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 stature of its author. Only one word of caution is necessary to prevent disappointment. A book called “Leonardo da Vinci” (without any subtitle) would probably be expected to deal with the two aspects of his life which are, for good reasons, best known to the general public—his achievement as an artist and his fame as an inventor. Zubov’s book takes the first for granted, and is not much concerned with the second. The few illustrations (still reduced in the English-language edition) serve only to elucidate certain passages in the text; their artistic merit is ignored to the extent that some of Leonardo’s drawings were even “redrawn” for the edition under review. Nor must the reader expect an analysis of Leonardo’s mechanical inventions and contraptions, few of which figure in the illustrations. Even the introductory section on Leonardo’s life is somewhat perfunctory and not free of errors. (Leonardo never joined the “guild” of Florentine artists, but their confraternity; it is doubtful whether, as an illegitimate child; he could have joined any guild, and it is not impossible that this disability had something to do with his move to the Court of Milan.) The true value of the book rests in the chapters in which a great historian of science attempts to define Leonardo’s position in the history of scientific thought. Indeed it will be read and studied with most profit by those who are familiar with the debates which have centered on this baffling question.

In his lucid introduction to the volume Professor Gilmore reminds us that the problem is a comparatively recent one. A hundred years ago Leonardo was still seen mainly through the eyes of his Renaissance biographer Vasari, who merely regretted that this greatest of artists had dissipated his talents in whimsical researches. The publication of Leonardo’s notebooks, most of which did not become available until 1883, allowed the Victorians to revise this image and to fit him into the picture of the Renaissance as they saw it: the era, in Burckhardt’s words, of the “discovery of man and the world” after the darkness of medieval clericalism. It was fitting that an artist should have inaugurated the rise of science by simply looking around and observing nature, disregarding the logic-chopping of the scholastics and the formalism of the humanists. There exist isolated pronouncements by Leonardo that lend credence to this interpretation, which still survives in popular literature. Alas, it will not do, for it can be squared neither with the history of science nor with the bulk of Leonardo’s notes. Science is not, and never was, a mere matter of looking around and observing. One is reminded of the quip in Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan where a cleric anachronistically speaks of Pythagoras as a man who believed the earth went round the sun, only to receive the crushing reply, “the fool, could he not use his eyes?” Leonardo noted down in one tantalizing sentence that “the sun does not move” and it cannot have been his eyes that told him so. There are countless other passages which are about theories, speculations, and predictions, in other words about science, and these formulations, not surprisingly, link up with the traditions of the despised ancients and the notorious scholastics.

Thus a closer study of Leonardo’s notes led to a profound reaction from the view of the self-made artist-explorer. In particular the great French historian of science, Pierre Duhem, represented Leonardo as the last of a line, the line of the great scholastic thinkers who had pondered the secrets of nature. Understandably this interpretation of an artist who proudly called himself an unlettered man also encountered criticism. Was it not likely that Leonardo picked up in conversation rather than through the study of books much of the traditional lore that he appears to have known? Is he not rather the representative of the craftsman tradition, too long ignored by the intellectual historian, and should we not look for an explanation of his interests and his bias in the workshops of Florence and Milan? But if we are to see him as a versatile technician with an insatiable curiosity, should we not delete his name from the role of honor that records the names of Copernicus, of Galilei, Kepler, and Newton?

Indeed, an eminent mathematician has been provoked by the popular praise of Leonardo’s achievement to launch a broadside against his reputation as a scientist. What laws has he discovered? What formula is owing to him? Unable to grasp complex mathematical relationships, he talked a lot about experiments and measurements, but what did he really measure?

Zubov, of course, is fully aware of what he calls “the tragedy of Leonardo,” his inadequate mastery of mathematics (p. 179). But, as he says in his Preface, we must neither archaize nor modernize. Steeped as he is in the reading of late medieval science, Zubov has succeeded for the most part in steering his way between these extremes. He is particularly interested in Duhem’s derivations of Leonardo’s ideas from late scholasticism, but he shows with authority and penetration why Duhem’s interpretation is still mistaken. It rests on an insufficiently close analysis of Leonardo’s statements. It is true that many motifs and ideas in Leonardo’s notes recall earlier discussions. But Zubov is able to show in a number of important cases that, far from quoting his authorities uncritically, Leonardo modified their formulations, sometimes radically and sometimes subtly. He also successfully defends Leonardo against the charge of having naively relied on analogies in his scientific explanations. The analogies, like the theories of his predecessors, serve Leonardo as a starting point for his own investigations. In the comments with which Zubov intersperses his many quotations from Leonardo’s writings he is always anxious to avoid those current oversimplifications of the master’s views which frequently stem from lack of familiarity with his very personal terminology. Thus he shows that when Leonardo talks of “mathematics” he frequently means what we would call “physics” and that he uses the concept of the “eye” in a far from literal sense.

Even at the few points where one may remain unconvinced of a particular interpretation one must admire Zubov’s sensitivity to nuance. He has an equally fine ear for the musical cadence of Leonardo’s language, the expressive force of his repetitions and variations. It is not surprising to learn from the pages of Isis that he was praised by none other than Sviatoslav Richter’s master, Neuhaus, as an accomplished pianist who could have made his way as a performer.

