Leonardo’s Mysterious Landscapes

Salvador Dalí once made a comparison of great painters. He rated each for his colors, drawing, invention, and other qualities. For “mystery” he gave Leonardo da Vinci a 10. Isn’t that one of Leonardo’s fortes?
The landscapes in his paintings have much to do with the mystery. Some are troubling—spooky—fantasy worlds. (The philosopher Kant makes schrecklich–terrifying–one of the qualities of the sublime.)   Others are outright paradises.

The dreamlike landscapes are in nearly all of Leonardo’s works. This may be his first one–the scene behind Jesus in Verrocchio’s Baptism picture. Legend says  Leonardo painted the angel on the left.

Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio, c.1475 (public domain photo)

Look at the strange port with the ghastly high mountains in this Annunciation.

Detail of the Annunciation, Uffizi Gallery, Florence (public domain photo)

Or the strange rocks of the cavern and lagoon in the Virgin of the Rocks.

Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London (public domain photo)

The winding road , the bridge, the lakes and the mountains behind the Mona Lisa have intrigued people for five hundred years.

Gioconda or Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)

See the high mountain fantasies in the Leningrad Litta Madonna:

Madonna Litta, Hermitage, Leningrad (public domain photo)

And the still water behind the prickly tree of the Benci portrait:

Ginevra de’ Benci, National Gallery (public domain photo)

There is even a placid meadow out the window in The Last Supper:


The Last Supper, Milan (public domain photo)

How are these different from other landscapes? What gives them a mysterious or sublime quality?

Leonardo’s own uniquely deep and complex personality.

They are not scenes that he went out and copied from a mountaintop or valley. He did draw that way—there are plein-air chalk and pen-and-ink drawings of his, like this one which he made at 21:

Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Uffizi (public domain photo)

But he didn’t put them into his paintings. For those he invented landscapes.  He made them up. That is why they are so personal, why they are not quite real. The lines that make them are all out of his head, which transformed the facts he had learned while sketching outdoors.

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18 Responses to Leonardo’s Mysterious Landscapes

  1. wanderer7 says:

    the enlarged images are really high=res. thx for that

    there’s something sublime about Virgin on the Rocks … it just gets me. something about the archway inset …

  2. kimiam says:

    I love Annunciation. It reveals how insignificant and fragile Man is in the world. We’re specks of lint on a fine garment.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Wanderer. Actually, I wish I had been able to find better reproductions. I agree with you about the Virgin of the Rocks.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: you mean the landscape or the event?

  5. iondanu says:

    Swallows, I think that his technique also count for something in that “mystery”: the sfumatto, the chiar-oscuro… the tamed colors – in the burn omber-burn sienna par of the color specter, with some green-grey, blue-grey… As for the “made up” of landscapes…you could be right even if he was also a scientific spirit…but probably get the landscapes to fit the composition etc.

  6. kimiam says:

    the landscape, but the event also has those undertones -that there are certain special chosen ones who are more important than us lint.

    Although if you throw it back into the frame of servitude -to role given to a few to serve mankind, we are back to being bigger and more important than lint.

  7. zeladoniac says:

    I think Leonardo’s landscapes were felt, rather than seen, by him. Complex, rugged, otherworldly. He used them to express emotion, as well as create a setting.

  8. While the mountains and landscapes are fantasy, the sfumato light (cited by Iondanu) is pure Tuscany. I look out my windows at that light on the distant hills every evening.

    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: You do get around. The last I knew, you were gauging Vermeer’s light right there in Delft. Me, I look out my window evenings and see the sfumato of Madrid–a blackish cloud of pollution.

  9. 1/2 the year in NL, 1/2 in I. From painting to painting to painting. From Dutch light to Tuscan light. I still think the natural light (little pollution, luckily) explains a lot about painting traditions: remember, we had a comment exchange on that.

  10. Unknown to me — but perhaps not unknown to others — is that Leonardo is believed to have made the earliest European landscape drawings (while still working in Verrocchio’s studio). James Hall, reviewing the British Museum show ‘Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings’ for the TLS writes that what may be the very first of his landscapes is fascinating “because of the stylized way in which it is drawn … it seems woven as much as sketched, so rhythmical is the mark-making. A waterfall on the side of a rocky precipice is as neat as a banner suspended from a window ledge, while the branches of the trees near its summit fan out like a peacock’s tail.”
    The waterfall (as Hall describes it a little later), “has become a vertical nave”. In other words, I think, the pattern of nature is recreated in religious terms — by means of an akin-ship. Does this help explain his ‘fantasy’ painted landscapes?

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Judith, but I don’t get it. What does Hall mean by a “vertical nave” and how is the pattern of nature recreated in religious terms here? Does he mean Leonardo makes the little rock and waterfall a sort of shrine? In that case the religion is of a pagan kind, like those old Roman temples in the woods or at some sacred spring. The whole scene, with its great heights and great distances, reminds one of some nature paintings by the Romantics, and their awe (if that is “religion”).
      It is fascinating to see how a master draughtsman simplifies what he sees and renders it with lines alone. Some have to stand for objects, some have to indicate topography, some have to represent the ripples of water, and so on. But Leonardo’s way of quickly–“rhythmically”– indicating trees (blurry hatching) is really not so remarkable in a sketch; and the waterfall, “like a banner suspended from a window ledge”, is unintelligible at first glance. (I just included the Arno landscape in my text for reference.)

  11. judithweingarten says:

    Yes but, first of all, he wasn’t a master draughtsman at the time: he was 21 and this may have been the first ever (extant?) drawing of a landscape. Hall points out that the drawing is signed on the Feast of S Maria of the Snow, which celebrates the miracle whereby snow fell in Rome in high summer to form the ground plan of the church S Maria Maggiore. He says, “This miracle – the discovery and creation of pattern and symmetry in nature — is one that Leonardo tries to recreate.” That’s what I interpreted as ‘akin-ship’. That Leonardo is reading patterns into nature and drawing (real) Tuscan landscapes accordingly.

    Maybe we should go to London to see the show. :-)

    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: We really ought to go to that show, Judith, and see what evidence Mr. Hall has for his “exegesis” of the drawing. It sounds like he makes too much of the Feast Day on which Leonardo signed it–the miraculous snow, and so on. Isn’t it more likely that Leonardo didn’t even remember what the Feast was about? It was a free day and a glorious one and he grabbed his drawing board and climbed that hill for the fun of drawing the great view. “Nice religious patterns, Mr. da Vinci,” says Mr. Hall, complimenting the artist.”And that’s one hell of a vertical nave.”
      “Huh?” says Leonardo.

  12. judithweingarten says:

    You’ll have to ask Mr Hall… :-)

    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: Thanks. You’d think Leonardo’s theory that the earth is a living organism, similar to the human body, with its bones (rocks) and skin and blood circulation, should have been more appealing to the pre-Darwin scientists.

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