Honoring Nature in the Spirit of Leonardo, the Unbeknownst Animist

by Mark Miles

I’ve always known the earth is alive. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been prone to explore any patch of forest or meadow I can find, searching for any and every indication of life. Frequently as a child I would go outside for hours on end merely to look for insects — with which I was and still am immensely fascinated — and would occasionally collect them for my improvised terrarium. I’ve often collected leaves in fall to identify them by my field guide, and I’ve learned names for clouds which most people ignore altogether. I’ve always been intent on finding the deeper meaning, the ultimate purpose, the overarching spirit behind nature in all its forms. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been an unbeknownst animist.

It turns out there are many societies — most of which are being encroached by industrialization and impoverished by capitalism — which are still animistic. Aborigines in Australia, Bushmen in the Kalahari, Inuit in Alaska, and Cherokee in my own state are merely a few of the ethnic groups who were, and still to some degree are, animistic in their religious practices. Based on the recognition of life, spirit, and intelligence in all beings, animism is essentially the root to every branch of human religion. It’s the way our most distant ancestors viewed and interacted with the world; and it’s still relevant to this day in the way it provides a familial relationship to all creation, motivating the preservation of the earth for future generations. While the name itself is a construct of European anthropologists working in an academic setting that’s been largely antagonistic or indifferent to anything outside the domain of scientific materialism, the word nonetheless conveys a sense of the mystery at the heart of any meaningful religious practice, in which the divine is recognized to be immanent within all creation, waiting only for our willingness to listen closely to the world with all our senses.

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It turns out Leonardo da Vinci was also something of an unbeknownst animist. Throughout his life he had a reputation for purchasing birds in the market not to slaughter them but to release them. He was perennially mesmerized by the power and beauty of water, which he captured in many of his works of art. In his writings, he frequently imbued natural elements with human qualities in what would today be considered the most blatant anthropomorphism. And while he never would have applied the title of animist to himself — if only because the title didn’t exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he lived — he nonetheless worked throughout his life to find the underlying holistic principle that united his pursuits in art, engineering, anatomy, design, and optics. Most people are unaware that his interests were so varied, and they’re similarly unaware that one of the reasons for this diversity of interests was the basic tenet of his religious and scientific outlook, expressed by this quote from what’s now known as his Codex Leicester:

“We might say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and its flesh is the soil, its bones [are] the arrangement and connection of rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage [is] the tufa, and its blood [is] the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies around the earth’s heart is the ocean, and its breathing… is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the earth’s soul is in the fires.”

Leonardo was also homosexual, which put him at variance with the ideology of the Catholic Church and resulted in the most traumatizing event of his early life, the Salterelli affair. This took place in 1476 when he was accused by one Jacopo Salterelli of committing sodomy along with three other men. Despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Florence at the time — Florence was a vibrant artistic center that was effectively the San Francisco of its day — the full legal penalty for homosexual behavior at this time in Catholic Europe was death by burning at the stake. While the charges were most likely fabricated for political reasons and were eventually dismissed, the period of two months during which the threat of burning at the stake hung over Leonardo’s head must have been enough to awaken him to the brutality of life in the city amongst powerbrokers and their pawns.

Despite living much of his life in the city, Leonardo was nonetheless a country boy at heart, raised by his Uncle Francesco and his grandparents in the sleepy Italian village of Anchiano. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, had conceived Leonardo out of wedlock in 1452 and consequently regarded his firstborn in the manner of unwanted luggage. Uncle Francesco however regarded the young boy with love and affection, showing Leonardo the hidden secrets of life in the Italian countryside. It was indeed Uncle Francesco who instilled a love for the land in his precocious nephew and gave Leonardo the first inkling that he might indeed be good for something after all.

Despite his Uncle Francesco’s efforts, however, Leonardo was largely estranged from his family in later life. He took to the road after his apprenticeship in Florence came to a close and forged a new life for himself with a small band of travelling companions who formed the nucleus of his improvised family. There was Luca Pacioli, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day; Salai, the “little demon” who took up residence with Leonardo after the latter recognized the surpassing beauty of the young man; and Francesco Melzi, a young aristocrat with artistic talent who idolized the genius of Leonardo and may have been his lover in later life. It was in fact to Francesco Melzi that Leonardo bequeathed the greatest portion of all his worldly goods when he died in 1519.

Long before his death, however, Leonardo distinguished himself as the foremost polymath of his generation. Most people know that Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he also painted numerous other works of art that were revolutionary in their time and hold up to scrutiny to this day. He was an engineer of weaponry for military campaigns in the service of Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. He created schematics for flying machines, scuba gear, a primitive tank, musical instruments, and party favors. He was a skilled musician who was sent by Lorenzo de Medici in the capacity of musical ambassador, so notable were his skills. He was an anatomist of the first degree, a man who risked charges of heresy to better understand the physical form of his own species and who advanced medical knowledge incalculably because of it. He was an endless explorer of the potential for visual perception, demonstrating principles of light that foreshadowed the work of physicists centuries later. He was in short the original Renaissance Man.

For all these reasons, I admire and empathize with Leonardo. In terms of religious outlook, sexual identity, cultural affiliation, familial dislocation, and polymathic propensity, I find a man after my own heart, a man who was successful in ways most people can’t even imagine yet who wanted nothing more than to explore the intricacies of nature in peace and quiet. I take inspiration from the life he led and the passion that drove him to greatness despite so much hardship. And I dedicate the following piece, depicting creatures of the water — the element which Leonardo revered throughout his life in his artwork and designs — to one of the few people in history whom I’ve ever adopted as my personal patron saint. This is for you, Leonardo.


Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA, USA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York City, NY, USA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York City, NY, USA: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.