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A deluge c.1517-18

RCIN 912377

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The drawing is one of a series of eleven drawings by Leonardo of a mighty deluge, probably executed during his last years in France, and among the most enigmatic and visionary works of the entire Renaissance. Modest in size and densely worked in black chalk, they cannot be arranged as a single coherent sequence, but each shows a landscape overwhelmed by a vast tempest. 

In some of the drawings a city in a plain is seen as from a great distance, with a fortress on a rugged hilltop. Here their destruction is almost complete: the mountains to left and right have fragmented and are collapsing, even exploding outwards into the flooded landscape, sending waves and torrents towards the viewer, while coils of wind and rain issue from the stormclouds above; only a tree in the right foreground remains standing, though its branches are being blasted by the wind, and it will soon succumb to the deluge. In what Leonardo might have intended as the last drawings of the sequence, nothing solid remains, and the whole landscape has been consumed by wind and water. 

Leonardo was much taken with describing scenes of cataclysm in his later years. Ostensibly, these passages were intended for his treatise on painting, to guide fellow artists in the depiction of such scenes, but the relish with which Leonardo describes them reveals a deep fascination with destruction. The imagery of the Deluge drawings is closely related to these remarkable passages: 

The air was darkened by the heavy rain whose oblique descent, driven by the rush of the winds, flew in drifts through the air… But it was tinged with the colour of the fire kindled by the thunderbolts by which the clouds were rent and shattered, and whose flashes revealed the broad waters of the inundated valleys… 

Let there be represented the summit of a rugged mountain with valleys surrounding its base, and on its sides let the surface of the soil be seen to slide, together with the small roots of the bushes, denuding great portions of the surrounding rocks. Descending in devastation from these precipices in its boisterous course, let it dash along and lay bare the twisted and gnarled roots of large trees, overthrowing their old roots upwards; and let the mountains, as they are scoured bare, reveal the deep fissures made in them by ancient earthquakes… And into the depth of some valley may have fallen the fragments of a mountain, forming a shore to the swollen waters of its river, which, having already burst its banks, will rush on in monstrous waves, and the greatest will strike and destroy the walls of the towns and farms in the valley. The ruins of the high buildings in these towns will throw up a great dust, rising up like smoke or wreathed clouds against the falling rain… 

The remains of framing lines are visible along the edges of some of the Deluge drawings, and while it is therefore likely that they were intended as independent works of art, they may simply have been drawn for Leonardo’s own satisfaction. In his last years in France, an adornment to the court with a secure living and an appreciative patron, Leonardo could indulge his fantasies without the need to produce something saleable or presentable.