One of the loveliest anecdotes Leonardo’s first biographer, Giorgio Vasari tells, concerns the artist’s love of animals: “Often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold, he would pay the price asked, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.” Did Leonardo, who had an exceptional desire for freedom and himself tried to fly, feel a special rapport with birds?
Other witnesses of the time inform us about Leonardo’s vegetarianism: “He refused any food that contained blood, and would not harm any living creature.” And there is no doubt that Leonardo had a deep-seated aversion to all violence, as several passages in his own notebooks confirm. Precisely because he respected the value of every creature, he was firmly convinced of the sanctity of human life. In reference to his anatomical studies, he wrote: “And thou, man, who by these my labours dost look upon the marvelous works of nature, if thou judgest it to be an atrocious act to destroy the same, reflect that it is an infinitely atrocious act to take away the life of man.”
Leonardo’s words make it difficult to grasp the gruesome fantasies his mind was capable of in designing his engines of war. On hundreds of pages, Leonardo sketched giant crossbows, automatic rifles, and equipment to bombard strongholds with maximal destructiveness. In one sketch, archers are running away from an exploding grenade, which Leonardo referred to as “the deadliest of all machines.” In another, a war chariot with rotating scythes as large as men is mowing down soldiers and leaving behind a trail of severed legs and dismembered bodies.
The battle plans Leonardo drew up are equally chilling. We also read about his preparations for chemical warfare: “Chalk, fine sulphide of arsenic, and powdered verdigris may be thrown among the enemy ships by means of small mangonels. And all those who, as they breathe, inhale the said powder with their breath will become asphyxiated. But take care to have the wind so that it does not blow the powder back upon you, or to have your nose and mouth covered over with a fine cloth dipped in water so that the powder may not enter.”
His involvement in the wars of his era extended well beyond the design of weapons, and began even before he signed on with the infamous, bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia in 1502. How could a man whose sense of empathy is said to have inspired him to free birds from their cages come up with ideas of this sort?
On one occasion, Leonardo justified his military activities with a statement that a modern-day reader could easily picture coming straight from the Pentagon: “When besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find a means of offense and defense in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty.”
Stefan Klein is a leading European science writer whose influential publications have won numerous awards. He is the author of the international bestseller The Science of Happiness and The Secret Pulse of Time and Leonardo’s Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World. He lives in Berlin, Germany.
IMAGE: Image of Leonardo, Courtesy of The Royal Library, Windsor Castle