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Why da Vinci was not an engineer, scientist, or mathematician

Why da Vinci was not an engineer, scientist, or mathematician

Leonardo da Vinci is considered the quintessential "Renaissance Man," one who excels at all forms of intellectual endeavors. He is honored as a genius, some say the greatest genius the world has ever known-an artist, a mathematician, a scientist, and an engineer. But does he deserve these accolades? No. And bestowing them upon him belittles those who truly are great mathematicians, scientists, or engineers.

Leonardo da Vinci definitely created great artwork, though for my taste he doesn’t match the grandeur, detail, or power of Michelangelo his peer. Da Vinci invented painting techniques like sfumato for creating a delicate shading for more realistic human features, though other techniques for which he is credited were actually developed by other painters such as and chiaroscuro that was developed and perfected by Caravaggio, Correggio, and Rembrandt1. I acknowledge he was a great artist-he created artwork that has been appreciated worldwide for centuries. But da Vinci, known for a problematic lack of attention, rarely finished any of his works. The Last Supper painting is incomplete2. His Gran Cavallo horse statue was never finished3. He left the monastery of San Donato before finishing the Adoration of the Magi that he had been commissioned to produce4. The list goes on. Even the Mona Lisa background seems to me drab and amateurish, like an attempt to just get the portrait done so he could move on, a fact described by a witness to the original painting, Giorgio Vasari, a biographer and painter himself5. Modern day art historians and fans of da Vinci make all kinds of excuses for his impatience and impulsiveness. One fan states that Vinci "fell victim to those individuals jealous of his genius labeled him a man who did not finish his commissions as the [Gran Cavallo] was meant to be made of bronze, not clay."6 Another fan claims that the payment terms were so complex that he probably wouldn’t have received any compensation anyway. So get bored and leave-thankfully other artists, like Vincent van Gogh or Michelangelo, had a different attitude and struggled to complete their works out of passion and love.

Da Vinci Was Not a Mathematician

Although I’ve dabbled in art and art history, I am not an expert. However, I am an expert in mathematics, science, and engineering, having had a rigorous education in these fields and having worked for several decades in them. I’ve known true brilliant people in these areas. To my knowledge Leonardo da Vinci never wrote down an equation, even one as simple as basic algebra. He just didn’t seem to understand math7. Some credit him for understanding the golden ratio, but the golden ratio is simply two numbers-a width and a length-and had been known at least since the days of the Greek sculptor and mathematician Phidias, a thousand years before da Vinci8. Da Vinci came up with interesting mathematical ideas but never investigated one and never proved one. He spat out interesting possibilities in his notebooks, using a notation that has not been deciphered. Very few, if any, of his "mathematical ideas" turned out to be correct9. In fact, search the books, the Internet, or entire libraries, and you won’t find a single, tiny original contribution that da Vinci made to mathematics.

Mathematicians don’t guess at their answers. They study various techniques, sometimes for years. They learn how to use multiple mathematical models to find a solution. They compare alternative ways of performing calculations. They generalize the problems to solve categories of problems. They test their answers and try to find fault in them, try to tear the solution apart. Only after this long effort born of creative spark but nurtured by perseverance do they create something worthy of being labeled genius. Da vinci was far from a mathematical genius and giving him the title of mathematician demeans those who have spent their lives examining the beauty of numbers and their relationships.

Da Vinci Was Not a Scientist

Scientists practice the scientific method. They come up with hypotheses based on observations or the works of others, but that’s simply the very beginning. Every curious child imagines reasons why the world works the way it does. Most of them are fantastic and some turn out to be true. Ancient people thought the world was flat, supported by tortoises. But even the ancient Greeks, two thousand years before da Vinci, created the scientific method used by Archimedes, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, and many others10. Roger Bacon, two hundred years before da Vinci, was making discoveries and promoting the scientific method11. All that da Vinci did was write fantastic theories in his notebooks but never once devised experiments to test them. Had he done that, he would have found that most of his theories were completely wrong. Again, there is not a single known, novel scientific principle that can be attributed to da Vinci. But at that same time, real scientific geniuses like Nicolaus Copernicus were changing our understanding of the solar system forever. To call da Vinci a scientist is like calling a curious kindergartener a scientist. It is an insult to those real scientists who spend their lives not just observing and hypothesizing, but testing, poring over results, retesting, studying the works of others, refining their own work, creating new theories, and eventually giving us more knowledge about how the universe functions.

