Is There Anything Leondardo Da Vinci Couldn’t Do Brilliantly?

by David Maine

6 May 2010

A lively, engaging book that acts as an excellent primer for anyone who wishes to acquaint, or re-acquaint herself with this extraordinary man.

Da Vinci's Code, Unraveled

cover art

Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World

Stefan Klein

(Da Capo)
US: Apr 2010

Is there anything Leondardo da Vinci couldn’t do brilliantly? Painting, sketching, engineering, mechanics, optics, medicine—the ultimate Renaissance Man possessed a restless intellect that alighted everywhere and rarely stayed put for long, but managed to understand reality better than, perhaps, any human before him (and most of us since). Despite his flaws in understanding the nature of the universe, or maybe because of them, Leonardo comes down to us even after 500 years as a remarkable character, a man who created the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, who designed nightmarish war machines and practical canal locks, who cut open dead bodies and drew pictures of what he saw, but who also took the time to buy caged songbirds for the sole joy of setting them free.

Leonardo’s Legacy is a book that celebrates the man in all his apparent paradoxical complexity. Although it contains few surprises for da Vinci scholars, it serves its purpose well: to remind interested non-experts of how extraordinary a man Leonardo was. As Stefan Klein puts it, the book “is not intended as a standard biography of a masterful artist as much as an attempt to get inside the mind of one of the most extraordinary individuals who ever lived—and to see the world through his eyes.” To a large extent, the author succeeds in his task.

Much typical biographical information is absent here. There is little or nothing about Leonardo’s childhood, his education or his early adulthood. (A chronology in the Appendix provides a framework of dates and employers.) Instead, Klein focuses on a number of areas of interest that mystified, or perhaps plagued, da Vinci throughout his life: the flow of water, the secret of flight, the machinery of war, the ultimate mysteries of the human body. Klein’s contemplation of the Mona Lisa leads to a discussion of da Vinci’s study of optics, which had a direct bearing on the painting. da Vinci’s relentless sketching of human faces—he might follow an unsuspecting victim around town all day long, tossing off a multitude of sketches of his subject—led to an understanding of facial musculature and a range of expression in, for example, the 13 figures of The Last Supper that his contemporaries were simply unable to match.

Leonardo was equally fascinated with water as with light, and his attempts to quantify the movement of liquids seems nothing short of heroic, given his complete lack of access to photographs or films to study; all he could do was look at a waterfall, a pond, a river, and try to understand how its various currents and eddies flowed. He drew studies of all this as well, seeking a predictable pattern of how liquid flowed in various circumstances. As with his study of ballistics, in which he observed the flight of airborne objects in order to predict the trajectory of cannonballs, he relied first and foremost on direct observation. Sight, for Leonardo, was where science began.

Flight, on the other hand, was where it nearly ended. Leonardo was stumped by how birds flew, despite his wrestling with the problem for decades; his many attempts to create a flying apparatus for a human being invariably failed. It happened because of the sight he so relied upon, which suggested through observation that birds flew by flapping their wings. His contraptions relied almost universally on this same principle. Crucially, lift is not created by flapping wings, but by air passing over the top of the wing more quickly than below it. This is why planes fly without flapping their wings. Tantalizingly, Leonardo did produce one or two sketches of a fixed-wing harness, something like a modern hang glider, which did not rely on flapping. There is no record of whether it was ever tried out by some brave test pilot.

Probably that is just as well, because speed is the other factor in the air-lift equation. When master glider Judy Leden tried a 21st-century reproduction of da Vinci’s design, she was able to glide for some 650 yards, but only after reaching a takeoff speed by running full tilt into the teeth of a storm. Anyone who tried Leonardo’s most likely means of launch, a standing start (perhaps jumping off the edge of a quarry), would have plummeted straight down.

Later in life, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity got him in trouble with the Church, as his dissections of human cadavers were prohibited as heresy. Even this did not dissuade him. Adept at snuggling up to rulers, despotic or otherwise, da Vinci used what contacts he could to lessen the heat. (He was friends with the Pope’s brother, which always helps.) His strong pragmatic streak shows, here as elsewhere, as he was not reluctant to cozy up to a martinet if it meant a steady income and the freedom to pursue his scientific and artistic work.

This book covers much more besides this: Leonardo led a life which resists summation, and he contemplated big questions of God and the human soul as well as more earthly concerns. Originally published in German, Leonardo’s Legacy has been capably translated by Shelley Frisch, and the result reads smoothly and naturally. Stefan Klein’s lively, engaging book is an excellent primer for anyone who wishes to acquaint, or re-acquaint herself with this extraordinary man.

Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World


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