The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was the most wide-ranging genius of the Italian Renaissance, indeed one can say the whole history of western art. His eclectic interests encompassed athletics, music, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, town planning, perspective, optics, astronomy, aviation, anatomy, biology, zoology, geology, geography, mathematics, as well as hydraulic, military, structural and mechanical engineering. Yet, despite this seeming penchant for scientific pursuits Leonardo’s priority was in fact painting. In his notebooks, which are indispensable for an understanding of the vitality of the arts during the Renaissance, he said that “…a painter is not admirable unless he is universal.” Leonardo insisted that all of his scientific interest was at the service of his art and he affirmed that the essential quality of his art was its unrepeatability, its uniqueness.

Not only was there a need for the study of anatomy aided by dissection to understand that underlying external form, there was conversely a need for precision drawing in order to help the development of the natural sciences themselves. It may seem that Leonardo’s innovative and experimental approach to painting was merely an aspect of a contradictory, or perhaps, contrary man. The reality is far more complex than that. Leonardo’s influential Treatise on Painting was very influential from the 16th century onwards and shows that it is counterproductive to counterpose his science when they are complementary and inseparable. Leonardo’s science underpinned his art and his art underpinned his great contribution to science.

Born the son of a Florentine notary in 1452 Leonardo’s talents and potential were soon obvious and he was apprenticed to the workshop of Verrocchio in 1470. His fellow apprentices included Botticelli. After coming under the patronage of Lorenzo d’Medici he became a master in 1472. Ten years later he entered the service of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. His career encompassed the fall of Sforza (1499) and flight to Mantua and thence to Venice. In 1500 he went to Florence and joined Cesare Borgia’s military campaigns. Again, his patron was defeated and Leonardo returned to Florence until 1508. Whilst in Florence he painted the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1508. In 1513 he went to Rome to seek favour with Pope Leo X but, exasperated by the intrigue that characterised Rome and the Papal Court he left to join the court of the French king Francis 1. In France he was greatly admired and appreciated and died in the Chateau of Cloux (a gift from Francis) in 1519.

Leonardo left few authenticated paintings. Whilst with Verrocchio the angel kneeling extreme left in the master’s Baptism of Christ is credited to Leonardo, see Figure 1. Again,


Figure 1The Baptism of Christ (1475) by Andrea del Verroccio.

the Annunciation of circa 1474, see Figure 2, is credited to Leonardo on the basis of its scientific rendering of pictorial depth and the mysterious landscape. In 1481 Leonardo


Figure 2.  The Annunciation (circa 1474).

began his Adoration of the Magi, but as often to be the case, he never finished it. In this painting a number of features of Leonardo’s painting emerge. Its composition is seen as significant because of its figure groupings and their gestures. Importantly it is noted for its chiaroscuro effect which refers to the use of strong contrasts of light and shade for dramatic impact and which is so notable in the later masters Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Indeed, Leonardo exerted a great influence on his contemporaries who include Giorgione, Correggio, Raphael and Andrea del Sarto but he was disliked and mistrusted by Botticelli and Michelangelo.

Whilst in Milan Leonardo painted the first version of the Virgin of the Rocks in 1483, see Figure 3,  which is now in The Louvre and considered to have greater artistic value than the later version now in the National Gallery.


Figure 3. The Virgin of the Rocks (1483).

Leonardo also painted a series of portraits in Milan, one of which was The Lady with the Ermine (1483-1490) or Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, see Figure 4. This portrait, probably of Sforza’s mistress, shows a masterly rendering of form and represents a profound psychological study. From 1495 until 1498 he was engaged on the famous fresco for the


Figure 4. Lady with the Ermine (c. 1483).

monastery of S. Maria delle Grazie – The Last Supper – sadly deteriorated, because of Leonardo’s experimental and innovative technique, the picture achiebes the illusion that the Apostles and Christ at their table are an extension of the monk’s refectory itself.  Leonardo achieves his aim drawing the viewer to become an actual participant in the narrative of the picture itself. This he could not have done without a true understanding of scientific perspective.

