by Lizzie Norgard
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
Visiting Professor of Art History from the University of Rome, Ricardo de Mambro Santos, explored Leonardo da Vinci’s unprecedented vision of nature in his farewell lecture “Leonardo da Vinci: the Invention of Nature” on Dec. 4.
Professor Mambro Santos began by saying that Leonardo da Vinci was especially interested in the movements of living things. Da Vinci approached every object of study from his preoccupation with motion. “In words or images, he struggled to grasp the laws of transformation and life’s basic principle [of motion],” Mambro Santos said.
Leonardo da Vinci recognized that the same principles of motion could be found in both the microcosms and macrocosm of nature. Mambro Santos used examples from the scientific manuscript “Codex Leicester,” in which da Vinci grappled with the mathematical principles of motion common to all natural bodies. “In these pages, Leonardo systematically analyzed the relationship between micro- and macrocosm, comparing human physiology to the physical morphology of the world,” Mambro Santos said.
The artist was particularly interested in the movement of water. “Leonardo associated all forms of organic life and every effect of growth, transformation and variety in nature, from plants to animals, from human bones to rocks, to the dynamics of water,” Mambro Santos said.
Leonardo imitated the swirling, spiraling patterns of water in human hair, clouds and the motion of leaves in the air. Mambro Santos said that it is possible that the Codex Leicester was intended as a manual for hydraulic technology. “About one third of the illustrations presented in the Codex are made up of astonishing representations of water currents, leaks and vortexes,” Mambro Santos said. He showed several drawings of human hair in particular, which he represented in spirals and waves.
Mambro Santos pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to use the spiral as a way to graphically represent movement. “Now we take it for granted that such a shape, the spiral, can be used as a visual translation for the depiction of movement, forgetting that this form is not at all a natural one, but a culturally determined convention, and Leonardo was the first artist who tried to explore its graphic and pictorial implications,” Mambro Santos said. Because of Leonardo’s explorations, it seems natural to us to use spirals, curves and waves to represent movement in drawings such as comic strips.
Mambro Santos also discussed the way Leonardo’s portraits imitated other natural shapes, such as animals and rocks. These comparisons between faces and natural shapes not only exposed similarities between human physiology and the universe, but also conveyed a metamorphosis from one shape to another, a return to elementary matter. Mambro Santos showed portraits in which facial bone structure had been depicted as rocky cliffs and facial expressions likened to the faces of animals to portray temperament.
Leonardo’s technique in his drawings and paintings, which Mambro Santos called “Sfumato,” was ideal for imitating natural movements. Sfumato means “smooth rendering” and is characterized by soft contours and the absence of bold outlines. Blending and shadow are used instead to portray changing shape and distinctions between objects. Mambro Santos compared Leonardo’s portraits to those of other artists to show the effect of Sfumato in imitating natural movements.