Leonardo Da Vinci was born in the Tuscan town of Vinci, which was then part of the Florentine Republic. He spent his life in Florence, where he was apprenticed at the studio of artist Andrea del Verrocchio.
He has received the epithet of “the archetypal renaissance man” and the universal genius because he excelled in so many diverse areas of study. This includes painting (particularly his works of the Last Supper), sculpting (including his monumental statue of David), mathematics and engineering, architecture, and even writing music.
The artist. The scientist. The inventor.
Leonardo was an artist and scientist. But it wasn’t until recently that historians and scholars realized how far ahead of his time he indeed was. His contemporaries failed to fully appreciate just how creative, curious, and revolutionary he was. Instead, many dismissed him as a mere artisan or inventor. A madman even!
That said, he still received plenty of commissions thanks to his drawing and painting—skills which helped him gain access into high-society circles around Italy. Eventually, these connections allowed him to explore ideas beyond those in his day job.
In addition to art & science, there were also notebooks filled with thoughts on philosophy and theology. He seemed to find connections between them all, areas where one discipline overlapped another.
Advanced Depiction of Anatomy
Da Vinci was a gifted anatomist who, it is believed, worked closely with cadavers to create his famous paintings of Vitruvian Man. You might even say that he revolutionized science and art by bringing them together in one discipline. Of course, anatomy has played an essential role in drawing and painting ever since. But da Vinci’s innovations weren’t limited to anatomical drawings: he also made groundbreaking contributions to human anatomy as an artist and scientist.
Indeed, although Leonardo Da Vinci did not publish any treatises on anatomy or biology during his lifetime, many years after his death, scholars discovered notebooks full of detailed anatomical drawings that Leonardo had recorded while dissecting cadavers. This work and studies based on those studies continue to influence scientists today.
Leonardo’s depictions of human anatomy set him apart from previous artists; indeed, these sketches were so good that centuries later, researchers could identify which type of specimen they were examining in each illustration.
One-of-a-kind Literary Works
With more than 10,000 notebook pages of writing and drawing covering a wide variety of subjects—from art to science to philosophy—, the Codex Leicester is considered by many experts to be Leonardo’s most significant work. It was given to England’s Earl of Leicester in 1717 as a gift from King Louis XIV of France, who had acquired it when Leonardo left his patron Duke Lodovico Sforza 15 years earlier.
After spending two centuries in private hands, it came up for auction at Christie’s (in 1994), where Bill Gates outbid 21 other billionaires for possession of the manuscript. He paid 30.8 million dollars, making it the most expensive book ever purchased.
Da Vinci did not just dabble with technology as some hobbyist. Instead, he took his inventions seriously as they were all born out of necessity. He felt inside himself to create something by his talents.
Many of his inventions were novelties of their time, and one of his most important ideas came a bit later when he thought to himself, what if humans could fly? He took a series of notes on all that would be involved in constructing a flying machine. He sketched out designs for everything from wings to a place for humans to sit and how such contraptions could best take-off and land without injuring their passengers.
This line of thinking had its origins in his observations of birds during nature walks near Milan, where he grew up; it is perhaps no coincidence that he drew so many sketches of birds with stretched-out wings when given free rein over his notebook pages. He had many forward-thinking ideas—and still are today—that we can only speculate what other advances could have been possible if not for standard societal conventions.
For example, while working on his painting The Last Supper, Da Vinci developed a prototype magnifying glass (using only materials available). While others had created rudimentary prototypes before then, Leonardo found new ways to improve the design by adding lenses. You see magnifying glasses in every hardware store these days, but those giant boxes with plastic handles didn’t become standard until about 100 years after Leonardo died.
Incomparable Artistic Style
His early drawings reveal expert knowledge of many artistic techniques, including perspective, shading, and foreshortening. As a sculptor, he was also able to carve marble into intricate forms that are now considered to be groundbreaking for their time.
Da Vinci had an artistic style that was more naturalistic than most of his contemporaries. Although he worked in traditional media, his use of light and shade was incredibly innovative. For example, he is famous for sfumato, a technique where color tones are softened to create a hazy effect. Another distinct feature of Leonardo Da Vinci drawings is that he often painted scenes repeatedly at different points in his life. This gives historians great insight into how his style evolved.
Da Vinci’s paintings have continued to influence artists for centuries, proving his range as an artist. He was one of only two artists during his lifetime who Vasari cited as exemplifying both grandeur and correction in art.
The Epitome of the Renaissance Man
Da Vinci epitomized many qualities that we now associate with faithful Renaissance men—he was incredibly well-rounded, well educated, and widely curious. Da Vinci was also exceptional in his talents and abilities, particularly visual art and mechanical engineering.
His notebooks were filled with sketches of everything from various machines to what appear to be flying machines to anatomic studies of human bodies. Some historians even claim that he sketched out plans for a tank, though those drawings have since been lost.
The Bottom Line
Leonardo Da Vinci was an extraordinary person. He was ahead of his time, excelling in technology, art, and science. His drive for innovation and exploration led to groundbreaking achievements. But people didn’t truly understand the genius he was until after he had passed away.