Da Vinci for Dummies

Da Vinci for Dummies

by Jessica Teisch Ph.D, Tracy Barr (With)



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780764578373
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 03/21/2005
Series: For Dummies Series
Pages: 382
Product dimensions: 7.42(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Jessica Teisch, PhD (Berkeley, CA), is Managing Editor of Bookmarks magazine and has written hundreds of profiles and book reviews for this awardwinning publication. She has also written books and articles on subjects ranging from literature to technological, environmental, intellectual, and cultural history.

Tracy Barr has been a part of the For Dummies phenomenon for almost a decade. In that time, she has served as editor, editorial manager, writer, and consultant to folks who write and edit For Dummies books. Most recently, she helped write World War II For Dummies with Keith D. Dickson and Religion For Dummies with Rabbi Mark Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman. She also is the author of Yorkshire Terriers For Dummies and coauthor of Latin For Dummies and Adoption For Dummies.

Read an Excerpt

Da Vinci For Dummies

By Jessica Telsch

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7645-7837-5

Chapter One

Leonardo: The Big Picture

In This Chapter

* Gaining an overview of Leonardo's career

* Understanding his limitations

* Putting Leonardo and his accomplishments in perspective today

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) enjoys mythical status as the genius of all geniuses, yet people know precious little about him. He was handsome, charming, and kind. He saw patterns in nature and revered all forms of life. He believed in the power of human endeavor and thought that people in his lifetime might fly as high as the heavens, if they so chose.

Despite his faith in people and progress, Leonardo questioned everything around him, from religion to standards of beauty. He distrusted human nature, expected the worst from friend and foe, and fell headlong into existential despair on a few occasions. Though well liked and recognized as the genius that he was, he remained generally aloof to the world around him.

To deepen the paradox, Leonardo possessed unsurpassed artistic skill, but left fewer than two-dozen paintings, half of them unfinished. Artistic patrons from dukes, popes, and kings to murderous despots wooed him into their courts, yet he never found lasting security with them. His insatiable curiosity led him to constantly observe, experiment, theorize, and invent. He made immense strides in many fields: art, anatomy, engineering, geology, and physics. Yet,his scientific studies had relatively little impact during his lifetime.

In short, Leonardo is a study in opposites.

For all his genius, Leonardo was, in many ways, a tragic figure. Like so many 20th-century creative geniuses, from John Nash to Sylvia Plath, his life was filled with great contradiction. Unlike Nash or Plath, he attempted so much in so many areas. But he left his notebooks a mess and never published the treatises that could've modernized science during his lifetime.

Still, during his time, people revered Leonardo as the embodiment of Renaissance ideals. If a few scholars today call him a failure for his almost absent-minded, dilettante behavior, you can still call him a peerless genius, both of and ahead of his time. In this chapter, I give you a taste of all the reasons why. If you find yourself hungry for more at the end of the chapter, you have this whole book to satisfy your cravings.

Knock, Knock. Who's There? Leonardo ...

No doubt about it - Leonardo was a genius. If you give only superficial consideration to his paintings and ignore all his other bodies of work, you have to credit him with redefining the artistic standards and techniques of the Renaissance and producing works with unparalleled beauty and composition (an amazing feat considering that he didn't even finish many of them!). Look a little closer, and you can see evidence of the talent that gave viewers, for the first time in history, a glimpse into the personality or soul of the person being painted.

Ignore the paintings (the things for which he's probably best known) and focus solely on his mechanical drawings, and you can't help but be astounded at the prescient inventions and mechanical gadgets from a man who lived in a time of superstition and religious zeal. Focus on his civil engineering projects, and you can see at work the mind of a man who believed that nature itself could be redirected to benefit humankind. Throw out his contributions in the fields of art and civil and military engineering so that you can devote all your attention to his anatomical studies, and you notice an advanced understanding of the systems in the body and a (usually) correct representation of how they work.

What makes Leonardo so astounding, and what separates him from the other greats of his time, is that his genius wasn't limited to one field. True, he was an artist without parallel, but he was also an inventor, an anatomist, a mathematician, an engineer, a musician, a mapmaker, and - if you consider that he sought to understand the underlying causes and principles of reality - a philosopher.

