Leonardo Da Vinci
Everything You Need To Know About The Italian Polymath
Everywhere you look in Italy you will find tributes to Leonard da Vinci, one of the country’s most famous citizens. Airports like Rome Airport Fiumicino, public buildings and more are named after him. His paintings like the renowned “Mona Lisa” continue to draw praise centuries after their creation. And some of his groundbreaking inventions are reflected in present day technologies.
Born in 1452, da Vinca is often referred to as a polymath — someone whose great knowledge covers many different subject areas. In the 67 years he lived, until his death in 1519, he delved into a host of topics and interests including science, architecture, anatomy, engineering and several types of art ranging from sculpture to drawing and painting.
Early Life And Education
It’s generally believed that da Vinci was born in 1452 on either April 14th or 15th in a town called Vinci located in the hills of Tuscany in Italy. His parents were not married; his father was a rich legal notary in Florence called Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci and his mother was believed to be a young poor woman called Caterina, who may have been a slave.
Da Vinci was not raised by his mother and instead was brought up by his father along with his stepmother, relocating to live on the estate owned by his father at the age of five.
His interest in education on a wide range of topics started at an early age, though before his teenage years he was given only basic teaching in courses such as reading and writing. But his life would change once he turned 14 years old and started an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship And Early Works
The apprenticeship took place in a workshop operated by the Italian sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio, based in Florence. Da Vinci began his work as a studio boy but showed a talent for art, being formally named an apprentice when he turned 17 years old. This started what would become a seven-year training course in a wide range of artistic skills.
The courses that da Vinci learned included metal working, leather working, wood working, drawing, sculpting, chemistry, drafting and many other vital skills.
During his time in the workshop, da Vinci is said to have painted key elements of a classic Verrocchio painting called “The Baptism of Christ” — there is a story told about this work that is believed to be a myth. Da Vinci is said to have painted the image of an angel holding on to the robe of Jesus that exceeded anything Verrocchio had ever done before, and this prompted Verrocchio to never paint again. Although scholars generally doubt that this actually happened, it highlights the early promise that da Vinci exhibited in the artistic field.
Once da Vinci turned 20 years old, in 1472, he was entered into a group of medicinal doctors and artists known as the Guild of Saint Luke. Being a member of the guild was a necessary step before an artist could sell their creations in public, and therefore it was extremely important for da Vinci to become a member or “master” of the guild in order to sell his art.
It’s believed that one of the first independent works of art he created is a drawing made with ink and pens in 1473 of Florence’s Arno valley.
First Time In Milan
In 1842 da Vinci had several important projects in the works, including what would become the unfinished “Adoration of the Magi” painting at the San Donato a Scopeto monastery in Florence. But nevertheless he decided that year to move to Milan to work for the duke of the city. It was an unexpected changes, but led to a very prolific period for his artwork.
During this time he painted the world-renowned “The Last Supper” for the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery, among other pieces. He was commissioned for a large range of other paintings, sculptures and additional work for the next 17 years.
It’s also in this first Milanese period that da Vinci started to pursue his many other interests, including advising on architectural and engineering issues for the military.
Toward the end of his first time in Milan, da Vinci had been working on a massive equestrian monument of bronze that would have been the largest such structure in the country. But when the King of France Charles VIII attacked the city in 1494, da Vinci gave the bronze material for the project to Milan so that the city could use it as a cannon to defend itself.
Return To Florence
The French ultimately won the battle for Milan and it’s though that in either late 1499 or early 1500, da Vinci returned to Florence after first stopping off in Venice.
His native area welcomed the man back when he returned in mid-1500, and soon after he was named as an expert on architecture to assess the statues of the San Francesco al Monte church. Observers at the time said that da Vinci appeared more interested in technical topics like mathematics rather than the art that had enthralled him previously in Florence.
Da Vinci was then enlisted by Pope Alexander VI’s son Cesare Borgia to assist as general engineer to help the papal army expand its control. Da Vinci was responsible for traveling the country and creating sketches of areas including maps, which many people believe to be some of the earliest hints at what would eventually become cartography used present day.
In 1503, da Vinci left the service of Borgia’s army and went back to his native Florence where he once again became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke.
This period is incredibly important in his life because in October 1503 he started work on a portrait painting of the Italian noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo, who would become the model that he used for the iconic “Mona Lisa” that he worked on until close to his death.
In addition to his artistic endeavors, da Vinci also focused on technical breakthroughs during this second period in Florence. For example, he helped to plan out a canal that would provide a direct connection between the city and the sea and avoid the need to tackle part of the Arno River that could not be navigated. Although the plan was ultimately never enacted, in modern times a highway for vehicles was built over the same route the canal would have taken.
Medical learning was also a prime focus of this period of da Vinci’s life in Florence, including studying anatomy, dissections, and related topics. He was also an avid student of wildlife and nature at this time, conducting research on water, birds, and more.
Second Time In Milan
Da Vinci would return to Milan several years later in early May 1506 at the request of Governor Charles d’Amboise who controlled the city at the time.
His work during this time in Milan largely consisted of helping the local government with engineering and architectural projects such as ways to connect the city with Lake Como. It was not a productive time for da Vinci as an artist and there are few major works that he is known to have made during this second time living in the city.
Even the creative projects that he did take on were not always completed — the celebrated French army marshal Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had requested that da Vinci design the equestrian sculpture for his tomb, but despite the work da Vinci put in, the marshal chose another design.
Da Vinci’s interest in the field of medicine also continued during this time, with in-depth studies of human organs and the body, including extensive study of anatomy.
He also showed a growing interest in the spiritual, such as an emerging belief that all inorganic and organic forms are connected through motion and force.
Final Years And Death
In 1513, da Vinci would have to move from France again when the French that controlled it were expelled temporarily. He spent the next three years living in Rome, accompanied by assistants and students. During this time da Vinci made several drawings for a proposed massive residence for the Medici in Florence but the building was never constructed.
In 1516, when da Vinci was 65, he was invited by French King Francis I to leave Italy and move to France and work for the royal — an invite that he accepted. He moved to a manor house called Clos Lucé, located near the king’s residence, where he worked on his many projects.
These were da Vinci’s final years and it’s during this time that Francesco Melzi, one of his apprentices, drew a sketch of the polymath that is one of very few known to exist.
Da Vinci himself did not undertake much artwork during him time in France and instead focused on his studies of scientific topics, including medicine and the human body. It’s thought that one of the reasons he was unable to do much painting at that time — including work on the “Mona Lisa” — is because his right hand might have been paralyzed by a stroke.
Eventually da Vinci became gravely ill and died age 67 years old on May 2nd, 1519. The cause of death is believed to have perhaps been a stroke. He was buried at the Saint-Florentin church near the manor house in France where he spent his final years. During the French Revolution the church was destroyed and it is now impossible to find da Vinci’s grave.
Famous Artworks by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is regarded as one of the greatest minds who ever lived. He was an architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, palaeontologist, cartographer, botanist and painter. He shaped the Renaissance with his ingenuity and chartered his own era of learning. His works, whether artistic or mathematical, are still referred to even to this day by leading scholars and professors in our digital age. The reason he is so renowned even today, is that he was never afraid to combine his strengths. When he painted portraits, he used maths: The golden ratio, linear perspective and symmetry. When he explored hitherto unknown aspects of maths, he used his artistic skill: geometric polyhedral shapes such as tetrahedrons and dodecahedrons were all painstakingly hand-drawn.
It’s for this reason that no one from around or before da Vinci’s time was quite as skilled as he was. His artistic works pale in comparison to his other achievements in invention and discovery, since there are only around 20 known paintings/drawings either in museums or privately owned. Critics and specialists still debate today whether some of these works are fabrications or copies.
