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KRONOS Vol III, No. 3
LEONARDO DA VINCI:
ROCKS, FOSSILS, AND TIME
H. JAMES BIRX
The Italian Renaissance (1401-1527) represented both the rebirth of man out of the
unenlightened years of Medieval beliefs and superstitions and a return to reason and
empiricism; all aspects of society and culture were changing. It presented views of man and
the universe that challenged the old and dogmatic Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, and Medieval
conceptions of things. In fact, a new anthropology and cosmology were emerging.
At first, the Italian Renaissance saw the restoration of the humanities. There was a
revitalised interest in the culture of the Classical World, especially its art, literature and
philosophy. The scholars of the Humanist Renaissance believed in the dignity of man and the
realisation of human happiness through intelligent inquiry. Detailed descriptions of nature and
rigorous experimentation by the brilliant thinkers of the time further established the foundation
of the modern world-view, with its new perspectives and values and problems. Blind faith and
religious mysticism were being replaced by the empirical sciences and the use of reason
(mathematics and logic). One may contrast the early careful speculations of Nicholas of Cusa
and Nicolas Copernicus with the later bold vision of Giordano Bruno and the remarkable
discoveries of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler.
In these times of human exploration and social unrest, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
represented the transitional stage between the early period of the Renaissance, with its
humanist links to Classical antiquity, and the later Renaissance, with its scientific and
technological achievements that foreshadowed the modem western world. In fact, he became
one of the dominant figures of his Age. The thoughts and creativity of his all-encompassing
mind still remain an inspiration to the human spirit.
In general, Leonardo was a scientist-artist-genius who had to know and attempt almost
everything (and be the best at both). He was interested in both the structure and function of
things (especially their details). In his thought and work, Leonardo as the universal man united
theory and practice: through mathematics, the goal of the synthesis of art and science was to
be the attainment of plausible generalisations about the concrete particulars of nature. He was
always an impatient explorer and inventor. Because his multifaceted interests and
perfectionism scattered his efforts, Leonardo realised few of his many projects (thus the
importance and significance of his own notebooks). As recent as 1965, the rediscovery of two
of his original manuscripts – known as the Madrid Codices – continues to shed new light on
Leonardo's boundless curiosity and remarkable genius.
Leonardo was born in a stone house in the village of Anchiano near the small
mountain-town of Vinci, not far from Florence in Tuscany. He was an illegitimate child and
scarcely ever mentions his father or his mother in all of his voluminous writings. As a child, he
was interested in stone structures and plants and animals (as well as art and music).
In 1466, Leonardo da Vinci arrived in the city of Florence then under the control of the
Medici family. He was apprenticed to the well-known Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea
del Verrocchio. During his six-year apprenticeship in the artist's workshop, Leonardo learned
the fundamentals and skills of his technological knowledge and developed a passion for
For the most part, Leonardo da Vinci was a self-taught and sensitive individual. Yet,
there is a distant and secret air in his unique and complex character. Although a handsome and
strong man, he ignored the fair sex throughout his life (however, he did favour his two male
servants Salai and Melzi). Leonardo's personal preference for the male gender provided
Sigmund Freud with material for his unscientific and only study of paleopsychosexuality. The
makeup of Leonardo's nature can never be more than dimly and incompletely conceived.
To some degree, Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by seven major thinkers: Aristotle,
Archimedes, Vitruvius, Pliny, Ptolemy, Avicenna, and Cusa. His own experiences, studies, and
speculations were shackled by two prejudices: Platonism and Galenism. Nevertheless, he took
historical changes seriously and even discovered the circulation of the blood. In short,
Leonardo was apart from the world-view of his own Age.
The fascinating and puzzling Leonardo da Vinci was a discoverer through and through.
In general, he was a scientist in art (as well as philosopher and visionary). His inquisitive mind
studied most things in nature; almost everything was subject to observation, detailed analysis,
and the comparative method. The Florentine rebel is one of those universal geniuses without
equal, and remains an archetype of individuality. His overwhelming accomplishments still rank
him a giant among wholistic inquirers.
Leonardo da Vinci was a man of thought and action. His comprehensive work was
nature-oriented, but lacked proper systematisation. His interests encompassed a vast number
of areas: mathematics (geometry), astronomy, cosmology, the natural elements, physics
(magnetism, heat, hydraulics, acoustics, statics, dynamics, aerodynamics, optics, light, and
colour), machines and weaponry, civil and military engineering, architecture, chemistry,
geology, mineralogy, geography, map-making, botany and zoology, agriculture, internal and
external anatomy, medicine, psychology, palmistry, drawing, painting, sculpturing, philosophy,
horology, music, writing fables, and the theatre (especially the planning of court masquerades
and city pageants). He did reject astrology, alchemy and superstition. Rather than appealing to
any authority, Leonardo held experience to be the great teacher.
Relentlessly, Leonardo da Vinci investigated the phenomena of nature. His rigorous
studies were concerned with the structure, function, and detail of things. He was especially
interested in memory, marvelled at the remarkable human eye and vision, and was obsessed
with both the movement of water and the flight of birds (he made a series of famous "Deluge"
drawings, and designed an unsuccessful flying machine). In anatomy, he demonstrated both
structure and function in animals and plants (the ox was his favourite animal for anatomic
research). In 1502, Leonardo even became military engineer to Cesare Borgia.
Leonardo da Vinci may have been the greatest scientist and technologist of his era, in
addition to being one of the major artists of the High Renaissance. His own voluminous
sketches, diagrams, and disordered and unpublished notebooks (purposely written backwards
in rude characters in left-handed mirror-writing from right to left) clearly attest to his
extraordinary integration of mathematics, science and art. Unfortunately, many of his projects
remained unfinished, e.g. The Horse colossus (a giant bronze equestrian monument to
Francesco Sforza) and the now non-existent wall-painting Battle of Anghiari.
Leonardo introduced proportion, perspective, and the depiction of light and movement
into his magnificent portraits and paintings. He strove for dynamic realism. His impartial
universal eye caught all aspects of neutral nature, from the ugly and evil to the beautiful and
good. Among Leonardo's greatest paintings are The Virgin of the Rocks (1483), The Last
Supper (1495-1498), Mona Lisa (1503-1506), and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1508-
1510). One also marvels at his sketches of grotesque faces, studies of the horse and flowers,
and fantastic panoramas of rugged landscapes. Leonardo's artistic works are naturalistic,
organismic, humanistic, and have a sense of marvel and mystery.
Leonardo da Vinci held experience and experimentation to be vastly superior to
book-learning and speculation. His own intellectual strength lay in his exceptionally acute
perception of concrete reality rather than a devotion to theoretical abstraction (he questioned
empirical generalisations, doubted metaphysical speculations, and rejected religious authority).
In his later years, Leonardo's great ambition was to discover the natural laws
underlying the processes of nature and the flux of reality. He became more and more
interested in science (especially scientific illustration).
THE AWARENESS OF ROCKS AND FOSSILS
Wandering through the Alps and the mountains of Tuscany, Leonardo was fascinated
by the beauty and detail of the geological and paleontological evidence about him and their
far-reaching implications; his own magnificent landscapes attest to his love for physical nature.
To Leonardo, the rock strata with their fossils suggested a story considerably different from
the interpretations given by most thinkers in antiquity. (Although he was the father of biology
and made contributions to taxonomy and embryology, Aristotle himself had held to the eternal
fixity of all terrestrial plant and animal forms or species (including man) within the hierarchical
Great Chain of Being. It was a very secure world.)
Since marine fossils of many different sizes and species were found in many different
layers above the sea level, Leonardo knew that natural history had not been eternally fixed in
space and time. Searching for a scientific (empirico-rational) explanation, he rejected all
religious interpretations of creation and destruction. To account for the marine objects at the
tops of hills and high mountains far removed from the sea, his mind leaped ahead of
contemporary thought to embrace conceptions of both geological catastrophism and
uniformitarianism as well as anticipating the theory of biological evolution (ideas that are still
hard for some thinkers to accept even today).In the layers of mountain stone, Leonardo da Vinci
studied the fossilised evidence: various
marine shells, sea snails, oysters, corals, scallops, cockles, crabs, cuttlefish, traces of worms,
and the bones and teeth of fishes. To explain rationally the geopaleontological nature of things,
he took time and change seriously. Holding to the plasticity of the Earth, Leonardo held that
there had been periodic upheavals of the mud layers from the bottom of the salt waters; such
mud layers formed hills or mountains, and erosion by rivers later uncovered the strata of
marine fossils. In short, the ancient bottoms of the seas had become mountain ridges.
Like Xenophanes, Leonardo recognised the biological and historical significance of the
fossil shells and marine animals he found imbedded in mountain rocks at high elevations. He
rightly held them to be the remains of creatures that had once lived in the seas or on the
beaches and had been lifted up later on. Leonardo also ascribed to the planet Earth an
antiquity of over 200,000 years! This was an incredible insight on his part, since most thinkers
at the time held fast to the biblical account of Creation about 6,000 years ago or did not take
history and change seriously. Leonardo pushed back the horizon of time. He even recognised
the similarities among man, the apes, and the monkeys. He had speculated on the processes of
erosion, sedimentation, and fossilisation or mineralisation. Yet, historical geology did not
receive its scientific foundation until the appearances of James Hutton's The Theory of the
Earth (1795) and Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-1833). Likewise, biological
evolution was not taken seriously until the publications of Chevalier de Lamarck's Philosophy
of Zoology (1809) and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859).
COSMOLOGY AND TIME
In his cosmic vision, Leonardo da Vinci rejected the Earth-centered model of the
universe. Although he held to a fixed but spherical Earth and the fixed ceiling of stars,
Leonardo did anticipate both the telescope and the universality of gravitation.
