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Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519. An Essay

What did he contribute to the World of Art Design, and Science? Do they co exist?

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”
Gioggio Vasari His biographer (i)


In a previous Art History class essay we were asked “What is the difference between art and design and do they merge together” At the beginning of that essay I put the following proposition. “I wonder how Leonardo da Vinci would have addressed these questions”. I made this observation because I had previously written about da Vinci for another purpose and given his competence in these areas, I thought it appropriate.

I found the art and design questions fascinating and I must admit to having more than a passing interest, so I decided to explore the subject further in this research paper. In the previous essay on art and design, and in answer to the questions put, I didn’t reach a definitive conclusion. I just choose to say they coexist. I sat on the fence so to speak. This was not meant to demean the questions or avoid answering them, but rather my way of saying, let’s look beyond any perceived ambiguity. So the rationale behind this study is to look at the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci and see in what context he may have contributed to the world of art and design and see if the two coexist within this framework.

Who was Leonardo da Vinci . . . A short Biography

In one of the lion colored stone houses in the town of Vinci in the Tuscan hills on the 15th day of April 1452 one of the most complex geniuses of the Renaissance period or as many commentators would have it, perhaps of all time, was born. Too many historians and scholars he was one of the world’s immortal thinkers, artists and philosophers, who was centuries ahead of his time. In fact many of his achievements were outside his generally recognized discipline of painting. I say generally recognized because in a survey I conducted three years ago, using a good clean email data base, the answers returned in the poll indicated that outside of painting, people knew little about him. Of course as a painter people knew him as the artist who painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, but at the same time were unaware of his proficiency in disciplines such as, geology, cartography, anatomy zoology, too name a few.


He was born an illegitimate son of a Florentine noble and a peasant women. Leonardo grew up in Vinci, Italy and in his early years he developed a love of nature, and in these formative years showed his remarkable talents and capacity for theoretical analysis far beyond his age. In 1466 aged 14 he moved to Florence where he was apprenticed in the workshop of the artist Verrocchio whose style he adopted, but he soon moved beyond his teacher’s rather inflexible approach. Probably his first major work was the ‘Adoration of the Magi” commissioned by the monks of San Donato a Scopteto. He never really finished this work but it did turn out to be a masterpiece in so much as it introduced to the world of art themes of drama, composition and movement, exceptional in its originality. In this painting and in his work “The Mona Lisa” he pioneered and perfected the use of the technique called Chiaroscuro. (More on this later)

In 1482 Leonardo was invited to the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan and stayed for 16 years. It was here that he branched out into other interests such as engineering and anatomy. It was during this period that he painted the “Madonna on the Rocks and the very celebrated “Last Supper”, described as one of the greatest spiritual paintings ever created. And this was accomplished by one who was not of the faith. However it is known that he sent for a priest on his deathbed to confess his sins, so this point remains ambiguous.

His stay in Ludovico ended in 1499 when Sforzo was defeated by a French invasion and he returned to Florence where he painted, but never completed a fresco of the battle of Anghiari. This painting was also to have a tremendous influence on future artists. He continued to extend his interests in many of the other sciences, and there seemed to be no end to his comprehension of the most difficult subjects. He made copious notes on everything he studied and used a mirror style writing technique, with strange spelling. Some say this was a form of code devised to protect his ideas amid fear of discovery. This however is discredited on the basis that he never published anything during his lifetime. Although his notes were written in a form that suggests they were meant to be. Why they weren’t remains a mystery. Others say it was because he was left handed and he had badly injured his right as a child. Conversely it is known that outside of his note making he wrote normally and of course being left handed at that time in history was considered a sin by the Catholic Church.

It was during this period that Leonardo extended his study into other subjects, including engineering, paleontology, architecture and other disciplines. He drew complex pictures of machines which at the time were centuries away. Some have been proven to be function able while others would never have worked. Particularly those pertaining to flight.

From 1506 to 1510 he worked in Milan working for the French King Lois XII. Who was indeed very generous to him. In 1513 he set off for Rome and the patronage of the new Medici pope Leo X It was there that he worked with other great masters Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1515 he left to settle at the castle of Cloux, near Amboise by the invitation of Francis I of France. Here he spent his last years free to pursue his own studies. He died in 1519 leaving behind perhaps the greatest ever body of artistic and scientific works.

Leonardo da Vinci . . . His contribution as an artist

In the totality of my research for this paper there is I believe universal acceptance among art critics and historians, that Leonardo da Vinci was a master painter, conceivably one of the greatest of all time. So for the sake of this exercise let’s agree on that point, and then we can more readily focus on him as an exceptional practitioner, and see what he gave us in terms of technique.

