The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance

The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance

by Fritjof Capra

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Leonardo da Vinci's scientific explorations were virtually unknown during his lifetime, despite their extraordinarily wide range. He studied the flight patterns of birds to create some of the first human flying machines; designed military weapons and defenses; studied optics, hydraulics, and the workings of the human circulatory system; and created designs for


Leonardo da Vinci's scientific explorations were virtually unknown during his lifetime, despite their extraordinarily wide range. He studied the flight patterns of birds to create some of the first human flying machines; designed military weapons and defenses; studied optics, hydraulics, and the workings of the human circulatory system; and created designs for rebuilding Milan, employing principles still used by city planners today. Perhaps most importantly, Leonardo pioneered an empirical, systematic approach to the observation of nature-what is known today as the scientific method.Drawing on over 6,000 pages of Leonardo's surviving notebooks, acclaimed scientist and bestselling author Fritjof Capra reveals Leonardo's artistic approach to scientific knowledge and his organic and ecological worldview. In this fascinating portrait of a thinker centuries ahead of his time, Leonardo singularly emerges as the unacknowledged “father of modern science.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Minutely researched, vividly written, and endlessly fascinating, The Science of Leonardo opens up a realm which has never been adequately appreciated.” —Dr. Oliver Sacks“Illuminating and impassioned . . . . A profound and clear exploration of Leonardo's scientific thought.”—The San Francisco Chronicle“A delight . . . . Lucid and spirited, it sparks a whole series of ideas and questions for further investigation.”—American Scientist“A fascinating glimpse of the road not taken by Western Science. Capra makes a compelling case that the science of the future may look a lot more like Leonardo's than Bacon's or Descartes — a science of systems, non-reductive and akin to an art.” —Michael Pollan, author of Botany of Desire and Omnivore's Dilemma“Vivid and compelling. . . . Leonardo himself would have nodded in approval of this book, because for the first time it crystallizes the entire body of his work into a coherent, unified whole.” —Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible
If we believe Fritjof Capra, it was Leonardo da Vinci's lack of schooling helped shape him as the seminal thinker of his time. In this truly exploratory biography, the author of The Tao of Physics argues that Leonardo's meager education left him unencumbered by the intellectual conventions of his time. Instead, Leonardo pieced together a multidisciplinary, dynamic view of science centuries ahead of his contemporaries. Capra shows how this illegitimate son of a Florentine notary and a peasant sharpened his ideas and projects in thousands of notebook pages that remain an exciting source of scientific thought even to this day. An intellectual life penned by a major admirer.
Publishers Weekly

Capra, author of the classic The Tao of Physics, makes the case in this fascinating intellectual biography for the great artist Leonardo being the unsung "father of modern science." Drawing on approximately 6,000 pages and 100,000 drawings surviving from Leonardo's scattered notebooks, Capra explores the groundbreaking research of this quintessential Renaissance man. Illegitimate, born in a Tuscan village in 1452, Leonardo did not receive a classical education, a fact that, Capra notes, later freed him from the intellectual conventions of his time and allowed him to develop his own holistic, empirical approach to science. Apprenticed with Verrocchio in Florence around the age of 15, Leonardo became an independent artist when he was 25, but his intellectual appetites demanded more. He taught himself Latin and began the famous notebooks, a record of his artistic and scientific explorations. The recurring patterns he saw in nature led him to create what Capra calls a science of "wholeness," of "movement and transformation." Capra expresses his own intellectual kinship with Leonardo's "multidisciplinary perspective" on science, one that "recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena"-a view he sees as particularly relevant today. Illus. (Oct. 30)

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Library Journal

Capra, since his first book, Tao of Physics(1975), has argued against the reductive approach to scientific inquiry that has been prevalent in experimental science since the scientific revolution of the 16th century. He continues that discussion in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, artist and scientist. Drawing from secondary sources, anecdotal material, and Leonardo's notebooks, Capra describes a Renaissance man who integrated traits that we view as peculiar to a scientific mind with the sensitivity and skill of a great artist. With few ties to accepted schools of scientific thought (he did not read Latin), Leonardo exemplifies for Capra what science needs today, an "integrative, systemic thinker." Capra asserts that new areas of inquiry, such as deep ecology, that employ pattern recognition within complex systems rather than reductive approaches are following in Leonardo's footsteps on a path that embraces the full array of intellectual and spiritual effort. A theoretical physicist who transitioned to popular science writing, Capra has an engaging style and a thorough understanding of the science behind Leonardo's inventions and thinking. Recommended for public and academic libraries. (Index not seen.)
—Sara Rutter