From humble beginnings

For a man who attained such fame, hobnobbed with dukes, popes, and kings, and whose name today is synonymous with unrivaled genius and accomplishment, Leonardo's birth was inauspicious, to say the least. No stars aligned in the heavens, and people probably didn't make much fanfare when an unmarried peasant girl (probably named Caterina, who's mentioned in his notebooks) gave birth to her illegitimate son.

Leonardo, most likely born in Anchiano, Italy, spent his childhood in Vinci, a small town west of Florence. When Leonardo was a teenager, his biological father arranged for him to apprentice with the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, known as "True Eye" for his artistic talent. (Chapter 4 discusses the apprenticeship system in greater detail; for the details on Leonardo's life, go to Chapter 3.)

Leonardo spent about six years apprenticing with Verrocchio. While there, he drew the attention of Verrocchio's prime patron, Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent; you can read more about the Medici rulers in Chapter 2). This valuable contact put Leonardo in touch with the movers of the Florentine Renaissance, VIP philosophers, mathematicians, and artists that greatly influenced his intellectual development.

But alas, Leonardo's time in Florence eventually came to an end, and in 1482 he sent a cover letter and resume of sorts to Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Sforza needed someone to design weapons, not paint pretty portraits. (During the Renaissance, war was the most important of all the arts; for details on how the Italian Wars influenced Leonardo's career path, head to Chapter 2.) So Leonardo reinvented himself as a military engineer. He found Sforza's court more to his liking than the Medicean court and gathered around him a brilliant set of astrologers, musicians, mathematicians, and scientists. But in 1499, the French drove Sforza into exile, and Leonardo was left without a patron and had to move on again.

He spent a brief time in Venice, which was at war with the Turks, but returned to Florence around 1500, after an absence of nearly 20 years. He left Florence in 1502 to take up an appointment as chief engineer to the bloodthirsty commander of the papal armies, Cesare Borgia. They traipsed around Italy while Leonardo produced defense maps and designed military machines.

When Borgia met his downfall, Leonardo returned to Florence. But in 1506, Milan came a-calling again, and back he went. Ludovico was gone, replaced by the French, and Leo stayed in Milan until Ludovico's son, Maximilian, came and kicked out the French. Leonardo, by then 60, fled to Rome, where he sought the patronage of Giuliano de' Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and brother of Giovanni, the new Medicean pope also known as Leo X. But Michelangelo and Raphael, both younger competitors, had beaten the aging Leonardo to the Vatican, and he found no permanent home there.

When Giuliano died, Leonardo and his small entourage of students and servants traveled to the Loire Valley, where Francois I, the baby-faced king of France, had invited them to reside. Francois I was Leonardo's last patron, and perhaps the only one among Leonardo's many fans who fully appreciated the singular nature of his genius. Although a stroke rendered Leonardo unable to paint, he designed a mechanical lion, decorated the court, and spent hours philosophizing with the king. He died on May 2, 1519.


The saying goes, "He was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none." Well, the remarkable thing about Leonardo was that he wasn't just a master of one trade, but of many. Although he probably never left the European continent, Leonardo's career was extraordinarily diverse and included some pretty different occupations - painter and portraitist, anatomist, civil and military engineer, botanist, and mapmaker, to name a few.


Throughout his career and in every court save the last one (when a stroke left him unable to paint), Leonardo created or worked on the pieces for which he is best known. His works include religious paintings, such as Virgin of the Rocks, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Adoration of the Magi, St. John the Baptist, and the unparalleled The Last Supper, along with portraits, including everyone's favorite girl, Mona Lisa, and others, like Ginevra de' Benci. The fact that some of his paintings are only half-finished or that one, The Last Supper, started to deteriorate as soon as it was finished, is irrelevant; they're still superior to those rendered by his colleagues around the same time. Chapters 11, 13, and 14 offer more details on these paintings' unique subjects and styles.

