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Leonardo, Painting and the Natural World.


1) Leonardo da Vinci, A Seated Man, and Studies and Notes on the Movement of Water, (A “Symbolic Self-Portrait”, according to Carlo Pedretti), c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, pen and ink on paper, 21.7 x 15.4 cm.


Continuing this series of posts based on lectures I’m giving on Leonardo.

“If you despise painting, which is the sole means of reproducing all the works of nature, you despise an invention which with subtle and philosophical speculation considers all the qualities of forms: seas, plants, animals, grasses, flowers all of which are encircled in light and shadow.”[1] Leonardo da Vinci.

“The painter can call into being the essence of animals of all kinds, of plants, fruits, landscapes, rolling plains, crumbling mountains, fearful and terrible places which strike terror into the spectator; and again pleasant places, sweet and delightful with meadows of many-coloured flowers bent by the gentle motion of the wind which turns back to look at them as it floats on; and then rivers falling from high mountains with the force of great floods, ruins which drive down with them uprooted plants mixed with rocks, roots, earth, and foam and wash away to its ruin all that comes in their path; and then the stormy sea, striving and wrestling with the winds which fight against it, raising itself up in superb waves which fall in ruins as the wind strikes at their roots.”[2] Leonardo da Vinci

These two quotes should be enough to confirm that Leonardo held the natural world in high esteem, but in what way can we view him as a natural scientist or philosopher? Firstly, for a painter to take such a conspicuously scientific approach towards nature was unusual in the renaissance. However, it should never be forgotten that Leonardo was primarily a painter; it would therefore be wrong to regard him as a dry scientist recording the natural world with cold detachment. Kenneth Clark puts it best: “the direction of his scientific researches was established by his aesthetic attitudes. He loved certain forms, he wanted to draw them, and while drawing them he began to ask questions, why were they that shape and what were the laws of their growth?”[3] Out of Leonardo’s delight in drawing and painting natural things emerged his scientific urge and insatiable curiosity which powered it.

In analysing this “scientific urge”, it might help to consider it in the context of a renaissance concept known as fantasia., which in the words of Sharon Fermor who wrote a whole book about it in the art of Piero di Cosimo, was “an image-forming capacity” which was fed by things seen, although there was a certain dream-like aspect to the process too. As Fermor pointed out, Vasari saw Piero as a counterpoint to Leonardo; both were interested in the bizarre in nature, particularly strange forms and shapes (2,3), what could be called the morphological universe. 4] However, unlike Leonardo, Piero was trapped within his own fantasia, and never used it towards a rational end. What passed for “scientific” curiosity in Piero was soon expunged by eccentricity and abstractedness. His landscape and marvellous sea monster in his Perseus Frees Andromeda (2,3)seem products of a feverish imagination.

perseus perseus3
2) Piero di Cosimo, Perseus Frees Andromeda, 1513, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, oil on wood, 70 x 123 cm 3) Detail.


Vasari describes such artists as astratta or fantastic, lost in the love of creativity for its own sake, not as a tool for discovering the natural world. Piero could therefore never have sustained a serious programme of research like Leonardo, who despite his eccentricities was able to marry fantasia and scientia together and produce something unique- the science of art. When Leonardo’s avid curiosity began is difficult to say, but the roots of the artist’s interest in geology, botany and hydraulic engineering might be traced back to the artist’s childhood’s fascination with the natural world. It may not be fanciful to say that nature imbued Leonardo with some kind of pre-romantic fear and dread of it, as in the famous  incident of the cave visited by Leonardo which instilled both “fear and desire” in the young artist’s mind. Caves and strange rock formations are manifested by the artist’s hand in a number of his paintings, especially the celebrated Virgin of the Rocks (4) which has launched a thousand interpretations.



4) Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London, 1495-1508, oil on panel, 189.5 x 120 cm.


This also goes back to fantasia, because Da Vinci advises painters in the Trattatto to look at water droplets on the walls of caves in which they will find ideas for their art- the morphological method again. Pondering this “fear and desire” that Leonardo speaks of reminds me of another frightening encounter with nature, this time outside art history. Wordsworth’s nocturnal excursions in The Prelude:Growth of a Poet’s Mind terrifies the child, but leaves an impression about nature that is never eradicated. However, unlike a romantic like Wordsworth, Leonardo was able to fuse his poetic imaginings with a rational objectivity, until the two were virtually inseparable. He did both science and art and was completely unselfconscious about it. His drawings can be seen as “scientific reports” ,or graphic representations of his fantasia in action.


studies-of-water-passing-obstacles-and-falling.jpg!HalfHD 01landsc

5) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Water, c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, ink on paper, 29 x 20.2 cm.

6) Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Valley of the Arno, 1473, Florence, Uffizi, pen and ink,


Of the four elements, it was water that most excited the artist. In Milan and Florence, Leonardo studied hydraulics- (a topic in applied science and engineering dealing with the mechanical properties of liquids). As a military and civil engineer, Leonardo was interested in canals and one occasion tried to divert the river Arno, unsuccessfully. Water is present as an early interest in the drawing of the valley of the Arno (6), where we see rivers, pools and waterfalls. According to Leonardo, water “conceals an infinity of movements”, which offers a clue to his interest in it: from it he could devise a system of dynamics that was applicable in both artistic and scientific contexts. A number of drawings (5) betray the artist’s fascination with water; these illustrate such statements as the following. “Thus, united to itself, the water turns in a continual revolution. Rushing hither and thither, up and down, it never rests, neither in its course nor in its character; it owns nothing but seizes everything, borrowing as many different characters as the landscape it crosses.” Could we surmise that the old man contemplating the behaviour of water  (1) is a portrait of the artist as natural philosopher?



2annunc study-for-the-head-of-leda

7) Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c. 1472, Florence, Uffizi, oil on panel, 217 x 98 cm.

8) Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, 1506, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, pen and chalk on paper, 17.7 x 14.7 cm.


As for water’s applicability to the art of painting, it can be seen in the rhythms and patterns of the hair of Leonardo’s figures, e.g. the angel in his Uffizi Annunciation (7)or his beautiful head of Leda (8). Unlike Verrocchio’s hair, which Vasari tells us derives from his love of knots, Leonardo conjures movement out of the forms in nature, thus demonstrating his view that humanity is part of it. But water means much more to Leonardo than this: it can be deployed in medical investigations (the fluids of the body likened to the seas and rivers); geology (its presence in underground caverns and the earth); psychology (the deluge drawings which hint at a morbid fascination with disaster and death.).


deluge-over-a-city 02_3ce2

9) Leonardo da Vinci, Deluge over a City, c. 1517,, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, chalk on paper, 163 x 210 cm.

10) Michelangelo, The Deluge, 1508-9, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, fresco, 280 x 570 cm


Interestingly, these tempestuous set of drawings (9) may have a more factual basis; they may have been inspired by two catastrophes that occurred in 1513 and 1514 in the region of Bellinzona, which has inspired some to arrange them in sequence like meteorological illustrations to a weather report. Alternatively, as Daniel Arasse suggests, they might be viewed as a scientific response to Michelangelo’s religious Deluge (10) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, maybe a continuation of the embittered rivalry between the two artistic giants which was always smouldering below the surface.[6]

allegory-with-wolf-and-eagle study-sheet-with-cats-dragon-and-other-animals.jpg!HalfHD

11) Leonardo da Vinci, Allegory of the Wolf and the Eagle, c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, red chalk on grey-brown paper, 17 x 28 cm.

12) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Cats,, Dragon and other Animals, 1513, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, chalk and ink on paper, 27.1 x 20.4 cm.


Unlike the medievalists, Leonardo did not subscribe to the view that natural history was a pretext for moral allegory, although he knew about that tradition through his studies and working practices. He designed allegories for Il Moro at the Milanese court, although sometimes his allegories assumed a more personal cast. An intriguing example of 1510 (11) showing a wolf uncertainly steering a boat with the aid of a compass watched by an eagle perched on a globe reflects how Leonardo incorporated natural history into his art. It has been conjectured that the wolf might symbolise the artist who steers with the aid of rays emanating from the eagle’s crown, which might represent a safe port at court, presumably Milan where Leonardo was working for the French- the eagle wears a French crown and there are three fleurs de lys on the compass.[7].

Leonardo delighted in the many creatures, domestic and wild, real and mythological, that came to his attention. A wonderful sheet of cats (12) might pass for just that until you notice that the artist has drawn a dragon in the middle of the sheet, a strange juxtaposition with some bizarre rationale known only to Leonardo himself. Closer to Piero with his fantasia this time? Spot the dragon yourself !


studies-of-a-bewalking 40A

13) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of a Bear Walking, c. 1484, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, pen and ink on paper, 10.3 x 13.4 cm.

14)Leonardo da Vinci, The Hind Foot of a Bear, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, c. 1490-3, metalpoint with pen and brown ink, heightened with white, on blue prepared paper, 161 x 137 mm.


Closer to the spirit of natural history rather than poetic allegory is a study of a bear (13). This sheet not only has the complete creature but a study of its foot, complete with intimidating sharp claws. Drawings with studies of the “structure of a bear’s foot” exist (14, but the American drawing  suggests that the artist would have drawn the animal’s foot while it was alive, according to Kenneth Clark.[8] After it had died Leonardo dissected it in order to compare it with the human foot, an example of comparative anatomy, which was obviously of enormous interest to Leonardo since he draws animal and human anatomy on the same sheets. As Clark puts it, this analogy between man and animal “springs from {Leonardo’s] conception of man as part of nature, subject to the same laws of growth, controlled by the same chemistry.”[9]

[1] Trattato, no. 8.

[2] Trattato, no. 116.

[3] Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art, 1949, 58.

[4] See Sharon Fermor’s discussion of Piero and Leonardo in Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and fantasia, 1993, 22-3.

[5] Codex Atlanticus, 171r-a.

[6] Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, 111.

[7] Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, 151.

[8] Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, 78.

[9] Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, 78.

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