Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
The following selection is thought to be part of Leonardo's introduction to his Treatise on Painting. In this excerpt, Leonardo argues for the inclusion of painting as one of the honored liberal arts. A list of resources follows the selection.
On Painting as an Art
Painting has every right to complain of being driven out from the number of Liberal Arts, since she is a true daughter of nature and employs the noblest of all the senses. It was wrong, oh writers, to leave her out from the number of Liberal Arts, because she deals not only with the works of nature but extends over an infinite number of things which nature never created. . . .
As the scribes have had no knowledge of the science of painting they could not assign to it its rightful place or share; and painting does not display her accomplishment in words; therefore she was classed below the sciences, through ignorance -- but she does not thereby lose any of her divine quality. . . .
They say that knowledge born of experience is mechanical, but that knowledge born and consummated in the mind is scientific, while knowledge born of science and culminating in manual work is semi-mechanical. But to me it seems that all sciences are vain and full of errors that are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, and that are not tested by experience, that is to say, that do not at their origin, middle, or end pass through any of the five senses. . . .
Astronomy and the other sciences . . . entail manual operations although they have their beginning in the mind, like painting, which arises in the mind of the contemplator but cannot be accomplished without manual operation. The scientific and true principles of painting first determine what is a shaded object, what is direct shadow, what is cast shadow, and what is light, that is to say, darkness, light, colour, body, figure, position, distance, nearness, motion, and rest. These are understood by the mind alone and entail no manual operation; and they constitute the science of painting which remains in the mind of its contemplators; and from it is then born the actual creation, which is far superior in dignity to the contemplation or science which precedes it. . . .
If you despise painting, which is the sole imitator of all visible works of nature, you certainly will be despising a subtle invention which brings philosophy and subtle speculation to bear on the nature of all forms -- sea and land, plants and animals, grasses and flowers -- which are enveloped in shade and light. Truly painting is a science, the true-born child of nature. For painting is born of nature; to be more correct we should call it the grandchild of nature, since all visible things were brought forth by nature and these, her children, have given birth, to painting. Therefore we may justly peak of it as the grandchild of nature and as related to God. . . .
Painting can be shown to be philosophy because it deals with the motion of bodies in the promptitude of their actions, and philosophy too deals with motion. . . .
Painting extends to the surfaces, colours, and shapes of all things created by nature; while philosophy penetrates below the surface in order to arrive at the inherent properties, but it does not carry the same conviction, and in this is unlike the work of the painter who apprehends the foremost truth of these bodies, as the eye errs less. . . .
And as the geometrician reduces every area circumscribed by lines to the square and every body to the cube; and arithmetic does likewise with its cubic and square roots, these two sciences do not extend beyond the study of continuous and discontinuous quantities; but they do not deal with the quality of things which constitutes the beauty of the works of nature and the ornament of the world.
[Source: Jean Paul Richter, ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, vol I (Oxford, 1939), pp. 33-34, 37-38, 59-60, 67.
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Copyright © 2002 Steven Kreis