Biographies & Memoirs

Speaking with Animals

Man has great power of speech, but what he says is mostly vain and false; animals have little, but what they say is useful and true.

Paris MS F, fol. 96V

A dog lying asleep on an old sheepskin; a spider’s web in the vineyard; a blackbird among the thorn-bushes; an ant carrying a grain of millet; a rat ‘besieged in his little home’ by a weasel; a crow flying up to the top of a tall bell-tower with a nut in its beak – all these beautifully specific images of country life are to be found in Leonardo’s favole, or fables, written in Milan in the early 1490s. These fables embody a rich vein of country lore. They are Aesopian in character – and we know from one of his book-lists that Leonardo owned a copy of Aesop’s fables – but they seem to be original to him in their particularities and their phrasing. They are brisk narratives, some only a few lines long, in which animals and birds and insects are given a voice, and a story to tell.42 They have a connection, perhaps, with Leonardo’s dream-life, as glimpsed in that ‘prophecy’ I quoted in relation to his kite fantasy – ‘You will speak with animals of every species and they will speak with you in human language.’ The kite fantasy itself seems to belong within the animistic world of the fables – it could almost be one of the fables, except that it would have been turned the other way around and told from the kite’s point of view: ‘One day a kite looked down from the sky and spied an infant asleep in his cradle…’ One would like to know how that version of the story might have continued.

It is not unusual for a somewhat solitary child growing up in the country to form a strong affinity with animals, and once they are part of his life he is never quite happy out of their company for long. That Leonardo ‘loved’ animals is almost a truism. Vasari says:

He took an especial delight in animals of all sorts, which he treated with wonderful love and patience. For instance, when he was passing the places where they sold birds, he would often take them out of their cages with his hand, and having paid whatever price was asked by the vendor, he would let them fly away into the air, giving them back their lost liberty.

His famous vegetarianism seems part of this relationship. (There is no evidence that he was a life-long vegetarian, but he certainly was in later years.) A letter of 1516 from an Italian traveller in India, Andrea Corsali, describes the Gujarati as a ‘gentle people… who do not feed on anything that has blood, nor will they allow anyone to hurt any living thing, like our Leonardo da Vinci’.43 One of Leonardo’s closest associates, the eccentric Tommaso Masini, held similar views: ‘He would not kill a flea for any reason whatever; he preferred to dress in linen so as not to wear something dead.’44

Leonardo’s fables and prophecies show him acutely sensitive to animal suffering, but his respect for creatures does not merge into sentimentality. The anatomical manuscripts contain many animal studies, ranging from a bear’s foot to a bovine womb: these were undoubtedly based on his own dissections. And there was that ‘odd-looking’ lizard, brought to him one day by the Pope’s gardener, which he kept in a box to ‘frighten the life out of his friends’, having first fitted it up with wings, horns and a beard ‘attached with a mixture of quicksilver’. How much the lizard enjoyed this jeu d’esprit is not recorded. This Vasarian anecdote has a touch of the childish prank about it, but is placed in Leonardo’s Roman years, when he was in his early sixties. It may or may not be apocryphal.

Leonardo ‘always kept’ horses, Vasari says. In itself this would be unremarkable – all but the poorest in Renaissance Italy ‘kept’ a horse – so one assumes that Vasari means something more: that Leonardo was a particular connoisseur of horses. This could anyway be inferred from the many beautiful studies of horses in his sketchbooks. The earliest of these belong to the late 1470s. They are preparatory sketches for an Adoration of the Shepherds which is either lost or (more likely) never got past the planning stage. In keeping with the homely imagery of this subject, they show familiar workaday horses of the kind he would have known from the farm. The horse shown from behind, cropping grass, is bony and a bit ungainly. The same mood of unromanticized reality is in a companion sketch (the paper-type is identical) showing the ox and ass.45 A little later are the studies for the unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1481–2), which features a number of horses and horsemen in the background. These are more dynamic and romantic. One of these early studies – the horse and bareback rider, formerly in the Brown Collection in Newport, Rhode Island – is currently the world’s most expensive drawing. It was sold at Christie’s in July 2001 for $12 million, equalling the world record for a drawing set by Michelangelo’s study for a Risen Christ the previous year: the Leonardo sketch, postcard-sized, works out at a little less than $1 million per square inch.46 There are many later studies of horses – for the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza (c. 1488–94), for theBattle of Anghiari mural (c. 1503–6), for the funeral monument of the condottiere Giangiacomo Trivulzio (c. 1508–11) – but the early Florentine sketches are among the loveliest. These are the cart-horses and punches of his agricultural childhood, rather than the martial coursers and chargers required for those later, more militaristic, commissions.

