Leonardo Da Vinci as a pioneer in science
It were easier for the mature intellect to recover that belief in fairy-tales which is the privilege and joy of childhood, than for any of us to return to a point of view which enlightened men have long since left behind. If our imagination be keen and our sympathy quick, we can perhaps understand what it was that our forerunners believed, but we shall never feel towards it as they felt. There are no dryads in the woods, no naiads in the streams, for us ; the rudely hewn block of wood is no fetish to which we bow ; the story of griffin or vampire does not affright ; the naïve mediaeval miracle wrought by some pious relic has no power to confirm our faith : in these things we detect at the most an allegory or a hallucination. The race makes certain advances, as a traveller journeys through a strange country by night, without being able to map out its course. Not only are the gates of birth and death wrapped in the mists of lethe, but so too are the thresholds of progress. Only in the realm of reason, and of morals derived from reason, do all men walk as equals and contemporaries. The mirage of fancy, the fog of superstition, vanish as the sun of reason prevails ; once men regarded them as permanent realities ; now we know that they were evanescent ; herein lies the difference between us and our ancestors,—a difference absolute and unalterable.
As we are more learned so are we more sophisticated than our fathers. We hesitate to say of any truth “This is final,” because finality implies a world bound in adamantine unchangeableness, whereas we perceive that ours is a fluent and unfolding world. This perception, which is coming to be the common property of cultivated men, even of those who strive most earnestly against it, distinguishes the Modern from the Middle Age. To us, all things are in process of development; to the mediaeval, all things—religion, science, gov- vernment—were fixed. The earth itself was to him the centre of the universe, a fixed point round which the planets, sun, and stars revolved; his religion, formulated long before according to supernatural dictation, might be neither amended, nor put in question. Philosophy was not the exploration of the infinite by finite man, but the exercise of his mind along a clearly defined path which always curved back to the starting-point. Science was a mixture of halftruths and absurdities: the dictum of Aristotle, Ptolemy, or Galen being accepted as infallible, even when plainly contradicted by the experience of every day. Government, in theory at least, was a rigid scheme foreordained from the beginning.
I am not concerned to point out what benefit the race derived from that age of formulas ; benefits there were, if only in the knowledge gained that the soul cannot prosper in bondage ; my purpose is to call fresh attention to the contrast between that age and our own, in order that we may measure the magnitude of the achievement of such men as Leonardo da Vinci who broke away from mediaevalism, and who, though surrounded by conditions utterly un- like ours, nevertheless belongs in spirit to our time rather than to his own. That spirit was the spirit of inquiry, the modern spirit; the mediaeval did not inquire, he took for granted. Not only in all those considerations which haunt serious minds—the nature of God, im- mortality, conscience—did he accept without demur the statements handed down to him, but also in purely physical affairs was he un- critical. Read the manual of the medical school of Salerno, and see how hearsay and superstition took the place of observation in the treatment of the simplest form of disease. Read Brunetto Latini’s “Natural History” and see what fantasies were spread concerning the animal kingdom. One example will illustrate the general attitude of mediaevals towards demonstrating facts : There was an old fable that salamanders can live in the hottest flame. A modern would have put a salamander in the fire and watched the effect; the mediaeval, on the contrary, never thought of applying so simple a test,—he believed the fable, and gravely repeated it. His habitual attitude was one of credulity.
We need not wonder at this. Inquiry presupposes ignorance, a worthy desire to clear away doubts. We do not dispute over the multiplication-table. But to the mediaeval the ultimate mysteries of human destiny were wholly removed from the pale of inquiry; he might not understand the strange scheme of the incarnation, of vicarious atonement, of the resurrection, but he believed it, and believing, he ceased to inquire. He did not doubt the reality of heaven or of purgatory: he was more certain of the existence of hell than of the countries beyond his native mountains. This certainty could not but discourage investigation into the primal mysteries.
