Leonardo, Lucretius and the end of all things

Beth Ellen Stewart

Mercer University

Observe first of all sea and earth and sky [. . .] one day shall consign to destruction the mighty and complex system of the world, upheld through many years, it shall crash into ruins (Lucretius, De rerum natura, p. 385).

The watery element will be pent up; . . . (then) the cold and rarified air has disappeared. Then the earth will be forced to close with the element of fire and its surface will be burnt to cinders, and this will be the end of all terrestrial nature (Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, fol. 155v).

In his poem De rerum natura, Lucretius wrote several descriptions of the final destruction of the world, an example of which is quoted above. For Lucretius the history of the world is a series of grand disasters, which teach us that the body of the world, just like our human body, is mortal. After each catastrophe, nature and civilization are restored and humankind progresses further. Lucretius described the final cataclysm as a battle of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. In this respect the final cataclysm is different from the lesser disasters leading up to it: in these smaller ones, one of the elements wins, sometimes water, air, or fire. In the final destruction stones fall off mountains, temples and images are destroyed, divinity cannot ward off fate “or strive against nature’s laws,” and eventually finite time destroys the works of nature and the monuments of man.

Leonardo made numerous drawings of such catastrophes, which are usually identified as drawings of the Deluge. It would be more correct, however, to title them Disasters. Like the final destruction described by Lucretius, they represent disasters generated by a combination of different elements, not just the element of water. Many in fact represent the four elements destroying both nature and the works of man. For instance, in one drawing (Windsor, Royal Library 12484), the clouds and wind make great snaking strikes of lightning at the top of the sheet while flames consume the land and buildings in the center left (fig. 1).

Leonardo wrote extensive passages on destruction, although their relation to the drawings remains unclear. Like Lucretius, Leonardo describes destruction as a great battle that takes place between the elements. He writes about “winds that make war upon the earth’s surface” or that “exert violence.” They “put clouds to flight” and “send out vanguards” until they eventually transform into fire (Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, fol. 212v).

In another drawing (Windsor, Royal Library 12376) Leonardo represents clouds split by a great lightning strike while on the earth massive flames burn (fig. 2). This drawing is reminiscent of Lucretius’ poem, specifically the verses on how clouds and wind coalesce to form fire from the sky (Lucretius, De rerum natura, 6.121-131) while Leonardo’s similar graphic signs for the movement of water and air recall the ancient poet’s descriptions of water and wind as having analogous motions and behavior.

In the second drawing (Windsor, Royal Library 12376), wind, water and fire wreak havoc on the earth in the upper area, while the detail below shows that all ‘terrestrial life’ - man, animals and plants-- suffer the same fate (fig. 2). The trees do not just bend and break as in other drawings of disasters but are uprooted utterly. There will be no more new growth on those old roots.

Another possible element that connects Leonardo’s Disasters to Lucretius’s De rerum natura is the point of view that Leonardo selected for his drawings. He embraced a distant view of the disaster, a fact that has puzzled some scholars as cold-hearted and detached, without empathy for the events. But in the proem to Book 2, Lucretius declares that when observing disasters such as wars, storms or battles at sea, it is better to take a distant view upon a cliff, to contemplate the nature of things. From this high vantage point viewers acquire Epicurean wisdom: they do not fear death, as they have accepted that the destiny of nature is to be destroyed and that the soul, which for Lucretius is a compounded thing, is subjected to the same destruction as the body.

Leonardo goes further than Lucretius when he compares human propensity to dissolution with the draw of the moth to the flame. He sees our longings for what comes next in life as the soul’s desire to be dead, “and I would have you know” he says, “that this same longing is that quintessence inherent in nature, and man is a type of the world” (Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, fol. 156v). For Leonardo and Lucretius both, nature longs for the end and this world’s body is nature’s tomb.

There are a great many similarities between Lucretius and Leonardo beyond these images of destruction with their ‘natural’ causes, as well as evidence that Leonardo read Lucretius on more than one occasion. Lucretius’s poem was a popular topic for learned discussions in Renaissance Florence where the one surviving manuscript copy had come to reside early in the 15th century. Leonardo’s “Disasters show how deeply the artist absorbed Lucretius’s ‘science’ and philosophy, including his fascination with the natural end of the world.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, A deluge, c.1517-18, 16.5 x 20.4 cm, black chalk, Windsor, Royal Library 12384. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, A tempest, c.1517-18, black chalk, pen and ink and wash with touches of white heightening, 27.0 x 40.8 cm, Windsor, Royal Library 12376. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Suggested reading

Marco Beretta, “Leonardo and Lucretius,” Rinascimento no. 49 (2009): 341-372.

Alison Brown, The return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge/MA, 2010).

The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, edited by Stuart Gillespie & Philip Hardie (Cambridge & New York, 2007).

Phillip De Lacy, “Distant views: the imagery of Lucretius 2,” The Classical Journal 60 (1964): 49-55.

Lucretius. De rerum natura, with translation by W.H.D. Rouse, Cambridge/MA1924 (1992).