Leonardo da Vinci, scientific literacy and the brick wall of belief

A recent article in Nature magazine describes da Vinci’s anatomical studies and the ‘how’ of their being lost to Renaissance science. It makes for really interesting reading in our current climate of concern about both science education and the development of literacy for the 21st century. Martin Clayton writes:

“Leonardo da Vinci is the archetype of the Renaissance man, but since his day he has been seen primarily as a painter who dabbled in the sciences. Leonardo would not have recognized this image: his scientific studies were as important to him as his art. Of all his investigations – which included optics, geology, botany and hydrodynamics – the field that engaged him most was human anatomy.” (314)

A London exhibition, Clayton writes, “will expose the Renaissance master’s staggering medical discoveries, which languished unpublished for centuries.” (314) “The exhibition represents two campaigns of intense work around 1490 and between 1507 and 1513, during which Leonardo dissected around 30 human corpses. He fully intended to publish his findings, and had he done so, he would have transformed the study of anatomy in Europe. Many of the bodily structures that he depicted would not be described for centuries.” (314)

A unique upbringing – and a unique perspective 

Clayton explains that “The illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl, he was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci in Tuscany, Italy. He learned to read and write but his arithmetical skills were shaky, and although he taught himself Latin as an adult, he was never comfortable with the language of most contemporary scientific writings. He was to portray this as an advantage – claiming that he was a ‘disciple of experience’ unencumbered by ancient belief…” (314)

By the 1480s, Clayton explains, da Vinci had worked in the innovative studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, “where he picked up the rudiments of engineering,” (314) and had begun to compile material for a treatise on the theory of painting. He had also “come to see painting as a scientific activity, in which every effect (light and shade, colour, perspective) and form should be based on a true understanding of nature. The human body was the principal subject of the Renaissance artist and leonardo soon realized that he would have to devote a separate treatise to it. It was not sufficient to study the permanent anatomy of the body; Leonardo also wanted to learn how an individual’s appearance from moment to moment was related to the workings of the mind, so that a painting would reveal the emotions of the protagonists and the human drama of the scene. / Leonardo thus aimed to understand the perception of reality through the senses, the structure of the mental faculties and how the nerves configure the muscles and bones. How could he even begin to investigate these topics?” (314)

The gulf between expectation (or prior belief) and observation

Clayton explains that, while human dissection was not banned, da Vinci struggled to access cadavers and was originally reliant “on animal dissection, traditional belief and simple speculation.” (314) He eventually got his hands on a human skull, but even after detailed consideration, the “shape of the skull (and by implication of the brain) failed to provide Leonardo with any useful information about the relationship between mind and body. The gulf between Leonardo’s ambitions and his achievements brought his first wave of anatomical research to a halt.” (314)

In late 1507, however, he was presented with an opportunity to study the cadaver of a man who died peacefully in a hospital. After studying the heart, he “attributed the man’s death to a narrowing of the coronary vessels, and wrote the first clear description of atherosclerosis in medical history.” (316) Five years of “intense anatomical investigation” (316) followed, during which he focused “on the bones and muscles, analysing their structure in purely mechanical terms” (316). Had ‘military turmoil’ and plague not intervened, Clayton writes that da Vinci might well have finished his treatise on the body – but intervene they did, and da Vinci left Milan, losing access to his supply of human material.

He continued working with animal material and made studies of the ox heart. His understanding of how the heart valves closed was brilliant (and not to be confirmed until the 20th century): “Leonardo,” Clayton writes, “had an almost perfect understanding of the physiology of the human heart. But he had no inkling of the circulation of the blood, and the existence of one-way valves was incompatible with the ancient belief that the heart simply churned blood in and out of the ventricles, thus generating heat and ‘vital spirit’. Unable to reconcile what he had observed with what he believed to be true, Leonardo reached an impasse. He became trapped in describing the motion of the blood through the valves in ever more detail. And there, it seems, his anatomical work came to an end. / There is no sign that Leonardo attempted to collate his research for publication. …Unpublished, the studies were effectively lost to the world.” (316)

What struck me, reading this article, was how da Vinci’s experiences of learning and research provide such an excellent argument for playful, opern-minded innovation in modern education; da Vinci wasn’t trained up in the science traditions of the time (he lacked the Latin he needed to have easy access the writings of the scientific community), so was also freed from certain of the bonds of tradition… and he became more innovative as a result.

On the flipside, though, while da Vinci’s knowledge and beliefs led him to great innovation (his mechanical/engineering-based interpretation of the bones and muscles), his knowledge and beliefs also stopped him from recognising the truly innovative validity of his own work (his analysis of the workings of the heart valves made no sense in light of the working theories of the time).

What educational traditions are just ‘tradition’? What ‘knowledge’ would be better described as ‘theory’ (the teaching of science perhaps provides ready examples)?

Ref: Martin Clayton (2012) ‘Leonardo’s anatomy years’ Nature, Vol 484, 19 April; pp314-316

Check out: http://www.drawingsofleonardo.org/

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Literate Contexts, Science education, Standardised Testing, The concept of gifted learners and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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