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The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

Excerpts from his Notebooks

Some of the most important documents of Renaissance writing are the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. They document Leonardo's remarkable range of interests which include: painting, architecture, cartography, anatomy, comparative anatomy, embryology, hydrology, flight, cosmography, etc. Rather than seeing each of these as discrete topics, one of the most striking aspects of Leonardo's thought is his belief in the unity of all things, or as he says, quoting Plato: Everything comes from everything, and everything is made from everything, and everything can be turned into everything else; because that which exists in the elements is composed of those elements.

Read the following excerpts to get a glimpse of Leonardo's thought. I want to focus on how Leonardo understood painting as a way of understanding the world. As a way of focusing our discussion, I want to consider the Mona Lisa. It is not simply a portrait of an individual, but as we shall see it provides us insights into Leonardo's attitude towards the world and can be seen as a statement of the importance and power of painting.



Though I have no power to quote from authors as they have, I shall rely on a far bigger and more worthy thing--on experience, the instructress of their masters. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labours, but by those of others, and they will not even allow me my own. And if they despise me who am an inventor, how much more should they be blamed who are not inventors but trumpeters and reciters of the works of others.

Wisdom is the daughter of experience.

First I shall test by experiment before I proceed farther, because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way. And this is the first true rule by which those who analyse the effects of nature must proceed: and although nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience, we must follow the opposite course, namely begin with the experience, and by means of its investigate the cause.

With what words O writer will you describe with similar perfection the entire configuration that the drawing here does?...You who claim to demonstrate in words the shape of man from every aspect dismiss such an idea, because the more minutely you describe, the more you will lead away from the thing described.

Anatomical lecture, from Johannes de Ketham, Fasciculo di Medicina, Venice, 1495.

Rembrandt, Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, 1632.

This comparison can be used to illustrate the radical revolution in the study of science that occurred in the early modern period. Notice how these images contain a number of the same elements: a cadavre, students, a book, a professor. What is different is the relationship between these different elements? Note the presence in the fifteenth century illustration of the additional figure of the Barber-surgeon who is actually performing the dissection. Define the significant shift in the nature of authority between these two images. Analyze this and relate to Leonardo's discussion about experience above.


Anatomical figure, from Andreas Vesalius, Humani Corporis Fabrica, Basle, 1543.

Vesalius's illustration is based on the so-called Belvedere Torso, probably a copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of the 2nd century BC. The torso was discovered in Rome during the reign of Pope Julius II, the patron for Michelangelo. The influence of this statue on Michelangelo is unmistakable when it is compared to the figures of the ignudi from the Sistine Ceiling.

Andreas Vesalius, Humani Corporis Fabrica: excerpts from the dedication to the Emperor Charles V:...Physicians did not undertake surgery, while those to whom the manual craft was entrusted were too uneducated to understand what professors of dissection had written. So far this class of men is from preserving for us the difficult and abstruse art handed down to them, and so far has this pernicious dispersal of the healing art failed to avoid importing the vile ritual in the universities by which some perform dissections of the human body while others recite the anatomical information. While the latter in their egregious conceit squawk like jackdaws from their lofty professorial chairs things they have never done but only memorize from the books of others or see written down, the former are so ignorant of languages that they are unable to explain dissections to an audience and they butcher the things they are meant to demonstrate, following the instructions of a physician who in a haughty manner navigates out of a manual alone matters he has never subjected to dissection by hand....

How much pictures aid the understanding of these things and place a subject before the eyes more precisely than the most explicit language, no one knows who has not had this experience in geometry and other branches of mathematics. Our pictures of the body’s parts will especially satisfy those who do not always have the opportunity to dissect a human body, or if they do, have a nature so delicate and unsuitable in a doctor that though they are obviously captivated by a knowledge of humankind that is most pleasant to them and attests the wisdom (if anything does) of the infinite Creator of things, they cannot bring themselves actually to attend an occasional dissection. 59 However that may be, I have made every effort for a single purpose: to be of use to as many people as possible in an extremely abstruse and no less arduous enterprise, and to provide as truthful and complete an account as possible of the fabric of the human body, which is made not of ten or twelve different parts (as it seems to the casual observer), but of some thousand. For the understanding of those books of Galen still preserved for posterity which among the other monuments of this divine man 60 require the assistance of a teacher, I aim also to bring no unwelcome profit to students of medicine.




