Remarkable Man, Remarkable Times: The Integration of Art & Science in Leonardo da Vinci's Renaissance


Stephen Wilson, Professor, Art.  San Francisco State University.      c Stephen Wilson, 2007


The interest in the integration of art and science is resurgent.  New university programs, art shows, and government initiatives attempt to reverse recent history where art and science seem to follow their separate ways.  My book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Wilson, 2002) surveys these worldwide efforts. These integrative attempts could benefit from historical perspectives on the relationship of art and science in previous eras. 

Art and Science were not always so dissociated as they have recently seemed.  My unpublished book Great Moments in Art & Science attempts to analyze three historical eras in which Art & Science mutually influenced each other in significant ways:  the Paleolithic, the Renaissance, and the Decades of Upheaval  (1870-1920).  The goal is to determine what lessons can be learned from that understanding that could be used to enhance the current efforts.  This essay is an excerpt from the chapter on the Renaissance which analyzes Leonardo not so much as singular anomaly but rather as an exceptional example of common cultural practice.


Leonardo da Vinci immediately comes to mind in any discussion of Art and Science.  He is seen as a giant presence because of his landmark status as a painter and technical prowess as evidenced by the visionary inventions that fill his notebooks.   Often Leonardo is seen as some kind of unique aberration that stands outside history and totally apart from his contemporaries.


This view of Leonardo misses important features of his accomplishment and of his era.  A slightly deeper investigation of Leonardo's work reveals that his inventions were part of an integrated view of art and science that may be even more fascinating than the inventions themselves.  Furthermore, the Renaissance itself was an era pulsating with excitement about the possibilities in all fields and the hunger for integrated knowledge.  There is much more to be learned about the relationships of art, science, and technology beyond marveling at Leonardo's cleverness.


Background:  the Renaissance


Some of the historical forces leading to the Renaissance include the growth of trade and exploration; inventions such as the compass, printing press, paper, engraving and gunpowder; political structures such as the city states of Italy with reduced power for the church; and intellectual works such as that of the "humanists" such as Petrarch, Boccacio, and Dante.   These humanists celebrated the beginnings of the interest in individual lives, events, and objects.  In the arts representation of the real world becomes important.


the real change brought about by the Renaissance is that metaphysical symbolism loses its strength and the artist's aim is limited more and more definitely and consciously to the representation of the empirical world. (Hauser, 267)


Interest spanning all endeavors


Historians distinguish the Renaissance by its interest in classical learning.  Intellectuals became increasingly fascinated in the culture of Greece.  There was a rush to rediscover, translate and publish the works of Greek authors.  This interest spanned the full range of Greek accomplishment philosophy, literature, drama, art, and science.  An informed person was expected to be interested in the full range of topics.  There didn't seem to be acceptance of the partition of interest as is typical of our age.  Leonardo is perhaps the best known example of this universal interest, but he was not unique.  This scope was an essential feature of the intellectual milieu.





(Figure 1   Bartholemus Delendo. Incision, Anatomical Theatre - Leiden , The Netherlands – 1597.  Dissections were public events. well attended by members of the upper class as a kind of what is sometimes called now edutainment.)




The early stages concentrated on humanist disciplines such as literature, art, and philosophy.  Science was still suspect.  For example Petrarch criticizes those who work at science (natural philosophy) as opposed to focusing on human moral life.  He attacks those who "know a great deal about wild beasts, about birds, and fish" and have "no interest in discovering the nature of man, whence man comes, where he goes, and why he is born" (quoted in Olson, p. 13).  This distrust of science/technology will be a recurring theme in attitudes in other eras.


There are fools who seek to understand the secrets of nature and the far more difficult secrets of God, with supercilious pride, instead of accepting them in humble faith.  They cannot approach them, let alone reach them.  Those fools imagine they can grasp the heavens with their hands.  Moreover, they are content with their erroneous opinion and actually imagine to have grasped the truth. (quoted in Olson, p. 210)


Although the humanists are ready to move beyond from the church's limitations in literature, they start out close to church views on science.  For example Consider St. Augustine's statement of faith from Enchiridon:


When...the question is asked what we are to believe in regard to religion, it is not necessary to probe into the nature of things, as was done by those whom the Greeks call physici;...It is enough for the Christians to believe that the only cause of all created things...whether heavenly or earthly ... is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God. (St. Augustine, chapter 9)


Gradually, attitudes toward science began to change.  In Science Deified and Science Defied, Robert Olson suggests two main reasons: 1.  Rediscovery of the Hermetic tradition and  2.  Secular trends stimulated by the growth of Italian city states. 


