As Leslie A. Geddes explains in Watermarks: Leonardo da Vinci and the Mastery of Nature, Leonardo da Vinci worked on the historical cusp between purely theoretical and more observational methods of analysis in the earth sciences. It was a time, too, that saw the artistic and analytic as intimately entwined. To understand better the special qualities of Leonardo’s moment, not to mention his interdisciplinary mind, Geddes takes up the problem of water in his art and thought. She makes use of the art historian’s methods, and the resulting book reads like an extended ekphrasis of those works touched by Leonardo’s aqueous concerns, whether they address puzzles of engineering or render portraits of natural phenomena. From Madonnas to mapmaking, Geddes reveals how Leonardo’s understanding of water inflects just about everything.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, titled “Water Tamed,” treats Leonardo’s mechanical studies employing water, such as his depictions of mills, pumps, and bridges. The second, titled “Water Unleashed,” considers the ways in which water acts on landscapes both actual and represented. Although there is a basic chronological logic to the arrangement, the structure invites the reader to consider Leonardo’s representations of water in the second part through the lens of his scientific and engineering interests. It therefore guarantees the integration of several strands of Leonardo’s thought, meaning both landscape and waterscape are read in terms of water’s natural properties as Leonardo understood them.

Within part I, the first chapter provides an extended visual analysis of Leonardo’s water machines. No fault of the author, this chapter can be slow going in its descriptions of machines for raising, dredging, or channeling water, but the payoff is worthwhile. Observing that “drawing was perhaps Leonardo’s greatest technology” (21), Geddes demonstrates how Leonardo attempted to comprehend the speed and shape of water flow in part through graphic means, tackling it as an artistic and scientific problem. In taking up technologies of water management (crucial to early modern economy and society), Leonardo tended to emphasize legibility over pictorial richness. Unlike some of his Sienese technologist forebears (e.g., Mariano di Jacopo Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio Martini), he does not present his machines within the context of landscapes, commanding lakes, and rivers. Leonardo’s primary focus is on how these machines work and how they are activated. He describes their discrete components in minute detail, rendering individual parts in standardized ways across a series of examples. The texts that accompany these drawings emphasize how the machines spring into action.

The second chapter discusses Leonardo’s designs for traversing water by way of bridges, balloon-like shoes and stilts, and underwater snorkels. Unlike his depictions of machines, these drawings take in the surrounding terrain. Mobile bridges made of modular parts are components of riverbank scenes made like vedute (landscape views). The drawings of these bridges sometimes include tiny figures at work building them, presumably to prove their practical value in war, when speed was important. As Geddes points out, these mobile bridges hover somewhere between architecture and machine. And so, in attempting to relate these constructions to water’s natural force, Leonardo deploys graphic techniques that can be described alternately as architectural, pictorial, or mechanical, taking cues from traditions of engineering and architectural drawing. The rapid assembly of these bridges and the concomitant logistical problems are things that Leonardo draws to solve or understand. Geddes suggests that the complexity of the subject is paralleled only by the artist’s design of knots, which he and his circle fetishized as symbols of intellectual complexity. Certain difficulties of dealing with water (such as seeing underground or below water’s surface) are also encountered here as both design and artistic problems. The question of how to represent the unseen or hard-to-see emerges here and returns throughout the book again and again.

The second part of the book is fast paced and engrossing. Its four chapters deal with water unleashed on things. The first, devoted to water’s “flow and flux,” treats the aforementioned problem of how water can be seen and shown. Here the focus is on rapid water currents, particularly tracking and drawing them. Leonardo often resorts to words to help make sense of his drawings, apparently frustrated by the difficulty of the task at hand. In his growing understanding, Leonardo’s landscapes become sites of constant environmental change: forceful eruptions of rocks, which he discusses or draws elsewhere accompanied by watery cascades that imply their slow erosion, embody a nature always in motion. His famous drawings of deluges are a centerpiece of this discussion, showing how the most spectacular and violent emanations of water’s dynamic power frustrate naturalistic representation. Here cities are threatened by looming aerial oceans, while curling airborne rivers engulf forests and drown mountains. In these works, Leonardo’s powers of observation are partly thwarted, and fantasy leads where the eye is blind.

