Marking 500 Years Since the Death of Leonardo Da Vinci

Martin Kemp Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, Oxford University

 

Leonardo, the uomo universale (universal man), is most people’s idea of a polymath.

Painting, sculpture, architecture, stage design, music, military and civil engineering, mathematics, statics, dynamics, optics, anatomy, geology, botany and zoology – most of them at a level that warrant mention in a history these subjects. Professionals in many of these fields, see Leonardo in themselves, claiming him for their discipline.

It is entirely appropriate that the cover of Waqās Ahmed’s The Polymath should be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, the outstretched figure inscribed in a square and circle, based on the The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. It is Leonardo’s visual hymn to the essential oneness of human beings, the world and the cosmos. It is often used opportunistically in advertising and elsewhere to endow something routine with apparent profundity. Here, however, it is central to Ahmed’s endeavour.

Given how we now classify and compartmentalise intellectual and practical pursuits, we tend to see Leonardo’s diversity. He saw unity. The unity was that of the fundamental organisation of the physical world, which fell under the embrace of “the principles of mathematics, that is to say number and measure – termed arithmetic and geometry, which deal with discontinuous and continuous qualities with the utmost truth”. Behind the myriad diversity of forms in nature lay a set of coherent and consistent laws about how form fitted function in the context of natural law. These universal laws could be extrapolated from behaviours of light, the motion of solids and fluids, the mechanics of the human body and from every phenomenon that involved action, either as a process or as a result. As an example, he saw the vortex motion of water as expressive of the same rules as the curling of hair. We now assign the former to dynamics, the latter to statics. He saw across boundaries that we now use to separate branches of knowledge. My personal discovery of Leonardo’s unity is recounted in my recent Living with Leonardo, which tells of a personal journey that began with a degree in science and culminated in the world’s most expensive work of art, the Saviour of the Cosmos.

“It is entirely appropriate that the cover of Waqās Ahmed’s The Polymath should be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man”

Leonardo’s mathematical polymathy was of a particular kind, but I do think it likely that most polymaths see more unity in their diversity than we can readily discern. They are better at seeing relationships, analogies, commonalities, affinities, relevancies, underlying causalities, structural unities. It is of course difficult in our modern world for an artist to work as a professional engineer – something that was accepted in the Renaissance, even if uncommon. Any polymath today cannot but be aware of the jealously guarded professional boundaries that need be crossed. Institutional structures, erected most diligently in the 19th century, leave no doubt where these boundaries are. They are designed to keep outsiders out and insiders in. Massive bodies of professional knowledge certify the status the specialists, supported by forests of jargon and barricades of acronyms. The high demands of modern disciplines are real but they are also serve as protective ramparts against everyone who does not belong.

Maestro di Molti by Waqas Ahmed

Polymathy in modern societies runs the risk of shallowness and amateurism. We are aware of the stigma that a polymath is a “jack of all trades and a master of none”. But there is an older expanded version, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one”. So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria. Biology in the era of DNA was reformed by the arrival of physicists and chemists. Copernicus’s 16th-century revolution was driven as much by concepts of beauty as innovatory observation. In 1905 Einstein wrote with eloquent brevity about a vision of space, time and energy, founded upon radical intuition, rather than undertaking a comprehensive review of what was right and wrong in modern astronomy and physics as then constituted. He was an insider who managed to stand outside.

“So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria.”

There is of course a danger in conquesting someone else’s territory without due respect and humility. I see this with Leonardo studies. Modern professionals in, say, engineering, assume they can solve the problem of understanding Leonardo through their privileged and narrowly focussed knowledge, transposing Leonardo into the modern world as “a man ahead of his time”. The result is distortion. There has been something similar when the artist David Hockney claimed that painters has long used optical devices to assist their depiction of nature – an idea with which I have much sympathy. This opened the door to experts in modern optics, not least in lenses, who had with scant interest in the nature of early optical instruments and what the business of picture-making was like at the time. In characterising the past, we need to be alert to the arrogance of the present.

“Behind the myriad diversity of forms in nature lay a set of coherent and consistent laws about how form fitted function in the context of natural law.”

True polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness and humility. It cannot be the same as it was in Leonardo’s day. However the principle of seeing something as if it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than in its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the cultures of mutual understanding that are necessary for the survival of the human race.