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( Article orginally published July 1952 by Hobbies )
This is the Leonardo Quincentennial Year. Five hundred years ago, in April, 1452, in the tiny village of Vinci, high among the hills that surround the city of Florence, occurred the birth of Leonardo da Vinci. Celebrations, festivals, exhibitions, and conferences highlight the fifth centenary programs announced in important cultural centers of Italy, France, England and the United States.
One may well ask why these special honors for the already acclaimed painter of the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper!" Has not the art world long acknowledged Leonardo as one of the greatest painters and draughts-men of the Italian Renaissance? The answer to these questions may be found in the numerous facsimile editions of the notebook writings and drawings of Leonardo published in modern times since the development of photo-mechanical printing techniques, and in the appraisals that followed of these manuscripts by scientists, doctors of medicine, engineers and other experts in the many fields studied by Leonardo.
For literally hundreds of years Leonardo's notebooks lay hidden from the world, unread, undeciphered, buried and obscure in scattered European collections. Written strangely backward, from right to left, in outmoded Tuscan dialect, often in small abbreviated script, unknown except to a fortunate few, Leonardo's notebooks slept a long and mysterious sleep. As pages of these manuscripts were printed and reproduced in facsimile, as their contents became transliterated into modern Italian and translated into French, German and English, Vincian scholars throughout the civilized world began to coordinate and evaluate their wonderful and extraordinary contents.
From a mass of bewildering, disorganized memoranda on a maze of subject matter understanding scholars brought forth in our time a reappraisal of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. They revealed the incredible range and vast scope of Leonardo's mind, an intellect endowed with unmatched powers of observation and penetration; a mind athirst for all knowledge, concerned with things of the spirit as with things of the world. Variously, scholars have called Leonardo "a modern man of science," "a truly many-sided genius," and "a universal man."
The notebook writings and drawings of Leonardo comprise over 7,000 folios, now assembled into so-called codici or manuscripts. They are housed in famous collections and libraries throughout Europe. Except for a few drawings in American collections, no original Leonardo manuscripts or codici are to be found in our country. A sampling of pages from one of the largest aggregations of Leonardo's notebooks, the 401-Folio Codice Atlantico, preserved in The Ambrosiana Library of the City of Milan, suggests the following amazing inventory of subjects investigated and recorded by Leonardo:
Mechanical inventions, beautiful drawings of singularly modern technological appliances with transmision gears, textile and spinning machines, looms, tools and implements, clocks, printing press, roller bearings;
Designs for military machines for artillery, "anticipating the most modern applications," armored tanks, mortar, guns, multiple-barrelled and machine-mounted, studies for fortifications, battleships with steam propulsion, submarines and under-water diving equipment, poison gas;
Studies in hydraulics, machines for raising water from one level to another, drawings and plans for canals, lock-sluices, harbors, projects for straightening tortuous rivers, portable bridges, land reclamation schemes;
Studies of the stress and strain of building materials, architectural plans for churches, domes, buildings, equestrian monuments, bathrooms with hot and cold running water, pavilions for court nobles, designs for revolving stages, settings and costumes, musical instruments;
Detailed studies for flying machines, helicopters and parachutes, minute recordings of air movements, studies in mathematics and geometry, geoloical observations on the history of earth, the composition of rocks, studies of the laws of nature, both physical and chemical, devices for the measurement of the earth's surface, metallurgical machines;
Maps, sketches of landscapes, cloud formations, botanical studies of the growth of plants;
Statements of principals and theories to comprise a "Treatise on Painting."
Elsewhere, principally in the royal collections at Windsor Castle in England, are preserved Leonardo's anatomical drawings and physiological studies. Here are minute and exquisite records of over thirty dissections of the human body undertaken by Leonardo. He drew the male and female body as carefully as he drew an intricate machine or a beautiful landscape, always with fine regard to accurate detail and exact measurement, placing each part in careful relation to the other and with amazing comprehension of its function. Leonardo has been called the forerunner of both Vesalius, "father of modern anatomy," and of Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of blood. Long before Harvey, Leonardo described the blood supply of the human heart, and noted the heart's position in the body, its chambers and its valves. He also records that the heart sends blood to the lungs for contact with air. He devoted untiring study to the lungs, the spine, to bones and muscles; in fact, to the whole human anatomy. He was the first anatomist to take casts of the ventricles of the human brain and to make drawings of balanced groups of antagonistic leg muscles called by experts "a truly modern physiological concept." For the first time in anatomic art the human foetus was drawn in its proper position within the womb. Of these anatomical investigations, J. P. McMurrich, author of "Leonardo, the Anatomist," wrote "Leonardo initiated a new movement in anatomy, one destined in time to replace, piece by piece, the old foundations by more substantive ones . . Leonardo's artistic ability and the wider scope of his observations mark him as its true initator."
Leonardo studied the functions and structure of the human eye; as a part of these researches he was the first to record the phenomenom of the camera obscura. The flight of birds was a constant fascination to him. His observations of birds in flight naturally led Leonardo to speculate on the possibility of flight by man. His notebooks demonstrate his deep absorption in the problem of flight on scientific and mechanical lines. He developed extraordinary designs for winged flying apparatus to be worked by muscular energy in conjunction with assistance from air currents. He drew designs for helicopters and described the principle of the parachute and he discovered the "lighter-than air" principle, that of the decreasing density of atmosphere with altitude. Leonardo was not only a real pioneer of the science of flight, but its "first pioneer."
Leonardo's notebooks were crammed with memoranda of a great variety of subjects, any one of which today constitutes a field of specialization. "Science," wrote da Vinci, "is knowledge of the things which may come to pass." Of course, not all of his observations were accurate; tradition played a strong part in many of the errors which have been found in his observations. Nevertheless, his writings reveal Leonardo as one of the first great experimenters, as a man of unbounded love for nature, possessor of an insatiable curiosity for the infinite variety of nature, a technician of indefatigable zest for demonstrable proof through observation and research. It is in these notebook writings and drawings that Leonardo has been recognized as possessing a remarkable intellect of immense powers of intuition and deduction, capable of extraordinary speculation and achievement.
Thus in our day we have experienced what may be called a reversal of the traditional judgment of Leonardo. For, while his contemporaries recognized his genius for painting and reluctantly admitted his talents for science, they counted his science merely as "triflings," often as a hindrance to his art. Today, in the light of the multiplicity of his investigations as revealed in his notebooks, Leonardo stands, re-evaluated not only as a great Renaissance painter, but as a pioneer man of science, the true precursor of the modern age of invention as well.