Most people are aware of the Mona Lisa, one of da Vinci’s most famous works. Either they went to see it in the Louvre where there were hundreds in a crowd all gathered around its protective glass case trying to sneak pictures, or they just know about it based on its iconic status in popular culture. It is probably the most famous painting in the world, but most people who see it only see it for its iconic stature and rumours of its eyes following your every move. I mean, how could the most famous painting of all time be just a portrait of an unknown woman? What makes it so special? And why is it da Vinci’s most iconic piece? This list aims to answer these questions as well as shed a light on da Vinci’s lesser-known works.
Here are the Top 15 Greatest Artworks by Leonardo da Vinci:
- The Vitruvian Man
Pen and ink on paper
34.3 x 24.5cm
Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice
The greatest achievement made by da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man demonstrated his skills in art and mathematics. It clearly shows the perfect dimensions of man, which in turn informed not only anatomists but also artists during the High Renaissance era. Vitruvius had written the dimensions down in his study de Architectura. Da Vinci took these measurements to the test and drew a man in two superimposed positions within a square. The result is this iconic image. Here are some of the measurements, which will make you study the Vitruvian Man for a long time!
- “From the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height.”
- “The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth.”
- “If we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same.”
- “For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom.”
- The Last Supper
Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic
460 x 880cm
1495 – 97
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan
The mural represents Jesus and the twelve disciples at the moment in which Jesus proclaims that one of them is a traitor. It is an artwork that has sparked so many debates in recent memory that it was even used as an ambiguous clue in Dan Brown’s the da Vinci Code.
The knife held by a mysterious hand that is impossible to be coming from a visible disciple, the identity of the woman next to Jesus and even the strange table legs have all been debated for decades. At this point in da Vinci’s career, he had no experience working on large paintings or murals, so painted it straight onto dry plaster (rather than wet plaster). This meant that the Last Supper has undergone a lot of refurbishment to preserve it.
The Last Supper is so iconic that it is perhaps the most parodied painting of all time, being ripped off by hundreds of movies and TV shows.
- Mona Lisa
Oil on cottonwood
76.8 x 53cm
The Louvre in Paris
One of the most famous paintings of all times is a mystery. It is uncertain whether the painting is a portrait of the wife of the Florentine citizen Francesco del Giocondo as traditionally believed, or as Dan Brown conjectured, Leonardo himself but in drag. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic half-smile remains a subject of speculation, since this could be a clue as to who the painting is of.
Mona Lisa was one of the first portraits to depict the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape, and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective. Leonardo has chosen to place the horizon line not at the neck, as he did with Ginevra de’ Benci, but on a level with the eyes, thus linking the figure with the landscape and emphasizing the mysterious nature of the painting. Research in 2003 by Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University said that Mona Lisa’s smile disappears when observed with direct vision, known as foveal. Because of the way in which the human eye processes visual information, it is less suited to pick up shadows directly; however, peripheral vision can pick up shadows well.
- Virgin of the Rocks (Paris Louvre Version)
Oil on wood panel, transferred to canvas
199 × 122cm
Louvre in Paris
Many scholars consider the painting The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre the first of two paintings that Leonardo made of an apocryphal legend in which the Holy Family meets Saint John the Baptist as they flee to Egypt from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Leonardo was involved in years of litigation with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which commissioned the work, and the dispute eventually led Leonardo to paint another version of the subject about 1508, which is now housed in the National Gallery of London.
The unconventionality of this painting comes from the human-esque nature and movement from the subjects that are considered holy figures. Most paintings hitherto this one never really showed biblical or holy figures to be in movement or interaction, just in stationary perpetuity. The figures of the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child, the infant John, and an archangel are arranged in a pyramidal composition, and they not only convincingly occupy a space but interact with one another through gestures and glances. A youthful Mary sits on the ground in a mysterious rocky landscape, not on a throne as so many early Renaissance paintings depicted her.
