Eight things you might not know about Leonardo Da Vinci

As Italy celebrates 500 years since the death of Renaissance master Leonardo, academic Richard Gunderman presents some lesser-known facts about the man and his legacy.

Eight things you might not know about Leonardo Da Vinci
A photo from 1947 showing an employee of the Louvre museum hangs the famous portrait of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: AFP

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death. Widely considered one of the greatest polymaths in human history, Leonardo was an inventor, artist, musician, architect, engineer, anatomist, botanist, geologist, historian and cartographer.

Though his artistic output was small, Leonardo’s impact was great, reflecting his deep knowledge of the body, his extensive studies of light and the human face, and his sfumato (Italian for “smoky”) technique, which allowed for incredibly lifelike images. Leonardo regarded artists as divine apprentices, writing “We, by our arts, may be called the grandsons of God.”

An exhibition of da Vinci's work in Rome. Photo: AFP

Twenty-first-century scholars at MIT ranked him the sixth most influential person who ever lived. Like Rembrandt and Michelangelo, he is so renowned that he is known by only his first name. Yet despite his fame, there are things about Leonardo that many people today find surprising.

Shady parentage

Leonardo was born out of wedlock on April 15th 1452. His father, Piero, was a wealthy notary, and his mother, Caterina, was a local peasant girl. Although the circumstances of his birth would place Leonardo at a disadvantage in terms of education and inheritance, biographer Walter Isaacson regards it as a terrific stroke of luck.

Vinci, the Tuscan village where the Renaissance genius was born. Photo: AFP

Rather than being expected to become a notary like his father, Leonardo was instead free to develop the full range of his genius. People surmise that it also imbued him with a special sense of urgency to establish his own identity and prove himself.

Physical beauty

Leonardo created some of the world’s most beautiful works of art, including the “Last Supper” and the “Mona Lisa.” In his own day, he was known as an exceptionally attractive person. One of Leonardo’s biographers describes him as a person of “outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did.”

READ MORE: Experts are investigating whether Da Vinci drew 'Nude Mona Lisa'

A contemporary described him as a “well proportioned, graceful, and good-looking man” who “wore a rose-pink tunic” and had “beautiful curling hair, carefully styled, which came down to the middle of his chest.” Leonardo is thought to have entered into long-term and possibly sexual relationships with two of his pupils, both artists in their own right.

From scraps to notebooks

The paintings generally attributed to Leonardo number fewer than 20, while his notebooks contain over 7,000 pages. They’re the best source of knowledge about Leonardo, housed today in locations such as Windsor Castle, the Louvre and the Spanish National Library in Madrid. 

The Mona Lisa, Da Vinci's most famous work. Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP

Their diverse content ranges across drawings – most famously, Vitruvian Man – notes of things he wanted to investigate, scientific and technical diagrams, and shopping lists.

They comprise perhaps the most remarkable monument to human curiosity and creativity ever produced by a single person. Yet when Leonardo penned them, they were just loose pieces of paper of different types and sizes. His friends bound them into “notebooks” only after his death.

Outsider’s education

As a result of his illegitimacy, Leonardo received a rather rudimentary formal education consisting primarily of business arithmetic. He never attended university and sometimes referred to himself as an “unlettered man.”


Yet his lack of formal schooling also freed him from the constraints of tradition, helping to instill in him a determination to question authority and place greater reliance on his own experience than opinions expressed in books. As a result, he became a firsthand observer and experimenter, uninterested in serving as a mouthpiece for the classics.

Prolific procrastinator

Although Leonardo’s mind was extraordinarily fertile, he was also an inveterate procrastinator and even quitter. He frequently took months or years to begin work on commissions, sometimes keeping patrons at bay with lofty pronouncements regarding his creative process. 

A giant equestrian statue for the duke of Milan, requiring 70 tons of bronze to cast, might have been his grandest work – if it had ever been completed. Yet a decade after the 1482 commission, Leonardo had produced only a clay model which was subsequently destroyed when invading French soldiers used it for target practice.

Rivalrous motivations

Leonardo’s life overlapped those of two other Renaissance giants – Michelangelo and Raphael – but it was Michelangelo who stoked an intense rivalry. The contrast between the two men could hardly have been sharper.

READ ALSO: Experts to DNA test 'Leonardo da Vinci's hair' found in the US

Leonardo was elegant and evinced little interest in matters religious, while Michelangelo was deeply pious yet neglectful of his appearance and hygiene. Michelangelo created some of the greatest paintings in history, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and many considered his “David” the greatest sculpture ever produced, a triumph he lorded over his older rival.

An exhibition in Rome dedicated to da Vinci's work. Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP

Royal admirer

Soon after King Francis I of France captured Milan in 1516, Leonardo entered his service, spending the last years of his life in a house near the royal residence. When death came to Leonardo on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67, it is said that the king, who loved to listen to Leonardo talk so much that he was hardly ever apart from him, cradled his head as he breathed his last. 

Years later, reflecting on his friendship with the great man, King Francis said, “No man possessed such a knowledge of painting, sculpture, or architecture as Leonardo, but the same goes for philosophy. He was a great philosopher

Skyrocketing value

In November 2017, one of the paintings attributed to Leonardo, “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), set the record for the most expensive painting ever sold, fetching US$450 million. Painted in oil on walnut in about 1500, it depicts Jesus offering a benediction with his right hand while holding a crystalline orb that appears to represent the cosmos in his left.

A painting entitled Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP

The painting had suffered from neglect and poor restorations and was long assumed to be the work of one of Leonardo’s students, selling as recently as 2005 as part of the estate of a Baton Rouge businessman for less than $10,000. Its current whereabouts are unknown.

READ ALSO: Mystery of 'Salvator Mundi', the world's most costly painting

One of a kind, admired then and now

Just a half-century after Leonardo’s death, the biographer Vasari beautifully summed up his enduring significance:

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill.”

Five hundred years after Leonardo’s death, these words still ring true.

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor's Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.