Da Vinci Was Not an Engineer

Da Vinci was often given credit for the inventions of others, simply drawing machines, bridges, weapons, and other devices that had been written up by others or actually built by others12. In fact most of his so-called inventions including diving suits and flying machines had been drawn up extensively by others13. Scientist Roger Bacon had drawn plans for an ornithopter 200 years before da Vinci and flying machines had been discussed and drawn since ancient times14. Modern attempts to build even a single one of da Vinci’s inventions have all failed because da Vinci didn’t understand materials or forces or structures or math or any engineering requirements. He never built any of his inventions; he simply drew them and in a few cases built small, non-working models. Engineering requires a deep understanding of mathematics and science. It also requires testing and experimenting and calculating and retesting and improving, leading to eventual success. As Thomas Edison famously said, it is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. It requires more than just dreaming and drawing, which is as far as da Vinci ever got. Honoring da Vinci as an engineer, let alone a brilliant one, denigrates the accomplishments of those engineers who spend years planning and measuring and calculating and building and rebuilding and creating the wonderful inventions that simplify or improve our lives.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

In summary, da Vinci was a great artist, debatably one of the best who ever lived. Certainly the most famous. But to call him an engineer, scientist, or mathematician, let alone a brilliant one, is simply not true and is an insult to those who devote their lives and their energies to these important human endeavors.


  1. Marion Boddy-Evans, Painting in the Style of Old Masters: Sfumato and Chiaroscuro, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  2. Seen with my own eyes, the bottom left corner was never completed.
  3. Leonardo Da Vinci Paintings, Inventions & Biography!, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  4. Adoration of the Magi,retrieved July 26, 2011.
  5. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of Seventy of the most eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (of the Renaissance), 1550.
  6. Leonardo Da Vinci Paintings, Inventions & Biography!, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  7. How Not to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  8. The Beauty of the Golden Ratio, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  9. Dirk Huylebrouk, Lost in Triangulation: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mathematical Slip-Up, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  10. Norman W. Edmund, Scientific Method History, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  11. Brian Clegg, Review – The First Scientist, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  12. Web Gallery of Art, Drawings of engineering themes, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  13. Leonardo: the Man, His Machines, retrieved July 26, 2011.
  14. Ornithopter Flying Machines: The Ancient Origins of an Invention, retrieved July 26, 2011.

Comments

Comment from John Smith
Time September 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm

This article is so true it’s not even funny. Read da Vinci’s notebooks for an idea of his true analytical abilities, as they are in fact quite funny, being totally absurd for the most part. For example, he thought that vision involved the departure of the eyeballs from the skull, upon which they would travel across space, touch the object to be viewed, the return to the skull and transfer visual information to the mind. After reading those notebooks, you’d swear that the guy was a retard.

Comment from Sean Morley
Time September 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Thank you for the revelation! Given the information you present, I totally agree with you. I am tempted to relate da Vinci to Steve Jobs, who seemed to get full credit for developing Apple products. But Jobs had the technical chops to work with the actual developers.

Comment from roshan shanbhag
Time September 24, 2012 at 5:32 pm

This is a good article. I never understood why da Vinci was so revered as a Mathematician / Engineer either. He was a good artist…all these other glorifying attributes of him being a scientist/ mathematician/ engineer etc… seems like somebody tried very hard to potray him as a man who knew it all.

Comment from Dr. Bob
Time January 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Spot on. For years I’ve been making the DaVinci case but to no avail. People who do not design, engineer, and manufacture too easily view a pretty picture or lofty claim as evidence of reality. Too often great businessmen and magnificent self promoters (Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen) pitch themselves as creators but, in fact, are very good at monetizing the ideas of others. That’s fine. They should just give credit and take credit for having the insight to know a good idea when put in front of them. As for myself, I developed anti-gravity decades ago and documented it with sketches of floating containers. The well sedated were impressed but, like the DaVinci helicopter (air screw), I have been unable to get my idea off real ground. Probably just some technical issue.

Comment from mE
Time April 18, 2013 at 7:35 am

Omg! Finally, someone gets it!

Comment from mE
Time April 18, 2013 at 7:36 am

Omg! Finally, someone says it!

Comment from The Engineer Himself
Time December 24, 2013 at 2:58 am

You miss one important thing that boring people often miss, thats imagination combined with creativity. Knowledge of partial differential equations does
not make you any good if you cant put those tools into something new, and thats imagination and creativity. Davinci had that, period.

Comment from observer
Time January 5, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Misguided and misinformed! Sorry.

Comment from Bob Zeidman
Time January 5, 2014 at 7:49 pm

observer, no need to be sorry about being misguided and misinformed. Now that you read my blog, you’re guided and informed about da Vinci!

Comment from adtitan google plus android
Time August 16, 2014 at 6:48 pm

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And obviously, thanks for your effort!

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