10 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 art movement. A polymath, da Vinci alternated stunning canvas work (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. A SODOMY CHARGE LED TO HIS DISAPPEARANCE.
The Italy of the Middle Ages was not an era of particularly progressive thinking. Born in Tuscany in 1452, a young Leonardo da Vinci showcased his aptitude for art early on and was soon taken in by acclaimed artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, studying under his wing for 11 years. 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 the apparent shame of the charge led him to completely withdraw from any activity for two years. He reemerged to take on a commission at a chapel in Florence in 1478.
2. HE DISSECTED CORPSES.
For Leonardo, no line could be drawn 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. This is particularly notable when one considers that in Leonardo’s time, there was no method for embalming—his deceased subjects were most certainly pungent at the time of their reference.
3. HIS BIGGEST PROJECT 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 complete a 16-foot statue of the Duke’s father on horseback, Leonardo toiled for nearly 12 years. Before it could be completed, French forces invaded Milan in 1499 and shot the clay sculpture, shattering it into pieces.
4. HE 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 viewable 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 left-handed writer, he could avoid smearing or erasing the chalk by writing in reverse.
5. THE LAST SUPPER HAS MIRACULOUSLY SURVIVED.
Leonardo’s depiction of Jesus and his apostles just before his betrayal by Judas 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 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 destroyed, but The Last Supper was unharmed.
6. HE NEVER FINISHED 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, he willed that unfinished painting and his other possessions to his assistant and close friend, Salai. 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.
7. HE 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 strayed from eating meat.
8. 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 Hammer, it was compiled from 1506 to 1510 while Leonardo was in both Florence and Milan and contains musings on everything from art theory to why the sky appears blue; another casual note predicts the invention of the submarine. Microsoft founder Bill Gates was the winning bidder, paying $30.8 million for the 72-page collection.
9. HE 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. Leonardo taught his apprentices to paint using number-sorted canvases, an idea that was later discovered by paint company employee Dan Robbins. By 1954, Robbins's paint-by-numbers kits were doing $20 million in sales.
10. 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; Leonardo took his foe to task for over-exaggerated musculature in his sculptures.