The rediscovery and publication of the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, an ancient  philosopher, revealed a body of thought that tied together Mosaic law, Plato's cosmology, natural philosophy, astrology, alchemy and natural magic.  This philosophy made interest in nature and science a fundamental element in Christian piety. (Magic, alchemy and the role of action are discussed in other sections of the book).


The other secular trend focuses on the northern Italian city states such as Florence, Venice, and Milan.  In the fourteenth century these cities became prosperous focusing on trade and manufacture.  They were independent of any centralized civic authority and began to consider themselves like the Greek city states.   Scholarship that revealed that history was much appreciated and supported. Patronage of art and performance also enhanced civic pride.  Practical projects required the skills of architects and military engineers.  The advancement of knowledge was valuable for commerce.  The intellectual atmosphere encouraged work in all areas.  Books were avidly consumed.  There were commissions and contests in the arts and in mathematics.



The humanistic historical awareness of the great ages of Greece and Rome led to an intense emphasis on the recovery of that greatness by the Italian city-states.  Thus, public glory and splendor manifested in military might, great artistic and architectural productions, and impressive public ceremonies (which included both music and drama) became critically important.  They were the concrete embodiment of civic virtue, providing a kind of immortality for the city in which they appeared, for the patrons who made them possible, and for the artists and artisans who planned and produced them.


In the writings and attitudes of the painters, sculptors, architects, and military engineers who emerged in response to these public appetites for security, splendor, and spectacle, we find the first major linkage between humanistic and scientific attitudes and activities. (Olson, p. 216)


Not only were all these activities supported but it seemed that each individual was expected to evidence a similar breadth of interest.  Artists, engineers, and scientists were all interested in each other's activities.  Those who could, worked simultaneously in several fields.   They did not seem to conceive of the fragmentation boundaries like our era.  As a result science, engineering and art all cross-fertilized each other.  The phrase "Renaissance Man" seemed to have a real truth in this era.   The approach spread beyond Italy.   Here are some examples:


-The emergence of the theory and practice of perspective has profound impact on art, engineering, and science.  It is developed by artists and mathematician/scientists.  (Perspective is discussed in another section of the book.)


- Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, and other artists for their early education were apprenticed to goldsmiths.  In this setting as part of clockmaking they also studied "motion, weights, and wheels, how they may be made to revolve and what set them in motion...". (Olson, p. 218)  

¥ Brunelleschi (1377)  proposes a radical new architectural scheme for the Florence Cathedral dome that is recognized as an engineering breakthrough (1433).  He also must invent a new hoisting technology for its construction. 


-Verrocchio's workshop  (the setting where Leonardo was apprenticed) pursued all kinds of work including painting, goldsmithing, mosaic, sculpture, and music. The workshop also developed block and tackle technology to work with large sculpture.  An engraving of Baccio Bandinelli's workshop shows young proto-scientist/artists studying anatomy and physics along with their drawing and sculpture. (Ronan, p. 277)




Figure 2 Enea Vico. The Academy of Baccio Bandinelli, 1550.    The education of Renaissance artists included deep study of anatomy and physics as well as drawing, painting, and sculpture.




- DŸrer  (1471), a famous figure in printmaking, believed art must be based on science and saw mathematics as helpful in graphic construction.  He wrote the first books on mathematics published in German.  He designed a machine to help in work with perspective.  He also wrote a book on building fortifications. He was also famous for his drawings of botanical and zoological subjects. (Ronan, p. 279)


- Cardano (1501), a famous Italian mathematician who developed algebra and the use of imaginary numbers, wrote 200 works spanning religion, music, philosophy, physics, medicine, and mathematics. (1534)  (Ronan, p. 323)


-Andreas Vesalius (1514), a physician and medical scientist, based his famous anatomy text, The Fabric of the Human Body, partially on drawings completed by Leonardo and other artists.  The visual quality of the book was so important that he personally supervised its printing. (Ronan, p. 285)



(Figure 3 Andreas Vesalius . 1543.  Anatomical Study, Illustration from "De Humani Corporis Fabrica" )   Both artists and scientists valued careful observation and documentation of the body.




