Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Incredible Talents of Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci
Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci by Melzi
Source: Francesco Melzi [Public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons
To say that Leonardo Da Vinci was a multi-talented genius would be a gross understatement. We are, after all, talking about the man who painted the Mon Lisa, invented the helicopter, made major contributions to medical science and, in his spare time, apparently hid the true lineage of Jesus Christ. He has, in fact, been accredited with being the most diversely talented man in history.


Leonardo Da Vinci was born, the illegitimate son of a lawyer, in 1452. He was the apprentice of sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence and he became an independent master in 1478. He moved to Milan in 1483 to work for the ruling Sforza family as an engineer, sculptor, painter and architect during which time he painted The Last Supper. When Milan was invaded by the French, in 1499, Da Vinci moved to Florence, which was where he painted the Mona Lisa and he returned to Milan in 1506. In 1517, he moved to the Château of Cloux, in France, at the invitation of the King, where he died in 1519.

Da Vinci was one of the greatest creative minds of the Italian Renaissance, or even the greatest creative mind ever and he was renowned as a genius in many different disciplines. The man was a painter, anatomist, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, mathematician, inventor, geologist, cartographer and a botanist.

So great and diverse were Leonardo Da Vinci’s talents we can barely scrape the surface in one article, so here is a just a taste of some of the works of the greatest polymath who ever lived.

Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci
The Mona Lisa
Source: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons
The Mona Lisa
If you ask most people who Leonardo Da Vinci was, they will reply that he was the man who painted the Mona Lisa. Whatever the legends and myths say about why she is smiling or who she really is, there is something really strange about the painting and that is, for some reason, it does seem to captivate the viewer. The painting is, possibly, the most famous painting in the world and Da Vinci completed it between 1503 and 1507. He kept the painting himself, until his death in 1519 after which it was owned by his assistant, Salaì, King François I of France, it spent a brief period of time in the bedroom of Napoleon and is now the property of the Franch Republic and it hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.

And why is she smiling? Well, some say that she was secretly pregnant, others say the Da Vinci employed clowns to entertain his model. The identity of the subject has also been the topic of much debate and, although no one really knows the truth, it has been suggested that it could be a portrait of Mary Magdalene, a self-portrait of Da Vinci himself or, more likely, a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo.

The Last Supper
Source: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
The Last Supper
The Last Supper is a mural painted on a wall in the refectory of Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is a depiction of the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him and it shows the disciples' reactions to this news. The painting was commissioned as a centrepiece for the family mausoleum of Ludovico Sforza and was painted between 1495 and 1498.

Little actually remains of Da Vinci’s original painting because the work has been restored so often. The most recent restoration was completed in 1999 and caused much controversy as colours and even shapes of objects in the painting appeared to have been changed from the original.

Like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, has been the subject of conspiracy theories with author Dan Brown, in his novel the Da Vinci Code, documenting the theory that the figure to the right of Christ is not the disciple John, but Mary Magdalene. In 2007, Italian amateur scholar suggested that if you superimpose a mirror image of the painting onto the original you can see the figure of a woman holding a baby. The question of why there is no Holy Grail visible is also often raised, although the answer to that question might be that there are wine glasses to be seen; they are now difficult to pick out in the painting.

The Vitruvian Man, Leonardo Da Vinci
The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485) Accademia, Venice
Source: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
The Vitruvian Man
The well-known image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s’ The Vitruvian Man was another example of the polymath’s amazing powers of observation. Based on some earlier work by the Roman Architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, The Vitruvian Man explores the relationship between the human form and geometry. Using his knowledge of anatomy, Da Vinci documented the perfect proportions of the male body in some detail.

Here are some of the observations that Da Vinci made about the proportions of a man, should you wish to get out the tape measure and check his theories!

  • The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man.
  • From the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man.
  • From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man.
  • From above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man.
  • From above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • The maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • From the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • The distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • The distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man.
  • The length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man.
  • The root of the penis is at half the height of a man.The foot is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • From below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • From below the knee to the root of the penis is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • The distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.


Leonardo Da Vinci
Anatomical study of the arm, (c. 1510)
Source: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons
Da Vinci’s study of Human Anatomy
Coinciding with his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, his artistic abilities and his studies of mathematics and science; Leonardo Da Vinci also made detailed studies of the human anatomy. He was given permission to dissect human bodies in Florence and he made over 240 detailed drawings of the workings of the human body. Way before the modern science of bio-mechanics was born; Da Vinci was detailing the workings of muscles and internal organs in great depth. As well as humans, Da Vinci also dissected and studied many animals from frogs, all the way through to horses.

The engineering and inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci
Da Vinci was also an inventor and a structural engineer. He was employed as an engineer in Venice, in 1499, during which time he designed a barricade system to protect the city and devised a river diversion scheme for diverting the Arno River. He was also a prolific inventor and he drew sketches of many machines that, at the time, were revolutionary and must have looked as far-fetched then as an intergalactic star ship might look to us now. Although some of his inventions were completely impractical, he did draw designs for a helicopter, a military tank, a diving suit, a parachute and a bicycle. Long before these things became a reality.

Leonardo Da Vinci and music
What isn't quite so well known about Leonardo Da Vinci is that he was also an accomplished musician. He could play the flute and the lyre and it also said that he had an incredible singing voice. He was also a composer, though it’s thought that most of his musical compositions were lost, and there are claims that a musical can score can be seen in Da Vinci’s, The Last Supper, in the Loaves of bread that appear along the table.

One of Da Vinci’s inventions was a musical instrument that was a mechanical combination of a harpsichord and a cello where spinning wheels of horsehair ran along the strings of the instrument o create the notes and chords. There is no record of Da Vinci ever having built the instrument, but in 2013 Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki played his ‘viola organista’ which he had built based upon Da Vinci’s design.


You may also be interested in:

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