What is it about?

This paper argues that 15th century Italian pictorial landscapes might have embedded the diffused belief in an ancient Earth, scarred by erosion and by the passage of geological time. Alongside the classical ruins that are often found in those paintings, the eroded crags and exposed layered rocks of many Italian masters represented the idealized "ruins" of an ancient Earth.

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Why is it important?

This paper shows that ideas of an ancient Earth were much more common and unproblematic in pre-modern times than we normally think, including in social groups like artists and craftsmen who lacked a formal education. It also places Leonardo da Vinci's famous "geological" writings and landscapes into a broader context that was missing so far. Rather than a genius centuries ahead of his time, he shared with the tradition of Renaissance artists and engineers a common base of knowledge on features of the earth crust and in particular, layered rocks.


I hope this work will help readers understand how much more complex than normally thought is the history of science in its interactions with art and religious history. The narrative of the "lonely geniuses" too often clouds the fact that no one has ever been ahead of their times; even a genius like Leonardo was the tip of an iceberg, he shared a culture that was widespread within his social group and his scientific ideas built on a centuries-long tradition.

Yale University

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This page is a summary of: The Ruins of the Earth, Nuncius, November 2018, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/18253911-03303002.
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