Kirkus Reviews
The painter's true greatness was as a scientist. So says Capra (The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, 2004, etc.), who begins by noting that Leonardo's scientific investigations have been overshadowed by his other work. They have also been overshadowed by Isaac Newton, whom the author sets up as an avatar of the mechanistic model for scientific work, the antithesis of Leonardo's "holistic and ecological" approach. Leonardo's failure to publish his findings also delayed recognition of his scientific work until long after his death. The case for Leonardo as scientist rests largely on his mirror-written notebooks, some 6,000 pages of which survive. His science is visually oriented, Capra contends; drawings in the notebooks contain object lessons in anatomy, geology, mechanics and a host of other disciplines. A concise summary of Leonardo's life and major work leads to the meat of Capra's argument. Leonardo's acceptance of the paradigms of his age does not invalidate his science, the author avers, but rather gives us a context in which to understand it better. He was familiar with Aristotle, Pliny, Ptolemy and the other accepted authorities of classical times, but his paintings and drawings show that he was concerned with finding out things for himself, observing the world as it really was. The drawings are not just studies, but scientific diagrams, Capra asserts. Quotations and illustrations from the notebooks make a formidable case for Leonardo's empirical knowledge of many natural phenomena that would not be recognized for years to come. It's possible to accept all this but not share the author's conviction that Newton et al. somehow got everything wrong. But Capraargues eloquently for his vision of science. Carefully considered portrait of a true Renaissance man-polemics and all.

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Read an Excerpt

Infinite Grace

The earliest literary portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and to me still the most moving, is that by the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari in his classic book Lives of the Artists, published in 1550. (1) Vasari was only eight years old when Leonardo died, but he gathered information about the master from many artists who had known him and remembered him well, most notably Leonardo’s close friend and disciple Francesco Melzi. An acquaintance of Leonardo, the surgeon and art collector Paolo Giovio, wrote a short eulogy, but it is unfinished and merely a page long. (2) Vasari’s chapter, “Life of Leonardo da Vinci,” therefore, is as close as we can come to a contemporary account.

Besides being an accomplished painter and architect, Vasari was a keen collector of drawings by famous masters and of stories about them. The idea of writing a book on the history of Italian art from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries was suggested to him by Giovio during a dinner party in Rome. (3) The book became a bestseller when it was first published, and its wide popular appeal has endured over the centuries due to the author’s lively and colorful portraits, replete with charming anecdotes. Through a series of engaging stories about the lives of its greatest artists, Vasari’s Lives conveyed the revolutionary nature of the Italian Renaissance. In spite of many inaccuracies and a tendency toward referring to legends and idolizing, Vasari’s work remains the principal source for anyone interested in that period of European art and culture.


The opening paragraphs of Vasari’s chapter on Leonardo are an emphatic declaration of the master’s exceptional qualities and appearance:

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art.

Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease. He possessed great strength and dexterity; he was a man of regal spirit and tremendous breadth of mind; and his name became so famous that not only was he esteemed during his lifetime but his reputation endured and became even greater after his death.

Vasari’s effusive portrait of Leonardo may seem exaggerated, but his description is echoed in many contemporary accounts and references, in which Leonardo was often compared to the classical geniuses and sages of antiquity—Archimedes, Pythagoras, and most frequently Plato. (4) Indeed, when Raphael, another great master of the Italian Renaissance, painted his fresco The School of Athens in the Vatican, he gave Plato the features of Leonardo, dressing him in a rose–colored toga (a color favored by Leonardo), with his index finger raised in a characteristic gesture well known from Leonardo's paintings.

Leonardo’s physical beauty in his youth and middle–aged years must have been exceptional, as it is mentioned by all his contemporary commentators, even though this was not customary at the time. An anonymous writer called the Anonimo Gaddiano exclaimed, “He was so unusual and many–sided that nature seemed to have produced a miracle in him, not only in the beauty of his person, but in the many gifts with which she endowed him and which he fully mastered.” (5) Others marveled at the unique combination of physical strength and grace he seemed to embody. Many authors, including Vasari, referred to him with the ultimate epithet—il divino.

As a youth, Leonardo liked to dress flamboyantly. “He wore a rose–colored cloak,” the Anonimo Gaddiano tells us, “which came only to his knees, although at the time long vestments were the custom. His beard came to the middle of his breast and was well–combed and curled.”

