History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions

(contents)


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy
 

Medieval philosophy
 

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


 

Western Philosophy
 

 

 




 

 
 

 

 


Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 
 
 
 


Western philosophy


History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.





Renaissance philosophy


Renaissance philosophy » Philosophy of nature

Philosophy in the modern world is a self-conscious discipline. It has managed to define itself narrowly, distinguishing itself on the one hand from religion and on the other from exact science. But this narrowing of focus came about very late in its history—certainly not before the 18th century. The earliest philosophers of ancient Greece were theorists of the physical world; Pythagoras and Plato were at once philosophers and mathematicians, and in Aristotle there is no clear distinction between philosophy and natural science. The Renaissance and early modern period continued this breadth of conception characteristic of the Greeks. Galileo and Descartes were at once mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers; and physics retained the name natural philosophy at least until the death of Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727).

Had the thinkers of the Renaissance been painstaking in the matter of definition (which they were not), they might have defined philosophy, on the basis of its actual practice, as “the rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of humankind, civil society, and the natural world.” Philosophy’s areas of interest would thus not have been in doubt, though the issue of what constitutes “rational, methodical, and systematic consideration” would have been extremely controversial. Because knowledge advances through the discovery and advocacy of new philosophical methods and because these diverse methods depend for their validity on prevailing philosophical criteria of truth, meaning, and importance, the crucial philosophical quarrels of the 16th and 17th centuries were at bottom quarrels about method. It is this issue, rather than any disagreement over subject matter or areas of interest, that divided the greatest Renaissance philosophers.

The great new fact that confronted the Renaissance was the immediacy, the immensity, and the uniformity of the natural world. But what was of primary importance was the new perspective through which this fact was interpreted. To the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, the universe was hierarchical, organic, and God-ordained. To the philosophers of the Renaissance, it was pluralistic, machinelike, and mathematically ordered. In the Middle Ages, scholars thought in terms of purposes, goals, and divine intentions; in the Renaissance, they thought in terms of forces, mechanical agencies, and physical causes. All of this had become clear by the end of the 15th century. Within the early pages of the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great Florentine artist and polymath, occur the following three propositions:

Here are enunciated respectively (1) the principle of empiricism, (2) the primacy of mechanistic science, and (3) faith in mathematical explanation. It is upon these three doctrines, as upon a rock, that Renaissance and early modern science and philosophy were built. From each of Leonardo’s theses descended one of the great streams of Renaissance and early modern philosophy: from the empirical principle the work of Bacon, from mechanism the work of Hobbes, and from mathematical explanation the work of Descartes.

Any adequate philosophical treatment of scientific method recognizes that the explanations offered by science are both empirical and mathematical. In Leonardo’s thinking, as in scientific procedure generally, there need be no conflict between these two ideals; yet they do represent two opposite poles, each capable of excluding the other. The peculiar accidents of Renaissance scientific achievement did mistakenly suggest their incompatibility, for the revival of medical studies on the one hand and the blooming of mathematical physics on the other emphasized opposite virtues in scientific methodology. This polarity was represented by the figures of Andreas Vesalius (1514–64) and Galileo.

Vesalius, a Flemish physician, astounded all of Europe with the unbelievable precision of his anatomical dissections and drawings. Having invented new tools for this precise purpose, he successively laid bare the vascular, neural, and muscular systems of the human body. This procedure seemed to demonstrate the virtues of empirical method, of experimentation, and of inductive generalization on the basis of precise and disciplined observation.

Only slightly later, Galileo, following in the tradition already established by Copernicus and Kepler, attempted to do for terrestrial and sidereal movement what Vesalius had managed for the structure of the human body—creating his physical dynamics, however, on the basis of hypotheses derived from mathematics. In Galileo’s work, all of the most original scientific impulses of the Renaissance were united: the interest in Hellenistic mathematics, the experimental use of new instruments such as the telescope, and the underlying faith that the search for certainty in science is reasonable because the motions of all physical bodies are comprehensible in mathematical terms. Galileo’s work also deals with some of the recurrent themes of 16th- and 17th-century philosophy: atomism (which describes the changes of gross physical bodies in terms of the motions of their parts), the reduction of qualitative differences to quantitative differences, and the resultant important distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities. The former qualities—including shape, extension, and specific gravity—were considered to be part of nature and therefore real. The latter—such as colour, odour, taste, and relative position—were taken to be simply the effect of the motions of physical bodies on perceiving minds and therefore ephemeral, subjective, and essentially irrelevant to the nature of physical reality.



Sir Isaac Newton
English physicist and mathematician

born December 25, 1642 [January 4, 1643, New Style], Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England
died March 20 [March 31], 1727, London

Main
English physicist and mathematician, who was the culminating figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century. In optics, his discovery of the composition of white light integrated the phenomena of colours into the science of light and laid the foundation for modern physical optics. In mechanics, his three laws of motion, the basic principles of modern physics, resulted in the formulation of the law of universal gravitation. In mathematics, he was the original discoverer of the infinitesimal calculus. Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), 1687, was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.

Formative influences
Born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Newton was the only son of a local yeoman, also Isaac Newton, who had died three months before, and of Hannah Ayscough. That same year, at Arcetri near Florence, Galileo Galilei had died; Newton would eventually pick up his idea of a mathematical science of motion and bring his work to full fruition. A tiny and weak baby, Newton was not expected to survive his first day of life, much less 84 years. Deprived of a father before birth, he soon lost his mother as well, for within two years she married a second time; her husband, the well-to-do minister Barnabas Smith, left young Isaac with his grandmother and moved to a neighbouring village to raise a son and two daughters. For nine years, until the death of Barnabas Smith in 1653, Isaac was effectively separated from his mother, and his pronounced psychotic tendencies have been ascribed to this traumatic event. That he hated his stepfather we may be sure. When he examined the state of his soul in 1662 and compiled a catalog of sins in shorthand, he remembered “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.” The acute sense of insecurity that rendered him obsessively anxious when his work was published and irrationally violent when he defended it accompanied Newton throughout his life and can plausibly be traced to his early years.

After his mother was widowed a second time, she determined that her first-born son should manage her now considerable property. It quickly became apparent, however, that this would be a disaster, both for the estate and for Newton. He could not bring himself to concentrate on rural affairs—set to watch the cattle, he would curl up under a tree with a book. Fortunately, the mistake was recognized, and Newton was sent back to the grammar school in Grantham, where he had already studied, to prepare for the university. As with many of the leading scientists of the age, he left behind in Grantham anecdotes about his mechanical ability and his skill in building models of machines, such as clocks and windmills. At the school he apparently gained a firm command of Latin but probably received no more than a smattering of arithmetic. By June 1661, he was ready to matriculate at Trinity College, Cambridge, somewhat older than the other undergraduates because of his interrupted education.


Influence of the scientific revolution
When Newton arrived in Cambridge in 1661, the movement now known as the scientific revolution was well advanced, and many of the works basic to modern science had appeared. Astronomers from Copernicus to Kepler had elaborated the heliocentric system of the universe. Galileo had proposed the foundations of a new mechanics built on the principle of inertia. Led by Descartes, philosophers had begun to formulate a new conception of nature as an intricate, impersonal, and inert machine. Yet as far as the universities of Europe, including Cambridge, were concerned, all this might well have never happened. They continued to be the strongholds of outmoded Aristotelianism, which rested on a geocentric view of the universe and dealt with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.

Like thousands of other undergraduates, Newton began his higher education by immersing himself in Aristotle’s work. Even though the new philosophy was not in the curriculum, it was in the air. Some time during his undergraduate career, Newton discovered the works of the French natural philosopher René Descartes and the other mechanical philosophers, who, in contrast to Aristotle, viewed physical reality as composed entirely of particles of matter in motion and who held that all the phenomena of nature result from their mechanical interaction. A new set of notes, which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”), begun sometime in 1664, usurped the unused pages of a notebook intended for traditional scholastic exercises; under the title he entered the slogan “Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas” (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth”). Newton’s scientific career had begun.

The “Quaestiones” reveal that Newton had discovered the new conception of nature that provided the framework of the scientific revolution. He had thoroughly mastered the works of Descartes and had also discovered that the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi had revived atomism, an alternative mechanical system to explain nature. The “Quaestiones” also reveal that Newton already was inclined to find the latter a more attractive philosophy than Cartesian natural philosophy, which rejected the existence of ultimate indivisible particles. The works of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle provided the foundation for Newton’s considerable work in chemistry. Significantly, he had read Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, and was thereby introduced to another intellectual world, the magical Hermetic tradition, which sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of alchemical and magical concepts. The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme of his scientific career.

