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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

The Fading Evidence of Reality: Leonardo and the End


Leonardo da Vinci does not like the ‘end’. As an artist, only on very few occasions did he finish his works, usually because forced to do so by his patrons; otherwise he was rather wont to leave them unaccomplished, as in the case of the Adoration, the Sforza horse, the Battle of Anghiari, amongst others. Rather than an inability to bring works to completion, this attitude reflects Leonardo’s modern position, both as a scientist and a philosopher, towards nature and physical reality, which he conceived as in motion and undergoing perpetual metamorphosis. The same approach can be traced even in his writings, the most private and personal part of his laboratory. The textuality of Leonardo’s manuscripts is a kind of ‘unended’ writing, without perceivable hierarchy, and virtually open to all research possibilities. Leonardo does not finish any treatise or any book (‘libro’): he leaves thousands and thousands of ‘open-ended’ texts. Moreover, there is no ‘end’ (border) between text and image, as one tends to merge into the other in a complementary fashion. Leonardo’s unended writing and painting correspond to his idea of physical reality as a universal ‘continuous quantity’. Objects may look as if they have borders, contours (in Italian, ‘fini’ and ‘termini’): in fact, the limit of a body is just the beginning of another body, and it is impossible to define exactly the precise juncture when one entity passes into another. So, the ‘end’, the ‘limit’, does not exist: it is ‘nothing’ – as are the point, the line and the surface, that is, the very principles of geometry and painting. Leonardo’s paradoxical conclusion is that painting (and at the same time our knowledge of reality, and reality itself) simply proves to be based on ‘nothing’.

Insights Paper

Vol 10 Article 10