Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 16
The Problem of Leonardo's Imaginative Drawings

Effects of Technical Knowledge and of Temperament

The adventurous and often disastrous history of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and of his possessions after his death in 1519, has left the modern world with less than a dozen paintings. Some of these are of doubtful authenticity. There also survive many hundreds of drawings and over five thousand pages of MSS. Many of the latter are illustrated notes on scientific researches. It is a commonplace that the artistic status of the drawings is high even when compared with the greatest products of the Italian Renaissance, and that in subsequent centuries of modern science many of the most striking advances find themselves anticipated or foreshadowed in those remarkable note-books The present generation, surrounded by its own scientific achievement and now equipped with the work of so many laborious editors of Leonardo MSS. and drawings, is tempted to ask whether such art can have been the result of a scientific attitude to life or whether such foreknowledge of modern science can have been due to its author's needs and experience as an artist. If this question could be completely answered we should find ourselves solving one of the major perplexities of this century, as we should begin to see some of the stages of mental and moral evolution towards which an age of science is likely to tend.

The problem of interaction between Leonardo's science and art is thus of greater practical importance than the settling of a psychological detail in the history of the Italian Renaissance. It may clear away much initial obstruction if we mention briefly some reasons why this problem is by no means hackneyed; in fact to propound it may even be thought either rash or unnecessary.

Historians of science, conscious that their equipment is inadequate for appreciating the art of Leonardo, have often accepted the inadequacy as excuse for ignoring the artist in him when they try to understand the scientist. Art critics have been correspondingly tempted to ignore the scientific element in his character.

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