Leonardo da Vinci 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 modern Western world. In fact, he was one of the dominant artistic figures of this age. During his later years, da Vinci’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 thoughts and creativities of his all-encompassing mind still remain an inspiration to the human species.
The Italian Renaissance (1401-1600) represented not only the rebirth of humankind out of the unenlightened years of medieval beliefs and superstitions but also a return to reason and empiricism; all aspects of society and culture were changing. It presented views of the human species and the universe that challenged the old, entrenched, and dogmatic Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, and Medieval conceptions of things. In fact, a new anthropology and the modern cosmology were emerging.
Wandering through the Alps and the mountains of Tuscany, da Vinci was fascinated by the beauty and detail of the geological and paleontological evidence about him and its far-reaching implications. His own magnificent landscapes attest to his love for physical nature, as is clearly seen in his painting The Virgin of the Rocks. To da Vinci, 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—including that of the human species—within the hierarchical great chain of being. It was a safe and secure worldview.)
Because numerous marine fossils of various sizes and shapes were found in many different layers above the sea level, da Vinci knew that natural history had not been eternally fixed in space and time. Searching for a scientific and rational explanation, he rejected all religious interpretations of creation and destruction. To account for the marine objects at the tops of hills and mountains far removed from the sea, his mind leaped ahead of contemporary thought to embrace conceptions of both geological catastrophism and historical uniformitarianism (ideas that are hard for some thinkers to accept even today), and it may have even anticipated the scientific theory of biological evolution.
Da Vinci studied the fossil evidence in these layers of mountain stone: various crabs, sea snails, oysters, corals, scallops, cockles, marine shells, and cuttlefish as well as 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, da Vinci held that there had been periodic upheavals of mud layers from the ancient bottoms of the salt waters. Such mud layers formed hills and mountains, and erosion by rivers later uncovered the strata of marine fossils. In short, the bottoms of seas had become the mountain ridges of modern time.
Like Xenophanes, da Vinci recognized the biological and historical significance of the fossil shells and marine animals he found embedded 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 of the past and had been lifted up later. Da Vinci also ascribed to the earth an antiquity of more than 200,000 years. This was an incredible insight on his part given that most thinkers at the time held fast to the biblical account of a Creation that had taken place around 6,000 years ago or did not take history and change seriously. Da Vinci pushed back the horizon of time. He also recognized the similarities among humans, apes, and monkeys. He even speculated on the process of erosion, sedimentation, and fossilization or mineralization.
Reminding one of Plato, da Vinci had once written, “Let no one who is not a mathematician read my works.” Yet during his later years, he changed his view of the universe from a mathematico-mechanistic model to an organismic interpretation of the cosmos. All nature is now vitalized in da Vinci’s cosmology. As such, he viewed the earth itself as a living organism. He wrote that animals (including the human species) are the image of the world; a human is a microcosm, whereas the universe is the macrocosm, with the two being identical in their nature. Like Heraclitus, da Vinci held that everything in the world is in a state of flux; the basis of all phenomena is not mathematics but rather life, movement, and change.
In his cosmic vision, 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, he did anticipate both the telescope and the universality of gravitation. Da Vinci’s cosmology 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 Giordano Bruno).
Da Vinci saw time as the evil destroyer of all things. He was fascinated and obsessed with catastrophic destruction involving wind, water, and fire (his sketches depict the destructive forces of the natural elements). Like the later Neptunists in geology, da Vinci held water to be the basic geological modifier of the surface of the earth. 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 species. This vision was a far cry from the Aristotelian view of an eternally fixed, safe, and secure world.
In 1516, after years of aimlessness and restlessness, da Vinci was invited by the French king to spend the remainder of his life in France. In May 1519, he died at Cloux and was buried in the cloister of the Collegiate Church of St. Florentin in Amboise. He had 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. Recognizing the ultimate unity of nature, his worldview foreshadowed the modern image of humankind within the universe and anticipated our scientific and technological world.
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- McCurdy, E. (2005). The mind of Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Dover.
- Nicholl, C. (2004). Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the mind—A biography. New York: Viking.
- Zubov, V. P. (1996). Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Barnes & Noble.