Above all else, the Renaissance has traditionally been seen as an extraordinary flowering of arts and letters.
This view has long obscured the revival of technical activity that began in Italy in the late fourteenth century and lasted, with undiminished vigor, through the fifteenth century.
The prime movers of this process were the same "artists" who led the renewal of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Leonardo's combined interest in art, technique, and science was long regarded as an utterly unique manifestation in his time. In fact, before Leonardo, many other fourteenth-century artists produced true mechanical marvels.
Rediscovering the classics
The Renaissance artists, often working with leading humanists, sought to revive the technical knowledge of the classical world. In 1425, Lorenzo Ghiberti made a special journey to Rome to examine an illustrated Greek manuscript on technical subjects. Other "artist-engineers" were engaged in deciphering the descriptions of machines in the texts of Vitruvius and in drafting plausible illustrations of them. The writings on pneumatics by Philo of Byzantium and Hero of Alexandria were closely scrutinized, while the treatises on warfare and hydraulics by Vegetius and Frontinus remained in continuous use.
In the early fourteenth century, after centuries of neglect, technical subjects began to be viewed as worthy of discussion. Taccola was the first in a series of "artist-engineers" who aimed to produce technical works containing well-integrated text and images. This was the approach followed by Francesco di Giorgio, Giovanni Fontana, and?above all?Leonardo.
Primacy of drawing
The ancient and medieval technical tradition was documented by texts that nearly always lacked images. The ever more widespread use of drawing as a medium for demonstration and communication was one of the major innovations of the fourteenth century. Within a few decades, sophisticated graphic conventions were defined to visualize machines and complex mechanical devices, and to suggest their capabilities. This art of machine portraiture was founded by Taccola and brought to maturity by Francesco di Giorgio, but it was Leonardo who left his indelible stamp on it. Leonardo freed drawing from the ties that had previously bound it to the figurative arts; in so doing, he turned it into a formidable instrument for exploring the vast machine of the world.
The Republic of Florence and its successor, the Medicean Seigneury, the Venetian Republic, Ghibelline Siena, the Malatestas in Rimini, the Montefeltros in Urbino, the Aragons in Naples, and the Sforzas in Milan offered artist-engineers frequent opportunities to display their talents. These technical specialists gave Renaissance cities a new look: the Florence of Brunelleschi; the Urbino of Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio, integrated into a sophisticated network of fortresses; the Milan of the Sforzas, marked by Leonardo's utopian town-planning projects.
In the fourteenth century, the social status of the technical professions underwent a deep change. The medieval technicians who gave birth to the majestic Gothic cathedrals were socially marginalized and, in literary terms, silent. Their successors, the "artist-engineers," wrote ambitious literary works; above all, they were celebrated and protected by Europe's most powerful rulers. Begun by Brunelleschi, this emancipation culminated with Leonardo, for whose services the high and mighty competed. Legend has it that the King of France in person, his devoted admirer, was present at Leonardo's death in 1519.