Leonardo da Vinci

Excerpts from Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 5, The Renaissance. Read more WillDurant.com

The most fascinating figure of the Renaissance was born on April 15, 1452, near the village of Vinci, some sixty miles from Florence. His mother was a peasant girl, Caterina, who had not bothered to marry his father. Her seducer, Piero d’Antonio, was a Florentine attorney of some means. In the year of Leonardo’s birth Piero married a woman of his won rank. Caterina had to be content with a peasant husband; she yielded her pretty love child to Piero and his wife; and Leonardo was brought up in semi-aristocratic comfort without maternal love. Perhaps in that early environment he acquired his taste for fine clothing, and his aversion to women.

He went to a neighborhood school, took fondly to mathematics, music and drawing, and delighted his father by his singing and his playing of the lute. Yet Leonardo in his prime was known for his strength, bending a horseshoe with his hands; he was an expert fencer, and skilled in riding and managing horses, which he loved as the noblest and fairest of animals.

Apparently he drew, painted an wrote with his left hand; this, rather than a desire to be illegible, made him write from right to left.

In order to draw well he studied all things in nature with curiosity, patience and care; science and are, so remarkably united in his mind, had there one origin – detailed observation.

When he was turning fifteen his father took him to Verrocchio’s studio in Florence, and persuaded that versatile artist to accept him as an apprentice. All the educated world knows Vasari’s story of how Leonardo painted the angel at the left in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, and how the master was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the figure that he gave up painting and devoted himself to sculpture.

Probably this abdication is a postmortem legend; Verrocchio made several pictures after the Baptism. Perhaps in these apprentice days Leonardo painted the Annunciation in the Louvre, with its awkward angel and its startle maid. He could hardly have learned grace from Verrocchio.

In 1472 he was admitted to membership in the Company of St. Luke. This guild, composed chiefly of apothecaries, physicians, and artists, had its headquarters in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Presumably Leonardo found there some opportunities to study internal as well as external anatomy.

A week before his twenty-fourth birthday Leonardo and three other youths were summoned before a committee of the Florentine Signory to answer a charge of having had homosexual relations. The result of this summons is unknown. On June 7, 1476, the accusation was repeated; the committee imprisoned Leonardo briefly, released him, and dismissed the charge as unproved.

Unquestionably he was a homosexual. As soon as he could afford to have his own studio he gathered handsome young men about him; he took some of them with him on his migrations from city to city; he referred to one or another of them in his manuscripts as amantissimo or carissimo – “most beloved,” “dearest.”

What his intimate relations with these youths were we do not know; some passages in his notes suggest a distaste for sexual congress in any form. Leonardo might reasonably doubt why he and a few others had been singled out for public accusation when homosexuality was so widespread in the Italy of the time. He never forgave Florence for the indignity of his arrest.

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But indeed he was interested in everything. All postures and actions of the human body, all expressions of the face in young and old, all the organs and movements of animals and plants from the waving of wheat in the field to the flight of birds in the air, all the cyclical erosion and elevation of mountains, all the currents and eddies of water and wind, the moods of weather, the shades of the atmosphere, and the inexhaustible kaleidoscope of the sky – all these seemed endlessly wonderful to him; repetition never dulled for him their marvel or mystery;


He wrote five thousand pages, but never completed one book. Quantitatively he was more an author than an artist. He aspired to be a good writer; made several attempts at eloquence, as in his repeated descriptions of a flood; “and wrote vivid accounts of a tempest and a battle.”


The Scientist

Side by side with his drawings, sometimes on the same page, sometimes scrawled across a sketch of a man or a woman, a landscape or a machine, are the notes in which this insatiable mind puzzled over the laws and operations of Nature. Perhaps the scientist grew out of the artist: Leonardo’s painting compelled him to study anatomy, the laws of proportion and perspective the composition and reflection of light, the chemistry of pigments and oils;

From these researches he was drawn to a more intimate investigation of structure and function in lants and animals; and from these inquiries he rose to a philosophical conception of universal and invariable natural law. Often the artist peered out again in the scientist; the scientific drawing might be itself a think of beauty, or terminate in a graceful arabesque.

