Thursday, July 7, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci was born in the year 145 in the small hill town of Vinci. His father was a successful notary and his mother a peasant woman.

The little town of Vinci has changed very little in 544 years since then. Stone houses are clustered together around the protective battlements of a castle. The tall church bell tower is still an important landmark which can be seen for miles. Vinci is surrounded by fertile farmland. The hillsides are planted with grape vines and fruit trees and patches of silvery green olive trees dot the landscape.

The slopes above Vinci lead to Mount Albano, a high peak where Leonardo later hiked and made observations about the atmosphere. Small mountain streams run down from the mountain past Vinci to the valley of the Arno River below.

For a curious boy who loved nature, the area around Vinci must have been a wonderful childhood home. Leonardo was free to explore the woods and streams and to study the insects, animals, and birds which he later sketched in great detail in his notebooks.

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Leonardos early fascination with nature clearly inspired the paintings he would create as an adult. The detailed and lifelike plants and wildflowers that he painted at the feet of the angel in The Annunciation and the rocky caves and pools of water surrounding the figures in The Virgin of the Rocks were created from observations and sketches he began making as a child in Vinci.


When he was about 1 years old, Leonardo moved to the bustling city of Florence with his father. Because young Leonardo demonstrated a great talent for drawing, his father later made him an apprentice in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, a leading artist in Florence.

In Verrocchios studio Leonardo learned the painters craft of preparing canvases, making brushes, and grinding and mixing paints. Verrocchio also taught him to sculpt in wood, stone and clay, and how to cast metal objects in silver and gold.

Artists in the fifteenth century Italy were more than just expert painters and sculptors however. Verrocchio was hired by wealthy patrons to create furniture, musical instruments, navigational compasses, and bronze bells for cathedrals among other things. Leonardo watched carefully and learned every craft that went on in the workshop. He drew constantly to record what he observed.

When he wasnt needed in the studio, Leonardo explored the city of Florence. He observed and sketched everything that interested him. He visited the building site for the great cathedral being constructed in Florence and made careful drawings of the machinery he saw at work there.

By the age of 1 Leonardo was a skilled painter, Verrocchio permitted him to help with an important painting of the Baptism of Christ. Leonardo painted the kneeling angel and some of the background for this work.

The face of Leonardos angel is delicately colored and shows Leonardos talent at representing emotions. Legend has it that when Verrocchio first saw Leonardos angel he was so impressed by Leonardos abilities that he (Verrocchio) never wanted to touch colors again.

The hazy features of the background Leonardo painted for the Baptism of Christ show he had already begun to develop his sense of aerial perspective.

After he finished his apprenticeship, Leonardo began work for the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici. He was supposed to paint an Adoration of the Magi for a church altar, but he never completed it, and in 148 he moved to Milan.

After 17 years in Milan he returned several times to Florence, where he worked on many different projects. By 150 Florence was at war with the neighboring city of Pisa, and Leonardo worked on a plan to divert the Arno River from the enemy city. First it would cut off Pisas supply route, and later the river would be turned into a canal for peacetime use. Neither project was ever finished, though Leonardos reputation as a creative and talented engineer was firmly established.

After the war with Pisa, Leonardo again took up painting. He completed his most famous portrait La Gioconda (Mona Lisa). He also wrote about and sketched the flight of birds and experimented with different designs for human powered flying machines. He was also commissioned to paint a huge mural commemorating a Florentine victory in the Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo completed a full-size cartoon of the battle illustrating the horrors of war as he had seen them while in Borgias service. But he never finished the war painting, and in 1506 he was glad to leave Florence to go work in Milan.


From 1514 to 1516 Leonardo lived in Rome and worked under the patronage of Prince Giuliano the Magnificent, brother of Pope Leo X. Giuliano was fascinated by mechanical devices and Leonardo built many toys and machines to amuse him. Among them was a machine to turn copper metal into strips of uniform size. He also completed another great painting of John the Baptist as a young man.

Leonardo had wished to keep studying human anatomy, but the Church would not allow him to examine and cut up dead bodies. Instead he studied animal parts obtained from a butchers shop. From these he produced brilliant models of how the heart works.

In Rome he also studied optics, and he attempted to make giant, rounded mirrors in his workshop. They were similar to the mirrors used in modern telescopes, and some scholars think he hoped to observe the moon and stars.

Leonardo also studied botany, and he observed that the same patterns exist in many natural things. For example, the rings in a tree trunk resemble the ripples made by a stone dropped in water. He was always happy when repeating patterns appeared in nature, because they showed evidence of universal natural laws. Modern scientists continue to discover such patterns, often at a microscopic level, and Leonardo would certainly have been thrilled.


The ruler of Florence sent Leonardo to Milan in 148 bearing a silver lute as a gift to the powerful and warlike ruler of Milan, Duke Lodovico Sforza. Leonardo was by then known as a talented musician as well as a skilled painter and sculptor.

Leonardo wrote an amazing letter to Duke Sforza. The letter described many of Leonardos fascinating and original ideas for military engineering. He wrote how he could build strong light bridges, create fantastic new weapons, and build armored chariots and warships to protect the Dukes soldiers in battle. Only at the end of this letter did Leonardo describe his talents as a sculptor and painter and offer to create a bronze horse statue to honor the Dukes father. Sforza was impressed by Leonardo and gave gave him a position at court as painter and engineer.

Leonardo was kept busy in Milan. He established a studio and had apprentices of his own. He planned the costumes and sets for festivals and plays, designed and built forts, laid out new canals for the city and painted many portraits. Leonardo also worked on his great painting,The Last Supper. Unfortunately, only a shadow of the original masterpiece remains. Leonardo used an experimental mixture of tempera and oil paints which did not stick well to the damp plaster wall. Soon after the painting was completed in 148, the paint began to flake away.

At the same time as he was painting The Last Supper , Leonardo designed and constructed a full sized clay model for a 4 foot high statue of the Dukes father on horseback.

In 14 before the statue could be cast in bronze, Milan was attacked and overrun by the French troops. Duke Sforzas family fled, and French archers destroyed the gigantic clay horse while using it for target practice.

The French governor of Milan, Charles dAmboise, invited Leonardo back to Milan in 1506. King Louis XII of France, living in Milan at the time, appointed Leonardo court painter one year later. Leonardo continued to work on engineering projects in Milan. He also had time to continue his scientific studies of geology and anatomy, both human and animal, and to study astronomy. When the French governor of Milan died in 1511, political changes forced Leonardo to leave the city once again.


Shortly after his patron Giuliano died in 1516, Leonardo left Italy forever to live and work in France. King Francis I of France appointed Leonardo to the position of First painter, architect and mechanic of the King and gave Leonardo a comfortable house near the Kings own residence in Amboise where he visited Leonardo often for conversation. The King paid Leonardo well and allowed him to pursue his own interests in engineering and architecture.

During these last years of his life Leonardo began to arrange and edit his scientific papers, a task left unfinished at his death. Leonardo died in his home in France on May , 151. His notebooks and paintings passed into the possession of his favorite student and long-time friend Francesco de Melzi, who had traveled to France with Leonardo in 1516.

Interestingly, while we know that Leonardo was buried in the palace church, we no longer know where his grave is located. The church and palace were destroyed during the French Revolution, and the grave can no longer be found.


Leonardo the scientist bridged the gap between the shockingly unscientific medieval methods and our own trusty modern approach. His experiments in anatomy and the study of fluids, for example, absolutely blew away the accomplishments of his predecessors. Beginning with his first stay in Milan and accelerating around 1505, Leonardo became more and more wrapped up in his scientific investigations. The sheer range of topics that came under his inquiry is staggering anatomy, zoology, botany, geology, optics, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics among others.

While greatly influenced by the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Leonardo, unlike many of his contemporaries, saw the limitations of seeking the truth solely in those writings or the Bible. Instead, he took the startling approach of actually observing nature and asking deceptively simple scientific questions like, How do birds fly? To finish the bill, he then systematically recorded their solutions in his sketches.

