12 Masterful Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.