Moreover, his creed tended to make him despise the material world in which he lived. The Christianity which he professed was a composite of Hebrew, Persian, and pagan beliefs, which had been fitted together at different times. That they were mutually contra- dictory did not trouble him, because he gave a proof of his faith when he believed impossible doctrines ; that they conflicted with the simple, authentic teaching of Christ did not trouble him, because that teaching came to him after councils, doctors, and a hundred popes had stamped their several interpretations upon it. Among the strange doctrines which had wound itself round early Christianity was the Manichaean doctrine that matter is the product of an evil principle, a Devil, who wars perpetually against God, the creator of spirit. This being accepted as true, the part of the devout mediaeval was plain : he strove to eschew the material world as the Devil’s kingdom. This world included, of course, his own body, which he mortified to the glory of God and the discomfiture of Satan.
To have allowed his attention to wander to the processes of nature and to have examined into their causes would have been unholy and perilous : unholy, because in so doing he would have given to the works of God’s adversary interest which he ought to consecrate to God alone ; perilous, because the Devil had cunningly sown the world of matter with lures to ensnare the souls of men. And after all what could it profit him to learn all possible knowledge concerning the material world? In God’s world, in heaven, which he hoped to enter after a brief exile here below, such knowledge would be irrelevant, useless, impious. His body, therefore, was not merely an inert clog to salvation, it was the active ally of the Fiend, who spread before every one of the bodily senses attractions to entice the soul away from the contemplation of God. Pleasure became synonymous with sin ; beauty was the mask of temptation. Only by a strenuous asceticism, a mortification of the senses, and a starving of all mundane desires, could the mediaeval devotee cheat the Devil.
No wonder that he walked on tiptoe, as over young ice, when one misstep would plunge him into the abyss forever ! No wonder that he gave the least possible heed to the properties of laws of matter ! But in the thirteenth century Christendom began to awake, began to suspect that it had been the victim of a hideous nightmare. Dante, the first modern man, embodying the theology of the Middle Age and foreshadowing the realism of the new age, made an allegory of the actual moral condition of men on earth.
The epic poets of antiquity had sung the adventures of gods and heroes; Dante wove an epic out of the experiences of the human soul on its passage from the depths of imperfection to the heights of righteousness. Hitherto, an unbridgeable chasm had yawned between pagan and Christian times ; Dante, feeling profoundly the continuity of the life of the race, introduced into his vision the chief personages of pagan history and mythology, together with the saints and heroes of Christianity, and his own contemporaries, in order to complete his portrayal of human character. This was a long step gained ; it was an admission that whatever might be the destiny of men in the world to come, they could all, whether born before or after the birth of Christ, be measured by the same moral scale in this world.
Close upon Dante followed Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the swarm of Humanists. Learning ceased to be the exclusive privilege of ecclesiastics. The conviction deepened that man’s life on earth is most interesting for its own sake, irrespective of its being, or not being, the preparation for eternal life hereafter. Across a thousand years the civilisation of Greece and Rome loomed up in fascinating grandeur. Over the barrenness of ages the fresh vital air of Athens blew straight upon Italy, as a pollen-bearing wind in spring-time; and the Humanists breathed its freedom and joyousness as eagerly as a bedridden patient would welcome health, or an old man his vanished youth. How futile now seemed the quibbles of the school men! How mistaken the crabbed precepts of mediaeval theologians! How repulsive, narrow, and unnatural the life that they had led ! The Greeks, the Romans, with no Christian teaching to guide them, with no ascetic fanaticism, had lifted their commonwealth to a plane of grandeur far above that of any subsequent State; and in virtues, civic or private, in poetry, in commerce, in the arts, they had surpassed their Christian successors.
To recover all that could be recovered of that classic civilisation, its ideals and achievements, became therefore the passion of the Humanists; they searched each ancient manuscript as if it were a lost will in which they might find that some forgotten ancestor had bequeathed to them an incalcula- ble fortune. That must ever be regarded as one of the noblest epochs in the history of the race when the best men joined the pursuit of things spiritual and intellectual with all the fervor and pertinacity with which their descendants a century later set out in quest of Eldorados in America and to conquer the material wealth of the Indies. The immediate result of this enthusiasm was to bring to the Humanists a sufficient knowledge of the ancient civilisation to enable them to compare this with the mediaeval Christian standard which had hitherto reigned alone. From this comparison sprang criticism, the handmaid of truth.
