The picturesque Botany of Leonardo da Vinci

With this article I intend to make a sincere tribute to the author of Botánica Pintoresca, the catalan naturalist Pius Font i Quer (1888-1964). And at the same time I wish to expose some data that reaffirm my theory according which Leonardo was really in Catalonia (and in Montserrat) in two occasions: in 1481 and in 1504. The presence at the Virgin of the rocks in London of at least one endemic plant in Catalonia (known as "orella d'ós") suggests that.

Leonardo was a dilettante of the Botany. We have numerous studies of plants, perhaps in order to draw them later in his paintings. In addition, the meticulous design of the flora, in the work of Leonardo, is very defining of his style.


Leonardo, studies of plants (to 1481-1483)

The Virgin of the rocks of Paris (from around 1483) is literally full of flowers. Charles Nicholl, in his famous biography of Leonardo, makes a brief recount of some of them:


Virgin of the rocks of Paris (1483)

"A series of flowers, beautifully represented and all of them possessing symbolic and religious attributes, come to emphasise the interaction between the natural environment and the pious image. To the right of the head of the Virgin is the Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), whose vulgar name, in English (columbine), suggests "colomba", the dove of the Holy Spirit, while in his right hand we see a kind of gallium, traditionally associated with the stall [of Child Christ]. Below the feet of the Child Christ there are several cyclamen, whose heart-shaped leaves make this plant a symbol of love and devotion, and along with his knee, a primrose plant, emblem of virtue... Another familiar plant is under kneeling Saint John's child; is the acanthus (Acanthus mollis), that traditionally is planted on the graves and is considered a symbol of the resurrection, due to the fast growth of their leaves in spring, of a green bright. In the cornices of the rock we see also the Hypericum, whose points of red color on their yellow petals symbolize the blood of martyrdom of John the Baptist."

Is worthy of praise the exhaustive symbolic analysis that makes the cited author on the flora represented in the picture. Therefore it is doubly shocking that he forgets the most important plant, if possible, of the composition. In his biography points out -rightly- that the meeting of child Saint John with Jesus, depicted in the picture, would have been inspired by -not one, but two- passages from the Protoevangelium of James, as I explain in my book El viaje secreto de Leonardo da Vinci. However, Nicholls forgets to mention the fact that in this story the palm tree has a very special role. Here is an excerpt from this apocryphal gospel:

"Then the child Jesus, that peacefully reposed in the lap of his mother, said to the palm tree: 'duck you, tree, and with your fruits give some snack to my mother'. And with these words the palm leaned its plume towards the [feet] of Mary, in order she can thus collect all the fruit they needed to eat... The next day, they abandoned the place. But, at the time of departure, Jesus turned to the palm and said: 'This privilege I grant you, palm tree: one of your branches will be transported by the hand of my angels to be planted in the Paradise of my Father... Do you not know that this palm tree I made move to Paradise is there reserved for all the saints of Eden?'"


On the left, detail of the palm of the Virgin of the rocks in Paris. To his right, a palm in Barcelona

Leonardo, rather than representing the typical Canaanite Palm (Phoenix species), paints another variety that is more suited to the West of the Mediterranean, and is very common in the catalan coast, and especially in the South of Spain (we can find it from this country to the South of Italy). It is the fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), called "margalló" in Catalonia. As far as Italy is concerned, his most appreciated fruit, the bedellium, was regularly sold in the markets of Rome. Andrés de Laguna, in his Materia Médica (book I, chapter 65), said of it:

"Is ordinarily, the 'palmito' [Chamaerops humilis], little greater than an elbow. Grows under earth; is all covered of leaves similar to the ones of the palm, and because of that in Castile was given to it this name. Is called margallón in Catalonia and Valencia, and cephaglion in Naples... Discovered the human lust this fruit, as others many, and gave it so much reputation and credit, that is very estimated, and is brought ordinarily to the markets of Rome. Because was not fair that the queen of the delights and the house of all the gifts of the world was lacked of a candy so pleasant to Madona Venus... Only can be eaten a tender part that, with the form of a heart, is in the bowels of this plant; to get to it is necessary to remove a  thousand diapers, with great expenditure of time".

In my book El viaje secreto de Leonardo da VinciI I speculate with the possibility that Leonardo had represented such plant in the Virgin of the rocks, perhaps for symbolic reasons (alluding to the referred passage of the Protoevangelium of James). But it is also likely that Leonardo wish to give a hint of the place in which the scene of the picture is located. This palm (the Spanish "palmito" and the Catalan "margalló") is very abundant on the coast of Barcelona, not far from Montserrat. And are precisely the peaks of Montserrat (Cavall Bernat, the three peaks representative of this mountain, etc.) what seems to represent in this painting.

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Comparison of the three peaks of Montserrat (with the coat of arms of this monastery) and of the Cavall Bernat (in the Virgin of the rocks and in the Saint Jerome)

It is true that in the Italian coast, especially more nearer of Naples than of Florence, also grows this palm tree, native of the Western Mediterranean. But is in Barcelona (specially in the nearby massif of the Garraf, declared "natural park" to protect its thabitat) where abounds greatly; certainly more than in the humid and cold Lombardy, where Leonardo was residing at the time of painting the Virgin of the rocks of Paris.

Leonardo made a copy of the Virgin of the rocks, today in London. Experts agree that, although it was started in the Decade of the 1490 (between 1495 and 1499), was finished towards 1506 (Frank Zöllner, Leonardo da Vinci, the Complete Paintings); i.e., shortly after La Gioconda. Remember that in the second half of the year 1504 -according to my theory- Leonardo would have visited Montserrat for the second time. Subsequently would have painted the Gioconda and, as we can see, would have given the last strokes to the Virgin of the rocks of the National Gallery.


The Virgin of the rocks of London (completed in 1506)

Is it then when would have painted the following clumps of flowers?


Detail of flowers in the Virgin of the rocks of London (Ramonda myconi and Narcissus)

It was again David Vilasís, amateur naturalist (,, who has made me notice that under the knees of St. John appear two clumps of flowers very characteristic of Montserrat. Up to the point that one of them is an endemism of this area. Eventually I had the occasion of discussing this idea with a botanical expert.

Just below his knee we can see what looks like a clump of "orella d'ós" ("bear's ear"; that's its name in Catalan), Ramonda myconi as scientific name. See the following comparison:


Comparison of Ramonda myconi

The "orella d'ós" forms a basal rosette of leaves superficially very rough (ovate or rhombic), with lilac flowers (although, as we can see, the tone varies from white to almost pure blue). The pistil stands prominent, forming a capsular fruit, longer than the calyx, of bicarpelar type (see photo detail). It is a perennial grass, although has a "revivalist" mechanism that allows it to sprout again in spring after completely withering in winter. It is endemic of the Pyrenees and of the pre-Pyrenees, and especially abundant in the massif of Montserrat. Grows in the cracks of the shaded calcareous rocks, especially in the mountain. It blooms between May and July. It is a relict plant of the tertiary age.

Pius Font i Quer says of this plant in his famous work Plantas Medicinales, el Dioscórides renovado:

"It is a perennial plant that dries during the summer and is recovered with the vernal or autumnal rains... It grows in shady calcareous rocks of the Catalan and Aragonese Pyrenees, from the Valley of the Muga, in Pont de Molins, until Santa Cruz de Serós; the superior altitudinal limit, by what is known to us, corresponds to the Turbón mountain... The southern limit of this area passes by Montserrat, where abounds in the ravines of the Northern shed, from little more than 100 m. in Collbató, until near the summits of Saint Jerome, to 1,200 meters".

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Illustration of Pius Font i Quer (Plantas medicinales, el Dioscórides renovado)

A characteristic of this plant is its fruit. Note the following comparison:

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Comparison of the fruit of Ramonda myconi

This plant has two relatives in Europe, also of the Gesneriaceae family: They are Ramonda serbica and Ramonda nathaliae, both specific to the Balkans (Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania). In short, Ramonda Myconi (of its discoverers, L. F. Ramond and Francesc Micó) is, in Western Europe, an "endemic" plant of Catalonia; and specifically of Montserrat. Leonardo would have known it, presumably, on his second trip (1504), and would have added it in this version of the Virgin of the rocks (finished between 1506 and 1508), today in London. Perhaps, as happens in the version of Paris, because of its symbolic meaning (alludes to the "Renaissance"), or, as I think, to give an indication of the place that served of inspiration to him: the mountain of Montserrat.

Note: David Vilasís has told to me that also in the first version of the painting, of 1483, we can find a cluster of Ramonda myconi, what means that he had known this plant in his first stay in Montserrat (Ramonda myconi, the most representative plant of Montserrat).

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Illustration of Pius Font i Quer (Plantas medicinales, el Dioscórides renovado)

But as said above, Ramonda myconi is not the only plant of the catalan flora that we find in the Virgin of the rocks in London. We see also a nice exemple of Narcissus, that, according to David Vilasís, might be Narcissus tazetta.


