Is Leonardo da Vinci a great artist or a great scientist? Neither actually.

Is Leonardo da Vinci a great artist or a great scientist, asks Jonathan Jones on his Guardian On Arts blog and as you might have already guessed from the title the answer is neither, actually. Jones’ question is inspired by the two recent Leonardo exhibitions in London Leonardo as painter at the National Gallery and his astronomical drawings at Windsor. The National Gallery describes him as a great artist whereas the curator at Windsor sees him as a great scientist. Both of them are wrong for the same reason; they, and Jones with his question, are making a category error produced by that evil spirit of historical research presentism.

As my friend and historiographical conscience Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt never tires of pointing out it is incorrect, anachronistic and ahistorical to call anybody a scientist who lived and worked before 1834 when the term was first coined by William Whewell. It fact it is dodgy using it for people before about 1870 when the term first really came into common usage.

It will probably come as a surprise to many if I now say that it is equally anachronistic to apply the term artist with its modern connotation to Leonardo. Artists in the sense that we understand and use the word, meaning practitioner of fine art, didn’t exist in Leonardo’s time it would be more appropriate to use the word artisan in its meaning of craftsman or skilled hand worker.

In the historical literature there is a perfectly good term to describe Leonardo and his ilk, Renaissance artist-engineer, whereby one can actually drop the term Renaissance as this profession already existed in the High Middle Ages before the Renaissance is considered to have begun.

As already mentioned the artist-engineers were considered to be craftsmen or hand workers and actually enjoyed, if that’s the right word, a fairly low social status being regarded as menials. An artist-engineer was expected to be a practical mathematician, surveyor, architect, cartographer, landscape gardener, designer and constructor of scientific and technical instruments, designer of war engines and supervisor of their construction, designers of masks, pageants, parades and other public entertainments oh and an artist.

The multi-faceted or polymath activities that everybody raves about when discussing Leonardo are actually the perfectly normal range of activities of any Renaissance artist-engineer the only difference being that Leonardo was better at nearly all of them than most of his rivals.

As far as his dissections and anatomical drawings are concerned these belong to the standard training of a Renaissance artist-engineer the major difference here being that Leonardo appears to have carried these exercises further than his contemporaries and his anatomical sketches have survived whereas those of the other Renaissance artists have not.

Having denied Leonardo the title of artist I think it is only fair to point out that it was the generation to which Leonardo belonged who were the first to become recognised as artists rather than craftsmen and in fact it has been claimed that Raphael was the first artist in the modern sense of the word, although as anybody who regularly read this blog should know I of course reject the concept of anybody being ‘the first’.

As a footnote I will add that the curator at Windsor is being somewhat disingenuous in his public statements about Leonardo’s work as an anatomist. He emphasises the few occasions where Leonardo drew something new or unexpected whilst ignoring the vast number of scientifically normal or often incorrect drawings, thereby creating the impression that his anatomical drawings were much more revolutionary than they in reality were. Also whilst the drawings published by Vesalius in his De fabrica in 1543, i.e. a couple of decades after Leonardo’s death, are possibly not quite as good artistically, as those done by Leonardo, they are medically much more advanced.

The comments column on Jonathan Jones’ post is of course full of inane comments from people delivering up their own completely idiotic definitions of science. If you want a good laugh I can recommend it.

P.S my next post looks at Galileo as an artist-engineer.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

24 responses to “Is Leonardo da Vinci a great artist or a great scientist? Neither actually.

  1. Pingback: Is Leonardo a great artist or a great scientist? Neither actually. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. I really enjoy it when you post about Leonardo with a provocative headline like this, because folks have been so strongly conditioned to scream “Genius!” whenever his name is brought up that any attempt to relativize (let alone actually denigrate) his work carries a whiff of sacrilege. And…I guess I just like sacrilege.

  3. jimhexis

    Whether you want to call Leonardo an artist or an artisan depends to some extent on whether you are a splitter or a lumper. The Romantic concept of the artist as intellectual may not have been fully worked out in the Renaissance, but the status of people we call artists changed markedly between Giotto and Ingres, in part because of the continuing efforts of artists to insist that they weren’t mere tradesmen. It wasn’t just that they expected to be paid more and differently than craftsmen. To use a theme made famous by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, they were born under Saturn, planet of thinkers, not Mercury, planet of commerce.