The Vitruvian Man


This world renowned drawing with accompanying notes was created by Leonardo in about 1492 and recorded in one of his journals. We see a nude male figure superimposed in two positions with arms and legs apart both within a circle and square. The drawings are known as “The Cannon of Man” or “Proportions of Man” .This work followed his study of geometry and in particular improved on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius who saw all human proportion as being the same. Where as Leonardo’s drawing allows for variations in proportion and combines, his own observation of human anatomy. (2) In drawing the circle and square he correctly observes that the square cannot have the same center as the circle, the navel, but is somewhat lower in the anatomy. This adjustment is the innovative part of Leonardo’s drawing and what distinguishes it from earlier illustrations. He also departs from Vitruvius by drawing the arms raised to a position in which the fingertips are level with the top of the head, rather than Vitruvius’s much higher angle, in which the arms form lines passing through the navel. It may be noticed by examining the drawing that the combination of arm and leg positions actually creates sixteen different poses. The pose with the arms straight out and the feet together is seen to be inscribed in the superimposed square. Because of his exploration of proportion and mathematical perspective he became known as the father of linear perspective.

Chiaroscuro (or Sfumato) . . . “The Study of Optics”


Sfumato is an Italian word used to describe the technique which overlays translucent layers of color in order to create the perception of depth. It requires an application or blending of colors so subtle that it is impossible to discern the transition. He described this technique as being without lines or borders. Leonardo extensively studied the science of optics and there is no better example than his painting of “The Mona Lisa” where the use of graduated tone highlights the contrasts between light and shade to perfection. (3) Critics and art historians have argued over whether or not the Mona Lisa is smiling. This debate is due to the use of sfumato around her mouth, making it a mystery as to whether the shadows are a result of a smile or if the smile is a result of the shadows. The painting is painted using tiny dots in several layers, around the eyes and mouth as many as 40 layers.


As an apprentice under Verrocchio he was expected to study the anatomy of the human body. Leonardo was no casual observer and he took to his study with relish. His ability as an artist enabled him to become a master of topographic anatomy, drawing and studying muscles, tendons and other visible features. It was because of his ability as an artist that he was given permission to dissect human bodies, and he couldn’t get enough of them. On occasion he even stole them to satisfy his needs. From 1510 to 1511 he produced some 200 drawings and in collaboration with Marcanto della Torre prepared a theoretical work on the subject. It was published in 1680, 100 years after his death. Leonardo produced many studies of the human skeleton, its muscles, sinews, sex organs etc. He is credited with the discovery of how and why blood flows throughout the body and he was the first person to scientifically record the female reproductive system. He also studied and recorded human emotions such as rage, laughter and the effect of the ageing process. He made a number of studies of animal movement and birds in flight. He dissected animals, cows, birds, frogs, monkeys and bears so as to compare them with humans.

Leonardo da Vinci the Scientist

Now let’s look at Leonardo and evaluate what he gave the world in this area. The reader should note that the following observations are but short annotations on each category of interest. Too delve into each in depth would be more than this paper requires. However an important point is that his main method of scientific enquiry was by way of surveillance and observation.


His interest in this area were in the main observations made during his service as an engineer for the Duke of Milan (1482-1499) He studied rivers and mountains and observed that rocks were formed by deposition of sediment and water, while at the same time rivers were responsible for the erosion of rock and carried sediment to the sea creating a grand cycle.



Leonardo was also interested in fossils and was intensely captivated by how shells came to be found on the top of mountains. At the time (1400s) there were a number of hypotheses on how this was so. (4) His conclusions were very much like those today. That being that some time in the past the mountains were raised from beneath the sea.



He was responsible for much of the early mapping of Milan, Vinci and surrounding areas.



His many architectural drawings and designs reveal a unique understanding of draftsmanship. His designs were mainly church based although it is known that he designed a bawdy house for Milan’s red light district.



He made thorough investigations in the field of scientific zoology that concentrated on the anatomy and movement of animals. The horse was particularly intriguing, as too were birds and he was known to buy them in the markets, let them loose and examine their flight.


Leonardo believed that the sun and the moon revolved around the earth and that the moon reflects the sun’s light due to it being covered by water. He made numerous studies in this area and invented a mirror viewing device to assist his observation.


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He was also recognized for his interest in engineering, and found employment in Venice (1499) He created all sorts of ideas for fighting machines, barricades, bridges, hydraulic pumps, flying machines, tanks, submarines, helicopters, hang gliders, musical instruments, solar energy, finned mortar shells, a steam cannon and even came up with a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno river in order to flood Pisa.

