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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The Da Vinci Code transformed his last name into an international phenomenon, but Italians have always referred to the ultimate Renaissance man simply as Leonardo. Next year the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death on May 2, 1519. Few individuals have left a larger or more lasting legacy.

Other artists let their works speak for him. Not Leonardo, who left a treasure trove of words—an ongoing conversation with himself that covered more than 5,000 surviving manuscript pages gathered into libricini, combination sketch and notebooks, written in his idiosyncratic right-to-left “mirror script.”

Dimmi” (Tell me), Leonardo would scrawl when breaking in a new pen nub. HIs incomparable volumes tell of everything from flying machines to irrigiation sysems, set down without punctuation or accents, often with several short words run together into a long one or a long word divided in half.  

An illegitimate son of a Florence notaio and a country woman, Leonardo described himself as an "omo senza lettera," a man without letters, but he loved writing and writers. In Florence in the 1470s Leonardo hung out with a group of Tuscan writers known as poets alla burchia (which translates as in a hurry, piled up at random or higgledy-piggledy). These rap artists of their day improvised verses in a slangy, ribald, satirical style called burchiellesco (from burchia).

Leonardo’s eclectic treatises include the memorably titled, "Why Dogs Gladly Sniff One Another's Bottom” (“Perché li cani odoran volentieri il culo l’uno all’altro”). The reason: The smell lets them know how well fed a dog is. A whiff of meat indicates a powerful and rich owner—and a need for deference.

Leonardo delighted in puns, wordplay, complex codes, spoofs and pictograms (sketches, for instance, of the letter “o” and the drawing of a pear–pera in Italian—to represent the word opera). He also jotted jokes in his notebooks. In one, a painter is asked how he depicted such beautiful images of dead things and yet produced such ugly children. The punch line: he made his paintings by day and his children by night. In a riddle, Leonardo asked which men walk on tree tops and which on the backs of great beasts. The answer: It depends on whether they are wearing wooden clogs or ox-leather shoes.

After spending his last years in France under King Francis I’s patronage, Leonardo died at Amboise in the Loire valley at age 67. His coffin was carried to the Church of Saint-Florentin by the chaplains of the church, followed by the prior, curates, friars and sixty poor men (compensated for their time) carrying tapers, while ten large candles burned and prayers were said for his soul.  His notebooks scattered to museums and collectors throughout the world.

Words and Expressions

Sfumatura — gentle shading, characteristic of the painterly technique of Leonardo and his disciples
La Giocanda -– better known outside of Italy as the Mona Lisa, a reference to the wife of Signore Giocando or a term for a playful or laughing girl
Saper vedere – to know how to see, Leonardo’s fundamental quest
Capolavoro — masterpiece

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.