When Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was auctioned at Christie's in New York, it fetched the highest ever price for a painting – $450.3 million. Now, 500 years after his death, the largest exhibition of the artist’s work is being held in Paris.

The exhibition at the Louvre Museum has taken years to organize and has not been free of controversy. One of Da Vinci’s most famous creations is the Vitruvian Man, a drawing showing the proportions of the human body according to the Roman engineer Vitruvius.

The sketch is kept at the Accademia Gallery in Venice and almost never shown in public. It almost didn’t make it to Paris to join the 160 or so exhibits that make up the retrospective after a Venice court ruled it was too fragile to be moved. That decision was reversed in time for the exhibition’s opening.

Around half a million people are expected to visit the four-month showing of the great man’s work. But how much do you know about Da Vinci? Here are five facts about his life and work.

1. He liked to draw

There are fewer than 20 paintings attributed to Da Vinci still in existence. But when he died in 1519, he left behind a collection of more than 6,000 journal pages filled with drawings, notes and designs. Many show his obsession with understanding how things work, from repeated sketches of horses to capture their form in movement, to anatomically accurate studies of the human body. But he was also more than capable of letting his imagination take over, as his numerous depictions of dragons demonstrate.

Vitruvian Man is based on observations of a Roman engineer called Vitruvius.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

2. That’s not his name

Da Vinci is not Leonardo’s surname – it indicates where he was from. He was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci, in the Italian region of Tuscany. His parents weren’t married. His mother’s name is believed to have been Caterina and his father was Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci. As a boy, Leonardo lived with his mother but began staying with his father from around five years old. His father married several times and Leonardo had around 12 siblings in total.

3. One of his masterpieces was stolen in Scotland

The Da Vinci painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder was stolen in 2003 from a Scottish stately home by two men disguised as tourists. It was recovered four years later during a police raid in Glasgow. The painting had been owned by the family of the Duke of Buccleuch for around 250 years. The Duke died, aged 83, before the painting was found.

4. He was a polymath but didn’t go to school

Da Vinci learned to read and write at home, where he was also taught the fundamentals of mathematics. But he received very little in the way of formal education. As a teenage apprentice, he was sent to Florence to work with Andrea del Verrocchio, a celebrated painter and sculptor of the time.

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
In Da Vinci's 'helicopter' design, four men would work together to rotate the blades.
Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

5. He designed a helicopter – but it wouldn’t have flown

Demonstrating a level of foresight, Da Vinci completed a detailed design for a flying machine. Calling it a helicopter is perhaps bending the truth a little, but the idea behind making the “aerial screw” fly was that four men on board would push a wooden shaft around to rotate the “blades”. This would push the machine up into the air – or not. It was a great idea. But humans can’t produce the kind of power that would be needed to lift the machine and its passengers into the air – at least, not using materials that were available at the time.