Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book that tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb in forty concise chapters. In commemoration of his birthday, we turn our attention to Leonardo da Vinci, the multi-talented Renaissance man.
Today is the birthday of one of the most gifted people who ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was a very important figure in the Italian Renaissance, a movement that marked the rebirth of education, science, art, literature and music. He is most well known today for his paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but he was also extremely influential as an engineer, scientist, inventor, architect and musician:
‘In Florence there was one artist in particular for whom painting good paintings was not enough, no matter how beautiful they might be. And his were far and away the finest. He wanted to have a perfect understanding of all the things he painted and how they related to each other. This painter’s name was Leonardo da Vinci. He lived from 1452 to 1519 and was the son of a farm servant-girl. He wanted to know how a person looked when they cried and when they laughed, and also what the inside of a human body was like—the muscles, bones and sinews. So he asked hospitals to give him the bodies of people who had died, which he then dissected and explored. This was something quite unheard of at the time. And he did not stop there. He also looked at plants and animals in a new way and puzzled over what makes birds able to fly. This led him to think about whether people, too, might not be able to fly. He was the first person to carry out an accurate and precise investigation into the possibility of constructing an artificial bird or flying machine. And he was convinced that one day it would be done. He was interested in everything in nature. Nor did he limit himself to the writings of Aristotle and the Arab thinkers. He always wanted to know if what he read was really true. So, above all, he used his eyes, and with those eyes he saw more than anyone had ever seen before, because he was always asking himself questions about what he observed. Whenever he wanted to know about something—for example, why whirlpools happen or why hot air rises—he did an experiment. He had little time for the learned writings of his contemporaries and was the first person to investigate the secrets of nature by means of experiments. He made sketches and noted down his observations on scraps of paper and in a vast accumulation of notebooks. Leafing though his jottings today, one is constantly amazed that a single human being could investigate and analyse so many different things, things about which nothing was known at the time and few cared to know about.’