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Painting by Numbers and Leonardo da Vinci

By April 26, 2007

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Math and the Mona Lisa "'Painting by numbers' may not be as egregious a pursuit as one might imagine. Leonardo himself invented a form of it, assigning assistants to paint areas on a work that he had already sketched out and numbered. Most likely while painting a ceiling in the Vatican, Michelangelo also assigned numbers to areas for his thirteen assistants, many brandishing their own brushes."

This quote comes from the book Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci by Bülent Atalay (buy direct), and reading it was the point at which I decided to stop browsing through the book and buy it.

The book's blurb says it "offers a fascinating view into Leonardo's restless intellect and modus operandi, allowing us to see the source of his ideas and to appreciate his art from a new perspective" and reveals "the deep unity" between the cultures of art and science.

The book promises to be fascinating reading, if not light, bedtime reading. Searching for reviews, I came across one on Convengence (magazine of the Mathematical Association of America) which says: "Math and the Mona Lisa attempts to present science through art and art through science. In the process, it takes the reader on an historical tour of many mathematical concepts and their applications ... Prominent in these considerations is the emergence of the 'golden proportion' ... Information is often dense and always thought provoking. At times, it is not an easy read. However, for those who choose to explore this book, it will provide an enriching experience."

You can read the first chapter ('A Life Well Spent') on the author's website. There's a also set of photos showing covers of the books from editions in various languages (scroll down to the bottom of this page to see them). I also find it intriguing how these can differ so dramatically.

An article in UMW Today (University of Mary Washington, where Atalay is physics professor) says "Atalay’s theory is that science students who have no engagement with the arts and the humanities are missing critically important tools for thinking about the world." He encourages his readers and students "to follow Leonardo’s model: Keep an open mind, take copious notes, make sketches, experiment constantly, and seek connections always. 'Observe in the manner of the scientist, savor in the manner of the artist.'"

If Math and the Mona Lisa sounds too heavy-going for you, there's a compilation of Leonardo's writings about art, illustrated with his drawing: Leonardo on Painting. It's a great book for dipping into, whether at bedtime or when you're taking a short break from your painting.

See Also:
Poll: How Do You Feel About Math (From About.com's Mathematics Guide)
About.com's Mathematics Blog
About.com's Physics Blog
About.com's Chemistry Blog

Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

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