Map of the Arno


Everything comes from everything, and everything is made from everything, and everything can be turned into everything else; because that which exists in the elements is composed of those elements. [Plato, Timaeus, 55]

Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world and indeed the term is well applied. Seeing that if a man is composed of earth, water, fire, and air, this body of earth is similar. While man has within himself bones as a stay and framework for the flesh, the world has stones which are the supports of earth. While man has within him a pool of blood wherein the lungs as he breathes expand and contract, so the body of the earth has its ocean, which also rises and falls every six hours with the breathing of the world; as from the said pool of blood proceed the veins which spread their branches through the human body so the ocean fills the body of the earth with an infinite number of veins of water.... The cause which moves the water through its springs against the natural course of its gravity is like that which moves the humours in all the shapes of animated bodies.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

According to the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (1st century CE) in his treatise De Architectura , Book, 3, Chapter 1 ["The Planning of Temples"]
3. "In like fashion the members of temples ought to have dimensions of their several parts answering suitably to the general sum of their whole magnitude. Now the navel is naturally the exact centre of the body. For if a man lies on his back with hands and feet outspread, and the centre of a circle is placed on his navel, his figure and toes will be touched by the circumference. Also a square will be found described within the figure, in the same way as a round figure is produced. For if we measure from the sole of the foot to the top of the head, and apply the measure to the outstretched hands, the breadth will be found equal to the height, just like sites which are squared by rule.

4. Therefore if Nature has planned the human body so that the members correspond in their proportions to its complete configuration, the ancients seem to have had reason in determining that in the execution of their works they should observe an exact adjustment of the several members to the general pattern of the plan." (Loeb translation, 1931, I, 161)

The earth has a vegetative spirit in that is flesh is the soil, its bones are the configurations of the interlinked rocks of which the mountains are composed, its tendons are the tufa, and its blood is the water in the veins; the lake of blood that lies within the heart is the oceanic sea, and its breathing is the increase and decrease of the blood during its pulsing, just as in the sea is the flux and reflux of the water; and the heart of the spirit of the world is the fire that is infused throughout the earth, and the seat of the vegetative spirit is in the fires, which in various locations in the world spouts forth in mines of sulphur and in volcanoes.

Leonardo, Star of Bethlehem.

"Star of Bethlehem Plant"

Albrecht Dürer, Large Piece of Turf, 1503.

Plaintain plant by Hans Weiditz published in Otto Brunfels's Herbarum vivae icones, 1530.

From Leonhart Fuch's De historia stirpium, published in 1542. Fuch's awareness of the importance of the image to his book is demonstrated by the inclusion of the portraits of two illustrators and the block-cutter. He writes: The woodcutter Veit Rudolf Speckle, by far the best in Strassbourg, has so ably carried out in carving the design of each picture that he seems to compete with the painter for glory and victory. But though the pictures have been prepared with great effort and sweat, we do not know whether in the future they will be damned as useless and of no consequence and whether someone will cite the most insipid authority of Galen that no one who wants to describe plants should try to make pictures of them. But why take up more time? Who would in his right mind condemn pictures which can communicate information much more clearly than the words of even the most eloquent men? ...those things that are presented to the eyes and depicted on panels or paper become fixed more firmly in the mind than those that are described in bare words.



This wears down the high summits of the mountains. This lays bare and removes the great rocks. This drives the sea from its ancient shores, for it raises its bottom with the soil that it brings. This shatters and destroys the high banks. In this no stability can ever be discerned which its nature does not at once bring to naught. It seeks with its rivers every sloping valley where it carries off or deposits fresh soil. Therefore it may be said that there are many rivers through which all the element has passed and have returned the sea to the sea many times. And no part of the earth is so high but that the sea has been at its foundations, and no depth of the sea so low but that the highest mountains have their bases their. And so it now sharp and now strong, now acid and now bitter, now sweet and now thick or thing, now it is seen bringing damage or pestilence and the health or, again, poison. So one might say that it changes into as many natures as are the different places through which it passes. And as the mirror changes with the colour of its objects so this changes with the nature of the place where it passes: health-giving, harmful, laxative, astringent, sulphurous, salt, sanguin, depressed, raging, angry, red, yellow, green, black, blue, oily, thick, thin. Bow it brings conflagration, then it extinguishes; is warm and is cold; now it carries away, then it sets down, then it establishes, now it fills up and then it empties, now it rises and then it deepens, now its speeds and then lies still, now it is the cause of life and then of death, now of production and then of privation, now it nourishes and then does the contrary, now it is salt and then is without savour, and now with great floods it submerges the wide valleys. With time everything changes. Now it turns to the northern parts eating away the base of its banks; now it overthrows the opposite bank on the south; now it turns to the centre of the earth consuming the bottom which supports it; now it leaps up seething and boiling towards the sky. Now it confounds its course by revolving in a circle, and now it extends on the western side and robs the husbandmen of their tilth, and then it deposits the taken soil on the eastern side. And thus at times it digs out and at times fills in, as it takes and as it deposits. Thus, without rest it is ever removing and consuming her borders. So at times it is turbulent and goes raving in fury, at times clear and tranquil it flows playfully with gentle course among fresh meadows. At times it falls from the sky in rain or snow or hail, at times forms great clouds of fine mist. At times it is moved of itself, at times by the force of others; at times it supports the things that are born by its life-giving moisture, at times shows itself fetid or full of pleasant odours.....

