White’s Da Vinci: 1st Scientist

Michael White Leonardo da Vinci: the first scientist Abacus 2001

White argues that Leonardo was a scientist, with some claim to be the first. This is mostly based on Leonardo’s anatomy and engineering, but also on his espoused views, such as here, where Leonardo is arguing that painting is a science:

True sciences are those which have penetrated through the senses as a result of experience and thus silencing the tongues of disputants, not feeding investigators on dreams but always proceeding successively from primary truths and established principles, in a proper order towards the conclusion.

Codex Urbanus Latinus

White seems to regard the main argument against Leonardo being a ‘real’ scientists as being that he did not use any sophisticated mathematics or statistics.

White notes that prior to Leonardo it was assumed that the image formed in the eye was a simple function of the thing being observed and describes how Leonardo, in both his experimentation on optics and his observations of life, identified various ways in which this could not be, and that this informed his painting.


The quote above is unpromising, and may have been written before Leonardo’s experiments on optics. It seems to me that Leonardo – like almost all his contemporaries – started by regarding the ancients (particularly Aristotle) as having ‘penetrated through the senses as a result of experience’, ‘silenced the tongues of disputants’ and identified various ‘primary truths and established principles’ from which Leonardo drew various conclusions, which he applied to his painting. But then Leonardo seems to have picked up various tricks which made paintings seem more life-like. Critically, he didn’t just apply these in his own work, but appears to have thought deeply about there implications. How could it be that such tricks could improve on a scientific approach? He resolved this ‘scientifically’, by identifying key issues, forming diagnostic hypotheses and experimenting. By autodidactically establishing his own theory, he reinterpreted the tricks, integrating them within a more scientific framework, leading to more coherent practice and paintings that make more sense. It seems to me that Leonardo exaggerates some of the effects, but only so that they make a realistic impression despite the limitations of painting.

See Also

My notes on science.

Dave Marsay

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