Leonardo da Vinci: rivers, water, science and art (Part 2: his paintings and rivers)

annunciation cropped

In my first post about Leonardo da Vinci, I described his fascination for water, mainly from a scientific perspective.  And in a future post, I will focus more on his aspirations for putting water to work, in several different schemes.  As was common with Leonardo, his ideas ran away with him but realisation of them was very different. It was in his art that he cannot really be faulted, of course. How could one seriously criticise the man who produced the world’s most famous painting, after all.  And it is on his paintings that I want to focus, although I will tread very briefly and lightly.

David Clarke, in his book Water and Art (Reaktion Books, 2012) considers that water truly entered the artistic sphere only with the coming of Leonardo.  As I did in my last post, Clarke also emphasizes the obsession of Leonardo with all aspects of water, especially its movement and what was happening underneath; water not simply as a reflective surface.  He draws parallels with Leonardo’s interest and drawings of the anatomy of humans and animals, and points out another anology: that of his study of the Star of Bethlehem, which does indeed resemble ‘water pouring into water’.

Leonardo believed that to understand something fully, one has to look below the surface and see what takes place there. Leonardo pioneered this approach, but few artists adopted this. Indeed, it was not until much much later, in the 19th Century, that artists like William Turner and Claude Monet, grabbed that particular watery baton.  But that is for another time.

In much of portrait or figure art, landscape only supports and provides context, whereas the focus is clearly meant to be on the human subjects.  But in Leonardo’s paintings, landscape is more than that.  Indeed, Alexander Rauch in his ‘Painting of the high Renaissance and mannerism in Rome and Central Italy’ (in Toman, R. ed. 2007. The Art of the Italian Renaissance, Konemann, Koln) says of Leonardo’s Annunciation (a detail of which is shown at the top of this post), that the three central components of the painting, are the angel, Mary and the landscape. Mountains, water and rivers feature commonly, and it is no coincidence that the last two do, considering Leonardo’s interest in water and its actions. They are impressive in their detail and dynamics and clearly show someone with more than just a passing interest.

The water flowing into water in the midground of Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ (c. 1476, Uffizi, Florence) is commonly ascribed to Leonardo. And it is thought that he was also responsible for the depiction of Christ’s feet in the water in the foreground. This was early in Leonardo’s career, as I described in my previous post. But perhaps the germ of interest in water was already growing.

Andrea_del_Verrocchio_002 baptism of christ

Others of Leonardo’s paintings, such as the Madonna on the Rocks (1480, Louvre), includes a river in the background, and perhaps one flowing through a karst system (underground river flowing through a landscape characterised by soluble rocks of limestone, dolomite or gypsum) to boot. In fact, Eugen Oberhummer (1909, Leondardo da Vinci and the art of the Renaissance in its relation to geography, The Geographical Journal, 33: 540-569) considers that Leonardo’s use of mountains and crags and grottos, exemplified in the Madonna on the Rocks, stems from his broad interest in nature and more particularly to his forays into the western Alps of Italy. Indeed, Oberhummer suggests that this painting was partly inspired by his travels in the Karst district of Slovenia!


And of course, I cannot fail to include the Mona Lisa (c. 1519, Louvre). If you can tear your eyes away from the enigmatic face in the foreground, you will notice a river or lake in the background, to the left of La Gioconda, and then a stream meandering towards the viewer on the right. It passes under a bridge and is apparently negotiating a series of  rapids. Her head is, in fact, framed by both mountains (crags again) and water. And, while the details are hard to see, the movement implied by the water is deliberate, as is the basis for this and others of Leonardo’s paintings. Rauch suggests that Leonardo depicts time and movement in a way never achieved before in art. He argues that in opening and closing the eyes, a new impression of the picture is achieved each time. La Gioconda is smiling now, but might look puzzled if we blink and open our eyes again. Her hands, folded one over the other now, might at any moment separate.  Her eyes looking enigmatically at us now, might, at any moment, look away.  And one can sense the same about the river: that the water under the bridge now will not be the water under the bridge in a few seconds, or in an hour or a 500 years.

Leonard wrote about the timelessness of art:

The moment is timeless. Time arises through the movement of the moment, and moments are end points in time.


In part 3 on Leonardo da Vinci: water, rivers, science and art, I will tell the fascinating story of how Leonardo and Niccolo Machiavelli conspired in 1502 to re-route the River Arno to bring the city of Pisa to its knees.

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4 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci: rivers, water, science and art (Part 2: his paintings and rivers)

  1. Tim Barlow says:

    Thx Paul, I’ve been waiting for this next installment – fascinating stuff!

  2. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci: water, rivers, science and art (Part 1) | River Ecology and Research

  3. Pingback: Discovering Leonardo’s Lost Globe? | Musings on Maps

  4. Pingback: Leonardo da Vinci: rivers, water, science and art (Part 3: diverting the Arno) | River Ecology and Research

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