Although Leonardo's paintings were few and far between, he left abundant and magnificent drawings. Many served as understudies for his paintings. These sketches include human poses, plants and flowers, horses and other animals, human anatomy, water, and machines. Many of his drawings, especially his anatomical ones (as you see in Chapter 5), were ahead of his time. In others, including his car, scuba gear, and military weapons (discussed in Chapters 7, 8, and 9), Leonardo put together old parts in new ways.

Unfortunately, Leonardo left no pieces of sculpture that historians can definitely attribute to him (save for designs for some equestrian monuments and tombs), even though he mastered this craft, as well, in Verrocchio's studio.

Military and civil engineer

Leonardo first sold himself to the Milanese duke Ludovico Sforza as a military engineer and thereafter dabbled in the design and creation of defense tools and weapons of war. He applied mechanics and physics to the study of war machines. Though the militia used few (if none) during his lifetime, many, such as the submarine and armored tank, were deployed hundreds of years later.

Closely, but not solely, tied to his military designs, Leonardo often contemplated how natural forces and structures could be altered to suit human purposes. One of his most ambitious plans was the rerouting of the Arno River. Although it ostensibly served a military purpose (to reduce the risk of an invasion of Florence from rival city-state Pisa), it promised a more navigable river, a reduced risk of flood, and more reliable irrigation of the surrounding farmland.

Leonardo took on smaller, more pedestrian public works projects as well, such as maintaining and expanding Lombardy's canal system. To find out more about Leonardo's stint as a military engineer and his water projects, march to Chapter 8.


There are few areas of Renaissance science that Leonardo didn't engage in. Anatomy, astronomy, botany, geology, paleontology - you name it - Leonardo probably had a few thoughts and a number of sketches about the subject.

Through observation and experimentation, Leonardo was able to uncover - if not always accurately understand - the workings of natural systems. His anatomical drawings, based primarily on his own observations of dissected cadavers, were far superior to anything else produced at the time, and in fact are still a model for modern anatomical drawings. His ideas about the stars and heavens prefigured later great thinkers, like Copernicus and Galileo. And his studies of fossils and the resulting theories (for example, that fossils are actually the remains of once-living creatures rather than the skeletal remains of God's mistakes - a common theory of the time) foreshadowed later observations from the likes of Charles Darwin and others.

Had Leonardo organized and published his papers on these myriad subjects, he would've greatly influenced Renaissance science and beyond. As it was, his musings remained in the dark until centuries later, and the fields advanced without him. You can read more about Leonardo's world-class scientific thinking in Chapters 5 and 6.

Mechanical engineer and inventor

Leonardo sketched a flying machine, helicopter, parachute, three-speed gear shift, snorkel, hydraulic jack, the world's first revolving stage, canal locks, olive press, water-powered alarm clock, a crane for clearing ditches, and thousands of other designs. Oh, and a robot, too, though he most likely did not invent the bicycle.

Although some of his designs were entirely unique for the time, others made use of common tools or principles in a new way, which was, in itself, revolutionary. Leonardo's inventions, most undiscovered during his lifetime, foreshadowed principles and designs of the Industrial Revolution. Chapters 7 and 9 examine his inventions and machines.

Architect and city planner

Though we don't view him as primarily an architect, Leonardo mastered this field. He focused on general principles of designs and consulted on some cathedrals in Milan and Pavia. He also designed defense fortifications and palaces for kings. He even created the ideal city - an innovative city plan for Milan, discussed in Chapter 12 - which was never built, but utopian in principle.

To find out more about his architectural plans, head to Chapter 12.

Philosopher and thinker

Despite the myriad subjects he studied, all Leonardo's endeavors were connected by his never-ending quest to discover and understand the underlying principle, or design, of the universe. Leonardo, who himself may have been a synasthete (one who experiences a concurrent sensory perception other than the one being stimulated; for example, literally seeing musical sounds as a symphony of colorful images), observed an integrated, universal design in unrelated objects and natural phenomena.