Although he did not record it in the “Quaestiones,” Newton had also begun his mathematical studies. He again started with Descartes, from whose La Géometrie he branched out into the other literature of modern analysis with its application of algebraic techniques to problems of geometry. He then reached back for the support of classical geometry. Within little more than a year, he had mastered the literature; and, pursuing his own line of analysis, he began to move into new territory. He discovered the binomial theorem, and he developed the calculus, a more powerful form of analysis that employs infinitesimal considerations in finding the slopes of curves and areas under curves.

By 1669 Newton was ready to write a tract summarizing his progress, De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (“On Analysis by Infinite Series”), which circulated in manuscript through a limited circle and made his name known. During the next two years he revised it as De methodis serierum et fluxionum (“On the Methods of Series and Fluxions”). The word fluxions, Newton’s private rubric, indicates that the calculus had been born. Despite the fact that only a handful of savants were even aware of Newton’s existence, he had arrived at the point where he had become the leading mathematician in Europe.


Work during the plague years
When Newton received the bachelor’s degree in April 1665, the most remarkable undergraduate career in the history of university education had passed unrecognized. On his own, without formal guidance, he had sought out the new philosophy and the new mathematics and made them his own, but he had confined the progress of his studies to his notebooks. Then, in 1665, the plague closed the university, and for most of the following two years he was forced to stay at his home, contemplating at leisure what he had learned. During the plague years Newton laid the foundations of the calculus and extended an earlier insight into an essay, “Of Colours,” which contains most of the ideas elaborated in his Opticks. It was during this time that he examined the elements of circular motion and, applying his analysis to the Moon and the planets, derived the inverse square relation that the radially directed force acting on a planet decreases with the square of its distance from the Sun—which was later crucial to the law of universal gravitation. The world heard nothing of these discoveries.


Career » The optics » Inaugural lectures at Trinity
Newton was elected to a fellowship in Trinity College in 1667, after the university reopened. Two years later, Isaac Barrow, Lucasian professor of mathematics, who had transmitted Newton’s De Analysi to John Collins in London, resigned the chair to devote himself to divinity and recommended Newton to succeed him. The professorship exempted Newton from the necessity of tutoring but imposed the duty of delivering an annual course of lectures. He chose the work he had done in optics as the initial topic; during the following three years (1670–72), his lectures developed the essay “Of Colours” into a form which was later revised to become Book One of his Opticks.

Beginning with Kepler’s Paralipomena in 1604, the study of optics had been a central activity of the scientific revolution. Descartes’s statement of the sine law of refraction, relating the angles of incidence and emergence at interfaces of the media through which light passes, had added a new mathematical regularity to the science of light, supporting the conviction that the universe is constructed according to mathematical regularities. Descartes had also made light central to the mechanical philosophy of nature; the reality of light, he argued, consists of motion transmitted through a material medium. Newton fully accepted the mechanical nature of light, although he chose the atomistic alternative and held that light consists of material corpuscles in motion. The corpuscular conception of light was always a speculative theory on the periphery of his optics, however. The core of Newton’s contribution had to do with colours. An ancient theory extending back at least to Aristotle held that a certain class of colour phenomena, such as the rainbow, arises from the modification of light, which appears white in its pristine form. Descartes had generalized this theory for all colours and translated it into mechanical imagery. Through a series of experiments performed in 1665 and 1666, in which the spectrum of a narrow beam was projected onto the wall of a darkened chamber, Newton denied the concept of modification and replaced it with that of analysis. Basically, he denied that light is simple and homogeneous—stating instead that it is complex and heterogeneous and that the phenomena of colours arise from the analysis of the heterogeneous mixture into its simple components. The ultimate source of Newton’s conviction that light is corpuscular was his recognition that individual rays of light have immutable properties; in his view, such properties imply immutable particles of matter. He held that individual rays (that is, particles of given size) excite sensations of individual colours when they strike the retina of the eye. He also concluded that rays refract at distinct angles—hence, the prismatic spectrum, a beam of heterogeneous rays, i.e., alike incident on one face of a prism, separated or analyzed by the refraction into its component parts—and that phenomena such as the rainbow are produced by refractive analysis. Because he believed that chromatic aberration could never be eliminated from lenses, Newton turned to reflecting telescopes; he constructed the first ever built. The heterogeneity of light has been the foundation of physical optics since his time.

There is no evidence that the theory of colours, fully described by Newton in his inaugural lectures at Cambridge, made any impression, just as there is no evidence that aspects of his mathematics and the content of the Principia, also pronounced from the podium, made any impression. Rather, the theory of colours, like his later work, was transmitted to the world through the Royal Society of London, which had been organized in 1660. When Newton was appointed Lucasian professor, his name was probably unknown in the Royal Society; in 1671, however, they heard of his reflecting telescope and asked to see it. Pleased by their enthusiastic reception of the telescope and by his election to the society, Newton volunteered a paper on light and colours early in 1672. On the whole, the paper was also well received, although a few questions and some dissent were heard.


Career » The optics » Controversy
Among the most important dissenters to Newton’s paper was Robert Hooke, one of the leaders of the Royal Society who considered himself the master in optics and hence he wrote a condescending critique of the unknown parvenu. One can understand how the critique would have annoyed a normal man. The flaming rage it provoked, with the desire publicly to humiliate Hooke, however, bespoke the abnormal. Newton was unable rationally to confront criticism. Less than a year after submitting the paper, he was so unsettled by the give and take of honest discussion that he began to cut his ties, and he withdrew into virtual isolation.

In 1675, during a visit to London, Newton thought he heard Hooke accept his theory of colours. He was emboldened to bring forth a second paper, an examination of the colour phenomena in thin films, which was identical to most of Book Two as it later appeared in the Opticks. The purpose of the paper was to explain the colours of solid bodies by showing how light can be analyzed into its components by reflection as well as refraction. His explanation of the colours of bodies has not survived, but the paper was significant in demonstrating for the first time the existence of periodic optical phenomena. He discovered the concentric coloured rings in the thin film of air between a lens and a flat sheet of glass; the distance between these concentric rings (Newton’s rings) depends on the increasing thickness of the film of air. In 1704 Newton combined a revision of his optical lectures with the paper of 1675 and a small amount of additional material in his Opticks.

A second piece which Newton had sent with the paper of 1675 provoked new controversy. Entitled “An Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light,” it was in fact a general system of nature. Hooke apparently claimed that Newton had stolen its content from him, and Newton boiled over again. The issue was quickly controlled, however, by an exchange of formal, excessively polite letters that fail to conceal the complete lack of warmth between the men.

Newton was also engaged in another exchange on his theory of colours with a circle of English Jesuits in Liège, perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. Although their objections were shallow, their contention that his experiments were mistaken lashed him into a fury. The correspondence dragged on until 1678, when a final shriek of rage from Newton, apparently accompanied by a complete nervous breakdown, was followed by silence. The death of his mother the following year completed his isolation. For six years he withdrew from intellectual commerce except when others initiated a correspondence, which he always broke off as quickly as possible.


Career » The optics » Influence of the Hermetic tradition
During his time of isolation, Newton was greatly influenced by the Hermetic tradition with which he had been familiar since his undergraduate days. Newton, always somewhat interested in alchemy, now immersed himself in it, copying by hand treatise after treatise and collating them to interpret their arcane imagery. Under the influence of the Hermetic tradition, his conception of nature underwent a decisive change. Until that time, Newton had been a mechanical philosopher in the standard 17th-century style, explaining natural phenomena by the motions of particles of matter. Thus, he held that the physical reality of light is a stream of tiny corpuscles diverted from its course by the presence of denser or rarer media. He felt that the apparent attraction of tiny bits of paper to a piece of glass that has been rubbed with cloth results from an ethereal effluvium that streams out of the glass and carries the bits of paper back with it. This mechanical philosophy denied the possibility of action at a distance; as with static electricity, it explained apparent attractions away by means of invisible ethereal mechanisms. Newton’s “Hypothesis of Light” of 1675, with its universal ether, was a standard mechanical system of nature. Some phenomena, such as the capacity of chemicals to react only with certain others, puzzled him, however, and he spoke of a “secret principle” by which substances are “sociable” or “unsociable” with others. About 1679, Newton abandoned the ether and its invisible mechanisms and began to ascribe the puzzling phenomena—chemical affinities, the generation of heat in chemical reactions, surface tension in fluids, capillary action, the cohesion of bodies, and the like—to attractions and repulsions between particles of matter. More than 35 years later, in the second English edition of the Opticks, Newton accepted an ether again, although it was an ether that embodied the concept of action at a distance by positing a repulsion between its particles. The attractions and repulsions of Newton’s speculations were direct transpositions of the occult sympathies and antipathies of Hermetic philosophy—as mechanical philosophers never ceased to protest. Newton, however, regarded them as a modification of the mechanical philosophy that rendered it subject to exact mathematical treatment. As he conceived of them, attractions were quantitatively defined, and they offered a bridge to unite the two basic themes of 17th-century science—the mechanical tradition, which had dealt primarily with verbal mechanical imagery, and the Pythagorean tradition, which insisted on the mathematical nature of reality. Newton’s reconciliation through the concept of force was his ultimate contribution to science.


