Pissing on a Holy Cow

I have become somewhat notorious in the limited circles of those denizens of the intertubes who interest themselves for science and its history for being nasty to Tuscany’s second most famous son Galileo Galilei, today, just for a change, I thought I would raise my leg and piss on its most famous son, Leonardo da Vinci, who was born on 15th April 1452.

Now as should be obvious from the title of this blog I specialise, as a historian of science, in that period of European history known as the Renaissance, which I date for my purposes as stretching approximately from the beginning of the 15th century to the middle of the 17th century. A period that because of the vagaries of historical dating also includes parts of the periods known as the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. When each of the three periods named here begins or ends if a matter of conjecture, dispute and personal opinion, as always I keep my own council. Leonardo who lived from 1452 to 1519 and who is regarded, quite correctly, as one of the greatest Renaissance artists falls of course into the period I study.

Over the years I have in the pursuit of my interests read an incredible number of books, articles and essays on the history of science and or technology or one or other of the sub-divisions thereof in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Early Modern Period and an incredibly high percentage of these writings have a section, a chapter or a whole series of chapters on the science and or technology of Leonardo and that is very bad.

Now you may ask yourself why I am making what seems to be a highly provocative statement when after all it is well known that Leonardo wrote and drew an incredible amount of material about scientific and technological subjects. The answer is very, very simple Leonardo played absolutely no role what so ever in the history of science and or technology because none of his voluminous writings on those subjects saw the light of day before the 19th century when they were nothing more than a historic curiosity, admittedly a fascinating curiosity but nothing more than that.

By all means write learned or popular books about this strangely visionary and ingenious Tuscan painter who filled up sheet after sheet of drawing paper with his speculations on all sorts of topics but who never deemed it necessary to share his thoughts with the rest of the world. By all means reconstruct his fantasies in wood and canvas and demonstrate to the world that his idea for a parachute or whatever actually functions. However if you are going to write books about the history of Renaissance science or technology please do not include Leonardo because he doesn’t belong, as he made no actual contribution to that history.

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22 Comments

Filed under Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

22 responses to “Pissing on a Holy Cow

  1. Pingback: Pissing on a Holy Cow | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thanks for this post Thorny.

    I said said similar at the start of my book and this was very unpopular in certain circles. It is only a shame that the US publisher decided to put the Vitruvian Man on the cover. Oh well.

    • thonyc

      I had to laugh as I read your comment James as I considered writing a final paragraph to my rant but in the end decided not to. The paragraph I didn’t add would have been as follows:

      Sometimes I think I am alone in my rejection of the adulation of Leonardo in books on Renaissance science so I was very pleased as I read James Hannam’s very good “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval Worlds Laid the Foundations of Modern Science” last year. (Which might get reviewed here sometime soon!) In his introduction he writes:

      When we hear about someone from the past who anticipated our own beliefs, we tend to label them ‘ahead of their time’. In fact, no one is ahead of his or her own time. On closer examination, we always find that people are rooted firmly into their own cultural milieu. The best example of this is probably Leonardo da Vinvi (1452 – 1519). A recent biographer, Michael White, even called him ‘the first scientist’. But surprisingly, despite being a genius, Leonardo had no impact on the development of western science at all. His influence was entirely in the arts. His lack of focus and constant experimentation prevented him from having as much success even in that field as he could have had. The reason no one followed Leonardo’s scientific ideas is that tell anyone abot them. [...] Consequently and despite his enormous reputation, we will hear no more about him in these pages.

      Wonderful!

  3. Well said, and understood. As it happens I never imagined that Leonardo’s ingenious scribblings had much of an effect outside the realm of art. There were no renaissance helicopter projects, on gliders and whatnot. The cult of Leonardo belongs to the modern period, not to the renaissance lineage, except where one is specifically discussing the influence of Leonardo as a fascinating and inspiring historical figure.

    So while those books on the period do perhaps merit some indulgence of this inspiring man, it would be necessary to topple the legend before commencing a sober appraisal of Leonardo’s contemporary influence.

  4. It’s a nice point, but doesn’t this suggest that our histories of science and technology must only be about those who contributed to a narrative of progressive development? Should historians of science not also consider those who, like Leonardo, simply responded to the ideas of their time? He may have been idiosyncratic, but he did not exist in a vacuum, and surely examining his work helps us to understand something about Renaissance science and technology – ideas he drew on, materials available, problems worth considering, the links between science and art etc. etc.

