In one of his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci saw fit to copy lines from Dante's Inferno:
Lying in a featherbed will not bring you fame, nor staying beneath the quilt, and he who uses up his life without achieving fame leaves no more vestige of himself on Earth than smoke in the air or foam upon the water.
It sounds a little surprising that Leonardo feared obscurity, but he had to cope with disadvantages. He was born out of wedlock in 1452. On the one hand, his baptism was well attended, indicating that his illegitimacy wasn't such a big deal. On the other hand, his illegitimacy barred him from his father's respectable occupation as a notary.
Leonardo's father, Piero, could have married Leonardo's peasant-girl mother, but he didn't. Leonardo's mother may have cared for her son when he was a baby, and might have even spent her final years with him, but when he was still little, she married and started a new family. Meanwhile, Piero went on to marry four times. His last two wives were much younger than Leonardo himself, and Leonardo had a gaggle of half-siblings young enough to be his own children.
In the 15th century, paying a fee could legitimate an illegitimate child, but Piero didn't do that for Leonardo, either. (Nor did he leave anything to Leonardo in his will decades later.) Although it was constraining, Leonardo's illegitimacy was also liberating. The boy's awkward station in life may have freed him from expectations of a traditional career. The occupations of artist and self-styled inventor were not too respectable for an illegitimate youth, to the great benefit of the Renaissance. He was raised largely by his nature-loving uncle, just 15 years his senior. Growing up in Florence — a city rich in artists, workshops, patrons and inventiveness — likely nurtured his talents, too.
Unlike several of his illustrious contemporaries, Leonardo had no formal education except a short stint in an abacus school, and he developed an abiding contempt for received learning. He eventually realized that his lack of Latin shut him off from other intellectuals, and he launched a self-education program. As a result, his famed notebooks include, along with ground-breaking anatomical illustrations and flying-machine diagrams, careful inflections of Latin verbs.
Besides Leonardo's lack of a formal education, his "peasant manners" may explain the reluctance of Florence's de facto ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, to use him as a cultural ambassador. Yet the dandy Leonardo fussed about his appearance — a trait conspicuously absent from his rival Michelangelo — and his flamboyance was somewhat at odds with the restrained Florentine culture. He eventually left Florence for Milan, where he both found a patron and spent some of the most productive years of his life. He wandered the streets looking for faces to use in The Last Supper and, when a prior pushed him to finish, threatened to use the prior's own visage for Judas. Leonardo's good fortune in Milan lasted only a little while before the French invaded. After that, he adopted a fairly nomadic lifestyle, frequently working as a military advisor despite his own distaste for warfare. He lived and worked for a time in Rome, where he enjoyed the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici's sons, Pope Leo X (for whom he drained marshes) and Giuliano. There he tolerated the presence of his prickly rival Michelangelo and poked around the fossil shells of Monte Mario. Giuliano's death, however, left Leonardo looking for a patron once more. At the age of 64, he embarked on the longest journey of his life: to France. There he spent the last few years of his life, enjoying the patronage of King Francis I.
Leonardo da Vinci lived at a time of amazing cultural change. Gutenberg invented movable type when Leonardo was a child. When the Renaissance genius was born, Europe had roughly 30,000 printed books; by the time he reached middle age, it had an estimated 8 million. In the second half of the 15th century, Europeans printed roughly 12.5 million books. In a way, Leonardo's own library mirrored this explosion. When he moved from Florence to Milan, the savant's packing list didn't mention a single book. Months after arriving in Milan, he owned five. Shortly after the turn of the 16th century, he owned well over 100. Unfortunately, though he eventually owned quite a few books, he wrote few of them. He failed to complete many of the projects he started, once claiming, "Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least." Even worse, he may have been paranoid about his ideas being stolen. Whatever his motivation, he largely kept his copious notes to himself. After his death, many of his notebooks were lost, scattered, and pieced back together in haphazard fashion. Luckily for historians, thousands of pages of his notes made their way to the collections at Windsor.
Among Leonardo's many scientific achievements were his discoveries in anatomy. Besides artistic talent, he possessed the stomach to dissect. His animal dissections enabled him to produce impressive anatomical diagrams, yet he spent at least part of his life as a vegetarian, out of respect for our furry and feathered friends. His relationship with the animal world was complicated. The art historian Vasari related how Leonardo once converted a hapless lizard to a "monster," outfitting it with wings and horns made from parts of other reptiles. To complete the picture, he painted the poor thing with mercury.
Contrary to popular belief, human dissections weren't illegal in Leonardo da Vinci's day, but they weren't very common, either. They typically had to be conducted in the wintertime when corpses decomposed a little less quickly. Being a simple craftsman, Leonardo couldn't easily acquire human corpses, although that situation changed when he was a renowned artist in his fifties. To better understand fetal development, he dissected a pregnant mother. To better understand anatomical changes over time, he simultaneously dissected and old man and a two-year-old. In 1489, he managed to acquire a human skull, which he cut into sections to better examine its internal structure. Though his understanding of the respiratory system improved little upon medieval knowledge, and he clung to common misconceptions about the human brain, his studies of skeletal and muscle tissue, brain anatomy, and digestive and reproductive systems eventually advanced human anatomical understanding to a new level (one of his more ingenious feats was to build a glass model of an aortic valve). While dissecting, illustrating and theorizing, he rejected the common belief that skull shapes and facial features predicted character and personality.
