Cover image for Leonardo the first scientist
Leonardo the first scientist
White, Michael, 1959-
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Publication Information:
Leicester, UK : Clipper Audio ; Prince Frederick, MD : Distributed by Recorded Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
11 audio discs (approximately 12.5 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
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Compact discs.

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Audiobook on CD


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Q143.L5 W48 2002 Adult Audiobook on CD Audiobooks

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Author Notes

Michael White is a British writer. He was born in 1959 and studied at King's College London.

He has been a science editor of British GQ and a columnist for the Sunday Express in London. From 1984 to 1991, he was a science lecturer at d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford before becoming a full-time writer, of both fiction and non-fiction.

Among his non-fiction works are: Coffee with Newton, Galileo Antichrist: A Biography, The Fruits of War, Tolkien: A Biography, Leonardo: The First Scientist, and Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. White also collaborated with John Gribbin on 'A Life in Science' Series, featuring biographies of Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

His novels include: The Art of Murder, The Borgia Ring, The Medici Secret, and Equinox. He has also written numerous novels under pseudonyms, including; the E-Force trilogy as Sam Fisher, and The Titanic Enigma, as Tom west.

Most recently, White co-wrote the international bestseller Private down Under, with James Patterson.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When thinking of the archetypal "Renaissance man," Leonardo da Vinci most certainly comes to mind. Painter, sculptor, writer, scientist, astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher, he was truly a man of his time--and of all ages. White, biographer of other celebrated scientists, focuses on the scientific creations of da Vinci, emphasizing his notebooks, which had been lost for 200 years and only portions of which have been recovered. White describes how da Vinci's personal life affected his scientific discoveries and predictions, and vice versa. He also asserts the argument that had da Vinci's notebooks not been lost, the face of science would be very different than it looks today. Da Vinci is more famous for his art, but White cries out for more of an exploration and realization of his scientific prowess. White also recounts the difficult life da Vinci led, on the fringe of court society, constantly challenged, often called heretical, always falling in and out of courtly favor. However, White excellently portrays the life of a man whose influence on history, art, and thought has been nothing less than profound. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

