Five Hundred Years after Leonardo da Vinci’s Death, His Work Offers New Environmental Insights

Leonardo da Vinci: The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman, ca. 1509–10, black and red chalk, pen and ink, and yellow wash on toned paper, 18¾ by 13 inches. Royal Collection Trust, London/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.


In the waning days of this past April, a team of Italian researchers announced the rediscovery of what was reported to be a lock of hair belonging to Leonardo da Vinci. Encased in an old frame with a large calligraphic callout in French proclaiming “Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci,” the feeble strands were unearthed back in the nineteenth century by the French theater director, man of letters, and erstwhile inspector general of provincial museums Arsène Houssaye, who would go on to write the Histoire de Léonard de Vinci (1869). By the early twentieth century, the slim bundle of grayish-blond hairs had made its way to America where it passed through different hands and languished for decades in an undisclosed private collection. This spring they were delivered back to the town of Vinci, some miles from the farmhouse where Leonardo was born. DNA tests, it was said, would be carried out with the objective of identifying any possible Da Vinci descendants (no matter how distant they might be from the childless artist) and of locating the artist’s mortal remains (which were interred but then lost in the French town of Amboise where the old master died).

Media outlets around the world covered the return of this prodigal relic with much excitement and fanfare, but several months on, the bold announcement has not yet delivered any tangible results. It might be easy for cynics to write off the brouhaha as just another gimmick, a bit of well-timed publicity to kick-start a busy year of Da Vinci mania that marks the quincentenary of the famous Renaissance polymath’s death on May 2, 1519. True believers, however, can make the pilgrimage up to the picturesque Tuscan hill town, where they can marvel in the presence of Leonardo’s putative locks, permanently on display at the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci among reconstructions and full-scale models of some of his most innovative and creative machines.

The file on Da Vinci conspiracy theories, fan fiction, and other forms of wishful thinking is a hefty one. Scientists and fantasists alike have claimed all sorts of things: that the artist suffered from ADHD; that he had ulnar nerve palsy (or “claw hand”); that he scandalously inserted the Magdalene into the company of male apostles in the Last Supper (ca. 1495–1498); that he once painted a portrait of a woman with high cholesterol who may also have been a prostitute, the love child of a Chinese slave, or perhaps a self-portrait of the artist in drag. The second female subject in question is, of course, Lisa Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa, whose famous smile was “decoded” over a decade ago by an emotion-recognition software program as belonging to a woman who was 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry.1 The “silly season for the Mona Lisa,” as the formidable Leonardo scholar and Oxford professor Martin Kemp once said, “never closes.”2 The same might be said for Leonardo, period.

One might blame the nonsense on novelist Dan Brown, but Sigmund Freud has much to answer for in this regard. Drawing from Leonardo’s early childhood memory in which he was attacked by a large bird, the psychoanalyst famously diagnosed the artist with extreme completion anxiety, a tendency toward neurotic fixation, repressed homosexuality, and acute mother and father issues. The neuroses of this “Italian Faust,” Freud concluded, ultimately stemmed from the artist’s illegitimate birth, but far from being the typical “nerve case,” Leonardo became that rare kind of genius who was able to sublimate his childish “play-instinct” and his erotic frustrations into his creative and intellectual activity.3 Freud’s essay not only emboldened the practice of psychobiography, in which the significance of an individual’s work is read through his or her intimate histories, but also shaped the way “Leonardo da Vinci” would be constructed for decades to come—as a fraught subject torn between femininity and masculinity, pathology and genius, and art and science (to this list of intransigent binaries, we might add, in the language of twenty-first-century viewers, the humanities and STEM subjects).

Femininity/pathology/art. Masculinity/genius/science. It is easy to see how political and problematic the divisions can get. It is also important, as we enter peak Leonardo frenzy, to acknowledge these constructions for what they are, so as to look beyond the hype and to see and enjoy the work in an informed fashion. The historical past was defined, to be sure, by extreme inequalities. Boundaries, however, often tended to be fluid, and Leonardo, one might say, was “post-binary” avant la lettre. This is nowhere more evident than in the drawings that were on view this past summer in two London exhibitions dedicated to the old master—“Leonardo: A Life in Drawing” at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace and “Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion” at the British Library. Leonardo’s world was atomistic, volatile, constantly in flux. At the same time, it was also surprising and oneiric, like scenes from a daydream, and this is how he depicted that world in his art. It wasn’t either/or. Leonardo was concerned, in equal parts, with science and fiction; and like all authors of science fiction, he dreamt (for better and worse) of other worlds yet to come.


