A new science between Art and Nature
In Florence, in the ex-refectory of the church of Santa Maria Novella, the exhibition “The Botany of Leonardo. A new science between Art and Nature” (September 13th – December 15th, 2019). The event will be inaugurated with the planting of a mulberry tree inside a dodecahedron, the 12-sided solid structure that according to Plato reproduced the shape of the universe. This was something that Leonardo knew well, as illustrated in the works of the mathematician Pacioli.
It is impossible to talk about Leonardo da Vinci in a thorough manner. This was a man with a thousand interests. His training took place in Florence, where the Renaissance revolution began at the beginning of the 15th century.
The exhibition investigates a lesser known, yet not secondary aspect, of Leonardo’s interests: botany. In an inventory of the works he compiled when he travelled to Milan in 1482, the first entry is “many flowers portrayed in nature”. This attention to nature was conveyed to him by late-Gothic Dutch paintings, rather than the Florentine tradition that varies from Giotto to Masaccio. In fact, he had seen the Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes in the Church of S. Maria Novella.
We know that he used to collect specimens of plants of which he carried out careful studies, analysing not only the external form but also organic functions. Botany was born with him as an independent scientific discipline outside of pharmacological use or magic. An entire chapter of his Treatise on Painting, “Trees and vegetables”, is dedicated to this theme, including numerous indications on how plants are represented and as well as other studies. There are many scientific notes that have little to do with painting. However, Leonardo, in his enormous curiosity, thought that these aspects were important. For example, he understood the relationship between the number of rings and the age of the trees, as well as the fat that the growth of the leaves follows precise patterns.
On a sheet of the Ambrosian Library in Milan filled with notes on the sage leaf, an illustration appears not as a drawing, but as a cast of a leaf soaked in black carbon and oil and imprinted on the paper. This interesting experiment shows the Leondardo’s scientific attitude.
In addition, the artist-scientist often uses botanical comparisons to explain his theories on the mechanisms of the body. In fact, he compares the heart to the core that generates the tree and compares the blood vessel system with the branches of the trees where the sap flows, trying to identify the common branching mechanism. For Leonardo, all creation must be seen as a whole in a “rigorous agreement with the laws of nature” to which man is subjected, but this also includes plants, rocks and the entire universe. An interesting relic from this point of view can be found in a series of drawings from the Windsor collection in which the representation of the turbulence of the waters resembles other drawings, those of plants.
In pictorial production, vegetation had an important role. It is not an inert ornament. We see this in his first painting, The Annunciation, where the attention with which the flowery meadow or the lily held by the angel is represented. Another example is the Portrait of Ginevra Benci, where he alludes to the name of the woman, a juniper bush that frames her face, which is represented with botanical detail. We could go forever with examples, because his scientific studies were the basis of the form he gave to the things represented in his paintings.
The arboreal decoration of the Sala delle Asse in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan is remarkable. The assignment was given to him by Ludovico Sforza, who under this work assumed the protection of Galeazzo Sforza, while he was still a child, an event that would pave the way for the Duchy. Leonardo created a magnificent naturalistic piece, framing the environment with 16 mulberry trees whose fronds intertwine on the ceiling to create an illusionistic arbour. This is a fusion of architecture and nature, poised between the naturalism of vegetation and the geometric abstraction given by the intertwining of the branches.
The use of mulberry is not by chance. It is a symbol of wisdom, but also an allusion to the customer (morus is the Latin name of the mulberry, referring to the Moro, the Moor) and to mulberry plantations for breeding silkworms, a profitable activity of the duchy. Few know that Leonardo also wrote fables and many of these have plants as their protagonists.
In an era of a growing attention to our ecosystem, Leonardo reminds us that man and nature cannot exist separately – altering one means compromising the other.
Anna Maria Calabretta