- Salvator Mundi
Oil on walnut
45.4 cm × 65.6cm
Owned privately by Mohammad bin Salman
It is technically the only known da Vinci painting to be owned privately. It was sold at auction for $450.3 million on 15 November 2017 by Christie’s in New York to Prince Badr bin Abdullah, setting the record for most expensive painting ever sold at public auction. Perhaps one of the greatest restorations in art history, it was once sold in 1958 at auction for £45 since it was heavily damaged by restoration attempts, painted over and attributed to da Vinci’s pupil Boltraffio.
The name is Latin for ‘Saviour of the World’ and was a popular subject for artists during da Vinci’s time. In all Salvator Mundi paintings, Christ is gazing into the viewer’s eyes with his right hand raised in blessing and left hand holding a globe often with a cross attributed.
- Self Portrait in Red Chalk
Red chalk on paper
33 x 22cm
Biblioteca Reale in Turin
This piece is widely accepted to be a self portrait of Da Vinci. It’s thought the artist drew it at the age of 60, although historians and scholars still dispute whether it is truly da Vinci or of a model. Painted around 1512 using chalk, the piece was created using incredibly fine intricate lines.
- Lady with an Ermine
Oil on walnut panel
54 × 39cm
National Museum in Kraków
The subject of this work is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza — who was the Duke of Milan at the time. It’s thought Gallerani was around 16 years old when this piece was painted. Lady with an Ermine is one of four portraits of women by Da Vinci, and echoes the Mona Lisa with its three-quarter length focus. Research shows the artist painted this work in three stages — the first had no animal, the second had a small grey stoat and the last with the familiar large white creature.
- Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata)
Earth, amber and white lead on wood panel
24.7 × 21cm
Galleria Nazionale in Parma
The Head of a Woman is an unfinished portrayal of a woman with wild hair, which explains its nickname “La Scapigliata”, which translates as “dishevelled hair”. It shows the dynamic style of Da Vinci, with both loose sketching and controlled detailing in one piece.
Da Vinci has previously used dry plaster, paper, poplar panels and this wood panel shows how versatile his art style was. His talents could translate on any surface if given the chance.
- St. John the Baptist
Oil on walnut panel
69 × 57cm
The Louvre in Paris
With incredible use of chiaroscuro in which the subject emerges from a shadowy background, St. John the Baptist creates a sense of uneasiness reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Regarded as da Vinci’s final masterpiece, it really imbues a sense of wonder and holiness as he points towards heaven.
- Madonna of the Carnation
Tempera and oil on poplar panel
62 × 47.5cm
Alte Pinakothek in Munich
The central image is that of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap. This is a motif used a few times by da Vinci, but this is perhaps regarded to be the best. The subjects are strongly lit, with Mary’s gaze pointing downward whilst she holds a carnation. Some scholars suggest that the carnation represents the Passion, or the later period of Jesus’s life.
Here are some honourable mentions:
- Baptism of Christ
Tempera and oil on poplar panel
177 × 151cm
The Uffizi in Florence
- The Adoration of the Magi
Oil (underpainting) on wood panel
240 × 250cm
The Uffizi in Florence
- Portrait of Ginevra de Benci
Tempera and oil on poplar panel
38.8 × 36.7cm
National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
- The Virgin and Child with St. Anne
Oil on wood panel
168 × 112cm
The Louvre in Paris
- The Annunciation
Tempera and oil on poplar panel
98 × 217 cm
The Uffizi in Florence
Famous Inventions by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the greatest mind of the High Renaissance era. He was an architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, palaeontologist, cartographer, botanist and painter. His works, whether artistic or mathematical, are still referred to even to this day by leading scholars and professors in our digital age. For most people who are aware of Leonardo, they think of the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks and Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci Code.
However, da Vinci was an incredible inventor, since his ability in the arenas of science and mathematics were unparalleled. Often, his many talents went either unnoticed or lost in the ether. An example of this is his many years spent devoted to studying the human anatomy. He studied many cadavers, even of a hundred-year-old man who was his friend before he died. Over 90% of Leonardo’s studies in human anatomy were lost forever. But with a lot of his inventions, Leonardo’s legacy lives on in our everyday lives.
