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Leonardo da Vinci’s forgotten legacy

Leonardo Da Vinci survives in our minds as a great artist, but his drawings show that he was also one of the great renaissance scientists. Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings at Royal Collection Trust, talks to us about Leonardo’s legacy.

May 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. What are you doing to mark the occasion?

In the Royal Collection, we’re fortunate to have the most important group of Leonardo’s drawings to survive. It’s more than 500 sheets that have been together as a group since Leonardo’s death all those years ago.

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In the summer we’re having an exhibition of 200 drawings by Leonardo at the Queen’s Gallery next to Buckingham Palace. We’re hoping that it gives people an opportunity to see Leonardo’s drawings in a way that they’ve never done before.

Can you contextualise for us the importance of these drawings?

Drawing was central to Leonardo’s work. It’s the paintings that have survived today, but he was also a sculptor, an architect, an engineer and a scientist. But none of his sculptures survived, none of his architecture was maybe even executed.

His engineering seems mostly to have been designed, rather than built, and none of his science reached a conclusion that he was
ready to publish.

But through the drawings, we get to know all these different fields of activity. We see in his drawings not just the preparations for his paintings, but also the preliminary works for his sculpture and architecture, so we can understand what he was working towards.

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How did science influence his art?

Leonardo wouldn’t have seen art and science as distinct areas of activity. He trained as a painter, and he soon came to the conclusion that painting was essentially a scientific undertaking; that a painter should understand the physical structure of the Universe, the laws within which the Universe operated, the visual effects we can see, and that a painting should encapsulate all of those. A painter should therefore understand light, colour, perspective, proportion and anatomy, and all these different fields to be able to paint works that were true to life.

Any scientist today will talk to you about the harmony of scientific laws, and how there’s beauty in mathematics. That’s exactly what Leonardo saw.

He saw that the creations of the Universe and the creations of man were part of one, great harmonious whole, and that to understand art and to understand science were essentially the same thing.

Does he deserve a place among the great historical scientists?

It’s a double-edged question, because if you look at his works, particularly in fields like anatomy, he is one of the great Renaissance scientists. He was making observations of a level of detail and insight that no other anatomist of the period was doing.

However, he found it difficult to bring his work to a conclusion, so he never published his scientific work, and in science, publishing is everything. If you don’t publish, if people don’t know about your research, you may as well not have bothered.

It’s impossible, therefore, to identify anything that Leonardo discovered that passed into general circulation. So while he was one of the greatest of Renaissance scientists, he had no impact on the field. And he’s therefore a contradictory figure.

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His sketches of the aortic valves in cow hearts feature at the exhibition. Can you tell us more about it?

The functioning of the valves of the heart fascinated him, so he made a beautiful investigation in which he injected molten wax into the chambers of the bull’s heart around the aortic valve, let the wax set, and dissected it out so he had a cast of the chambers around the aortic valve. He then made a gypsum mould around the wax cast, melted out the wax, and blew glass into the gypsum mould, so he then had a thin glass model of the chambers around the aortic valve.

He then pumped water with a suspension of grass seeds through his little glass model, and observed the fluid flow. He saw vortices; little circular eddies of blood in the chamber beyond the aortic valve, and he deduced that these eddies are responsible for opening out the leaflets of the valve and closing the valve after each pump of the heart. This was an extraordinarily astute observation.

It was suggested again only in the early 20th Century, and confirmed through computer modelling in the 1980s. But Leonardo understood exactly how the valves closed.

At the end of his life, what do you think he would have thought about his scientific contribution?

Towards the end of his life, he pretty much abandoned his scientific research. There was a mysterious episode in Rome where he was accused of something – we don’t know what – in front of the Pope, some sacrilegious practices, and he was banned from further human dissection, which really seemed to take the wind out of his sails.

For the next six years of his life up to his death in 1519, though he had all of his anatomical papers with him, he made no attempt, as far as we can tell, to structure them in such a way that they are able to be published.

These last five or six years of his life were marked by almost an abandonment of the scientific principles that he’d been working on over the last 20 or 30 years. He was, nonetheless, very keen to have his papers preserved for posterity, so maybe it’s the case that Leonardo wanted someone to publish what he was unable to within his lifetime.

But it was to be 400 years until that could happen, and by then any power that those drawings and notes may have had to influence their field had pretty much gone. The science had moved on.

I think that’s how Leonardo would have seen his research, as something he knew he’d made great strides in, but he also knew it had ultimately come to nothing.

 Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing opens this weekend, Friday 24 May, at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.


Listen to our full interview with Martin Clayton in the Science Focus Podcast below. Make sure you subscribe and rate it wherever you get your podcasts from.


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