Leonardo da Vinci: The Man Behind the Myth

Experts bust myths behind Renaissance Europe's most enigmatic figure

By Google Arts & Culture

LIFE Photo Collection

More than five hundred years ago, on May 2 1519, history's most famous polymath died, leaving behind a legacy of work so distinctive, masterful, and varied that scholars still struggle to define him. Leonardo da Vinci made very few paintings in his lifetime, but the Mona Lisa has been called "the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world."

While Leonardo is known best as an artist, his most prolific work survives in his codices – thousands of pages of notes bound into books and scattered across the world: in France, Spain, the UK, the US, and – of course – Italy. Over half a millennium, the fascination surrounding da Vinci's life and work have spread so fervently that he has become one of the most studied figures of Renaissance Europe. We caught up with two experts to get behind the surface.

The National Museum of Science and Technology "Leonardo da Vinci"National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Claudio Giorgione

Claudio Giorgione is curator of the Leonardo Art & Science Department at Milan’s Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. As Italy’s national museum of art and science, it contains more than 130 historic models of Leonardo’s inventions and designs – the most important historical collection in the world of machine models based on the academic interpretation of Da Vinci’s drawings.

Why do you think there is such an enduring public fascination with Leonardo?

Leonardo still fascinates us because the idea of almighty genius is so strong – and this has been strengthened by the myths surrounding Leonardo, which do not correspond exactly to reality. The way that Renaissance knowledge brought together many different disciplines and studies cannot be applied to modern times. In the Renaissance, Leonardo was one of many polymaths – perhaps the best, together with humanists like Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco i Giorgio Martini. I think that the Renaissance approach of unifying scientific and artistic study and culture could be an inspiration to many modern-day research methods.

Atlantic Codex (Codex Atlanticus), f. 104 recto. (c. 1508) by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

What is your favorite invention by Leonardo, and why?

We don’t tend to use the word ‘invention’ in the modern sense to describe Leonardo’s work or that of other Renaissance figures. Much later, in the 19th century, an invention came to mean a new discovery or new technology that is patented and copyrighted.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 116 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

When talking about Leonardo and his times, it’s better to define his drawings as studies – they were very often observations and surveys of existing things. But to answer the question, my favorite Leonardo ‘invention’ is the technical drawing – a revolutionary, powerful way to communicate sophisticated concepts, using advanced techniques like perspective, sections, shading, and cross-hatching.

One of Leonardo’s inventions includes an ideal city – what might he think of the world today?

Leonardo’s studies for an ideal city are probably related to the rebuilding of the ‘ideal city of Vigevano’. For Leonardo, an ideal city wouldn’t be based only on principles of beauty and harmony in proportion, but on functionality. His proposals for improvements, like road systems on two levels, porticoes, and an orthogonal grid (where all grid lines intersect at right angles), are connected to his deep observation of reality. Even today, urban planning should always respond to observations about functional challenges and the solutions that can help improve life.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 307 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

What is known about Leonardo’s tendency to write back to front? Did he invent the technique, and are other people known to have used it throughout history?

Writing back to front was, for Leonardo, more than a technique. It was a device that helped him write correctly, since he was left handed. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a way to hide what he wrote. Other humanists before him used encrypted alphabets – like Giovanni Fontana in his work ‘Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber’.

Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as "Monna Lisa, la Gioconda" or "Mona Lisa", 1503-1519 (1503/1519) by Leonardo di ser Piero DA VINCI, dit Léonard de Vinci (1452 - 1519), Paris, musée du LouvreOriginal Source: Paris, Louvre Museum

If someone had never seen a Leonardo artwork, which one would you suggest they see first, and why?

‘The Last Supper’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’ are perfect examples of the complexity of Leonardo’s paintings: for him painting was a science, with many rules. The aim of painting for him was to represent the complexity of nature and of human personality.

What do you think is behind Mona Lisa's smile? What's she really thinking?

Leonardo began painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ in 1503 in Florence. But he never completed it – he always took it with him, transforming it, until his death, into a sort of ideal portrait of the body of a woman, related to the ‘body of the earth’, in which movement – like the smile of the woman or the water of the river in the background – reveals life.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 26 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Does Dan Brown's depiction of Leonardo's work have any parallels with reality, or is it pure fiction?

