Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Age of Scientific Discovery, Leonardo da Vinci Essay, Feb 14, 2002

This is the twenty-second post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay for Professor Robert Wood’s LCC 2104 Age of Scientific Discovery class at Georgia Tech. This was shortly after I was readmitted to the program after working in IT for several years.  My citations are sloppy and incomplete and the writing is evidence of my writing’s early stages and on-going development. This is the first of three essays from Professor Wood’s class.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Robert Wood

LCC 2104 Age of Discovery

February 14, 2002

Essay 1

Florence has established itself as a focus of a great many good things that have come about in such a short time. What follows is a listing of works which I have seen originating in Florence in this “new age.” My attention will first look at the arts and the innovations that took place in perspective and the use of space, as well as the newer sculptures that capture lifelike qualities so exquisitely. Then I will look at the marvel of architecture that dominates the city of Florence and I suspect will continue to do so for many years to come. Then I will look at machines and engineering feats that came about during this time as well.

Artwork has had a blossoming in recent years. Just prior to my birth artists began to investigate spaces and perspective. This work has led to a greater representation of the actuality of how things appear to the eye. What we see around us can thus be reproduced to great accuracy and it provides a more faithful representation of the world. I once saw a pen drawing of a chalice i perspective by Paolo Uccello. It appeared as a network of lines which comprised it’s inner and outer construction. It is a most unique work that delves deeply into the artistic representation of perspective. Uccello used special techniques in his works to represent how things appear. For example in his work, “The Battle of San Romano,” there is a terrific battle scene with fallen men and horses. Riders are attacking one another with their lances drawn. He skillfully laid broken lances on the ground to indicate the lines of perspective, and the horses are drawn with foreshortening. Uccello reconstructs a bloody scene of battle, but he does it in a representative way of reality as it would appear to the eye. Another wonderful example of perspective is Fra Angelico’s altarpiece at San Marco which he completed in 1440. It is much like you are standing off at a distance from the scene where the lines of perspective created by tile work on the floor and the arrangement of two rows of angels and saints leading up to the central focus of the work, the Madonna and Child seated on a classical throne. A work that is seen by everyone in Florence is the Baptistry doors. These were completed by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1452. It is known as the “Gates of Paradise.” In these panels there is a clear representation of space, and the people and buildings within that space are proportional to one another. He employed a unique handling of the telling of narrative in the panels. One would assume at first looking at a panel that it was several events all happening at the same time, but in fact those separate events are sequential and they take place one at a time. Thus in a small space he is able to tell a story that might take other artists several panels to compose. Other works of art that are notable are those of sculpture in stone and bronze. The beginning of great artistry in sculpture took place when statues were needed to fill niches around Orsanmichele in Florence. Notable sculptures contributing to this project were Donatello, Nanni Di Banco, and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti’s bronze statue of St. John the Baptist is a powerful representation. Donatello’s “St. Mark,” which he carved from marble appears more like a real man than Lorenzo’s “St. John the Baptist.” Donatello reveals St. Mark’s arms and legs beneath the robe by the way in which he stands. The division between flesh and stone seems not too great on St. Mark. It is as if he could walk out of the niche in which he stands. Di Banco represents the “Four Crowned Saints” in a niche, standings in a semicircle with one another. His representation is very true to historical accuracy with the depth of investigation and knowledge he applied to this work. The figures are clad in togas and the heads are said to be based on “several Roman portrait types.” Also it is interesting how at the bottom of this work he did another carving representative of a workshop busily in execution of works such as a putto and a small architectural column. A master sculptor who went beyond the work of the before mentioned sculptors is Michelangelo. Two masterful examples of his work is the “Pieta” which he completed in 1499, and “David” which he completed in 1504. The “Pieta” rests in St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome. It is a representation of Christ being held by his young Mother. I have said that sculpture is not as high an art as that of painting, but in this work Michelangelo has created something as far reaching as a work of painting. His “David” again reflects a mastery of the human form. He must have done extensive study of muscles and the body to build this representation.

The next subject I will turn to is that of architecture. The achievement that stands above all others in Florence is the vaulting of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. With a span of 143 feet it is the largest dome in the world. The cathedral which the dome rests on was under construction for more than a century. When the time had come to build the dome a competition was announced for designs to be submitted. Filippo Brunelleschi submitted the most brazen of all the designs. He proposed building the dome without the traditional centering which was believed necessary to build a domed structure. After a great deal of debate Brunelleschi’s design was accepted and building commenced. I witnessed part of the work being done on the dome when I was younger. I was an apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio. The dome is an octagonal design which employs two shells interlaced within by ribs and what is called the “sandstone chain” to give it the support necessary to allow it to hold itself up. The idea for the dome was a great insight into the nature of materials and their construction together to form the whole that we see. In 1436 the dome was completed. All that remained was the lantern that would sit on top of the dome. From the lantern all of Florence can easily be seen. Also, from that height one can make wonderful observations of the heavens. It is of note that a friend of Brunelleschi, Paolo Toscanelli made a great deal of observations from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore prior to sending a set of maps to Columbus prior to his sailing and discovery of the new world.

In the building of the dome and lantern new innovations were made in the construction of cranes and hoists. The first such invention was the ox-hoist by Brunelleschi. What sets this hoist apart from any before it was that it had a reverse gear. What this means is that the hoist would be driven by a single ox which would walk round in a circle bound to a drive which fed into the gears of the hoist. This walking of the ox would raise material to the top of the cathedral, and then for lowering material into place, the gearing mechanism would be adjusted onto a different gear which would change the direction of the work done by the ox. Thus the ox could continue to walk in the same direction but the work produced by it could be altered simply by the mechanism which it was attached to. This reverse gearing system saved a good deal of time and work for the construction of the dome. Had Brunelleschi not created this new hoist we might well be waiting for the completion of the dome now as I write this! When I was the apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio I made sketches of a newer hoist and crane that Brunelleschi built for working on the dome and placing the stones where they would be in the construction. This crane was called the castello and it was very durable for the strain which it was placed under. It was still in employ when my master built the the eight foot high bronze sphere which is on top of the lantern of the dome. The castello was a hoist, but it also had a arm which could swing to allow the exact placement of a stone in the construction of the dome. Again Brunelleschi showed his mechanical expertise in the construction of the of castello.

I have been fortunate to live in a time such as this and in a place with such imaginative and practical works. Florence has many good people employed to build the status of the city and the works which gain renown far and wide. I feel that this is the beginning of a great many things that may have began with Florence but will carry on in cooperation with a great many people in many varied places.

Works Cited

King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Richter, Irma A., ed. Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, The. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Turner, A. Richard. Renaissance Florence. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1997.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.