Leonardo Da Vinci is thought to have been one of the most remarkable geniuses in history. Born in Tuscany, Italy on April 15, 1452, Da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant woman. Little is known of his early years but it is thought that he didn’t receive much in the way of a formal education (although he did study Latin, geometry and mathematics) until he went to work as an apprentice for the artist Verrocchio at his workshop in Florence. Da Vinci flourished in the creative environment and received education in a wide range of scientific and artistic skills. He had qualified as a master in the Guild of St Luke by the age of twenty and went on to forge a professional career in the arts. Widely heralded as a genius in his own lifetime, Da Vinci pursued the knowledge of a wide range of diverse subjects in the fields of science and art. His accomplished work is considered to be the very epitome of Renaissance thinking as he seemingly mastered anything that he put his mind to and left behind a truly awe-inspiring legacy of painting, sculpting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, anatomy and philosophy.
10. He (Might Have) Had Weird Sleep Patterns
Da Vinci is said to have supposedly kept to a special sleep schedule which allowed him to have more waking hours in the day. Like some of history’s other great polymaths, Da Vinci is said to have divided up his sleep into smaller chunks throughout the day. Apparently, people who follow this type of schedule (called polyphasic sleep) become accustomed to sleeping less and are able to function normally without feeling fatigued. Da Vinci’s name has become synonymous with this special way of sleeping even though there is no reference or evidence that he did actually follow this type of pattern. However, one of his notebooks does contain a passage where he states that “Sleep resembles death” and he also goes on to say that people shouldn’t waste their lives slumbering. If he did indeed test out a form of polyphasic sleep it would certainly explain his unstoppable productivity and tireless work ethic.
9. He Discovered why the Sky is Blue
Da Vinci had a fond appreciation for the natural world and this led him to ponder on one of life’s great mysteries: why is the sky blue? English physicist Lord Rayleigh is widely credited as being the person who first explained the principle of light scattering in the 19th century. Rayleigh discovered that the light from the sun is scattered out in the Earth’s atmosphere in such a way that it produces blue visible light, which has a shorter wavelength than other colours. Amazingly, Da Vinci was close to figuring out this principle more than 300 years before Lord Rayleigh explained the phenomenon of molecule scattering. Da Vinci mused that the sky was such a colour because of “heated moisture having evaporated into the most minute imperceptible particles”. When this water vapour was illuminated by the bright, white light of the sun against the darkness of space, it produced blue. To be fair to Rayleigh, Da Vinci wasn’t correct in his water vapour theory, but he definitely understood the basic phenomenon of light scattering way before anyone else had given it any proper thought.
8. He Had a Crude Side
Da Vinci’s notebooks weren’t all scientific musings and renowned works of art. The Codex Arundel is a 283 page collection of notes written by Da Vinci between 1480 and 1518. Da Vinci sometimes had quite a scattershot approach to writing in his notebooks and he was fond of jotting down the likes of weird prophetic riddles (e.g. “Those who give light for divine service will be destroyed.” Answer “The bees who make the wax for candles”) as well as keeping an inventory of his household goods and making shopping lists. One of the most infamous sections of The Codex Arundel is a section of folio 44 where Da Vinci compiled a list of synonyms and puns to describe a penis (or “cazzo”). Perhaps even more baffling is a small sketch found in the more hefty Codex Atlanticus (a twelve volume binding which contains 1,119 leaves of Da Vinci’s notes) which depicts a pair of penises with legs attached to them. One of the penises is pointing toward what appears to be an anus with the name ‘Salai’ written above it. However, it’s now believed that Da Vinci himself didn’t draw this crude bit of graffiti and that it instead came from his apprentice (and rumoured homosexual lover) Salai who was so proud of it that he signed his name to it.
7. He May have Discovered Heart Disease
Some of Da Vinci’s most remarkable discoveries were made in the field of anatomy. Between 1489 and 1513, Da Vinci is believed to have used his clout and position as a public figure to observe or carry out dissection on recently deceased bodies in hospitals in Florence, Milan and Rome. Although Da Vinci had painstakingly studied the intricacies of form and anatomy when he was working as an apprentice for Andrea del Verrocchio, he yearned to discover the physiology and inner-workings of the human body. This mystery was yet another thing which called to Da Vinci’s wild curiosity and he studied at least 30 corpses with great care and insight. Da Vinci’s medical research and investigation allowed him to make some truly revolutionary discoveries regarding reproductive organs, embryology, bone structure, the human brain and the cardiovascular system, amongst others. His research into the heart is perhaps most spectacular of all as Da Vinci was able to correctly deduce how how the heart’s valves worked and postulated on how blood circulated around the body. This is thought to have allowed him to correctly diagnose the death of a 100 year old man whom he had met in Santa Maria Nuova hospital. Da Vinci had been speaking to the man just hours before his death. He thought the man had died suddenly and without warning, so he dissected his body with an eye to solve the mystery. Da Vinci discovered that the death “came to him through a lack of blood in the arteries that fed the heart and the lower parts, which were used up and dried out.” This is believed to be an accurate description of coronary heart disease, making Da Vinci something of a pioneer in the field.
