Leonardo da Vinci’s earth-shattering insights about geology

Rock of ages … Leonardo da Vinci's A Rocky Ravine. Photograph: 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection

Leonardo da Vinci was not just a great painter. He was also a brilliant geologist, as the Gaurdian’s latest instalment of its interactive series on his drawings reveals. Rocks pile and gather and disintegrate in mountains, caves, strata and screes in his paintings. The two versions of his picture The Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery’s exhibition of his art glory in two different imaginary caverns, each with its own rich earthscape of stone perforated and sculpted by wind and water. But Leonardo did not only look at stone from a painter’s point of view. It was not a background feature in his eyes. It was a scientific problem.

The Virgin of the Rocks

As a geologist, Leonardo anticipated the scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries who were to prove that the Earth is far older than it says in the book of Genesis. When scientific pioneers around 1800 recognised fossils for what they are – traces of ancient animals – and analysed the processes that create and erode rocks, they quickly reached a set of conclusions that led to Darwin’s theory of evolution and a crisis of Christianity. But amazingly, a self-taught researcher called Leonardo da Vinci thought through a lot of their key discoveries hundreds of years earlier.

Leonardo had the following astonishing insights about geology and fossils:

1) Shells that appear on mountain tops and fish bones in caves must be the remains of animals that long ago swam in these places when they were covered in sea. The claim they were swept there by the biblical flood is a completely inadequate explanation. So the surface of the earth has changed over time, with land where once there was sea.

2) The most powerful natural force is the movement of water in rivers. Water has sculpted the very largest features of the landscape, a process that must have taken a very long time.

3) Therefore slow and relentless natural processes, not the divine instantaneous act described in Genesis, have shaped our planet.

Edited by deskarati from Leonardo da Vinci’s earth-shattering insights about geology

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2 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci’s earth-shattering insights about geology

  1. alfy says:

    This is a very simplistic account. Leonardo was not a brilliant geologist. He had some geological insights as did other people. The basis of scientific geology was worked out in Britain in the early 19 C by people like Hutton and Buckland. This required careful and painstaking recording work, not just brilliant insights. The great advantage of working in Britain was that all the geological epochs are represented in a small island. The names of the periods are mostly derived from British landscape terms.

    Leonardo was wrong about the most powerful natural force being water. Clearly, volcanic activity is far more powerful, and so is the action of glaciers, both of which were present in the Italy of Leonardo’s day.

    The idea that the findings of the early geologists quickly led to the theory of evolution is again simplistic. Some geologists were opposed to the theory.

    I don’t want to enter into religious controversy, but nowhere in Genesis does it give the age of the earth. It is unwise to quote without being sure of the facts. Leonardo’s proposition 3 may or may not be true but it does not follow logically from 1 and 3.

    It is OK to have Leonardo as a hero, but a bit unwise to overstate the case for his being brilliant and correct about everything he did.

  2. alfy says:

    I am not happy with this account and posted a comment. It did not stick in the new deskarati so may comment again.

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