Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most talented and famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. However, there has been some debate over whether he was naturally right-handed or left-handed.
– Most evidence suggests Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed, despite social pressure of the time to use the right hand.
– Da Vinci wrote from right to left, indicating a left-handed writing style.
– His art shows signs of being created by a left-handed artist.
– Accounts from biographers and contemporaries claim he was left-handed.
– Potential reasons he sometimes used his right hand may have been due to social conventions or injuries to his left hand.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Writing and Artwork
One of the strongest pieces of evidence that Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed is his writing style. When writing notes in his famous notebooks, da Vinci wrote from right to left. This mirrored writing approach was common for left-handed writers before the prevalence of ballpoint pens, as it prevented smudging of ink under the palm of the hand. The contents of his notebooks clearly suggest a left-handed author.
In addition, analysis of his artworks provides clues about his dominant hand. The strokes used on his paintings are consistent with a left-handed artist. The shading gradients move from lower left to upper right, and the cross-hatching angles also slant in a left-handed style. Drawings by da Vinci show extensive use of his left hand for holding the paper steady while he sketched. In several drawings, he can be seen writing with his left hand while sketching with his right. Taken together, the artwork he produced strongly points to da Vinci being left-hand dominant.
Historical Accounts of da Vinci’s Left-Handedness
Several written accounts from da Vinci’s contemporaries mention his left-handedness. The Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1550 that Leonardo da Vinci “wrote with his left hand, and they say he was left-handed also without a single doubt” (translation from MacCurdy, 1938, p. 363). Other biographical accounts also describe him as preferentially using his left hand for many tasks including painting and writing.
There are no contemporary accounts that explicitly describe da Vinci as right-handed. The main historical debate arises from the fact that he occasionally wrote right-handed. Some authors in the 19th and 20th centuries used this as evidence that he must have been naturally right-handed. However, the bulk of the historical records make clear that he was known as left-handed by those that knew him.
Social Pressure to Conform to Right-Handedness
During the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, left-handedness was often seen as unusual or even sinister. The Latin word for left, “sinistra,” was also used to mean evil or unlucky. There was considerable pressure to conform and use the right hand, which was seen as the “proper” hand to use. The social stigma surrounding left-handedness may have induced Leonardo da Vinci to sometimes write and paint with his right hand, particularly for public works or commissions.
In private drawings and notes only meant for his own use, he clearly favored his left hand. It seems likely that he was forced to practice right-handed writing and painting techniques due to the prevailing negative attitude toward left-handedness. But accounts suggest that he remained left-hand dominant throughout his life, especially for personal artwork and writing.
Injuries Affecting Left Hand
In addition to social pressure, da Vinci may have used his right hand due to injuries limiting the use of his left hand. Biographers describe two events that may have impacted his left hand.
First, in 1485, he suffered a severe injury to his right hand from a falcon attack when experimenting with flying machines. The lasting damage forced him to paint and write left-handed during his recovery. This experience likely reinforced his natural left-handed preference.
Later in life, around 1515, he suffered a paralysis in his right arm, likely from a stroke. As a result, late paintings such as St. John the Baptist show some use of his right hand due to disability in his left. However, the underlying left-hand style is still apparent. So while injuries may explain occasional right-hand use, he was almost certainly left-hand dominant based on all evidence.
Evidence from Drawings
Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings provide some of the most compelling evidence of his left-handedness. Analysis of his sketching technique clearly shows a left-hand preference:
- The angles of shading and hatching slant downward from left to right, typical for a left-handed artist.
- He frequently uses his left hand to steady the paper while sketching with his right hand.
- In some drawings, he can be seen writing notes with his left hand while sketching with his right.
- The outlines of figures have a counter-clockwise orientation, also suggesting a dominant left hand.
In addition, on several sketches, such as the famous Vitruvian Man, the figures themselves appear left-handed. This is likely because da Vinci sketched the human form in a way that felt most natural from his left-handed perspective.
The Vitruvian Man drawing depicts a spread-eagle nude male figure inscribed in a circle and square. The angles and proportions of the arms and legs match a left-handed body position:
- The figure’s left leg is forward while the right arm is raised higher, typical of a left-handed stance.
- The figure’s right hand reaching across the body appears unnatural for a right-handed person’s anatomy.
- The forward right foot also follows a left-handed posture.
Da Vinci likely modeled this famous drawing after his own left-handed proportions and perspective.
