Engineers of the renaissance

Engineers of the renaissance

Book Reviews ENGINEERS OF THE RENAISSANCE, by Bertrand Gille. (Translated from "Les Iugenieurs de la Renaissance," Hermann, Paris, 1964). 257 pages, ...

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Gille. (Translated from "Les Iugenieurs de la Renaissance," Hermann, Paris, 1964). 257 pages, 233 illustrations, 13 blueprints, 8 X 8½ in. Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1966. Price, $12.00. The whole question of the origin of science is still a controversial topic largely dependent upon one's own ideas of the meaning of science. I n this regard, the text of "a history of technology at the time of the Renaissance" is based upon certain views peculiar to the author as to necessitate cautio~ on the part of the general reader. First of all, the approach to this discussion of 15th century engineers is anachronistic as seen in the author's claim t h a t "he [Leonardo] eliminated the modulus of elasticity and the moment of inertia which Nemorarius h a d mentioned." Author Gille's whole terminology, indeed, can be understood only with difficulty b y a professional physicist. One has to differentiate carefully between what was the accepted meaning of the period and what has been read out of such writings from a modern viewpoint, in some instances, indeed, the author's own bias. For example, what is the author's own conception of science inasmuch as he refers to the "scientific preoccupation of Alexandria," to the "scientific interests" of the Middle Ages, or still later to " t h e interests of certain scientific circles" in the 15th century? Personally, we do not agree t h a t "the classical science is mathematics." A modern scientist would hardly regard Leonardo as devoting "himself to a new s c i e n c e - a l chemy." At the end of a later chapter, Research and Reality, GiRe summarizes his point of view: "Reasoning took the place of empiricism, experiment replaced the rule of thumb, scientific calculation ousted elementary relationships. Could any generation have received a finer g i f t ? . . . As soon as the one [science] abandoned its abstraction and the other [technique] looked for generalization, an encounter became inevitable." The same difficulty, indeed, arises in con~lection with his use of the word technician,

which seems to be only partly equivalent to his term engineer; he speaks of "pure technique, or of applied science as we would say today," and claims t h a t "Milan seems to have been a centre of applied rather t h a n pure research." He himself complains of t h e "difficult word invention." I n Essays on Leonardo da Vinci's Method, the author contrasts Leonardo's activities with those of a pure scientist: "A scientist would have been preoccupied with fame, would have been aware of the enormous gaps t h a t existed, and would have tried to build up a scientific whole. Leonardo was an engineer whose only concern was with efficiency and whose efforts brought him no more t h a n a means of acquired power over a material world." Other much used modern words are experiment and research. Gille refers to "experimental research" in the 15th century, and speaks of Leonardo pursuing certain projects of "pure research," b u t t h a t he "had no coherent research," and t h a t "its t r u t h [his technical knowledge] was more t h a n a n y t h i n g else natural or experimental and not fundamentally abstract." The casual reader has to be particularly aware of certain presuppositions t h a t underlie the whole work. The author boasts of his own place in the French tradition, his endorsement of the conclusion of D u h e m and of the opinion of Berthelot with respect to Leonardo. He is particularly forthright in his determination to emphasize the engineers of the time---if need be at the expense of Leonardo. At the beginning of the Preface he poses his thesis t h a t " a n y study of the engineers of the Renaissance is inevitably dominated and somewhat falsified by the great figure of Leonardo da Vinci." He complains t h a t Francesco di Giorgio Martini had been "long relegated to the background, where, if not forgotten, he was a t least n e g l e c t e d . . . In order to rehabilitate the Sienese, it has been necessary to some degree to belittle the reputation of the Florentine" [Leonardo]. I n the concluding chapter Gille reiterates, " I t s main purpose was to rehabilitate those who had been somewhat neglected and to reduce the supposed geniuses of others to


Book Reviews truer proportions." His guideline seems to be t h a t of historical continuity: "If there is a n y field in which continuity of effort appears to be the r u l e , . . , t h a t field is the technical one." He speaks of "our thesis of a continuous transition," b u t goes further, and insists t h a t "it is not so much the relations of cause and effect t h a t need to be determined as the concommitant circumstances." He is accordingly fascinated b y extant records, though he does admit in one instance "all this of course is only supposition, and is not founded on any precise text." After quoting in detail a letter supposedly written by Leonardo to Ludovico de Sforza, the author admits, "It is difficult to say whether the famous letter in the Codex Atlanticus is really b y him, and whether it was ever sent." I t is certainly his complete reliance upon extant writings t h a t makes him claim, "Jordanus Nemorius was perhaps the key work of our engineers." Unfortunately, historians are not always sufficiently concerned about establishing missing links of communication between existing records. T h e detailed description of the contents of the manuscripts, as well as the meanings of the technical sketches, will be invaluable to the professional historian of technology. T h e five pages of Bibliography, however, are wanting in their references to material other t h a n French and German. Three of the ten chapters are devoted to Leonardo da Vinci's career, his technique, and his "method." Here the author is provocative in presenting his point of view. To him and Duhem, Leonardo was a t times a "scholar who never left the study or what is worse, a haunter of libraries." Regarding Leonardo as essentially a n engineer, the author seems to lose sight of the broad interests of Renaissance people and to be himself imbued too much with our modern sense of specialization. He sees "Leonardo, the principal trait of whose character appears to have been curiosity, an almost morbid curiosity, which made him unstable, already possessed in common with all the artists among his contemporaries, extensive but incomplete, diverse but uncertain knowledge." Gille insists t h a t painting "was not his profession." I t is true t h a t he was a member of the Florentine guild of painters but Spinoza

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polished spectacle lenses. He sees in the work of Francesco di Giorgio Martini sketches t h a t were "far superior to Leonardo's drawings of machines which are always more or less led astray b y his sense of form." He muses t h a t "other painters of Leonardo's time have given us much more precise representations of ships." He insists, "Leonardo the artist has always been magnified." He complains, "His science, as m a n y have strongly emphasized, is all practice and observation," and "his knowledge was not well enough organized to enable him to discover the circulation of the blood." I n summary he looks askance at "Leonardo, the admirable b u t only occasional painter, the intelligent scholar who lacked adequate education, who was incapable of defining a concept with precision, was certainly an engineer, of the line of engineers." Gille concludes, paradoxically, "Leonardo is difficult to classify, and it is in this sense t h a t he has appeared exceptional." Apparently there is little t h a t Leonardo did t h a t was not susceptible to the author's criticism, except possibly his "great plan for the regulation of the Arno". (It is too bad t h a t Leonardo's concern here was not p u r s u e d - - i n view of the recent flood). This reviewer agrees t h a t "it would be difficult to a t t r i b u t e to Leonardo everything which has been so generously laid a t his feet, even in the field of virtuosity." Nevertheless, one need not go to the other extreme of regarding him only as "parallel to the life and work of Francesco di Giorgio. He fits perfectly into this environment t h a t we have learned to understand, though it is a far cry from this to the universal genius who has so often been described. Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio, and Leonardo are certainly men of the same stamp." The author complains even t h a t "he [Leonardo] also broached the problem of a beam fixed at one end and weighted, always regarded as Galileo's problem." Whereas this reviewer agrees t h a t Leonardo's observations of b o t h a n a t o m y and rivers "cannot be too greatly admired." However, we do not concur in his opinion t h a t "Leonardo's method certainly consisted in a search for numerical facts," nor can we endorse his pronouncement t h a t Leonardo's "finality has nothing scientific about it, it is all pragmatic, real,

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Book Reviews almost down to earth." He criticizes unduly the beginning of Leonardo's Notebook F, where the latter advises: " I f you coordinate your notes on the science of the motion of water remember to write below each its application, so t h a t this knowledge does not remain unused." Could any text be more symptomatic, more antiscientific, or, indeed, more a-scientific t h a n this? In all fairness the period-picture presented by the author is generally in line with the claim most popularly endorsed by m a n y professional historians of science as to the possible origin of "science" in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, it is doubtful whether even these would subscribe to the a u t h o r ' s opinion t h a t "Greek science took refuge in Constantinople . . . . I t seems logical t h a t the successors of the Greeks of Alexandria should have been the Greeks of Byzantium." He further states t h a t certain "Italian princes created the first centres of research where science and technology were to preoccupy the humanist engineer." For example, he claims, " A t Urbino a very i m p o r t a n t centre of science and technology was set up. Taceola [d. 1450] could be regarded as the heir of A r c h i m e d e s , . . . called the Sienese Archimedes." He speaks of " S i e n a . . . t h e region of Italy which was to become almost the centre of technological progress." Certain aspects of this work the reviewer believes would not be generally accepted, particularly in the final chapter, The New Science. (The title itself is misleading, inasmuch as the author refers to Tartaglia's Nova Scientia (1537) and at the same time to Galileo's Discorsi on the two new sciences.) His view of mathematics seems peculiarly restricted as when he insists t h a t "there are tables of all kinds, which illustrate the progressive infiltration of mathematical reasoning, since the data of a table are, in spirit at any rate, no longer empirical." His reference to "musical tables, which may have led to logarithms," is unclear. I t is just such speculative suggestions about which one has to be somewhat wary.) The following statement is confusing: "His [Archimedes] science was certainly like t h a t of Leonardo, the science of the technician." (He speaks, too, of "Archimedes the great Greek scientist who himself had been an engineer.") We cannot believe that, "experiment, which


is one of the fundamental features of classical science, has no relation with the kind of experiment which is concerned with direct observation, and with common sense, which for a long time was actually an obstacle." Nor can we subscribe to his conclusion t h a t "Olschki places Galileo in the tradition of Renaissance artisans, builders, and engineers, in short, in t h a t circle which we have tried to analyze and in which Galileo belonged." The people of those days had broad interests and did not confine their attention with modern blinders of specialization. Galileo's spectrum of activities, to be sure, included engineering as well as the so-called abstract science which the author seems to favor. The reviewer certainly does not agree t h a t "this [a heavy fly wheel is difficult to start and to stop] was bringing mass to bear in its relationship with energy and was the discovery of inertia." RAYMOND J. SEEGER National Science Foundation Washington, D.C. THE STRUCTURE AND EVOLUTION OF GALAXIES. Proceedings of the 13th Conference

on Physics, University of Brussels, September 1964, 174 pages, diagrams, iUustr. 6 X 9 in. New York, Wiley and Sons, 1966. $9.00. Clearly not for the general reader, The Structure and Evolution of Galaxies is a faithful record of the highly technical Prec. of the 13th Solvay Conference on galactic physics, of value to the specialist today and to the historian tomorrow. Essentially, it is a glimpse of a stage in the evolution of our ideas concerning a very complex subject about which there is still too little concrete information. Hence, much of the material in the book is rather speculative. A small meeting of this nature which deals with m a n y topics naturally leads to a lack of balance in the speculation; m a n y other ideas and alternative hypotheses which were aired at the time are not included in the record. This is a rapidly-moving field of study and consequently much of the material will soon be outdated. The three principal topics of discussion concerning galactic structure and large-scale magnetic fields were prepared by V. Ambartsumian, J. H. Oort, and L. Woltjer. T h e early, middle and late stages of stellar evolu-

Journal of The Franklin Institute