Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius

Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius

by Fritjof Capra

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Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, architect, inventor, and even musician—the archetypal Renaissance man. But he was also a profoundly modern man.

Not only did Leonardo invent the empirical scientific method over a century before Galileo and Francis Bacon, but Capra’s decade-long study of Leonardo’s

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Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, architect, inventor, and even musician—the archetypal Renaissance man. But he was also a profoundly modern man.

Not only did Leonardo invent the empirical scientific method over a century before Galileo and Francis Bacon, but Capra’s decade-long study of Leonardo’s fabled notebooks reveals that he was a systems thinker centuries before the term was coined. At the very core of Leonardo’s science, Capra argues, lies his persistent quest for understanding the nature of life. His science is a science of living forms, of qualities and patterns, radically different from the mechanistic science that emerged 200 years later.

Because he saw the world as an integrated whole, Leonardo always applied concepts from one area to illuminate problems in another. His studies of the movement of water informed his ideas about how landscapes are shaped, how sap rises in plants, how air moves over a bird’s wing, and how blood flows in the human body. His observations of nature enhanced his art, his drawings were integral to his scientific studies, and he brought art, science, and technology together in his beautiful and elegant mechanical and architectural designs.

Capra describes seven defining characteristics of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius and includes a list of over forty discoveries he made that weren’t rediscovered until centuries later. Capra follows the organizational scheme Leonardo himself intended to use if he ever published his notebooks. So in a sense, this is Leonardo’s science as he himself would have presented it.

Obviously, we can’t all be geniuses on the scale of Leonardo da Vinci. But his persistent endeavor to put life at the very center of his art, science, and design and his recognition that all natural phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent are important lessons we can learn from. By exploring the mind of the preeminent Renaissance genius, we can gain profound insights into how to address the complex challenges of the 21st century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This remarkable exposition of Leonardo’s work provides in analysis and illustration not only the nature of genius but the intellectual epic that can unfold whenever the human mind is set free.”
—Edward o. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, and author of the best-selling The Social Conquest of Earth and Letters to a Young Scientist

“ In this meticulously crafted work, Capra leads us into the mind and heart of Leonardo so that we experience firsthand his relentless curiosity, his desire to understand the living world on its own terms, his willingness to let go of treasured ideas and concepts in exchange for new ones. Journeying so intimately with Leonardo has given me a rich appreciation for the qualities of a Renaissance person, and what shines through above all is Leonardo’s never-faltering love for that which he was observing: this beautiful, interwoven, life-sustaining planet.”
—Margaret Wheatley, author of So Far from Home and Leadership and the New Science

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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Learning from Leonardo

Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius

By Fritjof Capra

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Fritjof Capra
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-991-4


The Movements of Water

Among the four classical elements, water held by far the greatest fascination for Leonardo. Throughout his life, he studied its movements and flows, drew and analyzed its waves and vortices, and speculated about its role as the fundamental "vehicle of nature" (vetturale della natura) in the macrocosm of the living Earth and the microcosm of the human body.

Leonardo's notes and drawings about his observations and ideas on the movement of water fill several hundred pages in his Notebooks. They include elaborate conceptual schemes and portions of treatises in the Codex Leicester and in Manuscripts F and H, as well as countless drawings and notes scattered throughout the Codex Atlanticus, the Codex Arundel, the Windsor Collection, the Codices Madrid, and Manuscripts A, E, G, I, K, and L. The sheer bulk of Leonardo's writings on water duly impressed his contemporaries and succeeding generations of historians. In fact, water was the only subject, apart from painting, of which an extensive compilation of handwritten transcriptions from the Notebooks was made. This collection of notes, transcribed in the seventeenth century and comprising 230 folios, was published in 1828 in Bologna under the title Della natura, peso, e moto dell'acque (On the Nature, Weight, and Movement of Water).

Carrier and Matrix of Life

Leonardo was fascinated by the nature and movements of water for several reasons. I believe that, ultimately, they all have to do with his persistent quest to understand the nature of life, which informed both his science and his art. Leonardo's science is a science of living, organic forms, and he clearly recognized that all organic forms are sustained and nourished by water:

It is the expansion and humor of all living bodies. Without it nothing retains its original form.

