Creating Leonardo: Commemorating 500 Years of Leonardo’s Legacy

Leonardo da Vinci’s achievements continue to amaze us, even after 500 years: iconic images like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man; a remarkable range of artistic and scientific drawings; and inventions far ahead of their time. His notebooks go beyond the writings of other artists of his era, in recording his observations on the world of nature and man. His intense curiosity about “how things work” led to ground-breaking creations: from studies of plants and mountains, to comparisons of the motion of hair and water, to renderings of the human form, based on dissections. His innate abilities were shaped by his unusual early self-education, followed by his fortunate apprenticeship to Verrocchio, the most accomplished painter and sculptor in Florence. Leonardo worked for a variety of patrons, each affecting his work by supporting different sides of his talent. Join Humanities West in exploring Leonardo’s vast achievement and his interaction with the world that shaped him.

With support from the Stanford Department of History and the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies; the Stanford Humanities Center; the Italian Cultural Institute; the UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies; and the Leonardo da Vinci Society.

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

609 Sutter Street, San Francisco

Tickets at City Box Office 415.392.4400


Friday, February 22, 2019

7:30 – 9:30 pm 

Introduction / Paula Findlen (History, Stanford)

Leonardo and the “Beloved Ladies”: Science and Poetry / Martin Kemp (History of Art, Oxford). Leonardo’s fervent and sometimes spurious arguments against poetry in his “comparison of the arts” indicate how seriously he took poets as direct rivals, not least in a court context. His library was well stocked with poetry. Leonardo’s innovations in the portrayal of women in his paintings of Ginevra de’ Benci, Cecilia Galleranti, Lucrezia Crivelli and Lisa del Giocondo are in profound dialogue with the poetic conventions of the “beloved ladies” —who were the stock subject of Italian poetry from Dante onwards. Leonardo’s accumulative aim was to surpass the poets. The theme will be illustrated by dramatic readings from Italian poetry (in translation), ranging from the giants to lesser known court poets who wrote specifically about Leonardo. Featuring Bay Area actor James Carpenter in a dramatic reading.

Performance: Leonardo-Inspired Music / Clerestory, Introduced by Clifford (Kip) Cranna (Dramaturg, San Francisco Opera). The men’s classical vocal ensemble Clerestory performs a program of a cappella music inspired by Leonardo. From masterworks by the great Italian cathedral composers of his time, to meditations on the Last Supper, to inventive tributes like Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, we’ll hear how Da Vinci inspired—and perhaps was inspired by—the resonant sound of echoing choirs.


Introduction / Paula Findlen (History, Stanford)

Leonardo’s Library:  The World of a Renaissance Reader / Paula Findlen (History, Stanford). Leonardo was a lifelong learner, inveterate note-taker, and writer with an uneven and highly self-directed education. He lived in a world in which Gutenberg’s printing press, created shortly before his birth, had begun to transform the nature of the book but manuscripts still mattered a great deal. Early in life, Leonardo owned very few books, but over time his collection grew until he had his own library, in addition to books he borrowed from others. Throughout his life, Leonardo encountered many different kinds of learning; the diversity of his interests led him to read and think broadly. His library is a key to how he interacted with and learned from his world.

Leonardo and Water / Monica Azzolini (History of Science, University of Bologna). Leonardo’s notebooks are replete with reflections about the nature of water. Indeed, he seemingly planned to write a whole treatise on this very subject. In part related to practical problems of engineering and possible commissions from patrons, Leonardo’s fascination with water went much further than that to encompass the movement of waves, water erosion, reflection and refraction, the healing or insalubrious properties of water, and, more dramatically, the Deluge. This lecture will explore both the historical context of Leonardo’s studies, and his methods of inquiry to highlight the way in which Leonardo skillfully waved together observation, reasoning and learning to understand water, one of the most fascinating elements of nature.

Leonardo and the Lure of Machines / Pamela O. Long (Independent Scholar and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow [2015-2020]). Leonardo was fascinated by machines and mechanical contrivances. This lecture explores his fascination first by considering the ways in which it was one shared by his culture. The lecture will discuss Leonardo’s machine drawings as part of a growing machine culture in which some of his contemporaries, such as Mariano Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio, also drew and wrote about machines. Others avidly studied and copied their works. It will explore the ways in which Leonardo applied innovative drawing techniques to machines. It will discuss his machines on paper and the extent to which they were his own inventions. Finally, it will discuss his notebook, the Madrid Codex I, with its many wonderful drawings of machines surrounded by extensive texts. Central to the talk is this question: What was central to Leonardo’s interest in machines and what was his investigative approach to the many mechanical devices and machines that he drew? 

Leonardo’s Artistic Legacy: Homage and Irony / Deborah Loft (Professor Emerita of Art, College of Marin). In 1519 Leonardo da Vinci died in France and a myth was born. Taking the long view, what is the significance of Leonardo as an artist, over time? What inspired other artists, from his time to ours, and how did their selections reflect their own times? Echoes of his innovative ideas appear in the work of such Renaissance artists as Titian, and the woman artist Sophonisba Anguissola. His techniques also informed the work of painterly 17th century artists, including Rubens and Velazquez. In more contemporary work, Leonardo’s art has become a touchstone for the European tradition, as referenced ironically in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Yasumasa Morimura, and others. “Leonardo” is even the name that has been given to an ambitiously comprehensive recent Cloud project at SAP (the German rival of Oracle.) What are the current meanings of his iconic status in the artistic and digital worlds?

Panel Discussion with the presenters


Monica Azzolini (PhD, Cambridge) is on the faculty in Bologna, and formerly was Senior Lecturer of Early Modern European History at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and while there affiliated with the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. A native of Milan, Italy, she has also taught at the University of Washington Seattle and the School of History at University of New South Wales in Australia. She spent an academic year at Villa I Tatti Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence and has also held a fellowship at Warburg Institute in London. She is a member of the editorial board of Renaissance Quarterly, a discipline representative for the History of Medicine and Science at the Renaissance Society of America, a committee member of the Leoardo daVinci Society, and international member of the editorial board for the series, ‘La Nuova Meridiana (Storia)’, Le Lettere.

James Carpenter is an Associate Artist at Cal Shakes, having appeared in more than 30 productions, recently as Duncan, the Porter, and others in Macbeth (2010). Other Bay Area credits include A.C.T., San Jose Rep, Aurora Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Marin Theatre Company, and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. He is an Associate Artist at Berkeley Rep and is the Honoree of the B. A.T. C. C. 2007 Barbara Bladen Porter Award for consistent excellence in Theater, and was awarded a 2010 Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship from the Ten Chimneys Foundation. Out of town credits include: The Old GlobeTheatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Intiman Theatre, Dallas Theatre Center, Arizona Theatre Company, and The Huntington. Television:Nash Bridges. Film: The Rainmaker and Metro. Independents: Singing, Presque Isle, and The Sunflower Boy.

Clerestory is the Bay Area’s premiere home-grown a cappella ensemble. Founded in 2006 and named for cathedral architecture, Clerestory’s members—veterans of the finest local choral groups—revel in decades of singing together. The group’s inventive programming and collaborative artistry have made it a favorite in the San Francisco classical scene. Photos in our press kit.

Clifford (Kip) Cranna, Dramaturg at San Francisco Opera, has served on the staff since 1979 and was Director of Music Administration for over thirty years. In 2008 he was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and in 2012 he received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award for distinguished efforts to bring excellence to a cultural institution. In 2014 he received the Star of Excellence Award for outstanding service to the programs of the San Francisco Opera Guild. He holds a BA in music from the University of North Dakota and a PhD in musicology from Stanford University. For thirty years he was Program Editor and Lecturer for the Carmel Bach Festival. He lectures and writes frequently on music, teaches at the SF Conservatory and the Fromm Institute at USF, and moderates the SF Opera Guild “Insight” panel discussions. He was Dramaturg for the 2016 production of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Dr. Cranna is a member of the Humanities West board.


Paula Findlen (PhD, UC Berkeley) is Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History; Director of the Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Director, SIMILE Program, at Stanford. Her teaching and research examine how scientific knowledge emerged in the context of humanistic approaches to the world in order to understand how science, medicine and technology have become central to contemporary society. Her other principal interest lies in understanding the Italian Renaissance, a society that made politics, economics and culture so important to its self-definition, and that succeeded, as the legacy of such figures as Machiavelli and Leonardo suggests. Renaissance Italy, in short, is a historical laboratory for understanding the possibilities and problems of an innovative society. Selected publications include Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (2003); (with Michelle Fontaine and Duane Osheim, eds.), Beyond Florence: The Contours of Medieval and Early Modern Italy (2003); and The Italian Renaissance: Essential Readings (2002).

