Machines and microcosms. Leonardo on the human body


Domenico Laurenza

bgC3, Kirkland-Seattle, USA
Museo Galileo, Firenze, Italy

18:15 – 19:00
Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Silver Room



The lecture will present three original forms of interaction between biological knowledge, technology, and natural philosophy in Leonardo. First, the “mimetic” link between Leonardo’s anatomical studies and various other areas of his work will be considered. Anatomical knowledge allowed Leonardo to realize a radical and unprecedented “mimesis” or imitation of nature in art and in technology. For example, on the one hand, he started to study muscles, bones, and physiognomy in order to achieve a correct representation of the human body and its movements in art, while, on the other, he studied the comparative anatomy of humans and animals in view of the flying machine. Vice-versa, we will see how the artifact, i.e. a machine and/or an artistic work, is sometimes used by Leonardo as an explanatory model of biological processes. For instance, a stove helps him to understand the heart-lung system; “mechanical elements” (screws, pulleys, scales, gears, etc.) explain the muscle-skeletal system; casting processes help Leonardo to understand the transformation of fish and shells into fossils and so on. The third and final aspect considered will be how anatomy and physiology become explanatory models that allow more general phenomena in nature to be understood, how, for instance, blood circulation in the human body helps him to understand the water cycle in the “body of the earth” within the general analogy between microcosm (man) and macrocosm (world).


Domenico Laurenza is a science historian with interest in the history of art and visual culture. In particular he is an expert of Leonardo da Vinci scientific work and of the history of anatomy and technology in the Renaissance. He is now devoting a substantial portion of his attention to the history of geology and paleontology in 16th-19th centuries. He was trained in Medicine (University of Naples) and Historical Sciences (PhD, Scuola Superiore di Studi Storici, San Marino, 1996). He is principal researcher of bgC3, Bill Gates Company 3, Seattle, US and scientific consultant of Museo Galileo, Florence. He has taught in several universities worldwide, including the University of Florence and McGill University, Montreal and has been fellow of several scientific institutions, including the Warburg Institute in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Italian Academy at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books; available in English are: Leonardo on Flight (John Hopkins University Press 2007), Leonardo’s Machines: Da Vinci’s Inventions Revealed (David & Charles, 2006), Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy: Images from a Scientific Revolution (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2012) and Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. A Critical Edition (in collaboration with Martin Kemp, Oxford University Press, forthcoming).