If Zubov’s reading of Leonardo can be summed up in one sentence it is that his “thinking developed in an atmosphere of traditional Aristotelian ideas, but followed a course of critical refutation of them.” It is a reading which is completely in tune with other recent studies of some aspects of Leonardo’s work, for instance Dr. Keele’s monograph on Leonardo’s study of the heart. It could also be applied to an analysis of the master’s art. He clearly took over many types and formulas from Verrocchio’s practice, but he modified them in the light of his observations and preoccupations. Nothing could be more fallacious than the view of Leonardo as an artist relying only on his miraculous eye. The visible world looks very different from the world he created in his paintings. But his paintings, no less than the fables and fantasies which he wrote down in his notebooks, and which are used to good effect by Zubov in his interpretation, all bear the stamp of the same mind, a mind that constantly strove not only to grasp the unique and particular but also to arrive at an understanding of the general laws that govern the operations of nature.

In stressing the inevitable tension between these aims Zubov convincingly contests Cassirer’s comparison of Leonardo with Goethe. Goethe resigned himself to the contemplation of irreducible basic phenomena; Leonardo knew of no such resignation, but he lacked the means to explain the phenomena of nature. Atomism, the classical hypothesis of invisible events, was still outside his range. Thus the Leonardo who emerges from these pages is in many respects a tragic figure, but Zubov clearly preferred to end on a more positive note. His motive may simply have been the admiration everyone must feel who comes into contact with this intellectual giant, but it is possible that in this respect Zubov’s conclusion was influenced by his environment. Even a scholar of Zubov’s detachment could not quite live up to his program “neither to archaize nor to modernize.” Like the modern materialist, his Leonardo regards the Universe as a machine and man as part of it, but he still retains his faith in the perfectability of reality.

Leonardo overcame the determinism of his naturalism and mechanics, which condemned reality to an endless cycle, with the concept of homo faber, the concept of man as the creator of new implements, of things that are not in nature. This is not some heroic “idealizing,” not the contrasting of man to nature and its laws, but creativity based on these very laws…. For Leonardo, technical and artistic creativity made the first breach in unyielding nature…. Dams could be erected to counteract the flooding of rivers, artificial wings could be constructed to lift man into the air.

It is a noble vision, but not everyone who remembers Leonardo’s prophecies of doom will find it convincing. No formula will ever fit Leonardo. His outlines remain as elusive as the contours of his figures which disappear in mysterious shadows. But Zubov certainly strained every nerve to peer into this darkness, and the sponsors of this translation deserve our gratitude for having made his work available. Read in conjunction with other monographs, notably Sir Kenneth Clark’s book on Leonardo’s development as an artist, Zubov’s book will certainly be of inestimable value to undergraduates and specialists.

It is all the more regrettable that the English translation suffers from two disabilities, of which the first is nobody’s fault, but the second is reprehensible. Like all books on Leonardo this one has become somewhat obsolete through the recent discovery, or recovery, of further notebooks by Leonardo in the Royal Library of Madrid. Not that their content is likely to alter materially the outlines of the picture, but such items as the further list of books owned by Leonardo would certainly have fascinated Zubov and might have led him to alter or supplement some of the pages in this book.

What his book did not deserve, and what was avoidable, was that it should have fallen into the hands of editors who were simply not up to the job. I cannot check the translation, which reads reasonably well, but I am sure Zubov did not refer to the painters Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino as “scientists” (p. 39). Unfortunately there is plenty of other evidence to show that nobody at all familiar with the subject can have read the proofs. Complaints of this kind may seem more appropriate to a review in a more specialized journal, but it seems to me a matter of general concern that a book by a great humanist from Soviet Russia should have been published under the solemn imprint of “the President and Fellows of Harvard College” disfigured by barbarous illiteracies. We read of Pythagorus (twice), of a Pythagorian concept, of scholasticists, of Antheas; de immortalitate animorum, botteghi.

What is worse than these oversights in the text is the evidence of ignorance in the bibliographical list, which is eighteen pages long. The Russian edition has no such list. It uses the good old method of footnotes at the bottom of the page and these always appear to be scholarly and sensible. The Harvard Press preferred to remove references to the back and to separate them from a fuller bibliographical description. It is a possible method, but one that needs care if the reader is to be really helped. He is not in this case. When, for instance, Zubov compared Leonardo’s contest between music and painting with Lessing’s classic treatment of the arts of time and space in the Laocoön of 1766 he quoted the relevant passages in a footnote together with the sections and paragraphs of the treatise, adding for good measure the page reference of an edition he happened to have at hand. The English version omits the textual quotations and speaks unidiomatically of Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoön. (It happens to be either “Lessing,” as in Zubov, or Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.) If you want to follow up the reference in the note at the back you will there find the inane repetition “Lessing, Laocoön.” True, you may then turn to the bibliographical list, where Lessing gets his full name and where the title of the treatise is correct, but here there is no excuse for listing a random edition of 1922, which looks all the more puzzling as we are also given the title of an English translation of 1855. That the index lists Lacoön, was, alas, to be expected.

There are worse blunders. The Russian alphabet has no X and so Zubov refers to Curtius’s life of Aleksander the Great. For the Harvard Press to repeat that spelling is as inexcusable as to change Zubov’s quotation of Diderot’s Oeuvres into Opera. The first edition of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture is described as having ten volumes, quite a feat for a publication of 1483! One final gem for connoisseurs culled from page 309: “Migne, Jacques Paul. Patrologiae cursus completus. Latin series, one and two. Paris, 1844-1864. 221 vols. (Referred to by Zubov as Patrologia latina).” May one inform whoever penned this parenthesis that Zubov probably shared this habit with the President and those Fellows of Harvard College who have had occasion to turn to this standard collection?

One gets the impression that publishers increasingly leave this kind of work to hacks, or, worse, to computers. The mechanical application of bibliographical rules leads to a lot of redundant information even where it does not, end in similar disasters. The sooner publishers of scholarly books get together and work out a more sensible and more flexible system the better it will be for them, for their authors, and for their readers.