Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 2, 2017
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Howard Richler
Nancy Snipper
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

genius or humble draftman



Roger Ronald Highfield is an author of numerous books, a science journalist, broadcaster and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group. He is also a contributer at Mosaic: The Science of Life where this article originally appeared and is availble under the Creative Commons License.

In the 19th century, Leonardo da Vinci was known as the great artist who gave us the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man. In the 20th century he was transformed into the scientist and inventor who glimpsed his future and our present.

Long-neglected notebooks revealed he had made pencil sketches of parachutes, diving suits and helicopters four centuries before such things became a reality.

At the Science Museum, the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: the Mechanics of Genius examined the Renaissance man within the context of the world in which he lived, rather than viewing him through the prism of modern culture, and challenges whether he should, in fact, be described as a great scientist or inventor. It even questions whether that adjective should be applied to his art.

Scholars, of course, have extolled the virtues of his painting for centuries, from the soft-focus sfumato of the Mona Lisa to the magnificent Last Supper in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan that Leonardo created with tempera and oil on gesso, pitch and mastic. And, yes, Leonardo was great, in the sense that he influenced future painters, through his contribution to what is called the Maniera Moderna (modern style).

But he wasn't great in the sense that we understand today. Leonardo's aim was to reproduce reality in the most detailed way, rather than strive for ideal beauty, like Michelangelo.

Was he a great scientist? CP Snow's famous description of ‘two cultures’ of art and science did not apply in the 15th and early 16th centuries when Leonardo was alive. At that time the word science meant a body of secure knowledge, so the science of fencing or warfare, or whatever, meant systematized knowledge and the relevant art referred to the practice of these disciplines. Indeed, the English philosopher and historian of science William Whewell only coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1833, centuries after Leonardo's death.

Was he a great inventor, then? Once again, the answer is not straightforward. Many of his more plausible devices are copies of the machines that he saw emerging as the Renaissance revolution unfolded around him, according to co-curator Claudio Giorgione of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan. During his lifetime Leonardo probably only saw one of his drawings turned into a machine: a water meter, which he had built by an artisan in 1510.

Leonardo only had a limited conception of ideas such as friction, for example, and in his peripatetic life he lacked a workshop and the means -- carpenters, foundry and so on -- to make his ideas concrete. Giorgione adds that Leonardo did not publish his work and most of his drawings remained hidden away in his diary. That is why he had little influence on engineering and natural philosophy in his lifetime.

The reason we now think of him as an inventor can be traced back to the brink of the Second World War when the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini wanted a hero to demonstrate Italy's historic dominance over science, technology and the arts. Leonardo's drawings of human anatomy and machines of the future had languished in trunks and outhouses for 200 years after his death and had only been taken seriously by scholars in the late 19th century.

Mussolini commissioned a set of models based on the sketches and exhibited them, alongside other examples of Italian engineering, in 1939. Then, in 1952, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's birth, a further 39 near life-size models were made in Milan, based on his sketches of a helicopter, a pyramid-shaped parachute, a floating siege weapon for crossing moats and a crossbow.

In the same year, there was also an exhibition of Leonardo's drawings at the Royal Academy, in London. Visitors were bowled over by the breadth of the man's accomplishments.

However, it is a mistake to think that Leonardo designed these mechanical marvels in a modern sense, says Jim Bennett, keeper emeritus for the Science Museum. He used them to record the results of his studies and observations, without necessarily thinking about practicality or design. But what was radical about Leonardo was the way he took his inspiration for his machines from the miracles of the natural world, notably flight. His dreams were rendered into models of a batwinged boat and ornithopter (a flying machine with wings like a bird).

It is this great intellectual mission to unify knowledge of the natural world with human invention that makes Leonardo so special and most like a modern scientist. At the time he was alive, machines were the work of man and the myriad living things of nature -- including human beings -- were the work of God alone. But Leonardo was as interested in bat wings as cogs.

And today the plundering of the natural world for design solutions has a whole field of science devoted to it: biomimicry, where scientists try to solve problems such as flight by looking at how solutions have evolved in living creatures over many millions of years.

The lesson Leonardo teaches us is not for artists to open their eyes more to science, or for scientists to open their eyes more to art.

What the mechanics of his genius tell us is that art and science are the subjective and objective poles of the same great human enterprise, and the ‘two cultures’ described by CP Snow in 1959 have always been united: there's only one world out there and, like Leonardo, we have to view it with an ever-curious and open mind.


Email (optional)
Author or Title












Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Help Haiti
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2016 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 05-16st, (514) 844-2172
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal World Film Festival
Andrew Hlavacek - Arts & Culture Blog (Montreal)
© Roberto Romei Rotondo
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis