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Leonardo da Vinci is born

This Day in World History

April 15, 1452

Leonardo da Vinci is born

Painter, sketch artist, sculptor, architect, civil and military engineer, cartographer, anatomist, physical scientist, botanist, geologist, mathematician, and more — Leonardo da Vinci defined the phrase “Renaissance man.” Born on April 15, 1452, and dying at 67, he produced a body of work that remains unrivaled. Giorgio Vasari, biographer of the great Italian artists of the Renaissance, aptly called Leonardo “truly marvelous and celestial.”

The illegitimate son of a landowner and a peasant woman, the young da Vinci grew up on his father’s estate near Florence. Armed with a basic education, he was apprenticed at fifteen to an established artist, where he learned that craft. Even in these years, he made sketches of machines and weapons, showing the breadth of his interests.

Leonardo’s output of paintings is relatively small — only 17 — but they include the masterpieces: The Last Supper and Mona Lisa. He created thousands of skillful drawings in his notebooks and in studies for engineering and other problems.

Some of Leonardo’s most intriguing projects never saw construction. He designed a massive equestrian statue for the duke of Milan. He planned a canal to connect Florence to the sea (that would simultaneously deny Pisa, a rival city, access to the sea by diverting the Arno River). He drew plans for a palace for France’s King François I. He also sketched something akin to a modern helicopter, though the design lacked any source of power.

Guiding Leonardo’s life was his goal of saper vedere (“knowing how to see”). His dedication to that goal is perhaps best demonstrated in his notebooks. These thousands of pages represent the greatest testament to his genius, as they show his far-reaching intellect, penetrating mind, and meticulous attention to detail. That Leonardo wrote every page using mirror writing — in which the script must be seen in a mirror in order to be read — for no apparent reason adds an air of mystery to a master at all he attempted.

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