NEH Summer Institute — Leonard da Vinci | Between Art and Science — 25 June - 13 July 2012 in Florence, Italy


The NEH Summer Institute will offer a setting for engaging and penetrating reflections on the relations between art and science in the early modern period. The expectation is that a group of 25 NEH Summer Scholars from different fields and career stages will engage in sustained discussions across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Beyond its interdisciplinary approach, the Institute has two main aims. First, it focuses on a deep understanding of the multiple activities of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), exploring how Leonardo connected his scientific investigation of the world with his activity as a painter, how words and images interact with each other in his notes, and what is the significance of Leonardo's legacy today. Second, by focusing on Leonardo da Vinci's works and writings, the Institute will address broader themes pertaining to the status of images in the construction and transmission of knowledge, the limits of observation and representation, and how these limits were articulated in sixteenth century philosophy and art theory.

Ultimately, the Institute will engage with the investigative processes at the root of modern science: how to record, visualize, abstract, and circulate first-hand observations.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo left us about a dozen paintings and thousands of pages and drawings on botany, anatomy, optics, meteorology, architecture, painting, weaponry, geology, and much more. The sheer quantity and breadth of Leonardo's investigations, the many systems of representation he explored (diagrams, paintings, sketches, detailed drawings, notes, and treatises), and the great variety of media he used (pigments, chalks, pens, metal points, varnishes, and glazes) encourages and facilitates the comparison between the artistic and scientific meaning of his works, between their philosophical and religious significance, and between the different roles that images played in workshop practice, science, observation, philosophy, and religion.

During the Institute we will explore Leonardo's different strategies in investigating, representing, and explaining natural phenomena, showing how these different strategies worked simultaneously in his mind. Specifically, we will discuss how exactly Leonardo, who was trained in the practice of painting, read, used, and comprehended scientific treatises that were intended for university training in natural philosophy, and how he translated that theoretical knowledge into painting and drawing techniques.

Art and Science
Today art and science are practiced as divergent forms of knowledge, but in the Renaissance they shared historical roots, methods of inquiry, and the belief in the cognitive power of images. In the early modern period, to re-create the ancient world and to investigate the secrets of nature were regarded as part and parcel of the same cultural project. Natural philosophy—to use the name that designated science in the Renaissance—studied nature alongside ancient works of art. In fact, natural philosophers, scholars, artists, merchants, and craftsmen worked side by side in the utopian attempt to reconstruct the meaning and context of the ancient texts that were resurfacing, after centuries of neglect, from monastic libraries across Europe. Resourcefully, Renaissance scholars and artists shared their expertise in interpreting these fragmented texts in conjunction with whatever additional materials from the ancient world they had been able to gather. They took what we would call today an interdisciplinary approach to the ancient world, commingling mathematics and philology, science and humanism, measurements and antiquarianism, art and science. Along the way, they also designed the contours of the modern world.

In this joint process of rediscovering the ancient world and of inventing the modern one, images played a fundamental, albeit contested, role. Images were among the most famous products of the period, especially the images created by such artists as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, which became icons of Western culture. But, in the same period, images were also the protagonists of the investigation of the natural world, even though their status was constantly under dispute.


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