His inventions would transform problems into solutions, harnessing parts of our surroundings that his peers would never even consider. Since da Vinci was a learned man, he was heavily inspired by those who came before him. His biggest idol during his inventing phases was of course Archimedes. One of the inventions by Archimedes that had a major influence on da Vinci was the Archimedes Screw. The screw was used in funnelling heavy bodies of water against gravity’s will, often onto enemy ships or on land. Archimedes always invented contraptions to help preserve the safety of his hometown Syracuse, which was of great perplexity to da Vinci.
He sketched many of his plans for inventions with unparalleled mastery, producing the first form of the modern technical drawing. What’s known as the “exploded view” technique could represent internal components that no previous inventor had even theorised. His studies and projects have been collected in his codices amount to around 5,000 pages worth, and that’s after most of them had been lost.
He realised from the inventions of his great predecessor Archimedes; let loose all your methods and men will use them for evil. There are many of his sketches that he may have never put into practice, but at least influenced a later inventor to perfect his vision.
Leonardo’s inventions are used by all of us at various points in our lives. If you thought the only glimpse into the mind of da Vinci was from a 2-hour queue at the Louvre, you’ll appreciate these everyday contraptions even more. Da Vinci is all around us. You just need to look!
Here are the top 8 greatest inventions attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:
“If a man has a tent made of linen of which the apertures have all been stopped up, with twelve braccia across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.”
These were the words written by Leonardo that truly show his genius. This is him merely speculating an invention that we take for granted today. So many feats of technology, man walking on the moon, Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the stratosphere, the hundreds of thousands of base jumpers. All from one little sentence in a codex. Truly astonishing.
Sebastien Lenormand is considered to have invented the parachute in 1783, but it was good old Leonardo that sketched and theorised the parachute centuries before. Leo’s estimated concept was that a man attached to an opening of linen thrown from a height of 23 feet with its support would land without being injured. Unfortunately, da Vinci never had the necessary means of materials to make his theory a practical reality.
Like many of his monumental discoveries, Leonardo’s parachute was never tested. However, back in 2000, daredevil Adrian Nichols built a parachute based on Leonardo’s designs. Despite considerable scepticism, the parachute worked tremendously well and Nichols even complimented its smooth ride.
- Amoured self-propelled carts (Tanks/Cars)
Sometimes described as a prototype of modern tanks, Leonardo’s armoured vehicle had a conical cover inspired by a tortoise’s shell. The covering is made of wood and reinforced with metal plates that add to the armour. The armour had slanted angles which deflected enemy fire.
The machine was powered by two large inside cranks operated by four people. The vehicle was equipped with an array of light cannons, placed around the perimeter.
The concept of a moving vehicle was unknown during Vinci’s time, but the notion of a people-powered vehicle was completely unique at the time. Clearly, da Vinci was inspired by the likes of Roman shield formations, but took drawings of tortoises to create a more 360-degree coverage effect. This cart is considered by many scholars to be the first invention within the field of robotics.
The concept was not tried until the 20th century. In 2006, this concept was put to test in an Italian institute and it worked. It has been put to note that the design of Mars Land Rover matched the concept put forth by Vinci.
- 33-barrel cannon (Automatic machine gun)
Centuries before even the AK-47 or the Kalashnikov was even originated, Da Vinci invented the first weapon which could fire volleys at rapid intervals. Known more popularly as the triple-barrelled canon, it was an extremely deadly weapon. It was portable, fast, and light but it still held a lot of power. Technically, it held 11 rifle-like cannons that could all be fired simultaneously. The machine guns we know today evolved from the design of 33 Barreled Organ which was sketched by Vinci.
