Martin Kemp (art historian)

Martin Kemp, pictured in 2011

Martin Kemp (born 5 March 1937) is emeritus professor of the history of art at University of Oxford. He is considered one of the world's leading experts on the art of Leonardo da Vinci and visualisation in art and science.


Kemp was trained in natural sciences and art history at Cambridge University (Downing College) and the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He was British Academy Wolfson Research Professor (1993–98). For more than 25 years he was based in Scotland (University of Glasgow and University of St Andrews). He has held visiting posts in Princeton, New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Kemp has written books about Leonardo da Vinci, including Leonardo (Oxford University Press, 2004, rev. 2011). He has published on imagery in the sciences of anatomy, natural history and optics, including The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale University Press).

Kemp has focused on issues of visualisation, modelling and representation. He has written a regular column called Science in Culture in Nature (an early selection published as Visualisations, OUP, 2000). The Nature essays are developed in Seen and Unseen (OUP, 2006), in which his concept of "structural intuitions" is explored. His most recent book is Christ to Coke: How Image becomes Icon (OUP, 2011). Several of his books have been translated into various languages.

He has curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, including Spectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 and Seduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007. He was also guest curator for Circa 1492 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1992.

In 2000, he advised skydiver Adrian Nicholas as he constructed a parachute according to Leonardo's drawings from materials which would have been available in his day. In 1485 Leonardo had scribbled a simple sketch of a four-sided pyramid covered in linen. Alongside, he had written: "If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards (11 m) on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury." In June 2000, Nicholas launched himself from a hot air balloon 10,000 feet (3,000 m) over South Africa. He parachuted for five minutes as a black box recorder measured his descent, before cutting himself free of the device and releasing a conventional parachute. Leonardo's parachute made such a smooth and slow descent that the two jumpers accompanying Nicholas had to brake twice to stay level with him.

Kemp's projects include:

Leonardo da Vinci. Experience, Experiment and Design
an exhibition about how Leonardo thought on paper. It contains some of his most complex and challenging designs. Although many other artists, inventors and scientists have brainstormed on paper, none of his predecessors, contemporaries or successors used paper quite like he did. The intensity, variety and unpredictability of what happens on a single sheet are unparalleled. This project was last exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 14 September 2006 to 7 January 2007.
Universal Leonardo
A project aimed at deepening our understanding of Leonardo da Vinci through a series of international exhibitions, scientific research and educational resources. A web site is available for details of the ongoing exhibitions and to discover Leonardo's fascinating thought and work in the realms of art, science and technology:

In 2010 he published a monograph together with French engineer Pascal Cotte, recounting the story of how a team of experts – under his guidance – pieced together the evidence for the extraordinary discovery of a major artwork by Leonardo, now named La Bella Principessa. The book, entitled La Bella Principessa (2010), narrates the steps Kemp and Cotte took in authenticating the painting, including the use of forensic methods usually reserved for criminal investigation, matching a fingerprint found on La Bella Principessa to the great Renaissance master. The 2012 Italian edition, La bella principessa di Leonardo da Vinci.[1] produces evidence about its origins.

As emeritus professor at Oxford University, since 2010 he is full-time writing, speaking and broadcasting.


Art, science and history of science

Leonardo da Vinci


(Other than Leonardo and art and science)

in German as Der Blick hinter der Bilder. Text und Kunst in der italienischen Renaissance, Dumont, Cologne, 1997 (French and Italian translations awaited)


(Εxcluding exhibition reviews)

Other periods and issues


  1. Kemp, Martin J., and Cotte, Pascal (2012). La bella principessa di Leonardo da Vinci. Ritratto di Bianca Sforza. Firenze: Mandragora. ISBN 9788874611737
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