Leonardo da Vinci: Philosopher and scientist? #1

Benvenuto Cellini was a virtuoso Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor and wildly indiscreet autobiographer. Yet he soberly recorded King François I of France as saying ‘there had never been born another man in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about sculpture, painting and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher’ (my translation from his Treatise on Sculpture, 1567, p. 253 [of 1811 edition]).

When we consider the reputation of Leonardo’s paintings – his sculpture and architecture have not survived – this is a big claim, even allowing for Cellini’s relish for extravagant overstatement. And we might also discount the implication that kings’ opinions are worth any more than anyone else’s.

[If I could interrupt my own post here, please note that later on it contains adult images – by one of the most remarkable artists in Western civilization. I hope my discussion of them is in the spirit of Terence (195/185–159 BC): ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’ (‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me’). If this isn’t your cup of tea, fair enough; please read something else. Thank you!]

Nonetheless this is an idea well worth exploring, for two reasons.

Firstly, it can help us better understand what Leonardo’s work means – how/why he chose to do what he did. (I’m referring, in continuation of my previous two posts, to Leonardo’s private notebooks of studies for a textbook on anatomy.) By looking at his ‘philosophy’ I’m hoping his artworks will make more sense; this is difficult to describe unless you already know what I mean, but if I think I understand something I feel more alive. If I might dwell on this, I’m not sure if there’s any kind of experience that is more valuable. For a beautiful and expressive restatement of this, here is one of my all-time favourite quotes, from Leonardo’s fellow Florentine, Dante Alighieri:

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw, because, in telling this, I feel my joy increase.
(‘Paradiso’ 33.85–93, in The Divine Comedy, edited by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973)

Leonardo (according to at least one scholarly article) greatly admired and was an expert on the poet/philosopher Dante; here Dante’s complexly literary and metaphorical statement of universality rooted in individual/embodied sense-experience and love is close, I believe, to the view of the world that Leonardo enacts in his notebooks – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Secondly, in my previous post about Leonardo I was ‘trying to understand precisely what it is about [his] way of looking that helps him see things both in their uniqueness and in connection with each other.’ Did Leonardo have a system or formula for his thinking and creating? My own very big claims in this little blog are yes; furthermore, Leonardo’s philosophy might be fascinating and highly relevant to us, right now, in the modern world. So, what is it? …

Leonardo’s flying machine, realized by James Wink. Image from http://james.winkoriginals.com/leonardo/hayward.jpg

Back in 1989 I remember going round the superb Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Scientist, Inventor at the Hayward Gallery, London. This was in many ways complementary to the 2012 exhibition – which has supplied the theme for this series of posts – on Leonardo’s conception and investigation of the human body. The earlier one looked at Leonardo and techne, with some fascinating twists too. The centrepiece was an impressively large wooden flying machine. This was an example of the single main gag or magic trick, so to speak: all the spectacular machines and models turned Leonardo’s imaginings into something real. This, to use the language from my previous post, was the official story – another partial one, not the whole one I’m trying to explain.

In this particular exhibition story there is a happy ending: the tragic pathos of all those amazing ideas never fulfilled is wiped away by this technical, instrumental and triumphalist apotheosis. Interestingly, the official sponsor was IBM, during its glory years as world #1 supplier of personal computers; it was grabbing for its products some high-grade inspiration-by-association. (I’m not criticizing them; you may notice I’m doing exactly the same thing.) Stories always add to each other, mirroring the glorious complexities and confusions of human understanding. This 1989 exhibition, then, was also an oblique retelling of one of the most potent and odd narratives of our digital age: computers can and should turn your dreams into reality.

But here is what Martin Kemp said in his excellent catalogue (Leonardo, London: South Bank Centre, 1989) to the Hayward exhibition he curated. This is a rather different narrative to the one in the title, and more beautiful and interesting:

It seems to me that there is a core to [Leonardo’s] achievement, however imperfectly transmitted and received by different generations, that remains intuitively accessible. What has been sensed is that his artistic productions are more than art—that they are part of a vision embracing a profound sense of the interrelatedness of things. The full complexity of life in the context of the world is somehow implied when he characterises any of its constituent parts … I believe that his vision of the totality of the world as a kind of single organism does speak to us with particular relevance today …

I am deeply indebted to Professor Kemp’s insights, both in his writing and the curation of the 1989 exhibition, from which I have borrowed freely, at least to start with!

Here are two of Leonardo’s sketches from his notebooks alongside each other; one maps the course of the river Arno in Tuscany, Italy, the other shows the veins of the arm:

(Left) the river Arno, c. 1504, Drawings and Misc Papers Vol. IV, folio 444r. (Right) the veins of the left arm – those of an older person are compared with a young person‘s in the smaller inset sketch. 1507–8, from Anatomical Studies, folio 69r.

I can’t imagine that Leonardo deliberately drew these two sketches to make this point. I don’t suppose either that he intended them to be seen together. But nonetheless Leonardo seems to regard the plain of the Arno and the distribution of blood around the arm as equivalent and comparable.

It’s a shock to connect the two – topology and anatomy come in two separate compartments, don’t they? The more we think about it, though, why shouldn’t we see the two hugely different scales in the same frame of reference? If we really want to name them both by a single scientific category we could settle on hydraulics, but then we are still being reductive. We can call Leonardo ‘artist, scientist, inventor’, ‘anatomist’, ‘genius’ or anything, but if Leonardo is truthful about or truly reflective of the world, our partial/atomistic representations of him will only tell us about ourselves – not him specifically, nor the world in general. My concern is that we then miss his vivacious conception of integration, gestalt, pan-creational life-force.

Just in case you might think the collocations of dissimilarity in the previous examples are only accidentally similar, here’s another image, a detail from the well-known page with the foetus drawing:

From the Touch Press Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist app. Leonardo’s sequence of images is unknown and has been completely obscured by rebindings and removals: there are no page numbers or titles, so for academic reference (and internet search) here, the Windsor Castle Library catalogue reference is RCIN 919102

The small inset sketches show that Leonardo sees correspondences of the main image with what look like seed cases. (He also depicts the action of gravity on imbalanced spheres, and why objects in relief look different from those in 2D.) This is what Fritjof Capra, author of crossover religion/science bestseller The Tao of Physics, says about it in his The Science of Leonardo (p. 260):

his famous picture of a fetus in utero is accompanied by several smaller sketches that liken the womb to the embryo sac of a flower, picturing the peeled-off layers of the uterine membranes in an arrangement of flower petals. The entire set of drawings vividly shows Leonardo’s tremendous care and respect for all forms of life. They exude a tenderness that is deeply moving.

I can’t claim any expertise concerning foetuses, although I have seen my four children being born; I can say that the (near full-term?) foetus in this picture strikes me as unusually clean and tidy – where’s the vernix? The uterus is also implausibly round and spacious – I have always imagined it (from an outsider and male point of view) as a majorly tight squeeze. Perhaps what Leonardo really sees here is his metaphor: a ripe seed or rich-brown nut. I hope you can see clearly on the left here what he says (c. 1511) on another notebook page. The app strips away the original writing and gives us a translation that helps us to see easily the conjunction of word and image – but the words are not about the image. So we can see that for Leonardo, metaphors are mappings, homomorphisms, correspondences – they help him make connections between different things. Metaphor is not just a rhetorical/poetical device – though note the modern and reductive implication that rhetoric and poetry are not a kind of knowledge of the world. Rhetoric, myth and fantasy, from the pre-modern world, assert a relation of knower to known that is deeply philosophical.

Note that visual artists usually have a different conception of knowing than writers. Artists curiously are perhaps less fluidly imaginative, in other words generative of strings of visual images. Writers continually jump from one metaphor to another, most of the time without any jarring – that’s what writing does, so we don’t usually notice. Leonardo’s imagination consists of a linked series of inter-translatable visual metaphors, transposing – like figurative language – something of the known on to the unknown.

