Math and the Mona Lisa. The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa is probably one of the best known paintings our collective memory. Leonardo da Vinci was presumably appointed to paint a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo around 1503 but the painting was never delivered since he may have continued working on it till 1516 when he took it with him to France. After his death in 1519 in Amboise it was bought by the king Francis I, it subsequently hung in several castles in France, and ended up in the collection of Louis XIV. After the revolution it moved to the Louvre, with a short interruption spent in Napleon's bedroom. It was stolen in 1911 but recovered in Florence. It was attacked by acid in 1956 and all kind of objects and paint were thrown at it in the museums, but these mostly left it undamaged since it was protected behind bullet proof glass.

The Mona Lisa is the last in a row of three women portraits painted by Leonardo with an interval of 15 years, and besides the painting of The Last Supper, that is almost as famous as the Mona Lisa, it is just one item in the abundant artistic and scientific production of Leonardo da Vinci. And viewed at a greater distance, Leonardo da Vinci is just an island in the ever broadening stream of artistic and scientific evolution. Although there is obviously some focus on Leonardo da Vinci, he can only be understood when placed among his contemporaries, who are the result of a long history, and are themselves a stepping stone for future achievements. Atalay, being himself a scientist and artist, is placing da Vinci's creativity in this evolutionary stream from its source in the Mesopotamian number system till modern string theory and cosmology.

Thus the title of the book may be a bit misleading since the contents is much much broader that it may suggest. It was originally written in 2004 and has been translated in 12 languages since. That it is reprinted in this paperback version shows that it is still of interest and indeed it is one of the most pleasing, entertaining, and accessible surveys that I have ever read about this ongoing quest of humankind trying to unravel the secrets of nature. Atalay's love for beauty, mathematics and science, brilliantly reflects the genius of Leonardo and his age of Renaissance.

From the the mathematical precursors, Atalay brings Fibonacci, the other Leonardo, to the forefront. In particular the number sequence named after him and the ratio known as the golden ratio. These numbers and the ratio, represented as φ, shows up in nature more than often, but also in mathematics as the golden rectangle and the golden triangle, and the golden spiral. Atalay gives many examples of where this occurs in nature, from nautilus shells over phyllotaxis, to the DNA helix and galaxies. The ratio shows up when judging aesthetics of the human face and the human body. It is no wonder that da Vinci dissected bodies and drew the Vitruvian man, another of these da Vinci immortal images that live in the memory of mankind. But the golden mathematical configurations, deliberately or not, were also implemented in the layout of paintings, and in architecture, of which the pyramids are the most famous examples. After introducing the rules of perspective, we arrive at da Vinci's work of art with the portraits of the three women (Genivra de' Benci, Cecilia Gallerani, and the Mona Lisa) forming a center since it is more or less the middle of the book. The second part is more related to da Vinci as a scientist and how that science evolved later. Da Vinci was famous for his many unfinished projects, many scale models were produced much later and hobbyists can buy kits on the Internet to build them: catapult, helicopter, bicycle, odometer, parachute, tank, etc., many are remarkably close to our modern design. But science did not stop with da Vinci. Shortly after came other polymaths like Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, and later Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, etc. who formulated the basic laws of nature, and the planetary system, and we are still unraveling the laws of the cosmos and of the tiniest of its building blocks.

Atalay succeeds in taking the reader along on this journey, not as a detached guide or journalist, but showing also some personal involvement. He includes some of his own artistic work, shows pictures he took as a child while visiting the pyramids with his parents, he gives details of why and how Schrödinger came to his equations, sketches the shy and timid personality of Dirac, etc. Chapter titles like "the nature of science", "the nature of art", "the art of nature", and "the science of art", he makes it crystal clear how much he believes in the confluence of all three: nature, science, and art. If the book, after 10 year in print still needs recommendation, I happily ratify a confirmation.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a reprint of the original much acclaimed book from 2004. Atalay describes the symbiosis of art and science from the dawn of civilization to our current state of knowledge, placing the the work and the personality of Leonardo da Vinci at the center.

Author:  Publisher: 
978-1-58834-493-9 (pbk)
$15.95 (pbk)