It was this visionary aspect that undoubtedly appealed to Bill Gates, who purchased one of Leonardo’s notebooks in 1994 for $30.8 million. That manuscript—the Codex Leicester—was one of the centerpieces of the exhibition at the British Library. Previously, the manuscript had been on display as part of the exhibition “Water as Microscope of Nature: Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester,” which closed in January 2019 at the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence. In the London show, the Codex Leicester was paired with the Codex Arundel, owned by the library and supplemented by a few additions from other collections in the United Kingdom. This ensemble is but a tiny fraction of Leonardo’s vast corpus of writings, consisting of some twenty-odd notebooks. Brimming with detailed pen-and-ink drawings as well as sketches in red and black chalk, they contain the extensive notes that da Vinci accumulated over a lifetime for treatises on various topics including anatomy, light, water, botany, mechanics, and painting, which were left for the most part incomplete. Central to the two codices on view at the British Library is a sustained reflection on the sublime force of the elements: the dynamism of air and water, the tremulous body of the earth, and the fiery light of the sun and moon.

On one such sheet, we see Leonardo trying to understand the forces that propel the circulation of water from the seas up to mountain peaks. At first glance, it would seem we are dealing with a relatively straightforward scientific illustration, but moving closer to the detail that hovers in the upper left-hand margin of the page next to the explanatory text, one cannot help but notice that the schematic image of the earth resembles a human face. At the center of the terrestrial sphere there seems to be a single unblinking eye that gazes back out at us. At the top, rivers—rendered as three darkened inky squiggles—seem to grow like hairs from the top of one’s head.4 It is more like the iconic image of the man in the moon from Georges Méliès’s fantastical film A Trip to the Moon (1902) than an illustration to be found in a geology textbook. Leonardo thought of nature in distinctively anthropomorphizing terms. In his writings, soil is the Earth’s flesh, the rocks and the mountains are its bones; tufa is likened to cartilage; and the watery network of rivers, lakes, and oceans forms part of its circulatory system. “Earth,” he wrote, “has a vegetative soul” and the “heat of the soul of the world is the fire which is infused throughout the Earth.”5 

In addition to painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, stage designer, anatomist, geologist, botanist, and cartographer, we might add environmentalist to da Vinci’s many titles. But above all else, he was a dreamer, and perhaps this is why he had so much trouble finishing things on time or at all. The evidence to this end is staggering in the chronological survey “Leonardo: A Life in Drawing,” which closes on October 13 before traveling to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on November 22 in a much-reduced version. The Buckingham Palace show is the largest exhibition of the artist’s graphic production in sixty-five years. What makes this a truly twenty-first-century da Vinci exhibition, however, is the range of new noninvasive imaging technologies that have been used to uncover previously unseen details. A fingerprint, possibly belonging to the master, was identified on the edge of an anatomical drawing of The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman (ca. 1509–10). Perhaps the most exciting announcement made during “Leonardo: A Life in Drawing” was the discovery of a number of “Studies of Hands for the Adoration of the Magi” (ca. 1480–81), which were revealed under ultraviolet light, upon what had appeared at first to be a blank sheet of paper.6 The history behind this exhibition is worth mentioning. In the run-up to the exhibition in London, twelve regional museums throughout the United Kingdom—in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton, and Sunderland—were each lent twelve Leonardo drawings for three months, thereby enabling local residents to see the master’s works in their own towns. For a man so interested in both locomotion and fame, Leonardo would have been extremely chuffed at the idea of his creations being transported across roads and waterways in a foreign land of which he had heard, but never seen with his own eyes.

“A Life in Drawing” is organized both geographically and chronologically, covering the significant periods that Leonardo spent in Florence (ca. 1481), Milan (ca. 1481–99), Florence, Milan, and Rome (ca. 1500–16), and France (1516–19). Within these sections are thematic groups interspersed with preparatory sketches for some of his completed masterpieces such as the Last Supper and the Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86), as well as the controversial Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), which sold at auction in 2017 for $450.3 million. Readers will no doubt be familiar with the drawings Leonardo made of the human and animal anatomy, weapons and machines, and even the numerous sketches of rocks, plants, and deluges. Among the many remarkable works in the Royal Collection is a wild drawing titled The Arno Valley with the route of a proposed canal (ca. 1503–4), in which the boundary that Freud sought to erect between Leonardo’s “scientific” and “artistic” drives seems to crumble upon the surface of the page. In the lower right-hand corner, the draftsman shows a three-dimensional view through a valley of rocky peaks and rolling hills. What might have been a simple brown ink landscape drawing is overtaken from above, however, by an aerial view down onto the winding course of the Arno River.

