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Reviewed by:
  • Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design
  • Francesca Fiorani
Martin Kemp . Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. x + 214 pp. index. illus. chron. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0–691–12905–3.

In his impressive scholarship of many years, Martin Kemp has greatly clarified the workings of Leonardo da Vinci's mind. Leonardo delighted in the verbal and visual exploration of any branch of natural philosophy, endlessly searching for general rules and for the best way to present them. His investigations were based on the idiosyncratic mixing of notes and drawings derived from past authorities and from his own firsthand observations. In Renaissance written culture, Leonardo's research stands out for the breath of its intellectual scope as well as for its fragmentary, scattered, and repetitious nature. Because of these characteristics, coupled with the difficulty of detecting its diachronic dimension, Leonardo's legacy poses immense interpretative challenges to modern scholars who wish to order his chaotic legacy thematically and chronologically.

In the book under review Kemp synthesizes his deep knowledge of Leonardo's mind and legacy for the benefit of the general public. Written in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (September 2006–January [End Page 921] 2007), the book focuses on how Leonardo's "thought was realized through graphic expression." The scope is to "incite a fresh look at the way Leonardo filled his pages with words and images, with results that do not look quite anything else in the history of writing and drawing" (19). Effectively, Kemp selected the so-called Theme Sheet of ca. 1490 (Windsor 12283r) to introduce visitors and readers to Leonardo's mind, interpreting its apparently unrelated drawings of plants, clouds, solids, horses, people, and machines as signs of Leonardo's views on the relations among natural phenomena.

The exhibition included single sheets from the royal collections at Windsor Castle, original notebooks from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Codices Forster), and the Codex Arundel of the British Library. In four sections —"The Mind's Eye," "The Lesser and Greater Worlds," "Force," and "Making Things" —the exhibition expanded the analysis of the deep relations adumbrated in the "Theme Sheet." (I did not see the exhibition but could reconstruct its display from the list of works published in the volume.) "The Mind's Eye" presented the primary role that Leonardo assigned to the eye in judging the underlying geometry of human proportions, solids, lights, shadows, and weights. "The Lesser and Greater Worlds" explored the correlations between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, between blood and water, veins and rivers. Here were exhibited such memorable drawings as Plan for an Arno Canal (ca. 1504) and the so-called Great Lady (ca. 1505), the large anatomical study of the female body that Kemp less grandiosely but more literally retitled Irrigational Systems of the Female Body, Respiratory, Vascular and Urino-genital. "Force" showed Leonardo's wish to expand human motion and force through the creation of flying machines and weapons, and his interests in the dramatic movements of nature: eruptions, deluges, and explosions of mountains. "Making Things" presented models drawn by Leonardo for buildings, columns, stoves, dams, spiral staircases, water-clocks, underwater breathing devices, stage designs, musical instruments, and instruments to measure wind and air.

The accompanying book was conceived as a "narrative catalogue" of the exhibition. It substitutes the four-part structure of the exhibition, which stressed the connections of natural phenomena, with a different two-part structure, "Models and Modeling, and "Thinking on Paper," that instead emphasizes the role of modeling in Leonardo's thought. In clear prose, Kemp examines how Leonardo modeled things on paper and how, through the very act of drawing, he investigated the underlying connections of phenomena. A considerable part of the book is devoted to the presentation of modern attempts to build the models that Leonardo had only imagined on paper —the flying machine, the pyramidal parachute, the giant crossbow, and the heart valves —to replicate the experiments that he had only executed in drawing, and to animate through computer graphic some of his famous drawings: the sketch of the hammering man, the drawing of the centrally planned church, and the design...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 921-923
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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