Leonardo da Vinci: A Unit Study

On May 2, 1519, one of the most intriguing men in history died in France—Leonardo da Vinci.

Little is known about his early life. He had been born some 67 years before in the hill country of Florence, served an apprenticeship at the age of 14 to a successful artist known as Verrochio, spent part of his life in the service of the Duke of Milan, and finished his days enjoying the favor of Francis I, king of France.

Yet something of an aura of mystery clings to the name of Leonardo da Vinci. We look at his unique designs of flying machines, contemplate the lurking smile of the Mona Lisa, learn of his strong interest in dissections (both animal and human), and conclude that he must have been something of an eccentric. Perhaps he was. The key better understanding Leonardo’s work, however, lies in understanding his era.

The Times of Leonardo da Vinci

At the time of Leonardo’s birth, the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy, and Florence was right at the heart of the movement. The Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance were over, and the people of Europe were glad of it. Economic progress since the middle of the 14th century had given more of the population of Italy the money and leisure to pursue knowledge, leading to a demand for books. About 70 years before Leonardo’s birth, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the world with his movable type, thus bringing the printed word to the average man. Learning was no longer solely the possession of monks.

With the whole wide realm of thought and action suddenly open to them, many people made full use of it, shunning the modern distinctions between subjects. Life was a whole; science and art were one. A man could study as many different areas as he had time and interest for, and then combine them all and allow them to build upon one another.

The Works of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci: A Unit Study

With his insatiable curiosity and love of learning, no one captured the spirit of the times better than Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps it all began with Verocchio’s insistence that his art students learn anatomy. Perhaps Leonardo had trained himself as a keen observer of the world around him since his earliest childhood. Who knows? However it came about, Leonardo was more than either an artist or an inventor. He could tell stories; he could play musical instruments; he could make maps; he could build bridges. He was intimately acquainted with the flight of birds, the muscles of animals, the forms of rocks and plants, and the ever-changing expressions of the human face. He was far in advance of his age in the study of hydrodynamics, biomechanics, and plate tectonics.

Yet none of these things seemed contradictory or mutually exclusive to him. When he wanted to paint a rock accurately, he studied geology. When he wanted to understand how a machine worked, he drew a picture of it. His notebooks are an amazing array of babies, whirlpools, helicopters, and grocery lists.

So out of all of Leonardo’s work, what remains to the present day? Unfortunately, not a great deal. One reason for this is a regrettable tendency he had to postpone ongoing projects for the sake of dabbling in new ones. (He never even completed his first major art commission.) A second reason is the fact that many of Leonardo’s inventions were too advanced for his time. Knowledge and materials to transform his strange contraptions into useful machines were lacking in his day. Tanks, calculators, and hang gliders all had to wait for technology to catch up.

This is not to say, however, that Leonardo was a mere mad scientist, a man with ideas that were interesting, but nevertheless completely useless. Some of his smaller inventions have been adopted rather unceremoniously, such as the automated bobbin winder, and many artists have benefited from his anatomical studies. Leonardo’s own paintings and drawings are also considered by many to be some of the greatest in history. The Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait and The Last Supper the most widely reproduced religious painting of all time. And, of course, we’ve all seen the Vitruvian Man, the ubiquitous study of human proportions.

But Leonardo da Vinci cannot be truthfully categorized as either an artist or an inventor, or anything else for that matter. He can only be known as THE Renaissance Man.

Further Investigation

Mona Lisa’s Smile
A scientific look with discussion questions.

Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?
Interesting conjecture at ThinkQuest.

A gallery of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines.

Visions of the Future
Some of Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas realized.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Polyhedra
Showing his skill at geometric illustration of 3D objects.


Mona Lisa

The Last Supper


Design for an Enormous Crossbow

Design for a Flying Machine


Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginerva de’ Benci
Interactive from the National Gallery of Art.

An interesting study on optical illusions from Exploratorium using the Mona Lisa.

Investigating Aerial Perspective
Interactive from the Museum of Science.

Exploring Linear Perspective
Interactive from the Museum of Science.

Two-Point Perspective
Leonardo da Vinci was a master at perspective, as this art lesson explains.

Using Leonardo’s Window
Drawing with natural and correct perspective.

Coloring Pages: Leonardo Da Vinci
Interactive coloring page of the Mona Lisa from Enchanted Learning.

Mona Lisa Jigsaw Puzzle
Interactive jigsaw puzzle of the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo’s Mysterious Machinery
Interactive that explores his “simple” designs.

How to Make a da Vinci Catapult
Complete instructions that do require some wood working skills.

Leonardo da Vinci Activity: Art, Nature, Ratios, and Graphing
Math activity for the older student from the University of Illinois.

Codex Atlanticus
Amazing interactive collection of digitized da Vinci works.


Leonardo da Vinci by Emily Hahn
One of the Landmark Books and our favorite da Vinci biography.

Leonardo's Horse

Leonardo’s Horse by Jean Fritz
Rather different from many of the author’s other titles, this enjoyable tie-in covers one of Leonardo’s sculptures that was completed hundreds of years after his death.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Art History and Criticism: Learning About da Vinci
Art appreciation lesson that originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

Smile for Leonardo!
Crayola lesson plan that focuses on facial features.

Leonardo Right to Left
Students experiment with writing backwards as Leonardo did.  Lesson plan includes activity, discussion, generating hypotheses, and final thoughts.

Unit Study on Flight {Free}
Free unit that includes da Vinci’s sketches and interest in aerodynamics.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Mona Lisa Point of View Study Sheet
Chart to record impressions, visual analysis, and record research information.

Artist Notebooking Set
Simple pages for documenting an artist and his works.

Leonardo da Vinci Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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