An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Leonardo da Vinci

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers Leonardo da Vinci.


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Leonardo da Vinci

E. H. Gombrich: 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 through 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.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Leonardo da Vinci

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC History
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 -1519)

BBC Teach (KS2)
Discovering the work of Leonardo da Vinci (video)

Boston Museum of Science
“Da Vinci—The Genius”

FreeSchool
Video, “Leonardo da Vinci for Children: Biography for Kids” 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Da Vinci as artist

The Khan Academy
Various resources

The School Run
Leonardo da Vinci

The Yale Blog
When Leonardo Met Michelangelo: The Art of the Figure – Michael Cole

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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