Little enough did the early explorers suspect whither their quest would lead them. They could not guess that a search for classic manuscripts would end, as Michelet has it, in the discovery of man and of the world. Yet so it was. The spirit of inquiry, roused from its millennial torpor, hungrily investigated all things. The old answer to the riddle of existence was cast aside as unsatisfactory; a new answer must be wrested from the dumb, inscrutable universe. In their first passion for discovery, men did not dream that the solution might elude them. Wherever they looked they saw untrodden avenues leading into the heart of the mystery. Discarding mediaeval preconceptions, they began to study human nature.
They looked upon the earth and saw that it was fair, and its beauty no longer seemed to them a Satanic lure. They began to see in the world of matter orderly processes, the coursing to and fro of vivifying laws, like blood in the arteries of man. They looked upon the heavens, and their souls were awed by a premonition of vastness only consonant with the belief that God, and not the Devil, was their author. In the presence of the sublime immensity of the stellar spaces, the cramped view of human destiny as expressed by mediaeval dogma, must seem impious and absurd. By the close of the fifteenth century men were beginning to rise to the conception of a cosmos, of a world forever becoming, alive and interrelated in all its parts. The old notion of fixity,—of one unchanging religion, of one foreordained and immutable ideal of government, of earth anchored in space, and of man the crown and centre of creation,—was doomed. The discovery that this is a living and unfolding universe was the most important event in human history since the birth of Christ.
I would not paint the achievements of the Renaissance in colors too gorgeous, nor imply that the men of that epoch understood the bearing of the movement they originated. Many of the deductions drawn from their tentative investigations have been drawn very re- cently. Many of the paths they opened and explored diverged into the wilderness where the footsteps of man flounder perilously and the soul of man finds no cheer. I have elsewhere stated * some of the deficiencies, the appalling, cardinal deficiencies, which, in Italy, at least, caused the Renaissance to be partial and temporary. But after deducting from it what we must, it remains a period of inestimable significance. If its very doubts were pregnant, how shall we define the truths it revealed, truths typified by the discoveries of Columbus and Copernicus, and by the invention of Gutenberg? The mission of the Renaissance was to establish reason as the final guide and judge of mankind. With the enthronement of reason, the German Reformation, the American commonwealth, the French Revolution, and every other advance which the race has made, became intelligible.
To rationalise nature, to discover, that is, reason in her manifold operations, to substitute for the mediaeval scheme of ignorance and miracle the idea of cosmic order, has been the particular business of science for more than four centuries. We who inherit the knowledge accumulated by the patience of countless investigators and co-ordinated and classified by a few master thinkers, cannot put ourselves back into that state of mind in which the earliest explorers set out. Immemorial traditions, habits of thought, lack of instruments, theological prejudice, were all against them. Nature lay under a ban. The world was an inert mass. To overcome these obstacles required the development of other organs, the implanting of the spirit of inquiry. The wisest men had hitherto been as babes in the presence of the majestic forces of the material universe. The laws of gravitation, of expansion, of heat and cold, worked in and through them, yet they heeded them not. Electricity sped on its er- rands from zenith to nadir, invisible, swift as an archangel, yet were they unaware of its passing. They were blind to nature’s beauty and power, deaf to her innumerable voices. In what mysterious manner a few men began to see and hear, let those explain who know how the acorn enfolds the far-spreading oak in its shell, and how in an embryo lie dormant the intellect and soul of a possible Caesar or Shakespeare.
What we do know, however, is that in the fifteenth century a few men began to scrutinise nature, very tentatively at first, and with no premonition of the results which such scrutiny would reach. Foremost among them was Leonardo da Vinci. Other investigators of that century, Copernicus the most conspicuous, have ranked higher than he in the annals of science; but none, as I hope to show, equalled him in scientific endowment. He was disenthralled from mediaeval preconceptions, for he possessed a temperament so purged of theories that in approaching a new fact his sole aim was to discover the true nature of that fact, unbiassed by what others had found in it. His curiosity was insatiable ; his methods were observation and experiment; his advance was from the known to the unknown, whereas the mediaeval, as we have seen, took the unknown for granted, and ceased to inquire. That Leonardo’s achievements in science and invention should never have had due recognition, is to be attributed in part to their great range—the world remembers longer him who travels farthest in a single direction, than him who travels .far in many; and in part to an accident which buried them for three centuries. Even now we have but an imperfect record of them. Not as a candidate for belated fame—Leonardo’s fame is secure—but as a pioneer of the modern spirit, and as a favorite whom Nature took into her confidence, let us consider him here.
