This morning we journeyed farther south in the city than we had been yesterday to see the Universita Cattolica and the Museum of Science and Technology. The museum had a large part of it dedicated to the inventions and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, so as an engineer I was fascinated to see what parts of his scientific legacy are most important today. Leonardo’s most lasting ideas in my mind were not specific inventions like the helicopter, but the themes of the power of man, the value of scientific measurement, and the importance of practicality over beauty. Each of these themes represented a change from the pre-Renaissance state of mind toward the attitude that enabled the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and eventually the modern world.
The first drawing of Leonardo (one does not refer to him as “da Vinci”) we saw was a representation of the Vitruvian Man. The picture of this is shown below, and it depicts a man inscribed in both a square and a circle to show the ideal proportions of a man posed in two different ways. Historically the circle represented God as it is infinite and perfect, and the square represented the material world. The Vitruvian man is meant to suggest that man in the center of both the spiritual and material worlds. This departed from the idea common in the Middle Ages that God was the center of the spiritual and the earthly worlds. This suggestion of the power of man over both realms symbolized the Renaissance Era, leading more scientists and artists to have confidence in their methods. Thus I feel this is one of Leonardo’s most lasting legacies: encouragement for other people to continue his innovative work.
Some of Leonardo’s most important inventions were devices to measure physical properties like strength, density, and pressure. An example of this was a device that held a bucket on a wire and slowly added sand to the bucket until the wire broke. The device could show how much sand was added to the bucket before the wire broke, and thus tell the strength of the wire. This scientific measuring device allowed a standard to be set for wire strength as well as a standard for the replicability of scientific measurements. Leonardo also designed a device to measure the density of steam by putting steam into a closed container, heating it with fire, and recording how the container responds to weights on top of it. Both the steam density and wire strength measurement devices showed the scientific community that measurements are useless unless they can be replicated to attest to their accuracy. From that point, scientists improved the accuracy of their devices, allowing precise measurements to be recorded. This advanced engineering and education greatly, and since this affects me as an engineering student today, I feel it is one of his most important legacies.
Building upon the new Renaissance standard of beauty, Leonardo emphasized the practicality of his inventions in addition to their external appearance. The museum featured a replica of Leonardo’s ideal city which he designed in response to disease outbreaks. Leonardo planned canals and sewer systems moving throughout the city to keep refuse moving. He also designed elaborate buildings to house the government and aristocrats that lies above the part of the city inhabited by the merchant and peasant classes. This design is an example of how Leonardo combined the beauty of classical building styles and multilayered cities with the usefulness of drainage and sanitation. While many other architects and artists created works of art only notable for their external beauty, Leonardo’s new method of making the art serve a purpose propelled creators into technological revolution.
Leonardo da Vinci has many iconic designs: the helicopter, the loom, and the Mona Lisa. However, many of his greatest legacies come in the form of ideas and creative strategies. His realization that humans could control their own lives and learn about the physical world inspired many other scientists to begin their work. In addition, Leonardo’s inventions of scientific measuring devices improved the standards of scientific discovery. Finally, his inclusion of practicality with beautiful designs allowed the Renaissance to improve society as well as beautify it. As an engineer, I can appreciate that these innovative ideas had an indescribable positive impact on the advancement of science.