Out of Leonardo's notebooks flowed a succession of inventions, some fantastical but others entirely practical: the first ‘tank’, the first parachute, a crane for emptying ditches, the very first mixer tap for a bath, folding furniture, an aqualung, an automatic drum, automatically opening and closing doors, a sequin-maker. There were also smaller devices for making spaghetti, sharpening knives, slicing eggs and pressing garlic. Leonardo also used his notebooks to record his remarkable insights into the natural world: he was the first to notice how counting tree rings gave the age of the tree and he could explain why the sky was blue 300 years before Lord Rayleigh discovered molecular scattering.
Leonardo also designed lots of war machines including a giant siege crossbow, a mechanism for repelling enemy ladders during an attack on a fortress, a giant scythe to chop off men’s legs, sword-eating shields, ‘defensive curtains’ which would deflect any known weapon, and a more efficient way to pour burning oil on enemy heads. He also came up with a plan to save Venice from the Turks by building a collapsible dam and then removing it to drown a Turkish army.
In spite of his genius, Leonardo had almost no impact on the progress of science - most of his work was illegible and wasn’t studied until the 19th century, by which most of his ideas had been independently discovered. His fame in the years after his death was almost exclusively tied to a small body of 30 completed paintings.
In the 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has become our model for the solitary genius, the ultimate Renaissance man. The common wisdom is that, like Shakespeare, we know his work in great detail but next to nothing about his life. This is a myth. In fact, like Shakespeare, we know much more about Leonardo than we do about the vast majority of his contemporaries.
We know he was illegitimate, the son of a notary in the small Italian hill town of Vinci, and that his mother, Caterina, was either a local peasant or an Arabic slave. His father, Piero, quickly married off Caterina to a bad-tempered local lime-burner and the young Leonardo found himself abandoned. His father went on to marry four and sire another fifteen children; his mother also had new children of her own and refused to treat Leonardo as her son. Worse still, as a bastard, he was prevented from going to university, or entering any of the respectable professions such as medicine or law.
Leonardo’s response was to withdraw into a private world of observation and invention. The key to understanding his genius isn’t in his paintings – extraordinary and groundbreaking though they are – but in his notebooks. In these 13,000 pages of notes, sketches, diagrams, philosophical observations and lists, we have one of the most complete records of the inner workings of a human mind ever committed to paper.
Leonardo’s curiosity was relentless. He literally took apart the world around him to see how it worked and left a trail of the process. This was first-hand research: he had to see things for himself, whatever that meant. He personally dissected more than 30 human corpses in his lifetime, even though it was a serious criminal offence. This wasn’t motivated by any medical agenda: he just wanted to improve the accuracy of his drawing and deepen his understanding of how the body worked.
I know that many will call this useless work.
The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. They may have been lost in restoration.
Leonardo was a vegetarian 500 years before it became common in the rest of Europe.
After Leonardo's death, his family attempted to recreate his genius. His half-brother Bartolomeo set off to the village in which his mother was born and found himself 'the best born maiden'. Before the two conceived, Bartolomeo kept telling his wife of his brother’s genius and how he wanted his son to turn out just like Leonardo. As a result she prayed to God that he would make her worthy of giving birth to the second Leonardo.
Oddly enough, it seemed to work. The child, Pierino da Vinci (1530-53), was sent to one of the great art studios of Florence as soon as he was old enough. He soon demonstrated talent and several sculptures now believed to be by Pierino da Vinci were at one time attributed to Michelangelo. Pierino completed several important works such as the tomb of Turini in the cathedral of Pescia, and a marble statue of a river god now in the Louvre. Sadly he died around 1553 at the age of only 22 – leaving, in a short space of time, a body of work comprising over 20 pieces.
Leonardo devoted 16 years of his life, on and off, to an enormous bronze statue of a horse and rider, which was to be the largest ever built. It was never made. 'Il Colosso', as it was called, was going to be an enormous sculpture of a horse. The bronze sculpture was never cast, but Leonardo did create a full-size clay model, as well as a special furnace to cast it in. He was in the middle of obtaining the necssary bronze when France invaded Milan; his bronze was used for cannons and the French used the clay horse as target practice, ending the project. Sadly, the 24-foot-tall statue could never have been made due to engineering constraints.
The Queen’s library owns a huge collection of Leonardo’s notebooks - thought to be worth about $5 billion.
The function of muscle is to pull and not to push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue.
Leonardo was brilliant, but he was not infallible. He didn’t invent scissors, the telescope, or the helicopter as is frequently claimed. He was very bad at maths – he only ever mastered basic geometry and his arithmetic was often wrong. Many of his observations haven’t stood the test of time: he thought the moon’s surface was covered by water, which was why it reflected light from the sun. He also thought that the salamander had no digestive organs, but survived by eating fire.
Leonardo's 'helicopter' was a sketch of the 'aerial-screw' or 'air gyroscope', a device with a helical rotor. He planned to use muscle power to revolve the rotor, but such power would never have been sufficient to operate the machine successfully.
Rather more pleasingly, in 2004 a BBC documentary tested the parachute Leonardo da Vinci designed, three centuries before the first parachute was tried. It worked.
Leonardo’s great fresco, The Last Supper, began to deteriorate almost immediately. The work you see today is practically all the work of restorers. This is because Leonardo didn’t follow traditional, tried-and-tested fresco techniques, but instead used oil-based paint directly on dry plaster. Within his lifetime the paint began to flake. By 1586, the painting was barely visible. It also had a hard life. It was exposed to rain and wind, an underground stream passing underneath it made it permanently damp, and in 1652 occupying Spanish forces punched a door in the painting, cutting off Jesus' feet. Two centuries later Napoleon’s soldiers tied horses to it, and it was almost hit by a bomb in the Second World War. It got so dilapidated that Aldous Huxley called it 'the saddest work of art in the world.'
The monks at the church where Leonardo was painting the Supper (Santa Maria delle Grazie) got annoyed because he would arrive in the morning, stare at it in silence for a few hours, make a few brush strokes, and then disappear for the rest of the day. He ingeniously claimed that he was walking Milan’s streets looking for the right faces to paint.
Da Vinci was the first to explain why the sky is blue.
After dissecting cadavers, Leonardo replaced the muscles with strings to see how they worked.
Leonardo da Vinci spent almost half his life asleep. He took fifteen minute naps every four hours during the day.
Leonardo Da Vinci was an accomplished lyre player.
In December 2000, skydiver Adrian Nicholas landed in South Africa using a parachute built from one of Leonardo's designs.