He saw the world as interconnected, with things at the micro level mirroring designs at the macro level (for example, human arms and legs functioning sort of like tree branches do). For some reason, Leonardo abandoned this micro-macro analogy late in life, as he delved further into his scientific studies and realized that the universe held greater mysteries than he originally thought. But if he eventually found these analogies inadequate, another concept guided his thinking: the importance of human perception, sight in particular. He studied everything relating to optics, in the belief that people, by using their own little eyes, hands, ears, and whatever other body part, could ferret out the universe's secrets. Human perception and experience, then, rather than religious teaching, mysticism, superstition, alchemy, or even Aristotelian logic, provided the real core of understanding of the universe.

Inspiring Leonardo's genius

If historians knew exactly what made Leonardo tick, they'd have copyrighted the formula years ago. Many factors contributed to his genius. Most of all, he seems to have possessed certain qualities that thrived in Renaissance Italy.

Creating the man, the myth, the legend

In How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Delacorte, 1998), author Michael J. Gelb dissects Leonardo's genius to show how others can cultivate the qualities that lifted this man head and shoulders above his peers. Whether or not you succeed, the idea is helpful because it catalogues the characteristics Leonardo possessed:

  • An insatiable curiosity and quest for knowledge: Leonardo's passion differed from others around him. As Daniel Boorstin described Leonardo's genius in The Creators, Leonardo, unlike Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1331), who was inspired by his idealized love for a woman named Beatrice, didn't love women. Nor did he exhibit the same civic loyalty as the Florentine fresco painter Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) or architect and goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Leonardo's commissions from the warring Medici, Sforzas, Borgia, and French kings showed him to be quite fickle, nationalistically speaking. Nor did Leonardo funnel all his energy into the church, like his notorious competitor, Michelangelo. Instead, he searched for beauty and truth in life, from the human body to mathematical perspective. This quest for truth freed him from medieval scientific convention, though in some instances he unthinkingly accepted the statements of ancient and medieval thinkers. Overall, his endless search led him to develop a rudimentary version of the modern scientific method, as shown in Chapters 5 and 6.


    Excerpted from Da Vinci For Dummies by Jessica Telsch Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

  • Table of Contents


    Part I: The Mind of the Renaissance.

    Chapter 1: Leonardo: The Big Picture.

    Chapter 2: Living in Renaissance Italy.

    Chapter 3: Uncovering the Life and Mind of a Genius.

    Chapter 4: Influencing Leonardo.

    Part II: Building on What Others Knew: Leonardo’s Scientific Mind.

    Chapter 5: The Art of the Human Body.

    Chapter 6: An Inquiring Mind: Leonardo and the Natural World.

    Part III: Reinventing the Wheel: New Machines for a New World.

    Chapter 7: Machines for Home and Work.

    Chapter 8: Leo the Defense Contractor: His Water Works and War Machines.

    Chapter 9: Leonardo’s Flying Machines.

    Part IV: The Divinity of the Painter and Architect.

    Chapter 10: The Master of His (Artistic) Domain: Transforming Renaissance Art.

    Chapter 11: Mona Lisa’s Smile and Other Mysterious Mugs: Leonardo’s Portraits.

    Chapter 12: Town and Country: Leo’s Landscapes, Maps, and City Designs.

    Part V: Leonardo, His Religious Artwork, and The Da Vinci Code.

    Chapter 13: Getting Religion: Leonardo’s Religious Beliefs and Paintings.

    Chapter 14: Leonardo’s (Faux) Fresco: The Last Supper.

    Chapter 15: Breaking The Da Vinci Code.

    Part VI: The Part of Tens.

    Chapter 16: Leonardo’s Ten (Or So) Manuscripts.

    Chapter 17: Leonardo’s Top Ten Masterpieces.

    Chapter 18: Ten Plus Places to Find Leonardo’s Original Works.

    Chapter 19: Ten Fun Facts about Leo.

    Appendix A: A Brief Chronology of Leonardo’s Life and Times.

    Appendix B: Outside Reading (And More) for the Overachievers.


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    Da Vinci for Dummies 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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    Like everyone else, I've been fascinated with DaVinci since I read Dan Brown's book. This book gave me wonderful background on his life and work, and now I am ready for the movie...