October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Four Reasons Why Leonardo da Vinci was a Scientist First and Artist Second

National Gallery
9 November 2011 – 5 February 2012

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is the National Gallery’s latest blockbuster exhibition featuring the largest-ever collection of the surviving paintings and sketches of one of history’s most well known artists. While visiting the exhibition, using the down-time afforded to me by the sheer number of visitors blocking my view of the tiny, intricate drawings, I reflected on how da Vinci should not be pigeon-holed as an artist alone. Instead we should view his method of seeking the truth through art as a scientific endeavor.

1. He was a polymath
LDV (let’s get familiar here) was undoubtedly a genius with a pencil and paper. But he also had a wide range of talents in other areas, from anatomy to physics and engineering, as well as music and cartography. Scientists also have to be able to call on a wide repertoire of skills: as communicators, mathematicians and writers. Yes, there are other disciplines which require a wide skill set, but science is arguably the epitome of multitasking.

2. He conducted pilot studies
Much of the exhibition at the National Gallery is devoted to LDV’s sketches – preliminary workings to outline the structure of a big piece. In the beautiful details of his drapery studies, Leonardo is showing his working; weighing up his options before launching head first into larger project. Even once work had started on a major piece the refinement continued, such as his search to express character and emotion in The Last Supper. This rational way of thinking is characteristic of modern scientific research – though I wouldn’t recommend walking into your next grant proposal meeting with a handful of scribblings on A5 paper.

3. He had underlings to do the hard work for him
The imaginary working environment of an artist is a solitary affair, with a lone figure throwing paint around in a creative fit a la Brian from Spaced. However da Vinci’s set-up was somewhat different, with workshops running and students and assistants to help him decide what was going to work (see 2), sometimes even creating full-blown replicas of his most famous works like Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli’s The Last Supper. Like the hierarchy from undergraduate lab assistant through PhD candidate to professor, there is a place for everyone in the laboratory of LDV.

4. He worked for years but only had a handful of memorable works
Ok, so this point is a bit contentious. However I would bet that the regular punter – i.e. excluding LDV and art scholars – can only name two or three of LDV’s works of art. Like career scientists, high standing in a specific field means little appreciation from the outside world. Despite enduring popularity and a vast body of work – I may be undoing my own point here – Leonardo da Vinci and the scientific community have in common a fame based on lucky chance and being in the right place at the right time.