In the early years of the 1500s, with the support of Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo came up with numerous schemes to divert the flow of the river in order to increase trade and to isolate the rival city of Pisa. None of these plans came to fruition, but this magnificent drawing resulted. Nervous lines map out the intricate network of diversion channels as well as the ambitious and ultimately fanciful canals Leonardo wanted to cut through the inhospitable Tuscan marshes. In some parts, especially on the left side, the sinuous forms have been pricked by a needle. Traces of black charcoal on the back of the sheet confirm that these sections were pounced in order to be copied. What appear as random splotches of brown ink wash at the heart of the drawing refer in fact to hill chains running between Pistoia and Empoli to the east and Lucca and Pisa to the west. Opaque circles indicate towns to the north and west of Florence. A set of numbers skips across the lower right-hand side, corresponding presumably to a set of measurements. While Renaissance drawings are often multilayered events filled with various studies of hands, drapery, faces, architectural motifs, etc., there is something quasi-expressionistic about Leonardo’s graphism here. Standing before the glorious mess of a masterpiece, one wonders whether the drawing was begun in earnest with a clear cartographic goal in mind, but was then overtaken bit by bit by fantasy. An inattentive eye might mistake this sheet for one of Leonardo’s many anatomical studies in which he is trying to understand the dense system of arteries, veins, and capillaries that make up the human circulatory system. At the same time, the large abstract field invokes the balletic space that we might associate with painters as diverse as Jackson Pollock and Hans Hartung.


It would seem that Leonardo often started something with one idea in mind only to get diverted, like one of his proposed canals, in another direction. Two other drawings in the Royal Collection—both thick palimpsests—demonstrate this process brilliantly. In Pictographs and an architectural plan (ca. 1490), a viable chronology of development might be discerned. The artist appears to have started an architectural plan in the lower half. The carefully rendered rooms, stairs, and corridors get quickly overwritten, however, by a mad scramble of cryptograms running from right to left accompanied beneath by Leonardo’s signature mirror handwriting. The parade of little ears, bowls, beans, creatures, a mask, a handshake, musical notes, bones, a pinecone, and other picture puzzles turn out to be a sub-Petrarchan plaint that begins in the upper right-hand corner with pictographs that ask “What can I do if the woman plucks my heart?” Another line further down laments through another suite of pictorial puns and rebuses: “Wretched me, how she triumphed over me! But still I will be” (this is Leonardo doing his best Gloria Gaynor).

An architectural allegory and designs for a stage set (ca. 1495) is just as complex. Marked by a box in the upper right hand corner is a bizarre scene in which a classical building has sprouted a tail and a monstrous skeletal head and appears to be in hot pursuit of a justifiably terrified man. Winged figures (angels?) enter from the left, but it is difficult to say why. Turning the sheet ninety degrees counterclockwise, one sees two small sketches of a figure seated on a globe and a cloudburst from which small pellets (possibly golden coins) fall. While the designs have been connected to a production of Baldassare Taccone’s Danaë that Leonardo oversaw for the Italian nobleman Gianfrancesco Sanseverino in the 1490s, the sheet achieves with graphic economy what would have been nearly impossible to accomplish in reality on the stage. Unlike Pictographs and an architectural plan, it becomes more difficult for the viewer to discern the artist’s start and end points. Did Leonardo begin by designing the backdrops for the play and then get overcome by the enormity of the task? Is he to be understood as the man being chased by the architectural monster? Alternatively, did he dream up an impossible stage set and then draw a celestial deity to whom he could plead for assistance?

Fire and earth were the elements that kept Leonardo grounded, but water and air enabled his creative mind to fly. It is no surprise then that he loved to draw wind gusts, tempests, storms, and floods. Several of the best examples of such images are on view at Buckingham Palace. These are frequently classified as “scientific studies,” but we must remind ourselves that it was impossible to see such violent and fleeting phenomena in this manner before the invention of photography. Though Leonardo’s drawings may be based in part on firsthand observation, they are necessarily condensations, extensions, and ultimately inventions born of the artist’s imagination.

Toward the end of his life, Leonardo seems to have become obsessed with climatic volatility, as a series of sublime cataclysmic storm drawings from his final years in France demonstrate. Perhaps one of the most delightful of his “storm” pictures, however, is a very small drawing in black chalk and pen-and-ink, dating from around 1506 to 1512, that shows what is called A Cloudburst of Material Possessions. As with the Pictographs and an Architectural Plan, the artist has created a pictorial inventory of early sixteenth-century objects. This time they are household goods including ladles, ladders, scissors, spectacles, rakes, rulers, hammers, and even a bagpipe. At the bottom, however, he added the line: “Oh human misery, how many things you must serve for money” (and here, Leonardo is doing his best Marie Kondo). The small sketch, measuring just over four-and-a-half-inches square, has been read as a moral allegory on account of the inscription, but one might picture Leonardo sketching a storm cloud outside his window and absentmindedly adding a single spoon falling from the sky and then drawing a shovel and then another until the nature study became an explosion of the imagination. At the left edge of the fantastical cloud formation, Leonardo inserted a small lion—leone—a pictorial signature, perhaps.

Another beloved drawing from the Royal Collection features a sheet known as Cats, lions, and a dragon (ca. 1517–18). As is often the case with Leonardo, what appears at first to be a series of studies after nature quickly reveals itself to be a less straightforward amalgamation. Cats are notoriously absent from Renaissance paintings, whereas dogs are often found posing with their masters and mistresses in some of the grandest portraits of the time. Any cat owner will tell you that, unlike dogs, cats generally do not like it when you stare at them. They get suspicious and scuttle off, or they find a high perch from which they can observe you instead. In Leonardo’s field of feline critters, there are three sleeping cats on the right, a few seen from behind and the rest for the most part are the artist’s imaginary concoctions. In the upper left-hand corner we have what might be described as a “cat-rat.” Beneath that there is a scaredy-cat on all fours with fur abristle, resembling a lamb more than a cat. Other wrestling creatures have morphed from cats into lions; and finally, sketched in on the diagonal, there is a roaring dragon with its tail twisted in a coil. Around five years before his death, Leonardo announced his intention to write a treatise on the movement of animals that walk on four feet. Martin Clayton, curator of the Queen’s Gallery exhibition, commented that this was “perhaps displacement activity for Leonardo’s stalled work on human anatomy.”7 In the end, neither the study on animal locomotion nor on human anatomy ever materialized.

There is no denying that Leonardo often left projects and commissions unfinished. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current presentation of St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness (begun ca. 1483), an anguished depiction of the holy hermit, offers New York audiences access to one of the most spectacular examples of the artist’s predilection for abandoning projects. Francesco del Giocondo may have been a successful Florentine merchant and wealthy slave trader, but even he was powerless at getting the painter to hand over the long-overdue portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. But Leonardo was hardly alone in the art of the non finito. Michelangelo notoriously failed to complete the fifteen statues promised for the Piccolomini family chapel in Siena, the twelve apostles destined for the Duomo in Florence, the Entombment altarpiece for the Bishop of Crotone in Rome, the facade of San Lorenzo, the wall tombs for the Medici, and the fresco of the Battle of Cascina for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the pendant for which was Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, which he likewise failed to complete.

In Michelangelo’s case, the non finito is often read as a bold aesthetic strategy, but with Leonardo it is usually codified as a deficiency. The two hundred drawings on view at Buckingham Palace amount to less than half of the five hundred sheets in the Royal Collection—the largest single cache of works by Leonardo in the world—and only a fraction of Leonardo’s total graphic output. He was a busy man, but we shouldn’t read his hyperactivity as an inability to produce, as attention disorder, or as a mother-complex, for that matter. It was a visual index of his thought process—the downtime, the daydreaming, the dead ends, and the endless digressions and diversions. Instead of the antithetical pairings of femininity versus masculinity, pathology versus genius, and art versus science that Freud introduced to Leonardo studies, we might instead take a page from the psychoanalyst’s essay on “Creative Writing and Day-Dreaming” (1908), in which he compared the motivation of artistic activity, dreams, daydreaming, and various forms of fiction to the guiltless pleasure of child’s play. Leonardo completed only around twenty paintings in his lifetime—not a tremendous yield given the amount of paper he generated and the amount of financial backing he received from republican governments, tyrants, and kings alike. But imagine a world in which nobody was willing to invest in a day-dreamer like Leonardo! The thousands of sketches, scribbles, doodles, and drawings as well as the prodigious note-taking, however, document the laborious process of speculative research—full of obstacles, frequently tortured—that is necessary if one is to produce something as spectacular as the Mona Lisa or the Virgin of the Rocks. These paintings along with La Belle Ferronière (ca. 1490), the Bacchus (1510–15), and St. John the Baptist (ca. 1513), will be among the masterpieces at the much anticipated Louvre Museum blockbuster, opening in Paris at the end of October when readers can expect “silly season” to be in full bloom.


This article appears under the title “Science Fiction Double Feature” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 62–69.