Leonardo and the “Chemical Arts”

in Nuncius
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Our traditional vision of Leonardo da Vinci is based principally on his studies of mechanics, hydraulics, optics, geology, meteorology, and anatomy. However, a perusal of his manuscripts reveals his lifelong interest in chemistry and metallurgy, fields to which he contributed both as an innovator and as a reliable chronicler of the technological inventions of others. He conducted studies on various types of materials (including glass, paper, and le terre di fusione, the clay used in the lost wax process) and sought to develop more efficient alembics and metallurgical furnaces, as well as ingenious devices to study the elements and the dynamics of the transformation of matter. Leonardo’s atelier therefore could be viewed as a veritable ‘technical laboratory’ in which he conducted experiments not only on the techniques and materials required for his art, but also to satisfy his thirst for knowledge by engaging in the heuristic study of natural and artificial phenomena.

Leonardo and the “Chemical Arts”

in Nuncius




Ladislao Reti“Le arti chimiche di Leonardo da Vinci,” La chimica e l'industria1952 34/7:721-743; ibid. 34/11:655-667.


Wolfgang Schneider“Das chemische Wissen Leonardo da Vincis und seine Bedeutung für die Geschichte der Chemie,” Die Pharmazie1949 4:40-43 87-92; Frank Sherwood Taylor “Léonard de Vinci et la chimie de son temps” in Léonard de Vinci et l’expérience scientifique au XVIe siècle Paris 4-7 July 1952 (Paris: Centre National de la Richerche Scientifique 1953) pp. 151-161; Reijer Hooykaas “La théorie corpuscolaire de Léonard de Vinci” in Léonard de Vinci et l’expérience scientifique au XVIe siècle (cit. note 3) pp. 163-169.


Bruno Boni“Leonardo da Vinci e l’alchimia,” Chimica1954 30:401-405; Cesare Vasoli “Note su Leonardo e l’alchimia” in Leonardo e l’età della ragione edited by Enrico Bellone and Paolo Rossi (Milan: Scientia 1982) pp. 69-77; John Francis Moffitt “The Evidentia of Curling Waters and Whirling Winds: Leonardo’s Ekphraseis of the Latin Weathermen” Achademia Leonardi Vinci 1991 4:11-33; Marco Beretta “Leonardo and Lucretius” Rinascimento 2010 49:1-32; Romano Nanni “Lucrezio un ennesimo candidato per la filosofia di Leonardo?” Giornale Critico della Filosofia italiana 2011 3:463-491. On the subject of Leonardo and alchemy see also Dawson Kiang “Leonardo and alchemy: a bibliographical note” Achademia Leonardi Vinci 1997 10:199-201.


Barbara Obrist“Art et nature dans l’alchimie médiévale,” in Théorie et pratique dans la constitution des savoirs alchimiquesRevue d'Histoire des Sciences 1996 44:215-286; Newman Promethean Ambitions (cit. note 6) pp. 34-114; Andrea Bernardoni “La quaestio de alchimia nel De la pirotechnia di Vannoccio Biringuccio” in Atti del XII Convegno nazionale di storia e fondamenti della chimica edited by Franco Calascibetta Luigi Cerruti (Rome: Accademia nazionale delle scienze detta dei XL 2008) pp. 261- 276.


William R. Newman“Technology and alchemical debate in the late Middle Ages,” Isis1989 80:423-445 pp. 436-437.


Edgar Zilsel“The Social Roots of Modern Science,” in The Social Origins of Modern Scienceedited by Diederick Raven Wolfgang Krohn Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht Boston London: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000) pp. 13-14.


Marcos Martinón-Torres“The Tools of the Chymist: Archeological and Scientific Analyses of Early Modern Laboratories,” in Chymists and Chymistry Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistryedited by Lawrence M. Principe (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications 2007) pp. 149-164.


 Cf. Carlo Pedretti“The Sforza Horse in Context,” in Leonardo da Vinci's Sforza Monument Horse: The Art and the Engineeringedited by D. Cole Ahl (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press 1995) pp. 28-29.


Luigi Zecchin“Il vetro cristallino nelle carte del Quattrocento,” in Vetro e vetrai di Muranovols. I-II Vol. 1 (Venice: Arsenale 1987) p. 229. For a fuller discussion of Leonardo’s vetro cristallino see also Reti “Leonardo e le arti chimiche” (cit. n. 1); Licia Brescia Luca Tomìo “Leonardo da Vinci e il segreto del vetro cristallino pannicolato flessibile e infrangibile” Raccolta vinciana 1999 28:79-92.


Paolo Galluzzi“Leonardo da Vinci: from the ‘Elementi Macchinali’ to the Man-Machine,” History and Technology1987 4: 235-265 p. 249.


Girolamo CalviI manoscritti di Leonardo da Vinci dal punto di vista cronologico storico e biografico (Busto Arsizio: Bramante editrice1982) p. 56.


Ladislao Reti“Parting of Gold and Silver with Nitric Acid in a Page of the ‘Codex Atlanticus’ of Leonardo da Vinci”Isis1965 56 p. 316 n. 27.


Hieronimus BrunschwigLiber de arte distillandi de Compositis (Strasburg: Johann Grüninger1512) ff. 39v 40v; Philipp Ulstad Coelum philosophorum seu de Secretis Naturae (Strasburg: Johann Grüninger 1528) f. 24v; Vannoccio Biringuccio The Pirotechnia edited by Cyril Stanley Smith (New York: American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers 1942) p. 356 [131v]; hereafter the relevant page numbers from the first Italian edition Vannoccio Biringuccio De la pirotechnia (Venice: Curtio Troiano Navo 1540) are cited between square brackets.


Richard E. Stone“Antico and the Development of Bronze Casting in Italy at the end of the Quattrocento,” Metropolitan Museum Journal1981 16:87-116 p. 96. The invention of a technique of indirect fusion known as slush moulding has been attributed to Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi di Mantova). Perfected at the end of the fifteenth century this process exploited the viscosity of wax; the inside walls of the casting mould were evenly coated with wax by spinning; ibid. p. 105.


Guglielmo Somigli“Leonardo e la fonderia,” Fonderia italiana1952 7:227-232.


  • View in gallery

    Ms. F, f. 56r: The structure of paper.

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    Codex Arundel, P 29: f. 145v: Studies of the drilling/spiraling motion of fire.

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    Codex Atlanticus, f. 87r [ex 32ra]: Leonardo’s application of the kinetic theory of heat to a furnace.

  • View in gallery View in gallery

    Codex Arundel, P 27v: f. 47r (a), P 28v: 48r (b): Metallurgical apparatus and the application of the kinetic theory of heat.

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    Codex Atlanticus, f. 216r (ex 79vc): An alembic cooled using the immersion system, and the process for making poured glass.

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    Codex Atlanticus, f. 989r [ex 357rc]: An alembic cooled using an immersion system modified to eliminate the problem of thermal shock.

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    Codex Atlanticus, f. 1114br [ex 400vc]: Alembic with a perpetual cooling system.

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    Codex Madrid I, 144v: Hydraulic weighing balance (detail).

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