What Leonardo da Vinci Knew About Water

The great dancer/choreographer, Twyla Tharp, says*, “Here’s Leonardo da Vinci’s description of waves upon the water,  from his notebooks:”


Observe the motion of the surface of the water, how it resembles that of hair, which has two movements — one depends on the weight of the hair, the other on the direction of the curls; thus the water forms whirling eddies, one part following the impetus of the chief current, and the other following the incidental motions and return flow.

Then he lists the various aspects of rivers and currents he intended to study:

  • Of the different rates of speed of currents from the surface of the water to the bottom.
  • Of the different cross slants between the surface and the bottom.
  • Of the different currents on the surface of the waters.
  • Of the different currents on the bed of the rivers.
  • Of the different depths of the rivers.
  • Of the different shapes of the hills covered by the waters.
  • Of the different shapes of the hills uncovered by the waters.
  • Where the water is swift at the bottom and not above.
  • Where the water is slow at the bottom and swift above.
  • Where it is slow below and above and swift in the middle.
  • Where the water in the rivers stretches itself out and where it contracts.
  • Where it bends and where it straightens itself.
  • Where it penetrates evenly in the expanses of rivers and where unevenly.
  • Where it is low in the middle and high at the sides.
  • Where it is high in the middle and low at the sides.
  • Where the current goes straight in the middle of the stream.
  • Where the current winds, throwing itself on different sides.
  • Of the different slants in the descents of the water.

Ms. Tharp goes on to say,

By the time Leonardo had considered all of these aspects, he understood rivers and was ready to make any creative use of their power and potential that might occur to him, whatever the context. Asking the question assigned him the task of finding the answer.

So here are the lessons I take away from him, if any: don’t do anything by halves. And don’t think anything is too small for your complete and absolute attention!

MinoanSpiralP.S. Note how his second drawing is similar to the Minoan wave pottery pattern (above) I started this journal with. I used it because it’s in the fabric of the Japanese “apron” Myotai wears when she does a Dharma talk in her robes. It’s something people everywhere seem to have observed and loved!

*The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2003, pp. 172, 174. (Coincidentally, I purchased this book from Zen Mountain Monastery).

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