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Biography of Leonardo da Vinci

Painter, architect, scientist (Vinci, Florence , 15 April 1452 – Château de Cloux, od. Clos-Lucé near Amboise, 2 May 1519). He personified the Renaissance genius who revolutionized both the figurative arts and the history of thought and science .


Illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero, of Vinci, whose family name is not remembered. From 1469 he settled in Florence, where in 1472 he was already a member of the Company of Painters. In 1476, the year in which he was acquitted of a charge of sodomy, he was with Andrea del Verrocchio of whom he had been a pupil for four years; but he must also have been interested in the Pollaiolo school , particularly for the anatomical research that was conducted there. Independent since 1478, in 1482-83 he was in Milan at the court of Ludovico il Moro, sent there, according to some sources, as a musician by Lorenzo the Magnificent; but in one of his letters to Moro, L. declared himself capable of inventing and building war devices, of designing architectural works , of casting in bronze and sculpting, of painting.

In Milan he carried out an intense activity as a painter, worked on a monument for Francesco Sforza, set up apparatus for parties and was a set designer, military engineer, consulted for architectural problems. This period was the most fruitful of fully completed works and of other subsequent revivals. In particular, L. was able to deepen his scientific studies and undertake new ones, in the fields of both physics and natural sciences. The defeat of Ludovico il Moro (16 March 1500) forced L. to leave Milan. Together with the mathematician L. Pacioli, of whom he was a great friend, and his pupil A. Salai, L. left for Venice, stopping along the way in Mantua at the court of Isabella d’Este, where he was welcomed with great favor and received requests of paintings ( he then drew a portrait of Isabella d’Este). In April 1500 he left Venice, where he had carried out studies for defensive preparations, and returned to Florence, where, according to what a contemporary reports, he led a “varied and indeterminate life , so that he seemed to live from day to day”; he dedicated himself to painting ( Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child), but more often he gave “opra forte to geometry, very impatient to the brush”. At that time he had already received commissions from the French king Louis XII. From May 1502 to May 1503 L. was away from Florence, almost always in the service of Duke Valentino (Cesare Borgia), who in turn had a close relationship with Louis XII. A safe conduct from Valentino declares L. “Architect and General Engineer”; various notes by L. from this period remind us of his trips to Urbino, Rimini, Cesena, Pesaro, Cesenatico and other cities in the Marche and Romagna, where he studied ports, hydraulic problems, fortifications.

L.’s highly original contributions to cartography, surveying and the description of places belong to this period. Having returned to Florence, for P. Soderini he was still involved in painting, military issues, and canalizations, both for peaceful and military purposes (some daring and utopian projects are nevertheless impressive for the lucidity of the planning ) , and he began to study the flight of birds and the laws of hydrology ; he orders his notes according to what is increasingly defined as an overall vision , in a highly original conception of the “prime forces” active in nature . Saddened by the unfortunate outcome of the great mural painting of the Battle of Anghiari (see below), by the frustration of his projects as an engineer, by the incomprehension of the Florentine artists and patrons towards his labors as a researcher, L. in 1505 he is back in Milan, protected by Louis XII. However, he was in Florence in March 1508, and was again in Milan in September of the same year, intent on studying systems of locks and navigable canals. From some drawings it seems that L. followed Louis XII to the Brescia area at the time of the battle of Agnadello (14 May 1509), studying the hydrography of the region. He remained in Milan in the service of the French lieutenant Charles d’Amboise, for whom he designed a palace and a chapel (S. Maria alla Fontana). The studies for the equestrian monument to GG Trivulzio date back to this period.

The studies on river navigation are important; in anatomical research he collaborates with Marcantonio della Torre; he studies botany. In December 1512, the return of Massimiliano Sforza to Milan forced L. to take refuge in Vaprio with his most faithful disciple F. Melzi, until, in 1513, he was called to Rome by Giuliano de’ Medici. But in Rome L. found himself excluded from the great works of the time: the projects for St. Peter’s and the decoration of the Vatican ; the treatise De vocie that he had composed was taken away from him; hindered in his anatomical research, continued to deal with mathematical and scientific studies. In his notes we read: “the Medici created and destroyed me”. But L. had not interrupted relations with France, as evidenced by one of his notes, and in 1517 he took refuge with Francis I, who gave him residence in the castle of Cloux near Amboise and gave him an annual pension as “premier peintre, architecte et mechanicien du roi”.

