Monday 27 May 2019

Leonardo and the Deluge

Leonardo da Vinci: Storm over a town in the mountains.

The 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is an occasion to reflect once again on the life of a genius with a very complex and sophisticated mind. Leonardo's reputation as a painter has never wavered, despite the relative paucity of his output (and notwithstanding his disastrous attempts at fresco in Florence and Milan). Much of his life was dedicated to the preparation of a 'scientific' treatise on painting, which reflected his love of objectivity and his outstanding clear-sightedness. Although it is tempting to see Leonardo as unique in his portrayal of nature, he did in fact come from a milieu in which there was increasing interest in portraying nature and landscapes as they were, rather than as a stylised backdrop to the human or spiritual drama. Painters of the 13th and 14th centuries saw no reason to depict nature as it is, which reflected the prevailing philosophy of life as something that was heavily predetermined by celestial will. Naturalists were few and far between. Ristoro d'Arezzo, La composizione del mondo, 1282, and Dante Alighieri, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, 1320, represented the first awakening of interest in the natural world, Petrarch's ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336 sealed the knot. Leonardo's reputation as a painter rests upon his skill with the brush and his brilliance in composition and observation.

Leonardo as a natural scientist requires a more complex interpretation. Until fairly recent times, the social order has been preserved by visiting extreme cruelty on anyone regarded as a heretic or counter-culturalist. No doubt Leonardo wished to avoid the fate of Girolamo Savonarola, who in 1498 was burnt at the stake for heresy. Leonardo wrote for himself, privately, often using his ambidextrous skills to write in mirror image. We are now treated to the irony of long queues forming to look at pages and notebooks whose author regarded them as intensely private. Leonardo's reputation as a polymath rests upon the curious fact that no one could be bothered to throw away his jottings. Nor, for more than four centuries, could they be bothered to read them.

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of an accountant and an immigrant serving girl, born in a modest farm house about a kilometre from the outskirts of the Florentine town of Vinci. It has been suggested that his lack of formal education catalysed his ability to observe objectively: he has no knowledge of Latin or Greek and hence could not read the classic texts of orthodox learning. Nowadays, it would be fatal to ignore the body of knowledge accumulated in any field - the equivalent of trying to become an eminent surgeon by Googling illnesses. In the Renaissance, there was not only a growing desire to question ancient orthodoxies, there was an imperative to do so. Centuries later, George Bernard Shaw summarised it as follows: "A reasonable man adapts himself to the world. An unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." Leaving aside the latent sexism (in Shaw's day, 'man' was considered to be acceptable shorthand for 'man or woman'). Yet strangely, Leonardo, the archetypal Renaissance polymath, did not take on the world. His fascination in the modern era consists of a mixture of his genius in many fields (painting, natural history, hydraulics, flight, mechanics, architecture, military strategy, weaponry, anatomy, and so on) and his secretiveness.

Another aspect of his fascination concerns the uncanny ability of his inventions, discoveries and observations suddenly to appear relevant to modern preoccupations. In has native Italy, climate change appears to have intensified microcyclonic storms, which the public has begun to call 'water bombs'. These can cause sudden, catastrophic floods, often compounded by wind or hail damage. Towards the end of his life he became preoccupied with the threat of the Universal Deluge (in this he was not alone: see my paper on the etymology of the term 'resilience'). His sketches of deluges draw on observation of violent storms, particularly in alpine environments, and the knowledge of hydraulics and hydrology that he obtained by studying the middle Arno Valley and the Valdichiana in Tuscany. Despite a certain stylisation, some of the drawings are remarkably realistic representations of extreme meteorological and hydrological events. Scholars have seen this preoccupation as his reflection on his own impending death. It clashes with the uniformitarianism of much of his earlier work on fossils, strata and rivers, although he was never able to resolve the balance of evidence between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. It is curious how, in an age of vastly increases scientific knowledge, that dilemma has resurfaced in an equally intractable form.

Further Reading

Alexander, D.E. 1982. Leonardo da Vinci and fluvial geomorphology. American Journal of Science 282(6): 735-755. DOI: 10.2475/ajs.282.6.735

Alexander, D.E. 1984. The reclamation of Val-di-Chiana (Tuscany). Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74(4): 527-550.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1984.tb01472.x

Alexander, D.E. 1986. Dante and the form of the land. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 76(1): 38-49. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1986.tb00102.x

Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13(11): 2707-2716. DOI: 10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013

Clayton, M. 2019. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing. Royal Collection Trust. Windsor, UK, 255 pp.