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The Vision of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist 1997, and the Singapore Art Museum,October 3, 1997-February 1, 1998.

an exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston, March 3-September 1,, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Otto Letze, by Thomas Buchsteiner
Gerd Hatje/Distributed Art Publishers, 224 pp., $35.00

Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the power of vision as an instrument of knowledge. He felt that it was above all through our eyes that we grasp and understand the world, that visual representation is the primary method of recording knowledge, and, most importantly, that such knowledge enables us to master and control our environment. The Scholastic tradition of the later Middle Ages gave a privileged status to abstraction, the manipulation of concepts. By giving priority to experience—especially visual experience—and experimentation, Leonardo announced a new era in Western culture. Between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth, the development of science was intimately linked to vision, because the visible could efficiently be recorded. We can estimate a person’s temperature by touching his forehead, but the mercury in the thermometer makes the temperature visible and consequently measurable.

Leonardo, the ultimate “Renaissance man,” is on the one hand a figure of popular legends—the ancestor of air travel who dreamed up flying machines, and the painter of the Mona Lisa, an image familiar to millions of people who have no idea when the Renaissance was or, for that matter, why the picture is so special. The crude, sometimes even diagrammatic reproductions found everywhere convey almost nothing of the spatial complexity and the atmosphere that made the art of Leonardo revolutionary. On the other hand, historians see him as a pivotal artist and a true pioneer of modern science, whose paintings, drawings, and notes pose complex intellectual problems that still defy explanation.

This summer the Museum of Science in Boston presented an exhibition designed to reconcile the popular and the learned view by giving greater precision and depth to the various aspects of Leonardo’s genius. The show, entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist,” grew more complex during its itinerary, which began in Malmö, Sweden, where it was specifically concerned with Leonardo’s studies of bridges. After several stops in Germany and Austria, the show’s most elaborate version went on view in Boston, and it will soon open in Singapore. Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz and a Swiss watch company, it has been accompanied by a catalog prepared for the German version which only partially corresponds to what we saw in Boston; it has, however, catalog entries for most of the works of art exhibited.

In Boston the exhibition began with a general introduction to Leonardo’s life on video; it then led to rooms that displayed a few objects, such as early printed books and room furnishings, intended to evoke a Renaissance setting, as well as facsimile reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings and manuscripts, and models made from his designs. These exhibits were interspersed with consoles where the visi-tor could use interactive audio-visual equipment to explore various aspects of Leonardo’s work. A special room was devoted to actual works of art—the most questionable part of the exhibition.

Most spectacularly, perhaps, in the main space of the museum we could see a birdlike flying machine, built according to Leonardo’s specifications, next to a recent man-powered flying contraption that actually works. Named Daedalus, the latter machine is a propeller airplane designed by an MIT team; it does not flap its wings in birdlike fashion as Leonardo’s does. This amazing apparatus, made mostly of new, light materials like mylar film and graphite epoxy tubing unknown in Leonardo’s time, weighs only seventy pounds, yet has a wing span of 112 feet.

Leonardo had already figured out that while birds had mostly breast muscles, man’s physical power was concentrated in his legs, and he had the wings of his machine moved by pedals. Daedalus‘s modern propeller, whose function Leonardo did not conceive, is also powered by pedaling. On April 22, 1988, another model of Daedalus, manned by a Greek athlete called Kanellos Kanellopoulos, flew the seventy-two miles from Crete to Greece in three hours and fifty-five minutes. The pilot crashed, apparently from exhaustion, just ten yards offshore. The fall was fatal only for the machine. The one permanently exhibited in the Boston Museum of Science, which was used for test flights in constructing Daedalus, is almost identical to it, and bears witness to the haunting power of classical myth and Leonardo’s dreams.

The Boston exhibition had three parts: the first was concerned with Leonardo as an artist, the second with his investigations as an engineer or inventor, and the last with Leonardo as a scientist. His life has traditionally been seen as following roughly the same sequence. Born outside Florence in 1452, Leonardo was trained in the studio of the Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio and he practiced painting in Florence until 1481. When he applied for a job with the ruler of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, he presented himself as being as much an engineer as an artist. In his later years—when he restlessly moved between Milan, Florence, Rome, and finally the court of Francis I in France—he became increasingly absorbed by his scientific investigations.

In describing Leonardo’s training, the exhibition did not just show with images and texts how knowledge was passed on in a Renaissance artist’s studio; it tried to involve the public actively. The visitor could use an apparatus similar to the one illustrated in a famous Dürer woodcut, which makes it possible to trace with a marker what one sees through a glass pane on the pane itself. The experiment was designed to enable the viewer to grasp how in perspective objects look smaller with distance.

