Two recent art exhibitions have stirred a new row in Britain. The Royal Collection (RC), the art collection of the British Royal family, says Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist. The National Gallery (NG), an art museum in London, says he was an artist. It looks likes curators will soon be hitting one another with catalogues.
Well, not really. But the superb new display of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings at the RC does offer a different perspective on him from the equally splendid exhibition recently seen at the NG. Where the NG called him a "painter" in its exhibition title and showed off his paintings as never before by securing unprecedented loans, the curator of the Queen's Gallery show argues that in his later life Leonardo saw himself first and foremost as a scientist, and had more or less given up painting. Who is right?
Boringly, they both are. Interestingly, neither is. For Leonardo was a scientist and an artist at the same time and in a way totally unimaginable today. CP Snow's famous image of the 'two cultures' of art and science, a great divide in the modern mind, did not apply in the 15th and early 16th centuries when Leonardo lived. The 'scientific' knowledge available was barely scientific at all by modern standards. Most of it was inherited from ancient Greece and was a curious mixture of genuine insight, such as the existence of atoms postulated by Democritus, and the superstitious, or mythical, thinking that pervades the Hippocratic Writings.
Leonardo was infinitely curious. He taught himself and experimented for himself. He drew inventions and tried to build a flying machine. But he also lived in a late medieval world that allowed him to see analogies between all natural forms: an onion as a model of the human head, a wooden flying machine as a man-made "bird". In other words, his knowledge never got in the way of his imagination.
The anatomical drawings in the RC are the closest he ever came to modern science. They record his own dissections and are observed so closely and brilliantly that modern doctors can still learn from them. He definitely made real discoveries through sheer observation - the essence of true empirical science. The exhibition makes these discoveries clearer than ever before.
Yet every vein he draws is a miracle of art. He is never more an artist than when he is most a scientist. Even as he patiently reveals the nature of heart valves, he draws with such tender beauty that you gasp at the complex artistic achievement, the subtle textures and three-dimensional illusions, even as you marvel at his insights into the human body. For me, Leonardo's anatomical drawings are both icons of science, and wonders of art.