Da Vinci and the birth of Ichnology.

Leonardo da Vinci: Self-portrait. From WikimediaCommons.

Leonardo da Vinci: Self-portrait. From WikimediaCommons.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, a town in the lower valley of the Arno River. He is the archetype of the Renaissance Man: artist, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, naturalist and geologist. A true polymath. He is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. His paintings are cultural icons. But there was a less known aspect of Leonardo’s talent: the Ichnology. In 2010, Andrea Baucon published a paper entitled: Leonardo da Vinci, the Founding Father of Ichnology, where he explores the many contributions of Leonardo to this field of science (1).

During the Renaissance, many intellectuals showed interesting in the study of traces, like Ulisse Aldrovandi the man who coined the term “geology”(2). Those men realized the patterns and the beauty behind the traces, but considered them as natural curiosities with an inorganic origin. So Ichnology began as an aesthetic appreciation of the traces and only became a systematically structured science in the 19th century. But unlike Aldrovandi, Leonardo made very insightful appreciations about the nature of the traces: He correctly interprets trace fossils as biogenic structures left by living organisms and used as complementary of his theory on marine body fossils.


Leonardo da Vinci, La valle dell’Arno, 1473. Pen and ink, Florence: Uffizi Museum. Photo Credit: Art Resource, NY.

The majority of Leonardo’s scientific observations were in the Leicester Codex, a collection of writings from the 16th Century. In the Codex, Leonardo writes that marine shells found on the mountains corresponded to living animal and they have been “petrified” with marine sediments and refutes all the assumptions of the biblical Deluge. He also studied the locomotion of mollusks and the biogenic structures produced by living animals comparing them with ichnofossils. Leonardo also refers to trace fossils as an evidence for past marine environments. Several excerpts from the Codex also indicate that Leonard uses many ichnological principles that are still valid today. This is particularly interesting:

“Come nelle falde, infra l’una e l’altra si trovano ancora
gli andamenti delli lombrici, che caminavano infra esse
quando non erano ancora asciutte”.
(Among one and another rock layer, there are the traces of
the worms that crawled in them when they were not yet dry)

(Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex, folio 10v)

The above description reflects how Leonardo understood the  diagenesis of sedimentary layers and taphonomy of trace fossils.

Leonardo’s Paleodictyon.

Paleodictyon is a burrow system composed of a hexagonal mesh, and   particularly common in the Arno Valley, where Leonardo was born.  Unfortunately, the drawing was not  accompanied by any description (3).

Detail of Leonardo’s Paleodictyon. Image from the Codex Leicester; Baucon (2010), Acta Paleontológica Polónica.

Detail of Leonardo’s Paleodictyon. Baucon (2010), Acta Paleontológica Polónica.

Leonardo never received a formal education in Latin or Mathematics and he wrote in Italian. For that reason, Leonardo writings were ignored by the scholars of the time, but five centuries after his death, Leonardo still surprises us.



(1) Baucon, A. (2010). Leonardo da Vinci, The Founding Fatheer of Ichnology,  PALAIOS, 25 (6), 361-367 DOI: 10.2110/palo.2009.p09-049r

(2) Vai, G.B. and Cavazza,W. (Eds) 2003. Four Centuries of the Word Geology, pp. 1–315. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna. Minerva Edizioni; Bologna.

(3) Baucon, A. 2010. Da Vinci’s Paleodictyon: the fractal beauty of traces. Acta Geologica Polonica, 60 (1), 3–17.


4 thoughts on “Da Vinci and the birth of Ichnology.

  1. Pingback: I Love Italian Renaissance Art | Vino Con Vista Italy Travel Guides … | Renaissance Art

  2. Pingback: The early history of ammonite studies in Italy. | Letters from Gondwana.

  3. This is wonderful to know. And exactly what I’ve been revelling in: the mutual and circular and magical combinations of science, art, and the history of discovery..
    I’d like to ask permission to post a substantial chunk of it on my blog, with all attributions and a link of course.

    Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #44 | Whewell's Ghost

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