Leonardo certainly had an uncanny ability to observe nature and record it. And to this he added a preternatural, even spooky determination. The first biographer of Leonardo da Vinci, Paolo Giovi, wrote in 150 in the medical faculty he learned to dissect the cadavers of criminals under inhuman, disgusting conditions...because he wanted [to examine and] to draw the different deflections and reflections of limbs and their dependence upon the nerves and the joints. This is why he paid attention to the forms of even very small organs, capillaries and hidden parts of the skeleton.

In a study of cervical vertebra shown from different perspectives, Leonardo notes [Both] former and contemporary authors have produced written reports [about anatomy] in tormentingly long-winded and confused styles. However, through a concise portrayal from different perspectives, things are described definitively; and to avoid that my gift to mankind could be lost [to time], I teach the technique of reproducing things by printing. These remarks heralded the birth of a new method of scientific study the systematic, descriptive method of the natural sciences, which was the predominant method of scientific study well into the 1th century.

As his curiosity took him in ever wilder directions, Leonardo always used this method of scientific inquiry close observation, repeated testing of the observation, precise illustration of the subject object or phenomenon with brief explanatory notes. The result was volumes of remarkable notes on an amazing variety of topics, from the nature of the sun, moon and stars to the formation of fossils and, perhaps most notably, the mysteries of flight.


Artists have always found it difficult to make a living off their art. Even a master like Leonardo was forced to sell out in order to support himself, so he adapted his drawing skills to the more lucrative fields of architecture, military engineering, canal building and weapons design. Although a peacenik at heart, Leonardo landed a job working for the Duke of Milan by calling himself a military engineer and outlining some of his sinister ideas for weapons and fortifications. Like many art school types in search of a salary, he only briefly mentioned to the Duke that he could paint as well.

Lucky for Leonardo, he was actually really talented as an engineer. Good illustrators were a dime a dozen in Renaissance Italy, but Leonardo had the brains and the diligence to break new ground, usually leaving his contemporaries in the dust. Like many crackpot geniuses, Leonardo wanted to create new machines for a new world.

Throughout his life he had brilliant and far-out ideas, ranging from the practical to the prophetic. As military engineer and architect to the notorious Cesare Borgia (son of the Pope!), Leonardo proposed creating a dry route across the Gulf of Istanbul, connecting the Golden Horn and the Bosporus with a bridge. Alas, like most great ideas, the bridge plan was squelched by those killjoy engineers, who flipped when they found out how big it was supposed to be. Leonardo watchers got the last laugh, though, because modern engineers have determined that the bridge would have been completely sound. Furthermore, they show its construction would have been entirely feasible, proving yet again that Leonardo was the smartest man ever.

Nearly a century before Galileo, Leonardo butted heads with the challenge of measuring time. For him, the most interesting part was the use of mechanical gears, and he studied them with relish (see Levers and Gears). Based on the gear, he came up with loads of different thingamajigs, including the bicycle, a helicopter, an auto-mobile, and some gruesome weapons of course.

The biggest mechanical bee in his bonnet, however, was water. Recall that nobody had harnessed electricity yet, so water was at that point the ultimate source for power. Leonardo studied all forms of water -- liquid, steam, and ice -- and he had all sorts of swell ideas of what to do with it. He cooked up plans for a device to measure humidity, a steam-powered cannon, many different waterwheels, and oodles of useful industrial machines powered by flowing water. He also devised some highly ambitious plans to revitalize Milan with canals, which he intended to implement with some equally ambitious construction machines. In fact, once he started on the subject of water te couldnt really stop, forever envisioning things like floating snowshoes to walk on water, breathing devices (including a diving hood) and webbed gloves to explore underwater, a life preserver to remain afloat, devices to attack and sink ships from underwater, and an unsinkable double-hulled ship and dredges for clearing harbors and channels.

