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Encyclopedias of Nature: Reading Pliny

Leonardo attentively read the ancient and medieval encyclopedias of nature. One of his earliest acquisitions was Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny remained one of the most comprehensive authorities on nature during the Renaissance. Early copies of Pliny were often works of art unto themselves, and his work was frequently consulted by Renaissance artists, especially after the appearance of Cristoforo Landino’s Italian translation in 1476.

Leonardo considered Pliny an indispensable resource. He integrated Pliny’s descriptions of animals, plants, and minerals into his Treatise on Painting and his unfinished bestiary. In all likelihood, Leonardo was aware of the growing controversies about Pliny’s Natural History among Renaissance physicians and philologists. The Venetian humanist Ermalao Barbaro catalogued five hundred errors in it shortly before meeting Leonardo in Milan. The ancient encyclopedia of nature was still useful, if flawed in its transmission of many details.

In order to study natural philosophy, however, Leonardo needed to gain access to Aristotelian writings on nature, especially the works of the German Dominican Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200–1280), doctor universalis, teacher of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest medieval commentator on Aristotle in the Latin West. Albertus systematically digested all of Aristotle’s known works and the writings of earlier Islamic commentators, supplementing this reading with his own observations. He continued to be a highly respected authority during the Renaissance with works attributed to him, including a spurious Book of Secrets describing the miraculous virtues of natural things. Leonardo seems to have owned this book as well as scholastic works actually by Albertus.

[Paula Findlen]

Pliny the Elder, 23–79 CE

Naturalis historia

Venice: Johannes de Spira, 1469

Barchas Collection KA1469 P5 F

Gift of Samuel I. & Cecile M. Barchas

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History is among the greatest monuments of the literature of antiquity. Completed in 77 CE, the work, composed of thirty-seven books, is considered the first scientific encyclopedia. In the preface, dedicated to Titus (who became emperor shortly before Pliny’s death in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79), Pliny explained his aim as the study of “the nature of things, that is, life.” Pliny’s ambitious undertaking quotes more than four hundred authorities and includes material on animals, plants, stones, metals, botany, medicine, geography, literature, and the arts.

The only text that has come down to us from Pliny’s prolific pen, Natural History is a tome whose sheer volume and great scope attest to his rare erudition. Printed in some eighteen editions between 1469 and 1501, the encyclopedia was a standard work of reference in the Renaissance. Despite his shaky Latin, Leonardo seems to have consulted the Latin original as well as Cristoforo Landino’s Italian translation.

This is the first printed edition of Pliny’s encyclopedia, published in 1469 in Venice by the famous German printer Johannes de Spira, only fifteen years after Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type to Europe. One of the first books to be printed in Italy, the 1469 Pliny was produced in no more than one hundred copies, making it a rare and precious work. This copy features wonderful decorations done by hand, guide letters, and two hand-drawn illustrations added by an unknown artist, who has depicted Pliny in full Renaissance attire, holding a scroll that represents the work in its original format.

[Ron Reichman]

Pliny the Elder, 23–79 CE

Historia naturale di Caio Plinio Secondo

Translated by Cristoforo Landino

Venice: Marchio Sessa and Piero di Ravani, 1516

Rare Book Collection PA6611 .A2 1516 F

Acquired on the Antoinette and Warren R. Howell Fund

This book presents the Italian translation of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which celebrates the natural world with thousands of facts covering topics as diverse as mathematics, geography, animals, plants, geology, and medicine. Natural History was part of Leonardo’s library not only because it offered a great deal of practical information about the natural world but also because it provided a philosophical perspective. Pliny profoundly influenced Leonardo’s understanding of art, architecture, medicine, and especially the natural world.

Leonardo used both the Latin and the vernacular Pliny, but specifically referenced the Italian edition of Pliny’s Natural History in his notebooks to inform his sketch of a Roman theater in two sections and his description of a mountain spring. He was also clearly inspired by Pliny in his now lost Treatise on Painting, in which he explains how to paint human emotion effectively and depict what both men referred to as the animus (the human soul).

Leonardo’s writing also reflected the influence of Pliny in its fundamental style. Both men often formatted information in hierarchically organized lists, rarely presented complete philosophical arguments, and occasionally wrote to entertain. Both used observation of the natural world in conjunction with personal experience (what Leonardo referred to as sperientia) to arrive at astoundingly modern conclusions. The most significant parallel between Leonardo and Pliny, however, is the detailed and comprehensive examination of the natural world, which both men clearly felt was integrally connected to art, architecture, science, medicine, and indeed to all living things.

[Ryan Foulke]

Albertus Magnus, ca. 1200–1280

De mineralibus

Venice: Giovanni and Gregorio de’ Gregori, 1495

Rare Book Collection KA1495 .A43 F BB

De mineralibus (On Minerals) was the principal treatise on subterranean matter in European natural philosophy from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth century. Composed by Albertus Magnus, it explains the natural formation of stones, gems, metals, and intermediate minerals. It combines witness reports with theoretical physics: Albertus visited mining districts and studied Aristotelian teachings in great depth. This edition was printed in Venice by brothers Giovanni and Gregorio de’ Gregori, who in 1494 gained a ten-year exclusive privilege for printing Albertus’s works.

A catalogue of ninety-nine stones occupies a middle part of the treatise (Book Two, Tractate Two). This segment is a lapidary: a register of minerals, typically arranged alphabetically by name, presenting information on their physical appearance, uses, location of quarry, and (less frequently) religious significance. The texts characteristically cull from and include a number of older writings, some dating back to antiquity.

In Leonardo’s lifetime, De mineralibus provided a framework for thinking about subterranean phenomena and the extent to which minerals might be imitated by artistic means. His Codex Atlanticus and Madrid Codex II record a “lapidario” without specifying an author. (The word appears twice in the Atlanticus register, which might repeat a single book.) The same lists name three authorities on minerals: “alberto magno” (Albertus Magnus), “plinio” (Pliny the Elder, 23–79 CE), and “alberto di sassonia” (Albert of Saxony, ca. 1320–1390). Leonardo’s library permitted him to engage a significant body of knowledge about subterranean nature and depict what he learned and observed in his paintings and drawings.

[Jordan Famularo]