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Why Leonardo Da Vinci Matters Beyond a $450 Million Painting

500 years after his death he can still teach us to create what doesn’t exist yet

Last month a sensational discovery was announced. A drawing of a Nude Mona Lisa at the Museè Conde in France once attributed to Leonardo’s assistants is now thought to be authored by the hand of the master. Just weeks before that, it was reported that a terracotta representing the Virgin and Child at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until now attributed to Antonio Rossellino, is Leonardo’s only surviving sculpture. And most recently, there was a public gasp when a painting recently attributed to Leonardo first was bought for $450 million (the highest price ever paid for a work of art in an auction) and then withdrawn from its expected unveiling at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi without explanation.

This celebrity treatment of Leonardo da Vinci misses why his work really matters. Whether or not the most recent discoveries survive the test of time (some attributions have been short-lived, as scholars’ opinions about authorship evolved), they are scheduled to be included in several major exhibitions in museums around the world to commemorate half a millennium since Leonardo’s death: from the Uffizi in Florence to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London, to the Louvre in Paris in a show that will close the celebrations in April 2020. Apart from parading new “Leonardos,” this anniversary offers the opportunity to reflect on what most connects this artist to our current age, and what we still need him for.

We often forget that behind Leonardo’s paintings of men and women — be they Florentine patricians, saints, mistresses, or the Virgin and Christ — there was deep knowledge of science. Leonardo was deeply interested in science not apart from his art but because of it. That integrated approach was at the root of his innovation and, arguably, it is at the basis of innovation in any field and any period. Yet we find it easier to marvel at “his hand” as that of a unique and peculiar genius rather than as the result of a lost way of creating.

No matter how much we talk about the “cross-disciplinary” as the site of creativity (in academia as well as in the corporate world), nor how much we admire Leonardo as the ultimate innovator (Bill Gates singled him out as such in the recent TIME special issue on Art and Optimism), we have a hard time overcoming modern dichotomies between art and science. These dichotomies didn’t apply to Leonardo, as in the Renaissance disciplines weren’t formed yet, and there was only one culture for discovery, experimentation, and innovation, not the two cultures that the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow identified in the modern world — a science culture and an art culture. There are plenty of good reasons for the creation of distinct disciplines and specific expertise, but this siloed knowledge is less and less apt to address the intractable problems of our day. Whether we are dealing with immigration, race, the environment, health, inequality, or global communication, we need to be able to look at issues from a variety of perspectives, through different lenses, with comprehensive approaches that facilitate understanding. In our age of big data, digital communication, and visual immersion, as we wrestle with finding the most effective ways to educate the next generation of citizens and innovators, Leonardo’s approach to innovation via art and science is highly significant.

Leonardo looked for similarities among things that are apparently different and unrelated. His way of making sense of different phenomena was through visualization, literally making visible complex information, complex bodies of knowledge, complex interrelations between humans and nature. He explored large amounts of abstract data from geology, hydraulics, philosophy, physics, optics, and put them together in images and diagrams, often disregarding what he read in books but never dismissing what he saw with his eyes. His anatomical tables were perhaps the most consequential: they made visible the hidden human body in ways nobody had described before in either words or images and that still inform the way human anatomy is visualized today. Anatomy was the scaffolding of what he called “the representation of man and the intention of his mind,” but what he really meant was our human impulse to represent the self, and to consider our bodies and surroundings and people around us with abstraction and meaning. And this is what matters to us as humans since the beginning of time.

There have been some attempts to return to a culture of innovation à la Leonardo. In 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published the report The Integration of the Humanities and the Arts with Science, Engineering and Medicine in Higher Education, which they titled Branches From the Same Tree after Einstein’s famous quote. The report urged the support of “courses and programs that integrate the arts and humanities with the natural sciences, social sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine in higher education.” Although no comprehensive evidence of learning outcomes is available yet, there is enough to suggest that these programs effectively train students in twenty-first-century skills that the report identifies as “critical thinking, teamwork, communication skills, ethical reasoning, creativity, and lifelong attitudes.” These are the skills “employers are calling for and that will serve students in life and citizenship.” The National Academies also convened national leaders in Washington D.C. to encourage colleges and universities to create integrated programs that connect the sciences to the arts and humanities.

Even the financial sector is paying attention to integrated approaches to education that go beyond the traditional liberal arts curriculum. Recently, Bill Miller, chairman and chief investment officer of his fund Miller Value Partners, credited his success as an investor to his graduate training in philosophy: “The philosophical training I received not only greatly enriched my life, but the critical reasoning and analytical skills that are essential in philosophy proved to be enormously useful to me in my investment career.” He added that “the ability to think holistically, with a critical eye, has been critically important to me in terms of thinking through the markets.”

We call this kind of training interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, depending on the level of integration among different disciplines: usually “transdisciplinary” is reserved for programs that generate fundamentally new conceptual frameworks. But the approaches above are not transformative: while valuable, they still use art as a sort of embellishment for the science and technology that drive modern life.

Ours is a more complex world than that of the Renaissance; returning to those days is not possible nor necessarily desirable, and there are aspects of Leonardo’s approach that it may be good to leave behind. For one, we value productivity and he didn’t produce much, and finished very little. Even the Mona Lisa isn’t finished, a fact many don’t realize. Nor do we miss the politics, the social norms, the gender and racial relations of the period in which he lived. But we should continue to value Leonardo’s approach to art as the core for generating truly transformative conceptual frameworks.

Leonardo understood hidden connections only if he could paint them. Painting was the medium that synthesized it all. That’s why we admire so much the way he painted men and women: he got to their psychological depths because science and art were one and the same thing. Today we put painting in such a literal gilded frame that we have a hard time understanding that for him it was an integrated thought process to reveal the human soul. He understood that the subtlest change of heart or mind involuntary triggered an alteration in bodies and faces which in turn created new sets of expressions, gestures, positions, even garment folds. What made these minute mood variations visible were the unexpected shadows they created, the darkening of a stripe of color in a garment previously shining in the light, or the shading of a part of the face that was lit earlier. But the real trick was to spot the areas where light met shadow, where penumbras occurred, and there was often some light but not enough for clarity, creating a fuzzier overall image. It was these changes in light and color, plus penumbras, that communicated people’s psychological life.

This is why the final product of Leonardo’s inquiry was never a book (he drafted many and finished none) or a lab experiment (he performed many and designed even more), not even a drawing (he drew compulsively). The final product was always an oil painting. Because only on an easel, mastering the oil technique at the highest level, he captured the variations of light and shadows on people’s faces and bodies that revealed the slightest motions of their muscles and tendons underneath, which in turn revealed change in their emotions. That’s why he needed science to access and reveal deeper truths about the human condition.

We tend to forget that this is what makes Leonardo continue to elicit our gasps half a millennium after his death. And that is as relevant as ever in our historical moment, as we struggle for more and more empathic responses toward one another, while at the same time our behavior is reduced to sets of data and communication left predominantly to digital analysis. It’s important to be reminded that the aesthetic realm of art and science not only broadens our understanding of the human experience but is the realm where we create what doesn’t exist yet, the indispensable space of discovery where we learn about human nature and imagine new, more equitable ways to deal with one another.

Francesca Fiorani, Associate Dean for the Arts and Humanities and Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, is an expert on the relations between arts and sciences and on integrated programs in higher education. Her book The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020. This year she is a Public Voice Fellow at UVA.

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Francesca Fiorani

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