History of Geology

History of Geology

What rocks tell and how we came to understand it

Vitruvian Geology – Leonardo da Vinci and the Realistic Depiction of the Earth's Surface


In the Renaissance (1450-1600) architecture and pictorial arts, but also scientific disciplines like astronomy, physics and medicine, experienced a rebirth and important improvements - but what about geology?

There were some lone geniuses in the earth sciences - Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci (born April 15, 1452-1519) recognized fossils as petrified remains of former living organisms and even applied paleoecological principles to reconstruct the deposition of sedimentary rocks, however he never published his theories. Only in later times scholars like Nicolas Steno (1638-1686), with his stratigraphic principles, Robert Hooke (1635-1703), with his paleontological interpretation of fossils, and finally James Hutton (1726-1797), with his earth-theory, made a lasting impact.

Maybe the most important contribution of the Renaissance to geology was not new scientific principles, but a new artistic view of earth.

Leonardo da Vinci studied rocks and landscapes not only to improve the realism of his paintings, but also in an attempt to understand how the earth works. Leonardo was obsessed with water, which he considered a vector to erode ancient rocks and to deposit new sedimentary rocks, reshaping so over time the "living" earth. The running water is for earth what blood is for the human body - it flows from the mountains to the sea, then - so Leonardo - in subterranean veins returns to the mountains, a circulatory system like found in humans.

"Leonardo mapped the human body. He charted its skeletal rocks, the course of its "rivers" and its fleshy soil, both within and without. He dissected the world, teasing out its bony rocks, its earthly flesh and its watery veins, both in its surface topography and deep within its core…Always, looking at his drawings of real sites, we can sense his urgent concern with the body of the Earth as a functioning system."

KEMP, M. (2006): Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, and Design.

For Leonardo earth worked in fact like a human body, with all the parts interconnected and working together in harmony. The Vitruvian Man is one of the most iconic drawings by Leonardo where this "anatomical harmony" concept is applied.

Fig.1. The "Vitruvian Man" by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1490, based on the principles of proportions as proposed by the architect Vitruvius. As the proportions of a human body are not random, so are the proportions of a landscape (image in public domain).

For his paintings Leonardo adopts a sort of medieval mysticism, which considered the small microcosm of the human body like a mirror image of the greater macrocosm, with all its planets and stars moving on ordered paths and in perfect harmony in the skies. In a similar approach, an artist should carefully study a landscape to discover the hidden harmony of proportions of the single elements (for example, a mountain would appear smaller to an observer with increasing distance, however the apparent change would not be random, but limited by geometry) - by applying the discovered geometrical laws to his painting, the artist would not just create a copy of the landscape, but "recreate" the real world.

After Leonardo also other Renaissance artists start to apply geometrical rules (construction lines and points) to understand how the supposed natural harmony of a three-dimensional human body and/or landscape can be shown on a two-dimensional painting. Not surprisingly the first realistic landscape-paintings date back to the Renaissance. This is a first step to later "scientific illustrations", depicting without personal prejudice the single elements as found in the natural world.

Fig.2. "The Hills of Tuscany" or "Landscape with River" (sometimes identified as the Arno), da Vinci's oldest known work (dated to 1473) is considered one of the first realistic landscape-views. Leonardo used oblique construction lines and two vanishing points at the horizon (note the fields on the right corner) to achieve a geometric perspective. Also the layers of the earth, shown above the waterfall (center of an image), are not only geologically correct (thin at the bottom and thick on the top, like the Turbidite sequences found in the Apennines) but work also as horizontal construction lines (image in public domain).

It may also no coincidence that Nicolas Steno was an anatomist by training. Applying his observation skill, acquired both by the dissection of corpses and the study of the first realistic anatomical atlases (showing the human body with correct proportions), he is also able to dissect and describe the interior of the earth.

Like the human body and the celestial spheres are worth to be studied and depicted by the artist and scientist, so is the landscape and subsequently details of the landscape, like the shape of mountains or even the structure of rocks... the basic elements in the later- so called - science of geology.


ROSENBERG, G.D. (2009): The measure of man and landscape in the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, in Rosenberg, G.D., ed., The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 13-40

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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