Leonardo's assorted insights have prompted some modern researchers to speculate that, besides an extraordinary intellect, he possessed extraordinary visual acuity, perhaps able to see more variations of color than most of the rest of us. As for shapes, he felt that the similar appearance of branching blood vessels, branching stems, and mingling tributaries weren't just coincidence; they actually were fundamentally the same. In that same spirit of unified microcosm/macrocosm, he investigated geology.
By the time he lived in Milan, Leonardo had a reputation for doing something unusual: tramping around the hills studying nature and rocks. His notebooks record discoveries of fossil bones, burrows, even turds. Around 1490, some Milanese peasants brought him a bag of fossil shells. For the next quarter of a century, he pondered the shells' meaning, and apparently visited the site where they had been collected. He also bought cockles from a Florentine fish peddler and gave them a home in an oblong container with sand and sea water. No cockle moved more than 8 feet a day. That pace, he noted, couldn't get a cockle from the Adriatic Sea to Lombardy in 40 days and 40 nights. After this and other studies, he not only doubted that Noah's flood had carried the fossils to their present locations, he also questioned whether there had even been such a worldwide deluge. He suspected a much older Earth than what a literal reading of the Bible indicated.
As to those who say that shells existed for a long time and were born at a distance from the sea, from the nature of the place and of the cycles, which can influence a place to produce such creatures — to them it may be answered: such an influence could not place the animals all on one line, except those of the same sort and age; and not the old with the young, nor some with an operculum and others without their operculum, nor some broken and others whole, nor some filled with sea-sand and large and small fragments of other shells inside the whole shells which remained open; nor the claws of crabs without the rest of their bodies . . . And the deluge cannot have carried them there, because things that are heavier than water do not float on the water.
In fact, Leonardo's interpretation of an ancient Earth wasn't that unusual for his time. Belief in an ancient planet was more widespread in his day than a 21st-century reader might assume, and a biblically inspired young planet just several thousand years old didn't become the norm among naturalists until the 17th century. That said, to project modern secular ideas onto Leonardo is to misunderstand the Renaissance savant. He lived at a time suffused with religion, and he no doubt shared the religious devotions of many of his contemporaries, even if he did consider some clergy members hypocrites.
Leonardo da Vinci rejected the notion that fossils were just "sports of nature," understanding instead that they belonged to once-living organisms. He noted that fossil shells appeared in several different horizons in the mountains, meaning they could not have all been deposited in a single deluge, nor could slow-moving mollusks reach the mountains in the biblical flood's short duration. In studying the fossils, he noticed that they were full of borings — evidence of ancient behavior. In different rock layers, he detected worm burrows in ancient layers of mud. Leonardo not only discerned ancient behavior, but also uncovered ancient environments.
Besides being a genius, Leonardo da Vinci had another advantage: living in the Mediterranean. The fossil beds in this region were relatively young and well preserved, similar in appearance to modern-day analogues, and in close proximity to them — three things that would facilitate comparison. The time that he lived in the Mediterranean gave Leonardo another advantage. Growing cites and economic development had led to widespread deforestation in Italy. Even compared to today, the peninsula hosted little vegetation, which exposed rock layers that curious minds could ponder. Leonardo noted that opposite sides of the same valleys had generally matching rock sequences, suggesting that he discerned superposition of rock strata about a century and a half before the geologic pioneer Nicolaus Steno. And the years that Leonardo devoted to studying the behavior of water — he was fascinated by the destructive power of floods — also helped him elucidate how sediments are deposited.
The streams and rivers move different kinds of matter which are of varying degrees of gravity, and they are moved further from their position in proportion as they are lighter, and will remain nearer to the bottom in proportion as they are heavier, and will be carried a greater distance when driven by water of greater power. . . . When a river flows out from among mountains it deposits a great quantity of large stones in its gravelly bed, and these stones will retain some part of their angles and side; and as it proceeds on its course it carries with it lesser stones with angles more worn away, and so the large stones become smaller; and farther on it deposits first coarse and then fine gravel.
Unfortunately, because his notebooks were not published, his insights on these processes had little influence on Renaissance science. Publication might have had a significant effect. He offered an early theory of plate tectonics. His illustrations comparing human and animal anatomy as well as expressions of anger in humans, horses and lions suggest that he understood how much people have in common with our fellow animals. Perhaps most interesting of all, he may have formulated a vague notion of evolution.
Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and continually producing new forms, because she knows that her terrestrial materials are thereby augmented, is more ready and more swift in her creating than is time in his destruction.
Leonardo's reluctance to publish might have hampered the recognition he received during his own lifetime, but fascination with his abilities is widespread in the 21st century. The year 2019 marks the quincentennial of Leonardo's death (May 2, 1519). One example of that fascination is the Leonardo Project, aiming to trace his genealogy and his DNA, both to identify whether he really made all the artwork attributed to him, and to identify genetic variants that might help explain his achievements.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated August 20, 2023