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The Mystery of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci on Painting: A Lost Book (Libro A)

reassembled, translated, and edited by Carlo Pedretti, with a Foreword by Sir Kenneth Clark
California, 280 pp., $12.00

Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood

by Sigmund Freud, translated by Alan Tyson
Norton, 112 pp., $3.50

Among the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci at the British Museum there is a famous and pathetic note written by the master in his fifty-sixth year:

Begun in Florence in the house of Piero de Braccio Martelli on March 22nd, 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later according to their proper place under the subjects of which they will treat. And I believe that before I shall be through with this, I shall have to repeat one and the same thing several times. Hence, reader, do not curse me, for the subjects are many and memory cannot hold them and say “I do not want to write this, since I wrote it before.” And if I did not want to fall into this error it would be necessary for me always to reread all that had gone before before I copied anything, to avoid repetition, particularly since the intervals are long between one time of writing and the next.

The master’s forebodings were justified. He never succeeded in bringing order into his vast collection of papers and so posterity had to struggle with that awe-inspiring legacy of notes, jottings, drafts, excerpts, and memoranda in which personal trivia alternate with observations on optics, geology, anatomy, the behavior of wind and water, the mechanics of pulleys and the geometry of intersecting circles, the growth of plants or the statics of buildings, all jostling each other on sheets that may contain sublime drawings, absent-minded doodles, coarse fables, and subtle prose-poems.

It is one of the permanent gains we owe to Professor Pedretti’s new book that we now know a little more about Leonardo’s own procedures in his attempts to subdue this chaos, and about the efforts of his faithful heirs to succeed where he had failed. It had always been known that it was only after Leonardo’s death that systematic attempts were made to retrieve at least one co-herent group of notes from his literary remains, those directly or indirectly concerned with problems of painting. The resulting selection is known as the Codex Urbinas in the Vatican and it was this arrangement that formed the basis for all subsequent publications of what came to be known as Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting. By careful detective work on this manuscript (which was published in facsimile and translation by A. P. MacMohon in 1956) Professor Pedretti can make a convincing case for the authorship of this priceless compilation. He attributes it to none other than Leonardo’s companion and legal heir Francesco Melzi; moreover he shows that in this difficult work of sorting and copying Melzi adopted procedures which Leonardo himself developed. The original notes were marked with various signets cancelled as soon as they were entered into a fresh notebook. This demonstration alone adds much authority to the treatise that previously had sometimes been neglected as an apocryphal work. More than that, Professor Pedretti succeeds in reconstructing through the treatise one of Leonardo’s notebooks which is no longer extant. Great as is this achievement, and exciting as it proves to be in its consequences for the Leonardo specialist, it should perhaps be said for the sake of prospective buyers that the title of this valuable study is open to misinterpretation. “Leonardo da Vinci On Painting: A Lost Book” promises to the uninitiated a text by the master not previously known. This, alas, is not the case. What we get is only the rearrangement of parts of the text in the form in which Leonardo probably presented it. It will not surprise readers of my initial quotation that this arrangement itself is puzzling enough. Notes on light, on movement, on color, and general remarks alternate according to no detectable order. One wonders in fact whether Leonardo really copied them out in that sequence or whether he started at the end of the book (being left-handed) or possibly on both sides. One thing is likely—the notebook itself was hardly intended as more than a preliminary stage towards order. In fact one of Professor Pedretti’s most brilliant accomplishments is to show that Leonardo himself extracted notes on hydrodynamics from it for a later manuscript. He used it, in other words, exactly as Melzi was to use it.

What emerges from this analysis is the surprising fact that much of the material we find in the Treatise on Painting does not date from Leonardo’s first Milanese period, the period of “The Last Supper,” as had been generally assumed, but from the sixth decade of his life, the period, that is, when we saw the aging master trying to bring in his harvest. This in its turn may necessitate a good many revisions of previous views. Admittedly, to appreciate the flood of light that Professor Pedretti can throw on many Leonardo problems in his digressions, appendices, and notes, we must not only read this book but study it, in a well-equipped library where all the relevant publications are close at hand, preferably in the Elmer Belt Library of the University of California (Los Angeles) where the author teaches and works. It is clear, moreover, that this study presents only the first step towards a new edition of Leonardo’s writings that will, one hopes, make them at last intelligible as a human record.

For, paradoxically, the arrangement by subjects towards which Leonardo groped has ultimately tended to confuse and obscure our image of Leonardo’s researches. Meritorious as were the great anthologies by Richter and MacCurdy in showing the tremendous range of Leonardo’s scientific and technical interests, they really made it impossible to follow his processes of thought by indiscriminately assembling his excerpts, his false starts, his revisions and conclusions extending sometimes over a period of some thirty years as if they were all equally valid documents of the master’s views. Imagine the same procedure adopted for any scientist or scholar, with his notes being jumbled and printed without regard for their sequence in time! Small wonder that the picture of Leonardo one derives from a casual perusal of these publications is so self-contradictory, that some have seen in his jottings the miraculous anticipation of practically everything science was later to discover, while others have come to stress the autodidactic and apparently undisciplined character of these miscellaneous observations. Hence the conviction of the present generation of Leonardo scholars (of whom Professor Pedretti is an outstanding representative) that we should hold our judgment in many cases until we can trace the development of the master’s ideas step by step, from his original acceptance of traditional errors to his first crude guesses and subsequent refinement of methods and ideas that may not always have resulted in miracles but that invariably command respect and admiration. Until this work is done and Leonardo’s cryptic jottings are placed in their proper chronological and factual context, any attempt to reconstruct the master’s thoughts and inner life now appears to be premature.

It may thus seem almost unfair to discuss against this background the new translation by Alan Tyson of Freud’s famous psychoanalytic study of Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood that has just been included in the Standard Edition of Freud’s Works. In 1910, when Freud’s study first appeared, few of these problems were even thought of. Freud, moreover, did not rely on a study of the manuscripts, but, to a large extent, on a German anthology published by Marie Herzfeld. It is well known by now that this anthology misled him. It had Leonardo recall a curious childhood memory when a vulture had settled on his cradle and pushed its tail into the infant’s mouth. But if there are vultures in the environs of Florence Leonardo did not speak of them. The bird in question was a kite. So much is acknowledged in the editor’s note that prefaces this volume. We are asked, however, to examine the situation cooly and to excise from Freud’s book only those deductions that directly derive from this mistranslation, notably his discussion of the myths about vultures in ancient Egyptian lore, and Pfister’s fantastic attempt to read the outlines of a monstrous bird (such as rarely overshadowed the smiling vales of Tuscany) into the drapery of Leonardo’s “St. Anne.” Grateful as one must be for this reminder, one wonders why the editor has not at least drawn attention to the large literature that has grown up around this most controversial of Freud’s studies, notably the article by Meyer Schapiro in the Journal for the History of Ideas of 1956 and Dr. K. R. Eissler’s vast monograph of 1962 which it provoked. Had this been done the editor could not have wondered about “the strange fact that until very recently none of the critics of the present work” had spotted the mistake. It was discovered more than forty years ago by Maclagan in the Burlington Magazine of 1923. One would also have expected the reader to be told of another factual error, due to Freud’s use of an inaccurate copy of one of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, that led him to quote an interpretation of an alleged mistake which was not the master’s but the copyist’s. Finally it might at least be arguable that the few new facts that have come to light about Leonardo’s childhood story should have been made available—the account of his baptism discovered by Moeller in 1939, and the documents about his stepfather Accatabriga recently published by Renzo Cianchi (they were not available to Dr. Eissler) which tell us that the husband of Leonardo’s mother was a rural craftsman, a fornaciaio who operated a kiln. (What pleasant opportunities for dreaming about the future scientist minding the kiln and experimenting in the workshop!)

Freud loved Jewish anecdotes and it is not too irreverent to apply a famous Jewish joke to the situation. It is the story of the admired Wunder-Rabbi of Tarnopol who overawes his assembled followers one Friday evening by gazing into the distance and announcing that he can see the Synagogue of Lwow burning. A few days later a traveler arrives from Lwow and is told of the miracle. He is unimpressed; there was no fire. However, consternation among the rabbi’s disciples soon gives way to the consoling thought that it is not that little detail that matters. It was the fact that their rabbi could see as far as Lwow at all that was the great miracle.

Joking apart, Freud could see far. The first sixteen pages of his study before the unfortunate vulture makes its appearance present a fascinating and coherent psychological portrait of Leonardo based on Freud’s wide reading of the literature then available to him. True, he may have trusted Vasari a little too much in some things and too little in others. Following a remark by a contemporary he implies that Leonardo more or less abandoned art for science—one of the points where chronological studies may enforce a revision. Strangely enough, moreover, he failed to include in this character sketch one of Leonardo’s most puzzling traits, the sanguine optimism with which he advocated what might be topically called “harebrained schemes.” Vasari tells of his plan to divert the Arno so as to deny it to Pisa. Thanks to an astonishing find in the Turkish archives we now know that around 1503 he made the Sultan an offer to build a bridge across the Bosporus “so high that nobody will agree to walk over it…so that sailing ships can sail under it.”

