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Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Science Communicator

Five hundred years ago (May 1519) in the Loire Valley town of Amboise, France, Leonardo da Vinci took his last breath. Throughout 2019, commemorations have been held across Europe in celebration of his life and his contributions to art, science, and engineering. The piece contributed by Dr. Brian Shearer of the NYU Medical School details his experience as part of one of these celebrations, held in early October in at the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence. It’s amazing to consider how da Vinci was a pioneer in so many disciplines, and as this piece demonstrates, science communication was one of them. Enjoy! –JMO

Is it strange to celebrate someone’s 500th deathiversery? Yes, absolutely. Yet as 2019 marks the 500thanniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, I found myself in good company in Amboise, France, for exactly such a strange celebration. An international group of anatomists (including several members of the American Association for Anatomy), artists, historians, physicians, and admirers made the trip from as far as New Zealand to pay homage to the renaissance polymath and his contributions to science and art. The symposium, “Leonard da Vinci, Anatomiste: Pionnier de l’Anatomie compare, de la Biomechanique, de la Bionique et de la Physiognomonie”, was hosted in the villa where Leonardo spent his final years five centuries ago.

Château royal d’Amboise, site of the Leonardo Da Vinci as anatomist colloquium. Photo credit: Brian Shearer

The two-day event was held in what was once the favorite summer castle of French kings in the Loire Valley. There, the esteemed French archaeologist and da Vinci aficionado Professor Henry de Lumley hosted the series of topics loosely centered around da Vinci’s contributions to anatomy through his art and experimentation, bringing the expected admiration of his abilities as an illustrator and observant thinker from the attendees. Drawing upon their wide range of expertise, speakers also presented on Leonardo’s brushes with the natural sciences of geology and paleontology and his observations into comparative anatomy, and gave insight into his social life including his penchant for drawing horribly mean caricatures of social elites. There was even a fascinating talk on whether da Vinci could have possessed a genetic peculiarity that enhanced his flicker fusion threshold, possibly allowing him to see with a greater clarity than most.

I chose to speak about da Vinci’s ability to synthesize his art and science, and his knack for the communication of ideas through a visual medium. This led me to muse a bit about science visualization as a concept and what we can learn from studying Leonardo. For scientists, the balance of accuracy and clarity is difficult to strike. We pride ourselves on our ability distill difficult topics into understandable packages of information, but it’s easy to get lost in the details. Leonardo’s concept of a useful visualization implies effective communication of an idea is more than just an illustration, which is a difficult concept to master. Ever the Renaissance man, he was already thinking about the importance of science communication!

Leonardo himself specified two components of a successful visualization. First is to possess mastery of a subject, which emphasizes the depth of knowledge needed to explain it simply. Second is the ability to reveal something’s essence in order to create bridges connecting concepts. He described the concept of “knowing how to see,” having intentionality in creation of a visualization, and holistically combining knowledge of different fields into to clearly direct attention to your point. His view was that perfect replication isn’t always the point; rather, it is to maximize clarity so the audience can easily connect the point to other concepts. This can be very difficult to do, but intentionality in design can increase the visual literacy of the audience and allow the connection to other concepts in a way that bad design does not.

Probably the best example of his ability to combine science and art into a masterful visual demonstration will come as no surprise, as it is one of the most famous paintings in the world: the Mona Lisa.

Author Walter Isaacson calls the Mona Lisa the first augmented reality piece in history because of the various layering techniques used to create the perception of depth, and the intentionality of design choices used to draw the viewer’s focus while simultaneously tricking their perception into seeing the whole image as subtly different depending on where they look. He describes how Leonardo relied on his knowledge of human facial musculature from his various dissections to emphasize the effectiveness of shading. When you look directly at the mouth, the subject doesn’t appear to be very emotive, like many other Leonardo portraits. By synthetically applying both his knowledge of facial anatomy and his understanding of optics, Leonardo painted lips with shading in such a way that the woman appears to be smiling when looking at areas other than her lips. He accomplishes this through subtle shadowing, tricking parts of the eye less sensitive to fine detail. The eye is continually drawn to the smile, making the Mona Lia an intriguing image to inspect. This subtle communication of his scientific research through art remains a high mark in combining the two.

Other artists have since taken up the role of science communicator. For example, paleo-artists such as Charles R. Knight and his modern counterparts use their knowledge of osteology and anatomy in living animals to recreate extinct times and places. Much in the fashion of Leonardo, paleo-artists are able to convey layers of information about the animals they illustrate by using their anatomical expertise and knowledge of design elements, visualizing ways in which dinosaurs and our extinct relatives such as the Neanderthals may have looked and interacted with their world. These visualizations give depth to the lives of animals that we can’t observe in the wild, effectively communicating about their place in lost worlds.

Leonardo’s key distinction from other Renaissance scientists and artists was his ability to synthesize information. This should serve as inspiration for those of us today who are privileged to share our work with non-scientists or the medical professionals we educate. We aspire for our students to see the world as an integrated whole and make connections in an increasingly interconnected world.

Modern scientists who do not study art to supplement their anatomical understandings are at a serious deficit in their ability to visualize and convey their findings, whereas Leonardo’s anatomical training illuminated his art. We should not forget the lessons of Leonardo, even as we progress further into the realm of high-tech imaging and 3D visualizations, and should always strive to work with other fields to achieve the best possible outcome in our ability to communicate our work. We would do well in our pursuits—be they education, pure science, or both—to follow da Vinci’s lead.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

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About the Author
  • Brian Shearer

    Brian Shearer, PhD, is a recent graduate of the City University of New York where he wrote a dissertation on the evolution of primate nerve complexes. He currently teaches gross anatomy and histology at the NYU School of Medicine and the NYU Long Island School of Medicine. He maintains appointments with the American Museum of Natural History and is a resource faculty member at the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP). His research is primarily on the evolution of soft tissues in primates, but he also occasionally hunts for fossils in South America and is increasingly involved in medical education research.

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