Leonardo’s machines

Leonardos output is the epitome of that extraordinary period of human history which was the Italian Renaissance, a period of great cultural advances and of great projects. Leonardos output is the expression of the men and women of the time, of what they felt and did, of the machines they built so that in turn they could build churches, palaces, fortresses; machines for waging war, for work, for the manufacture and trade of all those goods whose availability was of such great importance to the rulers and their courts. However, more importantly, Leonardos output bears witness to who and what he was - a man who was shaped by the loveliest and most stimulating city of the time, Florence, and who embarked upon his own path of research and drawing up of ideas and plans embracing a multitude of sectors, ranging from hydraulics to mechanics, to flight, to anatomy and to optics...


Automatic hull rammer

The model shows one of the weapons designed to sink enemy ships by violently tearing away from the hull one of its wooden planks. The device consists of a small albeit strong spring in the shape of an overturned U and three screws. One of the edges of the device is tightly secured to one of the hulls planks. The other edge, which can be flexed, is screwed to the next plank but one, while another screw, placed at the centre of the spring and designed to charge the latter with its tearing force, is screwed to the middle plank, the one which will be torn out. The central screw consists of a very long screwing mechanism ending in a pointed gimlet, to make the hull-piercing action easier. A tongued device, located in a notch in the screwing mechanism, is released after having penetrated the hull to an adequate depth, thereby increasing its chances of breaking through the plank to which it had been screwed. The tear-away action could be started from a remote distance, by simply pulling a string connected to a locking system in the spring.


Firearm with an elevating gear adjustable by means of a peg blocking system

This is one of the three firearms drawn by Leonardo on the same folio. Owing to its size, it was intended to be used in field action by infantrymen. Besides having a light gun-carriage mounted on wheels, this weapon can be adjusted in height by means of a peg blocking system. This gun is front-loaded and has a bronze muzzle.



Leonardo got his start as an artist around 146, when his father apprenticed him to the fabled workshop of Verocchio. Verocchios specialty was perspective, which artists had only recently begun to get the hang of, and Leonardo quickly mastered its challenges. In fact, Leonardo quickly surpassed Verocchio, and by the time he was in his early twenties he was downright famous.

Renaissance Italy was centuries away from our culture of photographs and cinema, but Leonardo nevertheless sought a universal language in painting. With perspective and other realistic elements, Leonardo tried to create faithful renditions of life. In a culture previously dominated by highly figurative and downright strange religious paintings, Leonardos desire to paint things realistically was bold and fresh. This call to objectivity became the standard for painters who followed in the 16th century.

No slouch when it came to the techniques of the day, Leonardo went beyond his teaching by making a scientific study of light and shadow in nature. It dawned on him that objects were not comprised of outlines, but were actually three-dimensional bodies defined by light and shadow. Known as chiaroscuro, this technique gave his paintings the soft, lifelike quality that made older paintings look cartoony and flat. He also saw that an objects detail and color changed as it receded in the distance. This technique, called sfumato, was originally developed by Flemish and Venetian painters, but of course Super-Genius Leonardo transformed it into a powerful tool for creating atmosphere and depth.

Ever the perfectionist, Leonardo turned to science in the quest to improve his artwork. His study of nature and anatomy emerged in his stunningly realistic paintings, and his dissections of the human body paved the way for remarkably accurate figures. He was the first artist to study the physical proportions of men, women and children and to use these studies to determine the ideal human figure. Unlike many of his contemporaries -- Michelangelo for example -- he didnt get carried away and paint ludicrously muscular bodies, which he referred to as bags of nuts.

All in all, Leonardo believed that the artist must know not just the rules of perspective, but all the laws of nature. The eye, he believed, was the perfect instrument for learning these laws, and the artist the perfect person to illustrate them.


It may seem unusual to include Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist, the creator of such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, and The Last Supper. Yet Leonardo was far more than a great artist he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He made painstaking observations and carried out research in fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy to anatomy and zoology to geography, geology and paleontology. In the words of his biographer Giorgio Vasari

The most heavenly gifts seem to be showered on certain human beings. Sometimes supernaturally, marvelously, they all congregate in one individual. . . . This was seen and acknowledged by all men in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, who had. . . an indescribable grace in every effortless act and deed. His talent was so rare that he mastered any subject to which he turned his attention. . . . He might have been a scientist if he had not been so versatile.

