A history of the representation of nature during the Renaissance should pay attention to mountains, not least because historically they played a crucial role in defining territorial and cultural boundaries. In such a history Leonardo da Vinci would figure prominently.
A cursory survey of his drawings and notebooks reveals his consistent and lifelong interest in the study and depiction of mountains. Leonardo grew up in the foothills of the Apennines in the town of Vinci, a short distance west of Florence, and lived for 20 years in Milan within sight of the Italian Alps. This lifelong proximity with mountains influenced his writing and visual work from the very beginning.
Although earlier artists had painted mountains in Italy and elsewhere, none had studied so systematically their appearance, formation and transformation. In seeking to explain the physical causes behind the appearance of mountains, Leonardo can be regarded as a pioneer in structural geology, geomorphology, stratigraphy and orography. However, his drawings and notebooks suggest also that he experienced the mountain environment personally. Seeking to move beyond conventional modes of representing mountains, Leonardo pioneered a new aesthetic encounter with the natural world, based more on direct observation than on classical tradition or religious belief.
In the well-known Landscape of 1473, he selected a view that looks from above down to a flat river plain through a narrow and steep gorge (fig. 1). A similar view is to be seen from the ridge above Vinci looking east across the Arno valley, but it was rare in Renaissance art; artists preferred a low point of view that from a river plain looked up into a valley. In his drawing, Leonardo shows his deep interest in the natural processes that shape the physical forms of the landscape, especially those involving water. Flowing water occupies the center of the visual field in the form of a long narrow cataract that falls into a wider stream flowing through the gorge, almost directly below the feet of the viewer. This conjoining of solid physical mass and fluid aquatic motion illustrates the notion that topography is not static but rather in flux, literally shifting beneath one's feet.
Mountains figure prominently in Leonardo's early paintings of the 1470s (the Annunciation and the landscape of Andrea del Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ), but they become protagonists in the Madonna of the Rocks from 1483. In this panel, Leonardo situated the figures in a complex setting dominated by cavernous rocks and colossal spiral formations that recede infinitely into the distance. Whatever interpretation may be proposed for this setting, clearly Leonardo was fascinated with the geological process that created this interaction of rock, water and vegetation, an interaction that shaped the environment for the painting as well as the world in all its dimensions, including that of time.
In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo seems to have intended the mountainous background as a reflection upon the sitter. Not only does he suggest an analogy between the powers of the female body and the physical processes of the world, but he also implies a psychological or affective comparison between the two. The landscape itself offers few clues to a specific meaning as it presents a hauntingly remote and abstract blending of forms that dissipate into vapor in the distance. The absence of a fixed solid mass creates an indeterminacy of form that better reflects both empirical observation and Leonardo's own open-ended method of drawing and painting.
In the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Leonardo brought the cosmic implications of the mountainous landscape to their culmination (fig. 2). He magnified the sense of scale and distance by selecting a point of view that extends into deep space and obliterates any trace of a horizon. Peaks pile upon one another, losing their substance and mass in a shimmering blue-grey haze. Leonardo invites the viewer to consider the relationship of the tectonic masses of the background, eroded by running watercourses, with the small outcropping and pebbles beneath the women's feet. The immensity of the high peaks is formed and dissipated by the same forces that shape small pebbles.
In Leonardo's paintings any conclusive reading of his portrayal of mountains is unlikely, but his own writings on mountains point toward common themes. For example, Leonardo constantly refers to the power of water to diminish great mountains, which he depicted in the so-called Deluge drawings. For Leonardo, the cataclysmic energy of cascading water never ceased to hold a certain fascination. He was among the first to recognize the slow process of sedimentation that formed tall peaks, layer upon layer.
Mountains also provided Leonardo with a concrete example of the correspondence between the human microcosm and the macrocosm of the natural world. Seeking parallels between the structures and substances of humans and their counterparts in nature, he called mountains the “body of the earth” and speculated that springs of water move upward by the same forces that propel blood through the body. Ironically, the observation of mountains was also the reason he gradually abandoned the vascular analogy between water and blood.
Whatever the limitations of Leonardo's scientific investigation of mountains, he recorded numerous journeys into the lower reaches of the Italian Alps in his notebooks and drawings. He was no mountaineer in the modern sense, but he took an uncommon interest in traveling to high places and making a visual record of his visits. A drawing dated around 1511 captures perfectly the vibrant effects of sunlight upon snow in the clear thin air at high altitude (fig. 3). Perfect also is his evocation of the forms of mountains, as they seem to ripple and vibrate with decreasing intensity from the highest summit.
In an era of exploration of new lands across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Leonardo traced a course across the heart of Europe, through territory that was still barely explored or understood. For Leonardo, whose own work explored the limits of the visual, mountains provided a frontier in both the geographical and conceptual senses of the term.
Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, View of the Arno Valley, 1473, pen and brown inks, 19.6 x 28.7 cm. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampi degli Uffizi, Florence. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).
Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St. Anne, 1510, oil on wood, 168 x 130 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).
Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci, Snow-capped peaks, 1510-11, Red chalk with white heightening on pale red prepared paper, 10.5 x 16.0 cm, Windsor, Royal Library 12410. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).