Born on April 15, 1452, Leonardo da Vinci managed to be so many things in one lifetime—painter, engineer, architect and scientist. His painting, Mona Lisa, is one of the world’s most famous artworks. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. With his intensive studies of nature and anatomy, da Vinci used science as a way to revolutionize his art.
This man of vision also imagined many of our modern-day marvels. He sketched ideas for an underwater diving suit, a self-propelled vehicle and a flying machine that was a precursor to the helicopter. To celebrate da Vinci’s special day, let’s delve into some tantalizing tidbits about this remarkable man.
Da Vinci had a complicated family life. He was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci and a local woman named Caterina. While Leonardo was their only child together, his parents ended up having 17 other children between them. His mother married someone else and his father, a lawyer and notary, wed four times in his lifetime. He himself grew up in his paternal grandfather’s household, according to David Alan Brown’s Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius. Da Vinci also developed a close bond with his uncle Francesco da Vinci.
Still da Vinci’s father looked out for him, placing him as an apprentice with artist Andrea Verrocchio in Florence when he was 15 years old. Later his father also likely assisted him in landing a few commissions. When his father died, however, da Vinci inherited nothing, thanks to his half-siblings.
Da Vinci didn’t always like to finish what he started. He had a habit of accepting commissions without actually finishing them. A 25-year-old da Vinci was hired to create the altarpiece for a chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, a government building. After taking some money for the job, however, he never produced the work. His next big commission came in 1481 for another altarpiece for the monks of San Donato at Scopeto. In this case, da Vinci did actually make some progress. This painting, which would become known as The Adoration of the Magi, depicts a moment between the Christ child and Mary and the three kings. Instead of completing the work, however, da Vinci decided to pursue better opportunities in Milan. Despite being unfinished, this artwork shows his talents and hangs in the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
His most drawn-out, troubled project, however, was The Virgin of the Rocks. The Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned da Vinci and brothers Evangelista and Giovanni Ambrogio da Predis to produce work for their chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan in 1483. Squabbling between both sides over payment and art depicting the Virgin Mary stretched out over two decades, with da Vinci finally submitting his painting in 1508. In the end, there are two existing versions of The Virgin of the Rocks—one housed in London’s National Gallery and the other hanging in Paris’s Louvre Museum.
For much of his career, da Vinci depended on the kindness of patrons. He spent years being attached to one royal court or another. Around 1482, da Vinci went to work for Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan. He had marketed himself mostly as a military engineer to Sforza, promising to craft him all sorts of weapons. Sforza acted as his patron for many years, and he had da Vinci work on numerous projects for him, including painting portraits of two of his mistresses. One of those women is believed to be the subject of Lady with an Ermine. Da Vinci also created architectural plans for churches and designed a mechanical theatrical set for a festival in honor of a family wedding.
In the final years of his life, da Vinci enjoyed the support of French king, Francis I. He moved to France in 1516 to become “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King” and lived in a manor house called Château de Cloux (now known as Château du Clos Lucé) in Amboise.
For a man known to be a pacifist, da Vinci worked on several military projects. He made sketches of weapons, including a giant crossbow for the ruler of Milan. But, as Stefan Klein pointed out in Leonardo’s Legacy, these designs were more an effort “to impress his patron” than to create “serviceable weapons.”
In 1502, da Vinci got mixed up with Cesare Borgia, a ruthless nobleman and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who commanded the papal army. Borgia wanted to create an empire through conquest, and he asked da Vinci to devise ways to protect his newly acquired lands. Da Vinci made sketches and maps, suggesting different defensive approaches. After spending the winter with Borgia and his army, however, da Vinci took off in February 1503. He may have left even before collecting payment for his work. Fritjof Capra speculates in The Science of Leonardo that da Vinci “must have heard firsthand accounts of Cesare’s many massacres and murders” and “so repelled by them” that he had to flee.
Da Vinci left behind thousands of pages of writings. Leonardo biographer Martin Kemp estimates that there are roughly 6,000 pages known to be da Vinci’s work, and these may only be a fraction of what he produced in his lifetime. He wrote in mirror script, which means he started on the right side of the page and moved to the left. It’s not known for certain why he did this, but some theories include he was trying to prevent others from discovering and possibly taking his ideas or that it was easier for him to write this way because he was left handed. In any case, depth and breadth of his work is outstanding.
Many of these notes and observations are collected in books called codices or codexes and make for compelling reading. The largest one of these is the Codex Atlanticus, which features some of his early mechanical drawings in its more than 1,100 pages. Owned by the British royal family, the Codex Windsor includes an array of anatomical studies undertaken by da Vinci. The Codex Leicester made headlines in 1994 when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates snapped it up from the estate of businessman Armand Hammer for $31 million in 1994. The work highlights da Vinci’s fascination with water—its properties as well as different ideas as for its use and management.