Every evil leaves a sorrow in the memory except the supreme evil, death, and this destroys memory itself together with life.”
Leonardo Da Vinci
Do we really need another book about Leonardo Da Vinci?
Here’s a guy we cannot categorize. Was he an artist? Painter or sketcher? Was he a designer of machines, of flying contraptions that bear a passing resemblance to a helicopter or hang-glider? If so, did he ever actually build a working model of any of his designs? Was he an anatomist, and more importantly, did he break medicine’s strict code of ethical behavior by stealing bodies upon which to do postmortem experiments in hidden laboratories late at night? Is he the ultimate Renaissance man, or someone with an epic case of Attention Deficit Disorder? How do we evaluate Leonardo Da Vinci?
It is because of these questions and the endlessly fascinating person of Leonardo that we, in fact, do need another book about him. German science writer Stefan Klein does a good job in his latest book, Leonardo’s Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World (Da Capo Press, 2010) of not giving us just the warmed-over bits from urban legend and myth; he gives us the truth and cites some new information and analysis about Da Vinci’s life and work.
As translated by Shelley Frisch, Klein focuses on Da Vinci’s notebooks and sketches. He portrays him as an experimental artist, a scientific and engineering genius whose best and most forward-thinking work was done in voluminous notebooks and on what we might call today, “scratch paper.” He ingeniously groups his chapters not in a strict chronological order, but by Da Vinci’s focus. “The Gaze” develops an analysis on the beguiling and ever-popular Mona Lisa. “Water” brings us numerous sketches on how water flows and moves with notes written in mirror reversal to accompany the drawings. Da Vinci’s less explored affinity for weapons of war and his contradictory belief in peace are examined in the chapter, “War.” Of course, Klein also gives ample attention to Da Vinci’s “The Dream of Flying,” his construction of automatons in “Robots,” and his intense study of anatomy in “Under The Skin.” Da Vinci’s apocalyptic visions are saved for the chapter, “Final Questions,” before Klein delves into his title, “The Legacy” of Leonardo.
What makes Klein’s work here unique is that we get some of his research experiences along with the results of his study. We learn that the House of Windsor owns a treasure trove of Da Vinci’s manuscripts, and that Bill Gates possesses the Codex Leicester for which he paid thirty million dollars at an auction, the highest price ever paid for a book. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of Klein’s journey is his opening explanation for how the world came to possess the sketches, paintings, and notebooks we have all seen either in person or on the pages of books and the internet. Da Vinci’s student, Francesco Melzi was entrusted with a trunk filled with his teacher’s work. The luggage was so heavy, Klein tells us, that two men were required to lift it. Melzi took it back to Italy after Da Vinci’s death in France, and guarded it with his life. He began work cataloguing and organizing the disparate notebooks, sketches, random pieces of paper, and works-in-progress, but realized he would not finish in his lifetime. He employed secretaries to whom he dictated Da Vinci’s ideas, but still, time was running out. “When Leonardo’s star pupil dies of old age in 1570,” Klein writes, “his son Orazio proved indifferent to his father’s passion. He let the plunderers have at the collection.” Household help stole manuscripts and books. Pages were torn out and pasted back together out of sequence. In the end, Da Vinci’s works were spread all over the world missing vital connections and coherence. It has been left up to Da Vinci scholars to piece the puzzles back together and restore at least some of his work to its original condition.
Klein also explains some of the behind-the-scenes information beyond what Da Vinci left on his pages. He says the great man always had a notebook with him, and he believes that he actually carried one on his belt at all times. He noted everything he saw and observed, even something as simple as how water flowed down a river, swirling in eddies around rocks. When Da Vinci was dissecting human cadavers, a practice that was not necessarily legal both under civil and religious law, he made deals with hospitals to take the bodies at night to basement rooms to cut, parse apart and examine nerves, tissues, and organs. Some body parts simply would not cooperate. Da Vinci boiled human eye balls in egg whites so that the gelatinous mass would hold together to be transected for examination. Those prophetic flying devices resembling modern helicopters, hang-gliders, and even the wings of jumbo jets were not just sketches and theoretical models. Klein believes that at least some of them might have been built and tested, possibly with disastrous results. His research on Da Vinci takes him to Bedfordshire, England where on an abandoned farm, “seven men who enjoy tinkering with aviation devices are spending their days assembling historical flying machines using original parts.” Original in this case means native to the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Using Da Vinci’s sketches, they have built a giant crossbow, a weapon of war, as well as a 30 foot wide wing that world champion hang-glider Judy Leden sailed down a hill, landing on her feet in an exhilarating if brief trip.
Leonardo Da Vinci is, in the best sense of the term, a classic idea man. He is the embodiment of the Renaissance individual, a student educated in a broad range of subjects. Born illegitimate, Da Vinci went on to revolutionize art and observation, science and technology. He anticipated later discoveries often by centuries, not just a few years. He is a unique character in history, a complex human being unlike any who came before, or have come after. Da Vinci thoroughly explored his world leaving no subject unexamined. Stefan Klein brings us the man and his incredible mind without delving too deeply into the more gossipy facets of his life. He does clarify who he thinks was the model for the Mona Lisa, and touches briefly on Da Vinci’s sexuality, but he saves the majority of his pages for an examination of the artist’s ideas. He includes an annotated timeline, bibliography, end notes, gray scale drawings and renderings of paintings, and an index as well, although it would have been better if the plates were in color. Still, we get a good discussion of what Da Vinci thought about and discovered.
As sure as the voyages of Columbus and Magellan opened doors to the greater world, Leonardo Da Vinci crossed the frontiers of science, technology, and the breadth of the human mind. He brought an artist’s sensibility to a scientific study. In all this talk of boosting science and math education, we would do well to follow Leonardo Da Vinci’s example and open our eyes to the subtle connections among ideas, disciplines and life forms, while keeping our sense of awe and wonder at the precise and intricate beauty of our ever-changing world.