“The virtues of grasses, stones, and trees do not exist because humans know them.… Grasses are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters.”
Leonardo da Vinci
In 1952, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his birth, a number of researchers and engineers began a project to interpret the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and turn his many sketches and ideas into actual machines. While many of the sketches were never meant to be realised in a concrete form, and many others are incomplete fragments, the result of this work produced an absolutely fabulous range of exhibits which explore the workings of the world’s greatest artist-scientists – Leonardo da Vinci.
I was therefore lucky to be able to visit the exhibition here in São Paulo which has come to Brazil and Latin America for the first time, opening last November and running until May 10th at na Galeria de Arte do Sesi-SP, no Centro Cultural Fiesp – Ruth Cardoso (Sesi-SP Art Gallery, FIESP – Ruth Cardoso Cultural Centre).
I was lucky some years ago to see an exhibition of da Vinci’s sketchbooks in London. This exhibition though is a brilliant walk through the mind of one of the world’s greatest minds and souls, and its magic for me is in the manner in which you are taken from sketch to working machine, demonstrating the attention to detail that da Vinci applied first in the observation of nature, then in his detailing of the workings of nature, not to control it but to understand it.
As we learn in the exhibition, da Vinci believed that “the uttermost sophistication could be found in simplicity, and that form and function, movement and life, and curiosity and invention all have an intimate relationship”. His imagination would lead him to the conception of machines from all walks of life that would not become fully realised until decades and even centuries after his death.
This is an exhibition for all ages, and rewards those with the time to study, watch and interact with the many working prototypes and models, many of which have been created for visitors both young and old to play and interact with.
The exhibition is divided into seven different themes: Preparing for war; Drawing from living organisms; Imagining flight; Enhancing manufacturing; and Unifying wisdom which connects history, emotion, knowledge, education and culture. According to the curator of the exhibition, Claudio Giorgione, “the works reveal how nature inspired Leonardo in his creations“.
Fritjof Capra spent many years studying the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, and developed his thesis is that the science of Leonardo da Vinci is a science of living forms, radically different from the mechanistic science of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton that emerged 200 years later. This was remarkable, since in a talk Fritjof explains that:
Until recently the nature of life was defined by biologists only in terms of cells and molecules, to which Leonardo, living two centuries before the invention of the microscope, had no access. But today, a new systemic understanding of life is emerging at the forefront of science — an understanding in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns of organization; and those are precisely the phenomena which Leonardo explored throughout his life, both in the macrocosm of the Earth and in the microcosm of the human body.
Source: New Lessons from Leonardo
What we come to realise in this exhibition is that the unique synthesis of art, science, and technology, which da Vinci developed and practised is not only extremely interesting in its conception but also very relevant to our time. Frijof says that:
As we recognize that our sciences and technologies have become increasingly narrow in their focus, unable to understand our multi-faceted problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, and dominated by corporations more interested in financial rewards than in the well-being of humanity, 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. What we need today is exactly the kind of science Leonardo da Vinci anticipated and outlined 500 years ago.
Source: Learning from Leonardo
Fritjof expands on this thinking in this talk he gave at Schumacher College in 2011.
If you are in São Paulo and have an opportunity, I can strongly recommend a visit to this exhibition. I think that at this moment in time the crowds have calmed down a little, and since the exhibition is highly interactive, now would be a great time to visit and absorb yourself in this brilliantly conceived project which radically changes our conception of Leonardo, his work, life and achievements.
And for those of you not able to visit, I can highly recommend both Fritjof’s lecture in the video above, and also his books The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius.