Leonardo da Vinci’s Geological Observations Revolutionized Renaissance Art

“It’s their art, to stop at every stone and carry out an investigation at every layer of earth!”
– Swiss author Rodolphe Toepffer, describing geologists

During the Renaissance, geologically extraordinary events -and even the study of common rocks – inspired great artists and sometimes even revolutionized artistic techniques.

Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first naturalists to both understand the origin of sedimentary rocks and recognize fossils as petrified remains of former living animals. As he wrote in his personal notes:

…among one and another rock layer, there are the traces of the worms that crawled in them when they were not yet dry

Unfortunately, Da Vinci never published these observations. So for another century, the origins of fossils would remain a mystery. However, he used his geological insights to improve his paintings and in doing so inspired an entire generation of Renaissance artists.DA_VINCI_1473_Landscape_Tuscany

Leonardo da Vinci studied rocks and landscapes to improve the realism of his paintings. He recognized that just as the human body had distinct proportions, the landscape also follows certain rules. For example, he noted that a mountain would appear smaller to an observer with increasing distance, but this apparent change in size would not be random. By applying these geometrical and mathematical rules to his painting the artist could “recreate” the real world.

This approach can be seen in da Vinci´s earliest recognized works, dating to 1473.  In The Hills of Tuscany or Landscape with River, we are apparently standing on the borders of the Apennines, looking down onto a waterfall and the larger valley of the Arno. The layers of the earth, shown above the waterfall, are not only geologically correct – thin at the bottom and thick on the top, like the Turbidite sequences found in the Apennines are, but also work also as construction lines for the entire sketch.

Together with the lines used to draw the cultivated fields in the Arno valley, the sedimentary layers help to create an three-dimensional effect giving to this landscape a realistic “depth.” This effect is also helped by the waterfall, which is shown flowing away from the observer in a hydrologically correct manner down the slopes of the mountains into the Arno valley.

Leonardo’s technique was soon adopted by other artists. German painter Albrecht Dürer visited Italy twice to study the perspectival paintings of contemporary Italian architects and artists. Traveling back home, he tried to apply this revolutionary method to his own paintings. One of his drawings shows a quarry, maybe somewhere near his hometown of Nürnberg, displaying horizontal layers of sandstone and thinner layers of marl in a manner similar to da Vinci’s. Using the tectonic fractures as vertical construction lines, Dürer tried here to subdivide the picture like da Vinci and create the illusion of depth along the steep cliff.

DUERER_1506_Quarry_big

Despite never really completely mastering the geometrical rules necessary to create a perfect perspective in a painting, Dürer nevertheless popularized this new technique in Europe. Soon, many other artists followed suit and began painting realistic landscapes, studying rocks in order to correctly depict them in their art.

Interested in reading more? Try:

ROSENBERG, G.D. (2009): The measure of man and landscape in the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. In Rosenberg, G.D., ed., The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 13-40

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