Leonardo da Vinci is the archetypal renaissance man, a master of painting, sculptor, architecture, invention, and engineering. His work, which spanned multiple disciplines, informed not just art and design, but also contributed greatly to our understanding of zoology, botany, biology, anatomy, engineering, and physics. He filled dozens of notebooks, which continue to surface to this day, containing hundreds if not thousands of drawings, sketches and ideas based on human anatomy, architecture, and mechanics. Whilst most of his work was not experimental – rather based on theoretical concepts, his work went into extreme detail, and provide some of the first explorations of many fields.
Under the apprenticeship of Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci began what would become a lifelong appreciation of anatomy and physiology, which show up repeatedly in his notebooks; some of his most famous sketches include pictures of a foetus in a womb, the human brain and skull, and a series of topographic images describing muscles, tendons, and other visible anatomical features. It’s a common myth that to carry out these studies, Da Vinci stole corpses on which to perform illegal autopsies – the truth is much less exciting. He was in fact given permission, first by hospitals in Florence, and then later in Milan and Rome, to dissect human corpses. As well as studying ‘healthy’ specimens, disease also fascinated Da Vinci, being the first person to define atherosclerosis (thickening of the arterial wall) and liver cirrhosis, and is known to have constructed models that depicted the flow of blood through the vessels of the heart. His work was published in De humani corporis fabrica (The Human body) in 1543.
Perhaps Da Vinci’s most famous scientific exploits come from the field of Engineering. In 1488, he developed a design for a flying machine, whilst also developing plans for a parachute, giant crossbow, and what has been described a ‘tank’, but which represents a moveable cannon. He worked as an Engineer, when, in 1499 he was forced to flee to Venice, where he developed a system of moveable barricades to shield the city. He worked with Niccolo Machiavelli on a project to divert the flow of the Arno River near Florence, as well as a design, produced in 1502, of a 720-foot bridge developed for the Sultan of Constantinople intended to cross the mouth of the Bosporus, the straight that separates the bulk of Turkey from central Europe. Whilst never constructed, Da Vinci’s work would later be vindicated, when, in 2001, a bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.
Da Vinci also worked in botany – where he paid attention to the action of light on plants. He also had an excellent understanding of geology, a particularly famous story exists of him frequently exploring caves around the Apennine mountain range. His observations of layered rock also convinced him the biblical story of the great flood could not be true. In addition, he was an accomplished cartographer, producing a map of Chiana Valley in Tuscany from eye, rather than using any modern surveying equipment. Elsewhere, he studied mathematics heavily, becoming particularly interested in geometric forms such as the rhombicuboctahedron, a 26-sided object made up of both square and triangular faces. An accomplished musician, Da Vinci also invented the viola organist, the first bowed keyboard instrument to ever be designed and developed.
Da Vinci kept his personal life very secret. As a result, his sexuality has been the subject of much analysis and speculation. Whilst he had few close relationships with women, his most intimate relationships are said to have been with his pupils Salai and Melzi. Court records from 1476 show that Da Vinci and three other young men were charged with sodomy – whilst the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, there remains considerable speculation around his presumed homosexuality. In any case, the influence of Da Vinci cannot be understated; he made enormous contributions to a vast range of scientific disciplines, not to mention his artistic endeavors not mentioned here. As a result, to this day he remains an iconic figure and a key player in the Renaissance period.