Campus & Community

Leonardo da Vinci, proto genetic engineer?

5 min read

Fehrenbach says Renaissance ‘obsessed with life and rebirth’

A conceptual artist named Eduardo Kac ignited a fierce controversy in 2000 when he tried to enter a genetically modified bunny that glowed green under ultraviolet light in an art exhibition in France.

The bunny, named Alba, derived its green glow from the genes of a fluorescent jellyfish that had been spliced into its genome at an early stage of development.

The controversy was triggered when the biotech lab that Kac commissioned to create the animal withdrew it from the show, claiming that the lab was its real owner. Some condemned the embargo on Alba as a form of censorship. Others deplored the production of a genetic oddity as an art object, or castigated genetic manipulation in general on moral grounds.

Frank Fehrenbach has been paying careful attention to the case of Kac because he finds significant parallels between this 21st century controversy and some of the ideas that informed the work of Renaissance artists, particularly Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, Fehrenbach believes Leonardo might very well have supported Kac’s genetic experimentation.

“I think he would have been fine with it. I think Leonardo would have even felt tempted to experiment with genetic engineering if he had access to the technology.”

Fehrenbach, who joined the History of Art and Architecture Department in 2005 as a full professor, has written extensively on Leonardo and other artists of the Italian Renaissance. His current research is on the concept of animation and liveliness in Renaissance art.

“The Renaissance was obsessed with the notion of life and rebirth,” Fehrenbach said. “Renaissance, of course, means rebirth, the idea that history renews itself in an organic way. We see this in Machiavelli’s idea of the state as well as in ideas about art. Leonardo says that artists have to infuse virtual life into their painting.”

Renaissance thinkers and artists saw life as an amalgam of various elements, principally the ability to move, to perceive, and to reproduce. But perhaps the most fundamental was the capacity to bind different elements together through the quality of “inner heat,” which manifested itself in digestion and metabolism.

In the creative realm, artists sought a binding force analogous to this inner heat that would unify and bring harmony to the colors and composition of their paintings. Aesthetic theory was thus closely associated with notions of biology and organic life.

Leonardo, who was a scientist, naturalist, and inventor as well as an artist, explored the secrets of life not only in his painting but in other areas as well. In his life of the artist, Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari describes some of Leonardo’s intriguing experiments. As a young man, Vasari tells us, Leonardo was given a shield to decorate. He decided to paint the shield with an image of a fire-breathing monster, assembling a model out of various parts of reptiles, bats, insects, and other creatures. He worked so long on the painting that his synthetic monster began to stink, but this did not deter the artist in his pursuit of perfection, and when the shield was finished, its realism was such that onlookers were actually terrified by it.

Vasari relates another story in which Leonardo, later in his life, attached wings, horns, and a beard to a still-living lizard, covering the creature with a shimmering layer of quicksilver. His simulation of a natural form was so skillfully done that those who saw the altered reptile reacted with surprise and fear.

In his work in progress, Fehrenbach traces the interrelationship between aesthetics and biology through its various transformations from the Renaissance up to the 20th century. In the 18th century, he said, notions of nervous action began to overshadow the Renaissance focus on metabolism, perhaps in response to experiments with magnetism and electricity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea began to evolve that the artist was in touch with mysterious life forces that were opposed to the mechanical and deadening forces of society.

Born and educated in Germany, Fehrenbach has been interested in the ability of art to express and transform contemporary ideas and beliefs since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Tübingen, where he earned a degree in 1990 in art history, philosophy, and medieval and modern history.

He earned his Ph.D. there in 1995 with a dissertation on the theme of light and water in the paintings of Leonardo. His thesis was published in book form as “Licht und Wasser. Zur Dynamik naturphilosophischer Leitbilder im Werk Leonardo da Vincis” (1997). He is the author or editor of several more books on the art and thought of the Italian Renaissance as well as numerous articles and reviews.

Fehrenbach has been a research fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome; an assistant professor at the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence (both Max Planck institutes); a visiting professor at Humboldt University, Berlin; a visiting professor at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena; and a research fellow at the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, Cologne. From 2004 to 2005 he was a visiting professor at Harvard.

This past fall, Fehrenbach taught a seminar on the monumental fountains of central Italy, focusing on the political, aesthetic, and philosophical aspects of these imposing public monuments. This spring, he is teaching a course on the Renaissance tombs of Florence, which will feature a class excursion to the city of Florence to view the tombs themselves. He believes that seeing the object in its original context is essential to understanding it as a work of art.

“Art historians have never lived in such a favorable situation as far as images are concerned,” Fehrenbach said. “But the availability of images in books and on the Internet can get in the way of experiencing the work itself. A sense of scale and context may be lost. When students do encounter the real work, they may be disillusioned because it may seem less brilliant or even shabby by comparison. Art historians ought to work hard against the decontextualization and disembodiment of the objects they study.”