Life & Liberty: Through Leonardo's Eyes


On a recent visit to Montreal, I saw something Leonardo da Vinci would have liked—videotapes showing models of many of his machine inventions in action. A reversible hoist lifts a box, turning it back and forth. A cam-driven hammer smashes down on an anvil. The tapes are all part of an epochal exhibit, "Leonardo da Vinci, Engineer and Architect," which runs through November 8 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Because Leonardo is better known now for his art work, especially his paintings and drawings, few people realize that he spent most of his life on engineering and scientific pursuits, with art almost a sideline. In his lifetime (1452–1519), these technological pursuits were his primary source of income and reputation. He even emphasized these talents in a famous letter of résumé to a future patron and only added at the end that he had skills in the arts.

Leonardo's technical ideas and inventions are often difficult to grasp because of the complexity of his ideas, the special engineering knowledge required, and the difficulty of translating his cryptic notebooks. The Montreal exhibit's creators have solved these problems by commissioning what must be the largest existing group of working models of Leonardo's inventions. And because of the many detailed descriptions adjacent to the works exhibited, you are not left with the tough task of trying to interpret his notebooks and drawings. And, on request, a museum staff member will operate the machines. Besides all the models, the exhibit includes dozens of Leonardo's original drawings, as well as good reproductions of other drawings by him and his contemporaries, conveying a good sense of the milieu in which Leonardo worked.

One of the themes of the show is that while he was one of a group of brilliant technologists (including the great Filippo Brunelleschi) who flourished in the High Renaissance, Leonardo was unique. He looked at the world in a special way that allowed him to wrest from it, with seeming ease, innumerable discoveries and inventions.

Besides his love for new technologies, there is a particular reason Leonardo would have delighted in the use of video technology to show his work: for Leonardo, the visual sense was paramount—the eye was everything.

Again and again in his writing, Leonardo returned to the greatness of human vision. The eye is a human sense organ, and he considered vision the greatest sense. "The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature," he wrote. In a second respect, the eye is a metaphor. It stands for man's ability to understand the world, the human vision to see beyond concrete facts and grasp abstract principles.

Leonardo regarded his philosophy of the eye as an active, passionate process of observing the world—and then observing what one has observed. In a rhapsodic listing of the eye's achievements, Leonardo wrote: "The eye carries men to different parts of the world, it is the prince of mathematics, its sciences are most certain, it has measured the heights and the dimensions of the stars, it has found the elements and their locations.…it has created architecture, and perspective, and divine painting. The eye carries men from east to west, it has discovered navigation. Through it, human industry discovered fire, by which the eye has regained what darkness first took away. It has adorned nature with agriculture and pleasant gardens."

Before Leonardo and other Renaissance technologists, a machine was seen as a whole, performing a certain job—a certain function. But by careful observation and reflection, Leonardo realized that most devices were in fact combinations of simpler machines—the gear, the lever, the wound spring, the pulley, and others—and that he could fit these "building blocks" of mechanics together in infinite combinations. Just as the 26 letter alphabet allows a vast number of words, so these basic building blocks of technology allow innumerable machines to be invented. The exhibit's new wood and metal models, made in Italy from Leonardo's drawings, concretely show these individual mechanical principles—the lazy Susan (using his invention of ball bearings); the cam mechanism that translates a smooth turning motion into a hammer blow; a crankshaft; an inverted screw; a three-speed gear, and on and on.

The museum also displays many of Leonardo's anatomical studies, both original drawings from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and photographic copies. He studied anatomy for the sake of his art and in the process advanced medical science. Leonardo would study one corpse, then another and another to observe the differences and similarities, so that he could draw general conclusions from his observations. Again, seeing first, then seeing what he saw. His notes indicate that his illustrations were the result of having dissected 20 corpses. To see all that Leonardo distilled in these drawings, you would have to repeat his entire process. His drawing of the system of veins in the human body—the first to show the system as a whole—is still one of the clearest of its kind.

His anatomical studies also allowed Leonardo to grasp that the body's essential principles are mechanical—and that they match the principles used in machine invention. He recognized the mechanical nature of the tendons holding together bones and saw the blood system as a type of hydraulic engineering, like canal design. Drawings from the Royal Library show the analogy between the spinal column and a ship's mast and the similarity between bone joints and antifriction mechanical joints.

Leonardo saw not only how the body resembles a machine but also how well-made inanimate objects resemble the body. Organic things, such as animals and plants, are integrated beings—all parts work together and in balance. Everything that is part of a cat is part of its nature, and therefore it is "natural" for it to jump well because it has strong leg muscles and for it to lick its fur clean with its special tongue. You would never say that any of the things cats do are unnatural for cats.

Analogously, the term organic describes an object that is not literally organic but that is integrated and has no contradictions between one part and another. For example, a house where the shapes of the rooms, the shapes of the windows, and the shapes of the detailed ornament all create a visual integration contains the elements of an organic design. And if the rooms function well, if the windows give good views and light, and if the ornament isn't tacked on, then the house is fully organic. Its every aspect makes visual and functional sense and does not contradict any other part.

Much of Leonardo's architectural work was theoretical, never actually built. But his organic approach, along with his understanding of mechanical principles, did enable him to solve baffling structural problems in aesthetically pleasing ways. To support the dome of the cathedral at Milan, for example, he created a remarkable structural system, drawings of which are on display in Montreal. The church was partly complete when Leonardo was called in to figure out how to mount a massive dome on the weak pillars expected to support it. He devised a new system of very thin, interlocking ribs that curved between the pillars on which they sat, creating arches strong enough to support the dome. Yet for all their strength, the arches look light and airy, maintaining the organic consistency of the cathedral.

Leonardo's whole approach to life was organic. All parts of human life and nature around him were worthy of observation and reflection: theoretical science, engineering, the emotions expressed in art, the nature of river flow, the beauty of dinner table arrangements, the qualities of musical instruments, or the best party decorations. All were worth looking at and, in proportion to their importance to his life, worth spending some time to make each the best and most beautiful it could be.

His mind seemed unbounded and uncompartmented. He was interested in all areas of human knowledge and action, and one led him to another and another and so on. He hungrily wanted to look at everything and make everything a part of his life.

Seeing Leonardo's work reminded me of a favorite passage from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged: "He looked as if his faculty of sight were his best loved tool and its exercise were a limitless, joyous adventure, as if his eyes imparted a superlative value to himself and to the world—to himself for his ability to see, to the world for being a place so worth seeing."

What is wonderful is that a man who could fit this fictional description did in fact live 500 years ago—inventing, painting, thinking, and seeing.

John Gillis is an architect in New York City.