The guns were loaded on a single platform and the base was attached to a large wheel. This platform was single and used to revolve. The organ was loaded at a single time and during the war when the first row was fired the platform upgraded the second row automatically for firing. The best part about the concept was that whilst a single row was firing, the other rows were left to cool down. Eventually, the loading was completely hassle free and easy to use.
- Winged flying machine (early aeroplane)
Leonardo is widely considered the first engineer to be credited with designs for man-powered flight. This was evident with not only this device, the winged flying machine, but with the helical aerial screw as well. After mastering the element of water, Leonardo look upwards and pondered upon how to conquer the air.
Just as da Vinci’s tank designs were inspired by Roman shield formations and the naturally produced shells of tortoises, he looked at how god’s creatures could take flight for inspiration. The discoveries made during countless dissections of bird and bat wings are evident in the designs for the Ornithopter, a device that flies by flapping winged appendages.
The winged flying machine (or the ‘ornithopter‘) was envisioned as a wooden frame with two extending wings that amounted to a wingspan of more than 33 feet (about 10 meters). This core frame was to be built from lightweight yet sturdy pinewood while being draped in raw silk to add to the ‘feathery’ equation. Imagine if Leonardo had better material resources? We can only imagine. As for the powering mechanism, the conceptual design boasted a pulley system that would have controlled the wings while the pilot used the pedals to power the wings.
Perhaps if he had given more effort into the creation and testing of this machine, he could’ve pre-dated the Wright brother by four centuries.
- Helical aerial screw (early helicopter)
The Helical aerial screw was conceived of by Leonardo in 1493, 450 years earlier than the first helicopter would take to the skies. In his original design, the main blade was 2 meters in diameter & the main supporting structure was to be held together by reeds. The ancient Chinese had designs for lighter than air flight, such as hot air balloons and even some firework powered machines. No one hitherto to Leonardo’s sketches had ever come up with a similar idea to a helicopter.
According to legend, Leonardo was interested in creating a contraption that harnessed air with a spiralling motion after examining the seeds of a Maple Tree. This is the seed that most of us played with as children which spins as it is drops. Eventually, the notion of spinning rotors on top of a man-carrying craft led to the invention of the helicopter.
- Diving Suit
Created in Venice as a sleuth weapon to strike invading ships, Leonardo’s 15th century design consisted of cane and leather tubes attached to a face mask and supported by steel rings to resist water pressure. Da Vinci had entertained the idea of being able to repel and intercept invading enemy ships that hit Italian shores. The original idea was to send men underwater to damage the hulls of the enemy ships whilst they were completely unaware of any underwater intrusions. It was a far-fetched idea to begin with, and extremely tedious to carry out, but this thought had inspired the creation of today’s modern diving suits and scuba gear.
This is a perfect example of da Vinci following in the footsteps of his inventing hero Archimedes, who also invented contraptions to disable enemy naval fleets. The designs to avoid the shock of water pressure and the systems in air supply are eerily similar to the modern forms of scuba diving gear seen today.
- Revolving bridges
Leonardo’s revolving bridge was an engineering marvel and an innovation in warfare. Not only that, but it was also a rare early example of flat-pack design (before Ikea became a global phenomenon). Designed in the 1480s for Duke Sforza, the bridge allowed troops to cross rivers quickly. Just like the 33-barrel organ, it could easily be packed up and transported for reuse.
The bridge was envisioned to a have a counterweight tank that would make the structure balanced on both sides. As for its ease of transportation, the design was originally desined to have wheels and a pulley system (just like the carts) for effective deployment in a brief span of time. Revolving bridges are still used today, although they are too sophisticated to have a pulley system.
- Ball Bearing
It doesn’t sound like the most amazing invention of all time, but ball bearings became extremely important to the development of other inventions. It allows the smooth movement of drive shafts, factory ramps, and most other mechanical devices that require movement and transition. This invention reduces the friction between two different moving surfaces and keeps machines running efficiently.
Around 1498, da Vinci had created a tool that reduced and improved friction, before the notion of friction was even discovered. That’s the genius of da Vinci at it again!