Of course da Vinci was an artistic scientist, but Galileo and Copernicus too?

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

In 2009, Stephen Hawking wrote, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science”.  Just over 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to the Italian night sky, and with pencil and water colors, captured the texture and phases of the moon. Sadly, the philosophy he held that mere humans could attempt to understand these workings of the universe just by observing it conflicted with the views of the dominating Catholic Church. In 1632 he was sentenced to house arrest for the last 10 years of his life because of his support of heliocentrism [Hawking, 2009]. Galileo’s ideology challenged the Church’s supposition that only God could know the truth about what lies at the center of the universe. Moreover, his challenging of the widely held geocentric theory was in actuality a challenge of “homocentric” theory, which the Church considered a blasphemous affront to the One-Who-Made-Man-in-His-Likeness.

In his younger years, Galileo made significant progress in mechanics, the dynamics of free-fall and projectile trajectories within a vacuum, by observing nature. He was thus instrumental in changing the fundamentally held paradigm of mechanics, which was, at the time, “traditionally conceived of as mere knowledge about art” [Lefèvre, 2005].  Art as a descriptive skill then, can be considered to have spawned physics as we know it today.

Front cover of the book Galilei der Kunstler

Galileo was one of the great polymaths of the European Renaissance; he was a mathematician, a philosopher, an astronomer, and a physicist. But, was he also an artist? Other than pencil sketches of the moon, it is difficult to find artwork created by Galileo. However, in a recent email correspondence with Dr. Wolfgang Lefèvre, a research scholar and professor at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Galileo is described to me as an artist. “Galileo was, indeed, an unusual gifted “painter” (with water colors): His paintings of the mountains of the moon deserve admiration” [Lefèvre; Champ, 2009]. Lefèvre was referring to images from a recently appearing German book, by the art historian Horst Bredekamp. In addition to mountains of the moon, Bredekamp’s book includes rare figure drawings, detailed sketches of buildings used for trajectile experiments, and of course, sunspots; all drawn by Galileo himself [Bredekamp, 2007].

17th century Copy of Copernicus’ Self Portrait

Galileo’s heliocentrism was also called Copernicanism after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 to 1543 A.C.E.), who was the principle theorist behind a sun-centered universe. Another polymath, like Galileo, Copernicus was well versed, with knowledge spanning many domains. Not only was he an astronomer, he was also a mathematician, physician, military leader, Catholic cleric, quadrilingual polyglot, and (you guessed it!) an artist.   Although the 16th century  original self portrait of Copernicus was destroyed, the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland displays a 17th century copy of the original.

Profile of a Warrior in Helmet, da Vinci

Of course, the most famous of the polymaths is Copernicus’ contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 to 1519 A.C.E.), who indeed is a famous artist, as well as a famous engineer, anatomist, musician, writer, mathematician, and inventor. Granted, da Vinci’s knowledge domains overlap the domains of Galileo and Copernicus; and many of these domains are closely related to each other. One could dispute the clarity of the distinguishing boundaries between each knowledge domain, and “disqualify” one of these Renaissance men as a true polymath. What can’t be disqualified, however, is that they were all creative observers, not only pursuing extant knowledge, but creating and defending new knowledge as well.

Questions arise then.

  • Were the artistic exercises of these scientists a substantial contributing factor to the wealth of knowledge they gained?
  • Did Galileo, Copernicus, and da Vinci make analogies that were more reaching than a “non-artist” would?
  • Does exercising creativity allow for longer bridges; bridges that can span across vastly variant domains of knowledge?

Yes!  I think so!   I would enjoy your comments!


  1. Fascinating. I remember the first time I heard about Galileo’s fate…

    Currently I am reading a fine new period novel (from a bestselling author) called Remarkable Creatures. It is about young spinsters searching for and studying fossils, with the resulting finds posing challenges to the then popular faith-based belief that all of God’s creation was just as he had originally created it.

  2. The main motive for Kepler’s discoveries was to adjust the recorded observations to take account of Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth as the observation point was not stationary but orbited round the Sun. Galileo’s law of falling bodies v^2=d can be easily fitted into Kepler’s system. This is not generally known because the works of both Kepler and Galileo were prohibited reading on religious grounds.

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