6 Things You Don’t Know about Leonardo da Vinci

Julia Fiore
Sep 7, 2018 9:46PM

Although he left behind thousands of notebook pages filled with all kinds of observations on art, nature, and life, Leonardo da Vinci remains something of an enigma. Through an endless litany of movies, TV shows, biographies, conspiratorial novels, and experiential exhibitions, the innovative polymath takes wildly different forms. He alternately appears as a fantastical inventor, an ambitious artist with bitter rivalries, a kindly eccentric, or a cryptic, cultish puzzle maker. In a forthcoming biopic adapted from Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive recent biography, Leonardo DiCaprio will take his own stab at a definitive portrayal.

Though he rarely wrote about himself or his feelings in his notebooks, Leonardo’s prolific, forward-thinking experiments attest to his being a feverishly creative and relentlessly curious individual, unmoored from his era’s philosophies and social customs. His obsessive observations of the natural world led to idiosyncratic—and now legendary—designs for proto-flying machines; unprecedentedly accurate anatomical drawings, culled from cadaver dissections; and a handful of masterful, psychologically complex artworks. Other aspects of Leonardo’s life and work, however, can help to demystify the man behind the legend. Below, we delve into some of the lesser-known details surrounding the ultimate Renaissance Man.  

His illegitimacy freed him to pursue art

On April 15, 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born to Piero da Vinci, a prominent notary, and Caterina Lippi, an unmarried local peasant, in a small town about 20 miles outside of Florence. As Walter Isaacson notes in his biography of the artist, Leonardo “had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.” Had he been the result of a legal union, Leonardo would have followed in his father’s footsteps, like all the males in the family had for at least five generations (Piero’s guild, the Arte dei Giuduci e Notai, also enforced exclusionary moral rules that prohibited bastards).

In fact, a striking number of Renaissance geniuses were non legittimo, including Leon Battista Alberti, Boccaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, and Petrarch, among many others. Renaissance Italy was “a golden age for bastards,” historian Jacob Burckhardt claims in his 1860 book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. This seems to have at least been true among the upper classes of society. Prominent sons born out of wedlock during this time include seven princes from the Este family, as well as Pope Alexander VI, who had many illegitimate children himself, among them the notorious Cesare Borgia, who grew up to become a cardinal and commander of the papal armies (as well as an employer of Leonardo).

Despite his status as non legittimo, by the age of five, Leonardo lived with his paternal grandfather in Vinci as a generally accepted member of the household (his father conducted his business in nearby Florence). Although Piero’s second child wasn’t born until Leonardo was 24, he never seemed compelled to legitimize Leonardo as his heir, though it was a fairly common practice to do so. Yet this choice allowed Leonardo to evade the notary profession and instead follow his curiosity as an artist, architect, and inventor.

Leonardo was self-taught

Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, 1472. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Had Leonardo become a notary, he would have been sent off to a Latin school to study the classics and humanities. Instead, Leonardo briefly attended a local abacus school to learn commercial math. Other than that, he was largely self-taught. Left to his own devices, Leonardo developed an empirical approach to learning that prioritized experience, observation, and experimentation. In this way, he extricated himself from received knowledge and prevailing dogma; he approached the world, and his varied projects, with an honest and unbridled curiosity.

Apparently proud of this unschooled approach, he once signed a document “Leonardo da Vinci, disscepolo della sperientia” (“disciple of experience”). Still, throughout his life, Leonardo seemed somewhat ambivalent about his lack of formal education. Although he self-deprecatingly referred to himself as an “unlettered man,” he also took immense pride in his unique methodology. “They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe,” he groused in one of his notebooks, “but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”

Success largely eluded him during his lifetime

Andrea del Verrocchio, The Baptism of Christ, 1472–75. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1482. Vatican Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

While he might now be considered one of the most famous figures from the Renaissance, and perhaps of all human history, Leonardo did not enjoy a particularly successful career, though his prodigious talent was certainly recognized. As a young man apprenticed in artist Andrea del Verrocchio’s Florence workshop, Leonardo established a reputation as a prodigal painter. By the time he was in his late teens or early twenties, the student had far outpaced his teacher.

According to Giorgio Vasari, the lifelike angel that Leonardo contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1468–77) so stunned his master that Verrocchio “resolved never again to touch a brush.” Vasari may be known to exaggerate, but after the Baptism, Verrocchio didn’t complete any new paintings without a collaborator or assistant for the rest of his life. Leonardo’s refined eye for nature, and his near-perfect ability to convey three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, had heralded a new era of painting.

Leonardo’s mastery of oil painting—including his development of groundbreaking techniques like sfumato and chiaroscuro, as well as his accurate rendering of natural phenomena—should have made him a sought-after artist. But when he finally established his own workshop in 1477, it was a commercial failure; Leonardo only received three commissions, two of which were never finished, and one never started. Within only a few years, he shuttered his workshop to seek work elsewhere.

Later in his life, prominent patrons from leading families like the Borgias, Estes, and Sforzas, as well as Catholic popes and French kings, commissioned artworks from Leonardo, as well as military and architectural designs. But although he conceived hundreds of inventions, there’s no evidence that any of them were ever built. None of Leonardo’s writings were published in his lifetime, and he barely finished most of his commissioned paintings. Only 15 are now known to exist, though the Annunciation (ca. 1472), the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1482), Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503–19), and even the Mona Lisa (1503–19), among others, remain uncompleted. His relentless curiosity (and perhaps perfectionism) hampered his productivity.