Career » The Principia » Planetary motion
Newton originally applied the idea of attractions and repulsions solely to the range of terrestrial phenomena mentioned in the preceding paragraph. But late in 1679, not long after he had embraced the concept, another application was suggested in a letter from Hooke, who was seeking to renew correspondence. Hooke mentioned his analysis of planetary motion—in effect, the continuous diversion of a rectilinear motion by a central attraction. Newton bluntly refused to correspond but, nevertheless, went on to mention an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth: let a body be dropped from a tower; because the tangential velocity at the top of the tower is greater than that at the foot, the body should fall slightly to the east. He sketched the path of fall as part of a spiral ending at the centre of the Earth. This was a mistake, as Hooke pointed out; according to Hooke’s theory of planetary motion, the path should be elliptical, so that if the Earth were split and separated to allow the body to fall, it would rise again to its original location. Newton did not like being corrected, least of all by Hooke, but he had to accept the basic point; he corrected Hooke’s figure, however, using the assumption that gravity is constant. Hooke then countered by replying that, although Newton’s figure was correct for constant gravity, his own assumption was that gravity decreases as the square of the distance. Several years later, this letter became the basis for Hooke’s charge of plagiarism. He was mistaken in the charge. His knowledge of the inverse square relation rested only on intuitive grounds; he did not derive it properly from the quantitative statement of centripetal force and Kepler’s third law, which relates the periods of planets to the radii of their orbits. Moreover, unknown to him, Newton had so derived the relation more than ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Newton later confessed that the correspondence with Hooke led him to demonstrate that an elliptical orbit entails an inverse square attraction to one focus—one of the two crucial propositions on which the law of universal gravitation would ultimately rest. What is more, Hooke’s definition of orbital motion—in which the constant action of an attracting body continuously pulls a planet away from its inertial path—suggested a cosmic application for Newton’s concept of force and an explanation of planetary paths employing it. In 1679 and 1680, Newton dealt only with orbital dynamics; he had not yet arrived at the concept of universal gravitation.


Career » The Principia » Universal gravitation
Nearly five years later, in August 1684, Newton was visited by the British astronomer Edmond Halley, who was also troubled by the problem of orbital dynamics. Upon learning that Newton had solved the problem, he extracted Newton’s promise to send the demonstration. Three months later he received a short tract entitled De Motu (“On Motion”). Already Newton was at work improving and expanding it. In two and a half years, the tract De Motu grew into Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is not only Newton’s masterpiece but also the fundamental work for the whole of modern science.

Significantly, De Motu did not state the law of universal gravitation. For that matter, even though it was a treatise on planetary dynamics, it did not contain any of the three Newtonian laws of motion. Only when revising De Motu did Newton embrace the principle of inertia (the first law) and arrive at the second law of motion. The second law, the force law, proved to be a precise quantitative statement of the action of the forces between bodies that had become the central members of his system of nature. By quantifying the concept of force, the second law completed the exact quantitative mechanics that has been the paradigm of natural science ever since.

The quantitative mechanics of the Principia is not to be confused with the mechanical philosophy. The latter was a philosophy of nature that attempted to explain natural phenomena by means of imagined mechanisms among invisible particles of matter. The mechanics of the Principia was an exact quantitative description of the motions of visible bodies. It rested on Newton’s three laws of motion: (1) that a body remains in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by a force impressed on it; (2) that the change of motion (the change of velocity times the mass of the body) is proportional to the force impressed; (3) that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The analysis of circular motion in terms of these laws yielded a formula of the quantitative measure, in terms of a body’s velocity and mass, of the centripetal force necessary to divert a body from its rectilinear path into a given circle. When Newton substituted this formula into Kepler’s third law, he found that the centripetal force holding the planets in their given orbits about the Sun must decrease with the square of the planets’ distances from the Sun. Because the satellites of Jupiter also obey Kepler’s third law, an inverse square centripetal force must also attract them to the centre of their orbits. Newton was able to show that a similar relation holds between the Earth and its Moon. The distance of the Moon is approximately 60 times the radius of the Earth. Newton compared the distance by which the Moon, in its orbit of known size, is diverted from a tangential path in one second with the distance that a body at the surface of the Earth falls from rest in one second. When the latter distance proved to be 3,600 (60 × 60) times as great as the former, he concluded that one and the same force, governed by a single quantitative law, is operative in all three cases, and from the correlation of the Moon’s orbit with the measured acceleration of gravity on the surface of the Earth, he applied the ancient Latin word gravitas (literally, “heaviness” or “weight”) to it. The law of universal gravitation, which he also confirmed from such further phenomena as the tides and the orbits of comets, states that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres.

When the Royal Society received the completed manuscript of Book I in 1686, Hooke raised the cry of plagiarism, a charge that cannot be sustained in any meaningful sense. On the other hand, Newton’s response to it reveals much about him. Hooke would have been satisfied with a generous acknowledgment; it would have been a graceful gesture to a sick man already well into his decline, and it would have cost Newton nothing. Newton, instead, went through his manuscript and eliminated nearly every reference to Hooke. Such was his fury that he refused either to publish his Opticks or to accept the presidency of the Royal Society until Hooke was dead.


Career » International prominence
The Principia immediately raised Newton to international prominence. In their continuing loyalty to the mechanical ideal, Continental scientists rejected the idea of action at a distance for a generation, but even in their rejection they could not withhold their admiration for the technical expertise revealed by the work. Young British scientists spontaneously recognized him as their model. Within a generation the limited number of salaried positions for scientists in England, such as the chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, and Gresham College, were monopolized by the young Newtonians of the next generation. Newton, whose only close contacts with women were his unfulfilled relationship with his mother, who had seemed to abandon him, and his later guardianship of a niece, found satisfaction in the role of patron to the circle of young scientists. His friendship with Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London who shared Newton’s interests, was the most profound experience of his adult life.


Career » International prominence » Warden of the mint
Almost immediately following the Principia’s publication, Newton, a fervent if unorthodox Protestant, helped to lead the resistance of Cambridge to James II’s attempt to Catholicize it. As a consequence, he was elected to represent the university in the convention that arranged the revolutionary settlement. In this capacity, he made the acquaintance of a broader group, including the philosopher John Locke. Newton tasted the excitement of London life in the aftermath of the Principia. The great bulk of his creative work had been completed. He was never again satisfied with the academic cloister, and his desire to change was whetted by Fatio’s suggestion that he find a position in London. Seek a place he did, especially through the agency of his friend, the rising politician Charles Montague, later Lord Halifax. Finally, in 1696, he was appointed warden of the mint. Although he did not resign his Cambridge appointments until 1701, he moved to London and henceforth centred his life there.

In the meantime, Newton’s relations with Fatio had undergone a crisis. Fatio was taken seriously ill; then family and financial problems threatened to call him home to Switzerland. Newton’s distress knew no limits. In 1693 he suggested that Fatio move to Cambridge, where Newton would support him, but nothing came of the proposal. Through early 1693 the intensity of Newton’s letters built almost palpably, and then, without surviving explanation, both the close relationship and the correspondence broke off. Four months later, without prior notice, Samuel Pepys and John Locke, both personal friends of Newton, received wild, accusatory letters. Pepys was informed that Newton would see him no more; Locke was charged with trying to entangle him with women. Both men were alarmed for Newton’s sanity; and, in fact, Newton had suffered at least his second nervous breakdown. The crisis passed, and Newton recovered his stability. Only briefly did he ever return to sustained scientific work, however, and the move to London was the effective conclusion of his creative activity.

As warden and then master of the mint, Newton drew a large income, as much as £2,000 per annum. Added to his personal estate, the income left him a rich man at his death. The position, regarded as a sinecure, was treated otherwise by Newton. During the great recoinage, there was need for him to be actively in command; even afterward, however, he chose to exercise himself in the office. Above all, he was interested in counterfeiting. He became the terror of London counterfeiters, sending a goodly number to the gallows and finding in them a socially acceptable target on which to vent the rage that continued to well up within him.