Observe the motion of the surface of the water, how it resembles that of hair, which has two movements --one depends on the weight of the hair, the other on the direction of the curls; thus the water forms whirling eddies, one part following the impetus of the chief current, and the other following the incidental motion and return flow.

The Eye

The eye which is said to be the window of the soul, is the primary means by which the sensus communis [the coordinating centre for sensory impressions] of the brain may most fully and magnificently contemplate the infinite works of nature, and the ear is the second, acquiring nobility through the recounting of that which the eye has seen...Now do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of the world? The eye is commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to various regions of the world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; its made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God...And it triumphs over nature, in that the constituent parts of nature are finite, but the works that the eye commands of the hands are infinite, as is demonstrated by the painter in his rendering of numberless forms of animals, grasses, trees, and places.[Kemp, pp.51-52]

The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature; and the ear is the second, which acquires dignity by hearing of the things the eye has seen. If you, historians, or poets, or mathematicians had not seen things with your eyes you could not report of them in writing. And if you, 0 poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness and less tedious to be understood. And if you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting. Now which is the worse defect? to be blind or dumb? Though the poet is as free as the painter in the invention of his fictions they are not so satisfactory to men as paintings; for, though poetry is able to describe forms, actions and places in words, the painter deals with the actual similitude of the forms, in order to represent them. Now tell me which is the nearer to the actual man: the name of man or the image of the man. The name of man differs in different countries, but his form is never changed but by death. [Richter, 653]

Now do you not see that the eye embraced the beauty of the whole world?...It counsels and corrects all the arts of is the prince of mathematics, and the sciences founded on it are absolutely certain. It has measured the distances and sizes of the stars; it has discovered the elements and their has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting.

Oh excellent, superior to all others created by God! What praises can do justice to your nobility? What peoples, what tongues will fully describe your function? The eye is the window of the human body through which its feels its way and enjoys the beauty of the world. Owing to the eye the soul is content to say in its bodily prison, for without it such bodily prison is torture.

O marvellous, O stupendous necessity, thou with supreme reason compellest all effects to be the direct result of their causes; and by a supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by the shortest possible process. Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of all the universe? O might process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the forms, here the colours, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. What point is so marvellous? O wonderful, O stupendous necessity---by thy law thou constrainest every effect to be the direct result of its cause by the shortest path. These are miracles...forms already lost, mingled together in so small a space it can recreate and recompense by expansion. Describe in thy anatomy what proportion there is between diameters of all the lenses in the eye and the distance from these to the crystalline lens.

The Painter

The deity which invests the science of the painter functions in such a way that the mind of the painter is transformed into a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating the many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.

The painter is lord of all types of people and of all things. If the painter wishes to see beauties that charm him it lies in his power to create them, and if he wishes to see monstrosities that are frightful, buffoonish or ridiculous, or pitiable he can be lord and god thereof; if he wants to produce inhabited regions or deserts or dark and shady retreats from the heat, or warm places in cold weather, he can do so. If he wants valleys, if he wants from high mountains tops to unfold a great plain extending down to the sea's horizon, he is lord to do so; and likewise if from low plains he wishes to see high mountains....In fact whatever exists in the universe, in essence, in appearance, in the imagination, the painter has first in his mind and then in his hand; and these are of such excellence that they can present a proportioned and harmonious view of the whole, than can be seen simultaneously, at one glance, just as things in nature.

The mind of the painter must resemble a mirror, which always takes the color of the object it reflects and is completely occupied by the images of as many objects as are in front of it. Therefore you must know, O painter! that you cannot be a good one if you are not the universal master of representing by your art every kind of form produced by nature. And this you will not know how to do if you do not see them, and retain them in your mind. Hence as you go through the fields, turn your attention to various objects, and in turn look now at this thing and now at that, collecting a store of diverse facts selected and chosen from those of less value.

If the painter wishes to see beauties that charm him, it lies in his power to create them, and if he wishes to see monstrosities that are frightful, ridiculous, or truly pitiable, he is lord and God thereof; and if he wishes to generate sites and deserts, shady and cool places in hot weather he can do so, and also warm places in cold weather. If he wishes from the high summits of the mountains to uncover the great countrysides, and if he wishes after them to see the horizon of the sea, he is lord of it, and if from the low valleys he wishes to see the high mountains, or from the high mountains the low valleys and beaches, and in effect that which is in the universe for essence, presence, or imagination, he has it first in his mind and then in his hands, and these are of such excellence that in equal time they generate a proportionate harmony in a single glance, as does nature.