L. had with him some paintings, some begun previously in Florence, an “infinity of volumes” of notes and, although prevented by paralysis in his right hand , he devoted himself passionately to anatomical studies, also dedicating himself to architecture (project for the castle and the Romorantin park ) and party equipment. Impressive testimonies of this last period are the drawings in which the end of the world is imagined, a fantastic event in which the forces of nature investigated by Leonardo operate with logical coherence and terrible beauty . On 29 April 1519 he made his will; he died three days later.

Much of L.’s writings have disappeared; what remains is made up of non-systematic notes, often put together by the author without a logical connection, even if L. himself had declared that he wanted to give a more orderly arrangement to his theories. Most of L.’s manuscripts that we possess come more or less directly from the nucleus he bequeathed to F. Melzi and dispersed after his death (1570); a part came into the possession of P. Leoni, who dismembered them and then formed arbitrary collections.

The following list shows the most important of them, with the name in use among scholars and distinguished according to the place in which they are currently kept, as well as with the indication in brackets of the probable time of composition (there are few certain datings ) and the main topic covered. Paris , Library of the Institut de France: codices A (1490-92; various subject); B (1487-90; military art ); C (dated 1490; it is also called Codex of light and shade due to the prevailing topic); D (1508; optics); E (after 1515; geometry, flight of birds); F (dated 1508; hydraulics, optics); G (1510-15; various subject); H , composed of three notebooks (1493-94; miscellaneous); I , composed of two notebooks (1497-99; miscellaneous); K , composed of three notebooks (1504-09; miscellaneous); L (1497 and 1502-03; various subject); M (1496-97; various subject); Ashburnham I and Ashburnham II (formerly ital. 2037 and ital. 2038 of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris), composed of sheets torn by G. Libri respectively from the Codex B and the Codex A (with which they therefore share the period of composition), they then became part of B. Ashburnham’s collection, later returned to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and finally passed from there to the Library of the Institut de France (the second is almost entirely dedicated to painting).

Turin , Bibl. Royal: Code on the Flight of Birds (dated 1505). Milan , Bibl. Ambrosiana: Atlantic Codex , so called from the format of the sheets on which P. Leoni glued L.’s papers (circa 1473 – 1518; miscellaneous); Castello Sforzesco: Trivulziano (1487-90, contemporary with Codex B ; contains drawings and lexical notes). Los Angeles , Armand Hammer Museum:Hammer , until 1980 Leicester (1504-06; hydraulic). London , Victoria and Albert Museum: Forster I , composed of two parts (c. 1505 and 1490 respectively; stereometry); Forster II , composed of two notebooks (1495-97; varied subject); Forster III (between 1490 and 1493; varied subject); British Library: Arundel 263 (the main nucleus dated 1508; miscellaneous); Windsor Castle, Royal Library: vast collection of drawings and anatomical studies; among the latter, Fogli A (1510-11) and Fogli B (1489 – after 1500) stand out, originating from two notebooks by Leonardo.

Madrid , National Library: ms. 8936 , known as Madrid II , composed of two notebooks (dated 1503-05 and 1491-93 respectively; various topics), and ms. 8937 , known as Madrid I (dated 1493-97; static , mechanical), both considered lost for a long time, even though their existence was known, and found in 1966. L. wrote with his left hand and “a mirror”, that is, orienting the writing of letters and words from right to left; this was because he was left-handed (testimony of L. Pacioli, 1498), and not, as has been fantasized, for reasons of secrecy. The work of deciphering and editing the manuscripts and drawings was carried out from 1800 onwards, in particular by the Vincian Commission, created in 1902. All the manuscripts cited have had one or more facsimile editions .


