On the Renaissance Man’s 570th birthday, we present The Da Vinci Ode!

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A portion of The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

April 15, On This Day 

Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1510) at the Royal Library of Turin, Italy

Leonardo da Vinci, painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose skill and intelligence — perhaps more than that of any other figure — epitomised the Renaissance humanist ideal, was born on April 15, 1452, exactly 570 years ago from today.

One of the most famous artists of all time, he did not apply himself to higher mathematics — advanced geometry and arithmetic — until he was 30 years old, when he began to study it diligently.  

The Italian also became known for his notebooks, in which he made drawings and notes on a variety of subjects, including anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, painting, and paleontology.  

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

From this genius sprang many an icon that remains indelibly etched in the aesthetic consciousness of the human race even today, centuries down the line. Despite having many lost works and less than 25 attributed major works (including numerous unfinished ones), da Vinci created massively influential paintings in Western art like the Mona Lisa, his magnum opus and best-known work, often regarded as the world’s most famous painting. Similarly, The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time; his Vitruvian Man drawing is regarded as a cultural icon; Salvator Mundi, attributed in whole or part to da Vinci, set a new record for the most expensive painting ever sold at public auction in just 2017 (US $450.3 million).  

Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci
Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci

Some fascinating facts about the maestro:

  • Da Vinci was born out of wedlock and grew up amid 12 half-siblings (these reports are not quite verifiable, but widely believed).
  • While writing on the flight of birds, he recalled as an infant when a kite came to his cradle and opened his mouth with its tail; commentators still debate whether the anecdote was an actual memory or a fantasy.
  • Leonardo’s right hand was recorded as being paralytic at the age of 65, which may indicate why he left works such as the Mona Lisa unfinished.
  • One aspect of his life that attracted curiosity was his love for animals, likely including vegetarianism and according to his close friend, Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, a habit of purchasing caged birds and releasing them.
  • Much has been written about his presumed homosexuality and its role in his art, particularly in the androgyny and eroticism manifested in Saint John the Baptist and Bacchus and more explicitly in a number of erotic drawings.
  • He had no formal academic training, but many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime exemplar of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”, widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. Such was his fame within his own lifetime that it is believed that the King of France held him in his arms as he died.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (‘the laughing one’) by Leonardo da Vinci. Arguably the most famous painting in the world, its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face, its mysterious quality perhaps due to the subtly shadowed corners of the mouth and eyes such that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined. The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned came to be called “sfumato”, or Leonardo’s smoke.