The oldest surviving artwork by Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci is named Landscape with Waterfall. Leonardo himself added a handwritten note, dating the pen and ink drawing to Aug. 4, 1473, when Leonardo was only 21 years old. Historians have previously identified the depicted landscape as a view of the Arno Valley near Florence in Italy’s Tuscany region, where Leonardo was born in the small village of Vinci. Other historians suggested that the sketch is based on the Cascate delle Marmore near Terni, the provincial capital of the Italian region of Umbria. The Marmore Falls are a series of man-made waterfalls created by the ancient Romans. Its total height is 541 feet, making it the tallest man-made waterfall in the world. In any case, it is striking that in this early drawing as well as in that of a Ravine with Waterbirds that he made a few years later, Leonardo already pictured the dramatic rock formations that would form the backgrounds of most of his later paintings, like the Virgin of the Rocks or the world-famous Mona Lisa. It seems that his lifelong fascination with pinnacles of rocks, carved out by water and eventually turning into gravel and fertile soil, originated in his experience of the mountain streams and rocky outcroppings that are typical of parts of the Italian countryside where he lived and traveled between 1452 and 1513.
First written notes about geology can be found in his description of a cave, explored in 1486, coinciding with his work as an engineer in Lombardy for the Duke of Milan. More than 10,000 pages of Leonardo’s notes survive to this day, most dated between 1470 to1519 Some contain observations about outcrops and rocks made during his travels in Tuscany and Romagna. As an engineer he supervised the construction of large irrigation canals, cutting through the sediments of the Apennines and Po Valley. His interest in rocks was well-known at the time and people even brought him fossils to sketch during his stay in Milan. 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 in his personal notes he writes, “…among one and another rock layer, there are the traces of the worms that crawled in them when they [the layers] were not yet dry.”
Leonardo da Vinci studied landscapes, fossils and rocks not only to satisfy his personal curiosity but also to improve the realism of his paintings. Forensic analysis done in 2019 of his Landscape with Waterfall revealed the chemical properties of the ink used by Leonardo. Apparently, he used two very distinct inks, one ink based on iron pigments and one ink based on carbon pigments, for his sketch. This discovery suggests that Leonardo didn’t sketch the landscape at once, but repeatedly modified it, adding many details, like the rock layers, much later. It is therefore unlikely that the drawing shows a real landscape, but instead, it seems that Leonardo used it to sketch his geological research done over the years. The sedimentary layers, as visible above the waterfall, are sketched in a geologically correct manner. Turbidite layers, formed by submarine avalanches and later pushed by tectonic forces above the sea, are commonly spotted in rocky outcrops of the Apennines and are thin at the bottom and thick on the top, a result of the different rates of sedimentation under water. Leonardo even explained the layers in the rock. As flowing water erodes older rocks, sediments are transported into lakes and the ocean. Sediments that accumulate as strata with marine shells in the ocean can be raised into mountains when large dissolved-out cavities, like depicted in the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks, collapse and fragments of the Earth’s crust are pushed side- and upwards. Leonardo da Vinci argued that slowly acting natural processes shaped Earth’s surface over long periods of time, long before 19th-century geologists would introduce this fundamental principle of modern geology.
Leonardo da Vinci never published his geological observations and so for another century the origins of fossils and sedimentary rocks would remain a mystery. However, as he used his geological insights to improve his paintings, he inspired an entire generation of later artists. German artist Albrecht Dürer visited Italy twice to study Leonardo’s art, noting how horizontally stratified rocks and vertical joints are used to create the illusion of an open, three-dimensional space in the paintings. Traveling back home, he tried to copy Leonardo’s style. 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 Leonardo’s drawings and paintings. Dürer popularized this new art style and soon many other Renaissance artists began painting landscapes including geologically accurate rocks.
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