Born on April 15, 1452, in the hamlet of Anchiano, near Vinci in the Republic of Florence, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a successful notary and a lower-class woman. His father, perhaps discerning Leonardo’s nascent artistic talents, provided the boy a basic education.

At age 14 Leonardo became a garzone (apprentice) to leading Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, and by his mid-20s he had established his own studio. Artistic pursuits were simply not enough to contain Leonardo’s infinitely inquisitive mind, however. While studying geometry and anatomy to hone his paintings and sculpture, he also plunged into drafting, cartography, architecture, woodworking, engineering, metallurgy, botany, paleontology, chemistry and astronomy.

Among Leonardo’s numerous inventions was a dazzling arsenal of weapons conceived both for the defense of Florence and for laying siege.

  • Often described as a prototype of the modern tank, this wheeled, geared vehicle was designed to accommodate four crank operators and a crew of gunners. Alas, the vehicle would have been too heavy to move, and the gears are set such that they would rotate each set of wheels in opposite directions. / Bernard Bonnefon (AKG-Images)
  • This model of one of Leonardo’s ribauldequin variations is a Swiss design. / Bernard Bonnefon (AKG-Images)
  • A variation on the ancient war chariot, Leonardo’s battle wagon featured fore and aft revolving scythes that might do as much damage to friends as enemies. / Florent Pey (AKG-Images)
  • The ballista traces its origins to ancient Greece, but Leonardo was thinking big with his circa 1480 update, which boasts a bow 
80 feet wide. This model is in the collection of Milan’s Museo Nazionale Scienzia e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. / Eric Vandeville (AKG-Images)
  • The artist’s rendering of the “superballista” included details about loading and firing. / Science & Society Picture Library (Getty Images)
  • This sketch of a leaf spring catapult is in the collection of Milan’s Museo Nazionale Scienzia e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. / Giancarlo Costa (Bridgeman Images)
  • This model of Leonardo’s multibarreled ribauldequin (aka “organ gun”) is on display where he died, at the Château du Clos 
Lucé in France’s Loire Valley. The quest to produce practical multibarrelled, rapid-firing gunpowder weapons was in some 
respects the “arms race” of the artist’s time. / Only France (Alamy stock photo)
  • The trebuchet was another ancient weapon to which Leonardo applied his mechanical principals with mixed success.­ / Science & Society Picture Library (Getty Images)
  • This version of the artist’s scythed chariot is ready for battle, though its driver would have to ride one of the horses. / Florent Pey (AKG-Images, 2)
  • This example of Leonardo’s multibarreled weapons features rotating batteries and the ability to adjust the angle of fire. / Florent Pey (AKG-Images, 2) Science & Society Picture Library (Getty Images)
  • Leonardo’s ox-drawn siege tower featured a wide staircase and a roofed platform, enabling troops to quickly assault a castle wall. / Mar.K (Shutterstock)
  • Leonardo’s multiple sling was meant to build up centrifugal force before the operator released its ordnance—albeit from a safe distance. / Dennis Hallinan (Alamy)


If that seems contradictory for a gentle man who so loved animals that he would buy caged birds only to release them, it must be noted the Italian Renaissance was an era of nervous creativity. In an environment where art blossomed amid violent power struggles between city-states, Leonardo learned to adapt and thrive.

Leonardo was residing in France at the invitation of King Francis I (who had acquired the Mona Lisa) when he died at age 67 at the Château du Clos Lucé on May 2, 1519. He is buried at the Chapel de Saint-Hubert in the Château d’Amboise.

Along with his contemporary Michelangelo, Leonardo is justly considered the true embodiment of the Renaissance man. MH

This article appeared in Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe and visit us on Facebook: