Italian engineer, artist, and scientist, 1452–1519. One of the greatest geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Florentine and his peasant mistress. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to the famous painter Andrea del Verrocchio, and studied anatomy with Antonio Pollaiuolo. He became a member of the painters’ guild in Florence in 1472, and in 1482 took a position as painter and engineer to the Duke of Milan. After the French conquest of Milan in 1499, he returned to Florence for a time, worked as a military surveyor for Cesare Borgia, returned to Milan to work for the French viceroy there from 1506 to 1513, and in 1516 went to France at the invitation of King Francis I. He remained at Amboise, near the king’s summer palace, until his death in 1519.

His life near the zenith of the Italian Renaissance brought him into contact with some of the most famous minds of the age, including the political philosopher Niccolò Macchiavelli and the master of sacred geometry Luca Pacioli. His paintings are among the most revered works of art ever made, but painting took up a relatively small part of his time, and he left most of his artistic projects unfinished. As court painter and engineer to the Duke of Milan, the French viceroy of northern Italy, and the King of France, he devoted most of his time to military and civil engineering, and to designing sets and stage machinery for the masques and entertainments fashionable in the courts of the time. His scientific and anatomical works seem to have been closest to his heart, though, and he spent most of his final years on them.

Leonardo’s reputation for genius and eccentricity made him a ready target for attempts at retrospective recruitment by later secret societies. In the 1970s, Pierre Plantard’s audacious Priory of Sion hoax drew Leonardo into its net along with so many others, reinventing him as one of the secret chiefs of the Priory’s imaginary pre-1956 history. The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), whose teachings Plantard studied intensively before launching the Priory hoax, also listed Leonardo among its past chiefs. See Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC); Priory of Sion; retrospective recruitment.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, as Plantard’s creation transformed itself into one of the dominant themes in rejected knowledge throughout the western world, Leonardo’s supposed involvement in the Priory became a springboard from which dozens of writers launched him into countless secret intrigues and heretical traditions. Novelist Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, which used Leonardo’s masterpiece The Last Supper as one of its main plot engines and borrowed many of Plantard’s inventions, is only one of many redefinitions of Leonardo along these lines, and has predictably been taken as factual in large parts of the rejected-knowledge community. See rejected knowledge.

Ironically, Leonardo seems to have had less involvement in esoteric traditions, religious heresy, or secret societies than most of his contemporaries. The only initiatory organization he is known to have joined was the painters’ guild in Florence, hardly a hotbed of radical ideas at the time. He had little interest in religious matters and, beyond an interest in sacred geometry partly driven by his artistic concerns and party by his friendship with Luca Pacioli, no connection with the Hermetic and Cabalistic occult traditions widespread among Renaissance intellectuals. The doubtful gender of figures in some of his paintings, a point that has inspired wild speculations and played no small role in Brown’s novel, was rooted in Leonardo’s own psychology; like many of the greatest artists of his age, Leonardo was homosexual, and recent art historians have argued convincingly that his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, is actually a painting of himself as a woman. See Cabala; guilds, medieval; Hermeticism; sacred geometry.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006