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So What Did Leonardo Really Look Like and Act Like?

- by Laura Malone Elliott

November 9, 2015

Leonardo da Vinci gifted us some of the most intriguing, intrinsically beautiful faces ever painted. The only image that we know for certain is of him is the elderly self-portrait drawing with long grizzled beard and balding head. What did he look like as a youth and man?

Contemporaries described Leonardo as being a beautiful man, with flowing curls and meticulously combed beard; that he was particularly strong physically, (legend has it he could twist a horseshoe in his bare hands); and that he was convivial and conversational. He loved animals and sketched them constantly. One of my absolute favorite works is just a drawing, done quickly, with great humor, of a Madonna smiling with amused tenderness at her toddler Christ-child laughing and hugging a wriggling cat. The artist who could draw that had a genuine affection for this world and its messy happiness, its unfettered attachments, and its earthly beauties and tiny miracles.

He was primarily self-educated, struggled to teach himself Latin, yet was a prolific writer, keeping notebooks about his artistic techniques but also jokes, lists of words and phrases he liked (including a long list of synonyms for a man’s genitalia), as well as writing amusing parables.

Leonardo joined Verrocchio’s bottega studio when he was about 13 years old. Many scholars suggest that he was the model for his master’s depiction of David, the teenage biblical hero who felled a giant not with brawn but cleverness and a well-thrown stone – a symbol of their little Republic, standing up against monarchies. There is an innocence and self-possession in this David, a grace, a chiseled beauty in the face, and a knowing look of strength and inquisitiveness in those large eyes. This statue may give us a glimpse of the young 20-something Leonardo who painted Ginevra de’ Benci.


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