Why is Da Vinci so famous? In short, his Mona Lisa is renowned for being the most visited painting on Earth which is reason enough for his fame. Mystery surrounds her, and her famous demi smile has puzzled the admiring public and kept people queuing to get a glimpse.
That said, if Da Vinci was alive to see his fame today I am sure he would be shocked and confused. He had groundbreaking ideas that were hundreds of years before their time. From the helicopter to scuba gear and even the machine gun, but he is famous for a portrait he painted? This would be equivalent to Einstein being most famous for the t-shirt people buy with him on it with his crazy hair.
Why is Da Vinci so famous?
Speculation surrounds who the Mona Lisa was, and while considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, his other works are equally masterful. The Last Supper 1495–98, and his drawing of the Vitruvian Man 1490, likely the most iconic image of Western art, clearly ranks him amongst the best. However, delving further, we discover how this artist’s works and inventions changed history, and what makes him so famous.
The Life of Leonardo
Architect, inventor, anatomist, sculptor, painter, geologist, scientist, cartographer, botanist, and engineer. He himself said, “I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.” Impressive for someone who more or less had all the odds stacked against him.
The left-handed genius was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy, the illegitimate son of a local lawyer. Raised by his paternal grandparents and simply known as Leonardo from ‘Vinci’. He had no formal education, couldn’t speak Latin, and had poor arithmetic skills. Somehow Da Vinci found solace in the great city of Florence.
Florence, originally founded by Julius Caesar as Florentia in 59 BC, literally meaning ‘flourish’, is the home of the Renaissance. The great rebirth of the 15th century, which allowed intellectual freedom and liberty, otherwise unheard of at the time. Studying anthropology, humanism, the laws of nature, science, and astronomy, was in fashion, bringing society out of the dark ages.
As a student in Florence, and already skilled as an artist, he was an apprentice to a goldsmith, painter and sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio, collaborating on The Adoration of the Magi painting.
Leonardo was regularly studying scaffolding, levers, and ladders. He was fascinated by Brunelleschi’s apparatus used to hoist the copper ball on top of the Duomo so agreed to assist him. You’d find him sketching it all as Brunelleschi went along. This experience inspired his self-belief to attain similar marvels and invent futuristic gadgetry.
Artist by Day, Chef by Night
An artist by day and chef by night, after three years as an apprentice, twenty-year-old Leonardo took a job at a local restaurant near the Ponte Vecchio, serving polenta, the restaurant’s signature dish. From here he wrote a letter to Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan, asking for work and outlining his skills.
Likely the most impressive resume in history, it included architect, artificer, armorer, and all-around expert on making instruments of war. By now a hydraulic specialist, he offered to make an infinite number of items for attack and defense.
Influenced by his uncle Francesco, a pastry chef, and grandfather Antonio, who introduced a fascinated young Leonardo to flour mills. This combination within his surroundings set the cogs and wheels turning for later in life.
Going full circle, food and investigating solutions to improve Ludovico Sforza’s busy castle kitchen, helped Leonardo develop his inventions. For 30 years, he remained in charge of organizing feasts and banquets at the Sforza household in Milan. This fed his imagination for ideas to help operate the kitchen, using resources available to him to experiment with utensils.
He designed the first prototype corkscrew, and many of his designs were precursors to modern-day kitchenalia including food blenders. We owe the garlic crusher, pepper grinder, pasta machine, egg slicer, and spit roast to his forward-thinking, imaginative skills.
From Flour to Gunpowder
In the 1480s his career coincided with the introduction of gunpowder. Ready for action in European warfare, he sketched weaponry, like lances, chariots, catapults, crossbows, guns, and canons. Designing a prototype for a machine gun and the first-ever parachute.
Leonardo, the anatomist
Living in the countryside is why Da Vinci found an interest in nature. His anatomical surveys of animals and insects found him dissecting wildlife. Sewing wings on one and various other bits on another. Not intent on any cruelty, he often set birds free from cages. During his scientific investigations, he was searching among other things, for the root of the soul. This progressed to human anatomy.
No doubt witnessing the ruling family of Florence, the Medici, publicly execute traitors, he’d seen lifeless corpses from an early age. Influenced heavily by Aristotle, he believed experience to be the ideal form of investigation, rather than reading about it.
In 1507 he had the opportunity to perform dissections of corpses at the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, in Florence. Opening up skulls and corpses, he also collaborated with the anatomist Marcantonio Della Torre, observing autopsies at his Anatomical University in Pavia. Becoming professionally respected in his own right to perform anatomical dissections, and connected to local physicians, human specimens were available.