    An analogous issue comes up in relationship to the concept of the scientist. The introduction of the term “scientist” is one thing. The emergence of the sociological reality of the role is another, hence the phenomena of things that appear “avant le lettre.” I quite agree with you that Leonardo wasn’t a scientist in word or fact. What about Sir Humphrey Davy or Boyle or Hooker? Presentism ignores discontinuities, but continuities also exist. History does make jumps; but even jumps take time, and there are transitional forms.

    • thonyc

      In terms of your analysis of the transition of “the status of people we call artist” during the Early Modern Period I agree with all that you have written but there is also no doubt what so ever that Leonardo is an absolutely classical Renaissance artist-engineer. A role that deserves to be taken seriously by any historian studying the period.

      As far as the term scientist goes in its modern connotation almost none of the researchers of the natural world who were active before the 19th century fit our picture of what a scientist is. People point at a Newton or a Galileo and say they are obviously ‘scientists’ but do so by willfully ignoring many aspects of their working attitude that are completely foreign to our concept of scientist but which they regarded as essential to their research modi. So, no none of your examples are ‘scientists’.

      • jimhexis

        In the 15th Century, Alberti, Leonardo, and crowds of others were channeling Vitruvius, who was already attempting to brag up the status of architects in the time of Augustus. “An architect should be ingenious, and apt in the acquisition of knowledge. Deficient in either of these qualities, he cannot be a perfect master. He should be a good writer, a skilful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the sciences both of law and physic,º nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies.” Of course Vitruvius was an architect, not what we’d call an artist; but his inclusive notion of what an architect should be brings him pretty close to what you call a classical Renaissance artist-engineer. In the Middle Ages, i.e. the era of the building of the great cathedrals, architects were paid and treated as workmen. Later on, they, along with painters and artists, were demanding and sometimes getting more respect.

        I’ve chewed on the issue of the evolution of disciplinary roles for a good many years and have come to think that whether you want to call somebody like Sir Humphrey Davy a scientist or not, mostly depends on your rhetorical purposes. Fuzzy realities demand flexible concepts. Attempts to understand nature in a way that is neither philosophy nor theology surely didn’t begin in the 19th Century, though these efforts were conducted in different ways in earlier centuries. For that matter, what scientists are circa 2012 differs importantly from what they were in Maxwell’s time. Your point about Newton or Galileo is well taken—I tend to share your impatience with flattened versions of the history of science—but once you’ve distinguished the conceptual structure of different ages, you’ll still have to relate them together again. You can’t step into the same river twice; but if it isn’t the same river in any sense, the aphorism ceases to make much sense.

  4. As my friend and historiographical conscience Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt never tires of pointing out it is incorrect, anachronistic and ahistorical to call anybody a scientist who lived and worked before 1834 when the term was first coined by William Whewell.

    I find this logically troubling, as it also implies that there were no Neanderthals before 1864, when the name was invented, and hence no Neanderthals have ever existed outside of the fanbase of certain football teams.

    I’d suggest that if it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck then it was still a duck even before the concept was invented. My impression is that this still excludes da Vinci from being a scientist, simply because he wouldn’t fit a reasonable definition (in the way that Lavoisier, say, might).

    I’m not sure about whether da Vinci could be called an artist, as I suspect the meaning has changed. Would we call a portrait painter an artist?

    • thonyc

      Bob as I have already written above in an answer to another comment. If you go back before the 19th century the researchers who people tend to call scientists might have sometimes walked like a duck but they cooed like pigeons or cawed like crows. They weren’t really scientists as the word is understood today. In fact a lot of people misunderstand a lot of what Isaac Newton, for example, wrote because he is crowing and they are trying to hear quacks.

      • Jeb

        I got a huge bollocking in first year archaeology after slipping up and calling the departmental Neanderthal Expert, Neanderthal man in a class.

        “Never in all my years Blag Blah Blah distinguished Blah Blah eminent expert referred to as… are you suggesting he looks like one?”

        No idea how he came to that conclusion Neanderthal man had given three lectures all aborted before they started as he was using power-point but clearly could not operate a computer.

        Leaving us all at a loss as we had missed a big chunk of course that was about to come up in exams and old world archaeology is not my thing. Given the amount I was paying in fees I thought I was being generous under the circumstances but kept quite and let Mr Stress (was just about to do his viva voce and was hitting the bottle hard) finish his rant as he clearly needed to vent on someone.