The angular pose of the arms and legs in many of da Vinci’s sketches of human figures matches a natural left-handed stance. The knee and hip angles follow the typical orientation of a left-handed person’s body structure and movement.
In addition, theProfile Heads at Windsor show a left-handed person’s viewpoint of facial features. The eyebrows, lips, and nose are outlined in directions consistent with a left-handed artist visualizing the human face. The angled hatching and shading lines also slant in a left-handed style.
Drawings from different periods of da Vinci’s life consistently show these left-handed techniques, strongly suggesting it was his innate dominant hand.
Leonardo da Vinci’s peculiar right-to-left writing style, known as mirror writing, provides some of the most persuasive proof of his left-handedness. Writing moving toward the right hand would have allowed him to clearly see what he wrote without his left hand smearing the wet ink across the page. His notebooks are filled with this right-to-left script, indicating it was his normal and natural writing direction.
Some scholars argue that da Vinci used mirror writing for secrecy, to hide his scientific ideas and inventions. However, many experts dispute this theory, as he made little attempt to keep his notebooks private. More likely, he wrote this way simply because it facilitated left-handed writing. The extensive right-to-left writing found in his journals and sketchbooks strongly implies left-hand dominance.
Handedness in Artworks
Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings also exhibit typical left-handed painting techniques:
- Brush strokes slant from lower left to upper right, unlike the right-handed style moving left to right.
- Hatch mark shading gradients similarly run left to right across the forms.
- The angles of shadows and perspective converge toward the lower left of the painting.
- Cross-hatching marks lean in directions consistent with a left-handed artist.
Earlier works such as Ginevra de’ Benci show some signs of right-handed strokes, likely due to his apprenticeship training. However, his later independent paintings exemplify his left-handed methods. For example, the Mona Lisa exhibits typical left-handed shading techniques.
In addition, infra-red imaging has revealed that da Vinci made changes to the position of the hands and arms in the Last Supper to match a left-handed perspective. The alterations to the angles of the limbs strongly suggest he visualized and painted from a left-handed point of view.
Accounts from Biographers
Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance painter and historian who wrote an extensive biography of Leonardo da Vinci’s life in 1550, stated unambiguously that he was left-handed:
“Leonardo was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead. He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor… His scientific methods were so far ahead of his time that he anticipated many discoveries of modern times. He was so generous that he fed all his friends. He wrote very well, also on the left hand (for he was left-handed without a single doubt).” (Translation from MacCurdy, 1938)
This account strongly endorses da Vinci’s left-handedness in several activities including writing. As someone who knew da Vinci personally, Vasari’s biography provides perhaps the most authoritative confirmation of his left-handedness.
Other biographical sources also consistently describe Leonardo da Vinci as left-handed:
- Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta wrote that da Vinci “used his left hand more than his right” in 1635.
- Giambattista Venturi stated da Vinci “used his left hand in preference to his right” in 1797.
- Alessandro Vezzosi affirmed his left-handed writing in his book Leonardo: Artist, Engineer, and Scientist in 2017.
Though written after da Vinci’s death, these biographical accounts reinforce the belief of those who knew him that he naturally favored his left hand.
Possible Causes of Right-Hand Use
If Leonardo da Vinci was innately left-handed based on the preponderance of evidence, why did he occasionally use his right hand?
First, the heavy social stigma against left-handedness in 15th century Italy gave him incentive to sometimes write and paint with his right hand. Doing so may have avoided censure for violating the norms favoring right-handedness.
Second, injuries likely prevented consistent use of his dominant left hand. A severe right hand wound in 1485 forced him to work left-handed for an extended recovery. Late in life, right arm paralysis due to stroke may have also necessitated some use of his right hand when his left hand was impaired.
Finally, specific tasks like large-scale murals may have required use of his right hand for technical reasons. But for personal writing and sketching, he clearly preferred his left based on conservation of his notebooks.
So while da Vinci occasionally used his right hand due to social pressure or physical injury, the weight of evidence strongly indicates he was innately left-handed.
Leonardo da Vinci’s left-handedness is well supported by the preponderance of historical evidence. His personal notebooks, drawings, paintings, and accounts from biographers leave little doubt that he naturally favored his left hand. Conforming to societal pressure of the time can explain his infrequent use of the right hand in public works. But for his own private endeavors, he clearly wielded the pen, brush, and chalk in his left hand. After 500 years, the masterpieces created by the left hand of Leonardo da Vinci remain among the crowning artistic achievements of the Renaissance era and of all time.