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Leonardo Da Vinci – The Master of Science


The text below is the excerpt of the book Leonardo Da Vinci, written by Eugène Müntz, published by Parkstone International.

An alliance between art and science was no new thing in Italy. Minds trained in the incomparable gymnasium of classic education could attack the most various tasks without danger of a check. In such an enterprise the painter of the Last Supper and the sculptor of the Sforza statue could justify himself by the example of many a famous Italian. Brunellesco had been an ardent student of mathematics; Piero della Francesca of geometry; Alberti had composed the Ludi Matematici and invented a way of measuring the depth of the sea in places where the lead could not be used; he had also busied himself de motibus ponderis” – on the movements of weights. So, too, among the contemporaries of Leonardo, Andrea Sansovino was a student of cosmography, Peruzzi of astrology and mathematics. Nor was the idea of compiling and publishing treatises on the arts a new one. Alberti’s work on architecture appeared in 1485, Gaurico’s on sculpture in 1504, Pacioli’s on proportion in 1509, and Fra Giocondo’s edition of Vitruvius in 1511.

Giant Mechanical Digger, c. 1503. Pen and ink, wash, 28 x 40 cm.
Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

Was Leonardo’s pronounced vocation for scientific research help or a hindrance to him as an artist? It is usual to quote him as an example of the possibilities of art and science allied. In him, it is affirmed, active genius received a new impetus from the analytic faculty; reason reinforced the imagination and the emotions. But was this the case? Harassed by his perpetual desire to investigate, Leonardo’s inspiration was disturbed at every moment. No artist hesitated more; none has left more unfinished masterpieces. Even among these, how many are there, with the exception of the Last Supper, which expresses a complete idea, strong, generous, and concrete, as do Raphael’s creations? He has left us portraits (busts only), Holy Families, fragments of landscape, all admirable, and all showing clearly that, if scientific application had finally developed in him the most exquisite worship of form, it had on the other hand, robbed him of the power of synthetic vision, of creating works at once pictorial and literary, and presenting them to the admiration of the public in all the vivid warmth of instant inspiration. It was his scientific prepossession, too, which made him seek the solution of the laws of chiaroscuro, and brown tonalities, to the detriment of that splendour of colour revealed by the Venetians.

Mechanism for Alternative to Continuous Movement, 1485.
Pen and ink, 27.8 x 38.5 cm. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.
Pattern of a Swing Bridge, after a drawing of 1490.

Before describing Leonardo’s method of work and a few of his discoveries – to enumerate them all would be impossible – it is advisable to inquire how he set about his work, and how he contrived to master, in so remarkable a degree, the boundless domain of mathematical, physical, and natural science.

All evidence is unanimous in showing that as a child he had a gift for the exact sciences. His entry into Verrocchio’s studio confirmed these tastes, which, in him, were combined with an irresistible vocation for art. We know that Verrocchio was a passionate student of geometry and perspective, but whatever he may have done for his pupil, the latter was above all things the son of his works. It is not even certain that, at this time, Verrocchio had seriously embarked on scientific experiments. Florentine culture, so pre-eminent in matters of art and literature, had not yet reached a similar superiority in the domain of science. Attached to the doctrines of Plato, of which the Medici were adherents, and to which their protégé, Marsilio Ficino, had given new life, the Florentine looked for beauty rather than for truth; and even when he made the latter his aim, his preference was given to absolute laws, such as those of mathematics, rather than to those relative solutions on which natural science reposes. It was by arithmetic, perspective and astronomy that not only Verrocchio, but Leone Battista Alberti, Piero della Francesca, and Toscanelli, who prepared the way for Columbus, were moved to enthusiasm.

Mechanical Military Drum, c. 1493.
Red chalk on paper, 18.6 x 9 cm. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.
System for the Lifting of a Beam, 1493-1497. Pen and ink, 21.3 x 15 cm. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.

Alberti is the representative par excellence of all these tendencies. He excels in the exact sciences; he invents the most ingenious machines for his own diversion; but when it comes to natural science, he suffers eclipse. Here I may be met by a reminder of the important developments made by anatomical studies at Florence; but I answer that their experts were not savants, but sculptors and painters, and that scientific exegesis had little enough to do with their dissections. We must not forget, either, that the first anatomical handbooks, Benedetti’s manual (Pavia, 1478) and the Fasciculus Medicinæ of Ketham (Venice) appeared in northern Italy.

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