Leonardo Da Vinci: artist or scientist? Essay

PREFACE

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most popular personalities from his time. Because of his contribution to the different fields of science and the arts, Da Vinci has been highly regarded as one of the brilliant minds in the history of mankind. There are however times when people argue about the true nature of Da Vinci’s strength – was he really an artist more than a scientist, or was he more of a scientist than artist? Da Vinci showed exemplary skills in his creative endeavors, as he did with his scientific efforts. Some would argue that it would not be any surprise if an intellectually gifted person like Da Vinci should display equal strength in the two different fields. But still, there are those who want to ascertain which between his science and his art Da Vinci was at his strongest suit. This is what this paper is set to find out, drawing a conclusion and a sound answer to the question of Da Vinci’s real inclination.

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INTRODUCTION

Leonardo Da Vinci and fine art seemed synonymous, and why not? The world owed much of how the skill developed to the man who provided the genius so that the arts can transition from one point towards the next point of growth, style-wise, skill-wise and aesthetics-wise. “Knowledge of Leonardo has come down through the centuries to practically everyone in the western world. He is probably the greatest example of universality that the world has ever known. Like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci is a human trademark indicating genius (Lunn 5).” Despite the popularity of the name Leonardo Da Vinci, it is not quite certain if the people who have heard of the name actually have a real idea who Da Vinci was. Born an illegitimate child who rose to fame without a family name or last name, Leonardo Da Vinci – Leonardo, who was from Vinci – was a man who knew what he wanted to do with his life. The question is, has the world carefully and competently attributed Da Vinci for his contributions, or is the name Da Vinci just another new tag in the growing list of names that defines pop culture?

Da Vinci was a man of many talents, and he was a man who knows how he can maximized and use all of his talents in just one lifetime. Brockwell wrote about how Da Vinci “can construct light bridges which can be transported…pontoons and scaling ladders…cannon and mortars unlike those commonly used…catapults and other engines of war…sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and with regard to painting, can do as well as any one else, no matter who he may be (Brockwell 8).”

Because of his talents, he was able to execute what others were merely capable of imagining. “Leonardo made his mark as a theorist, an engineer, an artist, and a scientist…Leonardo’s fecund imagination poured forth a constant stream of discoveries, gadgets, engineering marvels and farsighted contrivances. He invented the helicopter, parachute, submarine, turn screw and tank (Shlain 502).” It is because of his talents and his gifts that he would also become a target and central personality in a fictional theory about a myth which the people would embrace as eagerly as they embraced Mona Lisa.

When Dan Brown’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was released, followed by the showing of the movie version of the novel, Da Vinci became a household name. It seemed that many more individuals became acquainted with the popular scientist and artist, but is the newfound popularity of Da Vinci contributed to the creation of a better understanding and perspective of the man and the complexities of his work and his life in general, or was the novel/movie another factor that made Da Vinci as a person and as a master someone who is greatly misunderstood and unappreciated and wrongly appraised?

It is difficult enough that there is not yet a uniform accepted position on the contribution of Da Vinci to science and the significance of those contributions, that putting another facet in the personality of Da Vinci will make the man more mysterious and at some degree more misunderstood. But if Da Vinci was indeed a very knowledgeable code-maker, then this aspect of his life illustrated in the book will help illuminate his personality as a man who used his brain and thinking similar to any scientific behavior and undertaking.

Knowing Da Vinci, for some, is not enough. It is also important to ascertain the true level of contribution that he gave to the society. His claim in the field of art is unchallenged; he is one of the masters transcending time, but what about his background in the study of science, and his contribution in the field of science (i.e. medicine, engineering)? Da Vinci invested time in the study of science so that he can put to life the things that he was imagining; he used science to breathe life to his imaginations, imaginations which reflect his artistic side. If it is true that the world did not give him due recognition for his contribution to the field of science, then it is a great injustice for his part. But if the world can prove that Da Vinci is overrated when it comes to appraising his scientific endeavor, then the world will know that it was greatly misled all along.

BODY OF PAPER

Da Vinci the artist – Da Vinci is considered as an artist, based on his background which includes his formative years as an artist, his training and education, and the level of artistry and aesthetics which can be found in his works that are all heralded by modern art institutions appraising the real value of ‘art’ in Da Vinci’s several works.

There was a conscious effort in the part of either Da Vinci or any of his mother or father (or maybe it was all of them) for the then very young Da Vinci to establish his skill in visual arts, having been taken under the tutelage of another renowned painter from Florence, Verrocchio. What happened from the moment he started to paint until his death is a knowledge that many knew because many wanted to understand the life of one of the great masters and geniuses in the field of visual arts.

The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper were two of Da Vinci’s most popular works. There were also some of Da Vinci’s works which only a select few (particularly those who are interested in art and art history) knew about, like the Ginevra de’ Benci, The Adoration of the Magi, Lady with an Ermine and the Madonna Litta. Because of the quality, aesthetics and artistry of Da Vinci’s works, many galleries around the world exhibit his works. Reprints and other copies adorn the walls of those who cannot afford to have the original works, and Da Vinci and his works are widely reprinted.