The etymology of science from the Latin scire, to know, suggests that science is deeply concerned with knowing, although the obvious question ‘How do we know that we know?’ does not (as far as I can see) feature much in contemporary science. It seems largely concerned with repeatability, technique and methodology – as if pragmatic compliance with procedure ipso facto guarantees the incremental and non-falsifiable veracity of the modern scientific model of the universe and all that therein is. Even if it ‘really’ does, what does this universe feel like? Are we and our world just a massive bureaucratic apparatus? How can subjectivity and emotionality – in short, our humanity and our life – be completely and deliberately absent? Leonardo’s approach is not of course anything remotely like conventional modern science. Dare I suggest it is more animated and interesting? We can see this in every sketch.

Maybe the big foetus image above (shown in full-page view untranslated here) depicts what a uterus and unborn child look like when dissected following a tragic accident. Certainly Leonardo’s notes here soberly if speculatively meditate whether the foetus and mother can be said to have two souls.

Curiously, the sense of life-force in the bigger image seems very strong. For such a popular image – much circulated on the internet – it would be emotionally curious if it was an image of tragedy. In the interest of understanding and compassion I believe we should always pay careful and respectful attention to what we want to believe, even if it is apparently ‘wrong’; for it is also is a kind of truth. The eye of the artist makes us see an energy that radiates out from the child – the hatching is a vortex swirling around, starting from the very heavy dark outline of the body up to the lightness of the head.

Here are some studies of the heart of an ox:

‘Studies of the heart, some architecturally stylized, of heart, probably ox, its valves, atria and ventricular orifices; notes on drawings.’ From c. 1513. Papworth Hospital cardiologist F. C. Wells, in his article ‘Leonardo as a paradigm for modern clinical research‘ (http://jtcs.ctsnetjournals.org/cgi/content/full/127/4/929? in Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery 2004; 127:929–944), writes: ‘This drawing beautifully illustrates the importance of what we now refer to as the basal or strut cord of the mitral valve, antedating modern appreciation of its importance in left ventricular architecture and function.’ Image from The Royal Collection , http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/919080/recto-the-left-ventricle-and-mitral-valve-verso-a-sketch-of-a-running

My point here is that Leonardo seems to make a comparison between the chambers of the heart/ventricular architecture (at Propagandum Towers we take our metaphors very literally) and the configuration of rounded arches in a Romanesque church. Again, is this ‘proper’ science? I don’t think so.

Here are some tiny inset sketches, not the main picture on the page:

In an interview for the BBC, sculptor Henry Moore describes them as ‘beautiful flowers’. Perhaps it’s even more interesting than being right to see what we’ve said when we get something wrong. The problem for general readers is that prior to the iPad app, Leonardo’s notes in mirror-image Renaissance Italian are unreadable, so we could not expect to know just from looking at these florets that they are in fact representations of the anal sphincter. As is characteristic of Leonardo’s seeing and drawing, they have a sense of abundant energy and inner life. Notice too Leonardo’s impressive frank and dignified reverence for all of the human body. We can notice the cultural and philosophical differences in the historical development of subjectivity compared to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! | The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole are holy!’ (‘Footnote to Howl’, 1956) and the cringemaking Christmas carol line ‘Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb’ (c. 1852) that mistranslates Gestant puellae viscera (i.e. ‘carried in the body of a young girl’ – 1751, possibly thirteenth century). I happen to think these differences are important and interesting.

But are Leonardo’s observations ‘properly’ scientific? According to modern anatomy, apparently, there are seven muscles – which Leonardo specifically refutes. For those who want to read what he actually says, the words are in the following picture. I think they further help show his intensity/focus of observation and his leaps of interconnection from one subject to another:

On the subject of frankness about the human body, here is a remarkable and comparatively overlooked sketch from the Queen’s collection:

This page was not in the Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist exhibition, not for any prudish reason – an equally explicit sketch was on display. It was probably simply just too odd.

The pen strokes of the main focus of the image have a Picasso-like energy and intensity. The shapes of the internal organs in the male torso, by contrast, are recessive and almost fluidly abstract. The red chalk hatching/scribble in the female figure is frenzied – the explosive energy suggests (at least in terms of style) the raw low art/primitivism of 1950s’ artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Certainly the greatest enigma of this page is the combination of three images of coition with the mechanism, a gear train, whose cogs Leonardo seems to have carefully counted. Perhaps it is a machine powered by the fall of water – there seems to be a drive train of containers or scoops. And there is a minutely calibrated scale running across the page.

What does it mean? The app commentary is not much help: ‘Above are sketches of weights and wheels, and calculations in a fainter, yellowish ink.’ That’s it. Perhaps the combination of images and measurement is purely accidental – but, as we have seen, elsewhere in his notebooks Leonardo’s apparently random collocations of images usually show his mind spinning off at a related tangent.

If we assume they are deliberately connected, what do we learn? (1) Leonardo’s mind works in a way that seems strange to us. His other images of coitus in his anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection have commentaries that suggest Leonardo believed (weirdly, as far as I know) the soul of the child-to-be is passed in a tube direct from the spinal column of the male to the fertilized egg. (I’m not saying that’s what he is trying to show here.) (2) If Leonardo is trying to say something else which is true, and that truth is interesting but complex or difficult, have we lost the ability to make the connections that can understand him?

I suggest Leonardo is, intriguingly, going down the same pathways as someone in the modern era but hardly less enigmatic: Marcel Duchamp. His self-punning Marchand du Sel (translated as The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, Salt Seller, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975) largely consists of notes for the preparation of his iconic Large Glass (1923). Duchamp’s notes, unlike Leonardo’s, were published; like Leonardo’s, they take upon themselves no obligation to explain anything to anyone else. Among the bizarre and parodic mathematical/scientific and philosophical rationales it is clear that, at the very least, the upper panel is the organic ‘bride’ and the lower panel has the ‘bachelors’, surrounded apparently by the machinery of male sexual desire.

Marcel Duchamp (1923) La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even] – the ‘Large Glass’, in Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. The work was smashed to pieces en route to an exhibition in 1926. The pieces were stuck together, and the damage declared part of the work by the artist. For my entertainment I imagine Leonardo doing the same for his painting of The Last Supper. Image from Wikipedia

Between Leonardo and Duchamp some of the machinery and anatomical detailing appears to have crossed over between male and female; the upper part of Leonardo’s female has the mechanisms, the man the internal organs. The wonky lines running from the cones left to the ‘nine malic molds’ (the bachelors) in the lower panel of the Duchamp are his ‘standard stoppages’. These are his commentaries (directly) on the Système International d’unités standard measurements and (indirectly) on rationality and scientific method. Duchamp’s lines were produced by letting string fall down on the floor and then copying the shape in wood to make a dysfunctional ruler. Leonardo’s equivalent – probably to a very different purpose – is the calibrated rule across the page.

Of course I am not saying that Duchamp knew or was influenced by the Leonardo page in any way. What I think is more interesting is that there are correspondences, as if the two artists might have drawn from a common pool of thinking and responding. Variations on these themes are copiously verbalized in contemporary (French) philosophy, for example by Deleuze and Guattari. And if theories are to reflect reality – which they must – we should expect to find their expression in popular culture – which we do. I’m thinking, for example, of James Brown’s iconic Sex Machine:

To attempt a philosophical exegesis (why not?) of the lyrics of James Brown’s song, ‘Get on up’ is a call to a life of fullness and heightened intensity (cf. Bob Marley’s ‘Lively up yourself’); a palpably physical metaphor for this is getting to our feet to dance. ‘Stay on the scene’ invites us to live fully in the present, a religious and meditative practice enjoined by sages in many cultures throughout history. ‘Like a sex machine’: the pleasures of the body in the industrial age are vividly re-enacted in his song but Brown uses the simile to make sure we know he knows that art, language and representation belong to the symbolic realm. ‘The way I like it / The way it is’: Brown reminds us of the ontological schism between apperception and reality; compare the distinction in Heidegger’s terminology between ‘things-for-us’ and ‘things-in-themselves’. ‘I got mine / Don’t worry about his’: Brown’s mindfulness is a proud self-possession – and notice his fears and self-comparisons are not so fearful he feels he cannot talk about them. The language of ownership he uses here also resonates with the analysis by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, that contemporary capitalism deeply and increasingly commodifies and reifies all human relations, including even sexuality. Like Leonardo, Brown’s insights are so deeply embodied it seems as if they are not ‘philosophical’ at all. But the point of philosophy is not to draw attention to itself but to understand, reveal and encourage the life well lived.

So Leonardo, Duchamp and James Brown (in their very different ways) reflect back to us questions such as these: Are our best efforts at truthfulness going to be easy? How can we understand complexity with linear/atomistic cause-and-effect thinking? Can words help us communicate anything and everything? Is rationality the only filter for reality? How much can science tell us about what is really important in our lives? How much about our inner and outer worlds can we truthfully say we know?

I apologize if in this post I have over-emphasized the strangeness of Leonardo’s thinking. (I hope, in my next post, to show you some of the more obviously fruitful results of his studies, centring on the idea of the vortex.) I haven’t meant to be derogatory – the reverse is true. My intention has been to say that if there were no ‘errors’ there could be no truth. If we knew from the beginning what was an error we wouldn’t even need to start. In the philosophy he models in his writing and sketches, he insists, to paraphrase William Blake, that to know we must first imagine. And imagination is embodied in feeling and sense-experience. It acts as well as receives; imagination goes out from the subject too, hence the emotion and palpable life-force we can see in Leonardo’s sketches.

I hope we have at least started to see that Leonardo’s imagination is of the world and from the world and is in itself a world, full of the ‘substances, accidents and their relations’ Dante mentions at the quote at the beginning of this post. Notice too that Leonardo, like Dante and unlike materialistic science, insists that individual human perception and feeling is the beginning and end of knowledge.

Let’s leave the last (for now) words to Leonardo, from his anatomical notebooks (RCIN 919o48, c. 1510). Remember this is the sound of Leonardo talking/ranting to himself. As ever, literary style – the play of words and thoughts – is a philosophical position, a model of a very specific kind of being-in-the-world. It contains, metaphorically speaking, Leonardo’s philosophical DNA. His Dantean and anti-reductive credo here characteristically joins up parts to wholes, the human to the universal. It complexly speaks in a language of oblique self-criticism of his ambitions (‘to embrace the mind of God’) – note that, typically for Leonardo, even the mind of God is physical, embraceable. And there is the pathos of an old man who cannot complete his own project (‘not enough life … to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body’). Do we find some bitterness here too about the anatomy project he spent so much of life studying? Please excuse my abbreviation …

The abbreviators of works do injury to knowledge and love, for the love of anything is the offspring of knowledge, and love is as much more fervent as knowledge is more certain. And this certainty is born from the integrated knowledge of all those parts which, being united together, compose the whole of that thing which is to be loved. Of what value is he who in order to abbreviate the parts of those things of which he professes to give integrated knowledge leaves out the greater part of the matters of which the whole is composed? It is true that impatience, the mother of folly, is she who praises brevity, as though some people had not enough life to use to enable them to acquire a complete knowledge of a single particular subject, such as the human body. And then they want to embrace the mind of God in which is enclosed the universe, carefully weighing and minutely dissecting it into infinite parts as though they were making an anatomy of it. O human stupidity! …


About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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