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Leonardo da Vinci. A white man with a long whitish beard and a black hat

Leonardo da Vinci, artist and scientist – a self-portrait

Leonardo was home-schooled

Leonardo da Vinci was born near Florence, in Italy, in 1452 AD. His father was a clerk, and his parents weren’t married. Until he was five, Leonardo lived with his mother. Then he moved to his father’s house, where he was home-schooled in Latin and math.

What was medieval Florence like?

How did Leonardo da Vinci learn to paint?

When Leonardo was 14, his father found him work as an apprentice to a painter in Florence, along with Perugino.

Read more about the painter Perugino

When he was 20 Leonardo opened his own business. Leonardo was so good at painting that he was always able to make a good living at it, moving between Florence, Milan, and Rome.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s personal life

Leonardo was a lifelong vegetarian. He never married or had children. It’s possible that Leonardo was gay. Some people in Florence said he was. In any case, Leonardo worked very hard and didn’t care much about anything else.

He wanted to be a scientist

Leonardo’s biggest achievement was his painting, but he wanted to be a scientist as well as an artist. Even though he never went to college, he read Ibn Sina‘s medical books. He read books by medieval Europeans like Roger Bacon.

Who was the doctor Ibn Sina?
Who was the scientist Roger Bacon?

Leonardo dissected dead bodies

Then, like Michelangelo a little earlier, Leonardo dissected dead bodies, making thousands of detailed drawings of human heartsmuscles, tendons, and bones, and writing about how the muscles, tendons, and nerves moved the bones. His drawings were the first detailed European-style drawings of the insides of people. He was the first to realize that an erect penis is filled with blood, and the first to discover the frontal sinus, a space over the eye.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of a human heart (ca. 1550 AD)

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a human heart (ca. 1550 AD)

Leonardo also described the nerves that led to the brain more accurately than Galen had. Leonardo followed Bacon’s view that light entered your eyes so you could see.

He saw how your eyes work

Leonardo saw that, as in the camera obscura, this would create an upside-down image on the retina (as it does), and tried to figure out how the image got turned right side up again (your brain does that).

What is a camera obscura?

After taking apart dead bodies, Leonardo rejected the ancient idea of humors, and he identified hardened arteries and scarred livers as diseases. He figured out how to pith frogs – destroying their brains while keeping them alive so he could cut them open and see the living body still working.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the human brain (ca. 1550 AD)

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the human brain (ca. 1550 AD)

Leonardo’s physics experiments

Leonardo may also have read Ibn Sina’s work on momentum and inertia. He did experiments with friction, and he drew maps. He designed water floats for people who couldn’t swim, and invented a machine to grind glass lenses to the right shape.

More about glass lenses

Leonardo also spent a lot of time drawing plans for machines and structures he never built – helicopters, bridges, a giant crossbow, new musical instruments, and water pumps. Some of Leonardo’s inventions might have worked, but most of them wouldn’t have worked and were just playing around with ideas.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mary and Jesus (ca. 1501 AD)

Leonardo da Vinci, Mary and Jesus (ca. 1501 AD)

Did Leonardo know about Chinese science and art?

It’s possible that Leonardo had seen drawings of Chinese or Islamic machinery, which used more gears and cranks than European machinery did. Possibly Leonardo also studied  Chinese paintings to get ideas for his landscapes.

More about Chinese painting
More about Chinese inventions

How did Leonardo da Vinci die?

Francis I, the King of France, met Leonardo when Francis was invading Italy. Francis invited Leonardo to come live in France, and Leonardo moved there. Leonardo died in France in 1519, when he was 67 years old. When Leonardo died of a stroke, his student Salai inherited the Mona Lisa, but when Salai died, Francis bought the Mona Lisa to hang in his palace.

Learn by doing: try to copy the Mona Lisa

More about Raphael
More about Michelangelo
And more about the Renaissance

Bibliography and further reading about Leonardo da Vinci:

More about the Renaissance home