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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci's Ethical Vegetarianism

Written by David Hurwitz

Last updated July 19, 2002

Leonardo da Vinci is widely regarded as the archetypal universal genius. Between what was known of his work historically, and what has been learned about him since his notebooks were finally deciphered in the second half of the 19th century, we are amazed at the diversity of fields in which he brilliantly involved himself. From his writings and from what his early biographers wrote about him, we also find da Vinci was great in terms of his integrity and sensitivity to moral issues.

This paper will explore an aspect of da Vinci’s moral life that while not controversial, is also not widely known to the general public. I refer to da Vinci’s refusal to consume animals and his recognition of the cruelty of mistreating them.

Jean Paul Richter was the first person in history to decipher Leonardo’s notebooks. In his epochal The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (3rd Edition 1970, first published in 1883), he wrote:

"We are led to believe that Leonardo himself was a vegetarian from the following interesting passage in the first of Andrea Corsali’s letters to Giuliano de’ Medici: ‘Alcuni gentili chiamati Guzzarati non si cibano dicosa alcuna che tenga sangue, ne fra essi loro consentono che si noccia adalcuna cosa animata, come it nostro Leonardo da Vinci.’"

The above letter has been translated as, "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 Leonardo and the brother of Pope Leo X.

In Leonardo da Vinci Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science (1898), Eugene Muntz wrote, "It appears from Corsali’s letter that Leonardo ate no meat, but lived entirely on vegetables, thus forestalling modern vegetarians by several centuries."

In The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1928), Edward MacCurdy wrote:

"…The mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him. Vasari tells, as an instance of his love of animals, how when in Florence he passed places where birds were sold he would frequently take them from their cages with his own hand, and having paid the sellers the price that was asked would let them fly away in the air, thus giving them back their liberty.

That this horror of inflicting pain was such as to lead him to be a vegetarian is to be inferred from a reference which occurs in a letter sent by Andrea Corsali to Giuliano de’Medici, in which, after telling him of an Indian race called Gujerats, who neither eat anything that contains blood nor permit any injury to any living creature, he adds ‘like our Leonardo da Vinci.’ "

In Leonardo: Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci (English translation 1991), Serge Bramly wrote, "Leonardo loved animals so much, it seems, that he turned vegetarian."

da Vinci was also referred to as a vegetarian in Leonardo da Vinci The Mind of The Renaissance (translated from the French in 1997), by Alessandro Vezzosi. Vezzosi is founder and director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci in Vinci, Italy

Unfortunately, there is a quote attributed to da Vinci that has been in several books and magazine articles as well as on vegetarian web sites which has been falsely attributed. It is as follows: "I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men." The original source of the error was from a generally excellent anthology of writings from a number of historical and contemporary writers, philosophers, scientists, and other prominent individuals entitled, The Extended Circle: A Commonplace book of Animal Rights (1985), by Jon Wynne-Tyson. The quote above was from a fiction novel (which did put into da Vinci’s mouth some actual quotes) by Dimitri Merejkowski entitled, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci ( translated from the Russian in 1928). The attributions for the quote above and an actual da Vinci quote were inadvertently swapped in the book. The Merejkowski quote is not to be found in Richter or in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1956, first published 1939), which was "Arranged, Rendered into English, and Introduced" by Edward MacCurdy. MacCurdy’s book is the other major source in English for da Vinci’s literary writings, and is the source of all da Vinci quotes in this paper, unless stated otherwise. In fact, I could not find the quote in any book on Leonardo. A further source of da Vinci material is the Codex Madid, which was thought lost, and was rediscovered in 1965 (and thus unavailable to Richter, MacCurdy, and Merejkowski).

By all accounts, Leonardo was beloved by those that knew him. Paolo Giovio wrote the following, circa 1527, in Leonardi Vincii Vita (translated by Richter and quoted by Vezzosi):

"…His charm of disposition, his brilliancy and generosity was not less than the beauty of his appearance. His genius for invention was astounding, and he was the arbiter of all questions relating to beauty and elegance, especially in pageantry. He sang beautifully to his own accompaniment on the lyre and to the delight of the entire court. He died in France at the age of sixty-seven to the grief of his friends."

In spite of his popularity, da Vinci does seem to have had a misanthropic streak.

From Quaderni d’Anatomia II 14 r housed at the Royal Library at Windsor we find:

" King of the animals–– as thou hast described him–– I should rather say king of the beasts, thou being the greatest––because thou doest only help them, in order that they give thee their children for the benefit of the gullet, of which thou hast attempted to make a sepulchre for all animals; and I would say still more, if I were allowed to speak the entire truth." A little later in the passage he says, "now does not nature produce enough simple (vegetarian food) for thee to satisfy thyself? And if thou art not content with such, canst thou not by mixture of them make infinite compounds, as Platina wrote, and other authors on feeding?" The above translation was taken from Richter. An earlier edition of Richter didn’t include the word vegetarian in the parenthesis.

The above passage is significant enough that I will also include MacCurdy’s version including the material included between the two above quotes (though some extra explanation will be needed afterward):

" If you are as you have described yourself the king of the animals –– it would be better for you to call yourself king of the beasts since you are the greatest of them all! –– why do you not help them so that they may presently be able to give you their young in order to gratify your palate, for the sake of which you have tried to make yourself a tomb for all the animals? Even more I might say if to speak the entire truth were permitted me.

But do not let us quit this subject without referring to one supreme form of wickedness which hardly exists among the animals, among whom are none that devour their own species except for lack of reason (for there are insane among them as among human beings though not in such great numbers). Nor does this happen except among the voracious animals as in the lion species and among leopards, panthers, lynxes, cats and creatures like these, which sometimes eat their young. But not only do you eat your children, but you eat father, mother, brothers and friends; and this even not sufficing you you make raids on foreign lands and capture men of other races and then after mutilating them in a shameful manner you fatten them up and cram them down your gullet. Say does not nature bring forth a sufficiency of simple things to produce satiety? Or if you cannot content yourself with simple things can you not by blending these together make an infinite number of compounds as did Platina and other authors who have written for epicures?"

Richter explains the reference to the "supreme form of wickedness" with a letter written by Amerigo Vespucci to Pieto Soderni which describes the cannibalism of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands he observed after staying there in 1503. Richter also mentioned that Vespucci and Leonardo were personally acquainted. As a side note, there is scholarship that holds that others named America and that Vespucci was not responsible for his name being used. Unlike Columbus, Vespucci realized that a "new world" had been found.

It seems apparent from the above that "simple things" must surely not refer to animals. According to Richter, the Italian edition of Platina’s (Bartolomeo Sacchi) book, De la honestra voluptate, e valetudine (On Right Pleasure and Good Health) was published in 1487. In addition to information about preparing dishes based on a wide variety of animals, Platina’s book devotes sections to fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seasonings, and legumes.

In Codice Atlantico 76, we find a statement expressing the immorality of eating animals: "Man and the animals are merely a passage and channel for food, a tomb for other animals, a haven for the dead, giving life by the death of others, a coffer full of corruption."

In MSS. F 96 v. of the Library of the Institut de France we find, " Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful. The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood."

In Dell’ Anatomia Foglia B 21 V., Royal Library, Windsor we find another particularly strong opinion expressed about a class of his fellow man. MacCurdy comments that the quote references the "contrast between the perfection of the body and the coarseness of the mind in certain men."

" Methinks that coarse men of bad habits and little power of reason do not deserve so fine an instrument or so great a variety of mechanism as those endowed with ideas and with great reasoning power, but merely a sack wherein their food is received, and from whence it passes away.

For in truth one can only reckon them as a passage for food; since it does not seem to me that they have anything in common with the human race except speech and shape, and in all else they are far below the level of beasts."

Here Leonardo addresses a reason why animals feel pain. Perhaps it is a response to those that would argue that if one gives up eating animals out of ethical considerations, one should for similar reasons be obligated to give up eating plants!:

"Though nature has given sensibility to pain to such living organisms as have the power of movement, – in order thereby to preserve the members which in this movement are liable to diminish and be destroyed, – the living organisms which have no power of movement do not have to encounter opposing objects, and plants consequently do not need to have a sensibility to pain, and so it comes about that if you break them they do not feel anguish in their members as do the animals."

