Quick – what is the last name of the man who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper?
If you said “da Vinci,” you’re wrong. Actually, it’s a trick question. The man who painted these masterpieces had no last name. He simply went by “Leonardo.” He was the illegitimate child of a wealthy and respected gentleman, which helps explain why he was not honored with the family name. The moniker “da Vinci” means “from Vinci,” the area where he was born. This helped distinguish him from other Leonardos, and was a naming convention his father used as well. It is therefore improper to refer to him as “da Vinci,” which makes no grammatical sense (even though everyone will know who you’re talking about). The popular book and movie “The da Vinci Code” makes this error, basically translating as “The From Vinci Code.” A better, and correct, title would have been “The Leonardo Code,” which, to my mind, would have worked just as nicely. It is also acceptable to refer to Leonardo as “Leonardo da Vinci,” but that would have made for a long book title.
His contemporary, Michelangelo, also went by his first name. He did have a last one, which probably only art students know – Buonarroti. The famous Dutch painter Rembrandt may appear to be using his last name, but actually it is his first. His last name was van Rijn.
Ask your friends the opening question above and see if any of them get it right.