The term "humor" is used here in its medieval sense of a nourishing bodily fluid. In another Notebook, Leonardo wrote: "[Water] moves the humors of all kinds of living bodies." Being a painter, he had ample experience with water as a solvent and accurately described this chemical property: "It has nothing of itself, but moves and takes everything, as is clearly shown when distilled."

Leonardo's view of the essential role of water in biological life is fully borne out by modern science. Today we know not only that all living organisms need water for transporting nutrients to their tissues but also that life on Earth began in water. The first living cells originated in the primeval oceans more than three billion years ago, and ever since that time all the cells that compose living organisms have continued to flourish and evolve in watery environments. Leonardo was completely correct in viewing water as the carrier and matrix of life.

One of the fundamental principles of Leonardo's science is the similarity of patterns and processes in the macro- and microcosm. Accordingly, he compared the "water veins" of the Earth to the blood vessels of the human body (see p. 26). As blood nourishes the tissues of the body, so water nourishes the Earth's vegetation with its "life-giving moisture." And as water expands when it vaporizes in the heat of the sun and "becomes mingled with the air," so blood by its warmth spreads into the periphery of the body. Indeed, we shall see that Leonardo described in great detail how blood carries nutrients to the bodily tissues and that he developed an ingenious, though incorrect, theory of how body heat is generated by the turbulent flows of blood in the chambers of the heart (see p. 296).

In his paintings, Leonardo represented water as the carrier of life not only in the scientific sense but also symbolically, in the religious sense. According to the Christian theology that shaped the culture in which he lived, the faithful receive a new spiritual life in the sacrament of baptism, and water is the medium that conveys this sacrament. In the words of the Bible, baptism is rebirth of water and spirit (John 3:5). Several of Leonardo's paintings contain variations on this fundamental religious theme, often integrating the religious symbolism with his scientific understanding of the life-giving quality of water.

This integration is already apparent in the very first record we have of Leonardo as a painter, when he was still an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. Around 1473, when Leonardo was twenty-one, Verrocchio let the youth paint one of two angels and parts of the background in his picture of the Baptism of Christ (plate 2). Leonardo painted a wide, romantic stretch of hills and pinnacles of rocks of the kind that would form the backgrounds in many of his later paintings, and to that he added a long watercourse, flowing from a pool in the far distance all the way to the foreground, where it forms small waves rippling around the legs of Christ. While these ripples in the foreground represent the life-giving water of the sacrament, the watercourse in the background, cutting through arid rocks and flowing into a fertile valley, portrays water as the carrier of biological life in the macrocosm of the Earth.

This theme is expanded and elaborated in several of Leonardo's later paintings, in particular, in three of his masterpieces-the Virgin of the Rocks (plate 8), the Mona Lisa (plate 11), and the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (plate 7). In the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo depicts a prophetic meeting of the infant Christ with the infant Saint John long before the Baptism. According to a fourteenth-century legend, this meeting took place during the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, where they lived in the wilderness after their escape from Herod's massacre of the innocents. Leonardo has placed the scene in front of a rocky grotto and turned it into a complex meditation on the destiny of Christ, expressed through the gestures and relative positions of the four protagonists, as well as in the intricate symbolism of the surrounding rocks and vegetation. An angel conspicuously points to the Baptist, directing our attention to his spiritual dialogue with Christ, while Mary tenderly protects the children with her outstretched arms.

As in Verrocchio's Baptism, a mountain stream emerges in the far distance from the misty atmosphere surrounding pinnacles of rocks and breaks through the rocky landscape, flowing all the way to the foreground of the painting where it runs through a small pool-an allusion to the Baptism. However, the rocks are rendered here in much more detail and with astonishing geological accuracy (see pp. 77ff.), and the luxuriant vegetation in the grotto's moist environment is clear testimony to the generative powers of water, presented by the artist in a subtle synthesis of scientific knowledge and religious symbolism (see pp. 102ff.).

The Mona Lisa is Leonardo's deepest meditation on the mystery of the origin of life—the theme that was foremost in his mind during his old age. The central theme of the artist's most famous painting is life's procreative power, both in the female body and in the body of the living Earth. Essential to this power is the fundamental role of water as the life-giving element (see pp. 318ff.).

