Twenty Things I Now Know about Leonardo da Vinci

I never thought I needed to know all this information, but I am so glad that I now do. A week or so ago I finished reading Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson is also the author of Steve Jobbs’ biography. There are so many tidbits of interesting information that most of us don’t know about Leonardo da Vinci that I just had to share some of them. So here goes:

1. de Vinci is not Leonardo’s last name. It is the name of the village where he was born. This was the custom in 1452. The name he used is Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which includes his father’s name and his village

2. He was illegitimate. His father, a successful notary in Florance, had a fling with a village girl. He then arranged the marriage of the girl to a local farmer. As a child, Leonardo lived with his paternal grandparents. At that time and place being born out of wedlock was not shameful and his baptism was very well attended. If he was legitimate, he would have been expected to become a notary like all the first born legitimate sons in his family for five generations. Maybe this made him a lucky bastard after all as it allowed him to pursue his own passions.

3. Leonardo was self educated. Because he was a bastard, he was only allowed to attend what was called abacus school, which had a commerce-directed curriculum. On his own he studied anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, engineering optics, botany, geology, water flows and weaponry. He was a keen observer and did thousands of experiments to teach himself. He was curious and passionate about learning. More passionate than he was about painting.

4. Leonardo had focus issues and actually only finished about 15 verified paintings in his lifetime. He had a reputation of not finishing what he started, which included commissioned paintings, books, treatises, etc. He would start something then go down rabbit holes to learn and prove something else that may or may not be related to the original project. The project often didn’t get finished. Anything that did get finished would take years. Imagine how distracted he would have been if he had the internet to open such rabbit holes.

5. He was a perfectionist. He worked slowly, sometimes only adding a single well-thought-out brushstroke in a day. Sometimes going back to change something after he learned something new about anatomy or water flow. He was still working on the Mona Lisa when he died, sixteen years after it was commissioned. It was never delivered and he was never paid.

Mona Lisa sidebar: The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows even though there are written descriptions of her eyebrows dating back to the time when she was painted. One of the theories, based on the clear patches where her eyebrows should be, is that Leonardo took so long to paint her that the eyebrows were put on after the rest of the oil paint was very dry so the new paint didn’t adhere and wiped off the first time the painting was cleaned.

6. He was terrible at math. Leonardo struggled with algebra and multiplication of squares and square roots and sometimes even arithmetic concepts as basic as carrying numbers. He had, mathematician Luca Pacioli, tutor him. He never grasped these concepts but did grasp geometry and tended to use it to prove his theories. To repay Luca Pacioli, Leonardo illustrated his text book in 1498. Of the thousands of illustrations Leonardo did in his lifetime, the sixty in Luca Pacioli’s text book were the only ones that were ever published.

7. Leonardo was left handed. This affected both his writing and drawing. He wrote from right to left so he wouldn’t smear the ink. As a left-handed person, I can relate to this, but Leonardo actually wrote in mirror script. His words and sentences were all written backwards. He also sketched in a similar fashion and had a distinct crosshatching and shading method that allows historians to identify his work.

8. Leonardo was gay, as were Michangelo, Botticelli, Donatello and other artists. He was twice charged with sodomy based on notes put into a morality (snitch) box but no witnesses came forward. The difference with Leonardo was that he was comfortable with his sexuality while Michelangelo was ashamed of his. Homosexuality, although against the law, was so common in Florence that the word Florenzer became slang in Germany for gay.

9. He was flamboyant and usually wore a rose-coloured tunic. He was known as a colourful dresser. Descriptions of his wardrobe include purple socks, a dark purple cape with a velvet hood, garments of satin and taffeta, brocade doublets and fancy shoes. Rather then try to conform, he made a point of being different. He dressed his companion Salai similarly.

10. Leonardo became known for his good looks, muscular build and gentle personal style. He was described as striking and handsome, a man of outstanding beauty and infinite grace. Another description detailed a body beyond description, a strong nose, a soft mouth and blond curls. Obviously he was a head turner. In the Donato Bramante painting of of Heraclitus and Democritus below, the man on the left representing a crying Heraclitus is said to be based on Leonardo di Vinci.

11. Leonardo loved theatre, fantasy and illusion and spent many years in both Florence and Milan producing pageants, festivals and plays. His job was to entertain the rulers and create public entertainment. He spent his time designing costumes, scenery, stage machinery (including things to make actors appear to fly), special effects, floats and banners. He also decorated, produced, illustrated and wrote for the purpose of entertainment. He created choreography, witty lyrics, riddles, improvised music, allegorical allusions, automatons and gadgets. He was well known and highly valued for his work. And because these things had real deadlines, they had to be completed. He also played the lyre and was said to sing divinely.

12. His drawings of a set of pen-and-ink caricatures of funny people called The Grotesques, that were produced in 1494 for the amusement of the Sfora court in Milan were mimicked by later artists, including British illustrator John Tenniel in the 19th century who used them as models for characters in his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland.

