The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra - a book review

Most people know Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) from his paintings. The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are among the most iconic pictorial representations of all time. After 500 years, Leonardo’s reputation as an artist and craftsman are beyond reproach. 

His modest body of work – some 15 paintings and the experiments, sketches and diagrams in his famous notebooks - has had a powerful cultural impact. Some scholars consider Leonardo to be one of the most talented people ever to live, the archetypal Renaissance man, an individual of endless curiosity, imagination and creative facility. 

Although Leonardo’s paintings and techniques are an important part of Western culture, he is not often recognized for his equally important contributions to the founding of modern science.

The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra (2009) seeks to rectify this historic oversight by presenting Leonardo as an avatar for an experimentally-based method of acquiring scientific knowledge. In this, he was at odds with his contemporaries, who relied on classical authorities for their understanding of the world.

The intellectual climate of Leonardo’s time was overwhelmingly humanist in orientation, possessing supreme belief in man’s powerful faculties of reason and imagination. By utilizing science, or scientia – meaning “knowledge or theory” – and arte – meaning “skill” – artisans and academics in late 15th century Italy hoped to emulate classical Greek and Roman accomplishments in architecture, medicine and other disciplines.

Like other humanists of his day, Leonardo was convinced that science and art were intimately connected. Although his definitions of the terms differ slightly from what the words have come to mean in the 21st century, his views on the subject indicates the approach he took with his own work.   

"Leonardo insisted again and again that 'art', or skill of painting must be supported by the painter’s 'science', or sound knowledge of living forms by his intellectual understanding of their intrinsic nature and underlying principals." (page 34-35)
Despite the positive outlook of Renaissance humanism, Leonardo’s contemporaries differed to classical authorities on most scientific matters. Consequently, his experimental approach to acquiring knowledge about the world was out-of-step with many of his fellows.

"Renaissance science as a whole was characterized by a literary rather than an empirical approach. Instead of observing nature, the Italian humanists preferred to read classical texts. In the words of historian of science George Sarton, 'To study geometry was to study Euclid; a geographical atlas was an edition of Ptolemy; the physician did not study medicine, he studied Hippocrates and Galen.'" (page 149)

According to Capra, Leonardo was uniquely equipped to undertake the experimental approach he favoured.

His keen skills of observation, his ability to sketch accurately and quickly, and his visual memory were formidable assets in scientific pursuits. And although Leonardo was an illegitimate child – and so forbidden from attending university – he was still familiar with the influential texts of his day. 

"He not only accumulated a considerable personal library, but also consulted classical manuscripts in the private libraries of wealthy aristocrats and monasteries…Since he had only the most rudimentary knowledge of Latin, he studied Italian translations whenever he could obtain them, or sought out scholars who could help him with the Latin texts." (pg 155)  

The archetypal polymath, Leonardo was a student all his life, on a perpetual journey of self-education. In 1496, he met Franciscan monk, mathematician and fellow Tuscan Luca Pacoli, who rekindled his interest in mathematics.

Leonardo had first become familiar with Fra Luca’s work during his early years as an independent artist in Florence. In time, the two friends collaborated on a book together – De divina proportione – which featured over sixty illustrations by Leonardo. But mathematics was only one of the many subjects Leonardo was determined to master independently.   

"In 1493 he began to study Latin…he copied passages from a popular book of Latin grammar as well as Latin words from a contemporary vocabulary. It is very touching to see passages in which Leonardo, over forty years old and at the height and powers of his fame, wrote out the same basic conjugations…schoolboys have to memorize." (pg 92)

Of his varied accomplishments, some scholars - including Capra - believe Leonardo’s anatomical drawings represent his greatest scientific achievement. The authoritative diagrams of the human body’s inner workings remained unrivalled until the end of the 18th century - 300 years after Leonardo drew them. Yet this work represents only a small portion of his prescient vision.  

Leonardo’s aptitude in painting, sculpting and writing, in architecture and science, in music and mathematics, in engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, cartography and botany is truly astounding. Yet even more astounding, Capra believes, is the prospect that Leonardo – not Galileo or Francis Bacon – pioneered the scientific method.

"Five hundred years before the scientific method was recognized and formally described by philosophers and scientists, Leonardo da Vinci single-handedly developed and practised its essential characteristics – study of the available literature, systematic observations, experimentation, careful and repeated measurements, the formulation of theoretical models and frequent attempts at mathematical generalizations." (page 159)

To the twin qualities of scientia (knowledge) and arte (skill), Capra introduces a third element – fantasia – or “the artist’s creative imagination” (pg 35). By synthesizing the three components in his singular essence, Leonardo’s scientific methods became indistinguishable from craftsmanship or artistic inspiration.

"Even as a painter he often seemed to be more interested in the solution of compositional problems – the discorso mentale – than in the actual completion of the painting. (pg 37)

Leonardo’s discorso mentale - the knowledge he possessed from his studies into form, light, proportion, geometry, motion, nature and anatomy - was ultimately applied to the pieces of art we know today. 

Capra posits that in the process of creating these masterpieces, Leonardo established the tenets of modern science. 

Just how would the world be different if Leonardo’s scientific work had been known following his death rather than remaining hidden for over two centuries? What if Leonardo’s unique worldview – a holistic, ecological perspective – had been popularized instead of the mechanistic universe of Galileo and Isaac Newton?   

It’s something Capra hopes readers will think about, presenting Leonardo as a scientific visionary born ahead of his time with a compelling message for the world today. 

“First I shall do some experiments before I proceed farther, because it is my intention to cite experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way. And this is the true rule by which those who speculate about the effects of nature must proceed.” -Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1513