The artist and science

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

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Leonardo himself argues for the application of mathematical procedures to painting: number and measurement, synonymous with arithmetic and geometry, guarantee a greater degree of certainty and provide the true basis of painting (McM 33). The ennoblement of painting through arithmetic and geometry was still being recommended even in the 16th century. When Leonardo started taking accurate measurements of the human body in 1489, he was driven by the same idea that artistic activities could be elevated to a new status by their marriage with the exact sciences. It would appear that Leonardo's anthropometry was not without effect, for in his ode on the Sforza monument, the poet Baldassare Taccone expressly lauds his artist colleague as a "geometer" (cf. Ch. IV), a term that in 15th-century usage also implied someone with expertise in the field of surveying.

Leonardo's anthropometry and other efforts to provide art with a "scientific" grounding began in earnest only after his arrival in Milan, and in particular towards the end of the 1480s. Leonardo's own career had started in Andrea del Verrocchio's workshop not with a "scientific" training, however, but with a practical apprenticeship. Leonardo acknowledged this practical background when he described himself as "not a man of letters" (uomo senza lettere; RLW § 10), in other words as an uneducated man who had not been schooled in the liberal arts. The altogether seven liberal arts had formed the basis of higher education since late antiquity, and were divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music). Not until the late 1480s in Milan did Leonardo begin devoting a significant proportion of his time to studying the traditional branches of science, for example geometry and Latin grammar, in which he was largely self-taught.

In order to understand why Leonardo should want to further his education, it is necessary to be clear about the social status of fine art in the 15th century. Amongst the literati of the Quattrocento, fine art was seen almost without exception not as a liberal art but as an ars mechanica, an art that was tied to handicraft. Even by the start of the 16th century painting was still not considered a liberal art and was frequently ranked lower than poetry. In view of this situation, it is no surprise that Leonardo should have been anxious to establish his reputation in Milan with the help of theoretical and "scientific" studies. At a more personal level, of course, he thereby sought to compete with the men of letters held in higher esteem than himself at the Sforza court.
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Detail of Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510
Detail of Anatomical Studies of the Muscles of the Neck, Shoulder, Chest and Arm, c. 1509/10