What’s behind Mona Lisa?

by Steve Winters

Who has not wondered at the mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1469-1519)? As mysterious as he was brilliant, Leonardo is impossible to classify — and who cares! What great gifts he gave us all. But his scientific and engineering sides are too often neglected as we marvel at his artistic accomplishments. I like to merge the two. And there is much evidence that Leonardo did the same. My favorite example is to look behind his great portrait, Mona Lisa (1503).

It’s well known that Leonardo was fascinated with geology. He climbed the Alps and collected fossils from mountain tops. Despite current thinking, Leonardo argued for a marine, not biblical, origin for fossils (he didn’t publish this idea because it was heresy). For this, he must be regarded as our first great paleontologist.

However, according to waterencyclopedia.com, Leonardo’s notebooks reveal that it was not rocks, or guns, or flying machines that were his most frequently studied and recorded topics, but hydraulics. It seems Leonardo was mesmerized by water, especially moving water. And his appreciation did not stop at sketching or painting water scenes: he did experiments. In his notebooks, decades before Galileo or Bacon, Leonardo encapsulates the scientific method as he studies hydraulics. Before we begin to reason about water, he wrote, we must first consult experience. To do this, the great artist/scientist/engineer took to the field. Leonardo made the first empirical studies of streams and their velocity distribution. He used a weighted rod held afloat by an inflated animal bladder and traced the velocity distribution across the stream’s channel by releasing the rod at different places in the stream’s cross-section, a classic technique we still use today.

Consistent with the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo instinctively joined the experiential with the logical, the beautiful with the practical. It’s no wonder that Leonardo joined forces with the Renaissance master of Political Arts and Sciences, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), in his lifelong dream of building a system of canals that would make the Arno River navigable from Florence to the sea. This project, as with many others, never materialized — it seems a flood destroyed much of their work in 1504. But we can get a glimpse of how it may have looked. Where? See the Mona Lisa; not her splendid hands or smile, but the dark and mysterious world of rock and water in the background. That’s the Arno Canal.

Could it be that the background scene that frames the famous smile is really Leonardo’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved Arno Canal project?

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