1502 – Florence, Italy

‘In the Renaissance science was reinvented’

Image of the VITRUVIAN MAN


Leonardo is celebrated as the Renaissance artist who created the masterpieces ‘The Last Supper’ (1495-97) and ‘The Mona Lisa’ (1503-06). Much of his time was spent in scientific enquiry, although most of his work remained unpublished and largely forgotten centuries after his death. The genius of his designs so far outstripped contemporary technology that they were rendered literally inconceivable.

The range of his studies included astronomy, geography, palaeontology, geology, botany, zoölogy, hydrodynamics, optics, aerodynamics and anatomy. In the latter field he undertook a number of human dissections, largely on stolen corpses, to make detailed sketches of the body. He also dissected bears, cows, frogs, monkeys and birds to compare their anatomy with that of humans.

It is perhaps in his study of muscles where Leonardo’s blend of artistry and scientific analysis is best seen. In order to display the layers of the body, he developed the drawing technique of cross-sections and illustrated three-dimensional arrays of muscles and organs from different perspectives.

Leonardo’s superlative skill in illustration and his obsession with accuracy made his anatomical drawings the finest the world had ever seen. One of Leonardo’s special interests was the eye and he was fascinated by how the eye and brain worked together. He was probably the first anatomist to see how the optic nerve leaves the back of the eye and connects to the brain. He was probably the first, too, to realise how nerves link the brain to muscles. There had been no such idea in GALEN’s anatomy.

Possibly the most important contribution Leonardo made to science was the method of his enquiry, introducing a rational, systematic approach to the study of nature after a thousand years of superstition. He would begin by setting himself straightforward scientific queries such as ‘how does a bird fly?’ He would observe his subject in its natural environment, make notes on its behaviour, then repeat the observation over and over to ensure accuracy, before making sketches and ultimately drawing conclusions. In many instances he would directly apply the results of his enquiries into nature to designs for inventions for human use.

Self portrait of LEONARDO DA VINCI


He wrote ‘Things of the mind left untested by the senses are useless’. This methodical approach to science marks a significant stepping-stone from the DARK AGES to the modern era.

1469 Leonardo apprenticed to the studio of Andrea Verrocchio in Florence

1482 -1499 Leonardo’s work for Ludovico Siorza, the Duke of Milan, included designs for weaponry such as catapults and missiles.
Pictor et iggeniarius ducalis ( painter and engineer of the Duke )’.
Work on architecture, military and hydraulic engineering, flying machines and anatomy.

1502 Returns to Florence to work for Pope Alexander VI’s son, Cesare Borgia, as his military engineer and architect.

1503 Begins to paint the ‘Mona Lisa’.

1505-07 Wrote about the flight of birds and filled his notebooks with ideas for flying machines, including a helicopter and a parachute. In drawing machines he was keen to show how individual components worked.

1508 Studies anatomy in Milan.

1509 Draws maps and geological surveys of Lombardy and Lake Isea.

1516 Journeys to France on invitation of Francis I.

1519 April 23 – Dies in Clos-Luce, near Amboise, France.

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1735 – Sweden

‘A system for naming organisms by assigning them scientific names consisting of two parts’

Portrait of Linnaeus ©


Each species is given a two-word Latin name – The genus name that comes first and begins with a capital letter, and the species name, which begins with a lower case letter. The genus name is often abbreviated, and the names are always written in italics or underlined. The Linnaean system has six classification categories – in descending order, kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, genera and species. Only two are used for naming organisms.

German botanist Rudolph Camerarius (1665-1721) had shown that no seed would grow without first being pollinated. In 1729, Linnaeus wrote in a paper about ‘the betrothal of plants, in which … the perfect analogy with animals is concluded’. He insisted that it is the stamens where pollen is made (the ‘bridegrooms’) and the pistils where seeds are made (‘the brides’) that are the sexual organs, and not the petals as had been considered previously.

As botanists and zoologists looked at nature, or ‘Creation’, there was no way of classifying the animal kingdom depicted in bestiaries of the time but alphabetically; or of distinguishing the real from the mythical.

Linnaeus developed a system of classification. Starting with the plant kingdom, Linnaeus grouped plants according to their sexual organs – the parts of the plant involved in reproduction. Each plant species was given a two-part Latin name. The first part always refers to the name of the group it belongs to, and the second part is the species name.

Linnaeus divided all flowering plants into twenty-three classes according to the length and number of their stamens – the male organs – then subdivided these into orders according to the number of pistils – female organs – they possessed. A twenty-fourth class, the Cryptogamia, included the mosses and other non-flowering plants.

illustration of flower reproductive structures ©

Many people were offended by the sexual overtones in Linnaeus’s scheme. One class he named Diandria, meaning ‘two husbands in one marriage’, while he said ‘the calyx might be regarded as the labia majora; one could regard the corolla as the labia minora’. For almost a century, botany was not seen as a decent thing for young ladies to be interested in.

Linnaeus’s scheme was simple and practical and in 1745 he published an encyclopedia of Swedish plants, when he began considering the names of species. Realizing he had to get the names in place before someone else gave plants other names, he gave a binomial label to every known plant species and in 1753 published all 5,900 in his Species Plantarium.

Believing his work on the plant kingdom complete, he turned his attention to the animal kingdom. In his earlier Systema Naturae of 1735, he had used the classification ‘Quadrupeds’ (four-legged creatures) but replaced this with Mammals, using the presence of mammary glands for suckling young as a more crucial distinguishing characteristic. The first or prime group in the Mammals was the primates, which included Homo sapiens (wise man). His catalogue of animals was included in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, listed with binomial names.

By the time Linnaeus died it was the norm for expeditions around the world to take a botanist with them, hence CHARLES DARWIN’s famous voyage on the Beagle.

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