Renaissance Man: How Leonardo da Vinci Changed What It Meant to Truly Live

Bryce Heventhal May 10, 2021 11 min read

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)

The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, the first flying machine, parachute, and machine gun. The list of Leonardo da Vinci’s achievements could go on and on, as many have already covered with their top 10s. What’s truly remarkable about da Vinci isn’t just what he invented or painted. It’s how he lived. As Sigmund Freud so clearly observed, “He was like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” Why was Leonardo da Vinci known as the Renaissance Man?.

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From the Middle Ages to Renaissance

Leonardo da Vinci thrived in the boom of the European Renaissance. This was a massive time of social and cultural change, where people started to question the norms held by the prevailing Catholic Church. Before this time, those who strayed from the flock with new and provoking ideas were commonly punished and outcast from society. Heretics might have been banished to darkness in the Middle Ages, but no more.

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Leonardo da Vinci was the true Renaissance Man. He lived a life based on a philosophy that man’s personal development and expansion capacity were without limits. As a Renaissance Man, it was an individual’s goal to reach their fullest potential in life. The fervor of intellectual pursuits still required creativity in arts, honing the physical body, and the pursuit of emotional truth. It was a way of living that saw life as a complete whole through many different forms.

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For example, da Vinci didn’t see art and science as two competing disciplines where you had to pursue one but not the other. Rather, he saw these fields as complementary and enjoyed both. Art could inspire science and vice versa. In many ways, Da Vinci saw the entire world as a work of art that was to be studied through curious eyes, which is how he spent many years of his life.

 

Da Vinci was extremely passionate about immersing himself in studies of the natural world around him. You might find him observing the flight of birds to discover aeronautical principles or dissecting human and animal bodies to understand anatomy better. By the early 1490s, Da Vinci had started a rich collection of notebooks filled to the brim with beautiful sketches and observations centered around four themes – painting, architecture, mechanics, and human anatomy.

These notebooks housed some amazing inventions that we’ll be exploring in more detail below. For example, one notebook titled The Codex Atlanticus contained a fully detailed plan for a 65-foot flying machine. This was based on hours of observation studying birds’ flight and the principles of physics and aeronautics.

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Leonardo da Vinci: The Early Years

Many consider Leonardo Da Vinci to be a true genius, but his upbringing hardly reveals the source. He was born near Florence, Italy, to a respected notary and young peasant woman. His education barely spanned beyond the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics. However, his father saw a budding artist in Leo and enrolled him in an apprenticeship at 14 with artist Andrea del Verrocchio.

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Here he was exposed to basic art skills – drawing, painting, sculpting, and modeling. But the story only begins there. He also dabbled in crafts like drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metalworking, plaster casting, leatherworking, mechanics, and carpentry. This is where the Renaissance Man was born.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s earliest work was a contribution to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, pictured below. Leonardo reportedly completed work on one of the two angles in the portrait and the distant landscape and some elements of Christ.

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At the age of 20, after 6 years of immersive work, Leonardo Da Vinci was granted membership as a Master Artist in Florence’s Guild of Saint Luke. Here he started his own workshop and began his first commission for an altarpiece for the church, the Adoration of the Magi. This piece was never completed, though, as Leo left to work for the Duke of Milan.

From Artist to Inventor

Working under the Duke of Milan, Da Vinci was kept busy juggling many hats. Part painter and sculptor was also commissioned to design weapons, buildings, and machines of war. During this span of 15 years, from 1485 to 1490, da Vinci produced some of his most brilliant ideas and works of art.

The ironic thing is, his interests were so broad that he only managed to complete six major projects, two being the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. The rest of his projects remained half-finished or existed simply as ideas in the endless pages of his notebooks.

When Da Vinci wasn’t producing work for the Duke, he was constantly studying the world around him. Throughout his life, he dissected over 30 human bodies and worked tirelessly to document their detail. He prodded and poked at muscles and bones, trying to understand how they work. He would even take organs and fill them with wax to preserve and study their internal structures.

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This fascination with anatomy can clearly be seen in one of his most famous works – the Vitruvian Man. A male figure with anatomically precise measurements that we’re still fascinated by today.

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When he wasn’t exploring anatomy, Leonardo Da Vinci was constantly studying the world around him. Looking at the flight of birds in the sky, he drew inspiration for the first flying machine. Seeing the Black Plague’s destruction inspired him to design a futuristic city free from the perils of unnecessary death.

It only seems fitting to document what Leonardo da Vinci did best – imagining a world that was so different from the one he lived in. When all people knew of Da Vinci were his amazing paintings, there was an entire world of documented inventions that were never realized in his time, including:

The First Parachute

Leonardo Da Vinci’s parachute consisted of a pyramid-shaped wooden structure, sealed with a linen cloth. As da Vinci recounts, “If a man have a tent made of linen of which the apertures have all been stopped up, and it be twelve Braccia across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.”

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Today’s modern parachutes share a similar structure, but there has been plenty of skepticism surrounding Da Vinci’s design’s viability. To prove it worked, daredevil Adrian Nichols built a parachute matching Da Vinci’s design in 2000, then threw himself down from a great height. He remarked that da Vinci’s parachute provided a much smoother ride than conventional designs.

