Spotlight: Leonardo da Vinci
Everyone’s heard of Leonardo da Vinci. Here, we discuss his lesser-known scientific achievements.
Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: April 2019
Leonardo da Vinci is revered as a painter and sculptor, but the 15th century Italian was a polymath. His interests included mathematics, architecture, engineering… and land surveying!
Surveying & Cartography
Leonardo isn’t remembered as a land surveyor or cartographer, but we think his work in the field is worth celebrating! In 1502 he drew several accurate maps of the town of Imola, at one point surveying Chiana Valley in Tuscany by pacing out the distance, then producing a map. There is even a theory that Leonardo employed cartographic perspective his masterpiece Mona Lisa. Amateur art historian Donato Pezzutto suggests that the landscape of the Mona Lisa can be reassembled to depict the Chiana Valley, although debate in the art community is ongoing…
Town Plan of Imola, from Wikipedia
Perspective & Anamorphosis in Art
Linear perspective is a form of drawing that creates the illusion of depth or distance on a flat surface. Many Renaissance architects and artists studied perspective during the 15th century, thus contributing to our understanding of the mathematics of art. Today, perspective is used in CAD software and computer graphics.
Leonardo’s drawing Leonardo’s Eye is the earliest example of perspective anamorphosis in modern times. Anamorphosis is a distorted perspective or projection that requires the viewer to use a specific vantage point or device to view an image. Anamorphosis is widely used today and has many practical uses, for example in widescreen television formats and by IMAX to project wider images onto narrow frames. It’s also used for creating warning text on roads that can be viewed by approaching motorists.
Leonardo employed science throughout his artistic work. Many people think the Mona Lisa‘s eyes follow them around the room; this is because Leonardo studied the human eye. He demonstrated that by blending colours and outlines, one can create a realistic, atmospheric, image of the face. This technique is called ‘Sfumato’. You can learn more about Leonardo’s use of perspective in the Mona Lisa here.
The Mona Lisa, from monalisa.org
Calculating the Vitruvian Man
Leonardo designed his famous Vitruvian Man using mathematics. It was believed at the time that science could calculate the ideal human form, and Leonardo built on the mathematics of Roman architect Vitruvius to demonstrate the perfect proportions of the human body.
From Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be
Inventions & Civil Engineering
In addition to his observational studies, Leonardo was a keen inventor. His designs for weapons include a musket, cannon, crossbow and an armoured car (what we consider a tank), although many designs were too expensive and complicated to make during his lifetime. Leonardo was fascinated by flight and sketched several designs for what we recognise as the hang glider, helicopter and parachute. He also designed a deep sea diving suit, made from steel and leather.
Additionally, Leonardo worked on several civil engineering projects. He produced a drawing for a single span 220m bridge, intended to span an inlet at the mouth of the Bosphorus River in Istanbul, and worked on a project to divert the River Arno in Italy, thus flooding the city of Pisa. Neither projects were pursued due to cost, but they demonstrate Leonardo’s wealth of talent nonetheless.