    If we remove from our histories all those who did not influence others and contribute to the sum of publicly available knowledge (or “the history of science”), do we not reject all the fascinating work done on the role of science in, say, the domestic sphere or working class culture?

    I agree that we do not need to hero-worship Leonardo for a non-existent contribution, but I see no reason to exclude him from history of science.

    • As always a very perceptive, challenging and stimulating comment from the good “Dr. Becky”; I shall answer part of your comment here and the rest in my next post, which was already in the pipeline before you commented.

      It’s a nice point, but doesn’t this suggest that our histories of science and technology must only be about those who contributed to a narrative of progressive development?

      No I don’t think it does although that danger is very real. I think historians should deal with all aspects of the environment in which science evolved (BTW I totally agree with your comment on Nathaniel’s latest post at PACHS) and that certainly includes people whose contributions to the debate were negative or even retrograde. Science evolves through a never-ending multi-stranded dispute in which positive contributions are often provoked by negative resistance; the “I believe that I’m right and I’m going to effing prove it!” attitude.
      James Voelkel, in his The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, has a brilliant analysis of how David Fabricius’ opposition and negative critic spurred Kepler on to completing and perfecting his elliptical astronomy. Niels Bohr said that Einstein through his rejection and penetrating critic of quantum mechanics contributed more to its development that any of its supporters. Roger Bacon’s rejection of Grosseteste’s correct assumption that rainbows are caused by refraction opened up new aspects of the problem that had not previously been perceived. Science does not progress, it stumbles along on a zig-zag path evolving in fits and starts, however Leonardo in his isolation did not take an active part in the dispute that drives that evolution.

      Should historians of science not also consider those who, like Leonardo, simply responded to the ideas of their time? He may have been idiosyncratic, but he did not exist in a vacuum, and surely examining his work helps us to understand something about Renaissance science and technology – ideas he drew on, materials available, problems worth considering, the links between science and art etc. etc.

      I shall be commenting on Leonardo’s “science” in the light of his contemporaries in my next post.

      If we remove from our histories all those who did not influence others and contribute to the sum of publicly available knowledge (or “the history of science”), do we not reject all the fascinating work done on the role of science in, say, the domestic sphere or working class culture?

      Certainly not! As a fan of the work of people like Deborah Harkness and Clifford Conner, although I think that the latter goes over the top at times, I think that the contribution of domestic partners, artisanal instrument makers, human computers and other so called background workers who get largely ignored in the great narrative of the history of science should be given a much stronger voice in our researches, because they do contribute, Leonardo didn’t.

      I agree that we do not need to hero-worship Leonardo for a non-existent contribution, but I see no reason to exclude him from history of science.

      As already stated above I shall discuss his place within the history of Renaissance science in my next post.

      • Thanks for this – and I’m looking forward to the next post. There’s an interesting difference in our positions as to what ‘counts’ in history of science – or what counts as science. In terms of the work I do, and most of what I read, what you write here is a great description. However, I would still like to be able to include, say, understanding of the natural world in aboriginal cultures – even where there is nothing like transmission of knowledge into western science – within the discipline. For me, any views about the natural and physical world can be considered: if we start labelling some of these ‘not-science’ but religion or philosophy or whatever, then we are doing something pretty similar to those who look back through the European tradition and shave off similarly ‘non-scientific’ elements of the story.

        Obviously this is a different thing to understanding what most people understand as science and working out how it got to where it is today. But, in my view, a history of Renaissance science can include Leonardo, while a history of post-Renaissance, pre-19th-century science should not.

  5. Fascinating post, though perhaps a tad melodramatic in the title!

    In my own anatomy training, I do not remember our professors ever mentioning Leonardo. Yet, we still had prints of his anatomical sketches on the walls outside our dissection lab.

    The cult of Leonardo has always been about his inquisitiveness, that drive to further either himself or his art, but not science. That he happenned to explore scientific principles to do this is fascinating on its own, without being dragged and dropped into a ‘History of Science’ timeline.

    Even the princeps of Leonardo fanboys, Professor Martin Kemp from Oxford (and TV land) will refrain from such musings, and simply tell us Leonardo was an extremely curious soul and masterly artist who barely got things finished.

    One thing I am glad Leo did not share with those who paid close attention to him, such as an impressionable young Raphael, were his chemical fumblings with binding and drying agents in pigments. I would hate to imagine the Stanza della Segnatura crumbling to pieces like The Last Supper.

