High tech and Leonardo da Vinci

By , Howard P. Segal is a historian of technology and former professor at the University of Michigan.

Can Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance man link high technology with high culture? This is the question posed by a provocative exhibit, ''Leonardo's Return to Vinci,'' currently touring several of America's university art museums.

The troubling assumption is, that high culture and high tech - as in the form of computers and robots - readily mesh in the 20th century as they did in Leonardo's day (1452-1519), and that Leonardo's models clearly demonstrate their connection. Or, as in a recent newspaper article, that if Leonardo were alive today he would contentedly be working as an artist in the electronic medium, with the TV screen as his canvas and with knobs and computer keyboards as his brushes and paints.

Ironically, the exhibit demonstrates the very opposite and in ways which are as revealing as the displays themselves.

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Most recently at the University of Michigan, where it broke attendance records, the exhibit consists of drapery studies, an oil painting, illustrated manuscripts, and small-scale models of sketched inventions, plus related drawings by Rubens and Poussin. The models include a clock, printing press, crane, lathe, scaling ladder, paddle-wheel ship, tank, parachute, helicopter, and spring-driven car. They have been constructed and contributed by IBM and Bechtel and are based on Leonardo's multitudinous sketches.

The truth about Leonardo is that his age - unlike ours - tolerated and even encouraged the diverse activities which made him a Renaissance man beyond chronology alone. Moreover, notwithstanding his individual talents, he was hardly unique in his time. Attributing Leonardo's manifold achievements in painting, sculpture, design, architecture, and engineering solely to his singular genius is to miss the point: he was multi-faceted in part because there did not then exist the tremendous gaps between technology and culture which we today accept as almost inevitable.

Technology in its present meaning did not then exist either, and the architect and engineer, (if not artist) were invariably the same person. Indeed, in 1829 Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow's ''Elements of Technology'' still defined technology as the ''application of the sciences to the useful arts.'' Who would do so in 1982?

As the exhibit itself states, painting for Leonardo (but for others too) ''was a scientific and rational pursuit, based on intense observation, mathematics, and proportion.'' When, therefore, in a related essay Lynn White gleefully quotes a fellow historian that Leonardo ''was an engineer who occasionally painted a picture when he was broke,'' he means only to give equal recognition to Leonardo's technical accomplishments, not to downgrade his artistic ones.

The fact that corporations as tightly organized an IBM and Bechtel would so lavishly praise the very kind of nonconformist least likely to fit their own research and development molds is another of the show's several ironies. But then the traditional American admiration for alleged lone-wolf inventors such as Whitney, Fulton, Edison, and Ford persists. Like them, however, Leonardo actually invented considerably less than he is credited with; and, like them too , what he did ''invent'' - at least in his sketches - was frequently the result of collaborative efforts.

Still, even among the corporate sponsors there likely lurks a hope that similar inventive geniuses will suddenly appear to rescue America's industrial heartland from its present technological and economic malaise.

The final irony is that the models of Leonardo's designs themselves are not altogether accurate. As a Michigan aeronautical engineer and Leonardo admirer reluctantly observed, the aeronautical models bear only modest resemblance to the master's sketches and, in any case, would not actually ''fly.''

Persons of Leonardo's intellectual stature do, of course, occasionally appear , but they no longer resemble our Renaissance man. And that is the underlying, the unintentional message of this exhibit and others like it: that the past is not recoverable by the present. High tech will have to look elsewhere for its cultural heroes.

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