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The Writer’s Almanac for April 15, 2017: Some nights you're blessed

Apr. 15, 2017: birthday: Leonardo da Vinci

Today is the birthday of original Renaissance Man, the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci (books by this author), born in Tuscany in 1452, the son of a young, unmarried peasant woman and a notary. He received no formal schooling as a child beyond the most basic training in reading, writing, and math, but his burgeoning artistic talent led to his father apprenticing Leonardo out in his teen years to a local painter and sculptor.

One of Leonardo’s earliest commissions came from a Milanese family of nobles who requested a 16-foot tall bronze equestrian statue. Leonardo slowly carved a model from clay over the course of 12 years in preparation for the bronze casting. But a soon-to-be war with the French meant that any bronze that had been set aside for the statue was needed instead for the building of more cannons. Leonardo’s clay model was later destroyed in the fighting.

While he worked in many forms and fields, we know Leonardo today primarily as a painter. His pieces are some of the most well-known artworks in the medium’s history — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man drawing among them. His renown as one of the world’s greatest painters is even more astonishing considering that only around 15 of his painted works survive today. He worked very slowly, and often abandoned his projects before they were finished.

Elsewhere, Leonardo’s notebooks depict the brilliant mind of an inventor and the curiosity of a scientist. They contain assorted sketch plans for flying machines, solar power setups, and armored vehicles. Leonardo took extensive notes on matters of anatomy, geology, engineering, and physics. He wrote almost always in a mirror image script on the page. Some claim he did this for reasons of secrecy. But because he was left-handed, it may just have been easier for him to write from right to left.

Leonardo finally left Italy when the French King Francis I offered him the title of “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.” Leonardo eagerly accepted, apparently holding no ill will toward the French after they had destroyed his clay equestrian model years before. Francis supported Leonardo through his old age. According to legend, Leonardo died in the arms of the king.

Curiously, Leonardo once wrote, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”