Leonardo da Vinci


An hypothetical merit ranking of all the men (and women, of course) ever lived would be very hard to compile, but one thing is certain: no matter the standard it would be based on, Leonardo would shine in the top three positions – and most probably at number one. The prototypical Renaissance man, he was very different from its famous pop culture portrayals, such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or the Da Vinci’s Demons television serial. This notwithstanding, he has really been a sort of hero – mostly unsung.

But let’s start at the beginning, in the year 1452. Vinci is not a family name (which commoners didn’t use at the time), but a village near Firenze, in Tuscany; Leonardo’s actual name was in fact Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci, literally ‘the son strong as a lion of sir Piero from Vinci’. Piero was a rich notary, but his child was born from his peasant mistress, forcing Leonardo to grow up and live practically estranged from a proper family. While his father’s finances sustained him through his twenties and more, this meant that Leonardo developed an early and fierce independent character, and the habit of looking for knowledge from personal experience instead of any outside authority. This combination fueled both his curiosity and his observational skills, but also led him to frequent confrontations with every sort of teachers, including the powerful Catholic priests «with all their baseless superstitions they use to prey on ignorant people».
When the child proved one time too many to be smarter than his teachers, Piero had to find a less troublesome line of education for Leonardo. He sent him to study fine arts with Andrea del Verrocchio, the mentor of many classical painters including Botticelli of the Venus rising from the waters fame. By age 20 Leonardo was recognized as a master painter, and he began an exemplary yet difficult career in this trade that had him noticed by the Medici family, the rulers of the Florence area.

Possibly also to get the young man away from the frequent – and very dangerous, as they were punishable by mutilation or death – accusations of violent homosexual romps in which he partook along with the heirs of powerful local families, he was made an ambassador to the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milano. His task was simply to present the famous conqueror with a lyre as a sign of friendship between Florence and Milan – what Leonardo did was instead to design and build a new type of lyre, play it for Ludovico in a sort of contest between court musicians, unquestionably win it and, as a prize, ask to become a sort of genius jack of all trades for the powerful Sforza family. In a famous letter, he offers himself as civil and military engineer, mathematician, a few more roles and, almost as an afterthought, an artist.
What he got was in fact a stipend as a court artist. Even if he was obviously more interested in science, the only major technical works during his tenure were a sort of special effects show consisting of a mechanical scenography representing the sky (complete with correctly moving celestial bodies) and the preparatory studies for a giant bronze statue of a nobleman on prancing horse. The latter would have been incredibly innovative, but was never completed: in 1500 Milano suddenly went to war with France, and all the available bronze was used for weapons. Seeing that the French army was winning, Leonardo fled back to Florence.

Here he worked as a military engineer for the Borgias, the new ruling dynasty, and got to meet many brilliant minds including Niccolò Machiavelli (the philosopher who gave origin to the ‘machiavellian’ adjective to indicate intricate and shrewd strategies) and the artist Michelangelo, with whom he will develop a lifelong rivalry. Between commissioned paintings and frescoes to make ends meet, Leonardo creates the Monna Lisa (yes, with two ‘N’s), the most famous portrait of all times.
When his father died in 1504 Leonardo’s artistic career was close to its peak – yet the man switched his main interest to science once again. His first project? No less than a three-volume treatise on flight, including the diagrams to build the first plane and parachute in history. His technical genius became so famous that the same French king who invaded Milano went overboard to persuade him to go back to his court – now as the court’s master scientist.

Leonardo proceeded to invent a huge number of revolutionary devices, from automatic looms to submarines, from rough spring-powered automobiles to bridges and dams… and more. His main works were however the complete redesign of Milano itself and its waterways (only partially realized), and more importantly the first visual anatomical atlas in the world, based in part on the unsanctioned dissection of cadavers.
Anatomy also caused his fall from grace, as a crew who was helping him to create a sun and water powered system for automatizing all sort of stuff via steam denounced him for sorcery as a form of revenge from his ill-treatment of the workers. Leonardo got so fed up with this sort of pettiness that he moved permanently to France, where he invented even more creations. Among them, ingenious “robots” and the camera obscura, an optical device conceived to copy and enlarge visual artworks, but also the ancestor of photography. When he died in 1519 he left thousands of game-changing notes, treaties and sketches: about 50,000 were subsequently lost or destroyed, but even so Leonardo da Vinci remains an unsurpassable (Italian) genius and one of the fathers of modern science.