Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius

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Bestselling and world-renowned author Fritjof Capra presents the first in-depth and full description of Leonardo da Vinci's amazing scientific work and discoveries in geology, anatomy, flight, mechanics, botany, and fluid dynamics. And Capra reveals what readers can learn for their own lives and work from ten characteristics of Leonardo's genius.

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1. The Movements of Water

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Among the four classical elements, water held by far the greatest fascination for Leonardo. Throughout his life, he studied its movements and flows, drew and analyzed its waves and vortices, and speculated about its role as the fundamental “vehicle of nature” (vetturale della natura) in the macrocosm of the living Earth and the microcosm of the human body.1

Leonardo’s notes and drawings about his observations and ideas on the movement of water fill several hundred pages in his Notebooks. They include elaborate conceptual schemes and portions of treatises in the Codex Leicester and in Manuscripts F and H, as well as countless drawings and notes scattered throughout the Codex Atlanticus, the Codex Arundel, the Windsor Collection, the Codices Madrid, and Manuscripts A, E, G, I, K, and L.2 The sheer bulk of Leonardo’s writings on water duly impressed his contemporaries and succeeding generations of historians. In fact, water was the only subject, apart from painting, of which an extensive compilation of handwritten transcriptions from the Notebooks was made. This collection of notes, transcribed in the seventeenth century and comprising 230 folios, was published in 1828 in Bologna under the title Della natura, peso, e moto dell’acque (On the Nature, Weight, and Movement of Water).3

 

2. The Living Earth

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From his early youth, Leonardo was fascinated by pinnacles of rocks, carved out by water and eventually turning into gravel and fertile soil, and he came to see water as the chief agent in the formation of the Earth’s surface. As a young boy, he explored the rocky outcroppings, waterfalls, and caves in the Tuscan countryside around Vinci. Later on, they became the defining elements of his personal mythical landscape—the fantastic rock formations that would forever appear in the shadowy backgrounds of his paintings.

Leonardo’s keen awareness of the continual interaction of water and rocks motivated him to undertake extensive studies in geology. During his travels in central and northern Italy as a military and hydraulic engineer, he studied the erosion of rocks, deposits of gravel and sand, and strata of sedimentation and produced many detailed maps of the regions he visited. His geological observations, like those in all the other branches of his science, display an astonishing accuracy. On the basis of these extensive and methodical analyses, he formulated a series of geological principles with a clarity that would not be achieved again until the twentieth century—principles that are still taught in geology courses today.1

 

3. The Growth of Plants

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Leonardo’s science is a science of living forms that are continually shaped by underlying processes, whether he studied the rocks and sediments of the Earth, shaped by water, or the organic forms of plants, animals, and the human body, shaped by their metabolism. Invariably, he would begin with the outward appearance of these living forms and then proceed to investigate their intrinsic nature. Thus, at the core of his botanical studies, we find the two grand themes that appear again and again in other branches of his science—nature’s organic forms and the patterns of metabolism and growth underlying them.

Leonardo’s outstanding work in botany, as well as his original contributions to landscape and garden design, are discussed in great detail in the magnificent volume Leonardo da Vinci on Plants and Gardens, by botanist William Emboden.1 This chapter is greatly indebted to Emboden’s analysis.2

Unlike most of his other scientific studies, Leonardo’s work in botany began relatively late in his life (see Chronology, p. 326). During the earlier years, his drawings of plants and trees were made mainly as studies for paintings. Notes on plants and landscape, often dealing with colors and light in addition to botanical accuracy, appear in his manuscripts most frequently after 1500, when he was forty-eight years old. The skill in his botanical drawings reached its culmination around 1508–10, and it was only after 1510, when Leonardo was in his sixties, that his botanical texts turned into purely scientific inquiries unrelated to paintings.

 

4. The Human Figure

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In the preceding three chapters, I have analyzed Leonardo’s science of life in the macrocosm—his studies of the flow of water, life’s medium and vital fluid; his explorations of the Earth’s living body and its transformations over enormous periods of time, in which rocks are gradually worn down, turning into gravel and eventually into the fertile soil that provides life’s sustenance; and his observations of the growth patterns of plants and their interactions with the air, water, and soil of the living Earth.

For Leonardo, these manifestations of life, which are analyzed today in the separate sciences of fluid dynamics, geology, botany, and ecology, were all threads in one seamless fabric. And whenever he explored the forms of nature in the macrocosm of the living Earth, he looked for similar qualities and patterns in the microcosm of the human body (see p. 25). Indeed, from his first extended anatomical studies in Milan in his thirties to his most sophisticated research in cardiology and embryology in his old age, his work in anatomy always went hand in hand with explorations of related phenomena now studied in physics, geology, and botany.1

 

5. The Elements of Mechanics

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As Leonardo studied, drew, and painted “all the forms of nature,” he investigated not only their external qualities and proportions but also the forces that had shaped and continued to transform them. He saw similar patterns in the macro- and microcosm, but his careful investigations of these patterns of organization made him realize that the forces underlying them were quite different.

In his extensive studies of flowing water, Leonardo recognized correctly that gravity and the fluid’s internal friction, or viscosity, were the two principal forces operating in its movements (see p. 39). In his detailed observations of rock formations, he identified water as the chief agent in the formation of the Earth’s surface (see p. 69). Moreover, he speculated about the nature of the tectonic forces that caused layers of sedimentary rock to emerge from the sea and to form mountains (see p. 89).

