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Ever since the publication by Venturi in 1797 and Libri in 1840 of some few passages of Leonardo's astronomical notes, scientific astronomers have frequently expressed the opinion, that they must have been based on very important discoveries, and that the great painter also deserved a conspicuous place in the history of this science. In the passages here printed, a connected view is given of his astronomical studies as they lie scattered through the manuscripts, which have come down to us. Unlike his other purely scientific labours, Leonardo devotes here a good deal of attention to the opinions of the ancients, though he does not follow the practice universal in his day of relying on them as authorities; he only quotes them, as we shall see, in order to refute their arguments. His researches throughout have the stamp of independent thought. There is nothing in these writings to lead us to suppose that they were merely an epitome of the general learning common to the astronomers of the period. As early as in the XIVth century there were chairs of astronomy in the universities of Padua and Bologna, but so late as during the entire XVIth century Astronomy and Astrology were still closely allied.
It is impossible now to decide whether Leonardo, when living in Florence, became acquainted in his youth with the doctrines of Paolo Toscanelli the great astronomer and mathematician (died 1482), of whose influence and teaching but little is now known, beyond the fact that he advised and encouraged Columbus to carry out his project of sailing round the world. His name is nowhere mentioned by Leonardo, and from the dates of the manuscripts from which the texts on astronomy are taken, it seems highly probable that Leonardo devoted his attention to astronomical studies less in his youth than in his later years. It was evidently his purpose to treat of Astronomy in a connected form and in a separate work (see the beginning of Nos. 866 and 892; compare also No. 1167). It is quite in accordance with his general scientific thoroughness that he should propose to write a special treatise on Optics as an introduction to Astronomy (see Nos. 867 and 877). Some of the chapters belonging to this Section bear the title
[paragraph continues] "Prospettiva" (see Nos. 869 and 870), this being the term universally applied at the time to Optics as well as Perspective (see Vol. I, p. 10, note to No. 13, l. 10).
At the beginning of the XVIth century the Ptolemaic theory of the universe was still universally accepted as the true one, and Leonardo conceives of the earth as fixed, with the moon and sun revolving round it, as they are represented in the diagram to No. 897. He does not go into any theory of the motions of the planets; with regard to these and the fixed stars he only investigates the phenomena of their luminosity. The spherical form of the earth he takes for granted as an axiom from the first, and he anticipates Newton by pointing out the universality of Gravitation not merely in the earth, but even in the moon. Although his acute research into the nature of the moon's light and the spots on the moon did not bring to light many results of lasting importance beyond making it evident that they were a refutation of the errors of his contemporaries, they contain various explanations of facts which modern science need not modify in any essential point, and discoveries which history has hitherto assigned to a very much later date.
The ingenious theory by which he tries to explain the nature of what is known as earth shine, the reflection of the sun's rays by the earth towards the moon, saying that it is a peculiar refraction, originating in the innumerable curved surfaces of the waves of the sea may be regarded as absurd; but it must not be forgotten that he had no means of detecting the fundamental error on which he based it, namely: the assumption that the moon was at a relatively short distance from the earth. So long as the motion of the earth round the sun remained unknown, it was of course impossible to form any estimate of the moon's distance from the earth by a calculation of its parallax.
Before the discovery of the telescope accurate astronomical observations were only possible to a very limited extent. It would appear however from certain passages in the notes here printed for the first time, that Leonardo was in a position to study the spots in the moon more closely than he could have done with the unaided eye. So far as can be gathered from the mysterious language in which the description of his instrument is wrapped, he made use of magnifying glasses; these do not however seem to have been constructed like a telescope--telescopes were first made about 1600. As LIBRI pointed out (Histoire des Sciences mathematiques III, 101) Fracastoro of Verona (1473-1553) succeeded in magnifying the moon's face by an arrangement of lenses (compare No. 910, note), and this gives probability to Leonardo's invention at a not much earlier date.