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The Science of Leonardo

Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance

The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra
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Leonardo da Vinci's scientific explorations were virtually unknown during his lifetime, despite their extraordinarily wide range. He studied the flight patterns of birds to create some of the first human flying machines; designed military weapons and defenses; studied optics, hydraulics, and the workings of the human circulatory system; and created designs for rebuilding Milan, employing principles still used by city planners today. Perhaps most importantly, Leonardo pioneered an empirical, systematic approach to the observation of nature-what is known today as the scientific method.Drawing on over 6,000 pages of Leonardo's surviving notebooks, acclaimed scientist and bestselling author Fritjof Capra reveals Leonardo's artistic approach to scientific knowledge and his organic and ecological worldview. In this fascinating portrait of a thinker centuries ahead of his time, Leonardo singularly emerges as the unacknowledged “father of modern science.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; October 2007
353 pages; ISBN 9780385524117
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Science of Leonardo
Author: Fritjof Capra
Infinite Grace

The earliest literary portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and to me still the most moving, is that by the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari in his classic book Lives of the Artists, published in 1550. (1) Vasari was only eight years old when Leonardo died, but he gathered information about the master from many artists who had known him and remembered him well, most notably Leonardo’s close friend and disciple Francesco Melzi. An acquaintance of Leonardo, the surgeon and art collector Paolo Giovio, wrote a short eulogy, but it is unfinished and merely a page long. (2) Vasari’s chapter, “Life of Leonardo da Vinci,” therefore, is as close as we can come to a contemporary account.

Besides being an accomplished painter and architect, Vasari was a keen collector of drawings by famous masters and of stories about them. The idea of writing a book on the history of Italian art from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries was suggested to him by Giovio during a dinner party in Rome. (3) The book became a bestseller when it was first published, and its wide popular appeal has endured over the centuries due to the author’s lively and colorful portraits, replete with charming anecdotes. Through a series of engaging stories about the lives of its greatest artists, Vasari’s Lives conveyed the revolutionary nature of the Italian Renaissance. In spite of many inaccuracies and a tendency toward referring to legends and idolizing, Vasari’s work remains the principal source for anyone interested in that period of European art and culture.


The opening paragraphs of Vasari’s chapter on Leonardo are an emphatic declaration of the master’s exceptional qualities and appearance:

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art.

Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease. He possessed great strength and dexterity; he was a man of regal spirit and tremendous breadth of mind; and his name became so famous that not only was he esteemed during his lifetime but his reputation endured and became even greater after his death.

Vasari’s effusive portrait of Leonardo may seem exaggerated, but his description is echoed in many contemporary accounts and references, in which Leonardo was often compared to the classical geniuses and sages of antiquity—Archimedes, Pythagoras, and most frequently Plato. (4) Indeed, when Raphael, another great master of the Italian Renaissance, painted his fresco The School of Athens in the Vatican, he gave Plato the features of Leonardo, dressing him in a rose–colored toga (a color favored by Leonardo), with his index finger raised in a characteristic gesture well known from Leonardo's paintings.

Leonardo’s physical beauty in his youth and middle–aged years must have been exceptional, as it is mentioned by all his contemporary commentators, even though this was not customary at the time. An anonymous writer called the Anonimo Gaddiano exclaimed, “He was so unusual and many–sided that nature seemed to have produced a miracle in him, not only in the beauty of his person, but in the many gifts with which she endowed him and which he fully mastered.” (5) Others marveled at the unique combination of physical strength and grace he seemed to embody. Many authors, including Vasari, referred to him with the ultimate epithet—il divino.

As a youth, Leonardo liked to dress flamboyantly. “He wore a rose–colored cloak,” the Anonimo Gaddiano tells us, “which came only to his knees, although at the time long vestments were the custom. His beard came to the middle of his breast and was well–combed and curled.”