The fourth chapter delves into the well-canvassed territory of Leonardo’s representation of landscapes. Among other things, we encounter the earliest dated landscape drawing in Western art, the Tuscan Landscape, dated 5 August 1473, which oscillates, like Leonardo’s later landscapes, between the macro and the micro, the universal and the particular, the imagined and the real. Here and elsewhere in this chapter, Geddes’s findings enrich rather than overturn previous interpretations. Geddes places Leonardo’s approach to landscape within the tradition that encompasses the likes of Giovanni Bellini, Piero di Cosimo, Fra Bartolommeo, and Albrecht Dürer, who particularly shares Leonardo’s investment in how nature transforms landscapes. In her discussion of the Virgin of the Rocks (ca. 1482–85), the Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–6), and Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (ca. 1502–13), we encounter landscapes that speak to ancient forces of watery erosion working since time immemorial against the bulk of mountains, encoding within them the earth’s primordial origins. In interpreting the Mona Lisa, Geddes does not necessarily disturb the interpretation of David Rosand regarding the way water signifies time (by the slow work of eroding the high mountains and valleys in the background) but rather turns our attention to how early modern persons would have experienced the setting, knowing (as we have learned) the difficulties of traversing such rugged, aqueous terrain.1 Through the arched stone bridge that appears to sprout in the distance from the sitter’s shoulder, Leonardo constructs a symbolic link between the personal and the human, and between the wild and the natural. However, Geddes argues, in contexts like the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, landscape signals both nature’s power and the promise of renewal.

Turning to Leonardo’s maps in the penultimate chapter, Geddes considers how Leonardo dealt with charting larger territories. As on other occasions, the artist decided on a fusion of tactics in the relevant drawings. His maps of the Val di Chiana, for example, merge a measured bird’s-eye view with the conventional and pictorial representation of mountains by way of three-dimensional mounds. Simultaneously, they reveal Leonardo’s awareness of how water shapes the natural and built environments by illustrating the spatial relationship of the lake to nearby tributaries and local towns. Particularly nice is the author’s reading of the Adda River views that Leonardo drew sometime around 1511–13, when he was planning a system of dams and sluices to make the river navigable. In these views of Adda’s shorelines, Leonardo understood “the river as an agent gradually shaping the countryside,” expressing “an engineer’s critical assessment of environmental impact” (165).

The final chapter focuses on another set of drawings, little appreciated because they are hard to make out, rendered in red chalk against a red prepared ground. Perhaps surprisingly, these depictions of mountains, rivers, quarries, and marshlands are accompanied by notes that deal with evanescent phenomena, such as the transparency and murkiness of water and special lighting conditions. These notes supplement what is drawn, encompassing observations that cannot be readily shown in the chosen medium, a theme thereafter discussed in relation to Leonardo’s approach to other obscure or invisible things, like smoke and sound.

This is a subtle book that demands the reader’s close attention. Like the currents of a rippling tide, it carries along fine sediments, laying them down slowly, building up a fuller image of Leonardo’s engagement with nature and environmental change. The author is deft in what she observes and elegant in her presentation. A rich reframing of the artist’s work rather than a revisionist interpretation, the result is a compelling portrait of Leonardo’s complex mind, perhaps one of the finest. As such, it brings us closer to Leonardo and his world, telling of the ways in which both practical and lofty considerations touched him, and how the environment registered in much of his thinking. Having closed the book, the reader is left to ponder the ramifications. This reader wonders about the outsize role that water plays implicitly or explicitly in the artist’s sacred works, for example, his images of the solitary Saint John the Baptist. With Leonardo, there is always more to find.


See David Rosand, “The Portrait, Courtier, and Death,” in Castiglione: The Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture, ed. Robert W. Hanning and David Rosand (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), 91–129.