The artist and science

Excerpt from the book 'Leonardo da Vinci - The Complete Paintings and Drawings' by Frank Zöllner

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Aristotle (384-322 BC) opens his Metaphysics with the observation that all men by nature desire to have knowledge, and hereby stresses the importance of empirical observation. Leonardo da Vinci may be seen as the prototype of such a man, thirsty for knowledge and understanding gained through sensory experience. Leonardo adopts the same dictum in his own writings at the latest around 1490, having assimilated Aristotle's thought via his reading of Dante's (1265-1321) Convivio (1306/08; RLW § 10). In a poetic vision that comes closer to Plato's (427-347 BC) cave allegory (Politeia, 7.1-3) than to Aristotle, the artist describes his yearning for knowledge thus: "Unable to resist my eager desire and wanting to see the great [wealth] of the various and strange shapes made by formative nature, and having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my left hand on my knee and held my right hand over my down-cast and contracted eyebrows: often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire - fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvellous things within it..." (RLW § 1339).

If Leonardo's thirst for knowledge and discovery was still held in check in this vision by his fear of the threatening unknown, by the end of the 1480s at the latest he had thrown himself with unbridled enthusiasm into the study of a wide range of fields. While working on the preparations for the Sforza monument, he also embarked on more in-depth studies into the proportions of the human body, anatomy and physiology. These studies, which Leonardo's contemporaries frequently dismissed as the artistically unproductive whims of a restless mind, have been acknowledged since the 19th century as the forerunners of an empirical science based on the accurate observation of natural phenomena. In his studies of the human body, for example, and above all in his direct visual translation of his findings and insights, the artist was undoubtedly many generations ahead of his contemporaries. This is true not only of the anatomical studies, which he commenced largely around 1489 and which he intensified at the start of the 1500s, but also of Leonardo's study of the proportions of the human body. In a note made in one of his manuscripts, the artist dates the start of these studies to April 1489 (RLW § 1370).

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Leonardo (?), Head of a Bearded Man (so-called Self-portrait), c. 1510–1515 (?)