The painter’s true greatness was as a scientist.
So says Capra (The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, 2004, etc.), who begins by noting that Leonardo’s scientific investigations have been overshadowed by his other work. They have also been overshadowed by Isaac Newton, whom the author sets up as an avatar of the mechanistic model for scientific work, the antithesis of Leonardo’s “holistic and ecological” approach. Leonardo’s failure to publish his findings also delayed recognition of his scientific work until long after his death. The case for Leonardo as scientist rests largely on his mirror-written notebooks, some 6,000 pages of which survive. His science is visually oriented, Capra contends; drawings in the notebooks contain object lessons in anatomy, geology, mechanics and a host of other disciplines. A concise summary of Leonardo’s life and major work leads to the meat of Capra’s argument. Leonardo’s acceptance of the paradigms of his age does not invalidate his science, the author avers, but rather gives us a context in which to understand it better. He was familiar with Aristotle, Pliny, Ptolemy and the other accepted authorities of classical times, but his paintings and drawings show that he was concerned with finding out things for himself, observing the world as it really was. The drawings are not just studies, but scientific diagrams, Capra asserts. Quotations and illustrations from the notebooks make a formidable case for Leonardo’s empirical knowledge of many natural phenomena that would not be recognized for years to come. It’s possible to accept all this but not share the author’s conviction that Newton et al. somehow got everything wrong. But Capra argues eloquently for his vision of science.
Carefully considered portrait of a true Renaissance man—polemics and all.