A genius long ago

Leonardo’s Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the world
Stefan Klein
Da Capo Press

IN one of his last collections of essays, Leonardo’s Clams and the Diet of Worms, the great American science writer Steven Jay Gould refuted a misconception of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo was certainly a genius – a great artist, a pioneering thinker in an astonishing array of fields and a polymath without peer. He was not, however, a time traveller or a magician. He was a man of his time whose ideas were firmly rooted in 15th and 16th century Italy.

The myth is a tempting one. We’ve all seen those drawings from his notebooks where he apparently sketches plans for submarines, helicopters and other fantastic machines, centuries before they became technologically feasible.

Leonardo continues to fascinate on all sorts of levels, and not just as a result of the best-selling absurdities of The Da Vinci Code. In June of this year, the completion of restoration work on his painting The Madonna of the Rocks led art experts to reevaluate it. It had been attributed in part to Da Vinci’s students. The restoration work, however, brought details to light – including clear similarities between background details and sketches of water and clouds from Leonardo’s notebooks.

Stefan Klein is a German science writer who has written excellent books on the biochemical nature of happiness and on the history of humanity’s ways of perceiving time. With his latest book, however, he seems to have been beguiled by the Da Vinci myth, and fallen for the idea that Leonardo was a true scientist long before Galileo or Newton.

This idea, as Gould showed, is untenable. For example, Leonardo studied fossil shells in the mountains of Italy and scoffed at the idea that they had been washed there by Noah’s flood or – stranger still – had grown in place in the rocks as part of God’s intricate design for the world. Da Vinci correctly reasoned that, aeons in the past, the mountains had been part of a primeval ocean.

In outline, this is remarkably like the outline of geology first put forward by James Hutton in Edinburgh towards the end of the 18th century. It is tempting to see Leonardo as a man who anticipated the Huttonian scheme 300 years in advance. This is precisely what Klein does, in this and other cases: he seeks to persuade us that Da Vinci anticipated the observational methods and the experimental basis of modern science.

Yet Gould – who gets just a passing mention in Klein’s book – showed that this was not the case. Leonardo held a thoroughly medieval worldview. He was searching for similarities between the microcosm and the macrocosm, between the human body’s circulation system and the movement of water inside the earth. He was hoping to prove that the planet worked like a body, with an internal system of fluids moving material from place to place.

It is unfortunate that Klein – who is erudite and otherwise plausible – should fall into the trap of misreading Leonardo. In doing so, he distorts the legacy of a great artist and precursor to science.


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