  5. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci: Artist-Engineer : Deron Bauman

  6. Thank you again for the thought provoking and instructive post. I think Bob O’Hara has a fair point here, there needs to be some caution in eradicating words simply because they were not invented. You could deconstruct every iota of language we use in this way – hence a middle ground should be viable – where perhaps “scientist” may be used – but this be qualified as a more modern description and contrasted against what the titles of the day were – as you have essentially done in this post! As a modern practitioner in the sciences, I would argue an essential part of one’s work is dissemination and collaboration, of which Leonardo could not be measured as successful in any sense. What is the use of rejecting the null/claiming our results are reproducible if it is not to facilitate dissemination and replication?

    More interestingly (for me at least) – I would like to know your source for Raphael as the “first artist in the modern sense”. There are some relevant considerations here, primarily related to the description of the ideal artist by Alberti, which was later explored by others, notably including Paolo Giovio, Vasari and Benedetto Varchi. In the earlier part of the sixteenth century, the greatest compliment one could pay to an artist was to liken them to Apelles. We see this description of Leonardo in now famous Vespucci Marginalia – and it is used numerously to describe Raphael. Yet is likening an artist to an idealised description of an ancient Greek painter sufficient to qualify the description as the “first” artist in the modern sense?

    You will even find steadily shifting parameters for the essential qualities of an artist during the first half of the sixteenth century – with the focus being the ascendancy of design/draftsmanship (disegno) over colouring/expressiveness with colour (colore/colorito). Depending on what time frame you pick to look at and who is writing, you will find variations of who is perceived as most superior, let alone “first.”

    Many Kind Regards

  7. Rebekah Higgitt

    Sorry for the late involvement in this debate, especially since Thony has been kind enough to mention me, and the post in which I suggested that it was unwise to use ‘scientist’ when talking about any time before the late 19th-century. I would agree that we cannot get too hung up on whether or not we can use particular anachronistic words – that way madness and non-communication lies – but I do think that ‘scientist’ is a term loaded with baggage that will lead people too far astray to allow reasonable lessons to be learned about the past. Above all, ‘scientist’ implies careers, training and relatively predictable funding – all things signally absent in the past. By insisting on ‘man of science’ or ‘natural philosopher’ we can actually point out in useful shorthand how much has changed in relatively recent times.

    Recently, though, I have noticed that I am often dubious about the use of ‘scientist’ even in modern times. In journalism (‘scientists say…’) it usually obscures much. Why not ‘astronomers’, ‘chemists’, ‘engineers’ or whatever? Not all scientists can have something sensible to say on all parts of science. Whewell coined to word to close the ever-growing inter-disciplinary gaps of the early 19th-century. He insisted on the underlying philosophical connection of the sciences in a way that I’m not sure is tenable – or practical – today.

    • thonyc

      I very much agree with your second paragraph. As a philosopher of science (which I studied but usually keep very quiet about) I think we suffer badly in science debates from the mistaken belief that there is something called “the scientific method”. This belief is encouraged by the use of the term scientist. Each scientific discipline has differing methodologies, rules of evidence, criteria of proof and so on and so forth. There are of course common uniting factors between the working methods of the various scientific disciplines but I still have the feeling that the use of the term scientist tends to obscure the very important differences and lead to some dangerous unjustified generalisations.

      • jimhexis

        May I suggest that there is an additional discontinuity that needs to be kept in mind here? It isn’t always obvious in these discussions whether we’re talking about the continuities/discontinuities in the practices of scientists or changes in the way that scientists think about themselves. Old textbooks in particular fields used to begin with a chapter on methodology that would reflect the then-current self-understanding of science, but that’s usually the last you’d hear about the methodology, which was far too general and abstract to be relevant to the substance of the science in question. Some history of science seems to be a history of the first chapters; some seems to pay attention to the rest of the book. You can focus on the ideology of science, what I’m tempted to call the class consciousness of the boffins, or you can go in for an industrial engineering/cultural anthropology investigation of what these folks do and how they do it, a vastly more difficult activity. Of course, it complicates things still more that the ideology of science surely affects how science is actually organized and operates; and it would be begging the question to assume that all consciousness is necessarily false consciousness. Anyhow, the whole may just be another one of the parts, but it is a part.

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  13. Jeff

    In the 16th century there was also no concept of a “neutrino”. And yet it would be silly to deny that they existed during the Renaissance

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