not able to complete many of his projects because he either left the area to work on something new, or external forces prevented their completion. Leonardo was first commissioned in Florence to paint the “Adoration of the Magi” and an altarpiece for a chapel but decided to leave the “Adoration of the Magi” incomplete, not even start the altarpiece, and instead, go work for the Duke of Milan. After more than a decade in Milan, Leonardo fled due to a threat of war and left many projects incomplete. After fleeing Milan, Leonardo jumped around and went to places like Venice, Rome, Pisa, and France. There were a few large-scale projects that may have been comparable to his other famous works if he was able to complete them.

6. Leonardo da Vinci almost created one of the greatest monuments of that time.

Horse monument design by da Vinci
Lenorado Da Vinci Horse
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One specific piece of work that Leonardo da Vinci could not complete, a monumentally sized horse statue, that the Duke of Sforza commissioned in 1482. This horse statue was going to be the largest of its kind; estimated at 24 feet tall. Leonardo was planning to cast the whole statue in bronze to make the original clay statue last much longer. Before Leonardo was able to cast this enormous clay model, the threat of war loomed over Milan and the bronze was repurposed to make cannons. Eventually, the French defeated the Duke and when they saw Leonardo’s monstrous horse, they had their archers destroy it.  

7. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks were predecessors to modern-day scientific illustrations.

Illustrations of a crossbow from Da Vinci's notebook
L. da Vinci manuscript notebooks
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Throughout all of Leonardo da Vinci’s travels and projects, he created various notebooks containing everything that he learned while studying. Leonardo would make sketches and notes on pieces of paper and then organize each one to create these notebooks. He would write everything backward and right to left on the piece of paper in a style called mirror writing. It is hypothesized he did this either out of convenience due to being left-handed or to make it difficult for people to steal his work. Leonardo did not focus on using text to describe the topic he was studying and instead focused on using his illustrations with supportive text.

8. Leonardo da Vinci helped create modern Cartography.

Map of Imola by Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci – Plan of Imola
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Towards the end of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, the son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, commissioned Leonardo to create a map of Imola; a city Cesare just conquered. The method of that time was to exaggerate certain buildings like chapels to make them appear more important than the other buildings around it. Leonardo wanted a more accurate depiction of the city, so he utilized the process of saper vedere, his knowledge of geometry, and a compass to accurately calculate street distances and proportions of buildings. This style of map-making is called an ichnographic map and is the most common type of map made.

9. Leonardo da Vinci had a few run-ins with the church.

Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While Leonardo da Vinci was in Florence in 1476, someone anonymously accused him of performing sodomy with a teenage boy alongside 4 others. The four people accused were Leonardo, Bartholomeo, Baccino, and Leonardo Tornabuoni. The authorities officially ruled that they found no evidence of sodomy, so they did not charge any of the men. Another legal dispute Leonardo encountered was in Milan with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. The Confraternity commissioned Leonardo to create an altarpiece called “The Virgin of the Rocks” before the Feast of Conception they were having about 8 months away. Leonardo failed to meet this deadline because he left Milan, but his collaborators completed their sections of the painting. This dispute lasted over a decade and was resolved when Leonardo returned and completed the painting in 1506.  

10. The French Revolution almost destroyed Leonardo da Vinci’s remains.

Tomb of Leonardo Da Vinci
Tombe de Léonard de Vinci
Credit: LonganimE // CC BY-SA 2.5

For the last few years of his life, Leonardo da Vinci lived in France working for king Francis I as a painter, architect, and engineer. In France, Leonardo had the freedom to pursue whatever he wanted, but he still helped design festivals and gardens for the king. Leonardo lived a leisurely life in his manor, Cloux, until the end of his life. Leonardo died in 1519 and was then buried in the nearby church of St. Florentin and gave his estate to a student of his, named Francesco Melzi. When the French Revolution was in full effect, revolutionists razed the church and then destroyed the remains a few years after. Leonardo’s remains were found in 1863 after an excavation team discovered fragments of his gravesite. His remains were then moved to St. Hubert where he resides to this day.

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