Drawing horses was something that Leonardo couldn’t stop himself doing – witness the drawing at Windsor of a military chariot. The point of the drawing is the fearsome machine itself, with its toothed wheels and cannon-ball flails, but he cannot resist individuating the two horses which draw the vehicle, one of which turns with ears pricked and eyes alert, as if startled by an unexpected presence. Again these are farm-horses rather than war-horses: if you cover up the chariot, this is just a team of two pulling a cart or plough.47

In the British Museum is a wonderfully fresh and natural sketch of a dog, and I am tempted to say that it – or she, for it is demonstrably a bitch – was Leonardo’s dog. It is a small, low-built, smooth-haired terrier type still to be seen all over Italy. Its character is beautifully caught. The dog sits more from obedience than volition – the ears flattened down in an ingratiating way, the mouth almost smiling, but the eyes alert to the more interesting world beyond the temporary imperatives of its master. Other Leonardo drawings show a very similar dog, but it does not follow that they are all the same animal. A red-chalk sketch of a dog in profile is found in a pocket-book dating from the late 1490s. This is some twenty years after the obediently sitting dog in the British Museum drawing, so almost certainly shows a different individual.48


Animal studies. Above: ox and ass, and horse and bareback rider, preparatory studies for Florentine paintings. Below: study of a sitting dog and a cat, and proportional profile study of a dog.

One of my favourite moments of Leonardian light relief concerns dogs. On a page of Paris MS F, a mid-sized notebook he was using in about 1508, occurs a short text which has the look of one of his scientific ‘demonstrations’ or ‘conclusions’, but the title of the text actually reads, ‘Perche li cani oderan volentieri il culo l’uno all’altro’ – ‘Why dogs willingly sniff one another’s bottoms’. (I like that ‘willingly’.) The explanation he gives is that they are establishing how much ‘essence of meat’ (virtù di carne) can be discerned there:

The excrement of animals always retains some essence of its origin… and dogs have such a keen sense of smell that they can discern with their nose the essence remaining in the faeces. If by means of the smell they know a dog to be well-fed, they respect him, because they judge that he has a powerful and rich master; and if they discern no such smell of that essence [i.e. of meat] they judge the dog to be of small account, and to have a poor and humble master, and therefore they bite him.49

This is balanced between accuracy – dogs do indeed get olfactory information in this way – and humorous exaggeration of the sociological niceties involved.

Cats feature both in early and in late drawings, and again there seems good reason to take them as cats belonging to Leonardo, or at least attached to his studio in their time-honoured capacity as rat-catchers. If his wonderful sketches for a Madonna and Child with a Cat (another lost or abandoned work of the late 1470s)50 were done from life, as they certainly seem to have been, we might deduce that the cat who features in them is not only a real and particular cat, but also a trusted cat. The child is shown hugging, squeezing and generally mauling it around; at some stages the animal looks pretty reluctant, but it is trusted not to harm the child. Another studio cat is discernible in a brief note of c. 1494: ‘If at night you place your eye between the light and the eye of a cat, you will see that its eye seems to be on fire.’51 The famous page of cats at Windsor – or of a single cat in various positions – is one of his late drawings, probably done during his years in Rome, 1513–16. On closer inspection one of the cats turns out to be a diminutive dragon.52

I hazard an addendum to Vasari: that Leonardo ‘always kept’ dogs and cats as well as horses; that animals were a part of his life.

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