Art Meets Science: The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci
It’s a question that nearly every new college student has, and one that nearly every professor who teaches general education classes has undoubtedly attempted to answer. That question?
Why do I have to take a class that has nothing to do with my major?
At University of Findlay, it’s recognized that a well-rounded student makes a well-rounded graduate makes a well-rounded citizen and employee. You may be a math major, but it would benefit you to know how to write well when you graduate. Or vice versa.
That’s why the current honors class covering the life, science, and art of Leonardo da Vinci is of such interest. Many years ago, da Vinci was the walking model for a well-rounded intelligence, and the students in the class, taught by Nathan Tice Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and Marie Louden-Hanes, Ph.D., professor of art history, have gotten the chance to learn and actually do some of what made him that way.
Tice and Louden-Hanes came together after a meeting on general education assessment, where they began to put their heads together for an art survey course of Louden-Hanes’, a class that incorporates the study of ancient cave art. Their first idea was to find a place to display the art that would be similar to the caves in which they were found. “We projected it onto [UF’s] Newhard Planetarium’s ceiling,” said Tice, “and it really worked out well. It did feel like a cave. We were able to talk about what the artist is trying to portray, and analyze the age and such.” The pair knew that the Honors Program at UF is always looking for potential new courses, and their idea of showing art in a science atmosphere started the wheels turning toward a course that crosses disciplines.
Since Leonardo da Vinci was, according to the pair, quite a renaissance man, and had a legendary talent for lots of things, a class centered around him seemed to be a great idea. “He was an accomplished musician and a scientist at heart.” Tice said, “He used scientific theory and method to experiment.”
“But, of course, most people know him for his art like the Mona Lisa,” added Louden-Hanes.
The class focuses largely on da Vinci’s abilities to use one method to understand another, precisely the idea behind the need to be well-rounded. Tice and Louden-Hanes said that da Vinci drew the body’s anatomy after doing dissections of animals and humans, and he did so to not only understand it, but to improve his art. “To this day, Tice said, “people teach anatomy by using his drawings from dissection. His detail in spine and vertebrae, for instance, showing how the vertebrae function, is amazing.”
“He was a great experimenter,” continued Louden-Hanes. “He would mix paints together the way they shouldn’t really be. Like mixing walnut oil with tempera paint. Almost as soon as ‘The Last Supper’ painting was done, it began deteriorating, for instance. But by understanding art and its mediums, you can become a better engineer, artist, and scientist and vice versa.”
Before the necessity of virtual learning at UF in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in the class, with the help of guest Val Escobedo, UF Associate Professor of Art and Chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, made tempura with a fresh cracked egg and some dry pigment. “It’s chemistry, really.” said Tice. “Chemistry of pigment.” The students then created a painting with their concoction just like da Vinci would have done.
Now, the pair says, the class is continuing with the course online, and doing so with the energy and vigor that came from the content they were learning before the move to remote learning. Class is held synchronously through the Zoom meeting online platform, and, in a testament to the students and their enthusiasm for the material, seems to be going very well. “We had a recent assignment where everyone had to find a peer-reviewed article on how spectroscopy has been used to an analyze works of art,” said Tice. “The responses and presentations from the students were fantastic. The students have really taken ownership of the course and driven the dialogue.”
Tice and Louden-Hanes said that the success of the class has shown the promise of classes crossing disciplines. Current students in the class represent animal science, political science, psychology, art and more, and that, the pair said reflects the need for more. “This is a flagship class,” said Tice. “We’ve had a great time with engaging great students. It’s the collective knowledge and wisdom of campus coming together. A creative intellectual piece of the artistic world to apply in science. We’ll be doing more.”