Leonardo da Vinci’s talents and gifts were so massive, so encompassing and his contribution to the world so great, Art Wednesday will spend the next 4 Wednesdays to do his works and him justice.
Leonardo’s many extant drawings, which reveal his brilliant draftsmanship and his mastery of the anatomy of humans, animals, and plant life, may be found in the principal European collections; the largest group is at Windsor Castle in England. Probably his most famous drawing is the magnificent Self-Portrait (c. 1510-13, Biblioteca Reale, Turin).
Because none of Leonardo’s sculptural projects was brought to completion, his approach to three-dimensional art can only be judged from his drawings. The same strictures apply to his architecture; none of his building projects was actually carried out as he devised them. In his architectural drawings, however, he demonstrates mastery in the use of massive forms, a clarity of expression, and especially a deep understanding of ancient Roman sources.
As a scientist Leonardo towered above all his contemporaries. His scientific theories, like his artistic innovations, were based on careful observation and precise documentation. He understood, better than anyone of his century or the next, the importance of precise scientific observation.
Unfortunately, just as he frequently failed to bring to conclusion artistic projects, he never completed his planned treatises on a variety of scientific subjects. His theories are contained in numerous notebooks, most of which were written in mirror script. Because they were not easily decipherable, Leonardo’s findings were not disseminated in his own lifetime; had they been published, they would have revolutionized the science of the 16th century.
Leonardo actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times. In anatomy he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. He made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation, and surmised the nature of fossil shells.
He was among the originators of the science of hydraulics and probably devised the hydrometer; his scheme for the canalization of rivers still has practical value. He invented a large number of ingenious machines, many potentially useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying devices, although not practicable, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.
A creator in all branches of art, a discoverer in most branches of science, and an inventor in branches of technology, Leonardo deserves, perhaps more than anyone, the title of Homo Universalis, Universal Man.
Pure depictions of landscape, in other words of depicting directly observed nature, were a complete novelty during Leonardo’s time. While imitating nature was the central task of artists at the time, none of them had until then been so rigorous as to go out into the open and draw an actual landscape. Instead, it was customary to create a landscape in the workshop with the aid of sketches or elements copied from models.
The landscape was seen as an accessory designed to support the central subject in compositions of the time, the human figure. Thus Leonardo’s drawings depicting real Italian landscapes are of great importance.
During classical times, plants were studied mainly because of their healing powers, but during the Christian Middle Ages a symbolic dimension was added to it. (For example, the lily appears as a symbol of the purity of Mary in paintings of the Annunciation.) In his early paintings Leonardo also used symbolic plants to extend the visual syntax.
In the 1490s his awakened interest in anatomy and proportion, visible in his studies of horses, altered fundamentally his study of botany. In order to understand the process of genesis and growth, Leonardo moved his attention from the appearance of the shape and began to investigate the influences on plants of light, earth and water. He grew to realize the importance of water for the nutrition of plants and was able to explain the various shapes of roots in terms of the varying capacity of soils to store water.
Leonardo was associated with engineering projects in all his life. In 1482 he offered his abilities in a letter to Lodovico Sforza, in ten points he presented himself as a designer and inventor of war machines – of movable bridges, battering rams, scaling ladders, mines, explosive devices, cannon and guns, naval arms, tunnels, armoured vehicles, catapults, projectiles and other things – as well as an architect of public and private buildings and water pipes. In his final years in France he dealt with architectural projects as well as hydrological projects intended for several French rivers.
Leonardo dealt with themes that had been considered by engineers before him and usually also written about in treatises. Nonetheless, Leonardo the engineer remains an exciting figure, for his method of developing machines is one that can still be called exemplary today.
He made a systematic study of the flying movements of birds and investigated the anatomy of the wing. He also studied general forms of movement in nature and understood that motion was the result of force and counterforce. He studied the element of air, and conducted extensive studies of water.
As a canal engineer, he built canals, bridges and locks and therefore had to understand the effects of forces such as whirlpools, surface eddies and rates of flow, as these had an effect on the direction of flow. Comparative phenomena can also be observed in the air. The science of winds, which Leonardo studied by observing water, helped him the understand air thermals.
Above: Manuscript page: Codex B, fol. 180r.
Next to the car, the flying machine was one of mankind’s great dreams and it is, therefore, not surprising that the inventive Leonardo should have devoted himself to this problem as well. His flying machines underwent several developmental stages. The machine illustrated here was meant to be powered by the muscle power of a man standing upright. He had to move the pairs of wings, that beat crosswise on top of each other, up and down like those of a bird. If built, the machine would have been so heavy that it would have been completely unsuitable for flight. Leonardo recognized this problem and attempted to reduce the weight by using lighter materials.
Above: Codex Atlanticus, fol. 812r.
The automobile that Leonardo attempted to power with a modified clockwork mechanism is one of his best-known inventions. It was not, however, an invention in the strict sense of the word, for other engineers before him had also made attempts to produce a self-powered vehicle. It is probable that Leonardo was familiar with these studies, though it is remarkable how intense Leonardo’s research of this technical phenomenon was.
Next week, Art Wednesday featuring Part 4 of Leonardo da Vinci.
On the Web:
Da Vinci Decoded Article from The Guardian
References for the Art Wednesday 4-part series:
My personal notes and papers when I was working at the Louvre, Paris completing my Master of Arts and my international art master’s degree.
Frank Zollner (2003). Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Taschen.
Martin Kemp (2004). Leonardo. Oxford University Press.
Theophilus (1963). On Divers Arts. U.S.: University of Chicago Press.
Angela Ottino della Chiesa (1967). The Complete Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Penguin Classics of World Art series.
Fritjof Capra (2007). The Science of Leonardo. U.S.: Doubleday.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann.
Müntz, Eugène (1898). Leonardo da Vinci. Artist, Thinker, and Man of Science. Volume 2. London: William Heinemann.
Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1983.
Fred Bérence (1965). Léonard de Vinci, L’homme et son oeuvre. Somogy. Dépot légal 4° trimestre 1965.