L.’s art manifests itself from its beginnings as a conscious re-elaboration of the fifteenth-century tradition and at the same time opposition to it, in an effort which at first glance would seem to be that of infusing images with life, introducing air into the representations, but which, upon examination more in-depth, it proves to be that of rendering the cosmic spirit of the universe in art, or rather of rediscovering for it the “rules” of multiform nature, in a continuous tension that aims to prove what the “power” of art is. For L. it is a question of “understanding every form according to appearance and its internal cause “: hence the extraordinary graphic novelty of his scientific research, the interest in natural phenomena or in the movements of the soul. In the posthumous collection of notes by L. which goes by the name of Treatise on Painting and in other writings we find effective evidence of his aesthetic thought.

He supported the superiority of painting over sculpture precisely in the name of the extraordinary evocative possibilities , similar to those of poetry , which he recognized in the former. Exceptional for his time is the weight that the drawings have in the overall corpus of works, no longer understood, as tradition would have it, as works in themselves, appreciable for the elegance of the delineation, but as traces of ideas and problems pursued in even an obsessive manner, and therefore full of regrets, although, many times, full of an expressive capacity previously attempted. In the small group of paintings that have certainly survived to us, the number of unfinished works is prevalent; it was, at times, the anxiety of research that led him to interrupt his work when new problems arose; at other times, it was the conviction of having fully achieved the aesthetic result proposed at the stage at which the work had been carried out; it was, again, intolerance for the mere execution. Already in 1473, in Florence, he drew in pen the landscape now in the Uffizi, introducing the experience of a direct vision into the Flemish Florentine scheme.

There is still evidence of his collaboration with Verrocchio in the painting of the Baptism in the Uffizi: in the angel on the left in the foreground and in the landscape piece behind him, where the sense of life is higher and the chiaroscuro is vibrant with luminous reflections. Pictorial works from this first period are: the female portrait already in the Liechtenstein gallery , now in Washington, National Gallery (the so-called Ginevra Benci ); the Annunciationat the Uffizi and the other smaller one at the Louvre; the Madonna del Carnation in Munich: works that were already attributed to Verrocchio himself or to Lorenzo di Credi. But there is the first application of the “sfumato” which disperses the line, and obtains the atmosphere with the blurring of the contours. In 1478 L., in full artistic freedom, painted the Madonna del Fiore , now in the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, which combines Verrocchiesque reminiscences with the full application of the nuance and a new intensity of psychological observation . Perhaps at the same time L. drew the Madonna del Gatto (Uffizi), such is the compositional correlation of it with the Madonna del Fiore.

The Adoration of the Magi, commissioned by the friars of the convent of S. Donato a Scopeto (now in the Uffizi), dates back to 1481 and remained unfinished due to L.’s departure for Milan, a profoundly new work due to the messianic exaltation that agitates its details and which animates the composition, almost like a vortex, opening onto infinite distances. The figures bend and twist, varying with the changing lights, united in a superior compositional unity, but at the same time acutely differentiated in the various expressions of the soul. In 1483 in Milan the panel of the Virgin of the Rocks was given to L. and the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis by the students of the Concezione . According to a pyramid scheme, the Virgin with Jesus, the Baptist and an angel are arranged within a cave, a fantastic setting of shadows, opened by gaps towards the distant light of the sunset.

The contours of the features are lost, blurred; the veiled relief blossoms where the light touches things, vanishes where the shadow swallows them; the color range is increasingly limited to a few shades. There are two versions of this panel: one in the Louvre in Paris, which is the panel painted by L. for the brotherhood, which Ludovico il Moro wanted for himself and which passed to Louis XII; the other at the National Gallery in London, which remained in the confraternity chapel until 1781. The quality of the Paris editorial appears superior to the other, but radiographic and archival investigations have also accredited the authenticity of the London panel: perhaps L. will have had a hand, to varying degrees, in both. The second great pictorial work of the Milanese period is the Last Supper in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie, which unfortunately has come down to us in a state altered by multiple and sometimes improper interventions to consolidate the colour, since it had been painted by L. not in bravo fresco but in tempera.

