La botanica di Leonardo

A Unique Exhibition in Florence

For scholars and admirers of Leonardo da Vinci, 2019 has been a special year. It marks the 500-year anniversary of his death. Consequently, there have been several major Leonardo exhibitions in Europe: in Florence, Milan, Paris, London, and other places. I have had the great honor to act as scientific curator of a unique exhibition about Leonardo’s botany in Florence (together with Stefano Mancuso, professor of plant neurobiology at the University of Florence), which opened on September 13 and will run until December 15 ( The exhibition is promoted by the Municipality of Florence and is sponsored by Aboca, a company producing plant-based health products (and who are also my Italian publishers).

Entrance to the exhibition in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella

The exhibition is unique in several ways. There has never been an exhibition on Leonardo’s botany, perhaps the least known of the many branches of science in which he made pioneering discoveries. Moreover, there has never been an exhibition interpreting the scientific ideas of the genius of Vinci from the perspective of 21st-century science. As I remarked at the opening ceremony:

“In this exhibition, we use Leonardo’s botany to illustrate the basic characteristics of his scientific thought and of his unique synthesis of art and science. The image that emerges is one of Leonardo da Vinci as a systemic thinker and ecologist — a scientist and artist with a deep respect for all forms of life, whose legacy is very relevant to our time. The exhibition is not so much one of works of art but rather a presentation of ideas. In other words, we are taking you on an intellectual journey.”

The exhibition hall

The main exhibition hall is the dormitory of the medieval monastery of Santa Maria Novella, a long hall full of columns, round arches, and cross vaults, which make you feel like being in a petrified forest. In this awe-inspiring space the designers of the exhibition have put real plants, original folios from Leonardo’s codices, projections of his paintings, drawings and writings on silk screens, as well as interactive installations, to help us explain and illustrate Leonardo’s pioneering botanical concepts.

Opening ceremony in the cloister

The exhibition has had a huge echo in the Italian and Spanish press with wholly positive comments. Here are a few samples.

“[The exhibition on] Leonardo’s botany shows, through writings, drawings and original sheets, real plants, and a series of installations, the studies of the genius of Vinci of the world of plants. And above all it reveals how topical they are in the contemporary emergency of a sick planet, polluted by humans.” (La Repubblica, Rome)

“A cultural and interactive experience to discover the complex philosophy of Leonardo and of that systemic thinking that illuminates and distinguishes him. An organic theory where art, nature, science, and above all beauty, come together.” (Corriere della Sera, Milano)

“Florence culminates the commemoration of the 500 years of the death of Leonardo da Vinci in style, making known a new interpretation of the vast work of the author of the Gioconda that goes beyond his artistic side and brings him closer than ever to the world of science. This innovative view goes beyond his well-known studies and experiments that cover a broad spectrum of disciplines such as civil engineering, hydrodynamics, or anatomy, to name just three. After a decade of research, the Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra has reached a conclusion: the Tuscan genius was a pioneer of systemic thinking, … which is especially inspiring today after modern science lost this conception in the 1950s and 1960s to regain it in the most recent studies.” (La Vanguardia, Barcelona)