10 Masterful Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

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.

A museum visitor examines the work of Leonardo da Vinci
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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.

An example of Leonardo da Vinci's handwriting
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

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.

A look at 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo da Vinci
Getty Images

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.

One of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook is put on display
Valentina Petrova/AFP/Getty Images

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.

An illustration of Leonardo da Vinci
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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. 

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

iStock/TerryJ
iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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