Today, an odd parable of birth and human vision.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Here's a drawing by Leonardo
da Vinci -- that clear-eyed observer of the world
and everything in it. It's one of several cutaway
views of a man and woman
engaged in sexual intercourse. He hasn't got
their interior anatomy right -- not yet. He didn't
start dissecting people and animals until later.
The drawing has a chilling detachment -- almost a
bathroom wall detachment. But Leonardo is seldom
finished when we think he is. His inscrutable Mona
Lisa vision reminds us how multilayered the world
is, beneath its appearances.
Leonardo worked very hard to let nature speak
through his brush without subjective interference.
And he'd just started to wrestle with the most
basic human function -- with procreation.
A few years later, he made a painting that hasn't
survived. But his study
sketches do. We also have descriptions and
versions by other artists. It shows Leda and the
Swan. Leda, of course, mated with Zeus, who came to
her in the form of a swan.
Leonardo's Leda is a naked and sensual Earth
Mother. At her feet, plump laughing children emerge
from broken swans' eggs. All around, plants, ripe
and rich, burst with reproductive power.
Art historian Kenneth Clark believes that one of
those cold studies of intercourse was a preliminary
sketch for the Leda masterwork. Leonardo the
scientist had struggled with the mystery of human
reproduction at a deeper level than was obvious.
And he wasn't done yet. In 1512, now 60, Leonardo
devoted a whole notebook to embryology. In it he
produced the first drawings of a baby in the womb.
He dissected oxen and he dissected at least one
dead mother with her unborn child.
He takes on complex anatomical questions. How does
the child feed and void? What tissues tie the child
and the mother? He didn't get everything right. But
he laid ground for people like Fabricius, who
worked out the details 80 years later.
So we gaze at that embryo, curled up and small. It
is human latency, powerfully contained and
powerfully expressed. It is an old man's
contemplation of the primacy of human life.
Leonardo's unrelenting belief that truth is
revealed in nature brought him at last to the
ultimate act of human creativity. In an odd way,
that tiny human form, curled up in a ball, about to
flower into the world, might be one of the most
powerful images Leonardo left for us.
And, seeing that child, we know that Leonardo's
search for external truth has led, at last, to a
far more internal truth. We know that he's reached
a truth not only deep within the human body -- but
deep within his own psyche as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Clark, K., Leonardo Da Vinci (revised
edition). New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Clayton, M., Leonardo Da Vinci: The Anatomy
of Man. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1992. (This
is the catalog of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston. The exhibit ran from June 28, 1992
to February 21, 1993.)
O'Malley, C.D., and Saunders, J.B. de C.M.,
Leonardo da Vinci on the Human Body.
New York: Henry Schuman, 1953.
Adelmann, H.B., The Embryological Treatises
of Hieronymus Fabricius of Aquapendente,
Vols. 1 and 2. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1942 (including a facsimile of the 1621
Belt, E., Leonardo the Anatomist. New
York: Greenwood Press, 1969. (Original printing,
University of Kansas Press, 1955.)
I am grateful to Ken Soh at the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston, for his counsel on this episode.
For more on Leonardo and Leda, see Episode 1183.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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