Leonardo da Vinci the ‘true Renaissance man’ never stopped a day in his life. Leonardo’s ambition and obsession with understanding everything inspired such great masterpiece works that his genius is unparalleled by artists, inventors, and scientists even today. Between his blueprints for industrial scale machinery, paintings of the most life-like portraits, and natural philosophy of divine proportion, Leonardo has left more than an admirable memory of himself in the minds of the whole world.
Leonardo was just a Bastard Child (but also a Genius!)
Leonardo da Vinci was born of an unwed peasant woman, and despite his intelligence, was deprived of any formal education. Yet this didn’t seem to bother him at all, joking that he was ‘not a man of letters’. In fact, Leonardo preferred a gentle disposition to the wicked cultured folk any day. He was also blessed with a good sense of humor.
“Educated men will look at what I do and say that it is useless work. But the words they breathe from their mouths, are as wise as the wind they pass from their asses. Fools.”
Da Vinci Had Only Two Wishes: To Be Famous and Fly
Wasn’t asking for much right? At least he accomplished one of these wishes. Da Vinci actually didn’t prefer to be remembered as a painter, but rather, an inventor or engineer. He studied the flight of birds to construct a way for people to fly.
This was, of course, before theories of how objects fall from air were tested in Pisa a century later by Galileo Galilei not far from his hometown in Tuscany. Despite this fact, he forged a new path and delved in his own version of aerodynamics.
“What is fair in men doesn’t last. Old age creeps up on you. Nothing’s more fleeting than the years of a man’s life, but there is time enough for those who know how to use it. What’s the point of passing the passing the Earth unnoticed? A man who does not become famous is no more than wood smoke on the wind of foam upon the sea, but I intend to leave a memory of myself in the minds of others.”
– Leonardo da Vinci, disciple of experience
Leonardo Wondered Why the Sky Was Blue Before it was Cool
Leonardo da Vinci was a natural philosopher, who found that anything could be understood through experience and observation in nature. He took keen notice of the way light changes the landscape throughout the day, transforming the look of a mountain. He observed the mountains turn to blue as the sun was setting and thought that he must be seeing a reflection of the color of the atmosphere. He often applied these ideas of light and color to his paintings.
Da Vinci would’ve also explained, the sky is blue because of the way the sunlight illuminates the air and reveals the blackness of space beyond. Although we have a better way of explaining this in the modern times with the scientific term “scattering”, this was quite the marvelous attempt coming from someone with no formal education.
Leonardo Da Vinci was Persecuted for Homosexuality
At age 24 while living in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy by an anonymous tip via letter to Gli Ufficiali di Notte (The Officers of the Night) — aka the Florentine vice squad.
“From that year [est. 1432] until 1502, the number of men charged with sodomy numbered more than 17,000, of whom 3,000 were convicted. This number also included heterosexual sodomy.”
The crime was punishable by death in the year 1476. Although the charges were dropped when no one came forward, the publicity devastated da Vinci’s want for personal privacy. It was after this incident that he left Florence for Milan.
Many would later consider this particular event evidence of his relationship preferences, as even Freud implied, “Leonardo never embraced a woman in passion.” But nothing was ever outright revealed on the subject by da Vinci himself.
He Was a Natural Philosopher who Saw Microcosm in Macrocosm
Da Vinci sought to find connections between the flow of fluid in the body and that of streams in nature. He compared the human body with veins and the motion of the ‘lake of blood’ to that of the rivers and ocean tides on land, breathing with the rhythm of the Earth.
“The body of man does seems to serve as an analogy for the whole world.”
Throughout his life, Leonardo sought to redefine the world and his own understanding of reality by discovering the underlying ‘order’ or natural laws which defined all processes in nature. If any single statement were ever a true reflection of the mind of the man himself, it would be this:
“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.”
Leonardo Cut into Cadavers with Enthusiasm
Not that he loved the thought of cutting dead people up, but he definitely enjoyed seeing what was inside the human body. He actually could hardly stand the sight or smell, but obsessed over figuring out how the whole body system worked inside. For this reason, as a man of over a hundred suddenly dropped dead during a physician’s interview with Leonardo, he couldn’t help himself. Da Vinci just had to perform an autopsy to investigate the cause of death.
He took special interest in the processes of the human body, and even dissected cadavers (which wasn’t heard of at the time). With this, he illustrated the anatomy of the human body with unsurpassed accuracy, so much in fact that we can continue to gawk at da Vinci’s models of heart ventricles in wonder even today. This was because he was one of the few who would open it up to take a look inside (but also because he was a master illustrator of human proportion!).
Leonardo designed his own dissection process by injecting the heart chambers with hot wax. Through his studies he found that the ‘spirals’ or vortices that distinguish the flow of water on land are also present in the valves of the body.
Leonardo Opposed Intelligent Design Before it was Ever Defined
Leonardo loved to study streams, rivers, and the movement of water. By observing the flow of water across the Arno valley, he came to oppose the idea that the Earth was created by God in seven days. With this, he questioned ‘the deluge’ or great flood of Noah by stating that the appearance of sea fossils on land was caused by the water line receding.
