12 Masterful Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are few historical figures in the world with a creative reputation comparable to that of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the celebrated figurehead of the Italian Renaissance. A polymath, Leonardo alternated stunning paintings (The Last Supper, Mona Lisa) with prescient sketches of inventions and engineering theory.

Although his life could fill several books (and has), we've rounded up some of the more compelling facts about Leonardo da Vinci's work.

1. You (probably) shouldn't call him Da Vinci.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In modern American culture, it's customary to refer to people by their last name—though not always. Dante is a first name, as are Galileo, Michelangelo, and many other Italians from the period are known by first names. But historians have a different problem with Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci. You might think that it's obviously Mr. da Vinci—but da Vinci just means "of Vinci," in reference to where he was from, like Geoffrey of Monmouth or Philip of Macedon. Everywhere from great museums (like the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to auction houses and scholars refer to him as Leonardo (many blame The Da Vinci Code for the widespread usage of da Vinci as a last name).

There are other historians, though, arguing people can be overzealous in their quest for linguistic purity. According to journalist and historian Walter Isaacson, the "da Vinci" usage is incorrect, but not that terrible. "During Leonardo's lifetime, Italians increasingly began to regularize and register the use of hereditary surnames," Isaacson wrote in his 2017 biography Leonardo da Vinci. "When Leonardo moved to Milan, his friend the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni referred to him in writing as 'Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine.'"

Dr. Jill Burke of the University of Edinburgh argues that while da Vinci "might not be thought of as a 'proper' surname," it does "seem to be established as some kind of family name during Leonardo's lifetime. His father, after all, is called Ser Piero da Vinci. Contemporary documents use 'Vinci' pretty much as a surname … People don't ever call him just 'da Vinci' in the documents. But they don't call Lorenzo de' Medici just 'Medici' either. It's not a convention to use surnames in this way in the fifteenth century."

But, conventionally, Leonardo wins out.

2. Leonardo was an illegitimate child born during what scholars have called a "'Golden Age' for Bastards."

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 to a fifth-generation notary, Piero, and an unmarried peasant girl named Caterina. In Isaacson's book, he opens with the argument that Leonardo "had the good luck to be born out of wedlock." If he had been a legitimate son, he would have been expected to follow in his father's line of work and become a notary, and "he would have been sent to one of the classical schools in Florence for the aspiring upper-middle classes and rising middle classes, or a university, and he would have been stuffed full of the medieval scholastic learning of the time," Isaacson told the podcast Recode/Decode. Instead, Leonardo was technically unschooled, but he was able to follow his curiosities and learn through experimentation—and he was free to go into any of the creative arts, like poetry, drawing, etc.

Another point Isaacson brings up was that being an illegitimate child did not carry the stigma then that it had in other eras. Leonardo's baptism was a large event, with 10 godparents present. He split his childhood between his parents' homes and his grandfather's, and eventually his father helped him land apprenticeships in Florence. Even ruling families like the Medicis and Borgias had plenty of illegitimate children who held rank and social prominence. No wonder scholars have deemed it a "golden age" for bastards.

3. A sodomy charge led to his 2-year disappearance.

The Italy of the Middle Ages was not an era of particularly progressive thinking. After a young Leonardo showcased his aptitude for art early on, he was soon taken in by acclaimed artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. Though a rich life following his creative pursuits seemed imminent, Leonardo's aspirations were temporarily derailed when he and several other young men were charged with the crime of sodomy, a serious accusation that could have led to his execution. Leonardo, 24, was acquitted, but in the aftermath he disappeared for two years. He reemerged to take on a commission at a chapel in Florence in 1478.

4. Leonardo dissected corpses.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

For Leonardo, no barrier could be erected between science and art, or between the heart and the mind. His science studies informed his art, and he was particularly interested in human anatomy. In the 1480s, his interest in replicating the sinews and musculature of the body led to his performing numerous dissections of both humans and animals. It's believed that his depictions of the heart, vascular system, genitals, and other components are some of the first illustrations of their type on record.

