Ancient Sources and New Experiences <

By nature, all good humans have a thirst for knowledge
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 327v. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




In the 15th century, scholars throughout Europe, especially in Italy, sought to raise knowledge of and familiarity with authors from ancient Greece and Rome to a new level. The goal of these humanists was to collect textual sources systematically from widely diverse fields of knowledge and make them accessible through commentaries, translations, and soon through printed editions as well. Encyclopedias such as those by the philologist and mathematician Giorgio Valla (ca. 1447–1499) made previously rare handwritten treatises generally available.
Florence was the first center of this movement, which was celebrated as the rebirth (Rinascita or Rinascimento in Italian, Renaissance in French) of ancient culture. The ideal of antiquity rapidly penetrated and inspired every cultural area, such as literature, architecture, and the visual arts. Parallel to this, the study of ancient traditions also promised resources for solving technical and scientific problems and tasks of contemporary life. Ancient natural scientists such as the Greek mathematicians Archimedes (ca. 287–212 BCE), Ptolemy (ca. 100–160 CE), and Euclid (ca. 300 BCE) were important authorities whose extant works formed a fixed canon. Their achievements also inspired Renaissance scholars in their own research and further observations.
Another canonical work is the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (ca. 70 BCE–ca. 15 CE). Its impact can hardly be overestimated and Leonardo da Vinci naturally owned an edition.
A contemporary counterpart are the writings of the philologist, master builder, and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). His architectural designs, like those for the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, are considered incunabula of Renaissance architecture, while his writings on the genres of architecture, painting, and sculpture laid down the first theoretical basis for the new forms of design. The humanist Alberti was regarded by his contemporaries as a shining example of universal education. He was an inspiration for Leonardo, too, not least for the latter’s own theoretical writings on painting.


Foundations <

Leonardo da Vinci. Design for an Etruscan tomb


On January 29, 1507 several Etruscan burial chambers were discovered during work in a vineyard near Castellina in Chianti. Given the contemporary interest in rediscovering the rather obscure Etruscan culture as a homegrown “pre-Roman” heritage, the find drew the attention of various Florentine scholars. In this cleanly executed presentation drawing, Leonardo, who stayed in Florence for a while in 1508, depicts the characteristic tumulus before a broad landscape panorama and gives glimpses into the burial chambers with their authentic corbel vault, although he somewhat exaggerates the number of chambers in the ground plan. The crowning circular temple is an addition of his own imagining. It was inspired by the Tempietto, the recently erected commemorative tomb in Rome designed by his contemporary Bramante.



    Godoli, Antonio. 1992. “Progetto di un mausoleo a pianta centrale.” In Il disegno fiorentino del tempo di Lorenzo il Magnifico. Exhibition catalogue Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence, 8.4.–5.7.1992, edited by Annamaria Petrioli Tofani. Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 218 f., no. 11.1.


    Hillard, Caroline S. 2018. “Leonardo and the Etruscan Tomb.” Renaissance Quarterly 71 (3): 919–958.


    Martelli, Marina. 1977. “Un disegno attribuito a Leonardo e una scoperta archeologica degli inizi del Cinquecento.” Prospettiva, 10: 58–61.