When you think of da Vinci, you probably think of his artwork – like, oh, say, a little painting called the “Mona Lisa.” For most of us, that’s enough to cement his reputation: he was a genius. We get it.
But Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t just an incredible painter. He was an incredible everything. During his lifetime, Leonardo pushed the boundaries of engineering, botany, music, sculpture, architecture, physics, and engineering. Like the kid you went to high school with who captained both the basketball AND football teams, it’s hard not to be a bit jealous.
All that accomplishment, though, can almost make it difficult to imagine him as a real person. He was a real, living, breathing person, like anybody else. And while his many accomplishments are fascinating in their own right, so too are the details of his lived experience. So with that in mind, here are 42 inventive facts about Leonardo da Vinci.
42. All in the Family
Da Vinci’s family was pretty big—all thanks to his father. He was married four times (though never to Leonardo’s mother) and had 17 other children. Leonardo’s father was also pretty wealthy, so when he died, there were issues splitting up the inheritance among all of the children. Unfortunately, when the elder da Vinci died, Leonardo received nothing.
41. Split the Parents
Despite living with his mother until he was five, da Vinci eventually went to live with his father and the two became very close.
da Vinci still wrote letters to his mother, though, and the pair rekindled their relationship during her final years.
40. Hands-On Learning
When da Vinci was just 15 years old, he was sent to Florence and began his apprenticeship under the artist Andrea Verrocchio. Verrocchio was considered perhaps the greatest artist living in Florence, and to this day is remembered as one of the leading painters from the early Renaissance.
Which, I think you’ll agree, is a pretty good place to start for any aspiring artist.
Anyway, while there, the young da Vinci learned crafts like leatherworking, metalworking, chemistry, carpentry, and sculpting, among others. It’s entirely possible that this early education in a myriad of fields helped to inspire the young Leonardo, who would go on to spend his life pursuing many different paths.
It was like a crash course in becoming the prototypical Renaissance Man.
39. One Degree of Separation
The year that da Vinci became an apprentice with Verrocchio was actually the same year that Verrocchio’s own master died.
Who was that, you may wonder? One of the great sculptors of the time—Donatello.
For those keeping score at home, the answer is yes: that means two of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles worked in the same shop in Renaissance Florence, just a few years apart.
38. He Probably Could Have Taught the Classes Anyway
This may come as a bit of a surprise, but da Vinci wasn’t taught the same subjects that other boys his age who were born into rich families were learning.
Subjects like Greek, Latin, and even higher mathematics (which were typical for a young man’s education at the time) just weren’t on Leo’s radar. Despite all that, as we now know, he still went on to accomplish great things.
Turns out you can make a mark on the world without learning Latin. Who knew?
37. Memories, Times Two
Later in his life, da Vinci recorded two incidents from his childhood that give us a very small glimpse into his younger self. The first memory was of a kite that had fallen from the sky, with its feathers touching his face. The other was when he came across a cave and had the conflicting feelings of being scared at what could be inside, but curious nonetheless.
36. His Loyalty Was Strong
A young da Vinci was accepted to the painter’s guild of Florence in 1471… but chose to stay with his teacher, Antonio Pollaiuolo, at his workshop instead. He stayed at that workshop for an additional five years before venturing out on his own.
35. What’s in a Name?
Vinci is a city within a city, of sorts. It’s a community within Florence, which is in Tuscany, so da Vinci just means “of Vinci”. His full name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, so he really didn’t have a proper last name. Oddly enough, he never liked being called Leonardo.
34. A True Renaissance Man
Most known for his paintings, da Vinci was also skilled in quite a number of other fields. They include, but aren’t limited to: math, sculpture, anatomy, botany, architecture, invention, engineering, astronomy, science, writing, music and so much more! How did he have time for all of that?
33. Let’s Get Personal
Well, maybe he had so much time for his hobbies and interests because he didn’t have relationships with women, never married, and never had children. In fact, the idea of male-female intercourse disgusted him, as he wrote in his notebooks. When he was 24, though, he and some others were arrested on charges of sodomy. There weren’t enough witnesses to prove the charge, which may have kept him from facing certain death.
32. He Wasn’t Horsing Around
He left Florence after that, heading to Milan and getting on the good side of the Duke, Ludovico Sforza. While there, he was hired to build a very large statue of a horse made entirely of bronze. He was unable to finish the horse for reasons out of his control: Italy was invaded by France. The metal intended for use for the horse was used to make the likes of cannons instead.
31. Accessory for War
A bronze horse wasn’t the only thing da Vinci was set to create for Sforza. He had much darker ideas in the works, namely, weapons to be used in war. There were sketches for things like cannons and smoke machines and even armored vehicles (!) found in his notebooks. No proof was ever found that any of these ideas actually came to fruition, though.
