More than just the namesake of your favorite ninja turtle or the subject of a gripping mystery novel, Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath, known just as much for his extraordinary artwork as for his scientific genius—but what many folks don’t know about this Renaissance man is that he’s one of history’s first-ever animal rights advocates.
How do we know that da Vinci was an animal rights pioneer?
Evidence shows that da Vinci’s compassion for animals was yet another way in which he stood out among his 16th century peers. Completely ahead of his time, he asserted that humans are animals, too, without any special God-given rights to deny the autonomy of another being. On numerous occasions in his writings, da Vinci condemned humanity’s warped lack of morality toward other animals—including by doing such things as stealing their babies and killing them for food.
Jean Paul Richter—a German art historian and the first person ever to translate da Vinci’s personal writings—wrote, “We are led to believe that Leonardo himself was a vegetarian,” based on an intriguing passage from the first of Andrea Corsali’s letters to Giuliano de’ Medici: “Certain infidels called Guzzarati [Hindus] do not feed upon anything that contains blood, nor do they permit among them any injury be done to any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Giuliano de’ Medici, incidentally, was a patron of da Vinci and the brother of Pope Leo X.
There’s a famous anecdote in which da Vinci is said to have commonly bought and liberated birds who were being sold as food and as “pets” in Italy at that time. In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote that da Vinci would take the birds “with his own hand out of their cages and having paid for them what was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring them to their lost liberty.”
Da Vinci denounced animal exploitation hundreds of years before the modern animal rights movement.
Historians note that he preferred to dress in linen, rather than wearing dead animals, and viewed some tools made from animals as grotesque. On the subject of stealing honey from bees, he wrote that “many will be cruelly robbed of their stores and their food, and will be cruelly submerged and drowned by folks devoid of reason. O justice of God! Why dost thou not awake to behold thy creatures thus abused?”
He also took note of the cruel and miserable existence of animals used for work. He wrote that for their hard labor, donkeys are “repaid by hunger and thirst, pain and blows, goads and curses and loud abuse.”