by Roderick Conway Morris

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Of Artists and Machines: Leonardo and Before

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 17 August 1991
British Museum
Machine for raising columns by Francesco di Giorgio, 1474-82



When Leonardo da Vinci sent off job applications to Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan, in 1483, he offered himself as the inventor of fireproof mobile bridges, armored cars, battleships, mortars 'and other engines of wonderful efficacy not in general use.' It is only in the penultimate paragraph that he mentions, almost in passing, that he can also offer architecture, painting and sculpture.

That an artist of Leonardo's abilities should have involved himself so heavily in science and technology has usually been regarded as an aspect of his uniqueness. But 'Before Leonardo: Machines in Renaissance Siena,' an exhibition in Siena, whose university is celebrating its 750th anniversary, seeks radically to alter this view.

Professor Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence's Museum of the History of Science and the exhibition organizer, readily acknowledged that the event is to some extent a polemical one: 'What we want to show is that Leonardo did not spring up suddenly like some freak mushroom, but marked the culmination of a 200-year-long process.'

In the past, said Galluzzi, Leonardo has been dealt with by art historians, who have not paid enough attention to the other artist-engineers, his forerunners and contemporaries.

The exhibition is being held in the medieval, brick-vaulted salt magazines beneath the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena's main square, and there are plans to seek a permanent home for it in Italy or France. It consists of more than 100 illustrated 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts showing a wide range of inventions and machines.

There are also working models, built from the Renaissance designs. Half a dozen of these are large-scale reconstructions, and make for an impressive sight as they thump and clank away. There are also three-dimensional computer simulations of other machines and siege engines in action.

Two key figures are Mariano di Iacopo, known as Taccola (1382-1458?) and Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1502). Both influenced Leonardo, many of whose drawings are detailed copies of the designs of others - 'like a series of photos recording contemporary technology,' in Galluzzi's words.

Both Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio were Sienese, and Siena was for more than a century a thriving center of technological innovation. A great stimulus to the city's artistic engineering workshops were the particular local challenges facing the burgeoning city-state. For this hilltop city the problem of water supply was paramount. This was overcome by a sophisticated system of subterranean tunnels and tanks called 'bottini' (still in use today).

These Renaissance artist-engineers were also strongly motivated by a desire to recover the past glories of the classical world. Taccola described himself as the 'Sienese Archimedes' and Francesco di Giorgio had an almost obsessive interest in the rediscovery of the techniques used by the Romans to bring columns and obelisks from Egypt and raise them in Rome.

The high level of education of many artist-engineers, said Galluzzi, belies the conventional wisdom regarding a division between high-flown scholars and humble craftsmen. In reality the picture now emerging is one of continual interchange and cooperation. Apart from anything else, Galuzzi pointed out, the scholars needed artists to illustrate classical texts, many of which were incomprehensible without drawings.

At a time when states were often engaged in hostilities it was inevitable that artist-engineers should be called upon to apply their ingenuity to warfare, and it was natural enough that Leonardo in his letter to the duke of Milan, then at war with the Venetians, should have emphasized the bellicose possibilities of his portfolio. Francesco di Giorgio served another great scholar-warrior of the period, Federico da Montefeltro, and adorned the latter's palace at Urbino with 72 carved stone reliefs celebrating the arts of war.

But, said Galluzzi, Leonardo's contribution also derived from his supreme qualities as an artist. He raised technical drawing to previously unattained heights, inventing numerous new techniques, such as multipicture cinematic effects to show the torsion of a figure, or the oscillation of a bell, and layer-by-layer anatomical drawing - artistic innovations that were of enormous and enduring benefit to the advancement of science.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023