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The Glorification of Arts and Sciences: Was Da Vinci a Genius, a Celebrity, or both?

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, is a renowned artist and polymath of the Italian renaissance, perhaps more famous for the things that were not actually his biggest achievements. His paintings were astonishing, but so were his talents and skills that placed a memorable mark in the history of technology and design. But what exactly made him so special?

Fabian here from the Think-team, inspired to write more about History. This time, I'd like to talk about the importance of context when looking at past achievements. You may notice that I took a course on the History of technology and Society in this blog. While our Founder Tak mentioned Da Vinci in his blog, I think it's worthy to talk about his life and the era he lived in.

Historian Thomas J. Misa wrote a book called “Leonardo to the Internet”, exploring the coevolution of technology and society. The first chapter talked about interesting facts about da Vinci and many other court engineers of the Renaissance. The sensational science-based artist is an idol until today, but how?

Unsprisingly, da Vinci like many of us, had role models. At age 14, he became an apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio, where he spent years sculpting, drawing, and painting. He then picked up scientific knowledge ranging from physics to chemistry. At age 25, he continued to create paintings that eventually sit in many museums until today. The peak of his career, however, was not until he became a court engineer for Ludovico Sforza in the 1480s.

During this era, war was happening and geographical insecurity was a concern for Italian cities that are close to the borders of neighboring countries. The market demanded a person that can help win wars and protect the city – an engineer of the court. Specifically, Milan was sensitive to attacks from France. Da Vinci was sent to Ludovico Sforza who was the current ruler of the duchy of Milan. He then became a court engineer for up to two decades. Twenty years of designing weapons and grand military artifacts. It was fortunate that historians could get a grip on his notes, as there is little to no evidence for the years that followed, almost as if other court engineers barely existed.

It then became a question from several theorists, whether or not his designs were authentic. From close examinations of notebooks of other engineers, it seems unfair to give da Vinci the full credit to the artifacts that are attributed to him. Francesco di Giorgio and Leon Battista Alberti are two other examples of a prolific polymath in the same era that are thought to be of da Vinci’s inspiration. Some notable inventions including assault chariots and endless-screw pumps are to some extent, ‘borrowed’ ideas. It is interesting that a man with a talent thought to be of incredible odds can be a representation of engineers of the era, which is more common than anyone could expect. In a way, he is not that special after all.

da Vinci's Controversial Tank

Taking a closer look at the technology of this era, Misa concluded the era’s distinctive features to be of dynastic displays and courtly entertainment. The court appreciated artists with the ability to create designs of grandeur. Talented engineers of this era, such as da Vinci himself, could 'easily' make it through their lives by having ‘fun’, translating their passions into artifacts that are socially acceptable. This was evident in da Vinci’s absurdly imaginative design notebook that moved the world until today. This era made it possible for technology to be as creative as the available resource may be. However, technology was not aimed to be labor-saving or for commercial use. As everything was centralized towards the military, industrialization was not yet in fashion.

Despite the impressive talent of most court engineers, automation was almost completely out of the picture, as the industrial revolution only happened two centuries after this era. It is arguable that da Vinci and his peers could have definitely developed labor-saving technologies to improve efficiency with their knowledge. With technology mostly affiliated and funded by bureaucratic systems, developing military technologies became imperative. As opposed to the next era (16th – 18th century), technology stemmed from merchants and rich people, which preferred to make a market shift to mass production. Interesting how societal systems in different eras produce different types of engineers.

The intersection of technology and art is also a concept worth comparing to other eras, as they are seem to be more closely related during the Renaissance. For instance, I think it is not as common today to have artists as engineers (and vice-versa), as it was back then. Part of being an engineer was to be able to publicly exhibit your inventions and to impress the court, which requires some skills of artistry. This sort of public viewing gives recognition, making da Vinci a celebrity until today. How art or technology was appreciated could be a factor that differs eras, where today, it seems to be easier to distinguish the two.

As mentioned earlier, the authenticity of da Vinci was questionable, sparking the question: was he at all special? His innovations were court-driven and so were many other artists. Originality is always arguable, as it is indubitable that inspirations stemmed from his peers as well as his teachers. However, the societal system seem to be built to support people alike. Perhaps it was entrepreneurship that made da Vinci stand out through his artistry and his notebook.

In sum, technology and society are interdependent agents that coevolve. Innovations of a certain era can be boiled down to who it stems from, the socio-economic and political condition, and the availability of knowledge. Da Vinci was great but he was not alone. The societal system was designed perfectly for the talented to bloom. Fast forward to today, it would be interesting to see future Authors such as Misa. Imagine centuries from now, someone will look back to the present era, realizing a very distinct pattern that is unobvious today.

Thanks for reading my blog. Of course, everything I just wrote is up for a debate, (at least I had one with my university teachers). In no way am I saying da Vinci's praise should be taken away. I personally think it's cool to analyze history this way, because maybe we are waiting for another da Vinci. If you're interested be like him, maybe take a moment to observe what the world really needs right now.

See you next week!

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I would like to also know the story of Scripture of David by Michelangelo. I don't know if the anecdote I always used is the real a story.

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