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
The Science of Life where this article originally
appeared and is availble under the Creative Commons License.
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.
notebooks revealed he had made pencil sketches of parachutes,
diving suits and helicopters four centuries before such things
became a reality.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
lesson Leonardo teaches us is not for artists to open their
eyes more to science, or for scientists to open their eyes more
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.