Perfecting nature: Empiricism, geometry and the rhetoric of liveliness in Leonardo’s Studies of Brambles, c. 1505-10

Catherine H. Lusheck

University of San Francisco

Numerous studies and notes concerning trees and plants reflect Leonardo da Vinci’s profound interest in botanical subjects and metaphors, especially after 1502. Leonardo devoted the entire Book 6 of his Libro di pittura to the topic and planned a never-published treatise or ‘discourse’ on plants. He drew numerous plant sketches with accompanying notes in Manuscript G and in Codex Atlanticus and executed a series of more ‘finished’ drawings of plant branches and stems on single sheets, many of which are housed in the Royal Library at Windsor.

One sheet long associated with this grouping is Studies of Brambles (Rubus fruticosus), c. 1505-10 (fig. 1). The plant’s genus is evidenced through Leonardo’s careful rending of its characteristic thorns, serrated leaves and dark, blackberry fruit. Despite its slow execution, Leonardo did not draw this subject ‘after life,’ nor did he likely execute it as a preparatory study for a painting or as an illustration for an updated, Renaissance herbal of the sort tentatively connected to the erbolaio grande (‘large herbal’) listed in his library, c. 1503-04 (fig. 2). Rather, the drawing incorporates some of Leonardo’s most potent empirical, theoretical and conceptual concerns, all tightly constructed in one superior statement of Renaissance disegno. Given its relative finish, insistent cross-hatching and the presence of an open block of space at bottom left (presumably for accompanying text), the work may have been designed as a final ‘demonstration’ (dimostrazione) or ‘proof’ for a full-page, engraved plate executed in connection with Leonardo’s never-published plant treatise.

In Studies of Brambles, Leonardo visualized many optical and theoretical concerns he expressed in his Libro di pittura. He manipulated gradations of red chalk and white heightening to capture passing effects of illuminating (lumen) and reflected (lustre) light, the transparency of leaves and the sun’s nourishing power. The presence of a single berry at the end of each stem also relates to empirical observations he expressed in his notebooks. Subtle modulations of red chalk and the extensive hatching suggest his desire for convincing perspectival illusionism in a natural subject seemingly viewed outdoors at close range. Light and shadow suggest not only the presence and absence of light, but also varying natural density, while the relative brightness of the brambles offered Leonardo another graphic sign to suggest the proximity between implied observer and his subject. The drawing’s facture suggests that the artist transcribed a sense impression of a single moment viewed, but the slow, painstaking rendering of his subject and the physiology of vision – what one scholar called the ‘gap between time and effort’ – suggest otherwise. Such close, empiricizing strategies aligned with Leonardo’s expanding scientific investigations in the period, even as they helped him display his subject in a way that at once reflects a specific, momentary experience of the brambles, as well as its status as a general type .

Simultaneously, the drawing highlights Leonardo’s universalizing, geometric concerns born of classical and intellectual preoccupations. This involves Leonardo’s adjusting of empirical evidence to a mathematical ideal in a quest to perfect his subject. Circular rhythms repeat across the square sheet, with the main branch fanning in an idealizing, graceful curve. Berries appear as regularly patterned, ideal solids: as perfect spheres within spheres, reminiscent of early modern investigations into representing complex, crystalline solids using Euclid’s and Luca Pacioli’s theories of harmonious proportions in the natural world. Just as in his Vitruvian Man, these patterns express ideal, natural order and beauty. Regular spacing between bifurcated stems also recall Leonardo’s harmonic intervals in bodies, structures and trees, while a geometric arrangement of faint circles around the main stem suggest Leonardo’s interest in ‘proving’ the presence of ideal geometry in the natural world.

Like The Vitruvian Man, the brambles’ branch similarly represents a part, or microcosm, that implies the whole, much as Leonardo’s studies of strong, ruddy legs expressed the macrocosm of the healthy body (Windsor, Royal Library 12640). Highlighting this analogy, Leonardo referred to plants as ‘the limbs of nature.’ Like his anatomical studies of a human arm, the regular ‘branching’ of the branches’ healthy ‘veins’ emphasizes a robust body and, by extension, the vitality of the natural world (fig. 3).

A rhetoric of natural liveliness and fecundity courses through the drawing. A profusion of regular leaves and full berries fan downward across the sheet. Depicted as neither dry nor ravaged by time or insects, they appear strikingly constant and perfect. For an artist finely attuned to expressing distinctions in age and condition through graphic antithesis, these choices were both intentional and meaningful. Leonardo even invoked the insistent, reddish coloration of the drawing for expressive ends; red, hot blood, strength and liveliness were associated with the Latin ruber (redness/ruddiness, also associated with fire and blood), and in Leonardo’s inventive hands, the rubus and the ruddy complexion of the robust male nude too (fig. 4). Moreover, he inverted the common, pejorative associations of the blackberry (rubus) with themes of desiccation and bareness found in more impoverished herbal illustrations of the theme, focusing instead on positive associations that went far beyond the nutritive and narrow medicinal values brambles were thought to hold in antiquity (Pliny, Natural History, XVI, 71; XXIV, 75; and Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, IV, 37)). By amplifying the positive rhetoric of the brambles by associating them with life-affirming heat and liveliness, Leonardo constructed a powerful and memorable visual synecdoche of Nature’s promise and plenty that convincingly appeared drawn as if from Nature herself.

