Art History 101

11 Things You Might Not Know About Leonardo da Vinci

Zuzanna Stańska 9 February 2022 min Read

You may think you know everything about the genius of the Renaissance. But there are a few unknown facts about Leonardo da Vinci’s life that may surprise you. When da Vinci died in 1519, he left behind more than 6,000 journal pages filled with his personal musings, grocery lists, and bawdy jokes, so we know quite a few things about his life. Here, you will find our top 11 things you probably didn’t know about Leo + a selection of his magnificent works!

1. He was an illegitimate child

Leonardo da Vinci, Presumed Self-portrait, c. 1512, Biblioteca Reale, Turin
Leonardo da Vinci, Presumed Self-portrait, c. 1512, Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy.

Leonardo was the son of Caterina, a peasant, and Sir Piero, a lawyer and landlord. He lived with his mother until he was five, then he was taken by his father. He was homeschooled and lacked formal education.

2. And his family situation was even more complex than that

leonardo da vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), 1489-1491, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow, Poland.

When Leonardo was 16, his father Piero married 20-year-old Francesca Lanfredini who died without having any children. Piero’s legitimate heirs were born from his third wife Margherita di Guglielmo, who gave birth to six children, and his fourth and final wife, Lucrezia Cortigiani, who bore him another six children. In total, Leonardo had 12 half-siblings who were much younger than him – the last one was born when Leonardo was 40 years old.

3. He was the first one to answer why the sky is blue

Leonardo da Vinci, A deluge, c.1517-18 Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Leonardo da Vinci, A deluge, c.1517-18, Royal Collection Trust, UK.

Da Vinci was the first person who explained why the sky is blue. If you don’t know – it is because of the way that the air scatters light from the sun.

4. He was dyslexic and wrote mirror image scripts

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.

Leonardo was ambidextrous, dyslexic, and could draw forward with one hand while writing backward with the other, producing a mirror-image script that others found difficult to read. As he loved secrets, it totally makes sense.

5. He was a great (sometimes dreamy) designer

Leonardo da Vinci, Design For A Flying Machine, 1488, Bibliotheque de l'Institut de France, Paris
Leonardo da Vinci, Design for a flying machine, 1488, Bibliotheque de l’Institut de France, Paris, France.

Leonardo designed an armored car, a scythed chariot, a pile driver, a revolving crane, a pulley, a lagoon dredge, a flying ship, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull, also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics.

6. He loved word games

leonardo da vinci Royal Collection handout photo dated circa 1510 of page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook
Leonardo da Vinci, Page from notebook, c. 1510, Royal Collection Trust, UK.

Da Vinci was a big fan of word puns and games. Folio 44 of his Codex Arundel contains a long list of playful synonyms for penis.

7. He loved music

leonardo da vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, music notes. Joe Hedges.

Leonardo, when first presented to the Milanese court, was a musician, not an artist or inventor. He played the lyre and composed music by himself.

8. He was a vegetarian

Leonardo da Vinci, Cats, lions, and a dragon, 1513-1518, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Leonardo da Vinci, Cats, lions, and a dragon, 1513-1518, Royal Collection Trust, UK.

Da Vinci had an unparalleled love for animals. Not only did he never eat them, but also sometimes he also bought caged birds intended for slaughter and released them into the wild.

9. He might have preferred boys

leonardo da vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513-1516, Louvre, Paris, France.

When he was 24 years old, da Vinci and a few other male companions were arrested on charges of sodomy. The charges were dropped, but da Vinci was shaken by the event.

10. He had that thing for corpses

Leonardo da Vinci, The muscles of the shoulder, arm and neck, 1518, Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Leonardo da Vinci, The muscles of the shoulder, arm and neck, 1518, Royal Collection Trust, UK.

One of da Vinci’s jobs was to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. He used this experience to study the human form, and this experience pushed him to create over 200 pages of drawings.

11. He died in France

leonardo da vinci
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Death Of Leonardo da Vinci, 1818, Petit Palais, Paris, France.

Leonardo da Vinci was 67 when he died in Amboise, France. There is a legend claiming that when King Francis I found out about da Vinci’s state, he ran to Amboise and the artist died in his arms. But it is just a legend, of course.

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