Palaeontology in the Renaissance

Mona Lisa’s gaze on a fossil bivalve. Fossil from the collections of the University of Genova.

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that profoundly affected Western intellectual life by introducing great advances in many aspects of intellectual inquiry. Beginning in Italy and spanning roughly the 14th to the 17th century, literature, arts, and science flourished. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is widely regarded as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, who pursued universal, all-encompassing knowledge.

Da Vinci, in fact, covered a wide field of interests comprising art, natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering. While most famous for such paintings as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, da Vinci is also renowned as a pioneer of modern science for applying an empirical method in analyzing natural phenomena. Indeed, da Vinci based his investigations on systematic observations and direct experience, anticipating the principles of the modern scientific method.

A fossil scaphopod. Fossil from the collections of the University of Genova.

The scientific explorations of da Vinci were extremely wide ranging as they included anatomy, astronomy, botany, chemistry, hydrodynamics, optics, physics, and zoology. Of particular relevance are da Vinci’s contributions to geology, some of which have been unknown since the 2010s. The upcoming five-part post series will reveal an obscure aspect of Leonardo’s geological knowledge: his palaeontological studies!

Da Vinci’s notebook with a fossil bivalve. Fossil from the collection of the University of Genova.

Adapted from: Baucon, A. 2010. Leonardo da Vinci, the founding father of ichnology. Palaios 25 0963251