Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Leonardo da Vinci: Creative Genius


The Lesson


Leonardo Vitruvian

Leonardo da Vinci, "Vitruvian Man." Venice, Galleria dell' Accademia, c. 14851490.

Credit: Photo courtesy Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be, Wikipedia.

Leonardo da Vinci—one of history’s most imaginative geniuses—was certainly born at the right time and in the right place. The Italian Renaissance was an exciting period of discovery and invention, of exploration and creation.

Students will discover why Leonardo is considered the ultimate Renaissance man. They will learn about his famous notebooks, focusing upon his machines of motion, then zooming in on the flying machines. As a culminating activity, the students will describe how Leonardo epitomizes the Renaissance man, by discussing this remarkable artist and inventor through the amazing variety of his creativity.

Guiding Questions

  • Who was Leonardo da Vinci and how does he exemplify the period in which he lived, the Renaissance?
  • In what areas does he show creative genius and what is the evidence for this genius?
  • Why is the work of Leonardo intriguing even in modern times?

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to

  • Describe the Renaissance, and explain how Leonardo da Vinci reflected the spirit of the age
  • Discuss the many achievements of Leonardo
  • Explain the significance of his famous notebooks
  • Describe some of Leonardo’s inventions and contributions in a variety of fields

Preparation Instructions

Leonardo da Vinci lived during one of the most creative periods in the history of Western Europe—the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the philosophical and scientific treatises of classical Greece and Rome had changed the way scholars and artists thought about the universe. After centuries of domination by the Catholic Church, the focus shifted to the power of reason and the potential of man. The other-worldliness of the Church-dominated medieval period gave way to the eager investigation of this world, leading to a revolution in the realms of art, architecture, technology, engineering, and many fields of science.

Leonardo was a mirror of the age in which he lived. Artist, scientist, engineer, architect, musician and courtier par excellence, he embodied what came to be known as the multi-talented Renaissance Man. Leonardo carefully studied the world around him. He believed that art should clearly reflect the wonders of the natural world. But his works also contained a certain mystery. His Mona Lisa, perhaps the world’s most famous painting, is known for her haunting smile. Leonardo was also fascinated by the way things worked. He mused endlessly about cause and effect, filling thousands of pages of his famous notebooks with sketches and commentary dealing with subjects as diverse as the anatomy of a horse and the design of a hydraulic pump.

Leonardo was also intrigued about the possibilities of locomotion, and he designed a number of machines that would enable man to get around faster. Most of all, he was fascinated by the possibilities of human flight. He captured birds and studied their feathers and skeletal systems to puzzle out the secrets of aerodynamics. He studied the flow of water in rivers and streams as well as the effects of tides in order to better understand wind currents. Using what he observed in nature, he designed some very ingenious flying machines.

For additional background information on Leonardo and the Renaissance, go to European Renaissance Art available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Metropolitan Museum of Art. Review the timelines and thematic essays for general information about the period.

Review the materials students will explore on the Boston Museum of Science site and Leonardo’s Studio from the BBC program on Leonardo.

Review the activities in this lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and useful websites. Download and print out documents you plan to use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man

Explain that the term “Renaissance man” refers to someone who has a mastery of many fields. Then mention that Leonardo is known as the Renaissance man par excellence. Students will explore Leonardo’s world and decide for themselves what his greatest contributions to Renaissance society were. But you may want first to introduce students to Leonardo the artist, and one of the most famous paintings with which they are probably already somewhat familiar.

Although he was multi-talented, Leonardo is best known today for his paintings. And certainly the most famous of his paintings is the Mona Lisa.

  • Go to Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gherardini available through Edsitement-reviewed Louvre Museum website.
  • What is it about the painting that students think make it probably the best known painting in the world?
  • Ask them to notice details other than Mona Lisa’s famous smile. Leonardo used a special technique, sfumato, from the Italian word sfumare, which means to fade out, or evaporate, in painting Mona Lisa’s face.
  • What else in the painting contributes to the mysterious appeal? Have students notice other features, such as Mona Lisa’s hands.
  • Also have students pay particular note to the background, and the hazy, mist-like quality of the background landscape. Here Leonardo is using a painting technique similar to sfumato, for which he was particularly known, aerial perspective.
  • Leonardo was also a master of chiaroscuro, a method of painting by using light and shade to define shapes and forms.
  • Ask students what else they notice about this painting that appears unusual or especially appealing.

For information on the famous painting have students go to the BBC’s website on Leonardo and read the brief summary on the painting.

Ask students to view other images from Leonardo’s painting in the BBC Picture Gallery. What elements in the painting do they associate with what they have learned about Leonardo? (Some examples include his use of sfumato, chiaroscuro, and aerial perspective.)

Activity 2. Man as the Measure of All Things

Now that the students have made the acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, the artist, they’re ready to do a bit of research to enrich their understanding of this great man and the age in which he lived.

Leonardo da Vinci was easily swept up with the spirit of his times. Drawn to many arenas of creative activity, he plunged into one project after another, with some amazing results. Have students read a brief overview of Leonardo’s Life at Renaissance Man from the Museum of Science in Boston, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Museum of the History of Science.

Divide the class into groups, assigning each group a specific area in which Leonardo made a significant contribution to his time and to society in general—in aerodymanics, anatomy, architecture, botany, engineering, mathematics, optics, ornithology, painting, or physics. Each group will explore its assigned area and then make a case for Leonardo’s great contribution to Renaissance knowledge in that particular area.


  • Aerodynamics
  • Anatomy
  • Architecture
  • Art
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Optics
  • Natural History
  • Physics

For a quick overview of the range of Leonardo’s talents, have students access Explore Leonardo’s Studio available through the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, England.

