Leonardo Da Vinci - Do Unto Others



Da Vinci: Encoded

A new Smithsonian book

explores the genius of Leonardo


WHY DOES LEONARDO da VINCI SO FASCINATE US 485 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH? He is a fixture of pop culture, his works constantly reproduced, quoted, parodied. The Mona Lisa’s ironic smile advertises everything from hotels to restaurants to computers. Dan Brown’s imaginative thriller THE Da VINCI CODE is a bestseller.


Of course, the fascination has a lot to do with Leonardo himself He was a bundle of contradictions: a pacifist who earned much of his living as a military engineer; a religious skeptic whose Last Supper is one of the most spiritually sublime works in the history of art. He was interested in everything. And though given to procrastin-ation, he carried out an enormous amount of work.


Physicist and artist Bulent Atalay, author of the just published Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci (Smithsonian Books), suggests that Leonardo speaks across the centuries because many of his drawings and paintings uncanny use of a principle associated with aesthetic pleasure and known as the Divine Proportion or golden ratio. It’s derived from a special bit of geometry: a line is divided into two unequal lengths, and the ratio of the longer segment to the shorter segment is the same as the ratio of the whole line to the longer segment. Expressed as a number, the ratio is 1.6i8, and philosophers and scientists have long said it embodies a harmony found in nature and art. For instance, in a nautilus shell, the ratio of the first spiral to the next is 1.688. Atalay says the ratio turns up in the Mona Lisa; the relationship between her right shoulder and cheek and her left shoulder and cheek involves a triangle whose shortest sides are in divine proportion to its base.


The Divine Proportion also turns up in the Egyptian pyramids, the Parthenon and in self-portraits by Rembrandt. It is also hidden, Atalay says, in the double helix structure of DNA. Leonardo’s use of mathematics may have been intuitive, Atalay allows, “just a manifestation of his unerring eye, as it most likely had been for the architects of the pyramids.” But he also believes that Leonardo had both a scientific and an aesthetic appreciation for the Divine Proportion, which also figures in his architectural designs.


The evidence, notes Atalay, abounds in the 4,000 or so surviving pages—out of an estimated 14,000—of Leonardo’s notebooks, which reveal “careful experimen-tation, meticulous observation, copious recording of data, and a synthesis in the form of an explanation.” Atalay believes that had the whole survived and had the artist’s “work in physics, geology, anatomy, optics, and astronomy, and his designs for machines been available to other scientists, we might have reached our present level of scientific and technological sophistication by the late 18th century”


— GREGORY McNAMEE



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