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Leonardo da Vinci

Artist, inventor, Renaissance man

Created date

March 26th, 2015
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man. His remarkable abilities were as diverse as his interests, his vision always fixed on the future.

From the beginning, da Vinci seemed to defy convention. He was born out of wedlock in Florence on April 15, 1452, to parents Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a wealthy notary, and a peasant woman known in the historical record only as Caterina.

While the details about da Vinci’s early life are both cloudy and scant, it appears he received at least an informal education in mathematics, geometry, and Latin. He lived with his father for the better part of his first decade and, at age 14, began an art apprenticeship in the Florence workshop of Andrea di Cione, better known as Verrocchio. 

Here, da Vinci the artist began to take shape.

Verrocchio’s shop was fertile ground for young minds of assorted interests and talents, especially one like da Vinci’s. For several years, the budding artist studied the technical and theoretical aspects of art, including intense training in chemistry, metallurgy, leather working, drafting, drawing, painting, and sculpting. 

Immediately, he excelled.

Artistic genius unleashed

It wasn’t long before da Vinci was collaborating with, rather than learning from, his master. As the story goes, his contribution to Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ was of such exquisite quality that the revered teacher put down his brush and never painted again.

And so by age 20, da Vinci had set out on his own, obtaining his master’s certification from the Guild of St. Luke, a union for artists and medical doctors.

The next seven years of his life were somewhat nomadic. During this period, he divided his time between an artists colony sponsored by the Medici family and projects in Milan, Florence, Rome, and Venice, where he worked on commissions that he often failed to complete.

Despite that, da Vinci had cultivated a high reputation among his contemporaries. As a true Renaissance man, his artwork reflected a unique combination of knowledge and discipline.

In his paintings, for instance, he utilized his expertise in human and animal anatomy, his grasp of physiology, and his mastery in rendering light and texture—all of which imparted a depth and sensitivity that made for striking compositions. 

Of course, da Vinci was much more than an artist, and his varied academic pursuits far from mere hobbies.

Contributions to medical science

Since his days as an apprentice to Verrocchio, da Vinci was a serious student of anatomy. Thanks to his notoriety as an artist, he gained entry to hospitals in Florence, Rome, and Milan, where he routinely dissected human cadavers. 

Based on his observations, he made meticulous drawings, or “studies,” of skeletons, muscles, the heart and vascular system, internal organs, and perhaps the earliest known diagram of a fetus in utero. 

Da Vinci’s exploration didn’t stop at humans. He dissected birds, cows, monkeys, bears, and horses. 

Collectively, his work comprised a significant advance in medical science.

His fascination with the structure and function of bodies—animal and human—ultimately drew him to engineering. And thus was born an inventor for the ages.

Codex Atlanticus

No matter where da Vinci went, he looked at the world around him and thought of ways in which he might get the most out of it. Published after his death, a 12-volume set of intricate notes and drawings entitled Codex Atlanticus illustrates the incredible breadth of his imagination. 

While in Venice, for example, da Vinci designed a diving apparatus—a mask equipped with tubes connected to an air source floating on the surface. When tested in shallow waters, this early form of scuba gear actually performed well.

Da Vinci was also obsessed with the possibility of flight. In the late 1400s, he created what he called the airscrew—an airship 15 feet in diameter and constructed of reeds, linen fabric, and wire. 

In the notes accompanying his sketches, da Vinci predicted that, “If this instrument made with a screw be well made…the said screw will make its spiral in the air and it will rise.” Although he didn’t build or test it, da Vinci nonetheless amply demonstrated his prophetic foresight.

Indeed, his genius was in his understanding that all things are linked, that our command of one field is but a steppingstone to knowledge in another. This process, he believed, would inevitably carry us into the future, and he was right.

“In order to arrive at knowledge of the motions of birds in the air,” he once wrote, “it is first necessary to acquire knowledge of the winds, which we will prove by the motions of water…and this knowledge will be a step enabling us to arrive at the knowledge of beings that fly between the air and the wind.”