1. Out of wedlock
In April 1452, the wealthy Florentine notary Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci (say that five times fast) welcomed his first son, Leonardo. Born “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci,” the future great mind from the town of Vinci didn’t exactly come from a “standard” affluent family.
Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, was a peasant. She was also pregnant and gave birth to Leonardo out of wedlock. Though his father would marry twice during Leonardo’s adolescence, both his wives passed away. It wasn’t until his father’s third and fourth marriages that the only child suddenly had 12 half-siblings (six from each woman).
2. Skipping class
Amongst all the greatest minds throughout history, there is no better example of a polymath — someone deeply knowledgeable in different subjects — than Leonardo. It’s because of the groundbreaking work he and so many other accomplished Italian innovators of the period that the term and concept of “Renaissance man” came to be.
Despite being a mastermind amongst geniuses, Leonardo never actually had any formal schooling. For a man who played such an integral role in the early development of so many different scientific fields and the arts, who left behind over 13,000 pages of notes and sketches (that we know of!), the notion of young Leo growing up without an education is stunning, to say the least.
It wasn’t until 1466 that a young Leonardo was sent off by his father for an apprenticeship under Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni, more famously known as Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was himself an artist of various mediums, and his workshop held incredible influence in Florence.
Some of the biggest artists of the time in Florence came out of Verrocchio’s workshop, which undoubtedly made a huge impression on Leonardo’s development as an artist and approach to art in all its forms. With an already curious proclivity, the budding artist now had a guiding hand(s) to help give his imagination a creative direction.
4. Painting protégé
Although Leonardo was likely introduced to a wide array of skills and training for the first time in Verrocchio’s workshop, it was not long before the student would become the master. Verrocchio’s painting, “The Baptism of Christ,” was like most of his works, where he actually had the help of his pupils in the piece’s creation.
Leonardo was tasked with painting the angels (and possibly background too) to the left of Jesus. According to artist and historian Vasari, Leonardo’s contribution was so stunning, Verrocchio vowed he would never paint again. Young Leo straight up put his teacher into retirement! Legendary.
5. Powerful memories
Overall, very little is known about Leonardo’s early life. There are only two childhood memories that left enough of an impression for him to record. The first memory was as an infant when a kite (hawk) dove at his cradle, hovered above him, and brushed its tail feathers against his face. Weird.
The second one is a little less bizarre, recalling a time he wandered into the hills and happened upon a spooky cave. Though torn between a fear of what monster may be lurking inside and fascination at the possibility of something incredible, he felt compelled to go in. Can’t find a better allegory of the curious mind that would guide him through both dark and light for the rest of his life.
6. Disappearing act
One of the most pivotal moments in Leonardo’s life has also led to one of the most baffling questions about him, one that has remained unanswered. In 1476, Florentine officials charged Leonardo and three other young men with the act of sodomy, something that, if found guilty, would result in death.
Fortunately for Leonardo, that also meant that another would have to step forward to admit guilt, accepting the same morbid fate in the process. So, eventually, the charges were dropped. It should be no surprise then that Leonardo left Verrocchio’s workshop and disappeared soon after, escaping a tragic fate, but that’s just the start…
7. Gone without a trace
After skipping town in 1476, all recorded history of Leonardo goes completely blank. It was as though he had completely vanished off the face of the earth, as there is absolutely no evidence of his existence until 1478. That’s two whole years of a flawlessly executed disappearance.
For two entire years, there weren’t any paintings, sketches, or notes. Nothing to suggest evidence of any work. Nothing to show for anything. That may be reasonable for his contemporaries, but for a life that was documented with excruciating detail like his near-contemporary Vasari, how he could fully vanish is a mystery no scholar can answer.
8. Musically gifted
When Leonardo did reappear in 1478, he returned as an even more wondrous entity. Turns out he was a savant as profoundly skilled in music as he was in visual arts, particularly the lyre. In 1479, Lorenzo de Medici tasked him with creating a crazy ornate lyre made of silver in the shape of a horse head to gift the Duke of Milan.
Leonardo, apparently a master of improvisation on the instrument, performed for the duke, Ludovico Sforza, and completely blew his mind. An artist extraordinaire crafts a marvelous instrument only to shred it better than any musician ever played before. Go figure.
One of the most fascinating aspects about Leonardo’s artistic genius is that he was left-handed. That fact is nothing out of the ordinary until actually getting into his writing. Sure, the content of his writing is wild, but the way he wrote made his lefty style every bit as intriguing.
Leonardo was famous for mirror writing, meaning he wrote backwards — left to right — like how writing would appear reversed in a mirror. Occam’s razor suggests it was done to keep his left hand from smudging the ink. Other claims suggest he was dyslexic, or it may have been to protect his work and keep his highly controversial studies secret. How impressive is this guy? Even the way he writes has been the subject of a multitude of research and debate.
10. Golden ratio
Leo’s approach to drawing proved to be every bit as wild as his writing style. The Renaissance man was also a math whiz, and he showed that genius in his illustrations, like his work illustrating Luca Pacioli’s “De divina proportione” (“On the Divine Proportion”).
The book discusses the importance of math and its effect/use in creating art. The first part of the book details the mysterious geometrical beauty known as the golden ratio. It’s said the golden ratio depicts the epitome of beauty. It can be found throughout nature, in great architecture like the Egyptian pyramids, and is present in Leonardo’s greatest works.
11. More math
After discussing the golden ratio, “De divina proportione” focuses on Roman author/architect Vitruvius’s application of math to architecture. Within that is a pseudo-golden ratio of sorts, connecting those ideas of mathematical beauty to humans. Inspired by these studies, Leonardo drew the magnificent Vitruvian man.
Undoubtedly one of his most famous sketches, Leo’s flawless display of proportion adheres to Vitruvius’s rules that go way over our heads. Speaking of heads, one of those specifications is that the “ideal body” should be eight heads high. The other easy-to-spot rule is that the figure should fit in both a circle and square, thus the two poses. As for the other super math-y stuff…we won’t even bother, because we still don’t get how or why seven eight nine.
12. Man in nature
Leonardo did far more than demonstrate how the golden ratio affects art; he practiced it regularly in an attempt to create perfect beauty, along with the bajillion other things Leo obsessively toiled over, including trying to achieve the same perfection in humans that he found in nature.
In a sense, Leonardo’s admiration for nature and the ever-present mathematical truths within it was like his own religious practice. From “The Last Supper” to the “Annunciation” to the “Mona Lisa,” the polymath constantly sought out sacred geometry in both man and all of the world’s surrounding nature. He was able to find beauty in everything he saw around him.
Leonardo was crazy obsessed with water. Sure, we all need to drink it, but Leo’s love for the liquid goes way beyond an infatuation with keeping hydrated. Water’s amorphous shape, the way it moves, its ability to flow — everything about its raw power absolutely fascinated Leonardo.
Leonardo’s descriptions of water go into vivid detail about its various shapes, forms, flavor, and more, describing it as “the vehicle of nature.” He essentially equated water coursing throughout the world to blood flowing in the human body. Go ahead and tack the word “poet” to Leo’s list of descriptors — that’s a deep thought right there.
14. Creative flow
You didn’t think we already squeezed every drop out of Leo’s watery obsession, did you? This guy was way too consumed by it to move on yet. Leonardo’s fixation on water is no exaggeration — along with countless drawings, he had a crazy amount of innovative ideas involving it.
There were ornate hydraulic systems utilizing water for various purposes, devices to stop ships from attacking, shoes that walked on water (think snowshoes), a scuba prototype to breathe underwater, and a life preserver, amongst other ideas. All of these ideas make a lot more sense when factoring in that Leo seemed to fear enormous floods would someday consume the world Genesis-style.
15. Science over superstition
The irony is strong with this one. Leonardo’s lifelong fascination with water — both giver and taker of life — included a fear that floods would consume him…yet the same guy was totally unconvinced that fossils found way up high in the mountains were NOT the result of the Deluge.
As with so many other things, Leo was way ahead of his time in this department, believing that those high-up fossils were the result of falling sea levels. A bit hypocritical, but in the super-smart kind of way. His study of water went way past mountain peaks up to the moon, where he accurately described planetshine (bright reflection) a solid 100 years before Johannes Kepler proved it.
