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Leonardo and Nature
‘Nature has kindly given us things everywhere to copy’, wrote Leonardo. In all his activities, Leonardo was trying to discover the rules that control nature.
In the modern world, art and science are two very separate activities, but in Leonardo’s time they were closely connected. Science meant mathematics and medical studies. How could these be connected with art? Mathematics included practical work like surveying land for making maps as well as measuring the movements of the stars in the sky. An artist might need to measure the different parts of the body. He could also use mathematics to place things in relationship to each other in a drawing or painting so the scene looked correct. You will see a good example in the painting of The Last Supper in the next chapter.
Mathematics was also connected to music because musical sounds have a fixed relationship with each other that can be described in numbers. Leonardo himself was a very good musician and liked to play an instrument and sing.
More than this, though, Leonardo believed that numbers were a part of all things in the world and he said that ‘without them nothing can be done.’
‘Nature has kindly given us things everywhere to copy’, wrote Leonardo. In all his activities, Leonardo was trying to discover the rules that control nature.
In his search for those rules, he looked very carefully at a lot of examples and details. Actual experience was more important to him than opinion, and he worked from facts to ideas. Above all, Leonardo wanted to understand how and why things worked. His purpose was to examine the world so he could copy it in beautiful paintings and sculptures. But he also wanted to learn from the clever solutions of nature.
Leonardo was always drawing - quick little drawings to catch a movement or a shape, or more careful drawings done at a desk with a pen and ruler.
In July 2001 a small drawing by Leonardo was sold for $12 million.
It was the most expensive drawing in the world.
Leonardo was a painter, and a painter needs to know about light and the effects of light. Your view of a hand or a rock or a tree is affected by the way light falls on them. Light and shadow help to bring them into view or make them disappear. Colour is affected by the brightness of light and the darkness of shadows. The effects of light also change at different times of day and even at different times of the year. Leonardo noted that the outside leaves of a tree take some blue from the colour of the air; the ones in the middle look more green because of all the other green leaves around them.
In his paintings, Leonardo wanted to copy the way that humans see light and colour, so his pictures would make you imagine real experience. When you look into the distance, for example from a hill out over the countryside, light affects how and what you see. Things get bluer but also less sharp if they are farther away from you. In the next chapter you can see this in some of the landscapes in his paintings.
Leonardo did not just look at things out in the world; he also positioned things so he could examine them in a controlled way. You can see this in the drawing below, where Leonardo is showing how light makes shadows as it comes through a window and falls on a ball. Leonardo drew and recorded studies like this carefully in a book.
Light on a ball. The ball is seen from above, with the window at the top of the page; the light from the window is shown as lines. Leonardo shows how the shadows fall behind the ball when light comes from slightly different directions through the window - as the sun moves during the day, for example.
The shadow is always darkest where no light reaches it from the window.
Leonardo also looked at and thought about the sun, the moon and the stars. He discussed how light and heat come from the sun. He noted how the moon sends back light from the sun instead of having its own light. He talked about the size and measurements of the sun, moon and stars, and also how things can appear larger or smaller than they really are because of the effects of curves and distance. He did tests to prove these ideas; he did not just repeat what other people had said.
From his study of light, Leonardo wanted to understand sight. He examined human eyes, and even animals’ eyes. Some animals and birds are awake at night and need to be able to see in the dark, and Leonardo noted that the centres of their eyes got larger when there was less light. He wrote that if you shone a light at a cat’s eye in the dark, the eye looked like fire. We now know that this is because the back of a cat’s eye is almost like a mirror. When light falls on it, it shines back. This helps the cat to see better at night. But Leonardo noticed that even a cat could not see if it was totally dark; then, he said, they used their excellent sense of smell to find their way around.
There are all kinds of drawings by Leonardo of animals. Sometimes these are careful drawings with measurements of the different parts of an animal - a dog’s head, a horse’s leg. But opposite you can see an example of the way that he also tries to catch the character of an animal. In these quick drawings of a child with a cat we can see how interested he was in forms, movement and emotion.
In the top drawing the child holds the cat with love and the cat pushes its head against the child. The cat’s tail sticks up and its back legs move forwards as it climbs onto the child’s legs. In the next drawing the child bends forward and runs his hand along the cat’s back. You can almost hear the happy sound the cat makes. Then in the third picture the child holds the cat so tightly that the cat’s body is bent out of shape. It looks less happy. Looking at these drawings you can imagine how the child and the cat feel, and they probably remind you of cats and children that you have seen yourself.