He tried his hand at almost every science. He took enthusiastically to mathematics as the purest form of reasoning; he felt a certain beauty in geometrical figures, and drew some on the same page with a study for The Last Supper.


Armed with the great text of Theophrastus on plants, he turned his alert mind to “natural history.” He examined the system on which leaves are arranged about their stalks, and formulated its laws. He observed that the rings in a cross section of a tree trunk record the years of its growth by their number, and the moisture of the year by their width.

He seems to have shared several delusions of his time as to the power of certain animals to heal some human diseases by their presence or their touch. He atoned for this uncharacteristic lapse into superstition by investigating the anatomy of the horse with a thoroughness to which recorded history had no precedent. He prepared a special treatise on the subject, but it was lost in the French occupation of Milan. He almost inaugurated modern comparative anatomy by studying the limbs of men and animals in juxtaposition.

He set aside the authority of Galen, and worked with actual bodies. The anatomy of man he described not only in words but in drawings that excelled anything yet done in that field. He planned a book on the subject, and left for it hundreds of illustrations and notes.

He claimed to “have dissected more than thirty human cadavers,” and his countless drawings of the fetus, the heart, lungs, skeleton, musculature, viscera, eye, skull, and brain, and the principal organs in women, support his claim.

He was the first to give – in remarkable drawings and notes – a scientific representation of the uterus, and he described accurately the three membranes enclosing the fetus. He was the first to delineate the cavity of bone that supports the cheek, now known as the antrum of the Highmore.

He poured wax into the valves of the heart of a dead bull to get an exact impression of the chambers. He was the first to characterize the moderator band (catena) of the right ventricle. He was fascinated by the network of blood vessels; he divined the circulation of the blood, but did not quite grasp its mechanism.

“The heart,” he wrote, “is much stronger than the other muscles. .The blood that returns when the heart opens in not the same as that which closes the valves.”

He traced the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles of the body with fair accuracy. He attributed old age to arteriosclerosis, and this to lack of exercise. He began a volume, De figure umana, on the proper proportions of the human figure as an aid to artists, and some of his ideas were incorporated into his friend Pacioli’s De divina proportione.

He analyzed the physical life of man from birth to decay, and then planned a survey of mental life. “Oh, that it may please God to let me also expound the psychology of the habits of man in such a fashion as I am describing the body!”

From his studies in so many fields, Leonardo rose at times to philosophy. “Oh marvelous Necessity! Thou with supreme reason constrainest all effects to be the direct result of their causes, and by a supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by the shortest possible process.” This has all the proud ring of nineteenth-century science, and suggests that Leonardo had shed some theology.

Vasari, in the first edition of his life of the artist, wrote that he was of “so heretical a cast of mind that he conformed to no religion whatever, accounting it perchance better to be a philosopher than a Christian” – but Vasari omitted this passage in later editions.

Like many Christians of the time, Leonardo took a fling now and then at the clergy; he called them Pharisees, accused them of deceiving the simple with bogus miracles, and smiled at the “false coin” of celestial promissory notes which they exchanged for the coinage of this world. On one Good Friday he wrote: “Today all the world is mourning because one man died in the Orient.”

He seems to have thought that dead saints were incapable of hearing the prayers addressed to them. “I could wish that I had such powers of language as should avail me to censure those who would extol the worship of men above that of the sun. Those who have wished to worship men as gods have made a very grave error

He took more liberties with Christian iconography than any other Renaissance artist: He suppressed halos, put the Virgin across her mother’s knee, and made the infant Jesus try to bestride the symbolic lamb. He saw mind in matter, and only harmony with invariable laws. He addressed the Deity with humility and fervor in some passages, but at other times he identified God with Nature, Natural law, and “Necessity.” A mystic pantheism was his religion until his final years.


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