A restorationconducted starting in 1979 (which lasted 12 years), it attempted to free the work from the various repaintings and placed the air conditioning of the environment as a primary condition for the survival of the painting . In the large room, whose architecture the fresco matches with subtle devices and with an illusionistic effect that goes beyond Florentine perspective research, the apostles are arranged, according to a ternary rhythm , so that the Redeemer appears dominant in the center : the groups are agitated with indignation and pain at the words “one of you will betray me”, in a movement that originates from Christ and converges again on him, leaving Judas isolated. But in this period L.’s activity was varied and multiple: from the decoration of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (Sala delle Asse, extensively restored, but of which a large section of the sinopia was brought to light in 1950-55 and in which , however, one can still appreciate Leonardo’s great invention) to the portraits of Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli; from the Leda (known through replicas) to the monument to F. Sforza (see below).

In addition to these lost works, the portrait in the Louvre, the Belle Ferronière , and the Lady of the Ermine in the Czartoryski Muzeum in Krakow remain from these years. In 1500 L. was again in Florence, where he was commissioned by Pier Soderini to paint David , then entrusted to Michelangelo, and he composed a first cartoon (lost) for St. Anne, the Virgin and Child (the cartoon in the National Gallery of London dates back to 1508). Later (1503), he was commissioned to paint, on a wall of the Maggior Consiglio room, an episode of the Battle of Anghiari (on the opposite wall Michelangelo was to fresco the Battle of Cascina ). Here too L. attempted to tackle a technical problem, with the intention of restoring the ancient encaustic process, convinced that the traditional fresco technique would not have granted him the effects of depth of shadows, nuance and light that he proposed. But the result was disastrous and L. abandoned painting as soon as he started.

The cartoons for this work were studied by the artists and were destroyed. Among the studies for the Battle of Anghiari , the one preserved in the Royal Library of Windsor shows us how L. intended to use the unleashed forces of nature to express the battle. Perhaps L. painted the portrait that goes by the name of Gioconda at that time(the discovery of a document from 1525 allows us to establish that it is the portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo, as written by G. Vasari). The famous vague smile (a psychic movement captured at its first manifestation before it becomes more determined) is matched by the veiled landscape, which is the commentary and echo of the image in the mutability of the shadows, in the mists that take away the lines of the contours; the landscape sinks step by step into a bluish darkness of water and sky.

L.’s artistic activity during the second Milanese period (around 1507) remains almost obscure. During his stay in France L. completed the St. John the Baptist and finished the St. Anne (both in the Louvre). In this painting , conceived with subtle iconographic intentions, the shadows do not take over: the diffused light fades the colours, the nuance becomes more precious, lighter. L.’s art variously influenced northern artists (Dürer, perhaps Bosch himself) and Italian artists ( Giorgione , Correggio, fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto). Raphael’s art did not escape Leonardo’s charm. Vasari resolutely placed L. as the initiator of the modern “manner”, that is, the art of the mature Renaissance , in contrast to the “dryness” of all previous painting.

L.’s activity as a sculptor is also somewhat problematic. L. himself contrasts in his writings the dignity of the painter, engaged in a completely intellectual work, with the manual skill of the sculptor, but at the same time he boasts of his own ability as a sculptor and foundryman. From 1483 to 1500 he attended the immense equestrian monument of F. Sforza (the horse measured approximately 7.20 m at the neck), whose clay form (it had to be cast in bronze) was destroyed at the time of the French occupation. Other drawings for a monument to GG Trivulzio can be dated from 1508 to 1511, but it does not seem that the thing ever went beyond the project status. From what we can deduce from the drawings and bronzes which are at least inspired by L., his concern in sculpture was that of movement and a freer relationship of the figure in action with the surrounding space . Some sculptures from the 15th -16th century, already attributed to L., have been assigned by some critics, with greater foundation, to artists, such as GF Rustici, who were influenced by him.

L. did not direct or plan the construction of any building that has come down to us: therefore his architectural thought can be reconstructed on the basis of his writings, his drawings and the documentation offered by some of his paintings. L. established a type of architectural design that was significantly new in his time, based not only on the plan and the elevation, but also on the cross-section, on the correct rendering of the bird’s eye perspective , on the elimination of the elements obtainable by analogy from those outlined .

