Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a painter, sculptor, architect, writer, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, botanist, inventor, engineer and scientist – the epitome of a Renaissance man.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time, his most famous works included ‘the Mona Lisa’, ‘the Last Supper’ and ‘the Vitruvian Man’.
Although he has since been celebrated for his technological ingenuity, Leonardo’s scientific genius largely went undiscovered and unappreciated during his time. As Sigmund Freud wrote:
He was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.
Here are 10 surprising facts you (probably) didn’t know about him.
1. His name was not really “Leonardo da Vinci”
Leonardo had no surname in the modern sense. His birth name – Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci – means “Leonardo, (son) of ser Piero from Vinci.”
To his contemporaries he was known just as Leonardo or “Il Florentine” – since he lived near Florence.
2. He was an illegitimate child – fortunately
Born in a farmhouse outside the village of Anchiano in Tuscany on 14/15 April 1452, Leonardo was the child of Ser Piero, a wealthy Florentine notary, and an unmarried peasant woman named Caterina.
The two had 12 other children with other partners – but Leonardo was the only child they had together.
His illegitimacy meant he was not expected to follow his father’s profession and become notary. Instead, he was free to pursue his own interests and go into the creative arts.
3. He received little formal education
Leonardo was largely self-educated and received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics.
His artistic talents were evident from an early age. At aged 14 he began an apprenticeship with the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio, of Florence.
In Verrocchio’s workshop, he was exposed to theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills including metalwork, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting.
His earliest known work – a pen-and-ink landscape drawing – was sketched in 1473.
4. His first commissions were never completed
In 1478, Leonardo received his first independent commission: to paint an alterpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
In 1481, he was commissioned to paint ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ for the monastery San Donato in Florence.
However he was forced to abandon both commissions when he relocated to Milan to work for the Sforza family. Under the patronage of the Sforzas, Leonardo painted ‘The Last Supper’ in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Leonardo would spend 17 years in Milan, leaving only after Duke Ludovico Sforza’s fall from power in 1499.
5. He was an accomplished musician
Perhaps predictably for an individual who excelled in everything he tried, Leonardo had a gift for music.
According to his own writings, he believed music to be closely related to the visual arts as it was similarly dependent upon one of the 5 senses.
According to Georgio Vasari, a contemporary of Leonardo’s, “he sang divinely without any preparation.”
He also played the lyre and the flute, often performing at gatherings of the nobility and at the houses of his patrons.
His surviving manuscripts contain some of his original musical compositions, and he invented an organ-viola-harpsichord instrument that only came into being in 2013.
6. His biggest project was destroyed
Leonardo’s most substantial commissioned work was for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, called Gran Cavallo or ‘Leonardo’s Horse’ in 1482.
The proposed statue of the Duke’s father Francesco Sforza on horseback was to be more than 25 feet tall and intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.
Leonardo spent nearly 17 years planning the statue. But before it was completed, French forces invaded Milan in 1499.
The clay sculpture was used for target practice by the victorious French soldiers, shattering it to pieces.
7. He was a chronic procrastinator
Leonardo was not a prolific painter. Because of his abundance of diverse interests, he would often fail to complete his paintings and projects.
Instead, he would spend his time immersed in nature, conducting scientific experiments, dissecting human and animal bodies, and filling his notebooks with inventions, observations and theories.
It is thought that a stroke left Leonardo’s right hand paralysed, cutting short his painting career and leaving works such as ‘the Mona Lisa’ unfinished.
As a result, only 15 paintings have been attributed either in whole or in large part to him.
8. His ideas had little influence during the period
Although he was highly respected as an artist, Leonardo’s scientific ideas and inventions gained little traction among his contemporaries.
He made no effort to get his notes published and it was only centuries later that his notebooks – often referred to as his manuscripts and “codices” – were made available to the public.
Because they were kept secret, many of his discoveries had little influence on scientific advancement in the Renaissance period.
9. He was charged with sodomy
In 1476, Leonardo and three other young men were charged with the crime of sodomy in an incident that involved a well-known male prostitute. It was a serious accusation that could have led to his execution.
The charges were dismissed for lack of evidence but in the aftermath Leonardo disappeared, only reemerging in 1478 to take on a commission at a chapel in Florence.
10. He spent his final years in France
When Francis I of France offered him the title of “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King” in 1515, Leonardo left Italy for good.
It gave him the opportunity to work at leisure while living in a country manor house, Clos Lucé, near the king’s residence in Amboise in the Loire Valley.
Leonardo died in 1519 at the age of 67 and was buried in a nearby palace church.
The church was nearly obliterated during the French Revolution, making it impossible to identify his exact gravesite.