Leonardo: The First Scientist

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No one more completely embodies the notion of the Renaissance Man than Leonardo da Vinci. His lifetime (1452-1519) frames the heart and soul of the Italian Renaissance, one of the most remarkable periods in history. In its sweep, Leonardo’s genius touched on nearly every aspect of human endeavor. Yet as Michael White argues in this fascinating and forceful new biography, da Vinci, mythic though his stature, has never been fully appreciated as one of the most remarkable scientific minds not merely of his age but of any age.

Leonardo: The First Scientist makes clear that this imbalance is due in part to an accident of history, and in part to Leonardo himself. During his lifetime Da Vinci patiently assembled a vast collection of notebooks, consisting of over 13,000 manuscript pages and containing some 1,500 exquisite anatomical drawings, in which he tirelessly detailed his observations and experiments. Suspicious of others and fearful that his ideas might be stolen, he kept his research hidden even from those closest to him. After his death, the notebooks were dispersed to private collections and libraries throughout Europe. In essence, they disappeared for over two centuries.

Those notebooks that eventually resurfaced contain Leonardo’s now-legendary reflections and drawings concerning flight, optics, anatomy, astronomy and weaponry-a staggering, almost unthinkable range of subjects and interests. Indeed, as White proves, da Vinci’s fifteenth-century discoveries predate and prefigure the work of later scientists, including Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. Had they not been lost for so long, the notes might have altered the course and pace of scientific discovery. Far more than priceless artifacts and historical curios (Bill Gates bought one notebook, the so-called Hammer Codex, for $30 million in 1994), Leonardo’s notebooks illuminate a mind capable of both rigorous procedure and soaring flights of imaginative thought.

Weaving together the elements of da Vinci’s life and his times-his unhappy childhood, his homosexuality, his relationship with everyone from Machiavelli to Cesare Borgia to Michelangelo-White has produced an illuminating portrait of the first genius in modern science.

“This story deals almost exclusively with Leonardo the man and Leonardo the scientist,” admits British science writer Michael White, who touches only lightly on da Vinci’s more famous achievements as a painter. Providing an extensive analysis of Leonardo’s notebooks, White argues persuasively that da Vinci (1752-1519) made important discoveries in the fields of optics and anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the eye, and “worked methodically and with scientific precision centuries ahead of his time in the areas of geology and geography.” Only the notebooks’ dispersal in pieces across Europe after Leonardo’s death, White believes, kept him from being properly acknowledged as “the first scientist.” Informative though these sections are, it’s the author’s multilayered portrait of da Vinci the man that really fascinates. He was intensely social and charming, gaining the friendship and patronage of many of the great Renaissance princes while enjoying the companionship of beautiful boys. Yet Leonardo could also be distrustful and defensive, frequently expressing a jaundiced view of human nature that may have originated in the stigma of his illegitimate birth and a frightening court trial on charges of sodomy when he was 23. Without indulging in overly reductive psychologizing, White suggests that da Vinci’s “almost psychotic need to discover, to unravel the mystery of life” had its roots in personal experiences that taught Leonardo to be wary of his fellow man and to seek his deepest fulfillment in the life of the mind. –Wendy Smith

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