Da Vinci the scientist – Da Vinci was considered as a scientist because he ventured in different specific fields of study which are all based in science, allotting a part of his time understanding, learning and providing output under the field of science and away from the realm of the arts, where he is already accomplished.

Aside from the concrete proofs of Da Vinci with which historians pins the claim that Da Vinci was as much a scientist as he was an artist, some people believe that Da Vinci’s contribution to the field of science can be found not only on the equipment, tools and other items that he developed. More importantly, Da Vinci’s contribution to the sciences is the providing of a new attitude and line of thinking that will help the sciences improve over time.  “One of the keys to Da Vinci’s contribution to science was his conviction that the world could be understood by studying it objectively. This was a radical concept for its time because the prevailing view was that many things were spiritual in nature and anything that defied rational explanation could be attributed to the supernatural (Bard 20).”

Like the conscious effort to study and excel in the field of arts during his younger days, historian also believe that Da Vinci also had a conscious effort to focus on the studying of the sciences, and that his efforts at sciences were not just mere coincidences that he undertook because the arts managed to have the sciences cross his path every once in a while. It is fair to say that Da Vinci exhibited the cognition to become a man of science. “Da Vinci turned away from his artistic inclination; he became intensely interested in the functions of the body. He performed research on animals, dissected human corpses, and conducted physiology experiments (Brad 21).” This reflects Da Vinci’s efforts at making scientific studies. By looking at the extent, breadth and depth of Da Vinci’s efforts at understanding science and providing contributions for its growth, it can be said that Da Vinci was as much a scientist as he was an artist.

Science and Art in Da Vinci’s time – The very tricky part is the effort to pull arts away from the field of science and medicine because during the time of Da Vinci, both professions coexist harmoniously with each other. Contrary to modern day notion about how the distance between the practice of art and the practice of science has a reasonable gap between them because of the discipline, style and focus of work, art and the sciences during Da Vinci’s time came to a point where the arts is dependent on the sciences, and the sciences dependent on the arts.

Hollingsworth explained that “In response to the demand for realistic portrayal, painters and sculptors studied the human form. Leonardo Da Vinci was among those who analyzed human anatomy and musculature in an attempt to understand its composition and structure, developing theories about the ideal proportions among the different parts of the body. The new intellectual content of painting inevitably affected the status of the artist as well as art itself (Hollingsworth 228).”

This was the reason Da Vinci was able to create The Vetruvian Man, one of the most popular creations of Da Vinci that was regarded highly in the field of science as in the field of art. Because of this fact, it is no wonder that Da Vinci submerged in both sciences and the arts at the same time, and because of this, it is more difficult to see the dividing line of Da Vinci’s scientific self and artistic self.

Dividing the science and art in Da Vinci – But if there are serious efforts to dissociate the sciences and the arts in Da Vinci and his works during his lifetime so that the more significant of the two can be ascertained, then perhaps an ideal approach is to see how his works for the arts and for the sciences were accepted by the society and at the same time measure the impact of such works, putting importance on how such works contributed to radical improvements or changes that the world utilized greatly towards its current state as it is today.

Priwer and Philips explained that Da Vinci’s “contributions to art went beyond the artworks themselves. Leonardo Da Vinci created or enhanced several techniques, such as sfumato and chiaroscuro, which allowed him to create paintings that were more realistic than anything anyone had ever seen before. Leonardo laid the foundational work for artists after him, and the history of painting was forever changed when Leonardo entered the scene (Priwer and Philips 1449).” Sadly, Da Vinci does not have the same impact like that when it comes to the field of science and the results of his scientific works.

Comparing Da Vinci’s efforts to the efforts of other intellectuals who are more popular because of the important contributions they made in the field of science, the giant Da Vinci in the field of arts is a mere ordinary individual in the field of science. Anderson (1999) picked a particular point of interest of Da Vinci in the field of science, and then explained that “in terms of the science of aerodynamics, the 17 centuries that separated Archimedes and Da Vinci yielded no worthwhile contributions (Anderson 19).”

There are many reasons why Da Vinci’s efforts in the field of science, which in retrospective appeared to have the potential to be as great and as important as his works of arts, did not materialize and did not maximized to its full potential. These works may have catapulted Da Vinci in the ranks of other notable scientist, but history would always describe Da Vinci’s effort at science as a mere sideshow compared to the grand and powerful life of Da Vinci when it comes to art. “Despite all these insights, Da Vinci had no influence on his contemporaries, however, because his work was not discovered until centuries later. For example, Leonardo made casts of the ventricles of the brain to get an accurate idea of their shape. Apparently, he was going to publish a book on anatomy, but he abandoned the project when his co-author died (Brad 21).”