6. He Thought up a lot of Military Warfare Techniques
Everyone knows that Da Vinci was a prolific inventor and that his notebooks contained ideas for all manner of different gadgets and contraptions. Most of these inventions were way ahead of their time, but few people really realise just how revolutionary some of Da Vinci’s designs had the potential to be. One of his most intriguing fields of research was in military weaponry and warfare. Just some of his many schematics and plans from this field included a mechanical tank, a giant siege crossbow, a cluster bomb, a primitive diving suit which could sneakily attack enemy ships, a scythe chariot and a device which could dislodge scaling ladders. Unfortunately, Da Vinci’s drawings and notebooks went unpublished and unappreciated for centuries. Although he was renowned for his artistic output, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the rest of his body of work was discovered and studied properly.
5. He Designed a Robot
In 1495, Da Vinci was thought to have been inspired by his new found knowledge of anatomy so he designed and created what has been dubbed ‘Leonardo’s Robot’. The drawings depict what is best described as a mechanical knight which used a pulley and cable system to stand, sit up, raise its visor and wave its arms. The inner-workings of the machine were hidden inside a German-Italian suit of armour from the period. It is believed that Da Vinci learned from his anatomical drawings of muscles, tendons and joints to recreate human-like movement in a mechanical way. Da Vinci was also commissioned to create a mechanical lion for Francis I of France in 1515. According to first hand accounts, Da Vinci actually managed to bring this automata to life and the lion was able to walk a short distance before opening up its chest panel to reveal a fleur de lys. Although the original device has been long lost, the lion has since been successfully recreated from Da Vinci’s original schematics.
4. He was an Accomplished Musician
Proving that there really wasn’t anything that Da Vinci couldn’t do, the genius was also an excellent musician. Da Vinci learned to play the lyre as a young child and was said to be very gifted with the instrument. When he was sent by the Italian statesman Lorenzo de’Medici to Milan, Da Vinci presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse head that he had created as a gift of peace. The Duke of Milan was said to be so impressed by his musical ability that he remarked that Da Vinci was a better player than his own court musicians. Da Vinci also created designs for an experimental instrument called the viola organista. The complicated device was made up of continuously rotating wheels, each of which dragged a looping bow. When a key was pressed, a string would be pushed downward into the bow, emitting a sound. In 2013, musician Sławomir Zubrzycki built the viola organista and played it for a performance at the Academy of Music in Krakow.
3. He Wrote in Mirror Style
One commonly attributed fact about Da Vinci is that he wrote in a mirror style to stop people from stealing or copying his work. While it is true that Da Vinci did indeed write from right to left in some of his notebooks, it is unlikely that a man of his intellect thought that this was a good enough encryption technique to deter people from stealing his work. There was a period where Da Vinci was paranoid that that his German assistants were spying on him, but some believe that his note-taking from this time relied more on imagery and symbolism in an attempt to keep his ideas deliberately obtuse. The modern idea of Da Vinci as a cryptographer can mostly be attributed to a certain author by the name of Dan Brown and it is much more likely that he wrote in a mirror style because he was left handed. Writing from right to left would have made it easier for him and also would have prevented smudging. However, there is one final theory which argues that Da Vinci wanted his work to be published so he wrote in mirror style so that his notes could be more easily transferred for printmaking by engraving or by woodcut (although this is easy to debunk as he was very inconsistent with his mirror writing efforts, especially when it came to his diagrams).
2. He was a Prankster
Da Vinci wasn’t all about invention and innovation. Apparently the genius also had a soft spot for some good old pranks. Fellow Italian painter Giorgio Vasari told one anecdote about Da Vinci in his book ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’. When he travelled to Rome as a guest of the Vatican to celebrate the election of Leo X as Pope, Da Vinci showed off his more playful side with a series of practical jokes. He would often tell people that he kept a pet dragon in a box, but victims who thought he was joking were shocked out of their skin when he lifted the lid to reveal a live lizard with fake wings, horns and a beard. He also made makeshift balloons from bullock’s intestines which could be inflated to huge sizes with blacksmith’s bellows. Da Vinci duped curious people into thinking that they were watching him perform an experiment when in fact he was trapping his victims into the room by inflating the intestines to such huge sizes that they couldn’t get out.
1. He was Concerned about Nutrition
Da Vinci was intrigued by the importance of food nutrition. This is perhaps unsurprising given his natural curiosity about everything else, but he did seem somewhat taken by the fact that food plays an integral part in keeping healthy. In one of his notebooks Da Vinci gives the following advice: “do not eat unless you feel inclined, and sup lightly; chew well, and let what you take be well cooked and simple”. He suggested that alcohol should be drunk in moderation (and not on an empty stomach) and gave suggestions about how a kitchen should be designed and organised. Some of Da Vinci’s surviving notebooks also contain shopping lists with details about the price of each item and he owned what is considered to be the first printed cookbook – Platina’s ‘On Right Pleasure and Good Health’ – in his personal library. Of course, Da Vinci also produced a few designs for inventions in the kitchen including rudimentary versions of a garlic press, a knife sharpener and an egg slicer. However, some of these innovations were a far cry from the compact, useful kitchen tools of today. One such device was a giant whisk, twice the size of a normal man, which was operated by some poor soul who sat in the middle. The problem was that the contraption would have required an equally huge-sized bowl and the operator of the whisk would have drowned in whatever he was mixing.