Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), artist-engineer and towering figure of the Italian Renaissance, was an illegitimate son. Therefore a university education, the only route to a profession, was not open to him. Fortunately, the occupation of artist, which involved a long apprenticeship, was considered perfectly acceptable. So Leonardo attended the village school and lived a country life.
It was not thought necessary to correct his natural ambidexterity and he was allowed to write and draw freely with both hands, to the great benefit of his visual and imaginative faculties. The family pottery, which produced majolica ware, gave him knowledge of design and industrial processes. He grew up on his grandfather’s lands surrounded by the corn mills, stills, oil presses, and pulleys that powered an agrarian economy. He had access to many fine works of art in Vinci churches and neighbouring Pistoia was one of the region’s great artistic centres in Tuscany.
Nowadays, Leonardo is often seen as a unique genius, a ‘man for all seasons’ who was utterly original in his own time and has proved an inspiration for every age since. His reputation rests, in the popular imagination, on two suppositions.
The first is that a fruitful juxtaposition between his own brilliance and the particular conditions of the Italian Renaissance allowed him to become an unrivalled expert across a wide range of disciplines.
The second is that he appears to be so modern in his ideas about science and engineering. This wide-spread view of Leonardo is a seductive one. There is, after all, compelling evidence of his unparalleled abilities in painting, drawing, and sculpture, in anatomical investigation involving dissection, and in the study of optics, perspective, and geometry. In pursuit of these investigations he used apparently modern methods, frequently acknowledging in his notebooks the importance of observation, experiment, and learning through practical effort.
His engineering plans included a parachute, a submarine, a diving suit, a tank, and various large-scale weapons. He was skilled in hydraulic engineering and military fortification, and there is evidence that he was also employed as an architect. In recent years, some of his most ambitious but unfulfilled plans have actually been brought to fruition: in particular the successful construction of the Galata Bridge, the Sforza Horse, and the flying machine all lend weight to the notion that Leonardo was really a modern man trapped hundreds of years before his natural time. Indeed, a fairly recent television programme about Leonardo advertised its subject as ‘the man who drew the twenty-first century’.
This, then, is how Leonardo is remembered and valued today. However, an examination of the times in which he lived and worked demonstrates, as a matter of fact, that the Florentine workshop system routinely developed an extraordinary range of skills.
These included painting, sculpture, working precious metals, carving wood, terracotta and mosaic work, the production of ingenious machines, and engineering and architectural design. Competence across several areas was commonplace and excellence in them was quite routine.
To take just three examples, Giotto (1267-1337) was a painter, mosaic worker, architect, and possibly a town planner; Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was a goldsmith, engineer and architect; Michaelangelo (1473-1564) was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet.
Moreover, much of the underlying practice was not even the product of the Renaissance. The extraordinary flexibility and versatility across disciplines was the result of a continuing medieval craft tradition. The associated industrial and engineering skills sprang from well-established, traditional practices and the general idea that nature could be controlled by artifice. Italy was short of natural sources of energy, which had encouraged the development of many simple machines based on basic components like gears, levers, screws and wedges. Construction yards and foundries, as well as potteries, and agrarian communities, were full of ingenious machinery.
So if Leonardo was fortunate in the circumstances which prepared him for an artist-engineer’s apprenticeship, much of his actual educational experience in industry, engineering, and art was widely shared by those with similar aspirations. Leonardo was not, after all, the unique product of a unique set of conditions.
However, that still leaves the question of his ‘modernity’ and it does seem that he exhibited many traits that would be familiar to modern science and technology. He studied geometry and perspective as a vital first step towards understanding how natural things work, and used them to accurately describe and record observations.
He developed new artistic techniques to record views of the inside of the body; these were realistic enough to communicate scientific ideas with precision. He made protracted investigations into natural phenomena, such as the flight of birds, and formulated conclusions about how these phenomena work. He constructed models in his efforts to understand the underlying principles and frequently suggested practical applications, such as his flying machines and parachute. Sometimes he seems to have produced very modern explanations. Using his knowledge of astronomy and optics he inferred that the slight glow across the unlit part of the moon was reflected light from the Earth’s oceans. From close examination of rock strata and fossils he attempted to disprove the Biblical Flood, arguing that fossils had been living animals and that the strata where they had been deposited had later been raised to form a mountain. He concluded that light has a finite speed. Leonardo was seldom very accurate in his attempts to penetrate the workings of the physical world but it is striking how constantly he used the methods of practical geometry, observation, and even simple experiment in a way that seems entirely familiar to us.
Historical investigation, however, shows a more complicated picture.
Again, Leonardo was the inheritor of an existing tradition and again he was not unique in his techniques. From the early fifteenth century a new approach to nature developed when university scholars became interested in improving traditional technologies and crafts. Scholarly disciplines like mathematics became recognised for their contribution to design.
Designs, in their turn, had to be shown to work; they had to be tested against reality and modified through experimental trials. This process developed into a cornerstone of the Western scientific method. In Leonardo’s passion for applied geometry and in his commitment to systematic observation, experience, and even experiment, we may recognise the early beginnings of our method of discovering how the physical world works.
So how should we perceive him and evaluate his influence? Firstly, Leonardo was very much a product of his time, sharing with his contemporaries both medieval traditions and Renaissance developments. He competed with them for available patronage and, like them, found the direction and content of his work shaped by the demands of whoever was paying. He and they were affected by a gradual change in status, as the medieval concept of the ‘craftsman’ was replaced by the Renaissance concept of the ‘artist’, a free intellectual worker.
Secondly, it was widely recognised that he transcended his time - but to a lesser degree than might have been expected. The general opinion of contemporaries was that Leonardo had a prodigious talent but was too restless and curious to properly fulfil his potential. At the court of Ludovico, the Duke of Milan, he had been given a title, ‘the Florentine Apelles’, reserved for the greatest painters. In 1507 he became the centre of an international diplomatic incident, whilst the French monarch and the Florentine government sorted out who had the priority of claim on his time and talents! He was regarded as something of a wonder. However, he was notoriously reluctant to undertake, or indeed complete, commissions.
The overwhelming theme of Leonardo’s life is that of brilliant work planned but too rarely executed. He was an especially gifted practitioner of a larger range of disciplines than was usual in Renaissance Italy and we may regard him as the ‘first among equals’. Therefore we should judge him by the degree to which he developed the customs and practices of his age.
For example, he can be called a true innovator, who observed and recorded the natural world with a new accuracy. He also produced portraits informed by an unequalled knowledge of human physiology and psychology. He was the originator of works of art that have become iconic, such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. The modest body of work he left us has fascinated and engaged artistic movements such as Symbolists, Dadaists, and Pop artists. On the face of it there also seems to be a link between modern science and Leonardo’s methods of investigating the natural world. This might lend support to our tendency to treat Leonardo as a modern person displaced in time, were it not for a final irony. Although he was born at the beginning of the first great communications revolution, printing, Leonardo never published his ideas more widely. All those questions, conclusions, speculations, and innovations remained hidden in his numerous notebooks and never contributed to the advance of the scientific method, nor prompted the development of technology! We may sense a connection with him but nothing of his work has directly helped to foster that link. Perhaps that is because his real scientific legacy to us is the commitment he brought to trying to understand nature, in order to control it and utilise it in structures and mechanisms. That may be the real bond that extends across the centuries.