As he grew older, Leonardo apparently dressed more conventionally, but his appearance was always elegant and refined. Paolo Giovio described him as “the arbiter of all questions relating to beauty and elegance, especially pageantry.” Leonardo’s own description of the painter's inherent refinement is revealing as well:

The painter sits in front of his work at great ease, well-dressed, and wielding a very light brush with delicate colors. He adorns himself with the clothes he fancies; his home is clean and filled with delightful pictures, and he is often accompanied by music or readers of various beautiful works. (6)

There exists no confirmed portrait of Leonardo as a young man, but legend has it that he was the model for several angels and other youthful figures portrayed by Renaissance artists. The most credible of them is the lovely adolescent David sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio during the time Leonardo was his student (see Fig. 1-1). The slender figure, wavy hair, and strikingly handsome face certainly match the contemporary descriptions of the young Leonardo, and art historians have pointed out that several of the statue's facial characteristics seem to foreshadow those in the well–known portraits of the old master. (7)

There are quite a few portraits of Leonardo as an older man, most of them idealizing him as a venerable sage. (8) The most authentic is that which is considered the artist's only existing self–portrait, a captivating, highly detailed drawing in red chalk that he made when he was about sixty, although he appears older than his age (see Fig. P–1 on p. xxii). The drawing is housed in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin and is known as the Turin self–portrait. Unfortunately, it has been severely affected by centuries of exposure to air and light. The paper is now covered with “fox marks” (rusty–brown spots caused by excessive moisture and subsequent accumulation of iron salts), and the drawing is rarely exhibited in public.

In spite of its poor condition, the Turin self–portrait, which has been reproduced in countless posters and books, exerts a powerful effect on the viewer. This is even more true if one is fortunate enough to spend some time with the original, viewing it from different angles and distances, revealing the portrait’s complex and subtle expressions. Leonardo drew this portrait at a time of personal uncertainty and discontent. He was well aware that the greater part of his life was behind him; his eyes had weakened and his health was failing. He was living in Rome at the time, where he was revered. But already he was beginning to become out of fashion as an artist, eclipsed by younger rivals like Raphael and Michelangelo, who were in their prime and were the favorites of the papal court.

In Leonardo’s self–portrait, this unhappy time is reflected in a line of disillusionment, or perhaps contempt, around the mouth. Yet, under the bushy brows and majestic forehead, his eyes—the “windows of the soul”—have preserved the quiet intensity of his gaze as well as a deep serenity. The resulting expression, to me, is that of a powerful, critical intellect, tempered by wisdom and compassion.

Over the years, the Turin self–portrait has become not only the iconic image of Leonardo, but the model for the archetypal portrait of the old sage in the centuries after him. “This great furrowed mountain of a face,” wrote art historian Kenneth Clark, “with its noble brow, cavernous eyes, and undulating foothills of beard is like the faces of all the great men of the nineteenth century as the camera has preserved them for us—Darwin, Tolstoy, Walt Whitman.” (9)

A quality that is not visible in Leonardo’s self–portrait but was always mentioned by his contemporaries was his kind and gentle nature, in the words of the duchess Isabella d’Este, “this air of sweetness and gentleness that is so characteristic of him.” “Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone's affection,” Vasari writes. “He was so generous that he sheltered and fed all his friends, rich or poor.” He was also eloquent and charming in conversation. In fact, Vasari claimed he was so persuasive that he could “bend other people to his own will.”

Leonardo combined this gentle and charming disposition with great physical strength. In his younger years he was apparently quite an athlete, “most skillful in lifting weights,” as the Anonimo Gaddiano tells us, and an excellent horseman. According to Vasari, “he was physically so strong that he could withstand any violence; with his right hand he would bend the iron ring of a doorbell or a horseshoe as if they were lead.” Vasari may have exaggerated Leonardo's strength (and we know that Leonardo was left–handed), but his athletic prowess seems to have been well known.

During his years in Milan, he entertained the court with fables, songs, and charming conversation. “He sang beautifully to his own accompaniment on the lira to the delight of the entire court,” we are told by Paolo Giovio. But Leonardo also pursued his scientific research with intense concentration and needed to escape frequently to spend long periods of time alone. “The painter or draftsman must be solitary,” he wrote in the Treatise on Painting, “and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.” (10) These frequent withdrawals into periods of solitude, spent in contemplation and sustained observations of nature, likely contributed to the air of mystery that surrounded him.


Throughout his life, Leonardo displayed an air of serene self-confidence, which helped him overcome professional setbacks and disappointments with equanimity and allowed him to calmly pursue his research even during times of great political turbulence. He was well aware of his unique genius and skill, yet he never boasted about them. Nowhere in his Notebooks does he vaunt the originality of his inventions or discoveries, nor does he flaunt the superiority of his ideas, even as he explains how they differ from traditional beliefs. This lack of arrogance and ego was remarkable indeed.

