• Noel Jacob Sony

Da Vinci: The Untold Story

Noel Jacob Sony

A potrait of Leonardo da Vinci by himself.

The name Leonardo da Vinci conjures up images of museums adorned with beautifully rendered High Renaissance paintings with scenes in perfect proportions and models placed in complex postures. But seldom do people realize that even in his own time, Da Vinci was recognised for more than just his painting. Da Vinci was of course one of the most skilled painters of all time, but he was also a man of diverse intellect and expertise in fields including theatre prop design, architecture, engineering, palaeontology, anatomy, sculpture, geology, botany and cartography.

Even in the letter to the Duke of Milan, his future patron, he fills pages and pages about the different kinds of war machines and weaponry that he could build and it is only in the very last paragraph that he even mentions his aptitude in painting and sculpture, merely summarised in a few lines.

He studied the nature around him with incredible detail and viewed science and art not as two distinct independent fields but as complementary to each other. He was the first to recognize fossils as petrified remains of earlier organisms. In his time, scholars believed that fossils were the products of forces inside the earth that were trying to imitate life. He studied corals and mollusc shells that showed clear signs that a living organism had bored into them. He also noticed signs of movement and disturbances in different sedimentary layers by the fossils (now called bioturbation). He therefore asserted that the fossils had been fossilized along with signs of their activity. He is the father of ichnology, the study of trace fossils and one of the first naturalists to understand the origins of sedimentary rocks.

'In the Hills of Tuscany' by Leonardo da Vinci.

He studied rocks and landscapes extensively to improve his paintings and realized that just as the human body, the landscapes follow certain rules of proportions. One of his earliest works, In the Hills of Tuscany (made in 1473) is set in the Apennines that overlooks a waterfall and a large valley. The layers of the earth work as the construction lines for the entire sketch and are also geologically accurate, thick at the top and thin at the bottom as in the actual rock sequences. This importance given to the geology of the sketch, certainly pays off in making it more authentic.

He designed the parachute (300 years prior to the modern parachute), portable bridges, the double hull for ships (if the Titanic had one, it might've​ remained afloat), mitre lock in canals, hydraulic pumps and precursors of the modern helicopter and military tank and even the simple ball bearing found in almost every modern machine. He was fascinated by flight and designed a multitude of flying machines in his lifetime.

His most groundbreaking discoveries were in anatomy. Being a Renaissance artist, he often dissected corpses to study the anatomy of the human form. His sketches feature the most vivid anatomical detail that even the most modern books fall short of. His observations led to the first accurate depiction of the spine and the first scientific drawing of a foetus. In his lifetime he dissected about 30 corpses. On dissecting a village centenarian, he recorded the first ever description of liver cirrhosis, noting an enlarged spleen in his sketches. During his anatomical investigations, he discovered that the heart had four chambers (at the time the heart was believed to be two-chambered). Moreover, he discovered that the atria contract together while the ventricles relax and vice versa. He also noted the cardiac twist, on spearing boars in the heart, which is right now one of the leading topics in understanding heart failure.

The most impressive of all being his observations on the aortic valve and how it ensures blood flow in one direction. In his experiment, he constructed a model by filling wax into a bovine heart. When it hardened, he recreated the structure with glass and pumped a mixture of grass seeds and water through it. He observed little vortices when the seeds swirled around towards the root of the aorta. He correctly stated that these vortices help close the aortic valve. It was only later in 1968 that scientists confirmed this. If published, his work would have made significant breakthroughs in medical science.

Furthermore, Leonardo da Vinci was an ingenious architect. He designed an ideal city set beside the river Ticino. Most of the changes he mentions in his sketches feature in modern urban planning. He is also credited with creating the first most accurate ‘satellite’ version of a map for the politician Borgia (da Vinci was his military engineer) of his fortress and the town around it. In his time, most maps featured a ‘hillside view’ as if the viewer where standing on a hill. Most buildings would be blocked from view by others and lacked the correct height and shape and were therefore not very functional. He measured the angles between walls with remarkable precision utilizing a demarcated disc and thread and aligning it with a compass. He measured the length of the walls with an odometer, a wheeled device connected to gears that drops a ball after certain intervals. His methods in ichnographic mapping were adopted by later cartographers, though none could rival his ability. Sadly, most of his works were never published. If they were, it would have most definitely caused significant advancements in his time. His discoveries in a lot of fields were often dismissed by scholars of his time and later. It is right to say that da Vinci was one of the greatest polymaths that ever lived.

Reading up on da Vinci always finds new ways to fascinate you, from his affairs with his pupils, his bitter feud with Michelangelo, his choice in fashion (considered unusual by men of his time), his love for animals, his strict vegetarianism, his habit of releasing caged birds after purchasing them, his unusual sleep patterns to the fact that “da Vinci” means ‘of Vinci’(his hometown) and he has no surname in the modern sense.

In the words of Vasari, a 16th century biographer,

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents. But occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously 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 skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”

About The Author -

Noel Jacob, a student of Christ Junior College, is ardent in trying to expand a polymathic profile. Amused by history, he loves collecting vintage photographs and watching Andrei Tarkovsky films. He is also the Cofounder at Klimt Media.

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