Career » International prominence » Interest in religion and theology
Newton found time now to explore other interests, such as religion and theology. In the early 1690s he had sent Locke a copy of a manuscript attempting to prove that Trinitarian passages in the Bible were latter-day corruptions of the original text. When Locke made moves to publish it, Newton withdrew in fear that his anti-Trinitarian views would become known. In his later years, he devoted much time to the interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and St. John, and to a closely related study of ancient chronology. Both works were published after his death.


Career » International prominence » Leader of English science
In London, Newton assumed the role of patriarch of English science. In 1703 he was elected President of the Royal Society. Four years earlier, the French Académie des Sciences (Academy of Sciences) had named him one of eight foreign associates. In 1705 Queen Anne knighted him, the first occasion on which a scientist was so honoured. Newton ruled the Royal Society magisterially. John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, had occasion to feel that he ruled it tyrannically. In his years at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Flamsteed, who was a difficult man in his own right, had collected an unrivalled body of data. Newton had received needed information from him for the Principia, and in the 1690s, as he worked on the lunar theory, he again required Flamsteed’s data. Annoyed when he could not get all the information he wanted as quickly as he wanted it, Newton assumed a domineering and condescending attitude toward Flamsteed. As president of the Royal Society, he used his influence with the government to be named as chairman of a body of “visitors” responsible for the Royal Observatory; then he tried to force the immediate publication of Flamsteed’s catalog of stars. The disgraceful episode continued for nearly 10 years. Newton would brook no objections. He broke agreements that he had made with Flamsteed. Flamsteed’s observations, the fruit of a lifetime of work, were, in effect, seized despite his protests and prepared for the press by his mortal enemy, Edmond Halley. Flamsteed finally won his point and by court order had the printed catalog returned to him before it was generally distributed. He burned the printed sheets, and his assistants brought out an authorized version after his death. In this respect, and at considerable cost to himself, Flamsteed was one of the few men to best Newton. Newton sought his revenge by systematically eliminating references to Flamsteed’s help in later editions of the Principia.

In Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and mathematician, Newton met a contestant more of his own calibre. It is now well established that Newton developed the calculus before Leibniz seriously pursued mathematics. It is almost universally agreed that Leibniz later arrived at the calculus independently. There has never been any question that Newton did not publish his method of fluxions; thus, it was Leibniz’s paper in 1684 that first made the calculus a matter of public knowledge. In the Principia Newton hinted at his method, but he did not really publish it until he appended two papers to the Opticks in 1704. By then the priority controversy was already smouldering. If, indeed, it mattered, it would be impossible finally to assess responsibility for the ensuing fracas. What began as mild innuendoes rapidly escalated into blunt charges of plagiarism on both sides. Egged on by followers anxious to win a reputation under his auspices, Newton allowed himself to be drawn into the centre of the fray; and, once his temper was aroused by accusations of dishonesty, his anger was beyond constraint. Leibniz’s conduct of the controversy was not pleasant, and yet it paled beside that of Newton. Although he never appeared in public, Newton wrote most of the pieces that appeared in his defense, publishing them under the names of his young men, who never demurred. As president of the Royal Society, he appointed an “impartial” committee to investigate the issue, secretly wrote the report officially published by the society, and reviewed it anonymously in the Philosophical Transactions. Even Leibniz’s death could not allay Newton’s wrath, and he continued to pursue the enemy beyond the grave. The battle with Leibniz, the irrepressible need to efface the charge of dishonesty, dominated the final 25 years of Newton’s life. It obtruded itself continually upon his consciousness. Almost any paper on any subject from those years is apt to be interrupted by a furious paragraph against the German philosopher, as he honed the instruments of his fury ever more keenly. In the end, only Newton’s death ended his wrath.


Career » Final years
During his final years Newton brought out further editions of his central works. After the first edition of the Opticks in 1704, which merely published work done 30 years before, he published a Latin edition in 1706 and a second English edition in 1717–18. In both, the central text was scarcely touched, but he did expand the “Queries” at the end into the final statement of his speculations on the nature of the universe. The second edition of the Principia, edited by Roger Cotes in 1713, introduced extensive alterations. A third edition, edited by Henry Pemberton in 1726, added little more. Until nearly the end, Newton presided at the Royal Society (frequently dozing through the meetings) and supervised the mint. During his last years, his niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, and her husband lived with him.

Richard S. Westfall

 





 
 



Leonardo da Vinci
Italian artist, engineer, and scientist

born April 15, 1452, Anchiano, near Vinci, Republic of Florence [now in Italy]
died May 2, 1519, Cloux [now Clos-Lucé], France

Main
Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.

The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day rests largely on his unlimited desire for knowledge, which guided all his thinking and behaviour. An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became the great theme of his studies. He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish.

Life and works » Early period: Florence
Leonardo’s parents were unmarried at the time of his birth. His father, Ser Piero, was a Florentine notary and landlord, and his mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married an artisan. Leonardo grew up on his father’s family’s estate, where he was treated as a “legitimate” son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Leonardo did not seriously study Latin, the key language of traditional learning, until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. He also did not apply himself to higher mathematics—advanced geometry and arithmetic—until he was 30 years old, when he began to study it with diligent tenacity.

Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio’s renowned workshop Leonardo received a multifaceted training that included painting and sculpture as well as the technical-mechanical arts. He also worked in the next-door workshop of artist Antonio Pollaiuolo. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted into the painters’ guild of Florence, but he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years, after which time he worked independently in Florence until 1481. There are a great many superb extant pen and pencil drawings from this period, including many technical sketches—for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus—that offer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in and knowledge of technical matters even at the outset of his career.


Life and works » First Milanese period (1482–99)
In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to work in the service of the city’s duke—a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the unfinished panel painting The Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never begun. That he gave up both projects seems to indicate that he had deeper reasons for leaving Florence. It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo’s experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza’s brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan, until Ludovico’s fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”). Leonardo’s gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing were well-received in court circles. Highly esteemed, he was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer. As he would throughout his life, Leonardo set boundless goals for himself; if one traces the outlines of his work for this period, or for his life as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose “unfinished symphony.”

As a painter, Leonardo completed six works in the 17 years in Milan. (According to contemporary sources, Leonardo was commissioned to create three more pictures, but these works have since disappeared or were never done.) From about 1483–86, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks, a project that led to 10 years of litigation between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned it, and Leonardo; for uncertain purposes, this legal dispute led Leonardo to create another version of the work in about 1508. During this first Milanese period he also made one of his most famous works, the monumental wall painting The Last Supper (1495–98) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie (for more analysis of this work, see section The Last Supper, below). Also of note is the decorative ceiling painting (1498) he made for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco.

During this period Leonardo worked on a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason he was invited to Milan: a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo devoted 12 years—with interruptions—to this task. In 1493 the clay model of the horse was put on public display on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, and preparations were made to cast the colossal figure, which was to be 16 feet (5 metres) high. But, because of the imminent danger of war, the metal, ready to be poured, was used to make cannons instead, causing the project to come to a halt. Ludovico’s fall in 1499 sealed the fate of this abortive undertaking, which was perhaps the grandest concept of a monument in the 15th century. The ensuing war left the clay model a heap of ruins.

As a master artist Leonardo maintained an extensive workshop in Milan, employing apprentices and students. Among Leonardo’s pupils at this time were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d’Oggiono, and Salai. The role of most of these associates is unclear, leading to the question of Leonardo’s so-called apocryphal works, on which the master collaborated with his assistants. Scholars have been unable to agree in their attributions of these works.


Life and works » Second Florentine period (1500–08)
In December 1499 or, at the latest, January 1500—shortly after the victorious entry of the French into Milan—Leonardo left that city in the company of mathematician Lucas Pacioli. After visiting Mantua in February 1500, in March he proceeded to Venice, where the Signoria (governing council) sought his advice on how to ward off a threatened Turkish incursion in Friuli. Leonardo recommended that they prepare to flood the menaced region. From Venice he returned to Florence, where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. In that same year he was appointed an architectural expert on a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of San Francesco al Monte. A guest of the Servite order in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, Leonardo seems to have been concentrating more on mathematical studies than painting, or so Isabella d’Este, who sought in vain to obtain a painting done by him, was informed by Fra Pietro Nuvolaria, her representative in Florence.