Da Vinci did not provide any important breakthrough in any of his scientific endeavors; yes, he provided sections and segments of the life of an idea in continuous development and growth, but the breakthrough moment was not his. Da Vinci helped the sciences not by providing breakthrough discoveries and inventions but by helping other intellectuals get to there. Shlain explained that “Leonardo also attempted to understand the concept of inertia and came astonishingly close to the central clue that allowed Isaac Newton to elaborate his laws of motion two centuries later (Shlain 502),” even going to the extent of quoting Da Vinci himself, who Shlain believed to have written the following text: “All movement tends to maintenance, or rather all moved bodies continue to move as long as the impression of the force of their motors (original impetus) remains in them (Shlain 502).”

But despite his efforts and his contributions (however little and humble), there are still those who present information that leads the readers to believe that Da Vinci was not a man of science as people were made to believe he is.

Even some of the littlest efforts of Da Vinci in the field of science were looked upon by scepticism and cynicism by some. Anderson wrote about how “Clagett observed that Da Vinci’s notes were not written in his usual left-to-right fashion, indicating that those particular notes had been written by someone else (Anderson 19).” Anderson was referring to the notes on the treatise which Da Vinci allegedly wrote, on of which focuses on aerodynamics

            Conclusion – There may be a unanimous belief when it comes to the assessment of Da Vinci’s genius in the field of art, but still, opinions of individuals may vary greatly on Da Vinci and the significance of his role in the field of science. Whatever that maybe, the only resounding feeling is that the world is grateful for whatever Da Vinci gave the world.

Shlain was one of those who believed that Da Vinci’s role in both the sciences and the arts is important, and that he effectively treaded both grounds with careful attention to the details. Because of Da Vinci’s role as a man of science and a man of art, many believed that the world owed him a lot. Because of this, it is even quite unnecessary to even put an effort to highlight one facet of Da Vinci and marginalize the other, for historians believed that he excelled in both paths and was productive in both fields.

Shlain wrote in the biography of Da Vinci the distinction he deserved, “Those individuals who have contributed to the field of science have not made a comparable contribution to the field of art and vice versa. Only one individual – Leonardo Da Vinci – in the entire historical record has been able to bridge the two fields of art and science and make Nobel-prize quality contributions to both (Shlain 501).”

SUMMARY

In the final assessment of the answer to the question which between a scientist and an artist Da Vinci truly, there are some important considerations that should be made. First, Leonardo Da Vinci is both an artist and a scientist.

This particular recognition is something that Da Vinci deserves owing to the fact that he made contributions to the fields of science and the arts. Second, while Da Vinci put on serious work in both the arts and in the sciences, there is no doubt that the value and significance of his outputs are not equally weighted; the world remembers very well Da Vinci’s Monalisa, but do not put an equal amount of regard and veneration towards his scientific experiments and the fruits of his toiling in the field of scientific study; his artistic output was celebrated around the world and the world of visual arts consider his works as some of the best produced by any man alive, sadly, not the same can be said about his scientific experiments and his scientific endeavor.  Da Vinci was more successful as an artist than he was as a scientist.

Another important consideration to make is that in the analysis of Da Vinci’s ties with art and science, it should also be noted that these two aspects are greatly connected together, especially during Da Vinci’s time. One important proof is the existence of some of the guilds during Da Vinci’s time which includes in its rosters individuals who hail from the field of arts as well as from the field of science.

There are many ways which can be used to fully separate, categorize and appraise Da Vinci’s artistic works and scientific works and see the difference in social significance of his works. Using these methods can allow the researcher to know the differences of the works of art and works of science of Da Vinci and see the level of impact it has on its particular field.

In the end, the truth is this – Da Vinci is both artist and scientist, but he is more successful as an artist rather than a scientist.

Works Cited

Anderson Jr., John David. “A History of Aerodynamics: And Its Impact on Flying

            Machines.” Michael J. Rycroft (Editor). Cambridge University Press, January 1999.

Bard, Arthur S. and Bard, Mitchell Geoffrey. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding

            the Brain.” Alpha, July 2002.

Brockwell, Maurice Walter (June 2004). “Leonardo Da Vinci.” Kessinger Publishing

            Company, June 2004.

Hollingsworth, Mary. (2003). Art in World History. Giunti

“Leonardo Da Vinci.” Web Museum, Paris. October 2005. 22 June 2008

            ;http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/vinci/;.

Lunn, Martin. “Da Vinci Code Decoded.” The Disinformation Company, August 2004.

Priwer, Shana and Phillips, Cynthia. “The Everything Da Vinci Book: Explore the Life and

            Times of the Ultimate Renaissance Man.” Adams Media Corporation, April 2006.

Shlain, Leonard. “Leonardo Da Vinci. Encyclopedia of Creativity, Two-Volume Set.”

            Steven R. Pritzker and Mark A. Runco (Editor). Elsevier Science ; Technology

            Books, August 1999.

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