On the nature of Leonardo’s things: Lightning and “the sea monster”

Mary Sisler

Hamilton College

For a man who claimed to be ‘without book learning,’ Leonardo left us with a sea of pages—roughly 6,000 if we count only those extant—providing us with a unique window into the soul of this Renaissance polymath. As part of what we might consider youthful experimentation with creative writing, Leonardo wrote several passages in the period between 1478 and 1480, which describe natural phenomena in a particularly imaginative way. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one usually referred to as Il mostro marino—“The sea monster” or “The Whale” —in the Codex Arundel of the British Library.

At the top of folio 156r, Leonardo perfectly centered the words Essenplo della saetta fra nuvoli, “Example of a lightning bolt in the clouds” in a way which exemplifies his “mise en page,” a mapping out of the page where “headings were often placed at the top center of a sheet, and texts were then handled, in both appearance and execution, as if they were part of a single, intellectual unity (as indeed they were)” (Vecce 74, 71) (fig. 1). And yet this heading about a lightning bolt is frequently omitted from Italian and English publications of the passage of Il mostro marino. One notable English-language exception is Jean Paul Richter’s translation of 1883, later republished in 1970.

Leonardo’s original manuscript page is plagued with revisions and reworking of the text. But thanks to the e-Leo resource at the Biblioteca Leonardiana web site, we now have the opportunity to get ‘up close and personal’ with the manuscript and examine just how “tortured” it is/was (fig. 2). According to Marinoni, the entire first paragraph (after the lightning reference) is “tutto cancellato,” all deleted, except for the last four words, a judgment which could potentially support his own and others’ decision to eliminate the heading “Essenplo della saetta fra nuvoli” from their transcription of Leonardo’s text. However, upon close examination of the enlarged and ‘reflected’ version of Leonardo’s mirror writing, it is difficult to accept the notion that Leonardo intended his readers to disregard the opening paragraph. Rather, he drew a line or an arrow (also called a saetta in Italian, according to the non-meteorological use of the term), connecting the two adjectives, which he uses to describe nature: arteficiosa and gienitrice, translated respectively as “formative” and “procreative” by Richter. It is as if Leonardo were either using an impresa or device to visually connect his descriptors of nature, or making a ‘note to self’ to come back and decide which of these two adjectives most accurately represented his depiction of nature in this passage.

The omission of the lightning reference impacts the interpretation of Leonardo’s famous passage on the “sea monster” in a fundamental way. This entire visionary text hinges on the use of a complex metaphor, that of the lightning rod and the sea monster as dramatizations of the processes of metamorphosis and regeneration in nature. As the first person narrator in the tale, Leonardo contemplates the “bones stripped and bare” of the once-mighty whale from within a cavern; he chides the creature for its “life of stillness” (tranquila vita) and reminds it that it must “obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature.” Then, in a kind of cinematic flashback, he paints a dramatic picture of the moment when “terrified dolphins” and men attempt in vain to flee the destructive “fulminations” and “sudden tempest” which cause the sinking of ships and the washing ashore of “terrified and desperate fishes” which are transformed into “the abundant prey of the people in the neighborhood” (JP Richter, no. 309-310). It is in this vivid flashback part of the text that the two metaphors are juxtaposed and become indistinguishable. We are left to wonder whether it is the forked tail of the lightning rod or of the whale, which has generated the tempest in the sea. In both cases, though, the laws of metamorphosis and regeneration are at work. The fiery tempest has dissipated but its power has at once destroyed and supported life by generating food for the neighboring people, while the bones of the dead whale provide support to the mountain as they patiently wait to be regenerated into a new “wondrous form,” a clear reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XV, 234-258).

The young man who “accomplished more by words than by deeds” (Vasari 298) chose his words carefully when creating this imaginative tale. He uses the gerund repeatedly to add to the drama of his narrative: valendo, seguitando, aprendo, fulminando, togliendosi, rivolgiendole. He also uses the analogous motion of the lightning and of the whale to enhance the dynamic quality of the passage. Leonardo chooses lightning as the metaphor for metamorphosis per eccellenza to capture precisely that moment when an element is transformed from one state into another. In doing so, he anticipates by almost two hundred years what Emanuele Tesauro would lay out under the heading “Conceits of Nature” in his seventeenth-century manual on metaphors called The Aristotelian Telescope (Il Cannocchiale Aristotelico). Tesauro wrote that comets and other “nocturnal images of fire” like lightning bolts are “metaphors of nature, conceits, witty symbols, ingenious devices and emblems of despised or benevolent Nature which uses those images both as weapons to do harm and as mysterious symbols to indicate which people she wants to harm” (Tesauro 27).

The use of elaborate metaphors and the preoccupation with metamorphosis are certainly not the only characteristics linking Leonardo to the Baroque period. His insistence that observation, practical experience and “necessarie dimostrazioni” formed the basis of scientific inquiry made Leonardo a forerunner to Galileo. In fact, it is quite likely that the personal experience[s] of having witnessed ‘something rich and strange’ served as inspiration for Leonardo when he wrote this passage about the “sea monster.” Fossil remains of whales, shark-snakes and other prehistoric cetaceans are documented in Tuscany, especially in Grosseto, Pisa, Livorno, Lucca, Florence and Siena. So the likelihood of actually having observed giant whale bones in the area close to where he lived coupled with his desire to understand how this particular microcosm of nature could help to explain things at the macro-level, served as a backdrop to Leonardo’s famous tale.

In purposefully choosing the title “Example of a lightning bolt in the clouds” for a text that seems to have little to do with lightning, Leonardo artfully employs a complex metaphor which draws an analogy between two seemingly distinct forces of nature in an effort to express “the fundamental commonality in the organization of all things” (Kemp 135). And since “science and symbol did not live in separate domains in Leonardo’s imagination” (Kemp 169), he saw no need to explain his enigmatic and frequently omitted title.

Fig. 1 Lightning bolt

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, fol. 156r, c. 1478-80. Reversed detailed screenshot from e-Leo, Biblioteca Leonardiana.

Suggested reading

Giorgio Batini, La Toscana delle balene (Firenze, 2009).

Galileo Galilei, Lettera a Don Benedetto Castelli, in Sensate esperienze (Bari, 1971), 100-110.

Leonardo da Vinci, Scritti letterari, 7th ed., edited by Augusto Marinoni (Milan, 2009), 186-187.

Emanuele Tesauro, Il cannocchiale aristotelico, in Letteratura italiana, Storia e Testi, vol.36, Trattatisti e narratori del Seicento, edited by Ezio Raimondi (Milano & Napoli,1960), 27 (Translation mine).

Vecce, Carlo. “Word and image in Leonardo’s writings,” Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003, 59-77.