Leonardo da Vinci is best described as one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. He was born in a period of great cultural change and achievement in Europe that spanned the period from the end of the 14th century to about 1600, marking the transition between Medieval and Early Modern Europe. He was a multi-talented artist-scientist who excelled in various fields as painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scholar. "Leonardo was one of the greatest men of science in history, but the world which admired him as an artist did not discover the man of science until many centuries after his death" (Dibner, 380).
He was chosen the 13th among the "Immortals of Science" by nearly 1,200 college and university presidents, editors of science periodicals, science editors of the world's great newspapers, and professors of science at scores of universities. (Dibner, 380)
Leonardo's fascination with machines probably began during his boyhood. Some of his earliest sketches clearly show how various machine parts worked. As an apprentice in the studio of the artist Verrocchio, Leonardo observed and used a variety of machines. By studying them he gained practical knowledge about their design and structure. (Museum of Science)
During the Renaissance, European artists began to study the model of nature more closely and to paint with the goal of greater realism. They learned to create lifelike people and animals, and they became skilled at creating the illusion of depth and distance on flat walls and canvases by using the techniques of linear perspective. (Holmes, 87)
In the fifteenth century, Italy was not the unified country we know today; rather it was divided into many small independent states. Naples in the south was ruled by a series of kings. Popes of the Roman Catholic Church ruled the middle section. To the north different families controlled the largest and wealthiest city-states of Florence, Milan, and Venice. They fought wars against each other and against smaller neighboring states to increase their power. (Museum of Science)
In that time of the renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci trained as a painter, and his amazing power of observation and skill as an illustrator enabled him to notice and recreate the effects he saw in nature. Leonardo was curious and observant, and wrote down and sketched so many of his observations in his notebooks. He was among the very first to take a scientific approach towards understanding of the world. (Museum of Science: Leonardo's Perspective)
Leonardo wrote in Italian using a special kind of shorthand that he invented himself. He used "mirror writing", starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left. He did this probably to make it harder for people to read his notes and steal his ideas. Another reason is that he was hiding his scientific ideas from the powerful Roman Catholic Church; and also, writing left handed from left to right was messy because the ink just put down would smear as his hand moved across it; therefore he chose to write in reverse because it prevented smudging. (Museum of Science)
As an artist, Leonardo borrowed almost nothing from the past - a few details in a candelabrum in the small "Annunciation" of the Louvre, rare sketches such as the "Dancers" of the Academy of Venice, a warrior's head at London (British Museum). Leonardo, therefore,