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Flight of fancy: Leonardo's ornithoper would never have got off the ground

When Leonardo da Vinci died on  May 2, 1519, he left behind about 20 paintings, one large mural of The Last Supper in Milan which was already decaying, and 10,000 pages of manuscript notes. An exhibition at the National Gallery which opens on November 9 will remind us that da Vinci was terribly good at painting and drawing. But as an inventor and man of science, he achieved little. Giorgio Vasari, the biographer of the Italian artists of the Renaissance, even thought his life represented a colossal waste of a sublime talent.

Da Vinci's celebrated anatomical sketches were an adjunct to his artistic studies. It is the quality of his drawing, rather than any physiological discoveries, that brought him fame. His near-contemporary, Andreas Vesalius, whose On the Fabric of the Human Body was published in 1543, was fully aware of the importance of good illustrations which is why he employed the studio of Titian to produce the woodcuts for his book. Da Vinci himself is alleged to have been persecuted by the Church for the crime of dissecting human bodies. But the only evidence for this is a letter in which he complains that a disgruntled employee is making trouble for him both at the hospital which provides his corpses and (rather implausibly) in front of the Pope. In fact, human dissections had been going on for 200 years in Italy as part of medical training. The Church had raised no objections. If da Vinci had to be cautious about his work on anatomy, it was because he was an amateur. He would struggle today if he was cutting up bodies without permission. 

As an inventor, da Vinci is credited with designing a parachute, a diving suit, a glider and a helicopter, among other things. In recent years, television companies have sponsored the creation of full-size versions of these machines. His design for a rigid parachute functions but has no practical utility whatsoever, while his helicopter is a non-starter. The diving suit works, but since he had no conception of keeping the air that divers breathe under pressure, it is only practical in very shallow water. His glider is the most interesting case. Full-size prototypes can stay airborne but lack stability. They spin out of control at the slightest breeze. On a television show aired in 2005, the presenters used their knowledge of modern aerodynamics to add a tail to the unwieldy glider, hugely improving its handling. Da Vinci, they assured us, would have thought of this. In any case, gliders had already been built during the Middle Ages. It was just you had to be extremely foolhardy to try one out. During the 11th century, an English monk called Eilmer of Malmesbury flew more than 200 yards after jumping off a tower. Flying, he quickly found, was only half the problem. The monk broke his legs on landing and was left lame for life. 

None of his failures as an inventor were da Vinci's fault. After all, the poor man was writing in the 15th century without the benefit of a TV producer's hindsight. But neither was he an especially original thinker. Books of marvellous devices date back to ancient Alexandria and were popular in the late Middle Ages. A manuscript by Villard de Honnecourt preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France dates from about 1250, two centuries before da Vinci was born. It contains designs for siege engines, buildings and industrial equipment. So, as an inventor, da Vinci was merely continuing a tradition that dated back centuries. His eminence today is based on a combination of general ignorance about this tradition and the magnificent draftsmanship with which his doodles are executed.

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October 17th, 2011
2:10 PM
I don't think I have ever read anything on Leonardo that misses the essence of his achievement so completely. I echo the earlier comment that one should read Martin Kemp on the brilliant origiinality of his drawings and the coherence of his vision. Forget whether he fits into some scientific box or other- that is just being pedantic!

Let's hear it for Leonardo!
October 16th, 2011
10:10 AM
It is hard not to see Leonardo as the first real genius in Europe since antiquity and one can hardly suggest that he should have narrowed his skills to just painting! One has to follow him where he decides to go. At a time when the discipline of 'science' did not exist, some of his activities were important. The medieval scholastics had shown no interest in accurate observation of the natural world. Leonardo's later anatomical drawings (aided by the provision of paper) were the earliest systematic attempt to illustrate what could actually be seen and this marks a crucial moment in the development of scientific activity. Somewhere in one of his many studies of Leonardo, Martin Kemp notes that if the heart surgeons developing artificial valves had used Leonardo's drawings as a model for the design they would have got it exactly right. So he serves credit for this achievement whether it was published or not. So let's just rejoice in the quality of his mind, one which developed in the workshops of Florence not in the university.

Leonardo fan.
October 15th, 2011
10:10 AM
Leonardo was the pioneer of accurate scientific observation, especially of the human body, something unknown in medieval times and absolutely crucial if advances were to be made. The fact that these drawings were not published should not exclude him from the scientific community. Quite apart from this it is hard to think of a more imaginative mind in the fifteenth century, an age of impressive humanist scholarship.

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