–– MSS. H 60 [12] r of the Library of the Institut de France

"All the animals languish, filling the air with lamentations. The woods fall in ruin. The mountains are torn open, in order to carry away the metals which are produced there. But how can I speak of anything more wicked than [the actions] of those who raise hymns of praise to heaven for those who with greater zeal have injured their country and the human race?" –– Codex Atlantico 382 v.a

Another source of possible da Vinci quotes is found in a series of writings in the Codex Atlantico, which Leonardo has entitled ‘Prophecies’. According to Kenneth Clark, in his book, Leonardo da Vinci (1993 revised edition, first published 1939):

"…These are in a form which seems to have been popular among the wits of Milan, and we read that Leonardo’s prophecies were written in competition with those of Bramante. They consist of descriptions of ordinary happenings, so worded as to sound like appalling catastrophes. Thus ‘many people by puffing out a breathe with too much haste will thereby lose their sight and soon after all consciousness’; to which Leonardo supplies the explanation ‘of putting out the light when going to bed’. But in some instances I believe that Leonardo has taken advantage of this form to express his own convictions. Many describe acts of cruelty and injustice which sound unbelievable, until the ‘key’ tells us that they refer to animals. ‘Endless multitudes will have their little children taken from them, ripped open and flayed and most cruelly cut in pieces (of sheep, cows, goats, and the like).’ ‘The severest labour will be repaid with hunger and thirst, blows and goadings, curses and great abuse (of asses).’ Knowing from contemporary sources Leonardo’s love of animals, we can be sure that such ‘prophecies’ as these are not mere jokes, but represent his refusal to take as a matter of course the suffering which man’s technical skill has allowed him to inflict on the other animals."

In addition to the above Prophecies, which consider killing and enslavement of animals, da Vinci even entertained the notion that taking milk from cows amounts to stealing. Under the heading, "Of the beasts from whom cheese is made," he answers, "the milk will be taken from the tiny children."

A prophecy in answer to "Of the mouth of man which is a tomb" is "there shall come forth loud noises out of the tombs of those who have died by an evil and violent death." With the proceeding said, I don’t think it’s valid to quote out of the Prophecies without some explanation of the context.

I should also mention a few points that obscure the issue a bit. To quote from Bramly, "The domestic accounts to be found in Leonardo’s notebooks several times mention the purchases of meat, but this must have been for his pupils. The master dined off salad, vegetables, cereals, mushrooms, and pasta: he seems to have been particularly fond of minestrone."

Also, in the Codex Leicester can be found the description of a design for a meat-roasting jack. In MSS B. of the Library of the Institut de France can be found the description for the design of a stove which includes the following, "And the smoke proceeds to spread itself through the numerous flues and to cure salted meats; tongues and sausages and things like these it brings to perfection."

Furthermore, it can be asked how can we admire da Vinci as a practitioner of nonviolence against animals when he designed all kinds of weapons. In Leonardo (1978), by Robert Payne, we find:

"Although Leonardo invented a large number of military machines and recorded them in his notebooks, nothing came of them. But his study of fortifications was something else altogether. His modifications and suggestions were followed, for he studied fortifications with the same passion with which he studied painting, anatomy, and the theory of flight. He hated war, which he called pazzia bestialissima, most bestial madness, but there is a sense in which a fortress is the least warlike of military installations. A fortress is a house defended, peaceful until attacked, and therefore a civilizing influence…"

As Leonardo himself says in one of the Manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale MS. 2037, 10 r:

"When besieged by ambitious tyrants I find a means of offence and defense in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty; and first I would speak of the position of the walls, and then of how the various peoples can maintain their good and just lords."

" And thou, man, who by these labours dost look upon the marvelous works of nature, if thou judgest it to be an atrocious act to destroy the same, reflect that it is an infinitely atrocious act to take away the life of man. For thou shouldst be mindful that though what is thus compounded seem to thee of marvelous subtlety, it is as nothing compared with the soul that dwells within this structure; and in truth, whatever this may be, it is a divine thing which suffers it thus to dwell within its handiwork at its good pleasure, and wills not that thy rage or malice should destroy such a life, since in truth he who values it not does not deserve it.

For we part from the body with extreme reluctance, and I indeed believe that its grief and lamentation are not without cause." –– Dell’ Anatomia Foglia B, Royal Library, Windsor

"How by an appliance many are able to remain for some time under water. How and why I do not describe my method of remaining under water for as long a time as I can remain without food; and this I do not publish or divulge on account of the evil nature of men who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas, by breaking the ships in their lowest parts and sinking them together with the crews who are in them; and although I will furnish particulars of others they are such as are not dangerous, for above the water emerges the mouth of the tube by which they draw in breath, supported upon wine-skins or pieces of cork." –– Leicester 22 v.

