2005-03-04 / Columnists

Drawing On Science


by Stephen Yaeger

Leonardo da Vinci was a 15th Century genius—an artist with an uncanny ability of observation. Without question the most recognized of his works are his painting, Mona Lisa ; his large mural, The Last Supper ; and his “four-armed, four-legged” man in a circle, Proportions of the Human Figure or Vitruvian Man. However, what many people do not know is that Leonardo da Vinci actually completed a little over a dozen paintings. But he did leave quite a number of drawings and sketches. Among these drawings are some of the most unusual ideas of the time.

Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452. He lived during the Renaissance or rebirth; when the medieval world was vanishing and along with it man’s ignorance of the world about him. Up until the beginning of the 15th Century, men had depended on the Greek and Roman interpretations of what is going on in the world. Earth, fire, air, and water made up every material thing known to exist; a belief that Leonardo, himself, accepted. Little was done to advance knowledge prior to the 1400s. But the 15th Century brought with it a new age of wonder and Leonardo was there to contribute to this new age. There is no doubt that he was an accomplished artist and architect. His paintings, drawings, and his plans for buildings and sculptures show it—even though much of his plans were never brought to fruition. By his early twenties Leonardo was recognized as a talented painter and sculptor. He was, throughout his life, an artist who used his superior powers of observation not only for his art, but also to advance his ideas. His works in art and science are tied together. He studied perspective, geometry, optics, botany, anatomy, astronomy, and proportion among other disciplines. What he learned he put into his art and writings. So here we are concerned with his accomplishments as a scientist. Let’s take a look at some of these accomplishments.

His sketches of water flowing over a board and water cascading into a pool are extraordinary. Below the sketches he describes how the water moves. His drawings and descriptions of the water’s patterns of movement have been verified by slow motion photography. What he did, then, was to use his unaided eye to study how water flows under certain conditions.

His illustrations of plants are so precise that many of them can be used in botanical textbooks today. Leonardo is sometimes considered as the father of botany. Before his time plant study was limited to those involved in the production of drugs and medicines as well as magicians. Leonardo’s plant studies included how plants react to light ( phototropism ) and gravity ( geotropism ). He studied the distribution of leaves on plants ( phyllotaxy ) and proposed how one may determine the age of plants by studying stem structure and annual rings.

Leonardo’s ability to observe led him to write an analysis on how birds fly. He paid particular attention to the way birds flap their wings and spent many hours designing a machine to duplicate wing-flapping. His design for a parachute was centuries ahead of the times. Leonardo’s sketch of an airscrew is recognized as the first helicopter. Although, for some 25 years, he designed many devices to help man fly, those that he put to practice were never successful.

Leonardo’s studies of human and animal anatomy are evidenced by his many anatomical drawings. His drawing of the cross section of a human skull was the very first such anatomical drawing in history. Other anatomical drawings were as precise as those made today. As a mapmaker he drew maps showing aerial views using his knowledge of perspective, imagination, and art. He designed a mechanical “car,” a flyer spindle similar to those used in textile machines today, designs for chain links, and a life preserver.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “He who loses his sight loses his view of the universe, and is like one interred alive who can still move about and breathe in his grave…. Do you not see that the eye encompasses the beauty of the whole world?”

As an artist and scientist Leonardo had the perfect eye.

Questions/comments?

E-mail Steve: Drawingonscience@aol.com

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