Comparison of Narcissus. Note that Leonardo is not exact depicting the number of petals: some plants have six, and others have five

In short, from my point of view Leonardo, very interested in the Botany and in the natural sciences in general (what explains the detail with which he draws the landscape of Montserrat, with its rocks, monoliths and caves), would have placed a plant representative of Catalonia in the two versions of the Virgin of the rocks: a "margalló" in the painting of Paris , and an "orella d'ós" in the copy of London.

Read also: Ramonda myconi, the most representative plant in Montserrat.

But there is another aspect that strikes me mightily. With his choice of Ramonda myconi, plant that "revives", possibly intended to refer to a concept that he repeated in several of his paintings and drawings: the "regrowth". This it found in the Saint John-Bacchus, in the so-called Allegory of the navigation, and in the Magdalena Leggente de Barcelona.

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The “regrowth” in three works of Leonardo (Saint John-Bacchus, Allegory of the Navigation, and Magdalena Leggente)

What intends to express the idea of "regrowth"? Perhaps the "rebirth" of a religious faith, Catharism, prophesed by him (according to my theory), that was extirpated from Italy, France and Catalonia in the first half of the 13th century. There is a famous phrase, among the Cathars, that affirms this idea: "Seven hundred years on the laurel will revive again". The laurel alludes here to the Cathar doctrine; and the seven hundred years to the period necessary -according to this prophecy- so the Catharism revives again in Europe.

Leonardo expresses this hope in one of his notebooks (S.K.M. II), in which appears the drawing of a hawk, with a snake (or worm) at its peak, and a regrowth: “Abbero tagliato che rimette / 30 x 40 = 1200 / ancora spero / falcon / tempo” (a cut tree that resprouts / 1,200 / I still have hope / Falcon / time). From my point of view the presence here of the number 1200 is an indisputable proof of his hope in the "sprouting" of the heretical Cathar faith. This, with the help of the "Falcon" (the Emperor), that would humiliate the absolute power of Rome and the Frenchmen Capet (the "Impura" and the "Giant", in terms of Dante in the Divine Comedy), represented in the form of a snake or worm at the peak of the Falcon.


Allegory of the "resprout" of Leonardo in his notebooks

Finally, I will make mention of another famous plant, present in the Annunciation, picture painted around 1475, but later repinted (as demonstrated with x-ray analysis). We see what seems a conifer, perhaps an araucaria, or an example of Ars Topiary (work on trees) in an common exemplary of fir tree.


Comparison of the "araucaria” of the Annunciation, with a drawing of this tree, and with an exemple of Ars Topiaria in a fir tree

This thesis generated no small controversy -and humorous comments- when was explained it in my book El viaje secreto de Leonardo da Vinci. But seeing the intriguing similarity between the wing of the angel and the coast of America explored by Americo Vespucio, great friend of Leonardo, and reflected in the map of Cantino of 1502, it is not unlikely that Leonardo evoked it in the picture, as symbol of the discovery of the new world (concept coined by Vespucio). Not in vain, in the Cantino map we see some trees, in the territory of the current Brazil, with whorled foliage (in parallel layers, while the branches are not). And we must remember that not far from the Atlantic coast of the Brazil we find forests of araucaria (Araucaria brasiliensis, or Araucaria angustifolia).


Comparison of the wing of the angel and the New World according to the map of Cantino (1502)

Despite the criticism, I began to study the relationship of Leonardo with the so-called "age of the discovery". Fruit of this effort, I made an important finding, digging up the nearly forgotten world map of Leonardo, in which the name "America" appears, and in which this 'new continent' is detached from Asia. Its features make it debtor of the maps of Cantino and Caverio, both from the early 16th century, as well as to the travel of Americo Vespucio. See in this regard my book Los mensajes ocultos de Leonardo da Vinci.

As said my friend Manel Capdevila, on the supposed “araucaria” of the Annuntiation: "Si non é vero, é ben trovato".

Discussion about some plants of The Virgin of the rocks of London (in Spanish)


            Como he señalado más arriba, el detalle de la Ramonda myconi me fue revelado por David Vilasís, naturalista y fotógrafo. En un buen principio, no le di mayor importancia, hasta que un botánico experto lo refrendó, tras dedicar unas cuantas horas a comparar los rasgos más significativos de la planta que –supuestamente- se le asemeja en el cuadro con los catálogos al uso en Europa. Me refiero en concreto a la forma lobulada de las hojas (y su disposición), a las características de la flor, y a la singular apariencia del pistilo (o fruto).

