The artist and science

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

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To Leonardo's way of thinking, the "common sense" is also responsible for the physical expression of mental states, for on the one hand it is the seat of the soul, and on the other it holds sway over the body's means of expression, such as gesture and mien, through the influence it is able to exert on muscles, sinews, tendons and nerves (RLW § 838). The commands issuing from the senso comune are thereby conveyed to the organs that are to execute them by means of a vehicle termed a "spirit" (spirito). The spirit itself is an incorporeal quality that cannot express itself without a body and hence needs nerves and muscles to produce movements in an animate being (RLW § 859, 1212, 1214).

Leonardo's reflections on the direct links between the spirit and the external features of the body also find their way into his studies of human physiognomy, which similarly presuppose an immediate connection between cause and effect. This immediacy was something the artist sought to illustrate in his countless character heads and caricatures. These drawings-often more grotesque than realistic, and frequently juxtaposing a number of different facial types (Cat. 192-225/ill. p. 112)-express the idea that the human face is a direct reflection of an individual's underlying character and feelings in that moment. According to this view, a man whose face resembles that of a lion in all probability shares the characteristics of the same animal. Leonardo takes up this physiognomic cliché in one of his studies, in which he portrays a man with leonine features wearing a lion-skin flung across his shoulder, the lion's head clearly visible (Cat. 209/ill. p. 117).

The same idea also underlies Leonardo's famous drawing of five grotesque heads (Cat. 221/ill. p. 114/115): an old man seen in profile is surrounded by four other men, whose powerfully expressive features reveal widely differing and, by implication, negative characteristics. They seem to be mocking the man in the centre, who stoically endures their jeering-his own face undistorted but nevertheless deeply lined and etched by the hand of fate. Such assemblies of different faces and characters were also a feature of pattern drawings of the type that have come down to us from workshops north of the Alps. Amongst sheets of character heads by Jacques Daliwe (active c. 1380-1416), for example, we find Susanna and the Elders depicted in a similar fashion (ill. p. 116).
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Anatomical Study of the Muscles of the Leg, c. 1490