Perhaps because of his omnivorous appetite for life, Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1502 to enter the service of Cesare Borgia as “senior military architect and general engineer.” Borgia, the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, had, as commander in chief of the papal army, sought with unexampled ruthlessness to gain control of the Papal States of Romagna and the Marches. When he enlisted the services of Leonardo, he was at the peak of his power and, at age 27, was undoubtedly the most compelling and most feared person of his time. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his personality. For 10 months Leonardo traveled across the condottiere’s territories and surveyed them. In the course of his activity he sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps, creating early examples of aspects of modern cartography. At the court of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo also met Niccolò Machiavelli, who was temporarily stationed there as a political observer for the city of Florence.

In the spring of 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence to make an expert survey of a project that attempted to divert the Arno River behind Pisa, so that the city, then under siege by the Florentines, would be deprived of access to the sea. The plan proved unworkable, but Leonardo’s activity led him to consider a plan, first advanced in the 13th century, to build a large canal that would bypass the unnavigable stretch of the Arno and connect Florence by water with the sea. Leonardo developed his ideas in a series of studies; using his own panoramic views of the river bank, which can be seen as landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and using exact measurements of the terrain, he produced a map in which the route of the canal (with its transit through the mountain pass of Serravalle) was shown. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

Also in 1503 Leonardo received a prized commission to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions (at 23 × 56 feet [7 × 17 metres], it would have been twice as large as The Last Supper). For three years he worked on this Battle of Anghiari; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, it remained unfinished. During these same years Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06) (for more analysis of the work, see section The Mona Lisa and other works, below).

The second Florentine period was also a time of intensive scientific study. Leonardo did dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. He made systematic observations of the flight of birds, about which he planned a treatise. Even his hydrological studies, “on the nature and movement of water,” broadened into research on the physical properties of water, especially the laws of currents, which he compared with those pertaining to air. These were also set down in his own collection of data, contained in the so-called Codex Hammer (formerly known as the Leicester Codex, now in the property of software entrepreneur Bill Gates in Seattle, Washington, U.S.).


Life and works » Second Milanese period (1508–13)
In May 1506 Charles d’Amboise, the French governor in Milan, asked the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo could travel to Milan. The Signoria let Leonardo go, and the monumental Battle of Anghiari remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural; one cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work. In the winter of 1507–08 Leonardo went to Florence, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan.

Honoured and admired by his generous patrons in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, Leonardo enjoyed his duties, which were limited largely to advice in architectural matters. Tangible evidence of such work exists in plans for a palace-villa for Charles, and it is believed that he made some sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.

During this second period in Milan, Leonardo created very little as a painter. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new students came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most faithful friend and companion until the artist’s death.

An important commission came Leonardo’s way during this time. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and as a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore. After years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one. This was the second aborted project Leonardo faced as a sculptor.

Leonardo’s scientific activity flourished during this period. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia. Leonardo outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even planned to finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510–11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies. These investigations became increasingly driven by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape. Furthermore, he believed that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.


Life and works » Last years (1513–19)
In 1513 political events—the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan—caused the now 60-year-old Leonardo to move again. At the end of the year he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican. He also gave Leonardo a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions followed. For three years Leonardo remained in Rome at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius, and many younger artists such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma were also active. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master, who kept a low profile while he worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city. Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.

Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young king Francis I to enter his service in France. At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.

Leonardo did little painting while in France, spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World, or Deluge, series (c. 1514–15), he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.

Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.


Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing
Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works—the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed—have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.

The many testimonials to Leonardo, ranging from Vasari to Peter Paul Rubens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Eugène Delacroix, praise in particular the artist’s gift for expression—his ability to move beyond technique and narrative to convey an underlying sense of emotion. The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472–75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it an enigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed. In Leonardo’s landscape segment in the same picture, he also found a new expression for what he called “nature experienced”: he reproduced the background forms in a hazy fashion as if through a veil of mist.

In the Benois Madonna (1475–78) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In his Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1480) Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; begun 1480) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.

The interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture—“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words—is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481). Never finished, the painting nonetheless affords rich insight into the master’s subtle methods. The various aspects of the scene are built up from the base with very delicate, paper-thin layers of paint in sfumato (the smooth transition from light to shadow) relief. The main treatment of the Virgin and Child group and the secondary treatment of the surrounding groups are clearly set apart with a masterful sense of composition—the pyramid of the Virgin Mary and Magi is demarcated from the arc of the adoring followers. Yet thematically they are closely interconnected: the bearing and expression of the figures—most striking in the group of praying shepherds—depict many levels of profound amazement.

The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483–86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt. The secret of the picture’s effect lies in Leonardo’s use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity—all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.


Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » The Last Supper
Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–98) is among the most famous paintings in the world. In its monumental simplicity, the composition of the scene is masterful; the power of its effect comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the 12 disciples as counterposed to Christ. Leonardo portrayed a moment of high tension when, surrounded by the Apostles as they share Passover, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me.” All the Apostles—as human beings who do not understand what is about to occur—are agitated, whereas Christ alone, conscious of his divine mission, sits in lonely, transfigured serenity. Only one other being shares the secret knowledge: Judas, who is both part of and yet excluded from the movement of his companions. In this isolation he becomes the second lonely figure—the guilty one—of the company.

In the profound conception of his theme, in the perfect yet seemingly simple arrangement of the individuals, in the temperaments of the Apostles highlighted by gesture, facial expressions, and poses, in the drama and at the same time the sublimity of the treatment, Leonardo attained a height of expression that has remained a model of its kind. Countless painters in succeeding generations, among them great masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, marveled at Leonardo’s composition and were influenced by it and by the painting’s narrative quality. The work also inspired some of Goethe’s finest pages of descriptive prose. It has become widely known through countless reproductions and prints, the most important being that produced by Raffaello Morghen in 1800. Thus, The Last Supper has become part of humanity’s common heritage and remains today one of the world’s outstanding paintings.

Technical deficiencies in the execution of the work have not lessened its fame. Leonardo was uncertain about the technique he should use. He bypassed traditional fresco painting, which, because it is executed on fresh plaster, demands quick and uninterrupted painting, in favour of another technique he had developed: tempera on a base, which he mixed himself, on the stone wall. This procedure proved unsuccessful, inasmuch as the base soon began to loosen from the wall. Damage appeared by the beginning of the 16th century, and deterioration soon set in. By the middle of the century the work was called a ruin. Later, inadequate attempts at restoration only aggravated the situation, and not until the most modern restoration techniques were applied after World War II was the process of decay halted. A major restoration campaign begun in 1980 and completed in 1999 restored the work to brilliance but also revealed that very little of the original paint remains.


Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » Art and science: the notebooks
In the years between 1490 and 1495, the great program of Leonardo the writer (author of treatises) began. During this period, his interest in two fields—the artistic and the scientific—developed and shaped his future work, building toward a kind of creative dualism that sparked his inventiveness in both fields. He gradually gave shape to four main themes that were to occupy him for the rest of his life: a treatise on painting, a treatise on architecture, a book on the elements of mechanics, and a broadly outlined work on human anatomy. His geophysical, botanical, hydrological, and aerological researches also began in this period and constitute parts of the “visible cosmology” that loomed before him as a distant goal. He scorned speculative book knowledge, favouring instead the irrefutable facts gained from experience—from saper vedere.

From this approach came Leonardo’s far-reaching concept of a “science of painting.” Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca had already offered proof of the mathematical basis of painting in their analysis of the laws of perspective and proportion, thereby buttressing his claim of painting being a science. But Leonardo’s claims went much further: he believed that the painter, doubly endowed with subtle powers of perception and the complete ability to pictorialize them, was the person best qualified to achieve true knowledge, as he could closely observe and then carefully reproduce the world around him. Hence, Leonardo conceived the staggering plan of observing all objects in the visible world, recognizing their form and structure, and pictorially describing them exactly as they are.

It was during his first years in Milan that Leonardo began the earliest of his notebooks. He would first make quick sketches of his observations on loose sheets or on tiny paper pads he kept in his belt; then he would arrange them according to theme and enter them in order in the notebook. Surviving in notebooks from throughout his career are a first collection of material for a painting treatise, a model book of sketches for sacred and profane architecture, a treatise on elementary theory of mechanics, and the first sections of a treatise on the human body.

Leonardo’s notebooks add up to thousands of closely written pages abundantly illustrated with sketches—the most voluminous literary legacy any painter has ever left behind. Of more than 40 codices mentioned—sometimes inaccurately—in contemporary sources, 21 have survived; these in turn sometimes contain notebooks originally separate but now bound so that 32 in all have been preserved. To these should be added several large bundles of documents: an omnibus volume in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, called Codex Atlanticus because of its size, was collected by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni at the end of the 16th century; after a roundabout journey, its companion volume fell into the possession of the English crown in the 17th century and was placed in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. Finally, the Arundel Manuscript in the British Museum in London contains a number of Leonardo’s fascicles on various themes.

