Leonardo took a great interest in paleontology and geology from various perspectives as an artist and a scientist, ranging from symbology to the processes of morphogenesis, and more broadly the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm.
His scientific observations and his art demonstrate a knowledge of these disciplines that was quite out of the ordinary for his epoch, and which clearly sprang from the direct observation of material evidence. An exemplary case may be found in Leonardo’s reflections on the organic nature of fossils. Indeed, in his notes he describes as “a sect of ignoramuses” those of his contemporaries who either insisted that the fossils found in places a great distance from the sea constituted proof that the biblical story of the Great Flood was true, or who attributed the phenomenon to obscure celestial influences. Leonardo was the first to grasp that the origin of fossils was to be sought in geological upheavals and he anticipated the critique of the biblical theory of the Flood that only emerged in intellectual circles in the 18th century. He based his conclusions on the study of fossilized shells which he found near Vinci, and then further afield in Tuscany and Lombardy.
Leonardo included geological elements in his paintings – from heaps of gravel to curious rock formations, all carefully observed and accurately depicted – in works such as the Baptism produced by the atelier of Verrocchio, the Adoration of the Magi now in the Uffizi, his beautiful Virgin of the Rocks (which exists in two versions, one in Paris and one in London), the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (of which there are two versions attributed to Leonardo and his atelier, both in private collections), and the Saint Anne in the Louvre. These geological motifs have sometimes been subjected to rather extreme interpretations, a certain scholar going so far as to liken one of his geological formations to a placenta.
Leonardo re-elaborates the form of fossilized shells for the scroll of "Nodi" (knots) in his "Achademia" (Ms. I) and in sketches that begin with studies of rock strata and culminate in their dissolution in apocalyptic Diluvi (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle).
Fossil remains from areas where Leonardo conducted his studies can be seen in the Geology and Paleontology Section of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, in the Museum of Paleontology in Empoli, and in the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci in the town of Vinci.
It is in above all in the Codex Leicester (Bill Gates Collection) that we can follow the paleontological studies undertaken by Leonardo during the early years of the 16th century, when he explored different areas of Tuscany, from Casentino to Medio Valdarno and the Valdelsa, even venturing as far as the island of Elba.