It's not easy writing a biography of a legendary figure like Leonardo da Vinci, one whose life has already been well chronicled by numerous others. White (Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, etc.) takes on this task to demonstrate that, in addition to his artistic mastery and engineering acumen, Leonardo boasted scientific advances and insights that qualify him as the first scientist. Born more than 100 years before Francis BaconÄwho for his work in defining the scientific method is generally credited with this designationÄLeonardo wrote about experimentation in a surprisingly modern manner. He focused his attention primarily on optics, human anatomy, flight, geography and geology, making significant advances in each field. "Quite simply, if Leonardo had chosen to concentrate upon only one of the areas of research he tackled and had even then come up with the results he did, he would still be remembered today for his genius and imagination," writes White. Sadly, virtually none of Leonardo's scientific work was published during his life and much was lost over the ensuing generations. In his scientific endeavors, as with most of his other areas of interest, Leonardo was a very private person and one who seemed unable to fully finish tasks. Although there's not much new material here, White does an amiable job of presenting Leonardo and his times in a fresh manner. 35 b&w photos. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is an excellent example of a relatively new genre, the pseudobiography. In this case, White attributes feelings, emotions, and motivations to his subject, Leonardo da Vinci, that go far beyond any concrete evidence, either in da Vinci's own writings or in the works of his contemporaries. In addition, White's attempt to generate controversy with a presumably provocative subtitle is both irritating and ridiculous. The scientific method was probably first "discovered" by some unrecorded genius of the ancient world. Still, one could forgive the pretentious thesis if it were attached to a more interesting work. Da Vinci's eccentric behavior and broad interests are casually attributed, without documentation, to his illegitimacy, homosexuality, and difficult early family life. Unfortunately, da Vinci, at least as described by White, sounds more like a person with attention deficit disorder. The great painter/scientist who hid his discoveries from the world is a fascinating subject. Alas, even Christopher Kay's competent reading cannot instill life into a tedious text. Biographies are generally popular, but this one is recommended only for the most comprehensive collections.-I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt Sins of the Father A man who awoke too early, while it is still dark and all around are sleeping. -- D. Merezhkovslei, The Forerunner: The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci If you follow a route west from the Tuscan city of Florence, you pass through a conurbation that stretches some ninety kilometres to the coast and Pisa. Along the way you will pass through the industrial town of Empoli. If you take a right turn here and travel ten kilometres north, the road takes you to a tree-lined boulevard with commercial units set back from the road. The people who work here today trade in all manner of goods, but as you pass along this road you cannot help noticing the same word appearing with increasing frequency in many of the business names emblazoned on hoardings and warehouse signs, whether those of printers or tyre-shops. This word is `Leonardo', for at the end of this road, a kilometre or two beyond the row of business premises, lies the little town of Vinci, a short drive from Leonardo's birthplace.     Vinci itself is now something of a tourist haven, but it retains its picturesque character. In Vinci you will find a museum dedicated to Leonardo's engineering endeavours, but if you want to get closer to Leonardo, to the soil on which he played as a boy and the vistas, untouched by time to which he awoke each morning, then travel on a little further.     A steep single-lane track with the rather grand name of Strada Verde takes you two kilometres on into the true Italian countryside. Leaving behind the noise and bustle of the cities, you arrive at the hamlet of Anchiano, a place that makes even the sleepy town of Vinci seem like a distant metropolis. Here among the olive groves is the house the locals believe to be Leonardo's birthplace, Casa Natale di Leonardo . No one is absolutely sure this was the actual house of the Vinci family more than half a millennium ago, but a proud plaque next to the front door gives a form of official sanction to the claim and few have tried to dispute it.     Casa Natale di Leonardo is a pretty, single-storey stone building with a tiled roof. Set in its own grounds and surrounded by vineyards and olive trees that sweep away into the distance and trail over nearby hills, it is a simple house of three rooms: an entrance hall and two large rooms leading off to left and right. But when Leonardo was born here or near here in 1452, it would have been considered a smart residence, the home of modestly successful landowners and farmers. It is a place of tranquillity where great age welcomes the casual visitor. In the summer the only sound is the buzz of insects, while in winter a calm silence is broken only by one's own footfalls.     Today the light that splashes across the vineyards and along the roofs illuminates a scene not so very different from that which greeted the people who lived here five hundred years ago. Very little changes in Anchiano, but Leonardo was fortunate enough to have been born when Tuscany (particularly the cities of Florence and Siena) was at its most influential in world affairs, a region that lay at the very epicentre of the Renaissance. And, although many of his most fundamental drives and personal characteristics were deeply rooted in the isolation of Anchiano, Leonardo da Vinci travelled widely and, for his time, became truly cosmopolitan. His work and thought have of course penetrated far, so that what he achieved is now perceived as part of the fabric of cultural history, a marker for human progress across a broad spectrum of subjects. Some believe he was a man who lived far outside of his own time.     For one born into a very close-knit community living in relative isolation, we know with surprising accuracy the exact date and time of Leonardo's birth: Saturday, 15 April 1452, at 10.30p.m. And we have Leonardo's proud grandfather Antonio to thank for this. He recorded the event in a notebook which was lost after his death and discovered by a Leonardo researcher in 1939. The entry reads: 1452: There was born to me a grandson, the child of Ser Piero my son on 15 April, a Saturday, at the third hour of the night. He bears the name Leonardo.     Antonio may have been so precise from habit, because -- although he was not himself a lawyer -- he came from a long line of lawyers, and it was, perhaps a familial bent towards record-keeping and note-taking that provides us with such a clear surviving record of the happy event. Indeed, the notebook Antonio used for this record was his father's notary book.     The first in the line to have taken the name of the village of Vinci was a certain Ser Michele da Vinci, who lived there during the mid-1300s. The `Ser' is an honorary title denoting his profession, and he was Leonardo's great-great-great-grandfather. Thus began a succession of three generations of Da Vinci notaries. Michele was succeeded in the family business by his son, Ser Guido, and then by his son, Ser Piero. Each lived and worked in Florence and each became more successful than his father. Third in the line, Ser Piero joined the bourgeoisie by marrying the daughter of another successful notary, Lucia di Ser Piero Zosi di Bacchereto, in Florence, before rising to the rank of chancellor of the Republic.     Then, as often happens, there was a severe break in the chain. Leonardo's grandfather Antonio resisted parental pressure to join the `family firm', and instead returned to the property owned by the Da Vincis close to the village in which his great-grandfather had been born. Antonio appears to have wanted nothing more than to live the life of a country squire content to manage his land, to be a landowner With no real interest in improving his lot. Displaying little in the way of ambition, he leased much of his property to local cropsharers. Like his father, he also married the daughter of a notary, another Lucia. But this was no bourgeois union; his father-in-law was a local notary of little celebrity and Antonio was almost fifty by the time he decided he ought to marry; he most probably did so simply out of a sense of duty. The couple's first child, Piero, Leonardo's father, was born a year or two later.     The distinction between Antonio and three generations of his progenitors was repeated again with his son, but in reverse. Piero turned back to the traditional mould of the Da Vinci family and became a young, ambitious notary whose success almost matched that of his determined and acquisitive grandfather and namesake. And he maintained a lifestyle to match his success. He began his professional career in Pisa and Pistoia, but was drawn early to the bright lights of Florence. His career flourished and he soon established a list of private clients as well as conducting freelance business for the government. Perhaps believing close proximity would help guide him towards the centre of power, he rented lavish rooms overlooking the seat of Florentine government, the Palazzo della Signoria.     By his mid-twenties, Ser Piero had become an intense and ambitious man-about-town, a local playboy who revelled in his early success and blossoming career. He spent almost all his time in Florence, returning infrequently and merely out of duty to the family estate in Vinci. It was probably during one of these visits that he formed a brief liaison with a local peasant girl named Caterina and sired his first son, the illegitimate Leonardo.     In many cultures and during many eras illegitimacy has been no great impediment to a successful establishment career. But for Leonardo da Vinci it most certainly was. In fifteenth-century Tuscany, young men conceived out of wedlock were untouched by social restrictions so long as they were born into either the nobility or the peasant class. Cosimo de' Medici, who was head of the Medici bank and first citizen of Florence at the time of Leonardo's birth, had himself sired at least one illegitimate son, Carlo. The boy's illegitimacy did not prevent him from being appointed as papal chief secretary and later Archpriest of Prato, a large town close to Florence. Indeed, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was common for popes not only to confer upon their illegitimate sons full rights and honours, but in many cases to make them cardinals. This relaxed attitude even extended to royalty. One story relates how, on a state visit to the northern Italian city of Ferrara in 1459, when Leonardo was seven, Pope Pius II was met by seven princes from the royal household and not one of them was legitimate.     Yet, within middle-class or bourgeois society illegitimacy was despised, and the children of these unions were effectively ostracised. Leonardo was barred from attending university and could not hope to enter any of the respected professions, such as medicine or the law, because it was strictly against the rules of the professional guilds to accept anyone with his background.     Naturally, this restriction had a major impact upon his feelings for his own society. We can only speculate upon what might have happened to him if he had been Ser Piero's legitimate son. Leonardo may have been persuaded to enter the same profession as his father, but then other facets of the young man's character might have borne an equal or greater influence and steered him away from such a career, as had happened with his own grandfather.     But choice of career was not the only aspect of Leonardo's life affected by his inauspicious birthright. Although he achieved wonders in a vast range of studies, Leonardo was never able to come fully to terms with the fact that he had been deprived of a formal university education. It was partly because of this that he later became an autodidact and approached learning with such energy and determination, a process that endowed him with a unique perspective. Yet at the same time, although his illegitimacy helped mould him, there is also little doubt it pained him greatly. He once wrote with barely disguised bitterness: If indeed I have no power to quote from authors as they [establishment scholars in general] have, it is a far bigger and more worthy thing to read by the light of experience which is the instructress of their masters. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labours but with those of others and they will not even allow me my own.     His lineage altered his life in other ways. Most importantly, Leonardo never benefited from a stable, traditional family upbringing. He was raised by his ancient grandparents in the tiny hamlet in which he was born and he led a solitary childhood, a pattern broken only by occasional trips to Florence for short stays with his father.     Leonardo's mother Caterina was a shadowy figure for most of his early life and this too must have confused and disturbed the boy. Within months of Leonardo's birth, Ser Piero again followed his grandfather's example by marrying into the Florentine bourgeoisie, his partner another notary's daughter, Albiera di Giovanni Amadori. Meanwhile, the newborn was given to Caterina to look after.     The Vincis were not a very rich family; their land was mostly given over to wheat and olive trees. Antonio had depleted the family coffers rather than enhancing them and Ser Piero was probably living well beyond his means, so the employment of a professional wet-nurse was probably not even considered. Caterina would have lived only a few hundred yards from the Vincis and it is probable she was given a home by them for the first year to eighteen months of Leonardo's life.     Although Antonio was clearly not embarrassed by his son's illegitimacy, and arranged the baptism which involved a priest, Piero di Bartolomeo di Pagneca, and five male and five female witnesses from the village, it is significant that Caterina's name does not appear on her son's birth certificate. In fact, much of her life story comes to us in little more than contradictory snatches.     