[NetBehaviour] Fritjof Capra and the network/systems interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Jul 8 00:54:03 CEST 2022

Hi all,

I had a vague sense of having heard of his book The Tao of Physics (1975) at some point, but only this week found Fritjof Capra's writings about Leonardo.  He sees a lot of the systems and network principles in Leonardo's work that I also believe to be there.  Specific books of interest are The Science of Leonardo (2007) and Learning From Leonardo (2013).

Capra points out the centrality of experience, spelled variously esperienza, sperientia, sperienza, and the like, for Leonardo's method.  This word in Italian means both experiment and experience, thus Capra sees Leonardo's writings like "experience is the common mother of all the sciences and arts" as the practical start of scientific method in Europe (preceding Galileo's Dialogue by over a century) as well as the birth of modern, i.e. post-medieval, art.  Capra points out dozens of cases where Leonardo outlined in basic terms scientific discoveries not made subsequently until as late as the 20th century.  Of special interest and beauty are Leonardo's scientific studies of water, geology, light, botany, anatomy, and the transformational flow underlying all natural processes.

Capra also writes that esperienza, in the sense of scientific experiment, was illegal in Leonardo's time if in any way it contradicted the scientific writings of Aristotle.  Like any censored scientist, might not Leonardo have considered presenting his ideas in a camouflaged or allegorical form?  This makes the Mona Lisa, in one of its potential functions, a portrait of the scientific method itself.  Capra does not propose this but it is consistent with his facts and assertions.  (Capra sees the ML as an image of the life-sustaining power of Gaia, the whole-earth system, which is certainly one valid aspect of the image I would agree; seeing the portrait as also allegorical of human science only adds to and reinforces such themes.)

Yet further: Leonardo wrote on multiple occasions about the work of academic scholars and scientists being metaphorical garments, robes signifying knowledge and authority.  He contrasted those who wore their knowledge of the works of others as a garment of authority with his own self-made garment which he created with the guidance of Esperienza:

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the maestra of those who wrote well. And so, as maestra, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."

Therefore it makes logical sense to consider the garment of Esperienza in the Mona Lisa to be a metaphor of the products of art and science, both worn and woven by Esperienza, and the bridge which leads the eye from the background of empty nature to the present foreground to be the flow of the history of that art and science as leading to the present moment.  To view these static objects--the garment and bridge--as moving, dynamic, and metaphorical is an example of Leonardo's method, pointed out by Capra, of applying geometry to transformational processes.  Leonardo called this "geometry done with motion," and explained it using both direct observation of nature and mathematical principles (as in the work of Poincare) still valid today.

Capra argues that the transformation of science from mechanistic reduction to holistic, integrated, systemic, and network-oriented forms is still incomplete, and that its urgent acceleration, which might well be aided by the proper understanding of Leonardo's work, is the primary need if humanity is to adapt successfully and create a sustainable planetary environment.  One could even say that without direct experience and experiment in the arts and sciences, network and otherwise, performed by living humans today, we cannot successfully build or traverse a bridge to a sustainable future.

All best,




See also interview, linked above:
"Networks as a Unifying Pattern of Life Involving Different Processes at Different Levels: An Interview with Fritjof Capra." (2007).

'FP — We are now in the area of information. You have not used this word, in this sense at least.
You have mentioned matter, patterns, etc. How do you see the difference between information and
meaning in your approach?
FC — I have thought a lot about both. I use "meaning" as a label to include the social dimension
in this framework. I define meaning as the experience of context. I have known for a long time that it has
something to do with context. Gregory Bateson wrote about meaning and context, but he did not connect
the two in a precise way. I believe now the connection is that meaning is an experience. When we find
something meaningful we have an experience of a context.'

Quotation from The Science of Leonardo, Appendix p.271:
"The concept of continuity, which is central to all topological transformations, has to do, ultimately, with very basic properties of space and time. Hence topology is seen today as a general foundation of mathematics and a unifying conceptual framework for its many branches. In the early sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci saw his geometry of continuous transformations in a similar vein—as a fundamental mathematical language that would allow him to capture the essence of nature’s ever-changing forms.
The double folio in the Codex Atlanticus (see Chapter 7) represents the culmination of Leonardo’s explorations of topological transformations. These drawings were intended for a comprehensive treatise, for which he proposed several titles—Treatise on Continuous Quantity, Book of Equations, and De ludo geometrico (On the Game of Geometry)."
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