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.