Science as Art, Art as Science <

The painter who depicts something only through practice and judgment of the eye without reason is like a mirror that imitates all things

placed in front of it without recognizing them
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 207r. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




The many and varied technical tasks Leonardo had to master in the service of the Sforzas were closely linked to scientific problems and challenges. But also the practice of the visual arts, especially painting, increasingly required theoretical knowledge and diverse expertise, particularly in the cultivated context of the court. This ranged from questions of optics and mathematical perspective construction to mechanical problems and medical knowledge. Leonardo now tried to learn systematically from the existing fundamental works by ancient authors related to all these disciplines, as well as from medieval sources and a growing number of more recent treatises. He expanded his library with specialist scientific literature and made concentrated and ambitious efforts to learn Latin and deepen his mathematical knowledge. This eventually enabled him to formulate new scientific insights of his own. He had now become an “author” of scientific works in his own right. Other artist-engineers, from Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) and Piero della Francesca (ca. 1420–1492) to Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), also sought to place painting, which at the time was still considered a purely practical craft, on a scientific footing. Leonardo went one step further and elevated painting itself to a science.


Leonardo's Berlin Library: Section 8 <

Archimedes and Piero della Francesca.






Archimedes’ works were translated into Latin for the first time in 1269 by Wilhelm von Moerbeke, and again in 1450 by Iacopo of Cremona (or von San Cassiano). They are important for mechanics and engineering as well as for the mathematical foundations of perspective and painting. This specimen from the Biblioteca Riccardiana is a handmade copy by the painter Piero della Francesca based on the Latin by San Cassiano with carefully crafted illustrations. Leonardo made several searches on different occasions for the works of Archimedes. In particular, in 1502 he mentioned a codex from “Borgo a San Sepolcro,” probably referring to the manuscript by Piero della Francesca, who came from that town.



    Bambach, Carmen C. 2019. Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered. Vol. 2: The Maturing of a Genius 1485–1506. 4 vols. New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 39–44, 303–305, 311.


    Bernardoni, Andrea. 2019. “Reading to Build. Leonardo’s Library for the Mechanical Arts.” In Leonardo and His Books. The Library of the Universal Genius. Exhibition catalogue Museo Galileo, Florence, 6.6.–22.9.2019, edited by Carlo Vecce. Florence: Giunti, 59–70.


    D’Alessandro, Paolo, and Pier Daniele Napolitani. 2012. Archimede latino. Iacopo da San Cassiano e il “Corpus” Archimedeo alla metà del Quattrocento, con edizione della “Circuli dimensio” e della “Quadratura parabolae.” Sciences et savoirs 1. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.


    Vecce, Carlo, ed. 2019. Leonardo and His Books. The Library of the Universal Genius. Exhibition catalogue Museo Galileo, Florence, 6.6.–22.9.2019. Florence: Giunti, 112, no. 10.2.