One special feature that makes Leonardo’s notes and sketches unusual is his use of mirror writing. Leonardo was left-handed, so mirror writing came easily and naturally to him—although it is uncertain why he chose to do so. While somewhat unusual, his script can be read clearly and without difficulty with the help of a mirror—as his contemporaries testified—and should not be looked on as a secret handwriting. But the fact that Leonardo used mirror writing throughout the notebooks, even in his copies drawn up with painstaking calligraphy, forces one to conclude that, although he constantly addressed an imaginary reader in his writings, he never felt the need to achieve easy communication by using conventional handwriting. His writings must be interpreted as preliminary stages of works destined for eventual publication that Leonardo never got around to completing. In a sentence in the margin of one of his late anatomy sketches, he implores his followers to see that his works are printed.

Another unusual feature in Leonardo’s writings is the relationship between word and picture in the notebooks. Leonardo strove passionately for a language that was clear yet expressive. The vividness and wealth of his vocabulary were the result of intense independent study and represented a significant contribution to the evolution of scientific prose in the Italian vernacular. Despite his articulateness, Leonardo gave absolute precedence to the illustration over the written word in his teaching method. Hence, in his notebooks, the drawing does not illustrate the text; rather, the text serves to explain the picture. In formulating his own principle of graphic representations—which he called dimostrazione (“demonstrations”)—Leonardo’s work was a precursor of modern scientific illustration.


Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » The Mona Lisa and other works
In the Florence years between 1500 and 1506, Leonardo began three great works that confirmed and heightened his fame: Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1502–16), Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06), and Battle of Anghiari (unfinished; begun 1503). Even before it was completed, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne won the critical acclaim of the Florentines; the monumental, three-dimensional quality of the group and the calculated effects of dynamism and tension in the composition made it a model that inspired Classicists and Mannerists in equal measure.

The Mona Lisa set the standard for all future portraits. The painting presents a woman revealed in the 21st century to have been Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, hence, the alternative title to the work, “La Gioconda.” The picture presents a half-body portrait of the subject, with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop. Although utilizing a seemingly simple formula for portraiture, the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape has placed this work in the canon of the most popular and most analyzed paintings of all time. The sensuous curves of the woman’s hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating valleys and rivers behind her. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter’s faint smile—reflects Leonardo’s idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo’s vision and genius. The young Raphael sketched the work in progress, and it served as a model for his Portrait of Maddalena Doni (c. 1506).

Leonardo’s art of expression reached another high point in the unfinished Battle of Anghiari. The preliminary drawings—many of which have been preserved—reveal Leonardo’s lofty conception of the “science of painting”; he put to artistic use the laws of equilibrium that he had probed in his studies of mechanics. The “centre of gravity” in the work lies in the group of flags fought for by all the horsemen. For a moment the intense and expanding movement of the swirl of riders seems frozen. Leonardo’s studies in anatomy and physiology influenced his representation of human and animal bodies, particularly when they are in a state of excitement. He studied and described extensively the baring of teeth and puffing of lips as signs of animal and human anger. On the painted canvas, rider and horse, their features distorted, are remarkably similar in expression.

The highly imaginative trappings of the painting take the event out of the sphere of the historical and put it into a timeless realm. The cartoon and the copies showing the main scene of the battle were for a long time influential to other artists; to quote the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the works became “the school of the world.” Its composition has influenced many painters: from Rubens in the 17th century, who made the most impressive copy of the scene from Leonardo’s now-lost cartoon, to Delacroix in the 19th century.


Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » Later painting and drawing
After 1507—in Milan, Rome, and France—Leonardo did very little painting. During his years in Milan he returned to the Leda theme—which had been occupying him for a decade—and probably finished a standing version of Leda about 1513 (the work survives only through copies). This painting became a model of the figura serpentinata (“sinuous figure”)—that is, a figure built up from several intertwining views. It influenced classical artists such as Raphael, who drew it, but it had an equally strong effect on Mannerists such as Jacopo da Pontormo. The drawings he prepared—revealing examples of his late style—have a curious, enigmatic sensuality. Perhaps in Rome he began the painting St. John the Baptist, which he completed in France. Leonardo radically used light and shade to achieve sculptural volume and atmosphere; John emerges from darkness into light and seems to emanate light and goodness. Moreover, in painting the saint’s enigmatic smile, he presented Christ’s forerunner as the herald of a mystic oracle. Leonardo’s was an art of expression that seemed to strive consciously to bring out the hidden ambiguity of the theme. Consummate drawings from this period, such as the Pointing Lady (c. 1516), also are testaments to his undiminished genius.

The last manifestation of Leonardo’s art of expression was in his series of pictorial sketches Visions of the End of the World (c. 1514–15). There Leonardo’s power of imagination—born of reason and fantasy—attained its highest level. Leonardo suggested that the immaterial forces in the cosmos, invisible in themselves, appear in the material things they set in motion. What he had observed in the swirling of water and eddying of air, in the shape of a mountain boulder and in the growth of plants, now assumed gigantic shape in cloud formations and rainstorms. He depicted the framework of the world as splitting asunder, but even in its destruction there occurs—as the monstrously “beautiful” forms of the unleashed elements show—the self-same laws of order, harmony, and proportion that presided at the world’s creation. These rules govern the life and death of every created thing in nature. Without any precedent, these “visions” are the last and most original expressions of Leonardo’s art—an art in which his perception based on saper vedere seems to have come to fruition.


Art and accomplishment » Sculpture
Leonardo worked as a sculptor from his youth on, as shown in his own statements and those of other sources. A small group of generals’ heads in marble and plaster, works of Verrocchio’s followers, are sometimes linked with Leonardo because a lovely drawing attributed to him that is on the same theme suggests such a connection. But the inferior quality of this group of sculpture rules out an attribution to the master. No trace has remained of the heads of women and children that, according to Vasari, Leonardo modeled in clay in his youth.

The two great sculptural projects to which Leonardo devoted himself wholeheartedly were not realized; neither the huge, bronze equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, on which he worked from about 1489 to 1494, nor the monument for Marshal Trivulzio, on which he was busy in the years 1506–11, were brought to completion. Many sketches of the work exist, but the most impressive were found in 1965 when two of Leonardo’s notebooks—the so-called Madrid Codices—were discovered in the National Library of Madrid. These notebooks reveal the sublimity but also the almost unreal boldness of his conception. Text and drawings both show Leonardo’s wide experience in the technique of bronze casting, but at the same time they reveal the almost utopian nature of the project. He wanted to cast the horse in a single piece, but the gigantic dimensions of the steed presented insurmountable technical problems. Indeed, Leonardo remained uncertain of the problem’s solution to the very end.

The drawings for these two monuments reveal the greatness of Leonardo’s vision of sculpture. Exact studies of the anatomy, movement, and proportions of a live horse preceded the sketches for the monuments; Leonardo even seems to have thought of writing a treatise on the horse. He pondered the merits of two positions for the horse—galloping or trotting—and in both commissions decided in favour of the latter. These sketches, superior in the suppressed tension of horse and rider to the achievements of Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata and Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni, are among the most beautiful and significant examples of Leonardo’s art. Unquestionably—as ideas—they exerted a very strong influence on the development of equestrian statues in the 16th century.

A small bronze statue of a galloping horseman in Budapest is so close to Leonardo’s style that, if not from his own hand, it must have been done under his immediate influence (perhaps by Giovanni Francesco Rustici). Rustici, according to Vasari, was Leonardo’s zealous student and enjoyed his master’s help in sculpting his large group in bronze, St. John the Baptist Teaching, over the north door of the Baptistery in Florence. There are, indeed, discernible traces of Leonardo’s influence in John’s stance, with the unusual gesture of his upward pointing hand, and in the figure of the bald-headed Levite. While there are few extant examples to study of Leonardo’s sculptural work, the elements of motion and volume he explored in the medium no doubt influenced his drawing and painting, and vice versa.