The theme of the origin of life is taken up again in the Saint Anne, which Leonardo painted around the same time as the Mona Lisa. Here the artist returned once more to exploring the mystery of life within a religious context. The painting shows Mary, her mother Saint Anne, and the Christ child together with a lamb in a highly original composition. Its theological message can be viewed as a continuation of Leonardo's long meditation on the destiny of Christ, which began with the Virgin of the Rocks.

Once more, the familiar mountain lakes and jagged rocks rise high into the background, although they are less imposing than those behind the Mona Lisa. In both paintings, the central theme is the mystery of the origin of life in the human body and in the body of the Earth. In the Saint Anne, this is rendered even more complex by the presence of three generations and by the myth of the virgin birth. There is a double mystery here: the immaculate conception of Mary by Saint Anne and that of Christ by Mary. To emphasize the analogy between human nature and the Earth, Leonardo has mirrored the three generations in the painting's foreground by three tiers of mountain lakes, interlinked by small waterfalls, in the background.

What these four paintings—the Baptism, the Virgin of the Rocks, the Mona Lisa, and the Saint Anne—have in common is Leonardo's extended reflection on water as the life-giving element in the macrocosm of the Earth and the microcosm of human existence. Drawing on his scientific understanding, his artistic genius, and his great familiarity with religious symbolism, Leonardo expressed this meditation in a series of masterpieces that have become enduring icons of European art.

Nature's Fluid Forms

Another reason Leonardo was so fascinated by water is that he associated it with the fluid and dynamic nature of organic forms. Ever since antiquity, philosophers and scientists had recognized that biological form is more than shape, more than a static configuration of components in a whole. There is a continual flux of matter through a living organism, while its form is maintained; there is growth and decay, regeneration and development. This dynamic conception of living nature is one of the main themes in Leonardo's science and art. He portrayed nature's forms—in mountains, rivers, plants, and the human body—in ceaseless movement and transformation. And, knowing that all organic forms are sustained by water, he sensed a deep connection between their fluidity and the fluidity of water.

As Leonardo observed the flow of the life-giving element, he marveled at its endless versatility and adaptability. "Running water has within itself an infinite number of movements," he noted in Manuscript G, "sometimes swift, sometimes slow, and sometimes turning to the right and sometimes to the left, now upwards and now downwards, turning over and back on itself, now in one direction and now in another, obeying all the forces that move it." In the Codex Atlanticus he wrote: "Thus, joined to itself, water turns in a continual revolution. Rushing this and that way, up and down, it never rests, neither in its course nor in its nature. It owns nothing but seizes everything, taking on as many different characters as the places it crosses."

In addition, Leonardo carefully studied the actions of water in the erosion of rocks and river banks, its transformations into solid and gaseous forms (known in science today as phase transitions), and its properties as a chemical solvent. He never divided these diverse properties into separate categories but saw them all as different aspects of the fundamental role of water in nourishing and sustaining life:

Without any rest, it is ever removing and consuming whatever borders upon it. So at times it is turbulent and goes raging in fury, at times clear and tranquil it meanders playfully with gentle course among the fresh pastures. At times it falls from the sky in rain, snow, or hail. At times it forms great clouds out of fine mist. At times it moves of itself, at times by the force of others. At times it increases the things that are born with its life-giving moisture. At times it shows itself either fetid or full of pleasant odors. Without it nothing can exist among us.

For Leonardo, the fluid and ever-changing forms of water were extreme manifestations of the fluidity that he saw as a fundamental characteristic of all the forms of nature. He also noticed, however, that certain flows of water can produce forms that are surprisingly stable: eddies, vortices, and other forms of turbulence known to scientists today as coherent structures (see p. 55). He observed and sketched a great variety of these relatively stable turbulent structures, and I believe that his lifelong fascination with them came from his deep intuition that, somehow, they embodied an essential characteristic of living, organic forms.

