Leonardo da Vinci’s architectural designs as thought experiments: the sources and influence of his ideas

14 May 2013

It is argued that Leonardo da Vinci’s architectural designs are uniquely original due to his ability to connect ideas derived from a wide range of sources and his own empirical researches. This attempt at understanding Leonardo’s visual thinking that is the basis of his architectural designs commences with a reference to his decorative knotted puzzle, entitled "Concatenation", that symbolises a map of the universe, reminiscent of Aristotle’s world view, as expressed by Dante Alighieri. Leonardo’s empiricist approach to scientific research and artistic creativity also relates to Aristotle’s insight into matter, form and growth patterns. His creative process in art and design was inspired by thought experiments in which his mastery of "disegno" enabled him to express the mutation of living forms into mechanical and architectural forms, and vice versa, to imbue the latter with a life force. His representation of fictive buildings in his paintings is surveyed, followed by a review of his architectural sketches of which his designs of centralised and longitudinal domed churches are evaluated in some detail, taking into account his varied sources as well as his influence. Emphasis is placed on Leonardo’s originality as an architectural designer, especially with reference to notable domed churches on octagonal plans with side chapels that approximate fractal designs.