Italian Masters: Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Engineer, Scientist

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LeonardoFigure 1: Leonardo da Vinci, by Francesco Melzi

Over the course of this blog series, I have written about a number of Italian Masters of science and engineering, from astronomers like Galileo and Cassini to physicists like Torricelli and Venturi.  I’ve saved the best for last, however: Leonardo da Vinci.  He is the quintessential renaissance man who fits both our running definition of “Italian Master” as well as being included in the standard list of Masters with Rafael, Donatello and Michelangelo  Leonardo’s incredibly broad array of talents and interests have long been the subjects of movies, books, TV shows, and, of late, video games.  Throughout his life, he had one hand in the arts, ranging from painting, sculpting, music, history, and literature, and the other in science, including mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, and astronomy.  In fact, while we typically imagine art and science existing separately, for Leonardo they were two sides of the same coin.  His appreciation for the scientific factors governing the behavior of the animate and inanimate imbued his art with unmatched fidelity.  That unsurpassable artistic talent and attention to detail in turn powered his insatiably scientific investigations, and his simple anatomical cross sections and engineering sketches can be almost as breathtaking as his most famous paintings.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in 1452 in Vinci, a town outside of Florence, the out-of-wedlock only son of a legal notary and a peasant.  Although only informally tutored, at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, a well-regarded sculptor and painter in Florence.  It was here that he received his training in the arts as well as the science behind those arts, like chemistry, metallurgy and carpentry.  Leonardo’s career began in earnest in 1482 when Lorenzo de Medici sent him to work for the Duke of Milan as an artist, architect and engineer.  He began to relocate more often in the 1500s, as he was alternately pushed around by warfare and invited to the service of other dukes and governors.  After spending time in Florence, Milan, Bologna, and other Italian city-states, he finally entered the service of King Francis I of France in 1516 and spent his remaining years in a manor near the King’s palace in central France.

Unsurpassed Artistry

Leonardo-Última_CenaFigure 2: The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s impact on the art world is well recognized.  Two of his fifteen surviving paintings top the lists of the most famous paintings in the world: Mona Lisa and The Last Supper (Figure 2).  These paintings still astound today due to their depth, detail, and the stories they tell and questions they invoke in the viewer.  His studies in the nature of light, geology, and biology bring his paintings to life, from the subjects in the foreground to the rocks and trees in the background.  They remain evocative over 500 years later, and I can hardly do them justice in a single blog entry.  I’ve seen Mona Lisa myself in the Louvre, and maybe it’s partly the mythos surrounding it, but it truly felt like it came from a different world than the other 16th-century art that adorned the walls.

Radical Science & Engineering

Leonardo_da_Vinci_helicopterFigure 3: “Aerial Screw” helical-rotor helicopter, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s wealth of sketches and diagrams continue to fascinate as well.  His imaginative sketches of mechanical engineering marvels have become more popular of late, after being overlooked for centuries in favor of his paintings.  As our technological progress rocketed forward over the last 200 years, however, we’ve begun to realize just what a visionary Leonardo was.  His sketches of ornithopters, helical-rotored aircraft (Figure 3), multi-cannoned armored vehicles, and mechanical automatons can no longer be dismissed as flights of fancy, instead proving to be visions of remarkable foresight.  Leonardo tackled more down-to-earth engineering problems as well, devising such devices as an automated bobbin winder, a metalworking rolling mill, a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire and a gear-driven lens-grinding machine.  He also undertook larger-scale architectural projects, designing bridges, fortifications, and siege repelling devices.

Leonardo-skullFigure 4: Cross-section of a human skull, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s fascination with mechanically recreating flight and motion springs from his fascination with the natural world around him.  Leonardo’s manuscripts are packed with cartographic and topographic studies, sketches of fluid flow patterns, immaculate reproductions of brambles and flowers, highly-detailed drawings of anatomical dissections (Figure 4), an countless other investigations.  He did his resolute best to explain his observations as soundly as possible, and came to some remarkable early conclusions concerning such diverse theories as the heliocentric model of the solar system, the system of plate tectonics and erosion that govern geology, and the dismissal of the theory of bodily “humors” that regulated emotion.  Unfortunately, that same propensity of intellectuals of the time to concentrate solely on his art meant that his many of his scientific inquiries and theories went ignored.

A Life of Art and Science, Intertwined

Leonardo-Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_ViatourFigure 5: Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci

There was not a problem too large or small, too mundane or out-of-this-world, that Leonardo didn’t jump at the chance to solve it.  Looking back, it seems that everything he saw, from great mountains to the grass that grew on them, ignited his curiosity to equal measure.  Leonardo da Vinci was truly ahead of his time, not just with the tanks and helicopters and diving suits he designed or the scientific theories he foresaw.  Rather, Leonardo had a holistic view of life, science, and art that has proved truly rare throughout humankind’s history.  For centuries, the different fields of science existed as pigeonholed, compartmentalized branches…geologist, physicists, biologist, and astronomers imagined that their fields were governed by their own unique processes.  Even now, although we have a better understanding of how the same fundamental forces and principles underlie all scientific fields, we still break these disciplines into separate classes in schools and textbooks.  As best we can tell from his journals, these distinctions didn’t exist for Leonardo da Vinci.  We call him a polymath and label him an expert in a dozen fields, but he might not have seen it that way, instead seeing all of his experiments as part of uncovering the interconnected universe as a whole.


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