“Every branch of science developed so far owes something to Leonardo da Vinci. He was the master of every priority.”
That’s Gian Battista Vai, an expert on da Vinci and the opening speaker for this year’s plenary session at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Milan – an event dedicated, appropriately enough, to not only the spirit and genius of da Vinci, but to his early effect and imprimatur on many disciplines, including geology.
As proof of Leonardo’s importance to the profession, Vai first talks of Nicolaus Steno, commonly accepted as the founding father of geology (he conceived its three basic principles in 1669).
“He [Steno] did not know that Leonardo, born in the same Tuscany and North Apennine area where Steno had been inspired, had written the same principles,” Vai said.
What’s astonishing is not that da Vinci had written them, but that he did so more than 160 years before Steno.
Vai, who is a professor at the University of Bologna, author of The Origins of Geology in Italy and Anatomy of an Orogen, points out that Leonardo already had focused on strata, their original horizontality, their original continuity, their superposition and their tilting and consequent angular unconformities.
“More than Steno, Leonardo illustrated the folding and faulting of strata remarkable geological profiles and paintings,” Vai said. “Leonardo was perfectly aware of the origin and meanings of fossils in mountain beds more than15 decades before Steno.”
Vai, who teaches stratigraphic principles and procedures, is astonished at the breadth of Leonardo’s writing – even though more than 90 percent of those writings, by his and most experts’ calculations, have yet to be uncovered.
Vai jokes that it’s quiet a treasure trove if:
- You could find it.
- You’re a geologist.
- You speak Italian.
Vai, who is equipped with two of the above, says short of that, one can see Leonardo’s contributions to geology by carefully combining a study of da Vinci’s notebooks – those that we have – with a careful scrutiny of his drawings and paintings.
“Following this approach, I realized that there is still a great deal to discover as regards Leonardo’s geology,” he said, “in spite of there being thousands of titles from Leonardo on science and hundreds from Leonardo on geology.”
Left: St. Anne Right: Baptism
One such work that reveals the link is “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne,” which Leonardo painted in 1510. Vai says he discovered its mysteries on a “sunny, light-filled, wintery day” in the Grande Salle at the Louvre.
“The few visitors and the unusual clear light made it possible to capture my visual attention to the dark and darkened basement of the famous Saint Anne,” he said.
Vai was attracted by the sublime mountain landscape in the background – but when concentrating on the dark foreground, Vai noticed a bedded rhythmic alternation of brown sandy and blue marly layers is shown.
“On top of the fractured sequence, pebbles are being formed by in-situ weathering and small-scale water transport, as often described in Leonardo’s notebooks relating to the Apennine creeks,” he said.
“The sandy-marly rhythmites resemble the Miocene turbidites that are very common in the Northern Apennines between Florence and the Romagna cities of Imola, Faenza, Cesena and Cesenatico, where Leonardo travelled often to in the first decade of the 16th century,” he said.
Vai says the resemblance is uncanny.
“I recognize a striking similarity between what Leonardo depicted and the large and thick turbidite body known as the Marnoso Arenacea Formation (mid-to-late Miocene), whose common sedimentary structure is a wavy lamination, a lamination clearly recorded by Leonardo,” he said.
“This is not surprising, given Leonardo’s skill in depicting varied types of fluid mechanics especially vertical flows developed in media such as water, clouds, rocks, sediments.”
While not as transcendent personally, Vai believes Leonardo’s “The Baptism of Christ” (housed at the Uffizi Gallery in France), further reveals such code.
Painted circa 1470, and not entirely by Leonardo himself (the main work was done by Verrocchio, his master at the time), Vai says the feet of the depicted angel, which Leonardo did create, are light and clear.
Here, too, Vai says the painting reveals stages of weathering.
“Compared with Saint Anne, the young Leonardo of the Baptism was already mature in his understanding of geomorphology, especially erosion and depositional processes; however, he had not yet recognized turbidites and wavy intra-bed millimeter-sized laminations.
“Instead, he had no difficulty in drawing fine parallel intra-bed lamination and helicoidal-vertical structures (hairs).”
Vai, overall, believes there is a through-line between da Vinci’s art, his writings and scientific foundation – and while it may not always be obvious, insists that Leonardo’s drawings, these two in particular, show that connection.
“They are a superb 3-D representation of a highly folded sedimentary or metamorphic area Leonardo could have seen in the Northern Apennines (fold hinges in the Apuane core complex; thrust zone of the Tertiary turbidites) or in the Lombardy to Venetian area (Southern Alps turbidites).
One thing Vai regrets – as do most who study and are in awe of da Vinci – is the amount of work that can’t be found and, therefore, can’t be studied.
“Only 10 percent of his notebooks and drawings have survived,” Vai said.
And it is here that Vai offers the following, almost wistful hope:
“I believe there is a chance to find one of those many misplaced notebooks. Let us wish each other good luck looking for Leonardo’s first geological map!”