Leonardo Thinks


Historical Opinion by Giorgio Careri

Giorgio Careri argues that artists and scientists both search for invisible but ordered worlds.

Art and Science in Search of Non-Visible Worlds

Science is mental talk . . . Painting is mental talk . . .
Leonardo da Vinci, 1500 A.D.

A 1983 Editorial of this journal stressed among the journal’s aims “the search for common threads in the artistic, scientific and technological aspects of our fragmented cultural fabric” [1]. In my opinion, a common thread which is becoming more and more apparent is the fact that both artists and scientists are searching for a world that is removed from immediate vision, but which displays its own ordered complexity. In the hope of focusing future contributions to Leonardo on this thread, I would like to dwell on it here.

By now we realize that every person, including the artist and the scientist, is but a link in the evolutionary chain of individuals. Along this evolutionary process, the human being has moved progressively from an initial ‘biological reality’ (as biologists call the world vision imposed on early peoples by the selective pressure of the environment) towards an ordered representation of the external world set in the human brain, where memorized images of past events can be broken into parts and then recombined to form new and unforeseen representations. This can occur because the human memory is capable of storing a large number of events, and even more so because our minds are able to recognize an intrinsic order in some self-consistent worlds simulated by recall and imagination. At times, this new world has been called the ‘invisible world’, as contrasted with the visible one perceived directly by our senses. Once the above definitions are accepted, we can say that scientists and artists do indeed parallel each other in this search for invisible but ordered worlds; if scientists and artists differ, it is essentially because of the signs they use in their mental talks. In other words, the same ordering process can detect different structures, expressed by appropriate signs.

Although in this search the single artist or scientist may be motivated by the wish to order the complexity of his or her mental talk to discover personal meaning, once this talk is transmitted, the community is enriched by the learning process; furthermore a new reality becomes visible thanks to technology. In this context technology is understood as a change in the environment which is intended to transform humanity itself, thus closing the evolving loop.

It is amazing to see that Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting, was already conscious that the very root of both art and science was in these mental talks (discorsimentali). The history of science and of art display some highlights of the process by which an invisible world becomes a real one, as occurred early in this century for abstract painting and for atomic physics. Today we would like these two kinds of talk to display more their common nature, and we would like to see traces of this unifying thread in the pages of Leonardo.
[1] Editorial, Leonardo, Vol. 16, No.1, i-ii (1983).
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Giorgio Careri, International Co-Editor
Originally published in: Leonardo, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1986), pp. 275
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578369
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