12 Masterful Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/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. A polymath, Leonardo alternated stunning paintings (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. You (probably) shouldn't call him Da Vinci.

An illustration of Leonardo da Vinci
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In modern American culture, it's customary to refer to people by their last name—though not always. Dante is a first name, as are Galileo, Michelangelo, and many other Italians from the period are known by first names. But historians have a different problem with Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci. You might think that it's obviously Mr. da Vinci—but da Vinci just means "of Vinci," in reference to where he was from, like Geoffrey of Monmouth or Philip of Macedon. Everywhere from great museums (like the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to auction houses and scholars refer to him as Leonardo (many blame The Da Vinci Code for the widespread usage of da Vinci as a last name).

There are other historians, though, arguing people can be overzealous in their quest for linguistic purity. According to journalist and historian Walter Isaacson, the "da Vinci" usage is incorrect, but not that terrible. "During Leonardo's lifetime, Italians increasingly began to regularize and register the use of hereditary surnames," Isaacson wrote in his 2017 biography Leonardo da Vinci. "When Leonardo moved to Milan, his friend the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni referred to him in writing as 'Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine.'"

Dr. Jill Burke of the University of Edinburgh argues that while da Vinci "might not be thought of as a 'proper' surname," it does "seem to be established as some kind of family name during Leonardo's lifetime. His father, after all, is called Ser Piero da Vinci. Contemporary documents use 'Vinci' pretty much as a surname … People don't ever call him just 'da Vinci' in the documents. But they don't call Lorenzo de' Medici just 'Medici' either. It's not a convention to use surnames in this way in the fifteenth century."

But, conventionally, Leonardo wins out.

2. Leonardo was an illegitimate child born during what scholars have called a "'Golden Age' for Bastards."

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 to a fifth-generation notary, Piero, and an unmarried peasant girl named Caterina. In Isaacson's book, he opens with the argument that Leonardo "had the good luck to be born out of wedlock." If he had been a legitimate son, he would have been expected to follow in his father's line of work and become a notary, and "he would have been sent to one of the classical schools in Florence for the aspiring upper-middle classes and rising middle classes, or a university, and he would have been stuffed full of the medieval scholastic learning of the time," Isaacson told the podcast Recode/Decode. Instead, Leonardo was technically unschooled, but he was able to follow his curiosities and learn through experimentation—and he was free to go into any of the creative arts, like poetry, drawing, etc.

Another point Isaacson brings up was that being an illegitimate child did not carry the stigma then that it had in other eras. Leonardo's baptism was a large event, with 10 godparents present. He split his childhood between his parents' homes and his grandfather's, and eventually his father helped him land apprenticeships in Florence. Even ruling families like the Medicis and Borgias had plenty of illegitimate children who held rank and social prominence. No wonder scholars have deemed it a "golden age" for bastards.

3. A sodomy charge led to his 2-year disappearance.

The Italy of the Middle Ages was not an era of particularly progressive thinking. After a young Leonardo showcased his aptitude for art early on, he was soon taken in by acclaimed artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. 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 in the aftermath he disappeared for two years. He reemerged to take on a commission at a chapel in Florence in 1478.

4. Leonardo dissected corpses.

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

For Leonardo, no barrier could be erected 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.

5. His biggest project—sometimes called "Leonardo's Horse"—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 create a 20-foot-plus statue of the Duke's father on horseback (though the human elements seems to have quickly disappeared), Leonardo toiled for nearly 17 years on the plans and model. Before it could be completed [PDF], French forces invaded Milan in 1499 and shot the clay sculpture, shattering it into pieces.

6. Leonardo 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 readable 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 frequently left-handed writer, he could avoid smearing or erasing the chalk by writing in reverse. (Recent research has confirmed what some have long suspected, though—Leonardo was ambidextrous and would occasionally write with his right hand.)

7. The Last Supper has miraculously survived.

Leonardo's depiction of Jesus and his apostles just after Jesus proclaimed "one of you will betray me" 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 XII 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 severely damaged, but The Last Supper was unharmed.

8. Leonardo never finished the 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, the painting (and others) seem to have wound up with his assistant and close friend, Salaì. 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.

9. Leonardo 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 abstained from eating meat.

10. 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 Leicester (sometimes Hammer), it was compiled circa 1506 to 1510 while Leonardo was in both Florence and Milan and contains musings on everything from the origins of fossils to why the sky appears blue; another casual note predicts the invention of the submarine. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was the winning bidder, paying $30.8 million for the 72-page collection.

11. Leonardo supposedly 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. A paint company employee named Dan Robbins remembered reading that Leonardo would teach his apprentices to paint using number-sorted canvases (though whether Leonardo actually used this technique is up for debate). By 1954, Robbins's paint-by-numbers kits were doing $20 million in sales.

12. He had beef with Michelangelo.

Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci circa 1515.
Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1515.
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 (apparently, chiefly the horse); Leonardo took his foe to task for over-exaggerated musculature in his sculptures.

This story was updated and republished in 2019.

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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