Leonardo da Vinci bears the burden of great expectations. The undeniable breadth and depth of his genius means there was, it seems, no intellectual feat of which this original Renaissance Man was incapable. Almost five centuries after his death, his legacy thrives not merely in his paintings, two of which, The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, are arguably the world's most famous and celebrated works of art. It also throbs in the chests of those whose damaged hearts have been repaired by the British surgeon inspired by Leonardo's writings on the mitral valve. It takes to the air on the tiny wings of a bluebottle-sized robot designed by aerospace engineers captivated by Leonardo's studies on flight. It even lingers, courtesy of the entrepreneur Alessandro Passi, in a range of pasta shapes, perfume bottles, and pepper grinders - all based on Leonardo's drawings.
Leonardo was certainly wide-ranging and eerily modern in his interests. With his dreams of manned flight, submarines, and weapons of mass destruction such as giant crossbows and doomsday cannons, he almost seems more a prophet of our age than a product of his own. His known accomplishments - in anatomy, engineering, hydraulics, optics and painting - are undeniably astounding. But often he is given a little too much credit. He tends to get abstracted from his own time and fast-forwarded into ours, and in doing so he slips out of documented history and soars into the giddy realms of myth. So it is that he gets credited with tasks as varied as forging the Shroud of Turin by taking the world's first photograph, or serving as the Grand Poobah of an arcane lodge charged with keeping ancient secrets about the bloodline of Christ.
Just how much do these and other claims stand up to scrutiny? "Blinding ignorance does mislead us," Leonardo himself said. "Oh, wretched mortals, open your eyes!" So let's open our eyes and look at some of these claims about Leonardo in the light of documented fact, not hero worship or wishful thinking.
Check out these 10 myths about Leonardo da Vinci:
Ross King is the author of Leonardo and the Last Supper [Walker & Company, $28.00].