1th Semester - 1994
When Leonardo da Vinci decided to leave the Fiorentine court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, he wrote a letter offeting his services to Ludovico Sforza Il Moro in Milan. After rather confidently introducing himself as a constructor of arms, artillery, chariots, canals, forts, public and private buildings, he only added at the end of the letter that he was also a painter and sculptor. His biographers usually stress the eclectic genius of the supreme artist, the inventor of astonishing machines, the scholar who studies physics and anatomy. But they only rarely dedicate more than a few pages to Leonardo the geologist, one of the first to confute the centuries-old dominant theory that the fossils found in European and Asian mountains were relics from the Universal Deluge.
Giancarlo Ligabue describes Leonardo the geologist on page 112 in an article entitled Leonardo's fossils. Leonardo began collecting 'shells' -by this term he also meant fossils - in his youth, and initially those perfect figures of 'sea things' - molluscs, seaweed, coral - served as models for his drawing. Later in life, he came to read the books by the 'palaeontologists' of his age. They were works more inclined to flights of fancy than well-grounded reasoning and their conclusions based on abstract principle rather than direct observation. After mastering the subject himself, Leonardo was able to speak out against 'the stupidity and simplicity of those who claim that these animals were in such places, far from the sea, after having been carried by the Deluge' .
For any one wishing to go further into the subject of Leonardo's studies in geology, I would suggest reading Giancarlo Ligabue's Leonardo da Vinci e i fossili (Neri Pozza, 1977). The book deals with some of the far-fetched ancient theories about fossils and carefully reconstructs Leonardo's country 'walks'. Whenever he could escape from the intrigues of the Milanese court, Leonardo went on long excursions into the country: sifting material, taking notes and gathering fossils in the alpine foothills of Lombardy and in the Monferrato area. The great thing about being a journalist is that every day you realize how little you really know, but on the other hand you also learn something new. For example, I thought I knew the meaning of the word functionalism. But my idea had been picked up superficially, since we hear that architecture may be functional, or an iron is functional. But one erudite meaning of functionalism, it turns out, is a current in contemporary ethnology stressing the need to present culture as an organic whole, especially social life, and laying a great deal of store by the environment.
Did you know that? Well done! I didn't, and I indulged in this little diversion, because the founder of the functionalist school was Bronislaw Malinowski, a celebrated Polish ethnologist and anthropologist who spent a lot of time studying the archipelagos to the south east of New Guinea.
Vincenzo Paolillo - see the article on page 36 - went to visit Kiriwina, the main island of the Trobriand archipelago, sixty years after Malinowski, and he came back with a
fascinating account. Without giving anything away, I would like to comment on two fascinating aspects of life on the Trobriand Islands.
Firstly, Kiriwina might be considered a paradise for feminists since, although polygamy is practiced there, the social and family organization is strictly matrilineal. And there's another 'functional' Trobriand gem: with all the craze for exotic travel, one day you might end up on one of these cheery islands and if, on your arrival there, a good-looking native invites you to 'do kula' , don't rush off shocked or be embarrassed. Give it a go, and you'll find it very pleasurable.
To find out more about this and other Trobriand conundrums turn to the article by Vincenzo Paolillo, a Genoese lawyer, journalist, writer and a keen ethnologist.
If what I have read is true, then certain little palaeozoic animals appeared on the earth a billion years ago, and 500 million years ago were the unchallenged rulers of the seas. They then disappeared just as the earliest forerunners of dinosaurs were timidly stirring into being.
My thoughts often dwell on the many mysteries of nature, but I must confess I rarely get really worked up about them. But on learning that scientists cutting into some rocks with micro-percussors had reconstructed almost all there is to know about these palaeozoic arthropods called tribolites, I really was astounded: it was as if they were merrily swimming about in a glass of water in front of the scientists' eyes.
Just think, they have established that the trilobites have a complex structure able to correct spherical aberrations; they have described their body simply by examining tiny fossils, on average 50 millimetres long. These wonders are described on page 58 by the Trieste geologist Flavio Bacchia, head of the most important Italian palaeontology laboratory since 1981. A young European might dream of becoming a famous surgeon able to transplant brains (some of us could do with one!) or building a bridge from Italy to Sardinia or discovering a hominid that could read and write five languages a million years ago. Well, on certain Pacific islands you might run into a certain Arthur Neale, a graduate in Politics, but now a black-pearl farmer who describes his job to Guido Carlo Pigliasco on page 96: 'in this trade, to succeed you need to be in love with pearls or else already rich. Otherwise you're just plain crazy...' Guido Carlo Pigliasco, a Milanese lawyer specialized in the ethnology and culture of the Pacific at Hawaii University, has been fishing among the stories of these remarkable black-pearl farmers in the Tuamotu Islands.
We stay in the Pacific for another article in which we meet the volcano Bromo. Despite its rather soporific name it is actually a terrifying Fire God. On the slopes of the volcano we find a kind of Shangri-la, the land of the Tengger, descendants of people from the Hindu-Javan empire. Isolated from the rest of the country, the Tengger grow rice and live in fear of the next reawakening of the 'fire mountain'.
On page 78 there is a description of the Tengger and their world by Maurizio Leigheb, a journalist, writer and documentary-maker who in twenty-five years has thoroughly explored eight-five non-European countries and led thirty expeditions to distant lands, publishing travel books and articles, some in Ligabue Magazine.
Unfortunately there is not enough space to talk about the marine animal which has a heart as big as a car, a mouth like a drawing room, a stomach capable of holding two tons of food , and weighs as much as herd of twenty-five elephants. The mythical blue whale is described on page 128 by Lucia Sirnion who after taking a first in medicine in 1987, decided to turn to nature photography and has already made a name for herself in the field.
She's an old friend still young in years.