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  • Writer's pictureDr. Clare Hancock

Leonardo da Vinci - The Father of STEAM

Sapere Vedere and the art of seeing.

Leonardo da Vinci, born on this day in 1452, was a revolutionary in the worlds of art and science. Following his adage of sapere vedere – or “knowing how to see” – he brought a uniquely scientific approach to art, and vice versa. 

The artist, da Vinci believed, is in fact the person best equipped to uncover the true workings of the world around us. The artist observes and reproduces their surroundings, recognizing structure and form in a way that allows them to accurately dissect and describe the minutiae of life. Through this “seeing”, da Vinci was able to conceive of concepts and inventions that were often centuries ahead of his time. By observing the biomechanics of bird flight, he designed an airplane-like “ornithopter” with wings that flapped like those of a bird. In likewise observing, in human cadavers, the mechanical movements of the musculoskeletal system, he designed a “mechanical knight’ with the ability to perform a number of human movements via coordinated control of an intricate pulley system.

By approaching his highly technical, scientific experimentation from the perspective of the artist, Leonardo da Vinci demonstrated the value of adopting a novel viewpoint, and of the value of the artist’s toolbox in the pursuit of knowledge. 

The Mathematics of Painting.

In between drafting designs of his many inventions, da Vinci was also hard at work solidifying his status as an innovator in the painting world. As adopting an artist’s approach to science bolstered da Vinci’s understanding of the natural world, so too did his technical mind strengthen his work as a painter. 

His characteristic dramatic style is owed in no small part to his observations of the functionality of the human eye. By understanding how light and dark are perceived by the visual system, da Vinci was able to instill depth and contrast in his work, creating a realism that continues to captivate audiences centuries on. Similarly, his geometric observations of the body (best exemplified by his interpretation of the “Vitruvian man”), demonstrate the meticulous sense of proportionality and motion that aided him in his mission to capture a true representation of life in art.

Lessons from the Artist-Scientist.

In his own words, Leonardo da Vinci instructs those aspiring to nurture a complete mind thusly: “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else”.

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