Today, from our modern perspective of complexity theory and the theory of living systems, we can say that Leonardo's intuition was absolutely correct. The fundamental characteristic of a water vortex—for example, the whirlpool that is formed as water drains from a bathtub—is that it combines stability and change. The vortex has water continuously flowing through it, and yet its characteristic shape, the well-known spirals and narrowing funnel, remains remarkably stable. This coexistence of stability and change is also characteristic of all living systems, as complexity and systems theorists recognized in the twentieth century.

The process of metabolism, the hallmark of biological life, involves a continual flow of energy and matter through a living organism—the intake and digestion of nutrients and the excretion of waste products—while its form is maintained. Thus, metaphorically, one could visualize a living organism as a whirlpool, even though the metabolic processes at work are not mechanical but chemical.

Leonardo never used the analogy between the dynamic of a water vortex and that of biological metabolism, at least not in the Notebooks that have come down to us. However, he was well aware of the nature of metabolic processes. Indeed, we shall see that his detailed description of tissue metabolism in connection with the flow of blood in the human body must be seen as one of his most astonishing scientific insights (see p. 312). Thus, it seems not too far-fetched to assume that he was so fascinated by whirlpools and vortices because he intuitively recognized them as symbols of life—stable and yet continually changing.

A Source of Power

Leonardo saw water not only as the life-giving element but also as the principal force shaping the Earth's surface and as a major source of power, which could be harnessed by human ingenuity. In his time, three hundred years before the Industrial Revolution, the windmill, the water wheel, and the muscles of beasts provided the only power to drive human technologies, and among those Leonardo thought that water had the greatest potential. At the age of fifty, when he was famous as a painter throughout Europe and known as one of Italy's leading military and hydraulic engineers, he dreamed of a grand scheme for a kind of "industrial" canal along the river Arno between Florence and Pisa. He imagined that such a waterway would provide irrigation for the surrounding fields as well as energy for numerous mills that could produce silk and paper, drive potters' wheels, saw wood, forge iron, burnish arms, and sharpen metal. Leonardo's ambitious project was never realized, but it was a prophetic vision. Centuries later, the powers of steam and hydroelectricity would indeed transform human civilization.

As an engineer, Leonardo was also well aware of the destructive power of water. In the plains of northern Italy, at the foot of the Alps, an elaborate system of canals had been built for irrigation and for commercial navigation, and one of the main challenges faced by hydraulic engineers was how to protect these canals from the flooding of their tributaries (see p. 32). This flooding happened periodically during heavy autumn rains and after a sudden spring melting of the Alpine snows. Leonardo paid great attention to these inundations, which could be very violent. He had witnessed a catastrophic flooding of the Arno in his native Tuscany at the age of fourteen. This childhood experience must have left a deep impression on him and perhaps was the cause of his morbid fascination with floods, which he considered the most frightening of all cataclysmic events. "How can I find words to describe these abominable and frightening evils, against which there is no human defense?" he wrote in the Codex Atlanticus. "With swollen waves rising up, it devastates high mountains, destroys the strongest embankments, and tears out deeply rooted trees. And with voracious waves, laden with the mud of plowed fields, it carries off the fruits of the hard work of the miserable and tired tillers of the soil, leaving the valleys bare and naked with the poverty it leaves in its wake."

As a hydraulic engineer, Leonardo invented special machines for digging canals, improved the existing systems of locks, drained marshes, and modified the flows of rivers to prevent damage to properties along their banks. As an architect, he designed elaborate landscape gardens with splendid fountains, running water for cooling wine, sprinkler systems for refreshing guests during the hot summers, and automatic musical instruments played by water mills.

He decided early on that his reputation and skills in hydraulic engineering and landscape design would be grounded in a thorough understanding of the flow of water. In his science and his art, Leonardo never tired of observing, analyzing, drawing, painting, and studying how water moves through the air, the blood vessels of the human body, the vascular tissues of plants, and the seas and rivers of the living Earth.

Excerpted from Learning from Leonardo by Fritjof Capra. Copyright © 2013 Fritjof Capra. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Meet the Author

Fritjof Capra, PhD, physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Capra is on the faculty of Schumacher College in England and frequently gives management seminars for top executives. He is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, The Web of Life, The Hidden Connections, and The Science of Leonardo.

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