Leonardo on Nature

International Conference

Organized by Alessandro Nova and Fabio Frosini

Ever since Giovanni Gentile's influential essay 'Leonardo filosofo' was published in 1919, numerous attempts have been made to explain in a consistent manner various aspects of Leonardo's mind that might appear, at first glance, sharply contradictory. The mixture of "Naturalism" and "Platonism" postulated by Gentile as the main feature of Leonardo's thought has been taken up again by a number of scholars; yet, especially over the last thirty years, there has been an increasing diversification and specialisation in the research on Leonardo's intellectual output. Unfortunately, these contributions have concentrated only on particular areas of Leonardo's multifarious interests, arbitrarily separating them from the rest of his thinking. This strategy makes a general reconstruction of Leonardo's peculiar "philosophical thought" ever more difficult because it obscures any possible homogeneous thread that runs through the whole of his work.

In recent years, however, the publication of 'Leonardo da Vinci. Natur im Übergang' (Munich 2002), edited by Frank Fehrenbach, and the exhibition 'The Mind of Leonardo. The Universal Genius at Work' (Galleria degli Uffizi, 2006), organized by Paolo Galluzzi have marked a welcome turning point in this matter. They show that research in this field can no longer be assigned to single scholars and that, on the contrary, it must be transformed into a collaborative project. The findings gathered in the catalogue of the Uffizi exhibition, for example, illustrate the remarkable results that such an approach makes possible, and this is particularly evident in the studies concerning Leonardo's persistent attention to 'Nature'. The artist referred to Nature not only as an object of study, but as source of technical and artistic inspiration, as a model of creativity which although unattainable was in any case limited. Nature provided a permanent challenge for the arts, it constitutes also an impersonal logic of infinite transformations, the cause of the periodical annihilation of every form, including the laborious and precarious realization of civilization itself. Nature was also the model of absolute beauty, a representative of the Necessity but also full of miracles, the source of constant amazement as well as dismay: "d'alcuni [animali] pietosa e benigna madre, ad altri crudelissima e dispietata matrigna" ('Codice Atlantico', f. 393r; this ambivalence and complexity of the concept is already discussed by Paolo Galluzzi in his 'La natura di Leonardo: "più tosto crudele matrigna che madre"', in Natura, ed. by D. Giovannozzi and M. Veneziani, Florence 2008, pp. 215-242).

A closer look at the lemma "Nature", therefore, can be the occasion for a renewed attempt to confront Leonardo's thought from a more coherent perspective. In fact, the extraordinary breadth of its meanings (much wider than, e.g., "Mathematics", "Experience", and "Reason") more adequately encompasses the vast assortment of interests cultivated by Leonardo. Furthermore, the concept of "Nature" allows us to focus the whole of Leonardo's activity, both as a scholar and as an artist, from a synthetic point of view because it always leads back to the question of "the end of all things", and more precisely to the "endpoint" both of mankind and the constant mixing of the elements (air, fire, water, and earth). Understood in this way, the topic of "Nature" in Leonardo's work allows us to confront a series of productive dichotomies, such as 'nature and art, nature and the world, natural and accidental', as well as, in more general terms, 'life and death, eternity and transience, necessity and contingency, past and future', all of them continually articulated and evaluated in Leonardo's ever- changing ways of thinking.

The investigation of this topic seems more accessible today, in the light of the recent revival of studies on heterodoxy and misbelief in the Renaissance. Following in the footsteps of Erwin Panofsky's essay on the primitivism of Piero di Cosimo, this research has led to a reconsideration of the role of atomism in 15th-Century Florence as a result of the diffusion and impact of Lucretius' 'De rerum natura' (in this context see the work of Alison Brown and Stephen Greenblatt). Considering these premises - which are reviving and updating an approach that was commonly accepted in 19th and early 20th century studies on 'libertinage', from E. Renan to J.-R. Charbonnel - a whole world of diverse interests, cultural references, and philosophical conceptions can be re-examined against the magical-hermetic and religious culture propagated by Lorenzo de' Medici's intellectual circle.

In light of these current flourishing research perspectives, studying the concept of "Nature" in Leonardo's works will contribute, in a wholly transdisciplinary way (literary, artistic, philosophical, technical-scientific) to the re-evaluation of questions that place Leonardo squarely at some of the most important intellectual crossroads of his time. Such an approach also serves to dispel recurring myths and misconceptions, giving a solid basis for research on this topic and making it possible to resume, in a renewed and critical way, the study of "Leonardo's philosophy", his sources and, ultimately, also his "naturalism".

Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max-Planck-Institut
Palazzo Grifoni - Seminarraum
Via dei Servi 51
50122 Firenze
Prof. Dr. Alessandro Nova  
Telefon:+39 055 24911-85


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