Leonardo da Vinci biography

At the top of my blog is a picture of the Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci. He drew this when he was about 38 years old around 1490. He was not the first to draw such a figure trying to arrive at the correct proportions of height, arm span and leg length to fit into a circle or square but he studied such measurements with detailed diligence and his drawing skills are unsurpassed, so his is the one to remember.

I have finished a slow, pleasurable read of a Christmas gift, Walter Isaacson’s most excellent biography of the wondrous Leonardo da Vinci. I read his excellent biographies on Ben Franklin and Einstein some time ago and I very much looked forward to his work on da Vinci. Extensive historical research, close consultation with modern experts and his own keen appraisal of Leonardo’ work, all rendered in fine prose, make this book a true pleasure to read. Go get it now and wonder at the close portrait of a remarkable human, artist, scientist, engineer, dramatist, entertainer, raconteur, and the list goes on. Isaacson shows us how Leonardo’s great powers of observation and intuitive connections of phenomena and patterns over many interests and his entire life span that he recorded beautifully in thousand of pages of journal, both drawings and writing in his famous mirror script, mark him as a singular genius.


His portrait by his adoptive son and student, Francesco Melzi. Imagine him a younger man with curly locks, bright complexion, and athletically vigorous, who was bright and creative and very social.

I knew that Leonardo was gay, but I did not know that he was a great dandy, known for his fine clothes in pink, lavender and other such colors, that he was regarded as quite handsome, that he was arrested twice as a young man for the religious crime of sodomy but was released when proof was lacking, that he was regarded as the true life of the party for his wit, parlor tricks, and imaginative sharing of his knowledge, that he left unfinished many commissions because he lost interest, found their completion too difficult, or he kept them for himself. He worked on the Mona Lisa for decades, refusing to relinquish it to his sponsor, and carrying it with him around Italy and finally to France where he died.  He was a vegetarian and pacifist, even when he worked for the notorious  Borgia clan (he resigned after several months evidently pretty disgusted by his close up experience of internecine war).

I did not know that he was one of the great anatomists of his day and very likely ours. He dissected many pigs, horses, and humans, recording his observations in beautiful drawings and precise prose. I wondered at his gaining access to corpses because I thought that the all powerful church at that time frowned on such practices, but he seemed to escape censure there. This was probably an early facet of the Renaissance whereby curiosity about the natural world became valued over religious orthodox prohibitions. Leonardo also moved about with some serendipity. He left his native Florence to live and work in Milan for many years; during his absence Savonarola took and lost power in Florence. This religious fanatic made bonfires of the vanities famous as he organized the burning of books and artwork (remember this is Florence, one of the great centers of medieval and Renaissance art and intellect) as well as prosecuting many for prohibited sexual practices. Leonardo’s tenure in Milan ended with the defeat of his princely patron after a long time and so he returned for awhile to Florence after the Savonarola craze had ended.  Such a loss was avoided by this circumstance.

Consider this example of his diligent genius. He wondered why the heart valves of the aorta closed so as to prevent any blood from regressing into the heart once pumped out to the body. The common assumption that continued up until the 1960s was that the weight and pressure of the blood once the aorta was filled pushed the valve closed. Leonardo looked at human and pig hearts, even watching a pig heart beating and later making a glass model to observe fluid flow. He did not accept the assumption because his observations showed that the weight and pressure would only collapse the valve’s membranous flaps against the sides. Instead he thought that the turbulence caused by the flow through the valve from one space to another pulled the valve shut. Once we had the modern technology to image a working heart, we discovered that he was right. Wow!

Leonardo’s religious beliefs were not explicit; he certainly followed the church and was not in any way heretical or was not even obviously heterodoxical (ignoring here his sexuality). He wrote at one point that he would not “write or give information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by an instance of nature”, “leaving such matters to the minds of the friars, fathers of the people, who by inspiration possess the secrets.” He was one of the early modern and greatest empiricists and an artist of fertile imagination who combined art and science into a life’s work, including putting on spectacles and plays for his patrons, for which he was maybe best known in his lifetime. Go figure.

Now time to travel on.

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