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The First Flying Machine

Leonardo Da Vinci had a special fascination with birds, which inspired many of his flying machine ideas, including the first Ornithopter. Da Vinci’s vision was to give man the freeform power of flight that birds enjoyed so freely.

This machine required a person to lay down on a center holster. The pilot’s legs would be used to pedal a crank connected to a pulley system that flapped the wings of the machine, much like a bird.

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Those that have reproduced the design proved that it could certainly fly. However, the only issue is getting it up in the air. The meager power of human muscle proved to be too limited for takeoff from the ground.

The First Machine Gun

Cannons were terribly inefficient during Da Vinci’s time, having to be manually reloaded after a single shot. To improve this design, da Vinci imagined a 33 barreled musket system, which allowed 11 muskets to fire at a time.

In this prelude to the modern machine gun, 11 muskets are arranged on a rectangular board. Three sets of these boards are then placed side by side, with a shaft connecting each for easy rotation. The idea was that one set of muskets could be fired, while another cools off, and another is reloaded. With this continuous process, you’d basically have muskets shooting in rapid-fire at all times.

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The First Diving Suit

The first conception of the diving suit was brought forth in times of war. The idea was to allow men in suits to dive into the harbor in Venice and cut holes in the bottom of enemy ship’s hulls. Da Vinci’s diving suit included all of the essentials, including breathing tubes constructed of cane and leather connected to a floating bell at the water’s surface. The suit had a wine bladder filled with air, a prelude to the modern scuba air tank in another variation.

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The suit might have actually been used in Da Vinci’s time if the invading navy wasn’t driven away before the device was ready. Underwater sabotage never became necessary for wartime.

The First Armored Tank

The first armored tank was a hulking, turtle-shaped machine designed to be powered manually by eight operators. 36 guns pointed out from all sides of the shell, providing 360 degrees of firing range.

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Within the shell, all eight operators would have to drive the tank through a system of gears that had to be propelled manually by hand-cranks. However, the design sketched in Da Vinci’s notebook reveals a fatal flaw – the gearing was positioned to have the front wheels move in the opposite direction from the rear wheels. The tank basically couldn’t move.

There’s a ton of speculation about this design flaw. Some think that da Vinci did it deliberately to ensure the machine was never constructed. Others believe he was afraid of the design falling into enemy hands.

The First Self-Propelled Cart

The first early signs of the automobile had arrived. The self-propelled cart was originally designed for theatrical use and moved without being pushed thanks to a coiled spring that functions much like a wind-up toy. A steering system was controlled by a set of blocks positioned within the gears, although the cart could reportedly only make right turns.

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The First Helicopter

This aerial screw machine utilized a pinwheel design that would twirl fast enough to produce lift. As air pressure would build up under the linen blades, it would force the machine into the sky. This design for vertical flight is still utilized today in helicopters.

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The First Robot

Leonardo Da Vinci’s deep understanding of human anatomy allowed him to create a robotic knight that could replicate simple human movement. Reportedly, the knight could walk, sit, move its head, and lift its visor thanks to a system of pulleys and gears. The robot was only used for entertainment at parties, but its design was awe-inspiring.

In 2002 robotics expert Mark Rosheim constructed a model of da Vinci’s robot based on available sketches. He was able to get it to sit and stand with success. Some of the principles of this robotic knight were also used in robots for planetary exploration.

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The First Revolving Bridge

War presents an interesting challenge of mobilizing thousands of men and tons of supplies across diverse landscapes. To help mobilize the Duke of Malin’s army, Da Vinci designed a revolving bridge that could be quickly constructed over bodies of water on the fly. Once soldiers passed, the bridge could then be packed up and carried along to the next location.

This bridge included a rope-and-pulley system, which makes it easy to transport and deploy. It also used a counterweight tank to help balance the heaviest of loads.

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The First Modern City

Da Vinci lived through the darkness of the Black Plague in Europe that killed millions. What da Vinci noticed was that the plague was much more prolific in cities compared to the countryside. While it might seem obvious now, theories about germs and the spread of disease were still a mystery to humanity.

This disaster inspired da Vinci to design one of his greatest inventions yet, a modern city that was safe from future plagues’ ravages. The city was divided into several levels, with all waste materials transported through the lowest levels using a network of canals. Clean water was distributed using a hydraulic system in the upper levels, long before modern plumbing was invented.

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Unfortunately, this last invention would never leave the canvas of Da Vinci’s notebook. To make it a reality would have required an enormous amount of resources and the ability to build a brand new city from scratch.

Leonardo da Vinci: A True Renaissance Man

Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs were incredibly ahead of their time, but they went largely unnoticed for hundreds of years. What was known about Leo during his life were his legendary artistic skills. Works like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper still stand today as timeless masterpieces. One has to wonder what the world would have been like if Leonardo’s inventions were actually made. Technology would have likely advanced at an incredible pace.

Whether or not Da Vinci’s designs were ever realized, we can’t discount the brilliance of his mind and his passion for studying the world around him. He chose to live boldly and differently as a Renaissance Man, never intent on settling his curiosity when there was still so much to learn.

“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. So we must stretch ourselves to the very limits of human possibility. Anything less is a sin against both God and man.”

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