The richest documentation of him, relating to civil and military constructions, concerns his stay in Lombardy (from 1482 onwards) where he was in contact with D. Bramante. The studies on the central plan (linked to the project of F. Sforza’s mausoleum) are important; L. also dealt with the projects of the cathedral of Pavia, as well as the construction problems of the dome of the cathedral of Milan. P. Giovio speaks of L. as a “wonderful creator … above all of delightful theatrical performances”; in fact the idea of ​​theater is evident in L.’s work right from his Florentine debut. He also noted some projects for “theatres for hearing mass”, which contained some innovations in the typology of churches. A decoration system based on intertwining vegetal motifs and knotted tendrils, i.e. “vinci” (Asse room), had a particular development. His urban planning studies in relation to traffic distribution, canalization and hygiene are noteworthy (especially in the first Milanese period). The problem of the prince’s residence was also considered by him in relation to the urban organism (studies for the castle and village of Romorantin, France). It is thought that L. intervened in the design of the Chambord castle, begun in 1518 for Francis I of France. For Leonardo’s military architecture, see beyond.


In nature L. Pythagoreously sees a web of rational relationships (“reasons”), precisely calculable and measurable, which can be grasped by man through experience and reason: experience, to which L. gives great importance especially in his concrete activity as a mechanic and scientist opens the way to a direct knowledge of nature, free from the authority of tradition; reason grasps the law that regulates them in phenomena since “nature is forced by the reason of its law, which lives infusely within it”. However, compared to contemporary and subsequent scientific activity, L.’s work appears isolated: both due to the particular origins of his research, which started from an artistic need which he constantly intertwined; both because it took place outside the practical academic training and the theoretical itineraries of contemporary science, and therefore neither could it profoundly influence it, nor fully understand its current problems and propose to innovate it; and finally because his observations, however brilliant, were not coordinated by him into organic scientific systems, and on the other hand they remained unknown to his contemporaries and scholars of many subsequent centuries. It can be said that L. the scientist’s discovery is a relatively recent event.

Anatomy and physiology

L. also dedicated himself with great fervor to studies of anatomy and physiology, subjects which he considered inextricably connected, intent as he was on establishing the “use, function and benefit” of each organ. His anatomical drawings represent the first scientifically elaborated iconographic material and open the series of valid and courageous attempts to unmoor human anatomy from the prevailing conceptions of the time. L. carried out numerous dissections despite various difficulties. Vinci’s contributions to anatomy and physiology are impressive. In the osteological field, the following are particularly relevant: the discovery of the maxillary sinus (also called Highmore’s antrum , from the name of the English doctor and anatomist who described it in 1651); the first exact depiction of the spine with its rightly evaluated physiological curves; the correct interpretation of the sacrum , considered as resulting from the fusion of five vertebrae (and not three, as traditional anatomy wanted) ; checking the correct inclination of the pelvis ; etc. Studies on the muscular system led L. to carry out the first iconographic review of human muscles; to study the function of the various muscles of the limbs by replacing them with copper wires; to introduce an original method of studying the morphological elements of the limbs, with particular regard to the muscles, based on the use of transversal cuts made at different planes: this procedure, which is also used by modern anatomists, and that of the description by layers, also implemented by L., can lead to the latter being considered as the initiator of topographic anatomy. L. dedicated diligent studies to the cardiovascular system which, among other things, led him to the discovery of that intracardiac formation which today in honor of him is called the arcuate trabecula of L. da Vinci. The embedding of the eye in coagulable material (egg albumen), to be able to cut it without prejudice to the ratios of its constituents, makes L., in a certain sense, a precursor of the embedding methods used in modern histology. He also studied the visual function in almost all its fundamental aspects: monocular and binocular vision, the stereoscopic sense, visual acuity, chromatic sensitivity, pupillary modifications when the intensity of light stimuli varies, the phenomenon of the persistence of images, optical illusions, the question of the size of images in relation to the visual angle, the laws of geometric and aerial perspective, the application of the physical laws of refraction to the study of some pathological facts, such as diplopia and presbyopia. Finally, in artistic anatomy, L., although mostly adhering to the canons of Vitruvius and Varro, formulated some anthropometric principles; thus, for example, he made the length of the foot correspond to 1/7 of that of the entire body (“Leonard’s foot”), rather than 1/6, as Vitruvius had codified.

Arithmetic and geometry

Arithmetic and geometry, which deal with “summary truth of discontinuous and continuous quantity”, are for L. the foundation of all natural sciences, in particular mechanics, ” paradise of mathematical sciences”. However, L.’s mathematical knowledge remained relatively limited, as he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of geometric questions. He devised new methods for calculating the volume of numerous solids, intuiting those infinitesimal geometric procedures that would be discovered more than a century later by B. Cavalieri and E. Torricelli. Finally he was one of the founders of aerial perspective , a purely artistic discipline that studies the variations in light intensity and gradation of tones in relation to distance.


L. did not deal particularly with astronomy, but the few observations he left show the profound acuity of his intuitions in this field too. He drew the spots of the Moon, the bright parts of which he considered to be seas and the dark parts “islands and dry land”. He is also responsible for the first attempt to explain what he calls the “shine of the moon”, that is, the phenomenon of the “ashen light”.


L.’s botanical knowledge was certainly remarkable, with observations that went beyond iconographic interest. In the study of phyllotaxis, L. observed the quincuncial arrangement (2/5), but attributed excessive importance to the arrangement of the leaves for the reception of water. Furthermore, he studied negative geotropism and positive heliotropism, the movements of sap in plant organisms and their effects, and finally he was the first to deduce the age and original orientation of the stems from the observation of the concentric circles of the section.


In addition to reaffirming the organic origin of fossils, L. acutely investigated the processes of sedimentation and erosion and formulated the laws of running waters, deduced the continuous change over time of the limits between land and sea, finally demonstrated the sufficiency of current causes for explain geological phenomena that occurred in the past. However, his brilliant intuitions could not spread and be known among his contemporaries, since the Leonardo codes which most closely concern questions of geology have only been made known in recent times.
Hydraulics and aerodynamics.

The hydraulic engineering works led L. to deal with the motion of water. In addition to intuiting some fundamental principles of hydrostatics, he established the principle of constant flow for the motion of running waters, according to which in a uniform watercourse with a variable section the speed of the current varies inversely with the section ( Leonardo’s law ). His studies on the flight of birds and on “instrumental flight” led him to investigate the laws of aerodynamics: he observed the compressibility and weight of the air and understood the importance of these elements for the purposes of flight, that is, for the purposes of sustenance in the air of the heaviest. L. also established the principle of aerodynamic reciprocity, according to which the mutual actions between solid and air vary only with relative speed.


Mechanics can well be considered L.’s favorite science, to which he can be said to have brought the greatest contribution of originality. A tireless experimenter, he cannot be surprised that among many correct intuitions there are also wrong ones, which then elsewhere, in his notes, are often found modified or rectified on the basis of other reasoning or experiences. Its major sources of information are, in addition to the works of Aristotle and Archimedes , the books De ponderibus by Giordano Nemarancio. Resuming their research on the lever and the balance, the notion of the moment of a force with respect to a point becomes clear to them. The principle of the parallelogram of forces derives from Giordano Nemarancio himself and Biagio da Parma and applies it to solve the problem of determining the tensions in the two sections of a rope fixed at the ends and subjected to a weight at an intermediate point. The theory of simple machines is the subject of many notes in Vinci’s manuscripts and his studies show that L. intuited the principle of virtual works. Also noteworthy are L.’s studies on centers of gravity, which mark the first real progress after the classical theory of Archimedes, and on the resistance of materials. However, L. is undoubtedly first in considering friction or “confregation” and its effects in machines and vehicles in a rational way, and in carrying out experiments which, except for the greater refinement, do not differ from those conceived three centuries later by Ch.-A . Coulomb.

