The Cracker Barrel: Mister Curiosity
Five hundred years ago last week, on May 2, 1519, a well-known Italian died in France.
Known to us as Leonardo da Vinci, or simply Leonardo, he was an intensely curious man whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography.
Many historians list him as the prime example of the Renaissance Man and he is widely considered to be one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. In addition to being called the father of palaeontology, ichnology (the study of fossils) and architecture, he is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time, especially famous for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
His painting Salvator Mundi sold for some $450 million at a Christie's auction in 2017, the highest price ever paid for a work of art.
Leonardo is also revered for his technological ingenuity, having conceptualized flying machines, an armored tank, concentrated solar power, an adding machine and the double hull. Because the fields of metallurgy and engineering were not well developed during his lifetime, few of his designs were actually built, though some of his smaller inventions were promptly put to use.
In addition to his conceptual achievements he also made many discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, geology, optics and hydrodynamics.
Little is known of Leonardo's early years, but in 1466, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to the artist Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day, with whom he trained for seven years. During that time Leonardo was exposed to a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics and woodwork.
His earliest known dated work is a drawing in pen and ink from August of 1473.
Having found favor with Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan and worked there from 1482 to 1499. During that time he was employed on dozens of projects, ranging from the preparation of celebratory floats and pageants, designs for a dome for the Milan Cathedral, and building a clay model of a gigantic horse, for the casting of which the duke set aside 70 tons of bronze (which unfortunately was later used for the building of cannons to defend the city from invasion before the statue could be cast).
Throughout his life, Leonardo kept journals full of small sketches and detailed drawings recording all manner of things that he found interesting. It was his habit to focus intently on people with interesting faces, following them around all day observing them. He drew countless studies of beautiful young men, and his lifelong relationships with two of them have led many historians to regard him as gay.
Near the end of his recent biography of Leonardo, Walter Isaacson claims that Leonardo's comparisons between man-made machinery and the handiwork of nature produced in him a deep reverence for the latter. Because he was relentlessly curious, his studies in any given field invariably crossed over to aid him in understanding other disciplines.
But his mind always returned to his original fascination with nature.
"Though human ingenuity may make various inventions," he wrote, "it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, more direct than does Nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous."