Detail from The Siege of Breda by Jacques Callot. Photograph: The British Library

Red arteries spread like roots over the paper – is this an anatomical sketch? A vision of vessels branching from the heart? Yet the page from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Arundel notebook in the Treasures gallery of the British Library is not – or not directly – a study of human anatomy. It is a map: a geographical plan, a piece of the world reduced to a flat depiction. It shows the riverbed of the Arno near Florence and was made in about 1504 for a practical purpose. Florence, at war with its neighbour Pisa, had hatched a plan to divert the Arno and so deprive the enemy city of its lifeblood. Leonardo was surveying the river to work out how it could be turned from its course.

And yet, if it is practical in purpose, and scrupulous in method – Leonardo has walked the riverbed, surveyed it – this little sketch map is cosmic in scope. It is a vision of the world, touched into life in a few strokes of red chalk. It expresses, magically, an entire philosophy. For it is no coincidence, still less a poetic flourish, that all the bloody strands of the riverbed make you think of anatomy. Leonardo and his contemporaries conceived the earth as a living creature, a macrocosmic mirror of our own inner life. As he put it:

Man has been called by the ancients a little world, and certainly the name is well given, for if a man is made of earth, water, air and fire, so is this body of the earth; if man has in him a lake of blood, where the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its ocean which similarly rises and falls . . .

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Jonathan Jones
Guardian

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