30. Musically Inclined
Surprisingly, when he did arrive in Milan and was presented at court, it wasn’t as a painter or even an inventor, two things we all think of him for these days. No, he was introduced as a musician! He had become very adept at playing the lyre, an instrument similar to a harp.
29. Going Against Scripture
Da Vinci set to prove that a couple of ideas from the Bible were wrong. He believed that earth is much older than what the Bible implies. According to him, the reason why marine fossils could be found on mountains was a combination of river erosion and falling sea levels, not Noah’s flood.
28. Well, He Tried
When it came time to create “The Last Supper,” Da Vinci didn’t exactly have it easy. Not only was he facing the pressure of painting one of the most famous scenes in the Bible… he also had to come up with an entirely new way to paint.
The most common technique at the time was fresco, which called for applying the paint of a mural onto wet plaster. It was an incredibly effective technique which resulted in long-lasting, durable pieces of art… but Leonardo felt it also produced paintings which were dull and not too colorful. For his Last Supper, Leonardo declared, the colors would have to be absolutely stunning, and the details incredibly clean. Fresco wouldn’t do.
So he decided to try it dry. And in terms of color, light, and composition, the result was magnificent…
But the long-term effects were disastrous. The paint and dry plaster didn’t bond well, which meant that the quality of the painting degraded more quickly over time. It’s been restored over time, but it’s not getting any better—only 25 people are allowed to see it at a time, and have only 15 minutes to do so, all in a temperature-controlled room.
27. What Couldn’t He Do?
Have you ever met anyone who’s ambidextrous? Well, you’re currently reading about someone who was. Not to mention that Leonardo was also dyslexic.
26. Pass Me a Mirror!
If you’ve ever seen any of his writing, you’ll notice that it’s quite different. That’s because he generally wrote from right to left, making it a mirror script. He was known to be secretive, so this technique may have helped to keep his work private, but he was also left-handed, so he just may have found it to be easier to write that way and not smudge his work.
25. The Private Work
“The Vitruvian Man” is likely the most famous of the sketches he did of the human body, and it wasn’t even supposed to be released to the public. Vitruvius was an ancient Roman architect, and da Vinci set out to try and encapsulate what the perfect human’s body would look like based on his ideas. There are many recreations of the drawing, but, due to its delicate state, the original is kept hidden away at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia. When it was on display last in 2013, it had been 30 years since anyone of the public had seen it.
24. Nitty Gritty
One place where you can really see where da Vinci’s interest in the human body is in “St. Jerome in the Wilderness.” This painting, like so many others, was never finished. However, there’s so much attention to detail in places like St. Jerome’s neck and shoulder muscles, that it is quite clear that da Vinci truly was one of the forefathers in the study of human anatomy.
23. An Angel So Nice
Rumor has it that da Vinci painted an angel so well that it caused his painting teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, to quit painting altogether. This hasn’t properly been proven, but it would be quite the story if it turns out to be true. The angel was part of a painting that del Verrocchio had been creating called “Baptism of Christ,” where da Vinci had been working as del Verrocchio’s assistant, helping to paint the background.
22. One is Blue and Two is Green
When da Vinci was teaching, he often taught by a technique much like paint-by-numbers. His apprentices would use canvases that had sections sorted into numbered categories, much like the pastime we’re familiar with now. A paint company employee made this discovery and created his own mass-market version.
21. Slow and Steady Win the Race
Though he was a perfectionist, he was also a procrastinator. da Vinci took his time with his pieces, to the point that there were still a number of things left unfinished after his death. Some of the designs for his inventions were used to bring his ideas to life, but unfortunately, many never came to be.
20. Short Attention Span
Sometimes he even left pieces unfinished as he moved on to other projects. One case of this being “The Adoration of the Magi,” his first commissioned painting for a monastery. He left Florence for Milan before it was finished to work for the Sforza dynasty, where his focus was architecture, engineering, sculpting, and painting.
19. Maybe He Just Walked Away
After he died, da Vinci was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin in France. During the French Revolution, the church was essentially destroyed and was eventually completely demolished in the early 19th century. His grave was never found again, however, there were bones found in 1863 that might belong to the artist. Additionally, there were stones that had the markings “EO […] DUS VINC,” which led to the assumption that the bones belong to him. DNA testing on the remains was announced in 2016, but the results aren’t expected until 2019.
18. Comradery With a King
Speaking of France, da Vinci came to be under the service of King Francis I, with the king even giving da Vinci use of a manor house near his own home. There’s even a story, which is likely to be untrue (yet it is favored by the French) that Francis held da Vinci as he died. Two decades later, Francis said of da Vinci, “there had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture, and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher.”
