Leonardo da Vinci: A Note on the Relation Between His Science and His Art

Da Vinci's scientific observations proved inseparable from his intentions as a painter, Kenneth Clark writes. But as a disciple of experience ahead of his time, the impracticability of Da Vinci's visions would come to haunt him.

It is usual to treat Leonardo as a scientist and Leonardo as a painter in separate studies. And no doubt the difficulties in following his mechanical and scientific investigations make this a prudent course. Nevertheless, it is not completely satisfactory, because in the end the history of art cannot be properly understood without some reference to the history of science. In both we are studying the symbols by which man affirms his mental scheme, and these symbols, be they pictorial or mathematical, a fabie or a formula, will reflect the same changes. They are very little influenced by accidents. Discoveries may appear to be accidental, but in fact each epoch gets the discoveries it needs.

Aristarchus discovered that the earth moves round the sun, but the idea lay dormant till Copernicus; Poggio found the works of Tacitus in the Medici library, read them and put them quietly back on the shelves. They would have destroyed the humanist’s mental picture of Antiquity. If the Laocoon had been unearthed 200 years earlier we may be certain that it would have been buried again. So with Leonardo, the discoveries and anticipations which he made in the art of painting, some of which could not be absorbed till a far later date and some of which are becoming comprehensible only now, must be looked at in relation to what our ancestors would have called his natural philosophy. One cannot be understood without the other.

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