Another quality that distinguished him was his passion for life and for all living things. He immersed himself in the study of living forms not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. He held a great awe and reverence for nature’s creativity, and felt particular compassion for animals. His love of horses was well known to his contemporaries, and can be seen in his drawings, in which he used his acute powers of observation to render the animals' movements and “noble proportions” in exquisite detail. Vasari claimed that Leonardo always kept horses. Equally touching is Vasari’s famous story of Leonardo buying birds in the marketplace, so that he might set them free:

Often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold he would pay the price asked, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.

His love of animals was also the reason Leonardo became a vegetarian—something unheard–of in Italy during the Renaissance, and therefore widely noticed. Leonardo’s justification for his vegetarianism combines his firm moral stance with keen scientific observation. He argued that, unlike plants, animals are sensitive to pain because they are capable of movement, and he did not want to cause them pain and suffering by killing them for food:

Nature has ordained that living organisms with the power of movement should experience pain in order to preserve those parts which might diminish or be destroyed by movement. Living organisms without the power of movement do not have to strike against any opposing objects, so that pain is not necessary in plants, and hence when they are broken they do not feel pain as do animals. (11)

In other words, in Leonardo’s mind, animals develop sensitivity to pain because it gives them a selective advantage in avoiding injury when they move about.

By all accounts, Leonardo was a man of unusual tenderness. He had tremendous compassion for the suffering of people and animals. He was vehemently opposed to war, which he called pazzia bestialissima (“most bestial madness”). In view of this, it seems contradictory that he should have offered his services as military engineer to various rulers of his time.

Part of the answer to this contradiction had to do with his pragmatic attitude when it came to securing a stable income that would allow him to pursue his scientific research. With his extraordinary talent for designing machines of all kinds, and in view of the endless political rivalries and conflicts on the Italian peninsula, Leonardo shrewdly recognized that employment as a consulting military engineer and architect was one of the best ways to secure his financial independence.

However, it is also clear from his Notebooks that he was fascinated by the destructive engines of war, perhaps in the same way that natural cataclysms and disasters fascinated him. He spent considerable time designing and drawing machines of destruction—bombards, explosive cannonballs, catapults, giant crossbows, and the like, even as he remained adamantly opposed to war and violence.

As biographer Serge Bramly points out, despite his many years of service as military engineer, Leonardo never participated in any offensive action. Most of his advice consisted of designing structures to defend and preserve a town or city. (12) During a conflict between Florence and Pisa, he proposed to divert the river Arno as a means to avoid a bloody battle. He went on to add that this should be followed up with the construction of a navigable waterway that would reconcile the combatants and bring prosperity to both cities.

Leonardo’s most explicit condemnation of war consists of a long and detailed description of how to paint a battle, written when he was in his late thirties. Even a few excerpts from this text, which runs over several pages, reveal how vividly the artist intended to picture the horrors of war:

You will first paint the smoke of the artillery, mingled in the air with the dust raised by the commotion of horses and combatants…Let the air be full of arrows of all kinds, some shooting upwards, some falling, some flying level. The bullets from the firearms will leave a trail of smoke behind them…If you show a man who has fallen to the ground, reproduce his skid marks in the dust, which has been turned into blood-stained mire…Paint a horse dragging the dead body of its master, and leaving behind him in the dust and mud the track where the body was dragged along. Make the vanquished and beaten pale, with brows raised and knit, and the skin above their brows furrowed with pain…Represent others crying out with their mouths wide open and running away…; others in the agonies of death grinding their teeth, rolling their eyes, with their fists clenched against their bodies, and their legs contorted. (13)

A decade after he wrote this, Leonardo, who was then over fifty and at the height of his fame, received a commission for a huge mural, which gave him the opportunity to turn his words into action. The Signoria, the Florentine city government, had decided to celebrate the military glory of Florence by decorating its new council chamber with two large frescoes depicting its victories in two historic battles—against Milan at Anghiari and against Pisa at Cascina. The Signoria commissioned the former fresco from Leonardo and the latter from his young rival Michelangelo.

Meet the Author

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education. Dr. Capra is the author of four international bestsellers, The Tao of Physics (1975), The Turning Point (1982), Uncommon Wisdom (1988), and The Web of Life (1996). His most recent book, The Hidden Connections, was published in 2002.Capra has been the focus of over 50 television interviews, documentaries, and talk shows in Europe, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan, and has been featured in major international magazines and newspapers. He was the first subject of the BBC's new documentary series "Beautiful Minds" (2002).

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