 Leonardo offers a special case of this scope of interest.  Contemporary descriptions refer to him as an "engineer and painter".    When he left Florence at age 30 for Milan, Lorenzo, the famous art patron, wrote a recommendation letter that referred mostly to Leonardo's  "multimedia" capabilities as a musician and organizer of court festivities.   Painting was not mentioned. 


It seems that Leonardo was known to him only as a young man with agreeable social talents, who could play the lute and might be considered as a candidate for decorative work for fetes and festivals. (Friendenthal, p 26)


Leonardo's own self recommendation plays up his engineering skills and barely mentions his painting.  Since wars between the cities was a main concern, Leonardo emphasizes his military engineering capabilities.


Your Gracious Highness!  I have sufficiently seen and tested the productions of all those who are considered masters of the art of inventing war-machines.  And since the working and function of these instruments is no different from that of the machines in common use, I shall endeavor - without approaching anyone else - to make myself clear to Your Excellency and reveal my secrets.  I shall put them at your disposal whenever you desire and hope for good results from the things which I shall now briefly describe...(Friedenthal p 27)


His letter then goes on in detail to describe a remarkable range of devices and techniques he can work on including portable bridges, ways to destroy the enemy's bridges, ways to cut off the enemy's water supply, new kinds of siege weapons to hurl fire bombs, "indestructible" armored vehicles, special kind of boat attack techniques, and so on.  Even though Leonardo is renowned for his gentleness, some of the proposals are extremely graphic in describing what his devices can do to an enemy.  The last point in his curriculum vitae focuses on peaceful applications of technology and his art making.


In time of peace I believe I can achieve something in architecture, as well as another, both in building public and private buildings and in channeling water from one place to another.  Further, I work as a sculptor in marble, bronze and pottery and can paint as well as others with whom I may be compared.  I could also add my labours to the bronze horse which is to contribute to the undying fame and eternal memory of your father and the renowned house of Sforza..." (Friendenthal, p 30)


During his stay he was continuously proposing well-illustrated public works projects, such as stables with new kinds of drainage and brothels with special privacy enhancements, and new kinds of churches.  In one of his most ambitious plans, he devised a city plan that would address the sanitary problems that contributed to the deadliness of the plague.  In typical visionary style, he correctly diagnosed public health issues and devised plans for a new Milan with new hydraulic and sanitary technologies.  He could be considered the father of suburbs in this appeal to Lodovico, the ruler of Milan.


Give me the necessary authority and eternal honour will be yours.  You will have five thousand houses with thirty thousand inhabitants in ten towns; thus we shall distribute the people now crowed together in huge masses, huddled together like flies on top of each other, filling every doorway with stench and offering an easy prey to pestilence and death.  (quoted in Friedenthal, p 49)


Leonardo's range of interests and skills illustrates the Renaissance pattern of versatility He was multimodal artist, engineer, and court entertainer.  Curiously, almost none of the engineering projects got done.  Leonardo's duties in devising court festivities, set design, musical performance, and related activities seems to have been his biggest accomplishment for this employer.  (Friedenthal, p. 40)


His interests also extended to anatomy, zoology, botany and medicine.  Later in life he would become famous for his dissections.  For him it was essential for the artist/scientist to understand as much as possible about his world.  He studied circulation, the skeletal and muscular system, disease, and embryology.  He invented his own surgical tools.



(Figure 4  Leonardo da Vinci Embryo in the Womb. c. 1510. Pen and ink, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, England.)  Leonardo felt the artist needed to understand the inside as well as the outside of the body.)

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Ruthlessly he penetrated into regions of the body and its functions, which had previously been a closed book to almost everyone.  At a time when medical specialists clung almost exclusively to book-learnt knowledge and it was held to be sacrilege to open up a corpse, he carried out thirty dissections, an enormous number under the circumstances, considering that discover could have meant trial and imprisonment or even death.  (Friedenthal, 116)


Leonardo's multifaceted interests illustrate the competing theories that cultural historians offer about the engines of innovation. Some emphasize play/curiosity while others emphasize war as motivating the development of science and technology.   He, as many other artists/architects  (for example, Durer), generated new ideas in response both to military and entertainment/art/civic enterprises.


In The Social History of Art, Hauser suggests that the common ideas about the scope of interest expected for the "Renaissance man" is more complex than it is usually presented.   He notes that encyclopedic learning and practical versatility were built on pre-existing medieval ideas about the nature of education.  Also, to the extent artists were still viewed as part of the guild/craftsman world, they were expected to continue the jack-of-all-trades orientation expected of workman.  Forces of specialization set in and for a while artists begin to give up the drive to specialization.  Then in the late Renaissance, the cultural ideal of universal interests reasserts itself as artists try to identify with the upper classes.  The forces uneasily contend with each other.


But with the victory of the humanistic conception of culture, the idea of the uomo universale, an intellectual tendency opposed to specialization, comes to the fore again and leads to the cult of a type of versatility which is more akin to the dilettante than the craftsman.  At the end of the Quattrocento both tendencies vie with each other. On the one side, the universalism of the humanistic idea, suited to meet the requirements of the upper classes, reigns supreme.  Under its influence the artist tries to supplement his manual skill with knowledge of an intellectual and cultural kind.  On the other side, the principle of the division of labour and specialization is triumphant and gradually attains supreme power even in the field of art.  (Hauser, p. 335)


Although these forces of specialization eventually seemed to have won out, during part of the Renaissance, a view predominated that those who worked in cultural production should seek as wide a knowledge as possible.  Significantly the range of interest expected for artists was much deeper than just the building of technical gismos.  They were expected to engage in the core processes of emerging science including careful observation and theory construction.  Artists and scientists were seen as part of the same common intellectual circle and what we now consider as art was then also considered part of science. 


The precision and accuracy of Durer's biological drawings made from first-hand evidence were following a true Renaissance practice.  In no way did he depict things as they ought to be according to ancient authorities, however revered, but he depicted them as they were actually seen to be.   Yet to do this was nothing new in Durer's time; Leonardo, and Durer's friend Botticelli, whose plant detail in his Pramaevera, for example, was also scientifically accurate, were both doing just the same thing.  It was all part of that new scientific revolution within the Renaissance that was beginning to set observation and the precise recording of the results at a premium.  (Ronan, p. 279)


Leonardo incorporated scientific approaches and theory into the heart of his art processes.  He saw them as closely integrated - careful observation and involvement with theory were essential to art.  The theme of sapere videre  (knowing how to see) dominated his work.  Seeing was more than just perception; it also consisted of the attempt to penetrate to underlying forces and principles.  Furthermore, this kind of seeing also advanced science.   He saw painting as a critical part of scientific process - careful observation putting one in touch with phenomena and encouraging the development of grounded theories of understanding.  He set out a plan for himself to try to understand the world in all its glorious variety.



(Figure 5  Leonardo da Vinci   Studies of Water passing Obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9.  Sedge, c. 1510.   Leonardo carefully observed water flowing and introduced obstacles to note their effects.)




Painting compels the mind of the painter to transform itself into the very mind of Nature, to become an interpreter between nature and the art.  It explains the causes of Nature's manifestations as compelled by its laws (quoted in Ronan, p.  278)


Leonardo believed the trained eye was an essential tool in science and art.    Drawing and painting were crucial means for communicating the findings.  Janson describes Leonardo's accomplishment.


The artist, he believed, must know not only the rules of perspective but all of the laws of nature, and the eye was to him the perfect instrument for gaining such knowledge.... he created the modern scientific illustration, an essential tool for anatomists and biologists.  A drawing such as the Embryo in the Womb combines his own visual observation with the analytic clarity of a diagram - or, to paraphrase Leonardo's own words, sight and insight. (Janson, p 483)


Because of the combination of observation and communication, the artist had an essential role in advancing knowledge.


Leonardo--equating "seeing" with "perceiving"--arrived at a bold conclusion: the painter, doubly endowed with subtle powers of perception and the complete ability to pictorialize them, was the prime person qualified to achieve knowledge by observing and to reproduce that knowledge authentically in a pictorial manner. 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. Thus, drawing became the chief instrument of his didactic method. (Encyclopedia Britannica online, 2004. online article "Leonardo")


In the emerging science of the era, mathematics was considered an extremely valuable tool.  Leonardo claimed it was essential to understanding his work.


No study of man can be called scientific which is not susceptible of mathematical proof and explanation.... Nobody who is not a mathematician will be able to understand the basis of my work...Proportion is found not only in numbers and weights, but also in sounds, scenery, time, movements, and every possible kind of phenomenon (quoted in Friendenthal, p. 82)


The development and philosophical implications of mathematics and perspective theory is a major theme in understanding the relationships between art and science in the Renaissance.. (It is discussed in other sections of the book.) Mathematics, theory, and observation were all to be pursued together.  This unified training was incorporated into the art schools of the era.  For example Alberti made it a feature of his training.


he is the first to express the idea that mathematics is the common ground of art and the sciences, as both theory of proportions and of perspective are mathematical disciplines.  He is also the first to give clear expression to that union of the experimental technician and the observing artist which had already been achieve in practice by Masaccio and Uccello.  Both try to comprehend the world empirically and to derive rational laws from this experience of the world; both endeavor to know and to control nature; both are distinguished form the from the purely contemplative, scholastically confined university teacher by reason of their creative activity (Hauser, p. 321)


The admonition to carefully observe nature also extended to what we would now call psychology and sociology.  Leonardo felt painters must study humans as they go about their lives and try to understand underlying motivations. The depictions in the Last Supper are seen as one result of this "research" process.  In one treatise he advises students: "Men's movements are as various as the emotions which trouble them - and each emotion stirs men to different degrees" (Freiendnthal, p. 72).  Giraldi, the novelist, describes Leonardo's working style:


When he decided to paint a figure he first made up his mind exactly what class and type he wanted...When he was clear about this he carefully visited the places where men of the kind he required could be found.  Then he attentively studied their faces, posture, movements, and behavior.  (Freidnenthal, 72)




Leonardo was remarkable, but so were his times.  Art and Science had a different relationship than they do now.  Hunger for information about new developments in both art and science were major features of public life.  Even within the professions, people believed that useful ideas could come from any discipline. Education included deep instruction in many diverse fields. Emblematic of these views was Leonardo's "deep seeing".   Painting of water called for study of its flow; sculpting of humans and animals called for intense study of their anatomy, behavior, internal organs, and emotions;  physics and mathematics were as much artist tools as were brush and carving knife.  Our era could learn important lessons from the Renaissance's universal approach to knowledge. Some of these include making a more sober evaluation of the costs of specialization and the shallowness of contemporary notions of liberal arts education.  Others include the vitalization of research and development through insights from unanticipated quarters.   Even though Leonardo is gone, we can reanimate the spirit of the Renaissance.






Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. ÒLeonardo da Vinci.". <>. (accessed 1 Jan. 2007)


Friedenthal, Richard.  Leonardo da Vinci; a Pictorial Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1959


Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. New York: Vintage Books, 1963


Janson, Anthony F.   History of Art, Revised (6th Edition).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004


Olson, Richard.  Science Deified & Science Defied: The Historical Significance of Science in Western Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990


Ronan, Colin A.  The Ages of Science.  London: Harrap, 1966.


St. Augustine. Enchiridon. (Accessed December 20, 2006)


Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts : Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge, Mass:  MIT Press, 2002.




List of Illustrations & Captions


Figure 1   Bartholemus Delendo. Incision, Anatomical Theatre - Leiden , The Netherlands – 1597.  Dissections were public events. well attended by members of the upper class as a kind of what is sometimes called now edutainment.)


Figure 2 Enea Vico. The Academy of Baccio Bandinelli, 1550.    The education of Renaissance artists included deep study of anatomy and physics as well as drawing, painting, and sculpture.


(Figure 3 Andreas Vesalius . 1543.  Anatomical Study, Illustration from "De Humani Corporis Fabrica" )   Both artists and scientists valued careful observation and documentation of the body.


(Figure 4  Leonardo da Vinci Embryo in the Womb. c. 1510. Pen and ink, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, England.)  Leonardo felt the artist needed to understand the inside as well as the outside of the body.)


(Figure 5  Leonardo da Vinci   Studies of Water passing Obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9.  Sedge, c. 1510.   Leonardo carefully observed water flowing and introduced obstacles to note their effects.)