Leonardo’s underlying preoccupation with water – the generative ‘force’ of nature – further supported his themes of natural fecundity and regeneration in the drawing. Low-lying brambles were common marsh plants in Leonardo’s day, including in perpetually flooded Tuscany, and were associated with watery landscapes since antiquity (Philostratus’ Imagines). and (Pliny, Natural History, XVI, 72). Leonardo similarly associated such 'vigorous and thickly branched' plants with life-giving moisture and to themes of fertility and new life. Notably, he included the brambles motif and other aquatic plants emblematic of fecundity, like the Star of Bethlehem, in a lost version of his watery Leda and the Swan composition, now known through a copy (the so-called Richeton version). In a similar vein, he drew interesting analogical relationships between vascular systems carrying water to plants, water pumps and human circulatory systems carrying blood, the bodily corollary of water. Correspondences emerge between Leonardo’s branching of the brambles and the “healthy vein” in the drawing of the Centenarian who Leonardo allegedly dissected (Windsor, Royal Library 19005r), his aortic valve studies (Windsor, Royal Library 19072v) and even his curving water pumps (Windsor, Royal Library 12641v). In one sheet, he united these metaphors, setting a healthy, growing plant, ready to bloom, in close proximity to a pump, a graceful ‘S’ curve, and virile figures in forceful action (fig. 5). Leonardo highlighted the importance of such analogies. The body of the human being as a microcosm or 'lesser world' is vivified by the pulsing of the blood in its vessels, just as the 'body of the earth' is given life by the waters that ebb and flow across and within it’ (Kemp 2001, 13). Nature’s pulsing display of life, fed by the life-giving forces of sun and water, stands at the sheet’s conceptual and formal heart.

If the brambles offered a synecdoche for the liveliness and perfection of Nature, it was Nature in constant, if more or less gentle, transformation. Leonardo suggested this with subtle graphic touches: a tip of white heightening here and there on a berry to suggest relative youth, a darker reddish-maroon elsewhere for advanced age. He even associated these themes of natural metamorphosis and regeneration directly with his brambles subject. Leonardo’s earlier drawing of a “mora” or blackberry in the Codex Arundel, fol. 18r-b, datable to c. 1490, suggests how. Flagged by an inscription on a banderole loosely reading according to Pedretti, ‘When you think that I am about to die (and) I shall revive,’ (Pedretti, Richter Commentary, vol. 1, 392), the sketch highlights the emblematic meaning of natural regeneration that the brambles likely held for the artist, and possibly even for his Milanese patron, Ludovico Sforza, whose name II Moro at times generated the representation of a black man, a blackberry (mora) or mulberry (moms) in his heraldry.

However, following Seneca’s Natural Questions, Leonardo believed that nature was a dynamic force cycling between regeneration and chaos. That the artist also executed a similar drawing of what he termed ‘the ancient oak’ (Windsor, Royal Library 12422) – the strong, venerable tree that when felled, signaled for him the cataclysmic end of time – suggests that the Brambles, like other works of this period, was situated in his mind not only along a continuum between art and nature, but also between art and knowledge (scienzia), life and death, order and chaos. In the end, these sheets remind us of just how narrow, vast and ultimately complicated his vision of the natural world at once could be.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Brambles (with details), red chalk and white heightening on prepared paper, c. 1505-10, Windsor, Royal Library 12419.  (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Fig. 2 Mora [blackberry], Herbarius Latinus. Paris: Jean Bonhomme, c. 1486, leaf 95, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. (Courtesy of Yale University).

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci, The Veins of the Arm (with detail), pen and ink over traces of black chalk, c. 1508, Windsor, Royal Library 19027.  (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Male Nude Seen from Behind, red chalk, c. 1504-06, Windsor, Royal Library 12596. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Fig. 5 Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hydraulics and Figures in Action (with detail), pen and ink and black chalk, c. 1506-10, Windsor Castle, RL 12641v. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Suggested reading

Otto Benesch, “Leonardo da Vinci and the beginning of scientific drawing,” American Scientist 31, no. 4 (1943): 311-328.

William Emboden, Leonardo da Vinci on plants and gardens, Historical, Ethno- & Economic Botany Series, vol. 1. (Portland, 1987).

Kim Hummer & Jules Janick, “Rubus iconography: antiquity to the Renaissance,” Proceedings of the 27th International Horticultural Congress on Global Horticulture: Diversity and Harmony. Acta Horticulturae 759 (2007): 89–106.

Francis-Ames Lewis, "Leonardo's botanical drawings," Achademia Leonardo da Vinci 10 (1997): 117-24; reprinted in Leonardo da Vinci: Selected Scholarship, edited by Claire J. Farago, vol. 5: Leonardo's Science and Technology (New York, 1999), 275-282.

Karen M. Reeds, “Leonardo da Vinci and botanical illustration: Nature prints, drawings, and woodcuts ca. 1500,” in Visualizing medieval medicine and natural history, 1200-1500, edited by Jean A. Givens et al. (Burlington,VT, 2006), 205-237.