Apocalypse then

I was reading the art critic Robert Hughes’s memoir Things I Didn’t Know, when I came across this passage that seemed – to me at least – of sf relevance. He’s talking about the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci:

But if water created the world, if water shaped and nourished it, water would also destroy it. Here one came to the aspect of Leonardo that is most frightening and perhaps least sympathetic of all. His imagination was truly apocalyptic….the truly extreme examples of it are in his drawings: those tiny, detailed studies of death and disaster known as the “Deluge” drawings….

It is as though Leonardo had been granted, not once but obsessively, a vision of tsunamis, though no such seismic horrors had taken place in the Mediterranean of his time. He could and did put the end of the world on sheets smaller than a quarto page, through a process of absolutely relentless abstraction….The despair Leonardo felt on contemplating man’s power of ecological destruction and reciprocal murder strikes a peculiarly modern note, which would have been even less comprehensible five hundred years ago than it was until recently. Here he is on the ghastly spectacle:

These shall set no limits on their malice….There shall be nothing remaining on the earth or in the earth or under the waters that shall not be pursued and molested or destroyed, and that which is in one country taken away to another; and their own bodies shall be made the tomb and conduit of all the living bodies which they have slain. O Earth! – what restrains you from opening and hurling them headlong into the deep fissures of thy huge abysses and caverns, and no longer to display to the sight of heaven so savage and ruthless a monster?

Looking at more of the drawings, you see that what Leonardo does more than anything is scale – how tiny the human figures are, if they’re visible at all. A recent apocalypse-by-water novel like Stephen Baxter’s Flood tries to get the scale it needs by the old disaster-movie technique of having lots of relatively transparent viewpoint characters, each of whom has a different perspective on what’s going on. But the bigger the picture you’re trying to show, the more you need to use “absolutely relentless abstraction” – Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker being the canonical example. I suppose the comparison is with this trailer for a modern disaster movie, 2012. (I can’t get videos to embed in posts at the moment, so you’ll need to click through to see it.)  It’s really striking how little of the time is taken up with shots of characters as opposed to shots of spectacle. In this as in lots of things, Leonardo was centuries early.

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