In Florence though he painted what is by many assumed his greatest painting – the Mona Lisa or La Gioconda. See Figure 5. Thought to be Lisa Gherardini the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. In this picture Leonardo expressed his consummate skill that was combined with his ability to depict feeling and mystery. The forms are firm and precise yet at the


Figure 5. La Gioconda or Mona Lisa (1503-1506).

same time appear to melt together by means of subtle transitions of tone. This technique of sfumato was perfected by him and much copied by others. Sfumato means ‘evaporated’ in Italian and describes the rendering of forms by means of subtle tonal gradations with the effect of eliminating sharply defined contours. When Leonardo went on his final way to France he took with him the Mona Lisa painting along with his St John the Baptist (1513-1516), see Figure 6,  and the Virgin and Child with St Anne (1508), see Figure 7.


Figure 6. St John the Baptist (1513-1516).


Figure 7. Virgin and Child with St Anne (1508).

Leonardo’s paintings show him to be extremely innovative and influential despite his not having finished all of his commissions. He moved away from Verrocchio’s somewhat rigid treatment of figures towards developing an atmospheric and evocative style of his own – especially in the handling of composition. Leonardo was among the first to ntroduce atmospheric perspective. In Leonardo’s paintings we see his insistence on observation, experiment and his avid belief in the artist as a unique individual. It is this aspect which brings us to his scientific endeavours and the linking factor between that and his paintings – his unequalled mastery of drawing.

Most of Leonardo’s notebooks with their sketches are classified as the Codex Atlanticus held in Milan. Originally these notes and manuscripts were together with their drawings but are now separated – some 600 are in the Royal Collection at Windsor. A famous example of Leonardo’s drawing is that of Vitruvian Man 0f 1490, see Figure 8. Leonardo


Figure 8.  Vitruvian Man (1490).

explored most scientific fields from mathematics, engineering, optics, the flight of birds and gross as well as morbid human anatomy. It is obvious that nature fascinated him throughout his working life as well as his determination to delve from the seen to the underlying processes which made up the whole organism or phenomenon, see Figure 9.


Figure 9. Horse – incompleted commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan (1482).

In many respects he was an inventor much before his time, but one who insisted on a correct balance between theory and practice. Each experiment was documented and written in mirror script – which because of their indecipherability were not disseminated during his lifetime.

Leonardo’s drawings illustrate not only his approach to art they also exemplify his approach to science – that of acute observation that registered every murmur of the subject or topic. The drawings of Leonardo also expose the Renaissance universal man that we was as well as his concept of the artist as an individual in his own right. This enables us to see that Leonardo stood at the parting of the ways between his world and the modern world of today. He paved the way through his drawings, he carried and took the expressive potential of drawn lines onward and further than any other artist. Embodied in his drawings there is the modern world’s feelings fir self-realisation, self-revelation, self-awareness, self-expression and for some, and certainly in some respects for Leonardo, self-isolation. His drawing progressed from early parallel hatching in silverpoint through curvilinear hatching to his red and black chalk stippling of his later works. Indeed, Leonardo is unsurpassed in his red chalk or sanguine style of drawing. see Figure 10. His drawings provided the very foundation for his development as a painter and were the means whereby he recorded his scientific investigations.


Figure 10. Self Portrait (circa 1512).

In summary Leonardo’s art and science cannot be separated. They are the opposite sides of the same coin. They are, in combination, part and parcel of his lifelong pursuit of knowledge and evidence that he was the foremost creative mind of his time. In that pursuit he experimented, he innovated, and in that course he made mistakes of failed to complete tasks. Leonardo can be forgiven for what may be described as contrary or tangential behaviour because of the wealth he bequeathed those he left behind.


Filed under History Of Art

2 responses to “The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

  1. Pingback: The Science of Leonardo – Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance | Zee-Rebel

  2. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci: “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail. For instance, experience shows us that the air must have darkness beyond it and yet it appears blue.”
    I tried to write a blog about him , hope you also like it:

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