17. Well This Doesn’t Make a Lick of Sense
If you ever did manage to get a hold of his notes, you may have struggled a bit making his inventions. Da Vinci himself purposely made errors in his designs.
16. See For Yourself!
There’s actually a museum in Milan dedicated to da Vinci and his works, with creations made directly from his notes. The National Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci (that’s a mouthful) also has interactive displays for visitors along with 130 models of his designs and creations.
15.The Books of da Vinci
Much of his observations and notes were made into collections, called codexes or codices. The largest, the Codex Atlanticus, comes in at over 1,100 pages and has much of his early mechanical drawings. The Codex Windsor features his studies on anatomy and is actually owned by the British royal family. In 1991, Bill Gates bought the Codex Leicester for $31 million from the estate of a businessman. This codex features da Vinci’s work on water.
14. Most Expensive Ever
If you think $31 million is a lot to pay for one of Da Vinci’s codexes, then this will blow your mind. One of his paintings was sold at auction in 2017 and garnered the most money ever paid for a painting. Salvator Mundi was sold in New York City at Christie’s for over $450 million.
13. He Would Have Loved PETA
He didn’t eat meat and considered himself to be a strict vegetarian. He believed that animals should be free so much that he would buy caged animals just to let them go.
12. At Least He Had a Sense of Humor
He wanted to freak people out so much that he took lizards and made them up to look like dragons. He would give them scales, bigger eyes, horns, beards, and even dipped the poor things in quicksilver so that they quivered.
11. Birds of a Feather
He had an interest in birds, specifically birds of prey. He wrote about his earliest memory, actually being a dream about a bird of prey that forced its tail feathers into his mouth after landing on his face. See, that would just make me scared of birds.
10. Curiosity Kept Him Going
Why is the sky blue? Da Vinci asked the same thing. He discovered that it’s the way air scatters light. Did no one ever think to look into these things before him, or was he just the genius to figure it all out?
9. Making Those Maps
For about 10 months in the early 16th century, da Vinci traveled across the lands owned by Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, and the papal army’s commander in chief. During this time, da Vinci strengthened his skills in cartography and sketched the cities and landscapes.
8. Swimming With the Fishies
Let’s be honest here, da Vinci was highly interested in just about everything. Another thing that caught his attention: water. He had sketches for floating snowshoes, something to help one breathe while underwater (scuba diving anyone?), life preservers, and a diving bell that could be used to attach opposing ships from under the water.
7. The Man Behind the Term
The term “Renaissance man” actually came about because of da Vinci. Since he was into such a variety of topics, the term is based on him. A Renaissance man essentially dabbles in many things and is quite good at each.
6. Bad Blood Between Them
Another notable artist of the time, Michelangelo, mocked da Vinci over his unfinished works. For his part, da Vinci also brought up Michelangelo’s tendency to accentuate the muscles on his sculptures. Historically speaking, the two were far from being friends. The best part? Da Vinci was already 23 years old when Michelangelo was born!
5. Probably Wasn’t a Conversationalist, Though
Da Vinci created a robot. Yup, a fully functional robot. It could sit up, wave its arms and even move its head. The jaw could also move up and down! He was absolutely living in the wrong century—just imagine what he could think up if he lived in our era.
That interest in anatomy? Some would say he may have gone to the extreme since he went to cemeteries by night, and dug up and stole corpses to study them. No thanks!
3. But How Did He Breathe?
He even admitted to dissecting over 30 bodies to help himself understand the human body. Though his detailed notes were never published, he drew more than 240 drawings and wrote more than 13,000 words on the topic. And think about this: they didn’t have the funerary practices, like embalming, that we do today. Those corpses would have smelled pretty foul.
2. Like a Puppet on a String
After dissecting the bodies, da Vinci did something even weirder and creepier—he replaced the corpse’s muscles with strings to see how the muscles worked. Sure, do that in 2018 and you’re a creep, but do it in the 15th century and you’re a genius!
1. Secret Behind the Smile
There’s much speculation regarding the Mona Lisa. Who was she? What was she smiling at? Well, here’s a few of the theories floating around. The first, regarding her smile—some say that she was secretly pregnant. Okay, that could be plausible. The next being that, while da Vinci was painting her portrait, there were clowns and musicians in the room who were entertaining her. Smiling because she was enjoying herself? That seems likely too. The last theory, and this one is interesting—so make of it what you will—is that she’s actually meant to represent the painter himself, da Vinci. He just “disguised” himself as a woman. He never even got to finish the painting before his death in 1519. Some art historians suggest that he became paralyzed on the right side of his body, which led to some difficulty when it came to finishing his work.