Leonardo da Vinci saw in animals the ‘image of the world’

About six months ago I stopped eating meat. I was teaching a graduate course at UCLA that investigated how Italian Renaissance writers conveyed their concepts about the human through writing about the nonhuman – plants, animals, objects, angels, demons, gods and God. As weeks passed, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the nonhuman entities all around me, more aware of their vibrant lives. Cutting flowers for a short-lived bouquet seemed wrong; chewing on animal flesh became flat out impossible.

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the authors we were studying in the course. Out of the thousands of pages comprising his 25 documented codices, known collectively as his “Notebooks,” we read passages describing the natural world and its inhabitants, and some of his philosophical maxims, fables and riddles. In a striking passage that introduces his “Treatise on Water,” he wrote:

“By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire, his body resembles that of the earth; and as man has in him bones — the supports and framework of his flesh —, the world has its rocks — the supports of the earth; as man has in him a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls … ”

Unlike many thinkers of his time who anthropomorphized the Earth, Leonardo terramorphized man. But it was not just man that Leonardo saw as a Platonic microcosmic-world-in-miniature. Animals, he wrote, are “the image of the world.” They reflect the Earth, just as we do.

Leonardo’s animals hold their own against human beings. Leonardo da Vinci

Humans not superior to animal world

Leonardo never challenged the Christian belief that human beings were made in the image of God, nor the classical notion that man’s proportions and symmetries (albeit a white, middle-aged, able-bodied, European man) were beautiful and worthy of imitation in architecture and art. But he also never claimed other living beings were less beautiful, soulless, or lacked intelligence.

When comparing animals and humans – which he did often – animals often came out looking better. In one of his notes, Leonardo wrote, “Man has much power of discourse, which for the most part is vain and false; animals have but little, but it is useful and true, and a small truth is better than a great lie.” He often pointed out how much more powerful animals’ senses were, how much faster, stronger, more efficient and capable they were of performing remarkable feats, such as flight.

And animals were not nearly as “bestial” to one another as humans could be. “King of the animals – as thou hast described him – I should rather say king of the beasts,” he wrote. Leonardo lamented how human stomachs have become “a sepulcher for all animals” and how “our life is made by the death of others.”

Leonardo the vegetarian?

This passage, along with other writing about humans as killing machines and their esophagi as animal cemeteries, as well as a few comments by his contemporaries, have led many to believe that Leonardo was a vegetarian.

There is a 1515/6 letter by the Italian explorer Andrea Corsali to Giuliano de’ Medici that – in discussing how the Gujarati of India won’t eat anything with blood or allow hurt to come to any animate thing – says they are “like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Corsali, however, did not know Leonardo well, and the sentence is ambiguous; it could just mean that Leonardo never hurt animals or wanted to see them hurt.

Leonardo was captivated by birds’ power of flight. Leonardo da Vinci/Wikimedia Commons
Artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) noted that Leonardo was famed for buying caged birds and setting them free and Leonardo did, in fact, advocate for eating Nature’s abundant senplici (“simples”), a term which seems to imply plant-based recipes. He pondered why Nature had created a world in which animals ate each other, but concluded it was because life is compelled to reproduce and endure, and consequently, Nature needed a way to keep numbers down.

Nowhere in his writing, however, did he speak of not eating meat. His grocery lists have meat on them, although it is possible he was purchasing it for members of his household: students, servants, guests, animals.