Keeping Up with Leonardo

The arresting title of Richard Turner’s interesting reflections on the vicissitudes of Leonardo’s fame is derived from the essay by Paul Valéry of 1895, “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci,” in which the French poet confesses that “knowing very little” about him, he had “invented a Leonardo of my own.” Valéry thus figures in a gallery of nineteenth-century authors such as Théophile Gautier, Jules Michelet, Edgar Quinet, and Baudelaire, who mused in various ways on the mystery they saw embodied in Leonardo’s paintings. The account, which makes absorbing reading, forms the background to the author’s discussion of the most famous of these effusions, Walter Pater’s prose hymn to the Mona Lisa of 1869 with which W.B. Yeats opened his Oxford Book of Modern Verse of 1936:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the Vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave…

The author is eager to defend these eccentricities, for, as he writes, “If we are better to understand ourselves, which is ultimately the point of historical studies, we have to risk and indeed celebrate critical leaps of the imagination in an intellectual procedure that by its very nature is ambiguous.” As one might expect, he extends his charity to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic study of Leonardo (whose dependence on wholly invented episodes from the artist’s childhood which he found in Merejekowski’s now unreadable novel Turner fails to discuss), and down to Marcel Duchamp’s schoolboy joke of endowing a photograph of the Mona Lisa with a beard and an obscene caption. One may well doubt whether this prank should find a place in what the Italians call la fortuna critica of the artists, for Duchamp surely did not want to invent his own Leonardo, he merely indulged in the overrated game of épater le bourgeois, and Turner does him too much honor by describing him as “one of the most Leonardesque artists.”

It is with some relief, therefore, that we find the author subsequently taking a stand against a certain tendency of our own days which “taken to an extreme…implies a total relativism of values in which authors are not to be held responsible for the words they write,” and which “tends to yield an intellectual world of kaleidoscopic indeterminacies in grinding dissonance with the common sense of daily life.”

A recent application of this approach to art historical studies, not yet known to Turner, is exemplified in an article by James Elkin, “On Monstrously Ambiguous Paintings,” with a characteristic section of Leonardo’s “Postmodern Last Supper,” based (rightly or wrongly) on a paper by Leo Steinberg in the Art Quarterly, Volume 36, 1973.

It is a position that deliberately negates the distinction between the writing of fiction and the writing of history. Turner is too serious a historian himself to endorse this mischievous confusion. After all, he would not want to be told that he …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.