Instruct the students, working in groups, to locate the 12 objects in the interactive picture and to learn all they can about each one.

When they have finished, have each group note the information that fits the area they have been assigned for Leonardo. They can do this on the chart in the PDF, Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man.

Activity 3. Deciphering Leonardo's Notebooks

From boyhood, Leonardo da Vinci was a keen observer of the world around him. As a young man, he began the habit of writing notes about his observations. In 1482 he began a wide variety of scientific research projects ranging from botany and anatomy to military engineering and geography. He jotted down his ideas and theories, accompanied by detailed sketches, in a collection of notebooks. In time, he would fill thousands of pages.

Leonardo’s notebooks are not easy reading. The subject matter changes abruptly as a new idea popped into his mind. He also used strange spellings and abbreviations. And most intriguing, the pages are most easily read if they are held up to a mirror!

  • Go to Leonardo: Right to Left available through Museum of the History of Science.
  • After studying the information on this web page, you might have your students attempt to write their own names using mirror-image handwriting. It’s not as easy as it seems. Be sure to have a mirror on hand.
  • Leonardo’s notes and sketches are currently divided into ten manuscripts, known as codices.
    Go to the Museum of Science in Italy, a link from Explore Leonardo’s Studio available through Museum of the History of Science.
  • After reading the text, have each group pick one or more of the images depicted from the ten manuscripts by Leonardo. They can zoom in on the image and then observe it carefully to gather evidence to support their conclusion that Leonardo should be best known for his contribution to the particular field they were assigned.
  • Students can fill in the information they gather in the chart, Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man provided here as a PDF.

For a more detailed look at Leonardo’s manuscripts, students can virtually leaf through portions of Leonardo’s notebooks, as a class, or again in groups.

  • Access Turning the Pages on the Web from the British Library, available through Museum of the History of Science. Click on Leonardo’s Notebooks.
  • Before viewing the pages, click on Read About the Leonardo Notebook for background information.
  • Now open the cover and begin to peruse the pages. You can magnify the drawings as well as the writing. Notice the mirror writing (and the upside-down writing). At first impression, what do these pages seem to be about?
  • Now click on Text and read the descriptions. Can you find the “doodles?” Why do you think Leonardo scattered proverbial sayings and riddles among his more scientific musings? What are the main topics addressed in the pages?

Students can also view another Leonardo codex, available from the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. The text is in Italian, but students should focus on the images to gather clues to determine Leonardo’s area of expertise as indicated by his drawings.

Activity 4. Those Wonderful Flying Machines

Leonardo spent a good deal of time thinking about how people could get around faster—on the earth, in the water, and even in the air. After studying the anatomies of certain wild creatures and tinkering around with mechanisms like gears and pulleys, he came up with some designs for vehicles that were way ahead of his time.

For this lesson you can keep students in the assigned groups or, if taught in a science class, you may want to assign each student a drawing and have them consider the kind of knowledge necessary to invent the machine depicted. For example, for students choosing engineering as Leonardo’s greatest accomplishment, have them

  • Go to Leonardo available through Museum of the History of Science. Click on Studies, under the tab Leonardo at the museum, then Armoured car. What is the purpose of this machine? Can you think of its modern counterpart?  Do you think this machine would have worked? Why or why not? What animal probably inspired Leonardo to design this machine?
  • Now click on The Transformation of Water into Steam under Water and Land Machines. How did Leonardo’s study of the natural world influence his designs of watercraft?

But it was the possibility of human flight that particularly intrigued Leonardo. Since very ancient times, man had dreamed of being able to fly. Leonardo came up with a number of ways that, he thought, just might work.

  • Return to Studies. Click on Air Screw  under Flying Machines.  Here is Leonardo’s design of a helicopter. What toy inspired this machine?
  • Return to Flying Machines and click on Beating Wing. This is one of many examples in which Leonardo used the wings of birds and bats as models for a flying machine. See another example by clicking on Articulated Wing.
  • Click on Flying Ship. Leonardo must have spent a good deal of time watching the way birds maneuver their tail feathers as they fly. Does this seem more like an airplane or a boat?
  • Click on Glider with Maneuverable Tips to see Leonardo’s imagination at work.

    If one is going to fly, it’s important to have a means of escape in case something goes wrong in the air. So Leonardo came up with a novel idea: the parachute.
  • Click on parachute.  In what way is Leonardo’s parachute superior to its modern counterpart?

Given the times in which he lived, Leonardo’s designs for flying machines were amazing! Although there were some major flaws, his designs would eventually evolve into the modern airplanes of today. Leonardo never actually built any models of his designs, but you can view some that have been made in modern times.

  • Go to The Leonardo Museum in Vinci available through Learner.Org. View the following models on the Ground floor: Flapping Wing, Detail of a Mechanical Wing, Flying Machine, Helicopter, and Tank. Now go to the First Floor and view the following: Spring driven car, Paddleboat, Articulated Wing, Crank operated cart, and Parachute.
  • As you view each vehicle, consider its possible source of inspiration, and what kind of expertise or knowledge Leonardo would need to create such a device.
  • Knowing that some modern day machines that resembled these devices weren’t actually created until several hundred years later, some as late as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which ones do students consider the most remarkable and forward thinking? Which ones do they think would actually perform as intended? Why or why not?


Have each student group, or as individuals, present evidence that Leonardo should be recognized for his contribution to a particular field, and why this would make him an important member of Renaissance society.

As a whole class, assign students to write an essay on what constitutes a Renaissance man (or woman) and why Leonardo epitomizes the true Renaissance man. The essays should cover the range of Leonardo’s creative talents and acknowledge the impact of his ideas and designs on future society as well.

The Basics

Time Required

4-7 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > History of Science and Technology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)


Activity Worksheets