Landscape, rocks, plants and trees
Leonardo filled pages and pages of paper with drawings and notes of the things that he saw and thought about. He wrote about types of rocks and how water moved, he recorded the plants that he saw growing in the countryside, and he studied the shapes of the land. For him the world was full of energy and natural forces; sometimes he even talked about the world as a living body.
When giving advice on painting, Leonardo told other painters:
You must leave your home in the town, and leave your family and friends, and go over the mountains and valleys into the country.
He also wrote that you needed to be alone to experience and study nature in the fullest way. Leonardo tells us about some of his own experiences alone in the country and the effect they had on him. One day, pulled by my enthusiastic desire to see different and strange shapes made by nature, I walked some distance among dark rocks until I came to the entrance of a big hole in the side of a hill. I stood in front of this for some time shocked, not understanding it. Suddenly there were two emotions inside me: fear and desire. Fear of the heavy darkness and desire to see if there was anything wonderful inside the hill.
Emotions themselves interested him because as an artist Leonardo wanted to be able to understand how they affected people’s faces and movements. He wanted to show feelings and thoughts in his paintings and sculpture.
Leonardo wanted to know about the smallest detail, and what was usual or unusual, so he wanted to see lots of examples of the same things as well as lots of different kinds of things. Leonardo showed many kinds of plants in his drawings and paintings, and his work is admired by scientists who study plants. When you look at the paintings in the next chapter, see how many different plants you can find and recognise.
Leonardo was very interested in water, from the smallest drops and streams to great rivers and seas. At least two of his books of notes are only about water. The Codex Leicester, as we call it now, which he wrote around 1507 to 1510, is all about the forms and power of water. In Milan from September to October 1508 Leonardo filled another book with notes under the title Of the world and waters.
Leonardo wanted to use these studies in two ways - first for his painting and second to control the movement of water and to make machines powered by water. He wanted to be able to paint not just rivers and seas but the way that water in the air changes the colour of the sky and affects how you see a distant view. He describes how he saw a storm on the River Arno: The wind coming back hit the water and lifted it up, making a big hollow.
The water was lifted straight up into the air. The colour was similar to that of a cloud. I saw this on the sand in the river. The sand was hollowed out deeper than the height of a man, and the sand and little stones were thrown around over a wide area. It appeared in the air like a really tall building and the top spread out like the branches of a really tall tree.
A number of Leonardo’s later drawings show enormous storms. He wrote:
I have seen movements of air so angry that they have picked up the largest trees of the forests and whole roofs of big houses as they went. This same anger made a deep hollow and moved stones, sand and water a great distance through the air.
These notes and drawings are reminders of the terrible power of nature to destroy. But for Leonardo there was also beauty in the forms and movements.
His other drawings of water show this double character of water: great energy and very attractive and pleasing shapes.
The curves and movements of water were, said Leonardo, ‘like hair’. He was also interested in making drawings of women’s long hair, which was put up on their heads in complicated styles. These styles were very popular among young women in the fifteenth century. His interest in complicated curved forms also included drawings of knots. He used these ideas in interesting ways. He painted a room in the castle in Milan for Ludovico Sforza, and in it trees seemed to be growing up on all sides of the room. He painted the branches of the trees as the ceiling of the room, with all their green leaves. He wanted you to imagine that you were in a little wood in a garden. If you looked up through the branches, you could just see the blue sky above. Then a golden line of connected and complicated knots ran through and around the branches and leaves. So it seemed almost to be a garden building made of living wood.
People were as much the subject of Leonardo’s study as landscapes, animals and plants. To make a person in a painting or sculpture look real and alive, an artist needs to understand how a real body moves or how a living man or woman stands or sits. Artists, therefore, have to look very carefully at people. Their drawings record what they have seen. We have already seen an example of this in Leonardo’s drawings of the child with a cat. Many of his other drawings are also of people and animals in movement.
He drew, for example, figures doing different activities. None of the figures wore clothes because he wanted to show clearly what happened to their arms, backs and legs as they worked. One drawing shows four men - or one man from different sides - who are digging. In another drawing, on the same sheet of paper, men are carrying packages and holding them in different positions. Drawings like these give a real sense of people’s actions and activities.
If you were painting pictures of people, he said, you needed to know how they behaved - were they male, female, young, old? Were they rich or poor and what did they do? You needed to separate them into types and then separate them again so ‘the men do not all appear to be brothers’. A friend of Leonardo in Milan wrote: When Leonardo wanted to draw or paint a figure, he first thought about what kind of person they were. Then, when he had decided, he went to the places where he knew people of that kind could be found. He looked closely at their faces, their clothes, and the way they moved their bodies. He watched how they behaved. When he saw anything that he was looking for, he recorded it with a pencil in a little book which was always hanging from his belt. Sometimes, it seems, Leonardo went one more step. When he wanted to draw laughing country men, we are told, he chose some and arranged a party for them. Then he told them stories until they laughed so much that they almost fell on the floor. He carefully watched their movements, and later made a drawing of them. This drawing had the same effect on people as his stories had.
Leonardo did not want to make his paintings of people so perfect that they were not real or they all looked the same: ‘Beauty of the face may be equal in different people, but it never takes the same form,’ he said. When you look at some of the paintings of young women in the next chapter, you can think about how Leonardo makes each of them different and recognisable. It is now very hard to see the details of his painting The Last Supper, but there too Leonardo wanted each of Christ’s pupils to look different and to act differently from each other. This is because in his opinion every person feels emotion differently, and not everyone is going to have the same emotions either.
Leonardo also wanted to draw and paint correctly the clothes that people wore. As a young man he spent many hours practising drawing how real cloth fell around a body. He wanted to understand the forms and get the shadows right to make his art look real. Later he also wrote detailed descriptions of the forms of clothes and how they moved and lay differently as they fell over the body or over other clothes.
Because doctors had to understand how all the parts of the human body worked, anatomy was also of interest to artists. In the fifteenth century, close examination of real bodies was only just beginning. Leonardo played a very important part in this study. In the beginning his drawings were of the way that bodies moved and the shapes and forms that were made when a body stood or sat, for example. Then Leonardo became more interested in examining the details of bodies and what lies under the skin.
In Florence, perhaps in 1507 or 1508, Leonardo was able to cut up some bodies of people who had just died. He said around this time that he had cut up more than ten bodies. This was hundreds of years before fridges were invented so bodies did not stay fresh for long. So when he wanted to understand all the veins of the body Leonardo had to cut up two bodies, one after the other, because it took some time to do his examination. He made drawings and detailed notes about what he saw.
One of the bodies was of an old man in Florence. Leonardo had met him just before he died:
This old man, a few hours before his death, told me that he had lived one hundred years and that he had no diseases but was just weak. And so, sitting on a bed in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, without any movement or sign of pain, he passed from this life. And I cut up his body to see what had made his death so kind.
In the drawing opposite of a man’s arm, we can see how Leonardo shows all the veins. Leonardo’s study here centre on the movement of blood around the body, especially the veins. He compared the way blood moved through the body and the forms of veins with the movement of water and the shapes that streams and rivers make. He called the shapes of the veins in the body a ‘tree’. So he was connecting his studies of the body with his studies of other parts of the natural world. To understand how the body worked, Leonardo was also interested in changes over time and the effects and signs of those changes. He was looking for reasons, not just at appearance or how things worked.
In spring 1510 Leonardo wrote that he believed he would finish all his work on anatomy. Perhaps he had a plan to produce a book on the subject. Leonardo thought, though, that his drawings showed things more clearly than words:
Oh writer, what words can you find to describe the whole arrangement as perfectly as in this drawing?
But one drawing or view was not enough. To understand the body you needed to see it from different sides; for example, from the top, from below, and from each side of an arm or a leg. For the bone of an arm or leg you needed five views, because you had to cut through it. Often, though, Leonardo made even more drawings than this of a single body part.
For Leonardo the natural world was always interesting and always full of rich ideas. The natural world was at the centre of his studies. In his opinion,
Although clever humans make different inventions, they can never find any inventions more beautiful, better matched to their purpose or clearer than nature’s. In nature’s inventions there is never too little or too much.
To understand the natural world and to learn from it you had to keep studying. This was at the heart of Leonardo’s art, his thinking and his inventions. But to understand the big picture, he said, you also had to study everything in the smallest detail.
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