Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath during the Renaissance who is perhaps the greatest multi-talented genius in history. Among other things he was a painter, mathematician, engineer, architect, botanist, sculptor, geologist and anatomist. He created many inventions which were much ahead of his time and due to his masterpiece Mona Lisa, he is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. Here are 10 interesting facts about his life, inventions, famous paintings and other achievements.
#1 Leonardo Da Vinci was an illegitimate child
Born on April 15, 1452 near the Italian town Vinci, Leonardo was the illegitimate child of Messer Piero, a Florentine lawyer and landlord; and Caterina, a peasant. His full name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which means “Leonardo, son of Piero, of Vinci”. At the age of 14, da Vinci began apprenticing with the renowned artist Verrocchio. Under Verrocchio he was exposed to theoretical training and learned a wide range of technical and artistic skills. Leonardo’s first known contribution to one his master’s works was in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. Almost all critics agree that Leonardo painted the leftmost angel. According to Vasari, Leonardo’s first biographer, Verrocchio was so impressed with his pupil’s work on the angel that he put down his brush and decided never to paint again.
#2 He designed the first known robot in human history
During his apprentice with Verrocchio, Leonardo also began his formal training in anatomy as Verrocchio insisted all his pupils to learn anatomy. Later as a successful artist Leonardo was allowed to dissect human corpses in hospitals in Florence, Milan and Rome. His continued interest in the subject led to a treatise on anatomy in which he made more than 200 drawings. However, his book was published more than a century after his death, that too under the name Treatise on Painting. Leonardo’s sketches and diagrams indicate that he perhaps did the most detailed study of the human body before the twentieth century, all the while making numerous revolutionary discoveries. Leonardo’s study of human anatomy also led to the design of the first known robot in recorded history, which is now called Leonardo’s robot.
#3 Da Vinci was most probably gay
In 1476, Leonardo was involved in a scandal. Along with three other men, he was accused of sodomy which was a criminal offence in Florence. The 24 year old Da Vinci was charged with homosexual interaction with a notorious prostitute but the charges were dismissed later due to lack of evidence. However, prevalence of homosexuality in 15th Century Florence, Leonardo’s paintings which exhibit more attention to male sexual organs, his beautiful young male assistants and the fact that he never married; all suggest that Leonardo da Vinci was probably gay.
#4 The Last Supper is one of his most famous paintings
From 1482 to 1499, Da Vinci worked in Milan. It was during this time that he painted The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In this famous painting Leonardo masterfully depicts the bewilderment and confusion that occurs among the disciples of Jesus when he announces that one of them would betray him. Some people believe that the person to the right of Jesus is not John the Apostle, but a woman named Mary Magdalene. This belief plays a central role in Dan Brown’s fiction novel The Da Vinci Code.
#5 He kept improvising Mona Lisa and never delivered it to its commissioner
Among the works created by Da Vinci in the 16th century is the Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face which is why it is also known as “la Gioconda”, or the laughing one. It has been suggested that her smile means that she is secretly pregnant; and that she is actually Leonardo disguised as a woman. Based on accounts from an early biographer, however, the painting is a picture of Lisa Gherardini, the real-life wife of a merchant.
For Da Vinci, the Mona Lisa was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection. The painting was never delivered to its commissioner; Da Vinci kept it with him till the end of his life. Guinness World Records lists the Mona Lisa as having the highest insurance value for a painting in history. It was assessed at US$100 million on December 14, 1962, which after adjusting inflation, would be around US$759 million in the 2000s.
#6 He was close friends with King Francis I of France
In the late years of his life Leonardo was finding it difficult to find a great Italian patron. So in 1916 he moved to France where he spent the last three years of his life under Francis I. By the time of his death on May 2, 1519, Francis I had become a close friend and some people believe that Leonardo died in his arms. This scene has been portrayed in romantic paintings by famous artists but it might be more of a legend than a fact.
#7 Leonardo Da Vinci created designs of many things ahead of his time including a tank
As an engineer, Da Vinci conceived ideas much ahead of his time. In his notebooks there are a number of war machines including a tank and a diving suit. In a BBC documentary, a military team built a machine from Leonardo’s tank design by changing one of the gears, an error supposedly done intentionally to prevent it from being used by unauthorized people. The diving suit design, when tested, was found to be a workable precursor to the modern diving suit. Leonardo also conceptually invented a helicopter, the use of concentrated solar power, a calculator, a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics and the double hull. His scientific studies, however, remained unpublished, like his manuscripts describing the processes governing friction which predated the introduction of Amontons’ Laws of Friction by 150 years. Also many of his designs, such as the movable dikes to protect Venice from invasion, proved too costly or impractical while some of his smaller inventions entered the world of manufacturing unheralded.
#8 A bridge based on his design was constructed five centuries later
In 1502, Leonardo produced a design for a bridge to span an inlet known as the Golden Horn. Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Istanbul, for whom he made the drawing, didn’t pursue the project as he believed that construction of such a bridge would be impossible. Leonardo’s vision was finally realized in 2001 when a smaller bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.
#9 Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is among the most popular images ever
Leonardo was a prolific draftsman and kept journals full of sketches and drawings. Among his most famous drawings is the Vitruvian Man which depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions. The Vitruvian Man is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions as described by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. It remains one of the most reproduced artistic images in the world today also appearing on Italian 1 Euro coins.
#10 His extensive knowledge in other fields make his art unique
Leonardo’s impressive studies in science and engineering have only been recognized in the last 150 years. For four centuries before that his fame rested on the masterpieces he created as a painter. Among the qualities that make Leonardo’s work unique are: his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology; his keen interest in capturing how humans register emotion in expression and gesture; his subtle gradation of tone and the innovative techniques he used in laying on the paint. All these qualities come together in his most famous painted works, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks. Centuries after his demise, his paintings are still imitated by students and discussed at great length by connoisseurs and critics.
“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”