Leonardo: artist, scientist, hipster, genius
This week, 500 years after his death, we honour Leonardo da Vinci, the man who created flying machines, scuba gear and a tennis racket — as well as the most beautiful artworks in history.
Italy, late 15th century. Walking the streets is a young vegetarian, probably gay, who has avoided university in favour of learning through “experience”. He wears a lot of pink. Friends describe him as graceful and good looking, with “beautiful curling hair”.
Five hundred years after Leonardo da Vinci’s death, we generally picture him as an old man. But in his youth, he was remarkably ahead of his time, right down to his “heretical” questioning of religion. Today, he would probably be called a hipster.
Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a well-off notary. As a result, he had little formal education and “could barely read Latin or do long division”, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. But at the age of 14, he was sent to train with the artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. By 20, he qualified as a master in his own right.
He had trouble finishing projects. Fewer than 20 of his paintings remain, although they are some of the most famous in history — particularly the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. In November 2017, a recently restored portrait of Jesus Christ, called Salvator Mundi, became the most expensive painting ever sold.
Yet Leonardo was not just a painter. As a true Renaissance man, he was also an engineer, scientist, mathematician, philosopher and musician. Unlike today, these subjects were all seen as related. But he did not just dabble in other pursuits — he mastered them. His anatomical drawings picked up on details that scientists still use for learning.
These studies of the human body helped to improve his art. “Only through the work he put into dissecting corpses and studying muscles was he capable of painting the Mona Lisa’s smile,” wrote Blake Morrison in The Guardian.
His inventions were rarely tested. But looking at them now, you might think he had glimpsed the future. He sketched designs for flying machines, parachutes, helicopters, scuba gear, tanks, machine guns and even a tennis racket.
“He was the epitome of the universal mind,” writes Isaacson. “One who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.”
Will there ever be another Leonardo? When he was alive, his talents were so great that they seemed to come from heaven. People would come to watch him paint in order to witness a miracle. “Everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill,” wrote his very first biographer, Vasari.
Or did it? We can also see him as a far more modern genius, an autodidact driven by curiosity and child-like wonder. Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from Leonardo is that science and the humanities are not as separate as they seem. The world’s greatest minds are almost always interested in both.
- Is it wrong to teach Art separately from Science in school?
- Was Leonardo da Vinci the greatest artist to ever live?
- Produce a piece of artwork which is inspired by something you have learned in Science.
- Imagine you have been transported back to 15th-century Italy, when Leonardo da Vinci was still a young man. What would you ask him? What would you tell him about the future?
Some People Say...
“Knowing is not enough: we must apply. Being willing is not enough: we must do.”Leonardo da Vinci
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Leonardo was born in 1452 in a Tuscan village called Anchiano, near the town of Vinci. His name literally means Leonardo “of Vinci”, which is why we refer to him by his first name in this article, in the tradition of old Italian masters. He died on 2 May 1519. The portrait of Leonardo as a young man is largely based on descriptions from contemporaries and the biography by Vasari, published 50 years after Leonardo’s death.
- What do we not know?
- Whether Leonardo was really gay — naturally, there is no direct evidence or account of this. We do not know his exact feelings about God and religion. Although he insisted on learning from experience, rather than trusting the word of religious leaders, he still received the Holy Sacrament on his deathbed.
- Probably gay
- Leonardo was charged with sodomy with four men, a scandal that could have put him in prison. However, the case was dropped. He never married or expressed much attraction to women.
- Leonardo died on 2 May 1519, aged 67 (500 years ago this Thursday). He is thought to have died of a stroke. By this time, he was a great friend of King Francis I of France. Legend has it that he died in the king’s arms.
- Someone who wrote legal documents. His mother was a peasant girl called Caterina.
- Walter Isaacson
- Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography was published in 2017. He has also written biographies of other great minds, including Einstein, Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs.
- The painting sold for a record $450 million to a Saudi Arabian prince. Its whereabouts is currently unknown.
- Renaissance man
- The Renaissance was a period of European history between the 13th and 17th centuries. “Renaissance men” are known for being skilled at a number of varied subjects, instead of specialising in just one.
- Someone who teaches themselves (as opposed to going to school or university).