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9 forgotten facts about Leonardo da Vinci

For over 500 years, the masterworks of Leonardo da Vinci have awed artists, connoisseurs, and laypeople alike. Often considered the first High Renaissance artist, Leonardo worked extensively in Florence, Milan, and Rome before ending his career in France, and his techniques and writings influenced artists and thinkers for centuries after his death.

Today, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, here are nine surprising facts about his work:

  1. In a letter to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan in 1483, Leonardo concentrated on his capabilities as a military engineer. He listed ten categories of military devices that included bridges, guns, and mortars; he only mentioned that he could “undertake sculpture of marble, bronze and clay, similarly in painting whatever can be done, to bear comparison with anyone else, whoever he is” at the end of the letter. Throughout his life, Leonardo flourished when receiving regular income from a court, whereas he struggled when working on commission.
  2. Leonardo painted two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks due to a legal dispute that involved “some of the lengthiest and most confusing documentation for any Renaissance painting.” The version today seen at the Louvre in Paris is most likely the original and had been painted as an altarpiece for the S Francesco Grande in Milan in the 1480s. Leonardo and his fellow painters believed the value of the panel was worth more than the original commission sum so the painting was never delivered; the dispute was finally resolved over two decades later in 1506 when arbitrators ordered Leonardo to complete the painting within two years. This second version is believed to be the painting now exhibited at the National Gallery in London.
    Studies of the Arm showing the Movements made by Biceps, c. 1510, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons..
  3. The Last Supper, a fresco for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, was Leonardo’s major achievement of the 1490s, painted while out of favor with his patron, the aforementioned Duke Ludovico. Leonardo’s use of an experimental medium to make the fresco look like an oil painting was difficult and the work deteriorated quickly. A successful restoration attempt was not made until the early 20th century, after centuries of neglect and humidity. Its most recent restoration began in 1979 and was completed in 1999, though this confirmed that only small flakes of original paint remained in some areas once top layers of paint were removed. While the fresco has spent most of its existence in states of disrepair, early copies made by students of Leonardo have survived and are a reason for the image’s centuries-long cultural resonance.
  4. The Mona Lisa is arguably the world’s most famous painting. Now housed at the Louvre, the portrait is believed to depict the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine merchant, which is why the painting is also called La Gioconda. According to 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo worked on the painting for over 4 years, never delivering it to his patron. The subject’s mysterious smile, combined with Leonardo’s distinct sfumato (Italian for “smoked”) style that veils the face in a hazy atmosphere, has garnered much speculation and controversy over the years.
  5. Based on the ubiquity of the Mona Lisa and Last Supper in popular culture, it may be a surprise to some that only 10 completed paintings by Leonardo survive. (A few unfinished works also remain, as well as a small group of paintings that were possibly completed as part of a studio.) Conversely, approximately 4,000 sheets of the accomplished draughtsman’s technical drawings, anatomical sketches, and architectural plans survive.
  6. Leonardo’s definition of music was “figurazione delle cose invisibili” (shaping of the invisible.) In his paragone (the introduction to his famous, posthumously published treatise on painting), his philosophy of music was accorded the highest place among the arts after painting.
    Detail of Virgin and Child Enthroned with the Doctors of the Church, 1495, depicting Ludovico Il Moro and his son Massimiliano Sforza. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  7. According to Vasari in his Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architetti (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), Leonardo “devoted much effort to music; above all, he determined to study playing the lira, since by nature he possessed a lofty and graceful mind; he sang divinely, improvising his own accompaniment on the lira.” Leonardo played the lira for Duke Ludovico, an instrument that Vasari noted “had built with his own hands, made largely of silver but in the shape of a horse skull – a bizarre, new thing.”
  8. Leonardo’s studies of anatomy and physiology led to interesting ideas on how music is created by the human body. Due to the lack of preserving chemicals at the time, he was unable to study the vocal chords or inner ear, but his dissections enabled him to study voice production, facial muscles, the lips and the tongue and their impact on pronunciation, and the hands of musicians.
  9. Two of Leonardo’s long-lost notebooks reappeared in 1967 at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. They comprised 700 pages and contained drawings of new types of instruments: new bellows for organetti and chamber organs, a viola organista, and a viola a tasti, a “keyed string instrument operated by segments of cogwheels.”

To refer to Leonardo da Vinci as just an artist minimizes his role in numerous areas of study; in addition to painting, sculpture, and drawing, the quintessential “Renaissance Man” left an indelible mark on architecture, engineering, science, philosophy, and even music. These are but a fraction of the accomplishments, theories, and physical works left behind by the polymath.

Featured image credit: Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, 1495-98. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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