Dan Brown’s novel, essentially a smart marketing product, cleverly linked a story (the Priory of Sion) with a personality associated with myth and mystery – Leonardo. But it is just fiction – Leonardo was not really interested in issues relating to religion or the supernatural. What interested him was only nature, and finding evidence for the laws of nature.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex on the Flight of Birds f 11vMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Monsignor Alberto Rocca

Monsignor Alberto Rocca is Director of the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, also in Milan, which looks after the gigantic Codex Atlanticus – one of the largest and most important collections of da Vinci’s notes. The codex is made up of individual 1,119 sheets, often filled with Leonardo’s musings on nature, engineering, architecture, geography, and myriad other subjects, accompanied by crisp diagrams and sketches.

Studies of Horses' Legs (ca. 1490) by Leonardo da VinciMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

What is particularly interesting about Leonardo's notes, did he invent mirror writing, and did other people use the technique?

Well, first of all, we have to understand why Leonardo da Vinci wrote in that way, and actually we have to get out of the myth and go back to history. Leonardo was an illegitimate child, so he could not go to school, and he never received a formal education. He had to learn for himself what he wanted to do.

Leonardo's writing is not difficult to understand – once you know how to read 15th or 16thcentury text! It is mirror-writing, but it's just the simple, left-handed handwriting of a man. We also have to remember that at the time, people wrote with a quill and ink, which is not easy for a left-handed person. So writing this way made it easier for him to record his notes.

recto: Study for the Head of a Soldier in the Battle of Anghiari (ca. 1504–1505) by Leonardo da VinciMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

What’s the biggest misconception about the Codex Atlanticus?

That it is a collection of secret things. It is true that Pompeo Leoni originally gave it the title of Cose Secrete de Leonardo da Vinci (The Secret Matters of Leonardo da Vinci) but there's nothing in the Codex Atlanticus that Leonardo wanted to keep a secret. The codex is mainly composed of articles by Leonardo on many subjects, such as mechanics, engineering, architecture, weaponry, geography.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 860 r by Leonardo Da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Leonardo observed nature carefully, and applied the results of his observations in the way he designed and perfected machines that were already known. Many of the machines in the Codex Atlanticus are not inventions by Leonardo, they were often invented centuries or even millennia before – such as Archimedes' screw. And Leonardo adapts these ancient ideas for his contemporary work.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 26 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Why do people consider Leonardo da Vinci a genius?

Well, because he definitely was a very competent man! Leonardo is really impressive because he covered so many fields. He was interested in music, architecture, engineering, optics, mathematics – many different topics. But we mustn't forget that this was, in fact, the case with every learned man of the time – they had to learn mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, literature, drama, rhetoric.

He was probably most interesting because of his ability to draw, which was unique. When you compare, for instance, Leonardo's technical drawings with those of his contemporaries, you see that his are totally different. This ability of Leonardo to transfer the thoughts he had into drawings is pretty unique and fascinating.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 33 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

What is your favorite Leonardo invention, and why?

What I like is the idea that Leonardo wanted to try to give humankind a better quality of life – this is definitely the invention of Leonardo's I like the most. Most of his devices are thought of in order to help humans in their work, and to save lives. The procedures used to build walls at the time, for example, were extremely dangerous, and this is why Leonardo thought of so many devices to facilitate work and to save lives.

Why do you think there is such an enduring public fascination with Leonardo? And are there examples of polymaths like Leonardo who live today?

There is no comparison, as the system was completely different. If you want to reveal something about Leonardo, you have to deconstruct the myth rather than foster strange ideas about him. He was a man living in his own time, confronting and challenging himself, and sharing the views of his contemporaries. He lived at a time when at least 30 people could have been considered to be geniuses of a similar level.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 1 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The fact that he didn’t go to a formal school probably contributed. Of course he learned by reading, and he was helped by many people because he could not read Latin. But he couldn't read around 80% of the literature that was available at the time, so it's a bit like having a genius today who doesn't speak English. Having to carve his own path through life he chose to observe nature, and through observation, he found many answers to his many questions. 

Codex Atlanticus, folio 710 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The most important thing, and probably his best achievement. For instance, through the Codex Atlanticus, what we see is that he keeps looking at things, and he was extremely fortunate because his hand could reproduce exactly what his eye saw. Through this analysis through eye and hand, he gave new insights to science. The problem is, his writings were not published so no one could share what he wrote. But this enormous genius is fascinating, and he was ahead of his time.

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