Animal Studies: Leonardo's Horse
Leonardo not only observed and drew animals but also read a great deal about them. His depictions of domestic animals—dogs, cats, and especially horses—and his fanciful drawings of dragons and other biblical beasts have long delighted viewers. How did books inform these images? Leonardo’s knowledge began with common sources: the Bible, Aesop, Pliny, and the Fiore di virtù, an early fourteenth-century vernacular work of simple piety filled with Christian allegories of animals. He combined passages of interest from various sources to create his own bestiary.
Such reading did not sate Leonardo’s curiosity. He wanted to know what an animal was by studying its anatomy and physiology, thinking comparatively, and treating the animal as a subject of philosophical inquiry. Leonardo began to explore medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s zoology—the History of Animals, Parts of Animals, and Generation of Animals. New critical editions of Aristotle were being published, but they were in Greek. Leonardo turned instead to Latin commentaries on animals by Albertus Magnus and important Islamic predecessors such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) to access this natural philosophy.
Giordano Ruffo’s popular thirteenth-century manual of veterinary medicine for the care of horses was especially useful for Leonardo’s studies of horses while working on the Sforza horse commission; it may also have informed his drawings of horses for the Battle of Anghiari. Later editions of Ruffo advertised how it made Albertus Magnus’s description of horses accessible in the vernacular. This surely appealed to a reader like Leonardo, who struggled to read much in Latin.
Giordano Ruffo, ca. 1213–1253
Decorated manuscript leaf from De medicina equorum
Italy, ca. 1340–1360
Manuscript Collection MISC 1842
Giordano Ruffo, ca. 1213–1253
Delle malscalzie del cavallo
Bologna: Giovanni de Rossi, 1561
Lane Medical Library Y353H .R92 1561
Giordano Ruffo authored De medicina equorum, a seminal work of veterinary medicine on the treatment of injuries and illnesses of horses. The medieval Latin manuscript leaf and the printed Italian translation of Ruffo’s original treatise, included here, were created for different audiences. The vellum manuscript leaf is written in a rounded Gothic script and inscribed with colored initials and delicate red pen work. Decorated and written in Latin, it may have been intended for an elite intellectual circle, while the printed Italian copy was intended for a wider audience—perhaps everyday horse trainers and caretakers.
Leonardo, a self-described “man without letters,” owned a copy of Ruffo and may have benefited from this translation even before it was printed. Leonardo was fascinated with the horse as a work of art and an essential “machine” in warfare. He valued horses for their ability to power the inventions he dreamed up, such as his versions of a scythed chariot. Additionally, horses were symbols of military power. To commemorate the might of the Sforza dynasty in Milan, Leonardo was commissioned to create a monumental equestrian monument of Francesco Sforza. The project for the monument spanned two decades—it is known that Leonardo conducted extensive research on horses for this commission. He completed numerous equestrian studies and models, visited horses in the Sforza stables, and meticulously measured them, while studying treatises like Ruffo’s on horse anatomy and care.
Ibn Sina (Avicenna), ca. 980–1037
Venice: Giovanni and Gregorio de’ Gregori, de Forlivio, 1500
Translated from Arabic into Latin by Michael Scot (1175–1234)
Lane Medical Library H128.3H .A962 1500
Avicenna, an eleventh-century polymath from Afshana (in Transoxiana, or present-day Uzbekistan), is regarded as the most influential thinker of the pre-modern Islamic world. He grew up in the Samanid capital of Bukhara, where he studied in the resplendent library known as the Siwān al-hikma (Storehouse of Wisdom). By translating and building upon Hellenic philosophy, Avicenna acted as an intermediary for the scientific knowledge of ancient Greece. He was the first to combine ancient Greek philosophy with Islamic theology, ushering in a new genre of knowledge known as Islamic theosophy. His ideas found their way into medieval Iberia through scholars in Andalusian Spain, and into the rest of Europe through the Latin translations of Arabic philosophical texts during the Renaissance. As one of the major authorities on Islamic medicine and philosophy, Avicenna became a staple of the medieval and Renaissance medical curriculum.
Renaissance readers needed access to the Latin scholarly editions of important works, and Leonardo certainly encountered Avicenna’s work. This edition of De animalibus is Michael Scot’s Latin translation of Avicenna’s summary in Arabic of Aristotle’s Historia animalium. Scot also translated Liber physionomia, a work that Leonardo owned. Although Leonardo may not have read Avicenna’s De animalibus, he was certainly fascinated by animals. Some of Leonardo’s most important commissions, such as the grandiose Sforza monument or the Battle of Anghiari fresco, were centered around equestrian scenes. We also know that Leonardo read Albertus Magnus, a medieval commentator on Aristotle, indicating overlap with Avicenna’s De animalibus.