Tweeting Da Vinci
by Ann C. Pizzorusso
Da Vinci Press, New York, 2014
233 pp., illus. Trade, $45.00
Reviewed by Charles Merguerian. Ph.D.
Principal, Duke Geological Laboratory, Professor Emeritus, Hofstra University, Research Fellow, Yale University
I'll admit never tweeting once in my life nor have I bothered consulting Wikipedia for that matter, yet the charming and scholarly work, Tweeting Da Vinci, has proven to be a pleasant, informative read from the start and has held my attention for some time now. Although I feel no need to tweet aside for applauding the author, the following is a review and impression of this work.
Over 230 pages in length, the text is written in a crisp, modern fashion, and the book's structure is well thought-out and realized. Within, the author allows readers to fully grasp the philosophy and geological reasoning developed by Da Vinci during his lifetime. With six major chapters devoted to the progress of Italian history, art, and science the writer's varied geological background allows for a fresh, unique approach compared to a similar tome written by a historian or art critic. Indeed, the main chapters on Leonardo Da Vinci point to very significant research and important observations of geological details in his paintings that have been missed by everyone but geologist Pizzorusso. Each of the chapters includes an In-Depth section and Appendix that allows for further investigation into the chapter topic and original reference materials. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, historic sketches and paintings, geological maps and sections, graphs, and diagrams - many of them produced by the author. The book ends on a scholarly note with a detailed bibliography and illustration credits as well as web-based URL information.
The six chapters catapult the reader from the partial abyss of geological time through Da Vinci's scientific and artistic contributions. An introduction sets the stage for the book by presenting the concept of geological time and plate tectonics. Written for the educated layman, the ~200 million year old evolution of Italy is depicted as a "patchwork quilt" of microplates stitched together by volcanism. The author's wonderful, though interpretive tectonic map of Italy is the first of its kind, drawing from many active researchers in the field.
The first chapter is devoted to the Etruscans and their use of the geologically active land that drew them. Pointing to the geological controls on cultural and societal evolution, the chapter focuses on the ability of the ancients to fully utilize the earth's resources - in particular, the softer tuffaceous volcanic products that drape the land. The rocks were readily carved and excavated to produce roads, canals, and building materials. Adaptations in usage were prompted by the decay of such excavated materials leading eventually to the use of harder limestone and marble deposits elsewhere and thus presumably prompted Italian expertise in marble use for building and art.
The importance of compass direction in the layout of villages and the significance placed on volcanism, thunder and lightning in sculpting religious belief indicates Etruscan "homage to the forces of nature." Indeed, the utilization of the natural world by the Etruscans has set the stage for megaconstruction projects, the likes of which we are still involved with today (aqueducts, tunnels, bridges, sewers, power plants, etc.). This chapter drives home the concept that Rocks Rule! That is, that human cultural, social and religious behavior has been dictated by the geology of the ground since pre-history.
The next chapter discusses the volcanic impact on Italian culture and as the inspiration for Virgil's Aeneid while he was in Naples. The evidence of volcanism is nearly everywhere, both in the form of older deposits and their caverns but also in the form of historically active volcanism of the Solfatara crater, the mythical domain of Vulcan. Here, the active harmonic seismicity and peristaltic uplift and subsidence of the ground are similar to the Yellowstone caldera in the United States. The construction of hexagonal galleries or channels through the flat-lying tuffs and importance of human excavation and development of basic engineering principles are discussed by the author. This chapter ends with her In-Depth exploration into the so-called "Pyroclastic Poets". Here she provides an interesting literary foray into the Italian influences of many writers including Goethe, the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft), Dickinson, Dickens, Dumas, and Twain.
The next chapter is my favorite as it deals with the science of mineralogy, a particular love of mine. Illustrated with fine life-like drawings and photographs, the chapter (Paradise Bejeweled) discusses the history of gems and gemology with importance placed on the lore of precious stones - both for adornment and their healing properties. Pearls, topaz, sapphire, diamond, ruby, emerald, and amber are featured, mostly in relation to the writing of Dante's Inferno but also address the work and influence of many other authors. The crystallographic basis for maximization of sparkle and brilliance in cut gems and asterism are treated. The chapter ends with an Appendix devoted to the importance of rocks, minerals, and metals in establishing the order of the universe that includes the solar system, angelic order, apostolic stones, tribal, biblical and magical beliefs. Minerals are also highlighted in an appendix to the next chapter where a section on the pigmentation of paint using minerals can be found.
The next two chapters are devoted to Leonardo Da Vinci's great work in defining the world around us. From understanding fossils and lithification of bounding strata, the erosional and depositional effects of running water, wave theory, and the uplift and subsidence of the land, Da Vinci's philosophies led him to question the effects of the great biblical flood and, thus, threatened the 6,000 year old age for the Earth, based on biblical accounts of Archbishop Ussher and those who followed him. This stance was a particularly unhealthy career move for many during his day! Nonetheless, Da Vinci's work laid the foundation for the sciences of paleontology and stratigraphy, two related disciplines that along with radioactive dating would eventually vindicate him and endorse his views of earth history. Leonardo's painting entitled "The Virgin of the Rocks" in the National Gallery of London is the topic of Chapter V. The author's detective work on this painting makes clear that the level of geological detail that Leonardo shows in his paintings is simply absent in the work hanging in London, questioning authenticity. Thus, it is an interesting detective story, the basis of sleuth Pizzorusso's geologic/artistic research. Through the use of annotated images and comparative examples, the case is well made for forgery, especially in light of the fact that his contemporary paintings showed typical "Da Vinci" scientific accuracy and attention to technical detail.
The last chapter provides closure and envelops the reader in the concept that Italy's caverns are the product of lengthy natural process coupled with human endeavor. More important is the carbonate and clay-rich drip waters (moonmilk) that were collected from the drippings of stalactites in antiquity that were thought to have protective and curative properties. Clearly, human development of art and sculpture was coincident with awareness of their geological surroundings and the importance placed on underground dwelling and ultimately utilization of terrestrial materials is the triumph of their culture.
Pizzorusso's unique aptitude was recognized as being revolutionary in terms of application of geological insight by the late Dr. John E. Sanders, a former colleague of mine at Columbia and Hofstra universities. I am a big fan of the book and the painstaking care that went into its production. My only complaint is that the book was not longer.