• Alison Amos

A Scientific Compass to Steer the Ideas of a Wondering Mind.

Updated: May 21

Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.

Lonardo Da Vinci Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452– 2 May 1519), known as Leonardo da Vinci was an Italianpolymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time (funny paradox, only 15 of his paintings having survived).

When I was in high school, I had very little interest in Art. I found Art classes - which in Italy normally consists of two hours each week, extremely boring. Why spending two hours listening to a bored and frustrated voice talking about artists and their crazy-successful lives, which really never resonated to me? For decades I asked to myself the reason behind the existence of Art classes in both, primary and secondary schools. And not only lectures, but assignments were extremely boring. Blessed my mother - she was spending late nights drawing on my behalf when some sporadical homework was assigned during my academic years. Even when I went to University, Art wasn't my first choice. In fact, after my scientific studies during high school, I spent my entire summer holidays studying and preparing for the admission tests to enter the faculty of Medicine at the university of Pavia - one of the most prestigious Italian universities. Since I was little, I wanted to be a Pathologist. I remember that exact moment when (I must have been around five) playing outside with my imaginary friends I saw a dead raven on the grass. His body, half decomposed was emanating a repulsing smell which I can vividly recall even today. I remember that I had a strong inner desire to understand what caused his death; I wanted to know the Why.

That kind of curiousity never left me. I only learnt how to channel it into a different field. Almost two decades after, during a hot summer while studying for my admission exams, I randomly read about Da Vinci's scientific studies. And my curiosity took over. Of all his investigations — which included optics, geology, botany and hydrodynamics — the field that engaged him most was human anatomy.

He run two major campaigns of intense work around 1490 and between 1507 and 1513, during which Leonardo dissected around 30 human corpses. In the 1480s, Leonardo moved to Milan, where his range of interests widened at a remarkable rate and he began to compile material for a treatise on the theory of painting.

Leonardo had come to see painting as a scientific activity, in which every effect (light and shade, colour, perspective) and form should be based on a true understanding of nature. The human body was the principal subject of the Renaissance artist and Leonardo soon realized that he would have to devote a separate treatise to it. It was not sufficient to study the permanent anatomy of the body: Leonardo also wanted to learn how an individual's appearance from moment to moment was related to the workings of the mind, so that a painting would reveal the emotions of the protagonists and the human drama of the scene.

Leonardo thus aimed to understand the perception of reality through the senses, the structure of the mental faculties and how the nerves configure the muscles and bones. How could he even begin to investigate these topics? Human dissection was not banned, as is often supposed; indeed, a papal bull of 1482 expressly permitted it. But Leonardo was a mere craftsman, and — then as now — a craftsman could not simply acquire a corpse and start cutting it up. Instead, he was reliant at first on animal dissection, traditional belief and simple speculation.


In 1489, Leonardo obtained a human skull. He sectioned it to investigate its internal structure, recording his findings in exquisite drawings in a notebook annotated in his habitual mirror writing. But the shape of the skull (and by implication of the brain) failed to provide Leonardo with any useful information about the relationship between mind and body. The gulf between Leonardo's ambitions and his achievements brought his first wave of anatomical research to a halt. In his mural The Last Supper, finished in the 1490s, the disciples' poses and expressions convincingly capture their varied emotions, but owe nothing to his anatomical investigations.

Leonardo returned to the subject years later, in the wake of a commission to paint a huge battle scene in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. In preparation for the project he executed many drawings of male musculature, some so detailed that they can only have been based on flayed bodies. Leonardo was then in his fifties and one of the most celebrated artists in Italy; at this point in his career, he seems to have had little difficulty in obtaining permission to dissect human corpses.


In the winter of 1507–08, Leonardo witnessed the peaceful demise of an old man in a hospital in Florence, and wrote in his notebook that he performed a dissection “to see the cause of so sweet a death”. He attributed it to a narrowing of the coronary vessels, and wrote the first clear description of atherosclerosis in medical history. He also described the pathology of cirrhosis of the man's liver, which he found to be “desiccated and like congealed bran both in colour and substance”.


The dissection of the old man marked the beginning of five years of intense anatomical investigation, and in 1510–11 Leonardo seems to have collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre, the professor of anatomy at the University of Pavia. (The same university where I wanted to be admitted!) Marcantonio provided ready access to human material, and Leonardo may have dissected up to 20 corpses that winter. He concentrated on the bones and muscles, analysing their structure in purely mechanical terms, and the results were spectacular. In 1511, Milan descended into military turmoil. Marcantonio died of the plague, and Leonardo retired to the country villa of his assistant, Francesco Melzi.

With the loss of his supply of human material, Leonardo reverted to the study of animal anatomy — most impressively the ox's heart, which differs little in structure from that of a human. Leonardo described the ventricles and atria with great accuracy, and analysed the structure and functioning of the valves in minute detail. In a brilliant experiment, he made a glass model of the aortic valve, through which he pumped water mixed with grass seeds to study the vortices in the widening of the aortic root. He deduced that these vortices were crucial in closing of the valve — a finding that was confirmed only in the twentieth century. Leonardo had an almost perfect understanding of the physiology of the human heart. But he had no inkling of the circulation of the blood, and the existence of one-way valves was incompatible with the ancient belief that the heart simply churned blood in and out of the ventricles, thus generating heat and 'vital spirit'. Unable to reconcile what he had observed with what he believed to be true, Leonardo reached an impasse. He became trapped in describing the motion of the blood through the valves in ever more detail. And there, it seems, his anatomical work came to an end.


The 150 surviving sheets of Leonardo's anatomical studies reached England in the seventeenth century but it was not until 1900 that they were published and finally understood. By then, their power to affect the progress of anatomical knowledge had long passed.

Leonardo's paintings changed the course of European art; but his anatomical investigations, the finest of their age, were essentially unknown.

Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.

Lonardo Da Vinci That's right, the same intro quote from da Vinci. It is not a typo mistake. And the reason being is because I loved his curiosity, his way of researching that, somehow, it really does resonate with who I am. And with him, I found out that bridge that allowed me to link Art with Science. That was when I went for my second choice when I was rejected from that University. I changed my path and followed Art, knowing that - that bridge, was always there for me and I could basically live my life crossing constantly both fields, without making a definitive call of where to stand.


And now with my MA studies at Central Saint Martins, I am really putting into practise creative thinking combined with a solid scientific research methodology.

A lot has been going on since last week, and now both research and actions are simultaneously taking place, intertwining each others' paths.

Thanks to the recent lectures, I now feel I have the tools to keep my mind free to wonder in the wildest places of my imagination but have a scientific compass to steer my direction of travel and keep my roots grounded to the soil of this creative path.

As mentioned in my previous blog, The Change that I Want to See is addressing firstly the issue of the Oceans Plastic Pollution but, because it is such a wild matter, I am now narrowing my researches and action plans down, focusing into more niche roads, researching details in a similar way of Leonardo's meticulous anatomical investigations - starting with the experience and then investigating the reasons.

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