Animals proliferate in Leonardo’s visual art. In his sketches, we see horses run, trot, rear up on their back legs, and fall. Birds, bats, and insects extend their wings. Cats stretch, wrestle, and lounge. Lions roar. Bears, dogs, crabs, and rhinoceroses quietly stand or walk. Beetles and ants bend their appendages.
Leonardo’s animals are anything but nature morte—they are alive with motion and, seemingly, emotion. Within his paintings, one can see, for example, a gentle, communicative lion in the unfinished Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (ca. 1480); an affectionate ermine in Lady with an Ermine (1489–90); an erotic swan in the 1503–07 sketches for a never-produced painting, Leda and the Swan; and a lamb being hugged by the child Jesus in The Virgin and the Child with Saint Anne (1510). And, of course, horses—ceremonial and military (The Adoration of the Magi, 1481; and the 1504–05 preparatory studies for The Battle of Anghiari).
All these animals are present in his writing, too, joined by an ark-load more: domesticated, wild, local, exotic, mythical (dragons!), and imaginary (sea-monsters!). Leonardo’s depictions of animals emerge not only as forces that teach us about ourselves and challenge our sense of human primacy, but as powerful, creative forces on their own terms.
Leonardo chipped away at the walls between “us” and “them” by placing all life on a level field, all things as micro-reflections of a macro-whole. And—as he envisioned in his terrifying visual and verbal depictions of catastrophic deluges and global disasters—we’re all in this together.