Ancient Sources and New Experiences <

By nature, all good humans have a thirst for knowledge
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 327v. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




In the 15th century, scholars throughout Europe, especially in Italy, sought to raise knowledge of and familiarity with authors from ancient Greece and Rome to a new level. The goal of these humanists was to collect textual sources systematically from widely diverse fields of knowledge and make them accessible through commentaries, translations, and soon through printed editions as well. Encyclopedias such as those by the philologist and mathematician Giorgio Valla (ca. 1447–1499) made previously rare handwritten treatises generally available.
Florence was the first center of this movement, which was celebrated as the rebirth (Rinascita or Rinascimento in Italian, Renaissance in French) of ancient culture. The ideal of antiquity rapidly penetrated and inspired every cultural area, such as literature, architecture, and the visual arts. Parallel to this, the study of ancient traditions also promised resources for solving technical and scientific problems and tasks of contemporary life. Ancient natural scientists such as the Greek mathematicians Archimedes (ca. 287–212 BCE), Ptolemy (ca. 100–160 CE), and Euclid (ca. 300 BCE) were important authorities whose extant works formed a fixed canon. Their achievements also inspired Renaissance scholars in their own research and further observations.
Another canonical work is the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (ca. 70 BCE–ca. 15 CE). Its impact can hardly be overestimated and Leonardo da Vinci naturally owned an edition.
A contemporary counterpart are the writings of the philologist, master builder, and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). His architectural designs, like those for the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, are considered incunabula of Renaissance architecture, while his writings on the genres of architecture, painting, and sculpture laid down the first theoretical basis for the new forms of design. The humanist Alberti was regarded by his contemporaries as a shining example of universal education. He was an inspiration for Leonardo, too, not least for the latter’s own theoretical writings on painting.


Proportions of the ancients <


Leonardo da Vinci. The Vitruvian Man (Homo Vitruvianus)

ca. 1490

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Leonardo’s proportional figure illustrated the theory of the ancient Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius, which states that the well-formed human being (homo bene figuratus), standing upright, fits into the perfect geometrical forms of both a square and a circle. Unlike visual interpretations of this by other artists (Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Mariano di Jacopo Taccola), in Leonardo’s version the center of the circle (the navel) does not correspond to the central axis of the square (the groin), which results in a more convincing aesthetic representation.



    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, 223–227.


    Nepi Scirè, Giovanna. 1999. “Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio.” In Da Leonardo a Canaletto. Disegni delle Gallerie dell’Accademia. Exhibition catalogue Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, 24.4.–25.7.1999, edited by Giovanna Nepi Scirè and Annalisa Perissa Torrini. Milan: Electa, 60–62, no. 17.


    Zöllner, Frank. 1987. Vitruvs Proportionsfigur. Quellenkritische Studien zur Kunstliteratur im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert. Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft.