PROLOGUE

MARKING 500 YEARS SINCE THE DEATH OF LEONARDO DA VINCI, THE ARCHETYPICAL POLYMATH

Leonardo, the uomo universale (universal man), is most people's idea of a polymath.

Painting, sculpture, architecture, stage design, music, military and civil engineering, mathematics, statics, dynamics, optics, anatomy, geology, botany and zoology – Leonardo pursued most of these at a level that warrants mention in any history of these subjects. Professionals in many of these fields see Leonardo in themselves, claiming him for their ideal.

It is entirely appropriate that the cover of Waqās Ahmed's The Polymath should be Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, the outstretched figure inscribed in a square and circle, based on the The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. It is Leonardo's visual hymn to the essential oneness of human beings, the world and the cosmos. It is often used opportunistically in advertising and elsewhere to endow something routine with apparent profundity. Here, however, it is central to Ahmed's endeavour.

Given how we now classify and compartmentalise intellectual and practical pursuits, we tend to see Leonardo's diversity. He saw unity. The unity was that of the fundamental organisation of the physical world, which fell under the embrace of ‘the principles of mathematics, that is to say number and measure – termed arithmetic and geometry, which deal with discontinuous and continuous qualities with the utmost truth’. Behind the myriad diversity of forms in nature lay a set ...

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