16. Inspiration from above
Just as Leonardo had an obsession with water, he had a really weird thing with birds, particularly birds of prey. Remember that super trippy dream he had about that hawk sticking its tail feathers in his face as a baby? Yeah, that’s a good jumping-off point for where his head was at.
Leo was constantly scratching down info and renderings of bird wings, desperately wanting to mimic the creatures’ ability for flight. His collected notes, “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” include describing how a flying machine should function, complete with design and all.
With the number of hours every day he put diving this deep into so many subjects, we’d have expected to find some notes on how he built a functional time machine, too.
17. Flight fixation
Details, details, details. Baby Leo and his bird “memory” (something feels like it was more of a dream than anything) spawned a whole branch of aviation studies that look like they come right out of a science fiction novel. He dissected a bunch of birds in order to create all sorts of his own ornate flying contraptions.
Some of the designs include a “helicopter” design in a screw shape, a type of hang glider, planes that flap wings, even a parachute. Leonardo based a lot of his research around bat wings, as they are extremely light. It wasn’t just science fiction–sounding flying that such meticulous detail went into. Leonardo got into some way more intense stuff than birds…
Leo also did quite an extensive amount of research opening up and exploring the human body by way of dissection. In order for the artist to sketch such a detailed anatomy at such a high scientific standard, literally dissecting corpses himself (he commented on doing so on over 10 bodies) was the only way to achieve such a feat.
Thanks to powerful connections made with the church through his commissioned paintings, Leonardo was able to perform such a cutting edge and controversial act. There are tons and tons of sketches that detail the entire human body in so many forms. The thought of how much time he spent in the deep dark recesses of human exploration is just…yeesh.
19. Puppet master
It goes way further than dissecting a bunch of human bodies. Keep in mind, there is no map for Leonardo to contrast studies with or use as a guideline. He’s all on his own, so he REALLY gets in there. The man was a full-on puppet master. Strap in for this one, folks.
In order to not only map all of the muscles that run through the body, but understand how they function, Leonardo literally replaced muscles with strings to move. No sugarcoating this one. Leonardo was a very reclusive man for good reason. Walking into his “workshop” sounds very much like walking down a stone-walled, torch-lit cellar where a man bobs a human-sized puppet around.
20. Robot mechanical knight
One of Leonardo’s inventions in 1495 could have either been the coolest or most terrifying result of all those solo human anatomy classes. It was Leonardo’s robot, a mechanical knight. This thing was every bit as epic as it sounds.
The human-sized automaton, which means it can self-operate (think winding a clock), was clad in armor and could perform all sorts of functions: It was able to sit, stand, raise its visor, open/close its mouth, and move its arms. According to legend, Leonardo’s robot was presented for a demonstration at a party or celebration for the Duke of Milan. Safe to assume the guests were impressed. Once again, this feels like something that could easily be turned around into a horror classic.
Don’t shake off the idea that Leonardo built an armor-clad medieval knight robot too fast, no matter how bonkers it may sound. Leo’s intricate anatomical renderings of the body showed such amazing detail in really complex parts of the body that his notes have actually been used to improve robots!
Robotics expert Mark Rosenheim spent five years duplicating Leonardo’s automaton and found some fascinating evidence along the way. The extremely complex wrist joint was challenging for robot design, but the principles laid out in Leonardo’s sketches and notes allowed engineers to construct a suitable “wrist” model, resulting in the first prototype for robotic surgery.
22. Life-giving legacy
The da Vinci robot makes no secret about drawing inspiration from the brilliant Renaissance man. Not only did Leonardo’s papers help pave the way for designing a surgical robot in the 1990s, they gave insight to improve a type of heart surgery in the 2000s.
Another procedure his writings contributed to was the improvements for mitral valve repair. Doctor Francis Wells used his studies on the polymath’s sketches of the heart, applied his findings to his cardiothoracic surgery, and improved techniques on mitral and tricuspid valve surgery. Even on the most cutting-edge fringe of modern medical technology, Leonardo provides creative sparks to further advance science and medicine.
23. Powerful people
Almost as impressive as Leonardo’s host of contributions to art and science were the insane connections he had from all walks. Apprenticing in Verrocchio’s workshop was just the start of making acquaintances with the most powerful people of the time.
Some of his patrons included the Medici family, particularly Lorenzo de’ Medici; Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan; Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois; and King Francis I of France. Contemporaries included Luca Pacioli, Marcantonio della Torre and even the much younger Michelangelo. As if that isn’t enough unimaginable power, he was even great friends with fellow polymath Niccolo Machiavelli!
24. Dark arts
Amongst the many, many great inventions and engineering marvels Leonardo designed, there were numerous designs of awesome force and power for war that had never been seen by anyone before. The many detailed technological blueprints Leo left look like they could have created the most terrifying (futuristic) army imaginable.
Sketches included enormous cannons, a ginormous crossbow, crankshaft-powered tank with cannons, horse-propelled revolving scythes that could mow down enemies…go figure, Leonardo was even the first person to sketch a wheel-lock musket. Sweet mother of Mona Lisa, the man’s imagination sure went to some very dark places to think up these atrocities.
25. Defense against the dark arts
Of all Leonardo’s notebooks, his “Codex Atlanticus” is by far the most important. There are 12 volumes in total that contain his various drawings and writings, feats of mechanical engineering, advanced hydraulic systems, sketches for paintings, studies for mathematics, and astronomy notes.
All of those wild imaginations of weaponry were bound in the same book as magnificently crafted musical instruments. Opening the 1,119 leaves of powerful information was like opening up a wizard’s book of the most powerful conjuring of good and evil. Unbound knowledge in one space like this really sheds light on the enormous responsibility Leonardo constantly had on his shoulders.
26. “Codex Atlanticus”
Leonardo’s extraordinary “Codex Atlanticus” truly depicts his curiosity and varied interests. In addition to drawings of machines and sketches for paintings, it contains biographical notes, philosophical musings, and so much more. It’s amazing to think that all of this brilliance came out of one individual’s brain.
As previously mentioned, Leonardo da Vinci continues to inspire engineers and medical professionals to this day; his emphasis on the importance of experimentation has been extremely helpful to the scientific and technical fields. Leonardo’s “Codex Atlanticus” is the largest collection of his notes and drawings in existence, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for the wealth of notes and findings he left behind.
27. Secrets, secrets
The “Codex Atlanticus” is still the most important collection of Leonardo’s works due to the sheer scale of information packed into so many pages, but the “Codex Leicester” holds its own world of jaw-dropping insight. The studies on these pages include astronomical observations and theories, and scientific observations on all sorts of elements.
Just because it isn’t as massive as “Codex Atlanticus” doesn’t mean it isn’t a hot commodity. There must be some secret insight that is straight up BANANAS, because the current owner of the historic work is none other than Bill Gates, who bought it for a cool $30 million. (Leo loves his secret insights.)
28. “True” artist
The Renaissance man really did exhibit the qualities and attributes of a “true” artist. Part of what made his mind so great was his willingness to dive into the deepest, darkest, most unknown recesses of the unknown in everything wherever there was an opportunity to reveal truth. His mind took him to so many places.
Rather than separate math and science from nature and the arts, he sought truth that would bring these different things closer together. Leonardo was always searching for an ultimate truth, and he refused to limit that to one discipline, risking whatever he needed to in order to be closer to perfection.
Another fascinating slice of Leonardo’s life was the fact that the polymath lived a very strict vegetarian lifestyle. “The mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him,” explains Vasari.
It makes a lot of sense that Leonardo would find it hard to stomach meat, as he spent so many waking hours from such an early age studying the flight of birds, mesmerized by their beauty and ability. His appreciation for other animals was no different, so he expressed that in the best way he could. Leonardo was sensitive in addition to being brilliant.
Genius as Leonardo’s mind was, he had one character trait that was all too relatable — he was a notorious procrastinator. Everywhere Leo went, he would start works and, upon his departure, would leave behind partially finished work after partially finished work.
Such is the mind of such great wisdom. Even when would go to the ends of the earth to find ultimate truth, that search would distract him and lead down another path, leaving so many potential classics as little more than what-ifs. That may sound like Leonardo left the world with so much missed opportunity, but it was the very thing that gifted us with so much.