It has been documented frequently that Leonardo possessed great physical beauty, and there is a strong suggestion that this came from his mother. There are no portraits of her to confirm or refute this, but Leonardo clearly believed his mother had been beautiful when he wrote in later life: `Have you not seen peasant girls in the mountains, clad in their poor rags, bereft of all ornament, yet surpassing in beauty women covered with adornments?'     Of her character almost nothing is known. We can only speculate about the relationship she had with Ser Piero. It is possible the couple had known one another for some time before Leonardo was conceived but Ser Piero's ambitions prevented him marrying a peasant girl. Knowing what we do of Antonio's character, he would probably not have objected to such a marriage, but Piero had his heart and mind set upon greater things and the relationship, however beautiful Caterina may have been, was doomed from the start.     Instead of Piero settling down with Caterina, when she was no longer useful to them the Da Vincis arranged for her to be married off to someone they considered more suitable, a certain Antonio di Piero di Andrea di Giovanni Buti, nicknamed Accattabriga (the Quarreller), who was employed as a lime-burner near the village.     There is some confusion about the timing of this arrangement. Some historians have placed the marriage four years after Leonardo's birth, which would imply that Piero may have kept Caterina as a mistress in Vinci during the early years of his marriage. This would mean she stayed with Leonardo for that entire time. Others place the marriage at about eighteen months after the birth, towards the end of 1453.     Whenever it happened, Caterina did leave the Vincis' home to live with her new husband in a tiny, single-roomed hut in the nearby village of Campo Zeppi. This would have broken the ties with Leonardo to some degree. Caterina and the Quarreller soon started their own family, and within a dozen years they had four daughters and a son. Caterina was almost certainly allowed to see her first-born, but only rarely, either because of pressure from the family or perhaps more likely at the insistence of her husband. Naturally, this would have had a profound emotional effect upon young Leonardo.     Because the community was so small and the villages so close geographically, mother and child inevitably met on feast days and special occasions, and this must have further confused the boy, because by the time Leonardo was old enough to understand that Caterina was his mother he would have seen her with other slightly younger children at her apron and perhaps a baby in her arms. It is not difficult to imagine how the boy must have felt, witnessing the affection his half-siblings received from her, while he was ignored.     As an adult, Leonardo demonstrated resentment at his illegitimacy and lay the blame squarely with his mother. In one of his notebooks he writes: `Tell me how things are back there, and you can tell me what la Caterina wishes to do ...' Although incomplete, from this strange single sentence we may discern that Leonardo saw his illegitimacy as solely his mother's doing and it is interesting to note that he almost always referred to his father respectfully as: `Ser Piero, my father', yet he could not bring himself to call Caterina his mother, invariably referring to her disingenuously as: `la Caterina'.     Such partisanship could have been seeded by Leonardo's father in order to deflect any blame attachable to him, or this evident bitterness could have grown from the pain and impotence Leonardo felt after seeing his mother bestowing her love elsewhere. Later in life he certainly displayed unorthodox emotions and sexual proclivities. He was particularly fond of young boys, he rarely bestowed his trust upon anyone and remained obsessively secretive throughout his life. Some of his work also displayed a markedly skewed view of women and their role (particularly in a sexual context), and in his anatomical drawings he displayed a peculiar fascination with female genitalia. There is hardly a single example of an entire female body anywhere in his vast catalogue of scientific notebooks.     When one of his half-brothers informed him he had fathered a son, Leonardo wrote back: I learn from your letter that you have an heir, an event which I understand has given you great pleasure. To the extent that I had formerly judged you to be endowed with prudence, I am now convinced that I was as far from being a perspicacious observer as you from being prudent. For you are congratulating yourself on having engendered a vigilant enemy, all of whose energy will be directed toward achieving a freedom he will acquire only on your death.     At other times he displayed what some may consider to be an unhealthy contempt for humans in general, once declaring: `How many people there are who could be described as mere channels for food, producers of excrement, fillers of latrines, for they have no other purpose in this world; they practise no virtue whatsoever; all that remains after them is a full latrine.'     Such intense feelings concerning his fellow human beings must bring into question his motives, and the seeds of such misanthropy. Did he feel this way because of some deep-rooted existential angst precipitated by his unhappiness as a child, or did he, through his later researches and discoveries, grow so analytical about Nature that he saw humans as little more than machines?     His many drawings (and occasional paintings) of grotesques are a further example of his darker drives, and some commentators have suggested that Leonardo's series of drawings in which he places gruesomely ugly male heads upon the shoulders of sumptuously dressed and bejewelled women demonstrates a misogynist streak quite at odds with other, gentler aspects of his character.     Clearly, the pain of loss in his childhood ran deep, and it stayed with him his entire life. In middle age, when Leonardo was living in Milan, he composed a collection of riddles which were designed for a fashionable game of the time, an amusing diversion to entertain the court and to fill the leisure time of the nobility. A selection illustrates again his obsession with his own birth and the circumstances surrounding his early life: `Many children will be torn from the arms of their mother with pitiless blows,' one began, `... and thrown to the ground to be mutilated.' The answer to this riddle was `walnuts, acorns, and olives'. Another ran: `A tender and kind mother to some of your children, you are a cruel and implacable stepmother to others ... I see your sons sold into slavery and their lives serving the oppressor.' The answer: `donkeys.' Other striking examples include: `We will see fathers and mothers take more care of their stepchildren than of their own son.' The solution to this is `trees', which utilise their sap to nurture grafts from others. But most telling perhaps is: `The time of Herod will return, for innocent children will be snatched from nursing mothers and will die of great wounds inflicted by cruel men.' This time the answer is: `baby goats.' (Continues...)