But is not Leonardo’s whole program of research evidence of this incredible optimism? He must have believed that he could not only read the whole book of nature at one go, but even copy it out and publish the results of his innumerable observations and calculations. Even his artistic projects are on a similar scale. Did he really think that his instructions for painting a battle or the deluge could ever have been followed? These are among the psychological questions Freud did not raise. But even though the portrait is in need of retouching nobody can deny that this first attempt to make psychological sense of the scattered evidence about this mysterious genius has guided and fructified the historical imagination ever since.

Where Freud proceeds, however, to justify his intuitive image by presenting his reconstruction of Leonardo’s childhood story it is not only the philological mishap that worries the historian. What Freud depicts is the sad story of the illegitimate child, or rather, in a way, the tragedy of the boy’s mother to whom that child of love is the only consolation and who, through her over-fondness, arouses both the future artist’s sexual desires and sexual curiosity. It was the resulting fixation on his mother that turned the boy into a homosexual, but it was also the resulting curiosity that was sublimated in his research. Knowing that he had been abandoned by his father Leonardo abandoned his own “children”—his paintings—in his turn. But if this attitude harmed his art it benefited his science, for rebellion against his father turned into rejection of all authority. Freud’s real heroine, however, remains Leonardo’s mother. It was her smile, he thinks, that continued to haunt Leonardo’s art and was evoked in the smile of Mona Lisa and of St. Anne. “From that time onward, madonnas and aristocratic ladies were depicted in Italian painting humbly bowing their heads smiling the strange, blissful smile of Caterina, the poor peasant girl who had brought into the world the splendid son who was destined to paint, to search and to suffer.” The downtrodden woman “who was forced to give up her son to her better-born rival, as she had once given up his father as well” had triumphed at last.

Did Freud really derive this elaborate reconstruction from the story of the “vulture” and such scanty evidence as the documents yielded? He did not and could not. All the documents tell us is that Leonardo was the illegitimate child of one Caterina, later married to Accatabriga, and that at the age of five he lived in the house of his father whose marriage was still without issue. It is well known, however, that Freud brought to his readings of the documents the image he had derived from one of his favorite books, D. Merezhkovsky’s historical novel, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. In the eleventh chapter of that romantic evocation, which reminds the skeptical historian of Beerbohm’s skit Savonarola Brown, there occurs a “flashback” when Leonardo visits his childhood haunts. The artist fondly remembers his mother’s tender and mysterious smile and recalls how he used to abscond from his father’s house to visit his poor mother “who covered his face, his eyes, lips and hair with her kisses.” It is in the next paragraph, however, that the student of Freud will prick up his ears. For here we read Merezhkovsky’s account of the boy’s nightly visits to his mother, climbing out of the window so as not to awaken his grandmother, and snuggling down in his mother’s bed “pressing his body against hers in the dark under the blanket.” Was it not this frank description of an Oedipus situation that caught Freud’s imagination and sparked off his interest in Leonardo’s childhood story? Did he not read the “vulture” incident with this image already firmly planted in his mind? We may never know. But one thing is sure—Freud himself did not want his reconstruction to be taken as gospel truth. In fact, sending his study to the painter Hermann Struck in 1914 he describes it as half novelistic fiction (Romandichtung). “I would not want you to judge the certainty of our other results by this sample.” A careful reader of the study itself can find many similar qualifications sandwiched between Freud’s bolder flights of fancy. Thus he reminds art lovers that he knows full well that Leonardo’s famous smile was anticipated by his teacher Verrocchio. Most of all he protests that he “does not in the least aim at making the great man’s achievements intelligible,” that he “never reckoned Leonardo as a neurotic,” that even if material were flowing more abundantly, there are “two important points” at which a psychoanalytic enquiry would not be able to account for a person’s development. Neither his repression of his early erotic experiences nor their sublimation into a craving for knowledge can thus be explained, and “since artistic talent and capacity are intimately connected with sublimation we must admit that the nature of the artistic function is also inaccessible to us along psychoanalytic lines.” Freud remained convinced that hereditary dispositions played their part in these matters.

We shall never know whether Leonardo’s mother smiled, wept, or was glad to be rid of him. We shall never even know whether Leonardo was in earnest when he wrote down the story of the kite’s visit, or whether he was merely poking fun at the belief in omens. What we do know is that Leonardo was miraculously endowed. For the rest, alas, we must be satisfied with the evidence such as it is. Professor Pedretti has shown us how much can still be done by minute attention to details in reconstructing some parts of Leonardo’s story. Even his book, as the author acknowledges, “is almost entirely based on deductions, inferences and hypotheses.” These, one may trust, will prove their worth as they are tested by further research. But will it ever be possible again to perform the true miracle of seeing as far as Lwow?

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