In his studies of plants and animals, Leonardo identified the soul as the vital force underlying their formation and growth. Following Aristotle, he conceived of the soul as being built up in successive levels, corresponding to levels of organic life. The first level is the “vegetative soul,” which controls the organism’s metabolic processes. The soul of plants is restricted to this metabolic level of a vital force. The next higher form is the “animal soul,” characterized by autonomous motion in space and by feelings of pleasure and pain. The “human soul,” finally, includes the vegetable and animal souls, but its main characteristic is reason.

 

6. The Body in Motion

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Leonardo perceived the living world as being in constant flux, its forms merely stages in continual processes of transformation; so it was natural for him to also understand the human body in terms of movement and development. He saw the body’s continuous movements—epitomized in flowing gestures, curling hair, or floating draperies—as visible expressions of grace, and he was a master in portraying such graceful movements in his paintings. The Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (plate 7) is perhaps his finest demonstration of graceful gestures fused into a single, continuous flow.

The association of grace with smooth, flowing movements was common among artists in the Renaissance, but Leonardo was the only one who attempted to understand it within a scientific framework.1 His analytic mind was fascinated by the autonomous, voluntary movements of the human body. Their investigation became a major theme in his anatomical work. In countless dissections and detailed anatomical drawings he explored the transmission of the forces underlying various bodily movements, from their origins in the center of the brain down the spinal cord, and through the peripheral motor nerves to the muscles, tendons, and bones.

 

7. The Science of Flight

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From the texts that accompany Leonardo’s anatomical drawings we know that he considered the human body as an animal body, as biologists do today. He often transferred what he learned from numerous dissections of animals to the human body (see p. 227). But beyond these pragmatic aspects, Leonardo’s anatomical studies of animals were grounded in a profound respect and compassion for all living creatures.1 Thus it seemed natural for him, as Domenico Laurenza observes, “to give equal ontological and scientific dignity to humans and animals.”2

Leonardo used his animal dissections to gain knowledge about human anatomical structures, but was also keenly interested in the many differences between the bodies of animals and human beings. “You will draw for this comparison,” he wrote on a sheet showing the superficial muscles of a man’s legs, “the legs of frogs which have a great similarity to the legs of man, in their bones as in their muscles. Then you will follow with the hind-legs of a hare which are very muscular and have agile muscles because they are not encumbered by fat.”3

 

8. The Mystery of Life

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The grand unifying theme of Leonardo’s explorations of the macro-and microcosm was his persistent quest to understand the nature of life. Over the years, as he studied, drew, and painted the flows of water and air, the rocks and sediments of the Earth, the growth patterns of plants, and the anatomy of the human body, he correctly identified several of life’s key biological characteristics.

Early on, he recognized the fundamental role of water as life’s medium and vital fluid, the matrix of all organic forms (see p. 18). “It is the expansion and humor of all living bodies,” he wrote in one of his earliest Notebooks, Manuscript C. “Without it nothing retains its original form.”1 He associated the fluidity of water with the fluid and dynamic nature of living forms. He was especially fascinated by water vortices and other forms of turbulence, recognizing them intuitively, as I have argued, as symbols of life—stable and yet continually changing (see p. 22).

Nature as a whole was alive for Leonardo, and he saw similar patterns and processes in both the macrocosm of the living Earth and the microcosm of an individual organism. In view of this systemic approach—seeking to understand a natural phenomenon by linking it to other phenomena through a similarity of patterns—it is not surprising that Leonardo developed a conception of life that was deeply ecological. This is evident throughout his manuscripts, as, for example, when he describes the continual processes of growth and renewal that are common to all life on Earth (see p. 67):

 

Coda: Leonardo’s Legacy

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I argued in the Prologue to this book that Leonardo’s greatest legacy to us may be his systemic thinking, together with his deep respect for nature and for life. In his mind, the two were closely connected. To gain knowledge about a natural phenomenon, for him, meant connecting it with other phenomena through a similarity of patterns; and such systemic knowledge he also saw as the basis for love. “For in truth,” he asserted, “great love is born of great knowledge of the thing that is loved.”1

Today, it is becoming increasingly evident that systemic thinking is critical to solve our major global problems; yet our sciences and technologies remain narrow in their focus, unable to understand systemic problems from an interdisciplinary perspective; and our business and political leaders are often incapable of “connecting the dots.” This is exactly what we can learn to do from Leonardo da Vinci’s unique synthesis of art, science, and design.

As we recognize that most of our sciences, technologies, and business activities are not life-enhancing but life-destroying, we urgently need a science that honors and respects the unity of all life, recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena, and reconnects us with the living Earth. Indeed, what we need today is the kind of science Leonardo da Vinci anticipated and outlined five hundred years ago.

 

Chronology of Leonardo’s Life and Work

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Color Plates after

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PLATE 1. Birds in flight, 1505. Codex Sul Volo, folio 8r.

PLATE 2. Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1470–75. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

PLATE 3. Study of the rotation of the arm, c. 1509–10. Windsor Collection, Anatomical Studies, folio 135v.

PLATE 4. Rotated views of the muscles of the shoulder and arm, c. 1509–10. Windsor Collection, Anatomical Studies, folio 141v.

PLATE 5. The Vitruvian Man, c. 1490. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

PLATE 6. Star of Bethlehem, c. 1508. Windsor Collection, Landscapes, Plants, and Water Studies, folio 16r.

PLATE 7. Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, c. 1506–15. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

PLATE 8. Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483–86. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

PLATE 9. The fetus in the womb, c. 1510–12. Windsor Collection, Anatomical Studies, folio 198r.

PLATE 10. The heart and its blood vessels, 1513. Windsor Collection, Anatomical Studies, folio 166v.

PLATE 11. Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, c. 1503–15. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

 

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