Leonardo’s younger rival, Michelangelo, publicly made fun of the elder artist for his inability to complete a work. Yet Leonardo played a long game: He often held onto his paintings for many years, returning to them as he learned more about anatomy and optics. Leonardo began the Mona Lisa in 1503 and worked on it for the rest of his life (to capture her elusive smile, he first tested on cadavers how cheek muscles move the lips). As Isaacson points out, the artist’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness, begun in 1480, “seems to accurately reflect the anatomical knowledge that he gleaned later, including from dissections made in 1510,” particularly the treatment of the muscles in the emaciated saint’s neck.

Leonardo died in 1519, and when Vasari published his Lives of the Artists in 1550, he reserved great praise for the master: “The loss of Leonardo was mourned out of measure by all who had known him, for there was none who had done such honor to painting.…Indeed as Florence had the greatest of gifts in his birth, so she suffered an infinite loss in his death.”

He cared as much about bridges and weapons as he did paintings

Page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Arundel, late 15th–early 16th century. Courtesy of the British Library.

In the early 1480s, as he neared the age of 30, Leonardo’s painting career in Florence began to dwindle as he struggled to complete his commissions. In search of a steady job, he penned a long letter to the duke of Milan. Over 10 paragraphs, Leonardo extolled his vast engineering skills. For the duke, he could design bridges and armored vehicles, weapons and public buildings. Only in the 11th paragraph, Isaacson notes, does he add that he’s also an artist: “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.” Decades later, in 1502, he joined Cesare Borgia’s court as a military engineer, designing some truly terrifying weapons, which were never realized (though modern-day models can be viewed at the National Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci in Milan).

Even when he was painting, Leonardo was driven by scientific concerns.Sfumato and chiaroscuro, for instance, were born of his optical studies and cadaver dissections—the latter of which was certainly not a common practice at the time. Yet E.H. Gombrich writes in his seminal Story of Art that “all this exploration of nature was to him first and foremost a means of gaining knowledge of the visible world, such as he would need for his art.” Leonardo, Gombrich argues, strove to employ scientific inquiry in order to elevate painting—which had been, for hundreds of years, considered manual (and thereby menial) labor—to the level of liberal art: “He thought that by placing it on scientific foundations he could transform his beloved art of painting from a humble craft into an honoured and gentlemanly pursuit.”

His mirror-script notebooks have an unglamorous explanation

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Forster I, late 15th–early 16th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of the Arm Showing the Movements Made by Biceps, c. 1510. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo famously wrote from right to left in his notebooks, using a backwards script that can only be read when placed in front of a mirror. Many have presumed that the impetus for using this seemingly painstaking method was secrecy, a layer of security to safeguard Leonardo’s one-of-a-kind ideas and observations. In addition to the fact that he chose not to publish his notebooks, this explanation contributes to the general sense of mystery and ingenuity in Leonardo’s life and work. Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code has the Priory of Sion, a fictional secret society, utilizing the artist’s mirror script to write coded messages.

Leonardo wrote backwards in his notebooks not to be secretive, however, but because he was left-handed (he was ambidextrous and dyslexic, too). This technique simply prevented the ink from smudging. As Martin Kemp, a professor of art history at Oxford University, notes in his book Leonardo, writing from right to left was “a natural move, by the way, for a left-hander using his materials and working at his speed.”

Leonardo was gay. But that doesn’t mean he was repressed

Leonardo da Vinci, Heads of an Old Man and a Youth, c. 1495. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1476, a week before his 24th birthday, Leonardo, along with three other young men, were anonymously accused of committing sodomy with a 17-year-old male prostitute named Jacopo Saltarelli. Luckily for Leonardo, one of the other accused had a connection with the powerful Medici; they were all let off under “the condition that no further accusations are made.” But a few weeks later, another anonymous complaint was lodged against the four, again in connection with Saltarelli. No witnesses came forward, and the case was dropped for good.

Although punishments for sodomy could be harsh (including prison, exile, or death), it seems that many other prominent Florentine artists were also known to have been homosexuals (Michelangelo, Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, and Benvenuto Cellini, among them). As Renaissance humanists engaged with rediscovered works by Plato, which celebrated “l’amore masculino,” homosexuality became such a fact of Florentine life that the word Florenzer became slang in Germany for “gay.”

In a 1910 essay, Sigmund Freud analyzed a childhood memory Leonardo had recorded in his notebooks, concluding that the artist’s repressed homosexual desires were “sublimated” in his art—and, indeed, explained why he had left so many works unfinished.

But Leonardo had several young lovers throughout his life. Two years after the sodomy accusations, he drew in his notebook a doodle of an older man and young boy facing each other. “Fioravante di Domenico of Florence is my most beloved friend,” he wrote beside the drawing, “as though he were my….” The unfinished sentence suggests a real emotional intimacy between the two. Leonardo’s sexual preferences were also reflected in his sketches and paintings, which show far more interest in the male body than the female (while he rendered many men in full-length nude portraits, almost all the women are depicted clothed and from the waist up). His Saint John the Baptist (1513–15), for instance, is thought to be modeled after his longtime apprentice and rumored lover Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salai, meaning “little devil.”

Leonardo seemed largely at ease with his desires—unlike Michelangelo, who agonized over his own sexuality. Isaacson reminds us that his homosexuality “probably contributed to his sense of being unconventional.” As in many other aspects of his life, this difference set Leonardo apart. His outsider status enabled his unique brand of creativity, as well as the trailblazing paintings and experiments that have made him such a towering figure today.

Julia Fiore

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Leonardo da Vinci biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio would be released this fall. A release date for the biopic has yet to be announced.