13. He was obsessed with shadows. At the time things were painted with hard edges. Defined lines. Leonardo, the keen observer that he was, developed a process of painting in subtle layers to replicated light and shade in a way to better produce the illusion of real three dimensional volume in two dimensional artwork. It was a process that later became known as sfumato.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

14. He was also obsessed with perspective and spent a lot of time making it appear perfect in a painting. In The Last Supper, which needed to be viewed from various angles in the room. He used a combination of exact perspective and creative perspective to make the painting look as it was an extension of the existing room.

Last Supper Side Bar- Because Leonardo worked slowly and preferred to work in oil, painting a fresco was not the ideal project for him. Fresco paint pigments were paler and needed to be applied while the plaster was wet. Leonardo was slow and wanted intense colours. He experimented with variations of his much-loved oil paints, but the paint started to flake off after only twenty years. It was so bad that the priests had no qualms about cutting a doorway where Jesus’ feet were. The Last Supper has been restored several times over the years and there is little or nothing left of the original image.

15. Leonardo dissected about 30 human bodies with permission. And observed others being dissected at the University of Pavia, which was a center for medical research. What began as a method to understand muscles and movement in order to paint better became a quest for knowledge. He has hundreds of sketches of anatomy, showing the limbs, muscles, nerves, veins, joints, intestines. Everything from the brain to the feet accompanied by over thirteen thousand words describing them. He explored the muscles of the mouth in order to learn how the lips smiled. (Think Mona Lisa.) He wanted to know how sneezes worked. He was the first to correctly depict the sinus cavity. He studied the heart and the valves of the heart, and his theory on how the heart valves closed was finally proven correct at Oxford in the 1960s.

16. Leonardo de Vinci never signed his work or kept records. Artists didn’t sign their work back then. Many had studios and in order to make money, works were produced as assembly line art. Leonardo at times helped his apprentices produce pieces in this manner. Many paintings would have various artists working on them. This is why it is so difficult to authenticate the work of a single artist from that period.

17. Leonardo loved animals and was a vegetarian. He would purchase caged birds and set them free. He would not wear clothing from dead animals. On the other hand, he could dissect both animal and human bodies and also imagine and sketch weapons that could slaughter humans by slicing them in half.

18. Leonardo invented the wheel lock in 1490 as a way to create a spark for igniting the gunpowder in a musket or other hand-held weapons. Of all the weapons and military ideas that he conceptualized and sketched, this is the only one that was actually created and ended up being influential.

 19. He loved books. Born at the time of the invention of printing press, he loved to purchase books as much as he loved to purchase clothes. They helped with his passion to acquire knowledge. Yet he never published any of his written work of which there were thousands of pages. Including detailed notes and experiments that covered principles and laws published by Newton and Bernoulli two hundred years later. Instead of publishing his notes on painting, he kept working on them for his entire life.

20. It is said that he was the first painter to show real movement based on the way bodies are portrayed in a turned or twisting position and the first to depict true emotion. Just look at the realness of the subject’s eyes and the hint of smile.

My favourite painting by Leonardo di Vinci – Lady with Ermine

My apologies for the length of this. I just couldn’t help myself.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. 

All photos and information:  Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, 

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18 thoughts on “Twenty Things I Now Know about Leonardo da Vinci

  1. Wow! I don’t think that I knew any of this. Well, maybe that he was left handed and wrote backwards (yeah, I am also left handed). Very interesting information although if that painting is based on his looks, he may not be considered good looking today…I love the painting of the Lady with Ermine. The expression on her face is so precise!. Thanks for sharing all of this!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In case you’re interested, there’s a BBC series entitled “Da Vinci’s Demons” which is quite entertaining if you don’t take it too seriously. (The producers admit that they played a bit with factual history, so it depicts some things that did not really happen alongside many things that did.) Many of the talking points you mention above are woven into the story, so even though the project should be considered “historical fiction”, there’s a lot of truth mixed into the making. It’s a fun “binge-watch on a lazy Saturday” kind of experience…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know he was gay, or wore flamboyant clothes, or that he was illegitimate. I did know he dissected many corpses and that he painted a few masterpieces. As for The Mona Lisa having no eyebrows, that is an interesting aside. As a woman with pale almost imperceptible eyebrows, that’s one of the reason I like that portrait. I feel she is my people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to blow ip the image to check the eyebrow situation for myself. Mine are unruly. Luckily I am the type of person who isn’t obsessed with eyebrows so I ignore them.
      Too bad someone didn’t paint Leonardo’s picture when he was at his flamboyant best. I would have enjoyed seeing that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t know any of that. Beatrix Potter used to also dissect animals in order to study how they worked and their movement for her book illustrations.

    The naming system of the day is a bit like the Arabs use nowadays. They are always: first name, surname, ‘son of’ father’s first name and quite often the village or town they come from, e.g. one of my Jordanian friends is: Aoodeh Faraj abu Jdel of Humeima

    Liked by 1 person

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