The important facts in Leonardo da Vinci’s life can be briefly told. The natural son of a Florentine notary, he was born at the castle of Vinci, on the Arno, between Florence and Pisa, in 1452. Vasari relates stories of his youthful precocity, which often aston- ished his instructors, and of his fondness for music. Being admit- ted early into the studio of Verrocchio, he learned not only painting and sculpture, but also the goldsmith’s art, which, we may remark, had an influence not easily to be computed in giving to the Florentine School of Painting that precision, that loyalty to the line, which distinguish it from the Venetian School. How the young Leonardo painted into one of his master’s pictures an angel far beyond Verrocchio’s skill, and how he drew a Gorgon’s head so life-like that it frightened persons who came upon it unawares, need not here be repeated. In 1472 he was already an independent artist, and during the next eight or nine years he worked in Florence, but to what purpose we can only guess, as almost all the fruits of this period have been lost.
In 1480 he addressed a remarkable letter to Lodovico Sforza, tyrant of Milan, asking for employment and laying chief stress on his ability as a military engineer. The letter brought him an invitation to go to Milan, where he was engaged in mechanical and engineering enterprises, in the direction of ducal festivities, and in the construction of a colossal monument to Francesco Sforza, Lodovico’s father. The fresco, “The Last Supper,” is one of the few remaining authentic works of Leonardo’s brush during his long residence in Lombardy, and no one now can say that a single patch of color in that ruined masterpiece was laid on by him. Indeed, fate, which showered upon Leonardo innumerable gifts, seems to have de- creed that posterity should know his genius by hearsay only, so perversely has fate allowed his works to be lost or mutilated. That colossal statue of Sforza was not yet completed when Louis XII. invaded the Milanese and put an end to the sculptor’s work there; the great fresco has suffered irreparably from neglect, violence, and restoration; and of the half-score paintings which remain scarcely one gives us a hint of the beauty of its original coloring.
In 1500 Leonardo visited Venice and Florence. Two years later he was appointed engineer by Caesar Borgia, who was engaged in a military expedition against those States south of the Po that had not already submitted to his tyranny. During this summer we have glimpses of Leonardo at Urbino, Pesaro, Rimini, Cesena, and Cesenatico, along the Adriatic; at Siena, Chiusi, and Orvieto in the Centre; and at Piombino near the Tuscan Sea. In the following spring he settled at Florence and painted “The Battle of Anghiari ” on one wall of the council hall of the Palace of the Signory, while on another wall his young rival, Michael Angelo, painted avast group of “ Soldiers Bathing.” Not a trace of either fresco survives. But Leonardo, never at his ease in Florence, returned to Milan in 1506. Thenceforward, until 1515, he seldom stayed long in anyplace ; till Francis I. came into Italy and induced him to go back to France, where he was assigned a residence at the Chateau Cloux, near Am- boise on the Loire, 1516. There he died May 2, 1519, and was buried in the Royal Chapel at Amboise.
In person, as in mind, Leonardo lacked no gifts. He excelled in dancing, in fencing, in horsemanship, in lute-playing. Well known anecdotes, chiefly drawn from Vasari’s precious and inex- haustible quarry, illustrate alike his unusual physical strength and his wonderful dexterity. He was genial in temper and kind in heart, and he possessed the rare combination of humor and wit. His interest in man and in nature was many-sided and unflagging; nothing being too vast or too minute for his attentive curiosity. He had the patient inquisitiveness of the specialist who pores over details; he had also the generalising faculty of the philosopher who deduces laws and discovers wider relations. His attitude towards life was, in a word, thoroughly modern and scientific. As little as possible did the past, with its traditions and dogmas, hamper him : to search out all things, to experiment and verify, to let his own eyes test and reason be the judge—this was Leonardo’s method.