Rumour has it that in 1515 Leonardo was accused of necromancy for his anatomical studies. The Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome, blocked his progress and The Pope forced him to give up his research.
The Ideal Man
Da Vinci’s quest for the understanding of man, with accurate, annotated sketches and investigations of human proportions is evident in his Vitruvian Man. Drawn in pen and ink, it represents the perfect proportions of the human body according to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. He had previously described the proportions in his 1st BC, multi-volume book, De Architectura.
In ancient times, circular shapes, as seen in the image, were cosmic and the divine’. While the square represented what was ‘Earth and secular’. The idea was that sketching the human form inside both shapes shows how we fit into both realms. Thus completing the perfection of the universe, these principles were applicable to the rules of architecture too, in designing buildings.
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward.”
Most of Leonardo’s aeronautical designs were ornithopters, machines that employed flapping wings to generate both lift and propulsion. He sketched flying machines with the pilot standing vertically, using his arms and legs, as a bird might do.
Almost 500 years before the first helicopter was built, Leonardo sketched his Aerial Screw. A man-powered helicopter requiring four men to spin cranks fast enough to generate enough lift to leave the ground. The drawing was created in the late 1400s, but he never attempted to create a model of his design to test its functionality.
The American Helicopter Society, the world’s oldest and largest technical society dedicated to the understanding of vertical flight technology used his design to see the first human-powered helicopter takes flight.
Check Out Our Best Versailles & Paris Louvre Tours
His notebooks reveal that the subject of hydraulics was his most frequently studied and recorded topic. Da Vinci made the first empirical studies of streams and their velocity distribution. He used a weighted rod held afloat by an inflated animal bladder.
His sketches show a fascination with the raging force of nature and the power of water. He sought to understand the ebb and flow of tides, the origins of rivers and oceans, floods, rain, and storms. He investigated ways to divert the river Arno away from Pisa, at the time, Florence’s enemy. An expert on water, he is referred to as the “Master of Water” in the records of the Florentine government.
He likened flowing water to curly hair: “Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair. With two motions, one goes with the flow of the surface, and the other forms the lines of the eddies. The water forms eddying whirlpools, partly due to the impetus of the principal current, and the other, incidental motion, return flow.”
A Lifetime Study
Luckily for us, paper was in abundance in the 15th century, due to the book printing revolution. So we literally have 1000’s of his architectural sketches and geometrical diagrams saved. He also sketched grotesque figures and heads, likely for his own amusement and to amuse the courts of the Sforza family.
Later in life, the Sforza family gifted him a vineyard and in his letters, he writes about viticulture, winemaking, and healthy living. Remarking how the “divine juice of the grape” would assist his ideas as he sipped the wine. Malvasia being his grape of choice.
An over-active imagination, he left us with notes and personal thoughts, pondering: “How do birds fly? Why don’t water circles break when they meet/cross? Where do these rainbow air bubbles in a water glass come from? How can an artist avoid revealing too much of himself in his work, in each of the models he paints?”
We have this incredible insight thanks to his faithful assistant Francesco Melzi who bequeathed the sketch collection. Made from the finest hemp or linen, and due to his efforts, along with collectors Pompeo Leoni and Thomas Howard, Leonardo’s drawings have survived 500 years.
Leonardo was assembling his numerous sketches and studies to make a treatise on painting. Such as his study of the geometric principles of light and shade, The Fall of Light on a Face, of 1488. Lots of these sketches have studied for future subjects that were on his mind. Most of which are in the 12 leather-bound volumes of the Codex Atlanticus in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
The Renaissance Man
The original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci’s works have influenced artists, scientists, architects, and great thinkers for centuries. To say he was ahead of his time would be an understatement. His many forward-thinking ideas are the reason da Vinci is considered a genius.
His recently sold painting Salvator Mundi is the most expensive artwork to ever sell at auction, for a staggering $450.3 million. Dating to around 1500, it sold at Christie’s New York in 2018. The rare painting is one of fewer than 20 authenticated works in existence held in London, Paris, Milan and Florence.
He was one of the foremost intellects in world history, who against all odds, became a role model globally. And whose brilliance we share through his surviving works. He made a lifetimes study, questioning life itself, from all angles, in turn setting templates for future thinkers to follow.
Why is Leonardo Da Vinci so famous? To quote Giorgio Vasari, “The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, naturally, but sometimes with lavish abundance bestow upon a single individual beauty, grace, and ability, so that, whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art.”