L.’s dynamic knowledge derives from and is linked to that of Greek dynamics, even if, through the writings of Albert of Saxony, L. is aware of the theories of G. Buridano and Nicola d’Oresme and those of the English school of Oxford. Some precise ideas appear in L. on the concept of force and percussion and on the resistance of the air which, in accordance with Buridan’s theory of impetus and in clear contrast with the Aristotelian one, is correctly considered as an obstacle that “prevents and shortens the motion to the mobile .” L. is thus among those who contributed most to laying the foundations for the discovery of the law of inertia. L. also seems to have a precise idea of ​​the principle of action and reaction, and a no less precise belief regarding the impossibility of perpetual motion. Despite the obstacle due to partial adherence to the Aristotelian conception, L.’s intuition manages to grasp profound aspects of dynamic phenomena, such as, for example, the effects of the rotation of the Earth on the fall of bodies.


Generally following Aristotelian or Arab ideas, L. accepts in optics the theory of species emanating from luminous bodies; he deals with problems of simple and binocular vision, the dispersion of light, and the theory of shadows. The perspicuous description of the camera obscura and of his theory, already known to the Arabs, shows that he had understood its application in the eye.


L. clearly outlined the morphological and functional affinities that exist between man, the “first beast among animals” and various species of mammals, especially monkeys, carnivores, artiodactyls and perissodactyls. There are many animals reproduced in his drawings, but a much greater number is mentioned in his writings, both in relation to anatomical-comparative data and independently of them. L.’s interest in the structure and attitudes of animals and the acuity of his spirit of observation appears both in the drawings and in the descriptions and in the judgment on the affinities between the various species.


Ideas and inventions, projects and drawings of machines and devices, in the various branches of technology, many of which were subsequently implemented, are in such numbers and of such richness that they are astounding. It is not easy, however, to attribute with certainty the paternity of each of these inventions and projects to L.: what can be said is that these are ideas and elaborations that appear for the first time in Vinci’s manuscripts.

In the field of hydraulics, it seems that L. was responsible for the arrangement of the Martesana canal ; and he designed the project for the settlement of the Adda, and a large and complex plan for the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes, whose execution was interrupted by the death of Giuliano de’ Medici. In the service of Florence he studied, for strategic purposes, a project for the diversion of the Arno upstream from Pisa, which had the warm support of N. Machiavelli, but which, too costly for the Florentine Republic, was not then implemented. In the service of Venice, due to the looming threat of the Turks who had invaded Friuli, he studied the route of the major rivers of the Veneto, designing among other things a “mobile menagerie” on the Isonzo near Gorizia, with the aim of raising the level of the river and thus cause flooding of the plain. During his stay in France he designed the Romorantin canal which was to connect the Rhone and the Loire. Canal and reclamation projects are almost always accompanied by the study of suitable work tools: mud diggers, dredgers, pumps, material lifting equipment, etc.; and the reclamation plans are associated with building and urban planning plans compliant with the best standards of urban planning technique and modern sanitary engineering.

The studies on flight date back partly to the first period of the stay in Milan, between 1486 and 1490, and partly to the second period of the stay in Florence, around 1505, and in Fiesole. L. designed machines which, although today only of historical interest, remain masterpieces of ingenuity. Among these flying machines are the parachute and the helicopter , in which the screw is used as a propulsion organ . However, it remains doubtful whether L. ever attempted to fly or make people fly, although G. Cardano in De Subtilitate says “Leonardus tentavit, sed frustra”.

L. was also a very expert military technician; however, as has already been said, it is difficult to establish with certainty how much is originally owed to him and how much is instead a reworking of ideas and projects of his predecessors. We will recall, here, among the most relevant things in his manuscripts (in which it is difficult, however, in this field more than in others, to discern which of the many inventions were thought by L. as concretely realizable), studies for submarines, drawings of cannons ( with trolley and devices for rapid elevation of the barrel) and bombards for launching explosive bombs; ignition devices for firearms ; organ cannons, made up of many small barrels arranged in a radial pattern that can fire simultaneously; revolver cannons; field bridges; covered wagons with artillery; the architronite, a sort of cannon in which the expansive force of water vapor is exploited (which was already known to the Byzantines); fire boats; and also rules of land and naval warfare, etc.