In addition to the above he was an accomplished musician, mathematician, inventor, writer, singer, set designer and botanist. And of course he taught himself Latin and did the odd sculpture or two. Even some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded. He is accredited with the invention of hydraulics.


(5) Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the “Renaissance man” universal genius, a man whose seemingly infinite curiosity was equaled only by his powers of invention. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived
Perhaps it’s his supplementary accomplishments that set him apart from other artists? I have suggested that as an artist he gave us an understanding of optics and its application to painting that had never before existed. That he was the father of perspective and his study of anatomy was unsurpassed. It could be argued that he wasn’t the originator of the each discipline. In fact it could be argued that there is no such thing as an original idea because there is always a preceding pathway of thought, but it could not be argued that he did not bring new understanding to each. So how do we find a connection between his painting and his other interests? What effect did it have on design and did they coexist. Where is the connection between art design and science?

In my research it was difficult to find the literal connection I was looking for until I came across this quote from Leonardo himself. (6) The merit of painting lies in the exactness of reproduction. Painting is a science and all sciences are based on mathematics. No human enquiry can be a science unless it pursues its path through mathematical exposition and demonstration. Therefore because he believed that art was science and science was art, they had to coexist. One could not do without the other. His scientific experimentation with new techniques (although frequently disastrous) contributed greatly to later generations of artist’s designers and scientists. His 13,000 or so pages of notes, diagrams, thoughts and drawings survive as testament to his unrivalled ability to connect art with science. He was in all probability the first to ever do so.

In his book Leonardo da Vinci “In his words” (30) William Wray writes “Leonardo himself claimed that painting was a subtle invention, which with philosophy and subtle speculation considers the nature of all forms. It is also interesting to note that in his attempts to raise the painter from the status of mere artisan, he called painting a science. Science as it was understood in his own time meant a source of genuine knowledge”.

This is supplemented with the following quotes by da Vinci himself.

“Truly painting is a science, the true born child of nature, for painting is born of nature, but to be more correct we should call it the grandchild of nature: since all visible things were brought forward by nature and these her children have given birth to painting. Therefore we may justly speak of it as the grandchild of nature and as related to God”.

By means of her basic principle, that is design, (art) teaches the architect to make his edifice so that it will be agreeable to the eye, and teaches the composer of variously shaped vases, as well as goldsmiths, weavers and embroiders. She has discovered the characters by which different languages are expressed, has given numerals to the arithmetician, has taught us to represent the figures of geometry; she teaches matters of perspective and astronomy, machinists and engineers”

By the time of the 19th century Leonardo’s notebooks and the scope of his knowledge was well known. In 1866 H Taine wrote the following. (7) : “There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfillment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.” R. Kevin Alvey in an essay entitled the Anatomical Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci had this to say (8)”Others may have equaled him as an artist, but nobody else of his time possessed in such a high degree the curiosity about the physical world which is the foundation of modern science, combined with mastery in the arts of painting, drawing, sculpture, and even architecture (While it is the paintings of Leonardo that have brought him fame over the years, the full range of his talent can best be seen in his drawings. His many drawings and notes, at least the ones that have survived, have become the basis for the modern scientific illustration, especially important in the field of anatomy”

It too demonstrate that the thoughts and design principles of Leonardo are alive and well today, Joshua Clanton a webb designer located in New York lists six principles of design inspired by the man himself that he uses as the basis of his web based architecture for both blog and web pages.

They are as follows. (31) 1.Be curious 2. Look beneath the surface 3. Build on the work of others 4.Do quick studies 5. Iterate 6. Be careful of experimental techniques.

I think therefore the research shows that because Leonardo embraced and demonstrated the possibility that art, design and science were one in the same thing, we can see for him at least they did co exist. He saw science as a means of perfecting his art beyond any superficial analysis. In fact by his application of art, design and science demonstrates there co existence.. Leonardo once called art the Queen of sciences. He said it not only provided a means of obtaining knowledge, but of sharing that knowledge with the rest of the world” To finish I conclude with two quotes. The first from the famous art historian Bernard Berenson (9) who wrote in 1896: “Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it is the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values.” And the second is from Leonardo himself. (10)There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.


External and internal library resources.