In Prophecies under "Of the cruelty of Man" we find:

"Creatures shall be seen upon the earth who will always be fighting one with another, with very great losses and frequent deaths on either side. These shall set no bounds to their malice; by their fierce limbs a great number of the trees in the immense forests of the world shall be laid level with the ground; and when they have crammed themselves with food it shall gratify their desire to deal out death, affliction, labours, terrors and banishment to every living thing. And by reason of their boundless pride they shall wish to rise towards heaven, but the excessive weight of their limbs shall hold them down. There shall be nothing remaining on earth or under the earth or in the waters that shall not be pursued and molested or destroyed, and that which is in one country taken away to another; and their own bodies shall be made a tomb and the means of transit of all the living bodies which they have slain. O Earth! what delays three to open and hurl them headlong into the deep fissures of they huge abyss and caverns, and no longer to display in the sight of heaven so savage and ruthless a monster?"

In his letter of self-commendation to Ludovico Sforza, the tyrant of Milan, and his future patron, da Vinci did, however, list with his numerous talents his ability to design various weapons. da Vinci also did some work for Cesare Borgia, the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince (and illegitimate son of Pope Alexander XI); but according to Payne, "there is nothing to suggest that Leonardo was anything more than an inspector and advisor on fortifications." What a tragedy that it is still the case that geniuses of the world feel compelled to work for the modern day Borgia’s! Perhaps da Vinci designed weapons with the same satisfaction he seemed to have received from drawing other grotesque objects such as gargoyles. Maybe the weapons were designed as calling cards for potential patrons, without the real intent to ever make them. If we acknowledge that defense is moral, we can realize the motivation may have been "to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty." In fact, da Vinci actually writes about Archimedes, and the devices he created to protect Syracuse from a Roman invasion (which ultimately failed but might have remained successful had it not been for a betrayal and a Roman attack on a holiday when the solders weren’t sober enough to man their posts).

da Vinci wrote very little about himself in his notebooks. Most of his scientific work was unknown until the 19th century when scholars finally figured out what was in the notebooks that he had written in mirror image, right to left, with various other devices which make them hard to decipher. His insights into much later developments in physics were remarkable. If he had published, he may well have shared with his contemporary Copernicus the distinction of being a major input to Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, and thus a source of the scientific revolution to follow.

The scientific world eventually caught up with Leonardo’s until fairly recently unknown scientific insights, but his ethical outlook is post-modern. While mankind continues to use intellect to enslave, kill, steal from, and terrorize his fellow humans and animals, we perhaps really should rate him in that aspect as "far below the level of the beasts." Given the greater variety of "simple" and "compound" foods available today, together with the health and environmental advantages, and the horrible nature of factory farming and the slaughterhouse, we can imagine what da Vinci would write of us when we consider how relatively few members of affluent societies have embraced an animal-free diet. As individuals, we may not have direct control of the "most bestial madness," but we are directly responsible for the cruelty unnecessarily perpetuated in the name of our dietary proclivities. Isn’t it remarkable that people who consider their dogs and cats as beloved family members, can without a second thought, eat pigs, which are "personable" animals of similar intelligence to their pets? When we consider that Americans until not so long ago continued to allow slavery (children of freed African-American slaves are still alive), despite the founding Declaration of Independence which declared "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," we again realize how hypocritical, self-serving at the expense of justice to others, and narrow minded people can be.

I will end with a bit of advice from Leonardo. In the original Italian it is in the form of a poem:

"If you would keep healthy, follow this regimen: do not eat unless you feel inclined, and sup lightly: chew well, and let what you take be well cooked and simple. He who takes medicine does himself harm; do not give way to anger and avoid close air; hold yourself upright when you rise from table and do not let yourself sleep at midday. Be temperate with wine, take a little frequently, but not at other than the proper meal-times, nor on an empty stomach; neither protract not delay the [visit to] the privy. When you take exercise let it be moderate. Do not remain with the belly recumbent and the head lowered, and see that you are well covered at night. Rest your head and keep your mind cheerful; shun wantonness, and pay attention to diet." –– Codex Atlantico 78 v.b.