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...