As he grew older, Leonardo apparently dressed more conventionally, but his appearance was always elegant and refined. Paolo Giovio described him as “the arbiter of all questions relating to beauty and elegance, especially pageantry.” Leonardo’s own description of the painter's inherent refinement is revealing as well:

The painter sits in front of his work at great ease, well-dressed, and wielding a very light brush with delicate colors. He adorns himself with the clothes he fancies; his home is clean and filled with delightful pictures, and he is often accompanied by music or readers of various beautiful works. (6)

There exists no confirmed portrait of Leonardo as a young man, but legend has it that he was the model for several angels and other youthful figures portrayed by Renaissance artists. The most credible of them is the lovely adolescent David sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio during the time Leonardo was his student (see Fig. 1-1). The slender figure, wavy hair, and strikingly handsome face certainly match the contemporary descriptions of the young Leonardo, and art historians have pointed out that several of the statue's facial characteristics seem to foreshadow those in the well–known portraits of the old master. (7)

There are quite a few portraits of Leonardo as an older man, most of them idealizing him as a venerable sage. (8) The most authentic is that which is considered the artist's only existing self–portrait, a captivating, highly detailed drawing in red chalk that he made when he was about sixty, although he appears older than his age (see Fig. P–1 on p. xxii). The drawing is housed in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin and is known as the Turin self–portrait. Unfortunately, it has been severely affected by centuries of exposure to air and light. The paper is now covered with “fox marks” (rusty–brown spots caused by excessive moisture and subsequent accumulation of iron salts), and the drawing is rarely exhibited in public.

In spite of its poor condition, the Turin self–portrait, which has been reproduced in countless posters and books, exerts a powerful effect on the viewer. This is even more true if one is fortunate enough to spend some time with the original, viewing it from different angles and distances, revealing the portrait’s complex and subtle expressions. Leonardo drew this portrait at a time of personal uncertainty and discontent. He was well aware that the greater part of his life was behind him; his eyes had weakened and his health was failing. He was living in Rome at the time, where he was revered. But already he was beginning to become out of fashion as an artist, eclipsed by younger rivals like Raphael and Michelangelo, who were in their prime and were the favorites of the papal court.

In Leonardo’s self–portrait, this unhappy time is reflected in a line of disillusionment, or perhaps contempt, around the mouth. Yet, under the bushy brows and majestic forehead, his eyes—the “windows of the soul”—have preserved the quiet intensity of his gaze as well as a deep serenity. The resulting expression, to me, is that of a powerful, critical intellect, tempered by wisdom and compassion.

Over the years, the Turin self–portrait has become not only the iconic image of Leonardo, but the model for the archetypal portrait of the old sage in the centuries after him. “This great furrowed mountain of a face,” wrote art historian Kenneth Clark, “with its noble brow, cavernous eyes, and undulating foothills of beard is like the faces of all the great men of the nineteenth century as the camera has preserved them for us—Darwin, Tolstoy, Walt Whitman.” (9)

A quality that is not visible in Leonardo’s self–portrait but was always mentioned by his contemporaries was his kind and gentle nature, in the words of the duchess Isabella d’Este, “this air of sweetness and gentleness that is so characteristic of him.” “Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone's affection,” Vasari writes. “He was so generous that he sheltered and fed all his friends, rich or poor.” He was also eloquent and charming in conversation. In fact, Vasari claimed he was so persuasive that he could “bend other people to his own will.”

Leonardo combined this gentle and charming disposition with great physical strength. In his younger years he was apparently quite an athlete, “most skillful in lifting weights,” as the Anonimo Gaddiano tells us, and an excellent horseman. According to Vasari, “he was physically so strong that he could withstand any violence; with his right hand he would bend the iron ring of a doorbell or a horseshoe as if they were lead.” Vasari may have exaggerated Leonardo's strength (and we know that Leonardo was left–handed), but his athletic prowess seems to have been well known.

During his years in Milan, he entertained the court with fables, songs, and charming conversation. “He sang beautifully to his own accompaniment on the lira to the delight of the entire court,” we are told by Paolo Giovio. But Leonardo also pursued his scientific research with intense concentration and needed to escape frequently to spend long periods of time alone. “The painter or draftsman must be solitary,” he wrote in the Treatise on Painting, “and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.” (10) These frequent withdrawals into periods of solitude, spent in contemplation and sustained observations of nature, likely contributed to the air of mystery that surrounded him.


Throughout his life, Leonardo displayed an air of serene self-confidence, which helped him overcome professional setbacks and disappointments with equanimity and allowed him to calmly pursue his research even during times of great political turbulence. He was well aware of his unique genius and skill, yet he never boasted about them. Nowhere in his Notebooks does he vaunt the originality of his inventions or discoveries, nor does he flaunt the superiority of his ideas, even as he explains how they differ from traditional beliefs. This lack of arrogance and ego was remarkable indeed.

