Because of his genius, Leonardo da Vinci has been described as an “alien at the court of the Medici”. In the 16th century, he invented a tank, a helicopter and a submarine – and he created paintings of sublime beauty. For these and many other reasons, I think of Leonardo as simply the “cleverest man ever to have lived”. A polymath, to whom the concept of art versus science would have seemed a nonsense, Leonardo was so far ahead of his time that it is surprising that in his superstition-ridden era he wasn’t burned at the stake. In fact, he was courted by warlords and power-brokers and he died a rich man in the arms of a king.

Clearly he was a man out of his time. He was the first scientist, and a real scientist. He used the scientific method long before Newton and Galileo. He did experiments, and said that from these you create your rule and then apply it. That’s real science. But many disagree, questioning the idea that Leonardo was the first scientist. For my book, Leonardo: The First Scientist (Little, Brown/Abacus) I used the term in order to be deliberately provocative, but I also believe it to be true. The ancient Greeks lacked the scientific vigour of hypothesis, test, experiment and theory that characterises today’s quest for knowledge and whether or not they performed real science in a modern sense is highly debatable. The only other contender is Roger Bacon who lived during the 13th century, but he was more a mystic and alchemist than a scientist.

Leonardo was a bastard son born into a class where illegitimacy made him a social pariah. His mother Caterina, a great beauty, had little say in his upbringing. Instead, he was raised by his grandparents and his often absent father. Being illegitimate, he was unable to attend university and he never received any formal training. He only got to grips with Latin – the language of the educated in medieval Europe ­ in middle age, and his understanding of mathematics was extremely limited; a fact that lies at the heart of why many modern historians and scientists fail to consider Leonardo a Œreal¹ scientist.

However, although he was forbidden from attending university, one career that was open to him was to train as an artist, and in Florence he was taught by the great Andrea Verrocchio and entered his workshop to become a member of the “arte of painters”, a school which included Leonardo¹s contemporary and friend, Botticelli.

Leonardo effectively lived a life that would not be seen again until 19th century Paris – as a hard-drinking, flamboyant artist holed up in a garret in the most glittering city of the age. Parts of Renaissance Italy were very happening. Florence was largely free from the oppression of the Inquisition and Catholic dogma, at least during Leonardo’s lifetime. This was fortunate considering some of his ideas. Leonardo was homosexual, a fact that nearly cost him his life. While the Florentines were remarkably tolerant of homosexuality, sodomy remained punishable by death. This law was rarely invoked and gay men were able to live openly, but Leonardo was framed on jumped-up charges – possibly as part of an unknown political feud. Fortunately, the judge threw the charges out.

After this incident, Leonardo toned down his natural flamboyance, but he worked furiously and continued to research into areas that many would have considered heretical, including the dissection of human bodies. In Milan, he presented the ruling Duke with a silver lute crafted in the shape of a horse’s head. Not surprisingly, the Duke smiled on the painter. Leonardo networked furiously, getting to know kings, dukes and fellow artists. He was even a friend of Machiavelli, the great Florentine administrator and later the author of the classic text on how to rule, The Prince.

So what is Leonardo’s legacy? In art, there is no argument. He created some of the greatest masterpieces of the last millennium, including the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Battle Of Anghiari. In science, though, the case for Leonardo is less clear cut. He was a pacifist, yet he designed countless ingenious war machines, including a UFO-like tank, and he even proposed a submarine and scuba apparatus. He designed flying machines – including his famous “helicopter”. He sketched designs for machines to pump water to siege towers, efficient ways to spray burning oil on enemy heads and techniques to dislodge the ladders of those attacking the battlements.

However, most of these machines remained on the notebook page. His helicopter never flew, his submarine never saw water. This wasn’t always the fault of the design – the helicopter would probably have worked if there had been an engine powerful enough. Many of the war machines were good ideas, but prohibitively costly.

Leonardo also arrived at both the first and third laws of motion two centuries before Newton, although he did not have the maths to describe them or fit them into a universal framework. He wrote about a million words on scientific, medical and engineering matters. He was a skilled anatomist, architect and musician, and unlike some geniuses, there is no doubt that his work was all his own. So what would Leonardo do if he lived today? I think it is no exaggeration to say that if he was parachuted into the world of 2004, it would take him about twenty-four hours to get to grips with everything, then he would get a job as Bill Gates¹ chief designer. He would also be horrified by our disregard for the environment and almost certainly become a Green activist.

In the past, hyperbole has damaged Leonardo¹s scientific reputation and some writers and fans have claimed far too much for the man. But, that said, I do believe he was the greatest genius who ever lived. The problem with people like Leonardo da Vinci is that others tend to take him less seriously than he deserves. He did so much that most people find it almost impossible to believe that a single man could be so brilliantly talented at so many different things.

Michael White
September 2004