Leonardo da Vinci:
Man of Great Knowledge and Many Talents
Word Count: 1,690 words
Machines such as helicopters and airplanes didn’t fly until the early-mid 1900’s, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been designed 500 years before then. Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his famous paintings, but in his time, he was also famous for revolutionizing the idea of technology. He was the first to design many common machines that we use today, studied the basic anatomy in many types of organisms, and painted many pieces that are admired by thousands of people around the world. His mind was not ordinary—the outstanding ideas and designs he came up with were incomprehensible by people in the 15th and 16th centuries. Leonardo took a stand against the norms of the Renaissance period by branching off into the field of science and engineering by creating designs for complex apparatuses, opening up a whole new world to the minds of people.
Da Vinci was born in Anchiano, Italy—about two miles north of Vinci, Italy—on April 15, 1452 to Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a peasant from the middle east (Nicholl, 17). His full name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, but that was shortened to Leonardo da Vinci. Although he didn’t receive a well-rounded education, he was very interested in nature because he was brought up in the countryside. He observed, drew, and wrote about a variety of small creatures: grasshoppers, lizards, and butterflies (Doeser, 1). Leonardo’s interest in studying these pocket-sized organisms was the start of his journey; he watched their movements and behaviors to understand how their bodies functioned.
As Leonardo became older, he began to show an incredible ability to draw and paint. His father was very proud of his work and wanted him to learn from an experienced professional. He took Leonardo’s work to Florence, Italy and brought it to the attention of Andrea del Verrocchio, his good friend and talented artist (Nicholl, 61). In 1466, Leonardo moved to Florence at the age
of fourteen to become an apprentice for Verrocchio. He assisted Verrocchio at his bottega, or workshop, which was located on the Via dell’Agnolo, a street in the big city of Florence (Doeser, 1). While learning from this wonderful artist, he contributed to some of the master’s work; da Vinci painted the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ” (Refer to Appendix I). During da Vinci’s time in Florence, he studied drapery. To do this, he would make models of figures out of clay, and drape pieces of linen onto them. He would then draw these figures, focusing on the way the linen fell over the model (Nicholl, 78).
During the summer of 1472, Leonardo da Vinci became part of Florence’s Painter’ Guild, also known as the Guild of St. Luke, at the age of twenty; the Painters’ Guild of Florence allowed da Vinci to be paid for teaching his apprentices (Fortune). After this big step in da Vinci’s career, he created a greater amount of his own paintings and drawings—because he was his own boss, not someone else’s apprentice.
There isn’t a point in da Vinci’s life where he switched directly from an artist to an engineer—he worked on both paintings and drawings at all points in his life. Not only was Leonardo da Vinci an amazing painter, but he was also an amazing mechanical engineer— “artist-engineer” (BBC UK). Today, he is mainly known for painting the “Mona Lisa”, but in the late 1400s-early 1500’s, he was also known for designing complex technology.
Over a three-year time span, 1495-1498, Leonardo painted his second most famous painting, “The Last Supper” (Refer to Appendix II). Da Vinci was a very experimental painter—he used different recipes for his paint. When painting “The Last Supper”, da Vinci used an unsuccessful recipe for his oil paint, which caused the painting to deteriorate quickly (Funk &
Wagnalls New Encyclopedia). Since the paints are so different, it is very hard to restore Leonardo’s paintings; the restored versions will never be the same as the originals.
The most famous work of Leonardo da Vinci’s is the “Mona Lisa”. [footnoteRef:1] He worked on this painting for four years, 1500-1504, and it included one of the first uses of a “subtle mysterious smile” (Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia) in a painting. This painting also introduced chiaroscuro, which is a technique of contrasting light and darkness; it was featured in the background of the “Mona Lisa”. After da Vinci’s death, this very cherished work of art was given to Francis I, then put in the Louvre, located in Paris, France (Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia). [1: The “Mona Lisa” is known as “La Gioconda” in Italy (Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia).]
Leonardo was very well known for creating unfinished artwork. Much of his work was unfinished, including the “Mona Lisa”. He enjoyed the process of learning new information more than he enjoyed painting. Giorgia Vasari, a biographer from the mid-1500’s, wrote “He would have been very proficient at his early lessons if he had not been so volatile and unstable. He set himself to learn many things only to abandon them almost immediately. When he began to learn arithmetic, in a few months he made such progress that he bombarded the master, who was teaching him, with questions and problems and very often outwitted him.” Da Vinci would observe something new for a painting, then want to know more about it until he would get bored while painting and lose his interest in the artwork. This is not the case for the “Mona Lisa” though. As da Vinci became older, the right side of his body became semi-paralyzed. This affected his ability to hold the paint palette[footnoteRef:2] and stand correctly (McMahon). [2: Since he was left handed, he was still able to hold paintbrushes (Kresh).]
Da Vinci was never satisfied with the knowledge he had obtained, he always strived to learn more (Doeser). Since he didn’t receive a satisfactory education, he was able to connect two different subjects such as art and science because he wasn’t taught the differences between these subjects (Nicholl). This allowed him to see ideas from many different perspectives. Leonardo was constantly thinking of new ideas and writing them down in notebooks.[footnoteRef:3] All his thoughts were scrambled around in his notebooks; he used every spot he could find to write thoughts down (Kresh). His notebooks were very messy because his mind was very messy; he always had thoughts racing through his head—his mind was his workshop. Leonardo used his notebooks for a few different purposes: write things down to remember, create a “playground” for his thoughts, argue with himself about a problem, or chase new ideas (Kresh). [3: Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are called codex’s—books filled with da Vinci’s writings and drawings (Stone).]
Da Vinci was able to create extremely detailed designs for machines because he had a great ability to draw. In 1485, he began making sketches for military equipment. He never supported war, but did work as a military engineer and designed a few deadly weapons, such as the giant crossbow and military tanks. These two designs were very complex, requiring a great amount of skill needed to draw them.
In the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci studied aerodynamics. He designed a couple of machines that would eventually become aerodynamic when constructed[footnoteRef:4]: The Flying Machine (Refer to Appendix III) and the Aerial Screw (Refer to Appendix IX). These designs were used to construct the modern-day airplane and helicopter. [4: These were only designs, as the technology to construct them was not invented yet.]
Another idea Leonardo had that acted more like a safety figure was the parachute (Refer to Appendix X). A Swiss parachutist successfully used the parachute da Vinci designed and
landed safely after jumping from a helicopter (Montagne). It’s amazing how such simple designs can save people from death.
Being a straight-forward person, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t rely on other sources for information—he had to test everything himself. He also wasn’t a man of faith, so he found fact in nature and science. After a long time of observing life on earth, he concluded that all animals on the planet must be related (Kresh). This was the basis for the theory of evolution, but these findings weren’t discovered until a few hundred years later.
In 1513, da Vinci started working in Rome, Italy for Pope Leo X. In Rome, he did dissections of deceased bodies to study blood circulation and the structure of the human eye (Biography.com). For the last few years of his life, he worked for the King of France; he is said to have died in the King’s arms. Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519, in Amboise France, at the age of sixty-seven.
Leonardo da Vinci was an extremely intelligent man who was very ahead of his time. He designed apparatuses that weren’t invented until about four hundred years later—mainly because his work was very challenging to decipher. Leonardo was left handed, so he wrote backwards because he would cross his arm over his body and start writing on the right side of the paper. People could easily put a mirror up to his writing and read it, but that helped very little because da Vinci had very sloppy handwriting (Kresh).
Taking a stand in history doesn’t have to mean leading a large protest, it can also be simply breaking social norms. Leonardo da Vinci did just that; he made extraordinary
discoveries in the fields of scie