Leonardo da Vinci left behind the heritage of thousands of notebook pages filled with all sorts of observations on nature, art and life yet his life remains some kind of an enigma. A wide range of movies, TV shows, biographies, experiential exhibitions and conspiratorial novels have portrayed this innovative polymath in widely different forms. He sometimes appears as an ambitious artist with bitter rivalries; sometimes is a fantastical inventor or even a cryptic puzzle maker.
He rarely wrote anything about himself or his feelings in his notebooks. Yet we get to understand a lot from these notebooks. His forward-thinking experiments are proof of his being a super creative and persistently curious being that was unaffected by the philosophy and social customs of his era.
On his 567th birth anniversary, let’s delve into some of the lesser known facts surrounding this ultimate “Renaissance Man” which would help us demystify the man behind this legend. (The term ‘Renaissance Man’ was coined from Leonardo’s many talents and is today used to describe people who resemble da Vinci)
- He was the illegitimate child of a respected lawyer, Messer Piero Frosino di Antonio da Vinci, and a young peasant woman named Caterina di Meo Lippi. He spent his early childhood years with his mother in the town of Anchiano, Italy. However, as he turned five, he went on to live with his father in the town of Vinci, Italy.
- Although he is regarded as one of the greatest artist ever produced on this planet, little people know that he never had any formal training. He received some guidance during his stay at his father’s home in Latin and mathematics. As he turned, 14, he became an apprentice to the eminent artist Verrocchio in his studio in Florence, Italy. It was here, he was exposed to the art of drawing, sculpting and painting. He also learned about drafting, carpentry, metallurgy and plaster casting.
- He was ambidextrous. In other words, he had the ability to write/ draw backward and forward with opposing hands simultaneously.
- Apart from being a master painter, he was an accomplished musician too. His surviving manuscripts have some of his musical compositions too. He played the lyre and the flute in addition to singing melodies, frequently at social gatherings of the nobility. It is believed that he customarily listened to music while he painted.
- Following his footsteps, many notable artists including Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, painted a number of self-portraits. However, da Vinci left behind just one, known as the ‘Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk’, which he drew at the age of 60.
- The only copy of Codex Leicester or Codex Hammer, his 72-page illustrated manuscript is owned by Bill Gates. The collection is known so after the Earl of Leicester or Armand Hammer, both of whom once owned this. The work includes the pages which were written by da Vinci between 1506 to 1510 in the towns of Milan and Florence. It covers a wide range of topics such as diffusion of light in the heavens, the study of hydrodynamics and musings on why the moon is luminous.
- Invention plans of an underwater breathing apparatus, a diving bell, a life preserver, an armored car, a parachute, , water-powered mills and engines, single-span bridges, a method to concentrate solar power, a revolving crane, a parachute, , a pulley etc. have been inspired and put into general use using the notebook pages of the Renaissance artist.
- As a painter, illumination and the properties of light interested him the most. Unlike other artists, he turned his scientific mind to dissect these properties to better understand their workings. This dissection led him to correctly postulate why the sky was blue, far before the physicists like Lord Rayleigh or John Tyndall.
- He argued over the timeline of the formation of Earth mentioned in the Bible. According to his observations, the age of the Earth, the movement of water, features of mountains were far greater than what was mentioned in the Bible.
- He produced more than 6,000 pages of musings, inspirations, invention plans and jokes during his lifetime. He donated them to his assistant Francesco Melzi, and after the death of Meli in 1570, these pages were parcelled to various bidders. Some of his original writings are housed at the British Museum Library, the Royal Library in Windsor and the Institut de France.