Among the other mechanisms and devices studied by L., the automatic winder and the pruner deserve mention; then innumerable devices for the transformation of progressive motions into alternative motions and of continuous motions into intermittent motions; winches, lathes, drilling machines, mechanical saws, screw threading machines; drills; swing bridges; rolling mills, etc.


It seems inappropriate to speak of L.’s personal or at least planned literary conscience . His texts, scattered throughout the codex papers in the form of treatise drafts, marginal notes, notes from readings and meditations, rhyming sentences , proverbs, gnomic statements, or passages of fantastic invention, rather constitute a heterogeneous and very personal corpus of writings . These writings partly take on the function of highly reasoned glosses but subordinate to the graphic representation of his scientific and artistic investigations, partly they constitute temporary documentation, fixed in fragments on paper , of an uninterrupted interior discourse, continually aimed at illuminating considerations on reality and the fantastic . Defined, with an expression that is all too exaggerated by critics , as a “man without letters”, L. draws on his instinctive cultural memory as an art master but also on his original intuitions as a deliberately solitary investigator of nature and the machine. This explains the salient characteristics of his writing: the approximate and inconsistent orthography, the Tuscan vernacular imprint with traces of Lombard phonetics, the simplified syntactic progression, which proceeds by successive coordinations, but in which the repeated use of anacolutes testifies to a tendency towards brachylogy, intolerant of the mediations of cultured dictation and aiming to directly and briefly establish the substance of the thought. And if this makes L., ignorant of classical languages, extraneous to the literary civilization of Humanism , on the contrary it reconfirms his most obvious belonging to the “illiterate” milieu of artists and technicians. The dry style , the propensity for proverbial and aphoristic statements, which enhance the admonitory nature of his reflections, are a clear derivative of the genre of precepts of the arts, which entrusted the transmission of specialist knowledge to clear admonitions and short precepts, mainly oral, sometimes in the form of a proverb or rhymed prose, and in which parataxis guaranteed both a better possibility of memorizing and the meticulous conservation, according to the pre-established sequence, of the technical procedures. On this background L. grafts the personal gift of a highly pregnant and lucid language in meaning, fueled, on the one hand, by an inexhaustible intellectual curiosity and concrete experience, and, on the other hand, trained in abstractionand to the axiomatic enunciation typical of geometry treatises and machine theaters. Pregnancy of the concrete and mental abstraction are precisely two characteristics that give his “literary” writings, similarly to his paintings, the multivalent obscurity of the fantastic imagination and the ordered background of logical connections (as in The Cave , The Sea Monster , The Giant , The site of Venus , The flood and Al Diodario di Soria ). L.’s taste for Jokes , Fables , Riddles , Prophecies and the Bestiary genre lies on the similar terrain of short and emblematic formulations , borrowed from the comic-burlesque or sententious-moralising style of the popular and fantastic literature of the fifteenth century, but in which, unlike in the high and cult production of humanistic philology, fourteenth-century elements and late medieval encyclopedism persist more markedly.

We do not possess any truly complete works of L. the writer. The Treatise on painting is a posthumous compilation (Bibl. Vat., ms. Urb. lat. 1270, from the 16th century) perhaps by his pupil F. Melzi, based on passages extracted, with probable additions and retouches, from the papers Leonardo da Vinci inherited from him. Similar is the case of the work On the motion and measurement of water , compiled in 1643 (Bibl. Vat., ms. Barb. lat. 4332) by the Dominican Luigi Maria (born Francesco ) Arconati, on the basis of the Leonardian manuscripts owned by his father GM Arconati. L.’s prose began to be talked about in the nineteenth century after the rediscovery and systematic publication of the manuscripts. There are many anthological collections of literary writings; after the first ones, in particular. those of JP Richter (1883, 3rd ed. 1970), very extensive but not fully reliable, and of E. Solmi (1899, 2nd ed. 1979), others followed with a more secure philological foundation: G. Fumagalli (1915 and 1939 , 2nd ed. 1952), but above all AM Brizio (1952, 2nd ed. 1966), and A. Marinoni (1952, 2nd ed. 1974).

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