Art and accomplishment » Architecture
Applying for service in a letter to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo described himself as an experienced architect, military engineer, and hydraulic engineer; indeed, he was concerned with architectural matters all his life. But his effectiveness was essentially limited to the role of an adviser. Only once—in the competition for the cupola of the Milan cathedral (1487–90)—did he actually consider personal participation, but he gave up this idea when the model he had submitted was returned to him. In other instances, his claim to being a practicing architect was based on sketches for representative secular buildings: for the palace of a Milanese nobleman (about 1490), for the villa of the French governor in Milan (1507–08), and for the Medici residence in Florence (1515). Finally, there was his big project for the palace and garden of Romorantin in France (1517–19). Especially in this last project, Leonardo’s pencil sketches clearly reveal his mastery of technical as well as artistic architectural problems; the view in perspective gives an idea of the magnificence of the site.

But what really characterizes and immortalized Leonardo’s architectural studies is their comprehensiveness; they range far afield and embrace every type of building problem of his time and even involve urban planning. Furthermore, there frequently appears evidence of Leonardo’s impulse to teach: he wanted to collect his writings on this theme in a theory of architecture. This treatise on architecture—the initial lines of which are in Codex B in the Institut de France in Paris, a model book of the types of sacred and profane buildings—was to deal with the entire field of architecture as well as with the theories of forms and construction and was to include such items as urbanism, sacred and profane buildings, and a compendium of important individual elements (for example, domes, steps, portals, and windows).

In the fullness and richness of their ideas, Leonardo’s architectural studies offer an unusually wide-ranging insight into the architectural achievements of his epoch. Like a seismograph, his observations sensitively register all themes and problems. For almost 20 years he was associated with Bramante at the court of Milan and again met him in Rome in 1513–14; he was closely associated with other distinguished architects such as Francesco di Giorgio, Giuliano da Sangallo, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, and Luca Fancelli. Thus, he was brought in closest touch with all of the most significant building undertakings of the time. Since Leonardo’s architectural drawings extend over his whole life, they span precisely that developmentally crucial period—from the 1480s to the second decade of the 16th century—in which the principles of the High Renaissance style were formulated and came to maturity. That this genetic process can be followed in the ideas of one of the greatest men of the period lends Leonardo’s studies their distinctive artistic value and their outstanding historical significance.


Art and accomplishment » Science » Science of painting
Leonardo’s advocacy of a science of painting is best displayed in his notebook writings under the general heading “On Painting.” The notebooks provide evidence that, among many projects he planned, he intended to write a treatise discussing painting. After inheriting Leonardo’s vast manuscript legacy in 1519, it is believed that, sometime before 1542, Melzi extracted passages from them and organized them into the Trattato della pittura (“Treatise on Painting”) that is attributed to Leonardo. Only about a quarter of the sources for Melzi’s manuscript—known as the Codex Urbinas, in the Vatican Library—have been identified and located in the extant notebooks, and it is impossible to assess how closely Melzi’s presentation of the material reflected Leonardo’s specific intentions.

Abridged copies of Melzi’s manuscript appeared in Italy during the late 16th century, and in 1651 the first printed editions were published in French and Italian in Paris by Raffaelo du Fresne, with illustrations after drawings by Nicolas Poussin. The first complete edition of Melzi’s text did not appear until 1817, published in Rome. The two standard modern editions are those of Emil Ludwig (1882; in 3 vol. with German translation) and A. Philip McMahon (1956; in 2 vol., a facsimile of the Codex Urbinas with English translation).

Despite the uncertainties surrounding Melzi’s presentation of Leonardo’s ideas, the passages in Leonardo’s extant notebooks identified with the heading “On Painting” offer an indication of the treatise Leonardo had in mind. As was customary in treatises of the time, Leonardo planned to combine theoretical exposition with practical information, in this case offering practical career advice to other artists. But his primary concern in the treatise was to argue that painting is a science, raising its status as a discipline from the mechanical arts to the liberal arts. By defining painting as “the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature,” Leonardo gave essential significance to the authority of the eye, believing firmly in the importance of saper vedere. This was the informing idea behind his defense of painting as a science.

In his notebooks Leonardo pursues this defense through the form of the paragone (“comparison”), a disputation that advances the supremacy of painting over the other arts. He roots his case in the function of the senses, asserting that “the eye deludes itself less than any of the other senses,” and thereby suggests that the direct observation inherent in creating a painting has a truthful, scientific quality. After asserting that the useful results of science are “communicable,” he states that painting is similarly clear: unlike poetry, he argues, painting presents its results as a “matter for the visual faculty,” giving “immediate satisfaction to human beings in no other way than the things produced by nature herself.” Leonardo also distinguishes between painting and sculpture, claiming that the manual labour involved in sculpting detracts from its intellectual aspects, and that the illusionistic challenge of painting (working in two rather than three dimensions) requires that the painter possess a better grasp of mathematical and optical principles than the sculptor.

In defining painting as a science, Leonardo also emphasizes its mathematical basis. In the notebooks he explains that the 10 optical functions of the eye (“darkness, light, body and colour, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest”) are all essential components of painting. He addresses these functions through detailed discourses on perspective that include explanations of perspectival systems based on geometry, proportion, and the modulation of light and shade. He differentiates between types of perspective, including the conventional form based on a single vanishing point, the use of multiple vanishing points, and aerial perspective. In addition to these orthodox systems, he explores—via words and geometric and analytic drawings—the concepts of wide-angle vision, lateral recession, and atmospheric perspective, through which the blurring of clarity and progressive lightening of tone is used to create the illusion of deep spatial recession. He further offers practical advice—again through words and sketches—about how to paint optical effects such as light, shadow, distance, atmosphere, smoke, and water, as well as how to portray aspects of human anatomy, such as human proportion and facial expressions.


Art and accomplishment » Science » Anatomical studies and drawings
Leonardo’s fascination with anatomical studies reveals a prevailing artistic interest of the time. In his own treatise Della pittura (1435; “On Painting”), theorist Leon Battista Alberti urged painters to construct the human figure as it exists in nature, supported by the skeleton and musculature, and only then clothed in skin. Although the date of Leonardo’s initial involvement with anatomical study is not known, it is sound to speculate that his anatomical interest was sparked during his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop, either in response to his master’s interest or to that of Verrocchio’s neighbor Pollaiuolo, who was renowned for his fascination with the workings of the human body. It cannot be determined exactly when Leonardo began to perform dissections, but it might have been several years after he first moved to Milan, at the time a centre of medical investigation. His study of anatomy, originally pursued for his training as an artist, had grown by the 1490s into an independent area of research. As his sharp eye uncovered the structure of the human body, Leonardo became fascinated by the figura istrumentale dell’ omo (“man’s instrumental figure”), and he sought to comprehend its physical working as a creation of nature. Over the following two decades, he did practical work in anatomy on the dissection table in Milan, then at hospitals in Florence and Rome, and in Pavia, where he collaborated with the physician-anatomist Marcantonio della Torre. By his own count Leonardo dissected 30 corpses in his lifetime.

Leonardo’s early anatomical studies dealt chiefly with the skeleton and muscles; yet even at the outset, Leonardo combined anatomical with physiological research. From observing the static structure of the body, Leonardo proceeded to study the role of individual parts of the body in mechanical activity. This led him finally to the study of the internal organs; among them he probed most deeply into the brain, heart, and lungs as the “motors” of the senses and of life. His findings from these studies were recorded in the famous anatomical drawings, which are among the most significant achievements of Renaissance science. The drawings are based on a connection between natural and abstract representation; he represented parts of the body in transparent layers that afford an “insight” into the organ by using sections in perspective, reproducing muscles as “strings,” indicating hidden parts by dotted lines, and devising a hatching system. The genuine value of these dimostrazione lay in their ability to synthesize a multiplicity of individual experiences at the dissecting table and make the data immediately and accurately visible; as Leonardo proudly emphasized, these drawings were superior to descriptive words. The wealth of Leonardo’s anatomical studies that have survived forged the basic principles of modern scientific illustration. It is worth noting, however, that during his lifetime, Leonardo’s medical investigations remained private. He did not consider himself a professional in the field of anatomy, and he neither taught nor published his findings.

Although he kept his anatomical studies to himself, Leonardo did publish some of his observations on human proportion. Working with the mathematician Luca Pacioli, Leonardo considered the proportional theories of Vitruvius, the 1st-century bc Roman architect, as presented in his treatise De architectura (“On Architecture”). Imposing the principles of geometry on the configuration of the human body, Leonardo demonstrated that the ideal proportion of the human figure corresponds with the forms of the circle and the square. In his illustration of this theory, the so-called Vitruvian Man, Leonardo demonstrated that when a man places his feet firmly on the ground and stretches out his arms, he can be contained within the four lines of a square, but when in a spread-eagle position, he can be inscribed in a circle.

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote: “Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire … this body of the earth is similar.” He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.