His argument was that if there is only “x” amount of water on the Earth, then after it rained for 40 days and 40 nights to cover all land, the water would have nowhere to go. How could the flood have just magically disappeared and drained all the water the next day? This was heresy in the 15th Century, which is perhaps the reason why he encrypted his notes by writing backwards with a mirror.
Da Vinci Rediscovered the Golden Ratio and applied it to His Works
After studying mathematics and geometry, specifically that of the great Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius written in the time of Julius Caesar, his lust for knowledge reaches its climax. He discovers the golden ratio and the vortices that fit the fluid dynamics of the movement of water.
Da Vinci applied the idea of universal symmetry or ‘divine proportion’ to not just sizes and shapes, but also weights. Moreover, he translates this idea of “divine proportion” and applies it to the human body in one of his most famous illustrations, Homo Vitruvianus or the ‘Vitruvian Man’.
- 6 palms = 1 cubit
- 4 fingers = 1 palm
- 4 palms = 1 foot
- 4 cubits = height
- 24 palms = a person
The length of your outstretched arms is equal to your height. This was written in the book of Marcus Vitruvius. The Vitruivian Man can be seen as an illustration inside the book “The Divine Proportion” by Luca Pacioli. Other paintings that include the golden ratio were the Mona Lisa, the Annunciation, and the Last Supper (commissioned to be painted on the church walls by the Duke of Milan).
Da Vinci (Vegetarian and Animal Rights Activist) also Opposed Mainstream Medicine
Sometimes da Vinci resembles a Modern Man more than a Renaissance Man with his unique preferences and interests. His obsession with automation and engineering mechanics would have rivaled the Industrial Revolution’s fervor (you might say he sort of fueled the idea of steampunk).
In addition to this, he was also a vegetarian. That is, da Vinci was opposed to eating meat at a time when vegetarianism wasn’t widely practiced in Florence. To top it off, da Vinci’s friend mentions that one of his favorite pastimes was purchasing caged birds and setting them free.
He wrote in his notebooks that man was not the ‘king of animals’ but the ‘king of beasts’.
“Oh, if you want to stay healthy and live a long time, eat only when you are hungry. Chew thoroughly and digest well, remember I’ve looked inside the gut. Keep your diet simple and always mix water with your wine.
It is a mistake to take medicine. They have no idea what they are talking about. It’s also a mistake to sleep in the middle of the day. Your soul inhabits your body, and if you’d like an indication of the state of a man’s soul, observe how he looks after the place he keeps it.”
There Existed the ‘Greatest Disdain’ between Michelangelo and da Vinci
A meeting between Leonardo and Michelangelo in Florence is described:
“As Leonardo, accompanied by [his friend] Giovanni di Gavina, was passing the Spini Bank, near the church of Santa Trinità, several notables were assembled who were discussing a passage in Dante and seeing Leonardo, they asked him to come and explain it to them.
At the same moment Michelangelo passed and, one of the crowd calling to him, Leonardo said: ‘Michelangelo will be able to tell you what it means.’ To which Michelangelo, thinking this had been said to entrap him, replied: ‘No, explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame.’ So saying, he turned his back on them and left. Leonardo remained silent and blushed at these words.”
Michelangelo shut down Leonardo, and left him embarrassed in the streets. Most artists from Florence were rivals, but Michelangelo reserved a strong disdain for da Vinci (despite the fact that he would go on to use Leonardo’s illustration techniques in his own work).
The cause? It may have been the fact that Michelangelo was simply jealous.
There Leonardo da Vinci was, a man who Michelangelo kept hearing whispers about as “the greatest artist of all time”, and he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around it. It may have been the fancy dandy clothes that Leonardo wore or the privileged lifestyle he always seemed to enjoy — or the fact that everyone in town wanted him at their parties and begged him to paint their portrait. But Michelangelo could not stand da Vinci.
They were both set up to paint the Council Hall in Florence. Those in charge thought if both artists were working on the murals, then they would compete with each other to produce even greater works than before. However, this backfired after Michelangelo saw da Vinci stupidly paint the walls not in fresco but in oils. The colors ran. Michelangelo laughed at such an amateur thing to do.
On the other hand, Michelangelo spent many of his years digging for materials in marble quarries and transporting it hundreds of miles from the mountains.
There was even a time when, after a long attempt of 3 years to find the materials need for an assignment, the commissioner decided to cancel the deal. Not to mention carving marble wasn’t exactly easy work.
And there was that time when he completed a life-size statue of Pope Julius and the bronze caster ruined it. After carving it all over again to finish, this work would eventually be melted down to make a cannon. Michelangelo was often mistreated by his patrons, especially when he was hired by the Vatican and forced to paint the Sistine Chapel in a backbreaking manner.
In the end, both artists were great masters, but their styles were night and day. Leonardo was obsessed with observing and painting the natural world, while Michelangelo concentrated on the male body with anatomical expressiveness. Leonardo would get the last word in his notebooks as he writes that the “anatomical painter” should not make his figures too gnarled with muscles, lest they resemble a ‘sack of walnuts’. It was a modest feud.
With any great person or era of invention, there always seems to be a rival. Learn about Edison the antagonist in 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Tesla.