The introduction of single point (or “scientific”) perspective was indeed one of the major developments of the Renaissance and still something of a novelty in Leonardo’s youth. For most artists, perspective was defined by a set of rules and procedures. But Leonardo insisted on understanding it as fully as possible, particularly the relation between the linear perspective used by artists to suggest three-dimensional space—what he called “artificial perspective”—and the physiology of visual perception, or “natural perspective.” He investigated, for example, the “distortions” in an image caused by the artist’s working on a flat surface, while the retina, on which the image forms in the eye, is curved. As usual, Leonardo never systematized his observations and ideas on the subject, and ascertaining his conclusions from his many notes and diagrams is one of the more challenging problems in the highly complex and specialized history of perspective.

In the studio of Verrocchio, Leonardo and his fellow apprentices made beautiful studies of draperies; we know that to do so they covered some kind of clay dummy or mannequin with cloth that was then kept in place by being dipped in plaster. Such exercises in drawing attempted to give the impression of volume by the distribution of light and dark through shading. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to try such a drawing themselves, and they were provided with paper on which the outlines of models on view were already drawn so that they could just fill in the shading that gives three-dimensionality; they could also achieve different effects by changing the lighting on the model.

Throughout the Boston exhibition, the organizers tried by such means to relate complex artistic and scientific issues to simple physical experience. In the section on Leonardo’s study of anatomy, beside Leonardo’s stunning anatomical drawings (which were the subject of an exhibition in London not long ago), a modern anatomical model could be taken apart and reassembled so that the visitor could see for himself how the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs fit together in the human frame. At a nearby exhibit the visitor could handle an actual chicken foot and see how it works by pulling the tendons to make the claws move (an experience fewer and fewer children have had today when chickens appear feetless in most kitchens). It was this hands-on approach that made the Boston exhibition original and distinguished it from the Leonardo exhibition at the IBM gallery in New York in 1983 or the more scholarly one at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal in 1987. The Boston show was true to the spirit of Leonardo insofar as he insisted that experience took precedence over authority in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

The claim, implicit in the exhibition, that Leonardo moved away from art to science, masterfully argued by Freud in his famous essay of 1910, is only partly convincing. Certainly, his intellectual range and ambition vastly expanded as he grew older. But Leonardo seems always to have been unwilling to finish paintings. As Sydney Freedberg put it in his memorable analysis of the early and unfinished Adoration of the Magi:

So much thought went into the conception of the Adoration that it is not surprising that there was not energy, or no interest, left for the labor of its execution. The physical completion of the painting must have seemed to Leonardo a problem of much lesser order than its ideation.1

This failure to finish work would recur again and again. Leonardo left very few completed paintings (even when we consider that some have been lost) and an exceptionally large number of projects in various unfinished states, ranging from quickly made drawings to detailed cartoons, and including a full-size clay model of the horse for a gigantic equestrian monument which, however, never had a rider. It was used for target practice by the French soldiers occupying Milan and finally crumbled away.

Leonardo’s impatience with the practical difficulties of completing a work and his excessively high standards help to explain why he abandoned many paintings. But in spite of his growing concerns with scientific problems of many different kinds, he never ceased to paint, except, it seems, when his hand became paralyzed; and he always thought of himself as an artist. For him painting was “the sole means of reproducing all the known works of nature.” To quote Freedberg: “Since, in Leonardo’s view, knowledge was indivisible and painting the preferred instrument of its communication, his principles of science were principles of painting too.”2

To paint in the intellectually ambitious ways to which Leonardo aspired even as a very young man, the artist could not be content with observing and recording the appearance of nature; he had to understand how it “works.” As he put it:

This is the true rule how observers of natural effects must proceed: while nature begins with reasons and ends in experience, we must follow the reverse [path], beginning with experience and with that investigating the reasons.3

Leonardo firmly believed that by understanding how nature works, man could then work as nature did; to imitate nature was not simply to hold up a mirror to it, but to construct on the same principles a new world in which one could act on superior knowledge.

Visual representation was the main vehicle he chose to express his thought, because sight was his means of investigation; his abundant writings are in most cases appended to sketches, diagrams, and other visual notations. It is therefore impossible to understand him as an inventor or a scientist without some sense of his powers as an artist. Here the exhibition fell short. While it succeeded in demonstrating the elementary aspects of artistic practice, such as perspective and modeling, it gave little sense of the extreme sophistication of Leonardo’s representational skills and how they affected the pictorial tradition.

  1. 1

    S.J. Freedberg, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (Harvard University Press, 1961), Vol. 1, p. 5.

  2. 2

    Freedberg, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence, Vol. 1, p. 9.

  3. 3

    Quoted by Freedberg in Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence, Vol. 1, p. 10.

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