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The Shadow Drawing

How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint

Francesca Fiorani


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ISBN10: 1250800218
ISBN13: 9781250800213

Trade Paperback

394 Pages



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Leonardo da Vinci has long been celebrated as the epitome of genius. He was the masterful painter who gave us the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and the visionary inventor who anticipated airplanes, hot-air balloons, and other technological marvels. But what was the connection between Leonardo the painter and Leonardo the scientist? And what can a mysterious, long-lost book teach us about how Leonardo truly conceived his art?

Shortly after Leonardo’s death, his peers and rivals created the myth of the two Leonardos: there was Leonardo the artist and then, later in life, Leonardo the scientist. In this pathbreaking biographical interpretation, the art historian Francesca Fiorani tells a very different and much more interesting story.

Taking a fresh look at Leonardo’s celebrated but challenging notebooks as well as other, often obscure sources, Fiorani shows that Leonardo became fluent in science when he was still a young man. As an apprentice in a Florence studio, he was especially interested in the science of optics, which tells us how we see what we see. For the rest of his life he remained, according to a close observer, obsessed with optics, believing that his art would grow only as his knowledge of light and shadow deepened.

Given Leonardo’s scientific bent, one might think this meant that he wanted to turn himself into a human camera. In fact, he aspired to use science to capture—as no artist before him had ever done—the interior lives of his subjects, to paint the human soul in its smallest, tenderest motions and vicissitudes. And then he hoped to take one further step: to gather his scientific knowledge together in a book that would be even more important than his paintings. His Treatise on Painting would be disfigured, ignored, and lost in subsequent centuries; now, Fiorani traces this singular work’s byzantine path through history and reconstructs the wisdom Leonardo hoped it would impart.

Ranging from the teeming streets of Florence to the most delicate brushstrokes on the surface of the Mona Lisa, The Shadow Drawing vividly reconstructs Leonardo’s life while teaching us to look anew at his greatest paintings. The result is both a stirring biography and a bold reconsideration of how the Renaissance understood science and art—and of what was lost when the two were sundered.


Praise for The Shadow Drawing

"[Fiorani] makes [her argument] with fresh force and pitches it against the misconception that Leonardo abandoned painting for science in his later years . . . when she loses herself in looking, the book achieves fluency and power."—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"Through a series of close studies of paintings, Ms. Fiorani demonstrates how Leonardo explored light and shadow in a range of challenging subjects. She builds up the reader’s knowledge of what can be an abstruse and highly mathematical field through detailed and lively considerations of individual art works. Her study of the unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481), is particularly compelling."—Cammy Brothers, The Wall Street Journal

“In this insightful and beautiful book, the great Leonardo scholar Francesca Fiorani connects his studies of optics with his painting. It’s a wonderful study of how Leonardo’s art and science were interwoven—which should be an inspiration to us all.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci

"Francesca Fiorani’s lively intellectual adventure gives us a new understanding and appreciation of Leonardo’s ingenious cross-fertilization of art and science. It is a perceptive biography of Leonardo exploring the frontiers of science, but also a brilliantly informative guide to his paintings—many of which I will now enjoy seeing again with Fiorani’s fresh insights in mind."—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome, Leonardo and the Last Supper, and Mad Enchantment

"Francesca Fiorani’s book makes an effective contribution towards demolishing the false notion of two Leonardos—one the artist, the other the scientist. Fiorani masterfully shows how science enabled the young Leonardo to take Renaissance painting to an unprecedented level of perfection. No matter how many books about Leonardo you might have read, this one is not to be missed. It will shape your understanding of his beautiful mind’s all-encompassing vision of art, nature, and man."—Paolo Galluzzi, director, Museo Galileo, Florence

"Intimately capturing the artistic, religious, and cultural landscape of Leonardo’s world, the author traces his development as an artist from his early apprenticeship days to the lessons he learned as he painted his greatest works and up to his posthumous legacy . . . Fiorani effectively describes Leonardo’s experiments with paints that allowed him to 'achieve an astounding variety of optical effects.'"Kirkus Reviews

"[Francesca Fiorani] provides new insight into the work of Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci in this fresh assessment . . . This beautifully written work is underpinned by immense scholarship; art lovers and historians will not be able to put it down."Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


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The teenage boy who showed up for an apprenticeship at the bottega of Andrea del Verrocchio was, it seemed, a work of art in his own right. He was possessed of such extraordinary beauty, it was...

About the author

Francesca Fiorani

Francesca Fiorani is a professor of art history at the University of Virginia, where she has served as associate dean for the arts and humanities and chair of the art department. A leading authority on Renaissance art and the application of computer technology to the humanities, she is the creator of the digital platform Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting and the author of The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography and Politics in Renaissance Italy.

© Simona Filippini

Francesca Fiorani