1. Leonardo da Vinci. Life and Work, paintings and drawings. Phaid Press London 1959
2. Da Vinci. The Painter who spoke with Birds. Chelsea House Publishers 1994
3. The World of Leonardo. 1452-1519 Wallace Robert, Time Life Books 1968
4. The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. Gibb-Smith. Charles, Phaiden Press Limited 1978
5. Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. Revised Version
6. Internet resources as follows
17. http//
18. (1) Ghoggio Vasari His Biographer
19. (2) Wikipedia
20. (3) Wikipedia
21. (4) Wikipedia
22. (5) Wikipedia The discussion forum
23. (6) Leonardo da Vinvi
24. (7) H Taine
25. (8) R Kevin Elvey
26. (9) Bernard Berenson
27. (10) Leonardo da Vinci
28. DVD Resource Leonardo da Vinci. “Life and Times”
29. Images of The Body Michael Craig Doubleday Dell Publishing
30. Leonardo da Vinci ‘In his own words” William Wray Arcturus Publishing Limited 2005 Page 162 163
32. Photos fig1 to fig 23 are taken from the internet sites listed above
33. Methodology of writing. On May 20 2008 we were asked to submit our working notes on writing this essay. Because I had written this essay prior to that request I am unable to do so. Therefore I can only describe my approach. Firstly I go about my daily tasks always with a note book and write down thoughts as they enter my head. At some point I collate them altogether and then I go through my own library searching for anything on the subject, and bookmark all relevant pages. I then go on the internet and bookmark sites I think related to my research, at the same time checking the credentials of each. I then cut and paste bits and pieces that I require into “Word” and begin. My essays usually begin with a dissection of the question, then an examination of the subject and finally a conclusion that is definitive and covers all the requirements.


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  1. Annie B

    John … a brilliant, brilliant essay. …. Your research ethic, is awesome.

    I kept your post for 5 weeks, until I had the time to read it thoroughly and enjoy every word. … I was not disappointed.

    The man Da Vinci, was ‘the’ artist – but so many many disciplines, more.

    A genius beyond belief …..

    Thank you John.

  2. stephentardrew

    Great essay John. Don’t know how I missed it but got cued by Annie’s post.

    From my humble position as a mediocre artist and a lover of science there are several issues worth taking up. Firstly as one who has been a dancer, a dance and movement teacher, a musician, art photographer, writer and poet with a strong predilection for science I can clearly understand the interface between science and art however, though in recent years modernism, abstraction and avant guard have been mirrored in science by fractals (amongst a host of mathematical fields), implicit paradox and the profound implications of infinity, there is much we do not and cannot know (Gödel’s incompleteness theorem). My dance teacher was one of the German moderns with deep groundings in the classics however there was a complete emphasis upon creativity and improvisation. The artist learns a technique for each composer and the constraints and limitations inherent within the music then when the techniques is understood the freedom to be creative emerges so there comes a point of literal effortless doing. A group of three, five seven dancers can perform together and you would swear it has been choreographed yet there is minimal formal structure. Playing guitar is similar. Once the technique is learned the freedom to improvise arises so there is always infinitely more that can be done with nuance of tone, finger style, harmonics, chord structures, scales, hand mutes etc.

    Nevertheless in the act of creativity one is so absorbed in the process that time literally seems to cease as one is totally absorbed in the thing-in-itself. There is a profound sense of awe wonder mystery and emotional fulfillment that rises, not from effort, but from the effortless-doing itself. For all of the scientific correlations with aesthetics and biochemistry art gives the sense that there is infinitely more to see and be than we could ever imagine. We are only primitive beings with very limited understanding of the nature of existence.

    The counterfactuals, paradoxes, mysteries of the universe, consciousness and our inner ruminations as subjective beings have not been complete defined by a scientific theory of everything. Minkowski space and block time completely throw our conventions into disarray. Therefore being an ideologue, atheist, agnostic or whatever pre-empts the fact that there are infinite unknowns that a primitive race like ourselves are not proxy to. A lot more humility is called for. Minkowski space tells us every moment in time is conserved for all moments in time, for every possible event in the probability matrix. Not only that but given infinite universes (there are several robust and viable theoretical models that demand such) mean that every moment is repeated infinitely in the meta- matrix. No one knows what the hell is going on however whatever is flowing through as time cannot be the actual block time collapse of the wave function held in perpetuity. Damn mind warping stuff but very important in defending against any type of closure or absolutist philosophical paradigm.

    And so art and science in their way lead to vast domains of potentiality mystery aw and wonder that cannot, at the moment be grasped by any mind in this particular epoch. So there is much to look forward to and the likes of Leonardo, Einstein etc. and even savants point to the vast potentiality that may one day be available to all. 

    I find that openness and a handle upon creativity prevents any claim to absolute knowledge and truth thus providing a sense of mystery awe and wonder that we can, through real choice, turn towards love compassion, goodness and a sense that there is much more to reality than a primitive sentient race could ever lay claim to.

  3. stephentardrew

    Apologies for shity punctuation.

  4. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519. An Essay – » The Australian Independent Media Network « SUSAN'S SPACE

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