This essay by D. L. Pughe first appeared in Writings on Water, MIT Press.
“describe all the forms taken by water from its greatest to its smallest wave, and their causes.”1
—Leonardo da Vinci
It became a deluge for Leonardo to write of water. All its forms were to be explored, beginning in nooks and crannies of ice where it melted and pooled, flowing into brooks, streams braiding into rivers, rivers splashing into seas, and finally oceans rising in enormous crescendos from gargantuan storms. The studies of currents alone took up page after page, the exploration of clouds into rain a complete chapter, and the deep exploration of underwater vision: a lost notebook.2
He is in Cloux near the castle of Amboise in the Loire Valley. He had retired to the royal manor house at 62 after exhausting nearly every possibility in Florence, Venice, Milan.
Here he is allowed to think and dream, and occasionally help Francis I, the French king, with plans for a network of canals for the Loire.
Awake in the night he goes over again and again in his imagination the outlines of forms he has been studying, the ‘noteworthy things conceived by subtle speculation.’3
He considers the great amount of hidden water lingering inside the earth which feeds the springs. The motionless high mountain lakes and ponds, the stillness of fountains and stagnant pools. He attributes their calm to their distance from the center of the earth, and yet it is from these heights that splashing rapids, thundering waterfalls and great rivers fall like drapery: the Ticino from Laggo Maggiore, the Adda from Lake Como, the Rhine emerging from Lake Constance and Lake Chur.4
Fire flutters upward; water trickles down or drops from the sky. He is fascinated by liquid gravity, always descending, falling over, plunging, flowing downstream, pouring into the sea. Fire draws what is caught in it toward the sky like a passion that consumes you as it lifts you; water pulls you under in its powerful embrace.
Was it this attraction as well as this fear that led Leonardo to contemplate it again and again, from every perspective?
He drew rivers the same way he drew veins in the arm, a confluence of streams joining together coursing to the ocean, nourishing continents along the way. Reaching the sea they unravel in countless capillaries, spilling their pure contents into salty waves. He is fascinated by these mergers and divergences, the sweet purity of springs and heavy salinity of seas. He studies the way water courses around objects in its path, experimenting with sticks and boards, drawing the curls and braided currents as it rushes past every obstacle. He sketches a smaller river bending into a larger one from the opposite direction, whirling as the currents adjust themselves to the same destination.5
He realizes the ways water must be coaxed into channels and invited into canals by a beckoning drop in height.
Leonardo is aware water is not gentle in return. In the long nights at Cloux he dreams again and again of the massive deluge he is sure will wash civilization away. He sees clouds rise in ferocious gray armor and drop ton after ton of water on a helpless countryside full of desperate humanity. Mountains crumble, whirling waves rise, fly up, recoil, ‘friction grinds the falling water into minute particles, quickly converted to a dense mist, mingling with the gale in the manner of curling smoke and wreathing clouds,’ then all is washed away in a deadly inundation of foam, furiously rushing to the depths of the sea.6
He imagines the deep hidden channels of water within the earth which, over centuries, have carved away hollow caves. He is torn by contradictory emotions of fear and desire: ‘fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there are any marvelous things within.’7 Whirlpools sometimes stir there, awaiting each luckless thing pulled into their path. They can appear dark blue and calm, for instance, running among jagged cliffs behind an innocent Madonna cradling her child in a nest of rocks.
The exchange between oceans and rivers fascinated him, water constantly circulating and returning, the infinite number of times all the waters of the sea and rivers have passed through the mouth of the Nile.8
…that which crowns our wonder in contemplating [water] is that it rises from the utmost depths of the sea to the highest tops of the mountains, and flowing from the opened veins returns to the low seas; then once more, and with extreme swiftness, it mounts again and returns by the same descent…9
Gradually, these torrents of water ‘throw back stones toward the mountains’ hitting one another and rounding their edges away. By the time they reach the sea, they are pebbles worn to sand. Just as the water itself is caught in eternal return, so the land goes back and forth over centuries:10
Li moti son fatti dalli cor si de’fiumi; Li moti son disfatti dalli cor si de’fiumi.
Mountains are made by the currents of rivers, Mountains are destroyed by the currents of rivers.11
Was it this which drew Leonardo on?
What leads him to draw a submarine, to take Aristotle’s notion of a ‘diving bell’ and want to plunge into the deep violet depths of the ocean? Knowing his accumulated fears of water, of the deluge that could sweep humankind away in a thunderclap and swirling curl of foam, what did he hope to find in the fluttering light on the ocean floor?
On terra firma Leonardo was trained in the strict linear perspective of Alberti, a world controlled by point and line falling onto planes. Forms recede into the distance in graduated angles, always toward an anchoring point on a horizon which is also the point of vanishing. The Euclidean geometry which lay behind Alberti’s scheme was widely believed then and rarely challenged. In the beginning Leonardo applied angles to light and air, and saw the boundaries of shadows as determinable points. ‘He who is ignorant of these [points],’ he warned, ‘will produce work without relief, and the relief is the summit and soul of painting.’12
But in the shadowy, spiraling realm below the surface of water there is no such relief. Plunged below an anchoring horizon, all points are indeterminable. It is a realm of impossible angles where light dances like snakes rising from the floor instead of crisp beams slanting down from the sun. Perhaps he was headed there all along, toward a more inexpressible abstraction. In his late writings Leonardo begins to re-define a point as an instant in time and a line as a length or duration.13 Gradually the lines of a winding river come to resemble his own time on earth, ending in the immensity of the sea. Duration there becomes blurred, hinting at eternity.
On land, Leonardo devised a new means of atmospheric and aerial perspective to eloquently explore the blurring of the world. He noted the way objects diminish in sight as they recede from the eye, the way colors change in the distance (often merging into blue), and the haziness of edges, of vanishing: ‘the way that objects ought to be less carefully finished as they are farther away.’14 He applied these luminous rules to his painted landscapes, overriding hard-edged geometric schemes. And he delighted in the waters which trailed off into the bluish distance, in particular those at the edge of a certain portrait of a lady with whom he shared his room in Cloux. In the evenings did he linger in the deep turquoise water that travels through the craggy mountains behind her indecipherable smile?
He began to call the Albertian method ‘simple,’ a construzione legittima but nonetheless artificial, then started to decode what he called ‘natural’ perspective. He resurrected the importance of our rounded world. The alleged ‘pyramid of vision’ which is said to frame nature and reach into our eye would give us a much different view than the one we actually see. He found our two eyes, working together, frame a graceful oval not a square. How did this play out under the surface of the ocean; how did this man, for whom the edges of light were once calculable angles, manage in the restless coils of aquatic shadows?
He began to embrace curves. He observed that stones flung into the water become the center and cause of many circles, that sound also diffuses itself in the air in echoing rings. And he noticed the sky spreading out in concentric bands of atmosphere, with the horizon suddenly visible as a graceful arc.15
Peering into water from above, he finds direct light does not allow him to look deeply into the layers of a stream, it bounces back his reflection and the sky. His eyes find a way in through other dark shadowy images reflected on the surface or what he calls the ‘skin.’ Observing submerged pebbles he sees how light bends as it enters the liquid world then diffuses in unpredictable ways. It would be several hundred years before a ‘wave’ theory of light came to be accepted, but he was already suspicious of the sanctity of beams.
Straight things seem to dissolve into ribbons in watery realms. Descartes would later describe how a stick in water appears bent from refraction, and that only a child would most likely believe it is truly bent. ‘Touching it, however, confirms that it is straight and goes beyond our preconceived opinions.’16 Descartes believed all ‘visual errors’ could be corrected this way—our senses working furiously in tandem to check and balance one another. He calls this ability ‘reason;’ Leonardo called it common sense, senso comune, where the five senses minister to the soul and enhance artistic perception.
He was the master of depicting shadows, smoky contours: Sfumato was his special means of rounding edges by subtle gradations to capture three-dimensional views. He explains how the density of a shadow is darkest closest to that which casts it, then fades away as it stretches into the distance. But looking down on water, shadows from above leap great distances and nearly disengage from their source. Bridges, for instance, leave their wobbly geometry on the surface some meters up or downstream. And immersed underneath the sea, the shadow of a fish swimming above can dart across the ocean floor a safe distance away just as its fin touches your shoulder. How did he try to capture these shifts of location, the curves of light, the diabolical dimensions of vision in the hushed immense chamber of the ocean?
We cannot know. In his rooms at Cloux in those final days he dreamed again of the deluge, his sketches becoming more and more cataclysmic and yet full of a vibrant conclusion: visual clashes of cymbals and drums and trumpets. He finds a sketch of a storm of our human failings, our foolish desire for objects suddenly bursting and falling from a dark thicket of clouds.
Comforting him in his last hours, the outstretched arms of St. Anne, the enigmatic face of La Gioconda, and the even more mysterious smile of St. John, his flame-like finger pointing toward the sky. They all appear to know something. And joining him in thought: a self-portrait, his beard cascading in silent waterfalls.
He had once believed that swimming is the closest we can come to understanding what birds do in the air. It can free us from gravity and fear. Like flying, it is a pushing away, and he believed we could push, that water could be mastered. Challenging Christ, he devised shoes with helpful poles for walking on the surface.
And attempting to defy the gods, he designed a life saver not unlike those carried on giant ships traversing the seas.
But as his apocalyptic dreams grew, these inventions paled. He again and again is caught in the storm:
the swollen waters of the river, already having burst its banks, will rush on in monstrous waves; and the greatest will strike upon and destroy the walls of the cities and farmhouses in the valley…the swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them, striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air…17
He had once designed an underwater suit to dive the depths of the ocean.
Did it occur to him now that the ocean floor might be the safest place to hide? He had altered his judgment of the world and had begun to embrace the curved reality we, too, have recently begun to know. What did the deepest depths of blue water hold in final reckoning? A resting place, a refuge, a realm of constant revision and invention. A point of vanishing where the soul is firmly anchored in scattered turquoise light.
This essay originally appeared in Writing On Water (Terra Nova Books), edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, (MIT Press, 2002).
1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 922 175.
2 The notebook of underwater perspective was not mislaid, it was simply but sadly never written. It is not known if Leonardo did intend to write one.
3 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 218.
4 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 933 181.
5 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 971 201.
6 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. I compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 606-611 305-314.
7 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 1339 395.
8 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 945 187.
9 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 965 197.
10 Leonardo, The Notebooks , Vol. II, Section 919 175.
11 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 979 205.
12 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci, Section 121, quoted in Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939) 76.
13 Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, Section 190 in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. J. P. Richter (London: Oxford 1939, rev. ed. New York 1970) Paragraph 916.
14 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Edward MacCurdy (New York: Reynal, 1939) 864.
15 Leonardo da Vinci Notebook A (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale 2038) 9v, R paragraph 69. Quoted in James S. Ackerman’s Distance Points, Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) 116.
16 René Descartes, Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) Section 439 124.
17 Leonardo on Painting, ed. Martin Kemp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 234-235.