The painter in his harmonious proportions makes the component parts react simultaneously so that they can be seen at one and the same time both together and separately; together, by viewing the design of the composition as a whole; and separately by viewing the design of its component parts.

A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the latter hard, because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs.... The most important consideration in painting is that the movements of each figure expresses its mental state, such as desire, scorn, anger, pity, and the like.

Oh Time, who consumes all things! Oh envious age, you who destroy all things and devour all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little, in slow death! Helen, when she looked in her mirror, seeing the withered wrinkles in her face made by old age, wept, and thought to herself, why ever had she been twice ravished. Oh Time, who consumes all things! Oh envious age, by whom all things are consumed!

The Comparison of the Arts

If the poet knows how to describe and write down the appearance of forms, the painter can make them so that they appear enlivened with lights and shadows which create the very expression of the faces. Herein the poet cannot attain with the pen what the painter attains with the brush.

And if the poet serves the understanding by way of the ear, the painter does so by the eye --the nobler sense; but I will ask no more than that a good painter should represent the fury of a battle and that that a poet should describe one and that both these battles be put before the public; you will soon see which will draw most of the spectators, and where there will be most discussion, to which more praise will be given and which will satisfy the more. Undoubtedly the painting being by far the more intelligible and beautiful will please more. Inscribe the name of God and set up His image opposite, and you will see which will be more revered. Painting embraces within itself all the forms of nature, while you have nothing but their names which are not universal as form is. If you have the effects of demonstrations we have the demonstrations of the effects. Take the case of a poet who describes the beauties of a lady to her love and a painter who portrays her; and you will see whither nature will more incline the enamoured judge. Surely the proof of the matter should be allowed to rest on the verdict of experience.

You have set painting among the mechanical arts. Truly were painters as ready as you are to praise their own works in writing, I doubt whether it would endure the stigma of so base a name. If you call it mechanical because it is by manual work that the hands design what is in the imagination, your writers set down with the pen by manual work that originates in your mind. And if you call it mechanical because it is done for money, who fall into this error --if error it can be called-- more than you yourselves? If you lecture for instruction, do you not go to whoever pays you the most? Do you do any work without some pay? And yet I do not say this in blame of such views, for every labour looks fir its reward. And if a poet should say I will write a story which signifies great things, the painter can do likewise, for even so Apelles painted the Calumny. If you were to say that poetry is more lasting, I say the works of a coppersmith are more lasting still, for time preserves them longer than your works or ours; nevertheless they display little imagination; and a picture can be made more enduring if painted upon copper in enamel colours.

Painting requires more thought and skill and is a more marvellous art than sculpture, because the painter's mind must of necessity enter into nature's mind in order to act as an interpreter between nature and art; it must be able to expound the causes of the manifestations of her laws, and the way in which the likenesses of objects that surround the eye meet in the pupil of the eye transmitting the true images; it must distinguish among a number of objects of equal size, which will appear greater to the eye; among colours that are the same, which will appear darker and which lighter; among objects all placed at the same height, which will appear higher; among similar objects placed at various distances, why they appear less distinct than others.

The art of painting includes in its domain all visible things, and sculpture with its limitations does not, namely the colours of all things in their varying intensity and transparency of objects. The sculptor simply shows you the shapes of natural objects without further artifice. The painter can suggest to you various distances by a change in colour produced, by the atmosphere intervening between the object and the eye. He can depict mists through which the shapes of things can only be discerned with difficulty; rain with cloud-capped mountains and valleys showing through; clouds of dust whirling about the combatants who raised them; streams of varying transparency, and fishes at play between the surface of the water and its bottom; and polished pebbles of many colours deposited on the clean sand of the river bed surrounded by green plants seen underneath the water's surface. He will represent the stars are varying heights above us and innumberable other effects whereto sculpure cannot aspire.

Attributed to Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Man and Woman, c. 1490 . The Ghirlandaio portrait of a woman makes an interesting comparison to the Mona Lisa. Notice that the context of a woman being seated in front of a ledge enframed by columns and looking out over a landscape is similar in the two paintings. But also notice the significant difference in the conception of this formula.

Madonna of the Rocks- Louvre version

Madonna of the Rocks. National Gallery, London

See National Gallery site discussion.

Madonna of the Yarnwinder.

Web Links

The Universal Leonardo. This is an incredibly rich resource.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Paul Richter translator, at Project Gutenberg.

Leonardo's Notebooks: an introduction to the notebooks.

The Last Supper in High Definition.

Excerpts from Mary D. Garrard, Leonardo da Vinci: Female Portraits, Female Nature