Today, Leonardo da Vinci invents a new way of
seeing. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I was in our Architecture
Librarian's office the other day. On her wall I
noticed a photo she'd taken. It was a Renaissance Italian church. I
told her I liked it.
She'd seen something more than cold stone in that
building. Next day she sent over some material
about the church. Along with it, she sent some
architectural sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.
The church is laid out in the form of a Greek
cross. It's small -- alone on a hillside and done
in classic perfection. It's called St. Mary of
Leonardo's sketches show several churches. One's
just like this one. He drew them before our modern
drafting conventions had been created. Up to then,
we'd seen only floor plans and side views of the
Leonardo takes us into the air and lets us look
downward in a three-quarter view. We see these
buildings of his imagination whole -- so like that
photo, but from a different angle.
Those sketches might not seem wonderful at first.
But see what came before Leonardo. Look at the
13th-century sketchbook of the Medieval architect
Villard de Honnecourt. Villard struggled vainly to
show us the curved apse of Rheims Cathedral and its
flying buttresses. He simply didn't have the
artistic tools he needed to draw a gabled tower.
When Leonardo took on those problems, he began by
inventing one-point perspective. And to do that, he
first studied the external world with a camera
obscura -- a camera without film. A camera obscura
projects the picture where film would be in a
modern camera. But you have to trace the picture by
He also took up the study of formal geometry. He
created an architecture of regular polygons --
formal and balanced. His floor plans are complex
overlapping squares and octagons. They merge into
that Greek cross with its four equal arms.
Historians can't trace this church to Leonardo. It
was built after his death. Yet it certainly derived
from his sketch. The design was too original. It
was too different from gothic cathedrals to be
Leonardo was so many things that he drives
historians crazy. Only one piece of binding tissue
holds him together. And that's vision. Leonardo was
a new way of seeing the world.
This little church has such absolute grace and
balance. It has freshness that will touch the 25th
century as surely as it touches us. For it is a new
architecture that flowed from a wholly new way of
showing what the designer wanted us to see.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Murray, P., Architecture of the
Renaissance. New York: N.H. Abrams, 1971.
Bowie, T. (editor) The Sketchbook of Villard
de Honnecourt. Westport, CT., Greenwood
Press Pubs., 1959.
Pedoe, D., Geometry and the Visual
Arts. New York: Dover Publications, 1978,
Chapters 3 and 4.
The UH Architecture Librarian in the episode is
Margaret Culbertson. I am most grateful for the
idea and for her help.
For a full size picture
click on the thumbnail
Image courtesy of Margaret
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.