5. His biggest project—sometimes called "Leonardo's Horse"—was destroyed.

Leonardo could spend years on a single piece of art—The Last Supper took three—but it was a commission from the Duke of Milan that proved to be his most substantial work-for-hire project. Asked to create a 20-foot-plus statue of the Duke's father on horseback (though the human elements seems to have quickly disappeared), Leonardo toiled for nearly 17 years on the plans and model. Before it could be completed [PDF], French forces invaded Milan in 1499 and shot the clay sculpture, shattering it into pieces.

6. Leonardo liked to write in reverse.

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

The hundreds of notebook pages belonging to Leonardo that have survived time reveal a curious habit of the artist: He wrote in mirror script, reversing his handwriting so it would only be readable if the page was held up to a mirror. Despite some suspicion that he was trying to be secretive, the truth is that, as a frequently left-handed writer, he could avoid smearing or erasing the chalk by writing in reverse. (Recent research has confirmed what some have long suspected, though—Leonardo was ambidextrous and would occasionally write with his right hand.)

7. The Last Supper has miraculously survived.

Leonardo's depiction of Jesus and his apostles just after Jesus proclaimed "one of you will betray me" might be his best-known work outside of Mona Lisa. It was famous in its time, too, with Europeans fascinated by the composition and often trying to replicate it in other mediums. That it's still on display at Milan's Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie is something of a miracle. When France invaded Milan in 1499, there was discussion of King Louis XII cutting it down from the wall so he could bring it home with him. In 1796, more French soldiers placed it under duress, hurling rocks at it. And in 1943, when Allied forces bombed the area, caretakers of the church had reinforced the painting wall in the hopes it would be enough to keep it safe. The church was severely damaged, but The Last Supper was unharmed.

8. Leonardo never finished the Mona Lisa.

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Although Leonardo was prolific, he was never in any particular hurry to finish individual projects. Many paintings and other works were abandoned or deemed incomplete, including one of his most famous projects, Mona Lisa. When Leonardo died in 1519, the painting (and others) seem to have wound up with his assistant and close friend, Salaì. Some art historians have speculated that a debilitating illness could have resulted in right-side paralysis that would have hampered his work in the last few years of his life.

9. Leonardo was an animal rights activist.

Pre-dating the animal rights movement by centuries, Leonardo wrote of his love and respect for animals and often questioned whether humans truly were their superiors. Leonardo reportedly bought caged birds in order to set them free and abstained from eating meat.

10. Bill Gates bought his notebook for $30.8 million.

Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images

Even Leonardo's doodles captured the amazement and attention of the public. In 1994, one of the artist's notebooks went up for auction at Christie's. Titled The Codex Leicester (sometimes Hammer), it was compiled circa 1506 to 1510 while Leonardo was in both Florence and Milan and contains musings on everything from the origins of fossils to why the sky appears blue; another casual note predicts the invention of the submarine. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was the winning bidder, paying $30.8 million for the 72-page collection.

11. Leonardo supposedly inspired paint-by-numbers.

There is some irony in the idea that history's most eclectic artist might have been the inspiration behind the paint-by-numbers kits popularized in the 1950s. A paint company employee named Dan Robbins remembered reading that Leonardo would teach his apprentices to paint using number-sorted canvases (though whether Leonardo actually used this technique is up for debate). By 1954, Robbins's paint-by-numbers kits were doing $20 million in sales.

12. He had beef with Michelangelo.

Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1515.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The celebrated artist and sculptor was Leonardo's contemporary, but the two did not go out for drinks. Historical accounts describe the men as artistic rivals, needling one another about their methods. Michelangelo taunted Leonardo over his inability to complete certain works (apparently, chiefly the horse); Leonardo took his foe to task for over-exaggerated musculature in his sculptures.

This story was updated and republished in 2019.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]