Art and accomplishment » Science » Mechanics and cosmology
According to Leonardo’s observations, the study of mechanics, with which he became quite familiar as an architect and engineer, also reflected the workings of nature. Throughout his life Leonardo was an inventive builder; he thoroughly understood the principles of mechanics of his time and contributed in many ways to advancing them. The two Madrid notebooks deal extensively with his theory of mechanics; the first was written in the 1490s, and the second was written between 1503 and 1505. Their importance lay less in their description of specific machines or work tools than in their use of demonstration models to explain the basic mechanical principles and functions employed in building machinery. As in his anatomical drawings, Leonardo developed definite principles of graphic representation—stylization, patterns, and diagrams—that offer a precise demonstration of the object in question.

Leonardo was also quite active as a military engineer, beginning with his stay in Milan. But no definitive examples of his work can be adduced. The Madrid notebooks revealed that, in 1504, probably sent by the Florentine governing council, he stood at the side of the lord of Piombino when the city’s fortifications system was repaired and suggested a detailed plan for overhauling it. His studies for large-scale canal projects in the Arno region and in Lombardy show that he was also an expert in hydraulic engineering.

Leonardo was especially intrigued by problems of friction and resistance, and with each of the mechanical elements he presented—such as screw threads, gears, hydraulic jacks, swiveling devices, and transmission gears—drawings took precedence over the written word. Throughout his career he also was intrigued by the mechanical potential of motion. This led him to design a machine with a differential transmission, a moving fortress that resembles a modern tank, and a flying machine. His “helical airscrew” (c. 1487) almost seems a prototype for the modern helicopter, but, like the other vehicles Leonardo designed, it presented a singular problem: it lacked an adequate source of power to provide propulsion and lift.

Wherever Leonardo probed the phenomena of nature, he recognized the existence of primal mechanical forces that govern the shape and function of the universe. This is seen in his studies of the flight of birds, in which his youthful idea of the feasibility of a flying apparatus took shape and that led to exhaustive research into the element of air; in his studies of water, the vetturale della natura (“conveyor of nature”), in which he was as much concerned with the physical properties of water as with its laws of motion and currents; in his research on the laws of growth of plants and trees, as well as the geologic structure of earth and hill formations; and finally in his observation of air currents, which evoked the image of the flame of a candle or the picture of a wisp of cloud and smoke. In his drawings based on the numerous experiments he undertook, Leonardo found a stylized form of representation that was uniquely his own, especially in his studies of whirlpools. He managed to break down a phenomenon into its component parts—the traces of water or eddies of the whirlpool—yet at the same time preserve the total picture, creating both an analytic and a synthetic vision.


Art and accomplishment » Leonardo as artist-scientist
As the 15th century expired, Scholastic doctrines were in decline, and humanistic scholarship was on the rise. Leonardo, however, was part of an intellectual circle that developed a third, specifically modern, form of cognition. In his view, the artist—as transmitter of the true and accurate data of experience acquired by visual observation—played a significant part. In an era that often compared the process of divine creation to the activity of an artist, Leonardo reversed the analogy, using art as his own means to approximate the mysteries of creation, asserting that, through the science of painting, “the mind of the painter is transformed into a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.” With this sense of the artist’s high calling, Leonardo approached the vast realm of nature to probe its secrets. His utopian idea of transmitting in encyclopaedic form the knowledge thus won was still bound up with medieval Scholastic conceptions; however, the results of his research were among the first great achievements of the forthcoming age’s thinking because they were based to an unprecedented degree on the principle of experience.

Finally, although he made strenuous efforts to become erudite in languages, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and history, as a mere listing of the wide-ranging contents of his library demonstrates, Leonardo remained an empiricist of visual observation. It is precisely through this observation—and his own genius—that he developed a unique “theory of knowledge” in which art and science form a synthesis. In the face of his overall achievements, therefore, the question of how much he finished or did not finish becomes pointless. The crux of the matter is his intellectual force—self-contained and inherent in every one of his creations—a force that continues to spark scholarly interest today. In fact, debate has spilled over into the personal realm of his life—over his sexuality, religious beliefs, and even possible vegetarianism, for example—which only confirms and reflects what has long been obvious: whether the subject is his life, his ideas, or his artistic legacy, Leonardo’s influence shows little sign of abating.

Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich

 





 
 



Andreas Vesalius
Belgian physician
(Latin), Flemish Andries Van Wesel

born December 1514, Brussels [now in Belgium]
died June 1564, island of Zacynthus, Republic of Venice [now in Greece]

Main
Renaissance Flemish physician who revolutionized the study of biology and the practice of medicine by his careful description of the anatomy of the human body. Basing his observations on dissections he made himself, he wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive textbook of anatomy.

Life
Vesalius was from a family of physicians and pharmacists. He attended the Catholic University of Leuven (Louvain) in 1529–33, and from 1533 to 1536 he studied at the medical school of the University of Paris, where he learned to dissect animals. He also had the opportunity to dissect human cadavers, and he devoted much of his time to a study of human bones, at that time easily available in the Paris cemeteries.

In 1536 Vesalius returned to his native Brabant to spend another year at the Catholic University of Leuven, where the influence of Arab medicine was still dominant. Following the prevailing custom, he prepared, in 1537, a paraphrase of the work of the 10th-century Arab physician, Rhazes, probably in fulfillment of the requirements for the bachelor of medicine degree. He then went to the University of Padua, a progressive university with a strong tradition of anatomical dissection. On receiving the M.D. degree the same year, he was appointed a lecturer in surgery with the responsibility of giving anatomical demonstrations. Since he knew that a thorough knowledge of human anatomy was essential to surgery, he devoted much of his time to dissections of cadavers and insisted on doing them himself, instead of relying on untrained assistants. At first, Vesalius had no reason to question the theories of Galen, the Greek physician who had served the emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome and whose books on anatomy were still considered as authoritative in medical education in Vesalius’ time. In January 1540, breaking with this tradition of relying on Galen, Vesalius openly demonstrated his own method—doing dissections himself, learning anatomy from cadavers, and critically evaluating ancient texts. He did so while visiting the University of Bologna. Such methods soon convinced him that Galenic anatomy had not been based on the dissection of the human body, which had been strictly forbidden by the Roman religion. Galenic anatomy, he maintained, was an application to the human form of conclusions drawn from the dissections of animals, mostly dogs, monkeys, or pigs. It was this conclusion that he had the audacity to declare in his teaching as he hurriedly prepared his complete textbook of human anatomy for publication. Early in 1542 he traveled to Venice to supervise the preparation of drawings to illustrate his text, probably in the studio of the great Renaissance artist Titian. The drawings of his dissections were engraved on wood blocks, which he took, together with his manuscript, to Basel, Switz., where his major work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (“The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body”) commonly known as the Fabrica, was printed in 1543.

In this epochal work, Vesalius deployed all his scientific, humanistic, and aesthetic gifts. The Fabrica was a more extensive and accurate description of the human body than any put forward by his predecessors; it gave anatomy a new language, and, in the elegance of its printing and organization, a perfection hitherto unknown.

Early in 1543, Vesalius left for Mainz, to present his book to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who engaged him as regular physician to the household. Thus, when not yet 28 years old, Vesalius had attained his goal. After relinquishing his post in Padua, and returning in the spring of 1544 to his native land to marry Anne van Hamme, he took up new duties in the service of the Emperor on his travels in Europe. From 1553 to 1556 Vesalius spent most of his time in Brussels, where he built an imposing house in keeping with his growing affluence and attended to his flourishing medical practice. His prestige was further enhanced when Charles V, on abdication from the Spanish throne in 1556, provided him with a lifetime pension and made him a count.

Vesalius went to Spain in 1559 with his wife and daughter to take up an appointment, made by Philip II, son of Charles V, as one of the physicians in the Madrid court. In 1564 Vesalius obtained permission to leave Spain to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. He traveled to Jerusalem, with stops at Venice and Cyprus, his wife and daughter having returned to Brussels.


Assessment
Vesalius’ work represented the culmination of the humanistic revival of ancient learning, the introduction of human dissections into medical curricula, and the growth of a European anatomical literature. Vesalius performed his dissections with a thoroughness hitherto unknown. After Vesalius, anatomy became a scientific discipline, with far-reaching implications not only for physiology but for all of biology. During his own lifetime, however, Vesalius found it easier to correct points of Galenic anatomy than to challenge his physiological framework. Conflicting reports obscure the final days of Vesalius’ life. Apparently he became ill aboard ship while returning to Europe from his pilgrimage. He was put ashore on the Greek island of Zacynthus, where he died.

Marcel Florkin

 

 

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