The roots of popular science lie in art
This article is the first one of a series of crossovers between science and another topic. I dedicate the following lines to the tight connection between science and art.
I start with a concept essential for both fields: creativity. Like an artist, also a scientist has to be creative when plans a study, especially if a method is not established yet. In the same way, an artist has to experiment different techniques and combinations of colors to represent his/her idea in the best way.
Paintings reveal how a scientific innovation was understood and spread in a historical period. In fact, centuries ago, it didn’t matter who brought the innovation, but the impact of such finding on the culture and scientific thinking. Paradoxically, Leonardo da Vinci’s innovations didn’t have any impact at his time because he didn’t spread them. Instead, the work of his friend matematician Luca Pacioli became popular even though it wasn’t as ingenious as Leonardo’s. Regarding him, “Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli”, painted by Jacopo de’ Barberi in 1495 represents the turning point of science as subject in art: the painting is the first one picturing a mathematician at work, with his tools. Until that moment, instead, science had always been portrayed in an allegorical way, like muse Urania or through mythical characters, like Ptolemy.
A stable connection between science and art was established during Renaissance, when modern science was introduced. Piero della Francesca exploited mathematics more than anyone else, to paint his masterpieces: although he didn’t know about the differential calculation, he managed to find the exact formula of the cross vault surface. Moreover, he was the first one drawing the polyhedra in axonometry and in perspective.
In the same period, anatomy became a key subject for artists, who were constantly asked to represent human bodies in their classical perfection. In 1316, Mondino de’ Liuzzi wrote “Anothomia”, a manual explaining how to perform autopsy dissections. Another great contribution was provided by the Flemish anatomist Andreas van Wesel, considered the father of modern anatomy, who published in 1543 a set of books about human anatomy called “De humani corporis fabrica libri septem”. The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous crossover between science and art, because it integrates scientific knowledge with artistic work. It is a study of the human body proportions. The body is inserted in a circle and a square, the two perfect geometric figures according to Plato. The perfection of the drawing makes it always contemporary and directed to the future. Because of this, NASA chose it as symbol for its space exploration program.
Some artists moved beyond the perfect representation of human shapes, and used anatomical symbolism in their masterpieces. It is the case of Sandro Botticelli, who hid human organs in both “Primavera” (1478-1482 ca.) and “The birth of Venus” (1484-1486 ca.): in the former, two lungs are shaped by vegetation around Venus head, in the latter a right lung with pulmonary hilum can be seen in the mantle that Flora, goddess of spring, uses to cover Venus. It is hypothesized that lungs are a tribute to a model he worked with and who died of tuberculosis at 22-years-old. Recently, surgeon and art expert Davide Lazzeri, when observing “Madonna of the pomegranate” (1487), identified a heart in the fruit hold by the child: “the arrangement of seeds and septa seems to draw two atria, two ventricles and the main pulmonary trunk; even the pomegranate crown is separated into two parts that mimic the superior vena cava and the arch of the aorta with its three branches”, he said.
An interesting art debate involved Galileo Galilei. Since the Roman age, it has been discussed about which type of art is the best to faithfully represent reality. Galileo argued that painting is better than sculpture, because it has vivid colors that the latter lacks. In particular, Nature gives a sculpture lights and shadows, while a painting receives that from the artist. Galileo proved his point thanks to the experimental method: by painting with dark colors surfaces of a tridimensional object that are hit by light, he demonstrated that the sculpture loses its depth. It is conceivable that Pietro Bernini, father of the sculptor Gian Lorenzo and close friend with Galileo, told the son about the scientist’s opinion. In response, Gian Lorenzo Bernini spent the life refining his art to make it overcame the limit highlighted by Galileo.
During the XVII century, scientific knowledge broadened significantly, thanks to important advances in medical techniques. Some of the major scientists at the time were Marcello Malpighi, who first used a microscope to investigate anatomic features; Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who is considered the father of microbiology; Frederik Ruysch, a famous Dutch anatomist who was portrayed in paintings while hosting anatomy lessons (by Adriaen Backer in 1670 and by Jan van Neck in 1683); Antonio Maria Valsalva, who introduced new techniques to improve surgery (suture of arteries in replacement of cauterization, successful splenectomy and nephrectomy on animals) and understood the importance of obstetrics and gynecology; Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who published “De sedibus et causis morborum per anatomen indagatis” in 1761, which marks the beginning of organ pathology and the decline of humoralism, a theory that had dominated pathology since the times of Hippocrates and Galen.
These innovations hadn’t left artists indifferent, and I think Rembrandt is a clear example of what I mean. In fact, two of his masterpieces portray anatomy lessons. In “The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” from 1632, the painter shows Dr. Tulp explaining the musculature of the arm to medical professionals, while in “The anatomy lesson of Dr. Deijman” from 1656, he depicts a brain dissection performed on the corpse of an executed criminal.
In 1766, Joseph Wright of Derby painted “A philosopher lecturing on the Orrery (in which a lamp is put in place of the sun)” and in 1768 “An experiment on a bird in the air pump”. In both paintings,he represents scientific discoveries achieved during Illuminism. In the former, a teacher gives a lecture by using a planetarium; in the latter, a natural philosopher (precursor of the modern scientist) performs an experiment in front of an audience.
Between 1871 and 1885, Marianne North travelled around the world and during her journeys she painted at least 832 works about tropical and exotic plants, which serve as historic and scientific record. Charles Darwin, who suggested her to visit Australia and New Zealand in 1880, considered her paintings excellent examples of his theory of natural selection.
Another artist influenced by Darwin was Gustav Klimt, who was also friend with Emil Zuckerkandl, professor of anatomy at the University of Vienna. Klimt was fascinated by embryology and for this reason he often referred to biology and reproduction in his paintings. For example, in the work “Hope I“, the subject is a woman at the last stage of pregnancy, while in “Danae” female fertilization and conception are celebrated. In the latter masterpiece, the artist represents the golden rain (which, according to legend, was Zeus who came to fertilize Danae) as many small embryos at the initial stage of development.
During the XX century, futurist movement brought updated scientific knowledge into art. Artists learnt about relativity and quantum mechanics. Giacomo Balla used a telescope to observe the sky. His famous painting “Mercury passing before the sun” was made in 1914. Most likely it is a coincidence, but observations on Mercury’s motion and the deviation of stars’ rays near the Sun were two experimental tests of Albert Einstein‘s general relativity, developed between 1907 and 1915. Balla, like a real scientist, made also a rational and methodical study on cars racing along Via Veneto in Rome. His aim was to identify the best way to represent speed of cars in his works, as speed and kinetics were main subject of Futurism.
A separate chapter (but I will try to summarize in a few lines) of 20th century art should be dedicated to Maurits Cornelis Escher, a Dutch artist who founded his work on the principles of mathematics, geometry and physics. His geometric distortions and polyhedra, which point to the paradox, are well known. Escher received inspiration from the work of the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose on the so-called “impossible objects”, that is, objects that can only be represented on paper, because they are impossible to create in three dimensions. In his works, Escher exploits impossible objects such as the Penrose triangle and the Necker cube, to obtain various optical illusions.
After the Second World War, artists experimented new ways to represent modernism. This resulted in decomposition of reality, and the introduction of the fourth dimension: the environment and the interaction with the spectator. Moreover, painting was not anymore the only connection between science and art, because industrial progress introduced novel materials, such as steel, neon, polymers, which artists readily used. Art followed machine civilization, as artist introduced in their artworks principles such as friction, gravity, elastic force, magnetic force and the dynamics of fluids.
In the first lines of the article I mentioned creativity as common feature between scientists and artists. In the so-called BioArt, scientist and artist become the same person. This art is made of living organisms and life processes. The name was invented by the Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac in 1997, and Suzanne Anker and Joe Davis are considered pioneers. In her works, Anker shows how nature has been altered in the XXI century, focusing on genetics, climate change and species extinction. Joe Davis is interested in molecular biology, bioinformatics, space art and sculpture, and he creates his works with genetic material, magnetic fields, prosthetics and much more.
Another relevant artist in the field is Xavier Cortada, who focuses on climate change, but he also paid attention to the Higgs boson discovery, to which he dedicated five banners in 2013. The banners are hanged in the exact place where the “God’s particle” was discovered at CERN, in Geneva. The background of the banners honors scientific collaboration, because it is composed of words from pages of 383 joint publications and the names of more than 4,000 scientists, engineers and technicians.
It was a pleasure to write this article, because I liked to see how science has been relevant for art and how artists displayed interest towards innovation, sometimes as appreciation, more recently as criticism. But as we will see, art is not the only field in which science plays, and played, an important role.