Leonardo and Pliny

Jonathan Kline

Temple University

In studying the Renaissance response to classical Antiquity, it is useful to assess the individual points of contact between the two periods in the particular interest that each scholar, artist, or patron may have had in the remains of Greco-Roman culture. This is as true of Leonardo as it is with any of his contemporaries. Leonardo appears to have been relatively well read and interested in ancient authors, drawing inspiration from Seneca, Pliny, and Vitruvius, among others. Of these, Leonardo’s reading of Pliny’s Natural History may be of particular importance for understanding certain aspects of his artistic technique.

It has been established that Leonardo owned and worked from a copy of Pliny’s Natural History. There is such a volume listed among his books in Manuscript Madrid II, and some of his mechanical drawings are dependent on the Tuscan-language edition of the text, dated to 1476. These drawings, which are preserved in Codex Arundel, fols. 224r and 231v, show Leonardo’s attempt to reconstruct an ancient Roman theater that Pliny described as having been built in two halves which rotated on mechanical pivots (Pliny, Natural History, 36:24). Similarly, Leonardo seems to refer directly to Pliny (NH, 2:66) when he writes on the natural phenomenon of a mountain spring in Manuscript G, fol. 70r.

Though there are clear instances, such as these, in which Leonardo borrows from or responds to Pliny’s text, every such instance involves either a mechanical or scientific phenomenon. Leonardo does not appear to have attempted to remake or recreate any of the specific works of ancient art that Pliny describes, though he had done precisely this in the case of the theater set mentioned above. However, he may well have drawn inspiration from Pliny’s description of the artistic techniques of the ancient Greeks (NH, 35:15-29, 50-149, and 151-158), and may have even sought to emulate or surpass the greatest artists of Antiquity by attempting to do, himself, what Pliny had said only one other artist had been able to do—paint the soul.

A number of parallels emerge between the artistic techniques of the ancient Greeks described by Pliny and the artistic innovations or characteristics ascribed to Leonardo, which are either visible in his work or prescribed in his Treatise on painting. In the Treatise, Leonardo wrote of the ability of the mind to perceive a landscape in the mark left on a wall by a thrown, paint-laden palette (Libro di pittura, chapter 60). Leonardo cites Botticelli as the source of this anecdote, but the passage also bears more than a passing resemblance to an account in Pliny’s Natural History in which Protogenes threw a paint-laden sponge at a wall and found in its mark the proper texture for the foam at the mouth of a panting dog (NH, 35:102-103).

Leonardo advised the young painter that when he has to paint a face, he should collect the good features from many beautiful faces (Libro di pittura, chapter 137). This precept mirrors Pliny’s description of Zeuxis, who, having to paint a picture for the temple of Hera on the Lakinian promontory, inspected the maidens of the city and chose the five most beautiful to compose his figures (NH, 35:64).

Leonardo also may have experimented with techniques he gleaned from Pliny. In 1540, one of Leonardo’s earliest biographers, the so-called Anonimo Gaddiano, claimed that experimentation with a technique learned from Pliny was the reason why Leonardo’s fresco of the Battle of Anghiari failed to adhere properly to the wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento. Furthermore, it is quite possible that Leonardo’s sfumato effect was an attempt to recreate the thin layer of black glazing that Pliny described as an innovative technique employed by the great artist Apelles as a means of preventing the brilliance of colors from offending the eyes (NH, 35:97).

If Leonardo attempted to reconstruct those techniques and effects that received the greatest praise from Pliny—the artist’s scientific interest in the Natural History shows that this was a very real possibility—he may have found particular inspiration in that author’s description of Aristides of Thebes. Aristides, wrote Pliny, was the first to paint the soul and to give expression to the affections and emotions of man (NH, 35:98). Leonardo described these very things as the primary goals of artistic endeavor. In the notes that would become the Treatise on painting, he wrote:

A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the latter hard, because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs (Libro di pittura, chapter 180).

The most important consideration in painting is that the movements of each figure expresses its mental state, such as desire, scorn, anger, pity, and the like (Libro di pittura, chapter 68).

Leonardo’s interest in the soul occupied him as both artist and scientist. He sought to depict the soul in art, as had Aristides, through the depiction of affection and emotion; he sought to locate the soul, as a philosopher and scientist, in his anatomical dissections and drawings. Thus, in a famous drawing from the late 1480s, he posited that the soul was positioned within the skull at the convergence of the senses. It may be here, in the intersection of art and science, that Leonardo’s complex relationship with Pliny can best be seen. Leonardo seems not to have followed Pliny’s descriptions as a guide for what to paint, but how to paint, and this, in turn, may have helped to shape the direction of his scientific exploration into the nature of the human animal.

Suggested reading

Claire Farago. "Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari: A study in the exchange between theory and practice." The Art Bulletin 76, no. 2 (June 1994): 301-330.

Ernst Gombrich. "Dark Varnishes: Variations on a Theme from Pliny." The Burlington Magazine 104, no. 707 (Feb 1962): 51-55.

Martin Kemp. "'Il Concetto dell'Anima' in Leonardo's Early Skull Studies." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 34 (1971): 115-134.

Sarah Blake McHam. Pliny and the artistic culture of the Italian Renaissance: The legacy of the Natural History (New Haven, 2013).

Pliny. The Elder Pliny's chapters on the history of art (Chicago, 1976).

Kate Steinitz. Leonardo architetto teatrale e organizzatore di feste (Florence, 1969).