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.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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