Leonardos scientific and technical observations are found in his handwritten manuscripts, of which over 4000 pages survive, including the one pictured on the right, showing some rock formations. It seems that Leonardo planned to publish them as a great encyclopedia of knowledge, but like many of his projects, this one was never finished. The manuscripts are difficult to read not only did Leonardo write in mirror-image script from right to left, but he used peculiar spellings and abbreviations, and his notes are not arranged in any logical order. After his death his notes were scattered to libraries and collections all over Europe. While portions of Leonardos technical treatises on painting were published as early as 1651, the scope and caliber of much of his scientific work remained unknown until the 1th century. Yet his geological and paleontological observations and theories foreshadow many later breakthroughs.

Leonardo knew well the rocks and fossils (mostly Cenozoic mollusks) found in his native north Italy. No doubt he had ample opportunity to observe them during his service as an engineer and artist at the court of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, from 148 to 14 Vasari wrote that Leonardo was frequently occupied in the preparation of plans to remove mountains or to pierce them with tunnels from plain to plain. He made many observations on mountains and rivers, and he grasped the principle that rocks can be formed by deposition of sediments by water, while at the same time the rivers erode rocks and carry their sediments to the sea, in a continuous grand cycle. He wrote The stratified stones of the mountains are all layers of clay, deposited one above the other by the various floods of the rivers. . . In every concavity at the summit of the mountains we shall always find the divisions of strata in the rocks. Leonardo appear to have grasped the law of superposition, which would later be articulated fully by the Danish scientist Nicolaus Steno in 166 in any sequence of sedimentary rocks, the oldest rocks are those at the base. He also appears to have noticed that distinct layers of rocks and fossils could be traced over long distances, and that these layers were formed at different times . . . the shells in Lombardy are at four levels, and thus it is everywhere, having been made at various times. Nearly three hundred years later, the rediscovery and elaboration of these principles would make possible modern stratigraphy and geological mapping.

In Leonardos day there were several hypotheses of how it was that shells and other living creatures were found in rocks on the tops of mountans. Some believed the shells to have been carried there by the Biblical Flood; others thought that these shells had grown in the rocks. Leonardo had no patience with either hypothesis, and refuted both using his careful observations. Concerning the second hypothesis, he wrote that such an opinion cannot exist in a brain of much reason; because here are the years of their growth, numbered on their shells, and there are large and small ones to be seen which could not have grown without food, and could not have fed without motion -- and here they could not move. There was every sign that these shells had once been living organisms. What about the Great Flood mentioned in the Bible? Leonardo doubted the existence of a single worldwide flood, noting that there would have been no place for the water to go when it receded. He also noted that if the shells had been carried by the muddy deluge they would have been mixed up, and separated from each other amidst the mud, and not in regular steps and layers -- as we see them now in our time. He noted that rain falling on mountains rushed downhill, not uphill, and suggested that any Great Flood would have carried fossils away from the land, not towards it. He described sessile fossils such as oysters and corals, and considered it impossible that one flood could have carried them 00 miles inland, or that they could have crawled 00 miles in the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood.

How did those shells come to lie at the tops of mountains? Leonardos answer was remarkably close to the modern one fossils were once-living organisms that had been buried at a time before the mountains were raised it must be presumed that in those places there were sea coasts, where all the shells were thrown up, broken, and divided. . . Where there is now land, there was once ocean. It was possible, Leonardo thought, that some fossils were buried by floods -- this idea probably came from his observations of the floods of the Arno River and other rivers of north Italy -- but these floods had been repeated, local catastrophes, not a single Great Flood. To Leonardo da Vinci, as to modern paleontologists, fossils indicated the history of the Earth, which extends far beyond human records. As Leonardo himself wrote

Since things are much more ancient than letters, it is no marvel if, in our day, no records exist of these seas having covered so many countries. . . But sufficient for us is the testimony of things created in the salt waters, and found again in high mountains far from the seas.

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