Another quality that distinguished him was his passion for life and for all living things. He immersed himself in the study of living forms not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. He held a great awe and reverence for nature’s creativity, and felt particular compassion for animals. His love of horses was well known to his contemporaries, and can be seen in his drawings, in which he used his acute powers of observation to render the animals' movements and “noble proportions” in exquisite detail. Vasari claimed that Leonardo always kept horses. Equally touching is Vasari’s famous story of Leonardo buying birds in the marketplace, so that he might set them free:

Often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold he would pay the price asked, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.

His love of animals was also the reason Leonardo became a vegetarian—something unheard–of in Italy during the Renaissance, and therefore widely noticed. Leonardo’s justification for his vegetarianism combines his firm moral stance with keen scientific observation. He argued that, unlike plants, animals are sensitive to pain because they are capable of movement, and he did not want to cause them pain and suffering by killing them for food:

Nature has ordained that living organisms with the power of movement should experience pain in order to preserve those parts which might diminish or be destroyed by movement. Living organisms without the power of movement do not have to strike against any opposing objects, so that pain is not necessary in plants, and hence when they are broken they do not feel pain as do animals. (11)

In other words, in Leonardo’s mind, animals develop sensitivity to pain because it gives them a selective advantage in avoiding injury when they move about.

By all accounts, Leonardo was a man of unusual tenderness. He had tremendous compassion for the suffering of people and animals. He was vehemently opposed to war, which he called pazzia bestialissima (“most bestial madness”). In view of this, it seems contradictory that he should have offered his services as military engineer to various rulers of his time.

Part of the answer to this contradiction had to do with his pragmatic attitude when it came to securing a stable income that would allow him to pursue his scientific research. With his extraordinary talent for designing machines of all kinds, and in view of the endless political rivalries and conflicts on the Italian peninsula, Leonardo shrewdly recognized that employment as a consulting military engineer and architect was one of the best ways to secure his financial independence.

However, it is also clear from his Notebooks that he was fascinated by the destructive engines of war, perhaps in the same way that natural cataclysms and disasters fascinated him. He spent considerable time designing and drawing machines of destruction—bombards, explosive cannonballs, catapults, giant crossbows, and the like, even as he remained adamantly opposed to war and violence.

As biographer Serge Bramly points out, despite his many years of service as military engineer, Leonardo never participated in any offensive action. Most of his advice consisted of designing structures to defend and preserve a town or city. (12) During a conflict between Florence and Pisa, he proposed to divert the river Arno as a means to avoid a bloody battle. He went on to add that this should be followed up with the construction of a navigable waterway that would reconcile the combatants and bring prosperity to both cities.

Leonardo’s most explicit condemnation of war consists of a long and detailed description of how to paint a battle, written when he was in his late thirties. Even a few excerpts from this text, which runs over several pages, reveal how vividly the artist intended to picture the horrors of war:

You will first paint the smoke of the artillery, mingled in the air with the dust raised by the commotion of horses and combatants…Let the air be full of arrows of all kinds, some shooting upwards, some falling, some flying level. The bullets from the firearms will leave a trail of smoke behind them…If you show a man who has fallen to the ground, reproduce his skid marks in the dust, which has been turned into blood-stained mire…Paint a horse dragging the dead body of its master, and leaving behind him in the dust and mud the track where the body was dragged along. Make the vanquished and beaten pale, with brows raised and knit, and the skin above their brows furrowed with pain…Represent others crying out with their mouths wide open and running away…; others in the agonies of death grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, with their fists clenched against their bodies, and their legs contorted. (13)

A decade after he wrote this, Leonardo, who was then over fifty and at the height of his fame, received a commission for a huge mural, which gave him the opportunity to turn his words into action. The Signoria, the Florentine city government, had decided to celebrate the military glory of Florence by decorating its new council chamber with two large frescoes depicting its victories in two historic battles—against Milan at Anghiari and against Pisa at Cascina. The Signoria commissioned the former fresco from Leonardo and the latter from his young rival Michelangelo.

From the Hardcover edition.
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