The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci: A symposium in celebration of the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death - 92Y, New York

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The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci: A symposium in celebration of the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death

Apr 7, 2019

Co-Produced by the 92nd Street Y and Stanford University’s Symposium on Music and the Brain.

The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci: A symposium in celebration of the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death, with Hanna Arie-Gaifman, Jonathan Berger, Howard Morgan, Michael Kubovy, Israel Nelken, Barbara Tversky, Timothy Weaver, and Robert Zwijnenberg.

Underlying Leonardo’s seemingly superhuman feats of intellect and art was an uninhibited desire to ask questions and seek answers to everything from the mundane (‘What is a sneeze?’) to the sublime (‘Where is the soul?’) questions explored in Jonathan Berger’s new work Leonardo, given its world premiere on April 6, 2019 at 92Y. In the Symposium that follows, great artists and thinkers reflect on da Vinci’s acute awareness of human perception, and his obsessive desire to visually capture his observations and ideas. We will hear about Leonardo’s ability to conceptualize complexity (Zwijnenberg), his method of thinking through drawing (Tversky), his intuitions on art and aesthetics (Kubovy and Nelken), and experience how da Vinci’s obsessive search for understanding finds itself in humor (Morgan), science, and art (Weaver).

Listen to the individual talks below.

Howard Lee Morgan: Leonardo’s Obsessive Search for Truth Through Observation

Leonardo was a consummate scientist. “Experience does not ever err,” he said, “it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results which are not caused by your experiments.” If only he had made his work public instead of keeping it private. His studies of anatomy were decades, even centuries ahead of his time, yet he published almost nothing. Yet his paintings show his mastery of every muscle and sinew in the human body.

His studies of curves, including the helical curves of screws, the curls of hair, were all part of his plan to write treatises on anatomy, mechanics and architecture, along with painting. Alas, his cryptic use of notes and inability to finish things left us with 5,000 scattered pages of notes and drawings, presaging much of anatomy, botany and mechanics.

Howard Lee Morgan is a Co-Founder and Special Advisor to First Round Capital, established in 2004 as an early stage venture fund based in Philadelphia, PA, New York, and San Francisco. He is also Chairman of B Capital Group, a later stage global fund based in Singapore and Manhattan Beach, CA. He is also President of Arca Group Inc. in Villanova, PA and a Director of Idealab, the Pasadena, CA based creator and operator of internet companies, where he was a founding investor in 1996. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the City College of New York, a Ph.D. in Operations Research from Cornell University, and an M.S.(hc) from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Morgan served as Professor of Decision Sciences at The Wharton School, and Professor of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School. During his academic career he served as an editor of Communications of the ACM, Management Science, Transactions on Office Information Systems and Transactions on Database Systems. His research on user interface technology and on optimization of computer networks led to his bringing the ARPAnet to Philadelphia in 1974. Since 1989, he has been President of the Arca Group, Inc., a consulting and venture capital investment management firm specializing in the area of computer and communications technologies. Arca Group has taken many ventures from seed stage through initial public offerings. He also runs the Morgan Family Common Investment Fund MFCIF LLC.​  

Robert Zwijnenberg: Leonardo and Labyrinthine Thinking

How did Leonardo think? And why and how is this of importance to us? I will explain Leonardo's labyrinthine way of thinking and argue why this way of thinking can help us to come to terms with the fact that we have created a world we cannot control.

Robert Zwijnenberg is full professor of Art and Science Exchange at Universiteit Leiden. His research and teaching focus are on the role of contemporary art in the academic and public debates on the implications of biotechnological innovations. Zwijnenberg specifically engages with a growing number of artists, known as bio-artists, who use the opportunities offered by biotechnology to work with new materials: living materials that traditionally do not belong to the artistic realm. Bio-artists artistically explore the cultural, social, ethical, political, and esthetic implications of biotechnological innovations. Zwijnenberg published a book on Leonardo: The Writings and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: Order and Chaos in Early Modern Thought. CUP, 1999.​

Barbara Tversky: Externalizing Thought — Thinking Through Drawing

Leonardo drew incessantly, that was how he thought. Far different from the serenity of his paintings, his drawings are frenetic, explosive. Yet drawings can't move, they too are still, despite the dynamic processes he was trying to understand, such as the flow of blood in arteries and the flow of water in rivers. He drew analogies from visually similar processes such as these, and used the actions of his hand as he drew as if they were mirroring the actions of nature. I will discuss Leonardo's process and put that in the larger context of using drawing as a way of thinking.

Barbara Tversky is Professor of Psychology Emerita, Stanford University and Professor of Psychology, Columbia Teachers College. She was born a contrarian and early on began studying how people think about the various spaces they inhabit because the presumption at the time was that language was the foundation of thought. She extended this to the study of the spaces people create for their own well-being, to augment thought, and to communicate, including gestures, depictions, diagrams, comics, sketches, and arrangements of the world, eventually showing, that spatial thinking is the foundation of thought. The foundation, not the entire edifice. Some of this appears in her May, 2019 book, Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, Basic Books.

Israel Nelken: Leonardo on Music

The transience of music makes it, in da Vinci's mind, lesser to painting in that it dies in the process of being created, while the beauty of painting is remembered for a long time. I will present an account of Leonardo's claim within current views of auditory perception, including the notion of reverse hierarchies, the role of predictive coding in audition, and the active/constructive nature of perception.

Israel Nelken is the Milton and Brindell Gottlieb Chair in Brain Sciences and a director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eli's main interest is in the way in which past and future interact in the auditory system—how the past history of sound shapes brain activity and therefore perception of future sounds. Eli’s research combines state-of-the-art techniques in animal research with perceptual studies in humans.​

Michael Kubovy: Leonardo and the Two Culture Problem

The two-culture problem (which one might think Leonardo had solved) is particularly vexing when it comes to neuroscience and visual art. Neuroaestheticians would have us believe that they can—at least in principle—help us understand art by telling us how the brain of the creative artist produces art and how the brain of the viewer processes art and produces pleasure. I will take a skeptical look at such claims, share some thoughts about conditions that would make such a rapprochement possible, and illustrate with a puzzle concerning Leonardo's Last Supper.

Michael Kubovy is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Virginia. His publications in cognitive science span the fields of decision-making, visual and auditory perception, the psychology of art and the psychology of pleasure. In his work on perception he has used mathematical models to answer challenging questions raised a century ago by the Gestalt psychologists. In his book The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art he uses art history and perceptual research to illuminate each other. He is currently working on a book called The Structure of Lives, which explores implications of the idea that the first-person experience of our lives can be decomposed into continuous, concurrent, and asynchronous strands.​

Timothy Weaver: FlussoReflusso (live cinema performance, 2019)

FlussoReflusso is a work of live cinema (audio and video) performance that reanimates and revisits the ebb and flow of Leonardo’s drawings on scales from the metabolic/anatomic to the atmospheric. The project enriches the iconic Leonardo art-science residues through redrawn equivalents of our interior-exterior flows from the aorta to the deluge paired with the sonic expression of transcoded bioinformatics to sound. The intent of the work is a suspension of audience in the immersive moment of art-science practice across time.

Timothy Weaver is a new media artist, life scientist, and bioenvironmental engineer whose concerted objective is to contribute to the restoration of ecological memory through a process of speculative inquiry along the art | science interface. His recent interactive installation, live cinema, video, and sonic projects have been featured at venues across North to South America and Europe. Weaver is Professor of Emergent Digital Practices at the University of Denver with research, creative, and teaching specializations in biomedia, sustainable design, and art-science synergies. More details on his project and research activities are available at: