Leonardo da Vinci: water, rivers, science and art (Part 1)

Leonardo da Vinci was a truly remarkable polymath.  He is variously known as a painter, sculptor, scientist (geologist, botanist), architect, engineer, musician and inventor. But, amongst his many areas of expertise, Leonardo could perhaps also be called an hydrologist or fluid dynamicist because of his fascination with, and study of, water, flow and rivers. Water and rivers were central to his work and thinking in many fields, including his art.

Leonardo da Vinci was born in the small town of Vinci, in Tuscany in 1452, the son of a notary from Florence and a peasant girl. He was raised in his father’s household and was apprenticed to the painter/sculptor Andrea del Verocchio around 1467.  He entered the painter’s guild in Florence in 1472.  Leonardo showed remarkable talent as a painter early on and his earliest painting was a contribution to one of Verocchio’s pieces, Baptism of Christ in 1472. He devoted most of  his early career to painting, and was a keen observer of nature. Indeed, in 1473, he drew the Arno valley (the river that runs through Pisa), which was one of the first purely landscape drawings for hundreds of years (see below). In about 1482 he  travelled to Milan, relatively uncultured compared with Florence at that time, and acted as a resident genius and painter to the duke there.  In Milan, he painted and consulted on architectural matters. He fled Milan when it fell to the French in 1499 and moved around thereafter, to Mantua, Venice, Florence, Rome and eventually to France to live in the court of Francis 1. He died in the castel Cloux on 2 May 1519.

Leonardo's drawing of the Arno drainage basin

Leonardo’s drawing of the Arno drainage basin, northern Italy

Phillip Ball, in his wonderful little book Flow (part of a trilogy exploring nature’s patterns), quotes Leonardo as saying: “…water is the driver of nature….without it, nothing retains its form.”  Ball tells us that Leonardo’s interest was far from superficial. He was not simply interested in surface movement, the way an artist might be in order to catch the reflection of light off a river or lake. He was interested in a much deeper way. He wanted to understand the movement of water within water: the swirls, eddies and vortices on the surface and below. He also drew parallels between water and the curling of hair, as in the drawing below, showing an old man’s beard, alongside the vortices produced when placing a plank of water in a current.

“Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.” P. 389 of Leonardo’s manuscripts, the Codice Altantico (translated by Jean Paul Richter and  a Gutenberg eBook).

He also made comparisons between the branches and trunk of trees and the tributaries and main stem of rivers:

“All the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk [below them]. All the branches of a water [course] at every stage of its course, if they are of equal rapidity, are equal to the body of the main stream.” P. 394. By the way, this is known as Leonardo’s rule and recently an explanation for this phenomenon has been proposed by Christophe Eloy.

Leonardo wrote in his manuscripts about: reflections on water and its importance for painters; the motion of water; the refraction of light through water; the action of water in the production of rainbows; and even on a device for breathing under water (see figure below).

Leonardo breathing underwater

He proposed far more projects (like many of us) than he actually completed, but wrote extensively on the action of water and rivers. His ideas about the origins of rivers are intriguing, if somewhat misguided.

“The body of the earth, like the bodies of animals, is intersected with ramifications of waters which are all in connection and are constituted to give nutriment and life to the earth and to its creatures. These come from the depth of the sea and, after many revolutions, have to return to it by the rivers created by the bursting of these springs; and if you chose to say that the rains of the winter or the melting of the snows in summer were the cause of the birth of rivers, I could mention the rivers which originate in the torrid countries of Africa, where it never rains–and still less snows–because the intense heat always melts into air all the clouds which are borne thither by the winds.” P. 970.

Leonardo studied floods and storms and speculated on the impact floods would have on people and armies (see below a sketch of a Deluge).  He also teamed up with Niccolo Machiavelli to deprive the populace of Pisa of water by diverting the River Arno (more of this in a later post).

leonardo deluge

As you can see, water pervaded many aspects of  Leonardo da Vinci’s work and life, it influenced his thinking and that of those to whom he came in contact. We are indeed fortunate to have some record of his thoughts and work in this area and his work continues to inspire, as shown by the continued interest in Leonardo’s rule and Ball’s science writing. In Part 2 of my discussion of Leonardo da Vinci and his fascination with water, flow and rivers, I explore the prevalence of rivers in his artwork. In Part 3, I describe the fascinating story of Leonardo’s collaboration with Niccolo Machiavelli in their attempts to divert the River Arno and take over Pisa.

This entry was posted in River form, River research, Rivers, Rivers art, Water and culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci: water, rivers, science and art (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Reflections | Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki Fine Art

  2. Jose De Jesus Zamora says:

    Excellent article! I am also a Leonardo junkie. I teach, and have found his methods incredibly effective to embody complex concepts for students in art school. This article is a gem!
    Many thanks,

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