Reminding one of Plato, Leonardo da Vinci had once written: Let no one who is not a
mathematician read my works. Yet in his later years, he changed his views of the universe
from a mathematicomechanistic model to an organismic interpretation of the cosmos. All
nature is vitalised in Leonardo's cosmology. As such, he viewed the planet Earth itself as a
living organism. He wrote that animals (including man) are the image of the world: man is the
microcosm while the universe is the macrocosm, the two being identical in their nature. Like
Heraclitus, Leonardo held that everything in the world is in a state of flux: the basis of all
phenomena is not mathematics but life and movement and change.
Leonardo's over-view supported a plurality of worlds, and both the eternality and
infinity of the universe. He shed theology for a monistic and naturalistic philosophy supporting
pervasive necessity and simplicity, continuous change, and areligious pantheism. (Recall the
similar thoughts of Cusa, Ficino, and Bruno.)
Leonardo saw time as the evil destroyer of all things. He was fascinated and obsessed
with catastrophic destruction involving wind and water and fire (his late sketches depict the
destructive forces of the natural elements). Like the later Neptunists in geology, Leonardo
held water to be the basic geological modifier of the Earth's surface. He even envisioned the
natural end of the world as a result of the disappearance of all water into the interior of the
Earth, followed by fire destroying all terrestrial life (including the human race). This vision was
a far cry from the Aristotelian view of an eternally fixed and secure world. (In modern times,
catastrophism has been advocated in the writings of Georges Cuvier and Immanuel
Velikovsky. To be sure, catastrophism and uniformitarianism are not necessarily mutually
exclusive geological viewpoints.)
In 1516, after years of aimlessness and restlessness, Leonardo da Vinci was invited by
the French king to spend the remainder of his life in France. On 2 May 1519, he died at Cloux
and was buried in the cloister of the Collegiate Church of St. Florentin in Amboise. Leonardo
had emerged from obscurity only to pass into obscurity, but he left an indelible mark on the
intellectual development of mankind; he remains a giant among wholistic thinkers.
In the adventurous Italian Renaissance, art spoke for science and in this respect,
Leonardo da Vinci was its greatest spokesman. He was an extraordinary and most complex
man, with an awesome multifaceted mind. His life, work, and influence were a phenomenal
event in western history. Leonardo remains the epitome of the wondering
scientist-artist-genius, and an example of the potentialities of the human mind.
Leonardo da Vinci lived at the threshold of the modern world. He himself shook the
foundations of art and science, and envisioned the shape of things to come. Recognising the
ultimate unity of nature, Leonardo presented the modern image of man within the universe and
anticipated the modern scientific and technological world.
1. Birx, H. James. Man's Place in the Universe: An Introduction to Scientific Philosophical
Anthropology. Arcade, New York: Tri-County Publications, Inc., 1977. Refer to chapter 12.
2. Bronowski, J. The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.
3. Bronowski, J. and Bruce Mazlish. The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to
Hegel. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1960. Refer to chapter 1.
4. Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. 2 vols. New York: Harper
Torchbooks (The Cloister Library), 1958.
5. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Harper& Row, Publishers, 1970.
Refer to pages 130-137.
6. Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of His Development as an Artist
Maryland: Penguin Books, 1975.
7. Durant, Will. The Renaissance: A History of Civilisation in Italy from 1304-1576 A D. (The
Story of Civilisation: Part V). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953. Refer to chapter 7.
8. Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality. New York: Random
House (Vintage Books), 1961.
9. Friedenthal, Richard. Leonardo da Vinci: A Pictorial Biography. New York: The Viking
Press (A Studio Book), 1959.
10. Glass, Bentley, Owsei Temkin, and William L. Straus, Jr. (Eds.). Forerunners of Darwin:
1745-1859. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968. Refer to chapter 1,pages 11-18.
11. Gould, Cecil Leonardo: The Artist and the Non-Artist Boston: New York Graphic Society
12. Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences. Rev. ed. New York: Collier Books, 1973.
13. O'Malley, C. D. (Ed.). Leonardo's Legacy: An International Symposium. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1969.
14. Orlandi, Enzo (Gen. Ed.). The Life, Times and Art of Leonardo. New York: Crescent
15. Reti, Ladislao (Ed.). The Unknown Leonardo. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company,
16. Richter, Jean Paul (Ed.). The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1970.
17. Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. New York: The Modern Library, 1965.
18. Taylor, Pamela (Ed.). The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (A New Selection). New
York: New American Library (A Plume Book), 1971.
19. Vellentin, Antonina Leonardo da Vinci: The Tragic Pursuit of Perfection. New York: The
Viking Press, 1938.
20. Velikovsky, Immanuel. Earth in Upheaval. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1955.
21. Wallace, Robert, and the Editors of Time-Life Books. The World of Leonardo:
1452-1519. New York: Time Incorporated, 1966.
22. Zubov, V. P. Leonardo da Vinci: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968. This work
is an excellent introduction to Leonardo da Vinci.