            Es un hecho notable que el fruto –si es que lo es realmente- es representado al mismo tiempo que los pétalos (algo sencillamente imposible). Leonardo era un observador penetrante, y se le conocen numerosos dibujos –realistas- de diversas especies vegetales. La paradoja antes mencionada puede tener explicación si consideramos que el pintor florentino pretendía, con esta planta, expresar un mensaje o darle una especial relevancia. Leonardo era aficionado a realizar “collages” de piezas separadas. Por ejemplo, en su paisaje del Arno, del año 1472, representa en un mismo marco accidentes geográficos muy alejados; y en la Gioconda, si es que su paisaje es una panorámica desde el entorno de Martorell –como yo creo-, traslada el puente de Monistrol de Montserrat (a 20 km. de distancia) al lugar donde se sitúa el llamado Puente del Diablo, en Martorell.

            Es como si Leonardo hubiese pretendido dar una imagen “compuesta” (compleja) de la evolución de la flor, del mismo modo que actuaban los cubistas en la primera mitad del siglo XX (plasmando un objeto desde diversas perspectivas). Ello no deja de ser pura especulación; pero de Leonardo –una mente especialmente fecunda en paradojas- se puede esperar cualquier cosa.

            Con el fin de recabar más opiniones sobre las plantas representadas por Leonardo en La Virgen de las Rocas de Londres, me he puesto en contacto con tres botánicos de prestigio. Para preservar su privacidad he omitido sus respectivos nombres. Sólo me permito decir que los tres forman parte del mundo académico.

            Mi pregunta es la siguiente: ¿Opina usted que, con las ilustraciones que le he enviado (las mejores que he podido conseguir) se puede determinar que la flor que aparece en el cuadro de Leonardo es una Ramonda myconi?

            La respuesta de A es la que sigue: “Hola José Luis. A partir del detalle del cuadro que adjuntas lo que puedo decirte es que realmente ha dibujado una especie de Narcissus. Podría ser el dubius, o también el N. papyraceus; yo no me atrevería a decir la especie. En referencia a la otra planta, creo que no representa Ramonda myconi, y conozco bien la especie. No sé qué puede representar, pero el conjunto de las hojas me recuerda una Saxifraga rotundifolia”.

            La respuesta de B es ésta: “Vistas las imágenes yo no pondría la mano en el fuego. Podría serlo [la Ramonda myconi] pero también podría no serlo. Lamento no poder ser más preciso”.

            La respuesta de C es la más compleja: “Estimado José Luis. Después de remirar las imágenes que me envías, y unas cuantas más conseguidas por Internet, no puedo dar una respuesta concluyente (y tampoco creo que la esperases), pero sí unos cuantos comentarios que, espero, te sean de utilidad:

-         El Narcissus es evidentemente un Narcissus, pero no necesariamente el Narcissus dubius del Bages [una comarca vecina a Montserrat]. Hay muchas especies de Narcissus silvestres y ornamentales semejantes a N. dubius. Por poner un ejemplo, N. tazetta, presente en gran parte de Italia.

-         Todavía a propósito del Narcissus, la disposición de las hojas no parece muy natural, y por lo que se refiere a la forma, me parecen muy amplias; especialmente, en relación a las especies de aquí. ¿Puede ser que el pintor no fuera fiel al modelo ‘natural’? ¿O es que se inspiró en un ramo de narcisos cultivados?

-         La ‘orella d’ós’ (Ramonda myconi), sin descartar que lo pueda ser, ofrece más dudas. En este caso los pétalos y la cápsula difícilmente se encontrarían al mismo tiempo en la naturaleza, y la disposición no es muy natural. Lo mismo puedo decir de las hojas, de las que sólo el contorno lobulado recuerda la ‘orella d’ós’.

-         Eso sí, no conozco, que yo recuerde, una planta de las características de la presunta ‘orella d’ós’ de la pintura (cosa que no significa que no exista). He consultado imágenes de la Ramonda y otras plantas de la misma familia de Grecia y los Balcanes y tampoco se ajustan.

-         Por lo que se refiere a las otras plantas del cuadro, en particular las que tienen flores, situadas a la derecha del Narcissus, tampoco las sabría reconocer.

-         Todo en conjunto hace pensar que el autor del cuadro no fue especialmente detallista a la hora de plasmar fielmente las formas de las plantas (¡es evidente que no era un ilustrador científico!). La única que se puede identificar sin demasiadas dudas es el Narcissus (no a nivel de especie). El resto, quién sabe hasta qué punto se ajustan a modelos reales, y hasta qué punto son fruto de la inspiración del pintor...

            En resumen, como he indicado al principio, no se puede ser muy concluyente con estos materiales, y quizás para dar por buena la presencia de Leonardo -o de quien fuera el autor del cudro- en Montserrat haya que explorar otras vías. Bien cordialmente...”

            Ésta es la respuesta de la comunidad científica por lo que se refiere a las flores del cuadro.