In Search of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci

by V.P. Zubov, translated by David H. Kraus, with a Foreword by Myron P. Gilmore
Harvard, 325 pp., $9.95

The 1964 volume of Isis, the official quarterly of the History of Science Society, opens with a tribute to Vassilii Pavlovich Zubov who had posthumously been awarded the Society’s George Sarton Medal for 1963 for his outstanding contributions to the history of science. Born in 1899 in the vicinity of Moscow, Zubov must have received his schooling before the Revolution. He spoke and wrote fluent French and also corresponded in perfect German. Having read History and Philosophy at the University he soon found employment with the Academy of Sciences, becoming the chief scientific advisor to its Library at the age of thirty-two. His main publications before the war concerned the history of architectural theory in the Renaissance. He translated into Russian the great treatise by Leone Battista Alberti on Architecture, adding the first detailed commentary to this important text of which traced the ancient and medieval sources; he did the same for the sixteenth-century commentary on Vitruvius’ ancient treatise on architecture by Paladio’s patron, the Aristotelian philosopher Daniele Barbaro. It would be hard to think of an enterprise more typical of “cloistered scholarship” than such a commentary on a commentary published in the worst period of Stalinist terror.

The official bias against functional and for classical architectural styles possibly helped Zubov in securing this quiet haven, but from all that is know he never practiced the “cult of .” As an expert on architectural theory he joined in 1940 the team which was charged with the restoration of the St. Sergos at Zagorsk, and in the same year he became a member of the Academy’s very active Institute for the History of Science, where he remained until his death in April 1963, publishing, we read, some 200 papers and reviews, not only in Russian but also in Western learned journals. From the history of architectural theory he had advanced to the history of mathematics, mechanics, and philosophy, notably the study of Aristotelianism and Epicurean Atomism and their effect on medieval and Renaissance science. In his last years he had become particularly interested in the Scholastics of the fourteenth century, and rumor has it that he could read the microfilm of a difficult Latin manuscript with all its abbreviations as easily as other people read a newspaper. Attending several of the International Congresses on the History of Science held in the West he gained not only the respect but also the friendship of many colleagues. Though I met this great and humane scholar only for one brief hour when, most of the time, he was in the company of a younger Russian colleague, the impression of his warmth, his modesty, and his unconditional commitment to learning has remained with me.

In 1961 (not 1962, as it is incorrectly stated in this edition) Zubov published a book on Leonardo da Vinci, having previously edited an anthology of his writings. It is the first of his books to have become accessible to readers who have no Russian, and it fully confirms the intellectual…

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