October 1, 2012
Peter-Beal-Magi

Leonardo da Vinci: Art and Science in Florence

This summer I had the unique opportunity of going to Florence, Italy, and joining a group of other scholars to study the theme of art and science in the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute.

This was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, directed by Francesca Fiorani of the University of Virginia. The theme of the institute was discussed in relation to Leonardo’s paintings, drawings, and writings in his notebooks. In such diverse fields as human anatomy, plant biology, hydrology, and optics, Leonardo explored the patterns and forms of nature in action.

Experts discussed Leonardo da Vinci.

It was an extraordinary event on many levels, not least because of the many experts on the field that we heard from including Martin Kemp, Carlo Vecce, Antonio Natali (director of the Uffizi), Cecilia Frosinini (director of the Opificio delle pietre dure) and Marzia Faietti (director of the Gabinetto dei Designi at the Uffizi) to name a few. Extensive discussions with Institute colleagues and informal lunches with institute faculty only added to the richness of the experience.

Classes and museum visits in Milan.

Classes were conducted at the Casa Zuccari, a 16th century house built and decorated by Federico Zuccari, an important Florentine artist, and the Palazzo Grifoni, a palace on the Piazza Annunziata in the heart of the city. We also visited museums in the city, such as the Uffizi, where we had a private tour from the director who discussed two of the Leonardo paintings hanging there.

Seeing ‘Adoration of the Magi’

A trip to the Opificio, a huge state restoration studio in Florence, meant a close-up look at the remarkable (and unfinished) “Adoration of the Magi” and an introduction to the complex issues of recovering Leonardo’s work and artistic process after 500 years.

Intimate Glimpse at Leonardo’s Drawings.

An afternoon at the Prints and Drawings department of the Uffizi afforded an intimate glimpse at a few of Leonardo’s most important drawings, something very few scholars ever have the chance to do.

Extraordinary Experiences in Milan.

One of the trip’s real highlights was a field trip to Milan where we met Pietro Marani, one of the most significant writers on Leonardo, at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Professor Marani discussed some pages from the Codex Atlanticus, a manuscript stored there. We also went to the Castello Sforzesco to see the remains of a spectacular fresco project of Leonardo and capped the day with a viewing of the “Last Supper,” a truly extraordinary experience.

Bringing Leonardo’s Thoughts into My Classroom.

My work for this institute was focused on Leonardo’s work on mountains, a subject he wrote about and depicted in art. I wanted to see how his understanding of geological process differed from and was shaped by contemporary knowledge of the topic.

I came away from my research with a much more complex understanding of Leonardo’s life and mental process and an awareness of just how radically advanced his views of nature and its analysis really were.

Coming from a state known for its mountains, it was fascinating for me to trace the ways in which Leonardo’s thought evolved as he studied them. In my own classes, I want to use his ideas and art to show how we can articulate our understanding of the world through words and images and appreciate them anew!

Let Me Help You.

I owe much thanks to the National Endowment of the Humanities for funding and hosting this extraordinary event. A special debt of gratitude is owed to Front Range Community College for its financial support, without which I could not have attended.  I invite any faculty interested in applying to any of the NEH summer programs to contact me for guidance and advice on how they can participate in these remarkable programs.

About the author:

Peter Beal teaches art history and humanities at Front Range Community College's Larimer Campus in Fort Collins. He is a landscape artist and author of the book "Bouldering."