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University. He has written and broadcast extensively on imagery in art and science from the Renaissance to the present. He speaks on issues of visualisation and lateral thinking to a wide range of audiences. His books on Leonardo da Vinci include Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, with Giuseppe Pallanti (2017), and Leonardo (2004). He has published on imagery in the sciences of anatomy, natural history and optics, including The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (1992). He was trained in Natural Sciences and Art History at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He was British Academy Wolfson Research Professor (1993-98). For more than 25 years he was based in Scotland (Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews). He has held visiting posts in Princeton, New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles and Montreal. He has curated exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, including Spectacular Bodies at Hayward Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 and Seduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007. He was guest curator for Circa 1492 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1992.

Loft, DDeborah Loft (MA, University of Pennsylvania) is Art History Professor Emeritus at College of Marin, where she received the Distinguished Teaching Award. In addition, she has worked on the curatorial staff of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and lectured at a variety of Bay Area museums and institutions. Her wide-ranging interests include the theater, where she has worked as a costume designer. Leonardo da Vinci and his Renaissance context have been a continuing part of her teaching repertoire. Her travels for art historical research have given her the opportunity to study both his paintings and his drawings in the original. She has lectured for Humanities West on medieval Toledo, Bernini in Rome, American expatriate artists in Paris, and the art of the Vikings.

Pamela O. Long (PhD, University of Maryland) is an independent historian of late medieval and Renaissance history and the history of science and technology. A John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow (2015-2020), she is an expert on Leonardo’s inventions. Her current project is a cultural history of engineering and knowledge in Rome between 1557 and 1590. Her latest book is Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences 1400-1600 (2011), a result of Horning Visiting Scholar lectures that she gave at Oregon State in 2010. She is co-author and co-editor (with David McGee and Alan M. Stahl) of The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript, 3 vols. (2009). The three-volume edition has been awarded the Eugene S. Ferguston Prize by the Society for the History of Technology and the J. Franklin Jameson Prize by the American Historical Association. She is also a co-author (with Brian Curran, Anthony Grafton, and Benjamin Weiss) of Obelisk: A History (2009). Other publications include Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (2001), winner of the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best book in intellectual history published in 2001. She is co-editor with Asif Siddiqi and Bob Post of the SHOT/AHA booklet series, “Historical Perspectives on Technology, Society, and Culture.”

Related Events

February 19, 2019     6:30-7:30 pm  Fireside Chat on Leonardo / George Hammond. Orinda Library. Orinda

February 20, 2019     6:30 – 7:30 pm Humanities West Book Discussion, led by Lynn Harris. Book TBD. Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF.

March 20, 2019          6:30 – 7:30 pm Humanities West Book Discussion, led by Lynn Harris. Book TBD. Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF.

May 2, 2019   Opening: Stanford Special Collections Exhibition Leonardo’s Lost Library:  A Renaissance Reader and His Books to commemorate the 500th anniversary

Resources Materials

Some Resources for Leonardo daVinci. Compiled by Humanities West Intern Christen Hall 092117

Abraham, Anna. Leonardo da Vinci. 2016.

Brown, Tom. Leonardo da Vinci: Biography, Artwork, and Inventions. 2016.

Clayton, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. 2012.

Findlen, Paula. The Italian Renaissance: Essential Readings. 2002.

Hourly History. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life from Beginning to End. 2016.

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. 2017.

Kemp, Martin. Leonardo. 2004.

—. Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, with Giuseppe Pallanti. 2017.

—. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. 1992.

Lankford, Mike. Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci. 2017.

Long, Pamela. Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences 1400-1600. 2011.

Nathan, Johannes. Zollner, Frank. Leonardo da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings. 2015.

Richter, Jean Paul. da Vinci, Leonardo. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. 2017.

Turner, A. Richard. Inventing Leonardo. 1992.

Williams, Jay. Leonardo da Vinci. 2016.

Zimmerhoff, James. Da Vinci, Leonardo. Thoughts on Art and Life: What he knows. 2017.