    Speaking of Raphael and Causarum Cognitio(aka School of Athens), I think it is indicative that not even young Raphael saw his one time mentor as a man of practical application, but of ideas and inspiration – somewhat explaining why Leonardo is depicted as Plato gesturing up towards the divine architect, unlike Aristotle beside him.

    Looking forward to your follow up post.
    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

    http://3pipe.net

  6. Jeb

    Nice point and I must confess to rather enjoying the title as well.

    I don’t see any difficulty in resolving the interesting points both Becky and Thony raise.

    I find myself agreeing with both, but as I am not a Historian of science, I ask a different range of questions and view H.O.S. as one important and vital part of a much wider and fluid historical enviroment.

    It just means Leonardo’s position shifts in the landscape rather than being excluded from it, I think.

  7. It just means Leonardo’s position shifts in the landscape rather than being excluded from it, I think.

    Excellently expressed Jeb

  8. It occurs to me that there’s an interesting meta question in all this: Leonardo may not have played an appreciable role in the development of science, but he’s a major figure in the development of the idea of the universal man. I associate the ideal of the renaissance man with Alberti, but Vasari, who couldn’t have known what was in the notebooks, wrote of Leonardo “The greatest gifts are often seen, in the course of nature, rained by celestial influences on human creatures; and sometimes, in supernatural fashion, beauty, grace, and talent are united beyond measure in one single person, in a manner that to whatever such an one turns his attention, his every action is so divine, that, surpassing all other men, it makes itself clearly known as a thing bestowed by God (as it is), and not acquired by human art. This was seen by all mankind in Leonardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease. In him was great bodily strength, joined to dexterity, with a spirit and courage ever royal and magnanimous; and the fame of his name so increased, that not only in his lifetime was he held in esteem, but his reputation became even greater among posterity after his death.” Thus Leonardo’s iconic status goes a long way back.

    Good project for somebody with the requisite linguistic skills and a decade to kill: a comprehensive history of the origins and growth of the modern idea of the genius.

  9. Jeb

    A somewhat more basic but similar question crossed through my mind on Leonardo’s icon status. In regard to Becky’s touching on the relationship between science and art and Thony’s emphasis on his isolation and solitude.

    I have the unsual distinct of having been taught by a dancing master (in the old sense of the word). The Old Vic was somewhat ultra traditional in its approach to dramatic training in my day and the dancing master was the traditional teacher of actors from the restoration stage onwards.

    The schools dancing master was highly influencial in both the U.K and the States, a 72 year old gay, German -Jewish, Obi Wan Kanobi type figure for those working in the theatre. Still working at 78.

    But rather found of using Leonardo and his isolation to place emphasis on his own philosophy. He taught that as an art entirly dependant on observation, the actor had to remain distant and outside of society, constantly observing the world around him. Leonardo was one of the icons he used.

    He was rather fond of getting young actors to read Stones novel on Leonardo as he thought it was the best introduction to many of the difficulties that surround such work i.e you will be isolated due to the nature of the task, work like a dog for all hours and for no money.

    So Leonardo will have certainly have played some role in the growth and concept of ideas about art and the identity of artist’s for generations of classical actors taught at the Old Vic from the 1950′s onwards.

    But with an emphasis on hard work rather than genius.

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  13. When fans of the romanticised neo-Gibbonian version of history that laud the the Classical world and “the Renaissance” and denegrate the Middle Ages (eg the aforementioned Charles Freeman) start their rants about the “dark Medieval world” I like to remind them that their wonderful Greeks and Romans never experimented with flight at all and the overhyped Leonardo did nothing more than some elaborate doodles. Yet around 1010 AD, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury launched a manned flying machine that … actually flew.

    So much for the “Dark Ages”.

    My Medieval history lecturer when talking of the Twelfth Century revival of learning often spoke disparagingly about “that *other* so-called ‘Renaissance’ – the one with the pretty pictures and the crackpot inventor’s idle doodles”. Overstating things quite a bit, but I can sympathise with the sentiment.

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  16. I’ve never felt that Leonardo deserved the adulation that has been given to him – he was a great artist but could have been greater. As I recall when asked to paint a pope [it was the one after the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI
    IIRC and before Leo X, the one I can never remember] the first thing he did was to go off to invent a new kind of varnish for it. Before even starting a cartoon. He also managed to almost flood Florence with an ill-fated attempt to canalise the Arno. I always get the impression he was a bit ‘oo butterflies’ in his approach.
    Tim, thanks for that info, I had never heard of Eilmer of Malmesbury, he sounds a fascinating character!

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