Life and Works

Who is Leonardo Da Vinci?

Leonardo had a keen eye and quick mind that led him to make important scientific discoveries, yet he never published his ideas. He was a gentle vegetarian who loved animals and despised war, yet he worked as a military engineer to invent advanced and deadly weapons. He was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance, yet he left only a handful of completed paintings.

It may seem unusual to include Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist, the creator of such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, and The Last Supper. Yet Leonardo was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He made painstaking observations and carried out research in fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy to anatomy and zoology to geography, geology and paleontology. In the words of his biographer Giorgio Vasari:
The most heavenly gifts seem to be showered on certain human beings. Sometimes supernaturally, marvelously, they all congregate in one individual. . . . This was seen and acknowledged by all men in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, who had. . . an indescribable grace in every effortless act and deed. His talent was so rare that he mastered any subject to which he turned his attention. . . . He might have been a scientist if he had not been so versatile.
Leonardo\'s scientific and technical observations are found in his handwritten manuscripts, of which over 4000 pages survive, including the one pictured on the right, showing some rock formations (click on it to view an enlargement). It seems that Leonardo planned to publish them as a great encyclopedia of knowledge, but like many of his projects, this one was never finished. The manuscripts are difficult to read: not only did Leonardo write in mirror-image script from right to left, but he used peculiar spellings and abbreviations, and his notes are not arranged in any logical order. After his death his notes were scattered to libraries and collections all over Europe. While portions of Leonardo\'s technical treatises on painting were published as early as 1651, the scope and caliber of much of his scientific work remained unknown until the 19th century. Yet his geological and paleontological observations and theories foreshadow many later breakthroughs.

People just can\'t stop talking about that Mona Lisa. Why is she smiling? What\'s her story? Some people think her mysterious grin meant she was secretly pregnant, but that would be unlikely in conjunction with another theory: that Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo! X-rays of the painting and close comparison with drawings of Leonardo suggest that this may actually be true.

The Last Supper is one of Leonardo\'s best known and worst preserved pieces. Doomed from the start by Leonardo\'s experimental technique, the mural began to deteriorate even before the artist\'s death. Within 50 years it was almost indecipherable, and it was repainted twice during the 18th century. Its suffering continued through the 19th century, first at the hands of Napoleon\'s soldiers, then from the monks who actually cut a door through the bottom. After miraculously surviving the Allied bombs of World War II, the beleaguered mural\'s luck began to change. Restorers discovered that much of the original work remained, and it is once again a joy to behold.

One cannot exaggerate the unpleasantness of Leonardo\'s anatomy studies. Cadavers are already pretty awful, even when refrigerated and pickled in formaldehyde, but Renaissance Italy had no such niceties. Leonardo, in his fervor for knowledge, held countless creepy vigils with the local corpses, and their annoying tendency to decay forced him to work as quickly as possible. He described it as "living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold," but as usual his curiosity pushed him ever onward.

Even Leonardo fell for some bogus theories. He was fascinated by the study of physiognomy, the "science" of evaluating a person\'s character by his or her facial features. Although utter codswallop, physiognomy was all the rage until the beginning of this century, when scientists finally chucked it once and for all.

Leonardo recognized that