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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,”1 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 “invented” Paul Valéry or Walter Pater, but does he not run the danger of giving aid and comfort to these tendencies by speaking so enthusiastically about “inventing”? Those of us who have done our best to make a contribution to Leonardo studies have surely done so not in order “to understand ourselves” but to understand a real man of flesh and blood who lived five hundred years ago. Indeed we might claim that our overriding concern has been not to invent Leonardo, but rather to offer an interpretation that nowhere clashes with the known evidence.

In this respect the historian’s enterprise closely resembles that of the scientist whose theories or hypotheses must—in the time-honored phrase—always “save the phenomena,” most obviously in cosmology, where the scientist’s ideas about the structure of the universe must never run counter to the phenomena we can observe in the sky. Admittedly the historian’s task is even more tricky. He cannot rely on a few laws of nature in his extrapolations from observed positions as the astronomer can. The laws with which we historians have to work tend to be either trivial or uncertain. If we encountered a document mentioning a Leonardo da Vinci living in 1580, we would be entitled to conclude that it cannot refer to the artist, since such longevity would be contrary to the laws of nature, but if we find, as we do, that the same man who painted The Last Supper also projected a flying machine, we have to adjust our ideas about human nature and admit that this was indeed the case. If the calculation is correct that the 6,500-odd pages of notes we have from Leonardo’s hand represent only one third of his probable output, we are entitled to wonder how he ever found time to paint or even to sleep, but we cannot dispute the evidence away.

Granted that our author might retort that neither in law nor in science or history is “evidence” always as clear-cut as we might wish, and that the history of Leonardo studies frequently confirms this observation. An especially intriguing example that surfaced too late to be considered in this book concerns the sitter of the portrait we all know as “The Mona Lisa.” For a variety of reasons a number of scholars have doubted this identification with the wife of a Florentine citizen, Francesco del Giocondo, and Turner himself has preferred to call the painting noncommittally “The Lady on the Balcony.” In 1991, however, the records of a lawsuit were published concerning the legacy of Leonardo’s apprentice Salai, who had returned to Milan after the master’s death and had died intestate in 1523.2 The inventory of his possessions enumerates a number of paintings which we associate with Leonardo, the Leda, the Saint Anne, the Saint John the Baptist, and a portrait which it listed as “La honda,” a description repeated in a subsequent copy but later crossed out and corrected as “La Joconda.” Admittedly these documents raise about as many questions as they appear to solve, since Leonardo’s name is never mentioned and we do not know when and by whom the correction was made. Not all historians therefore are prepared to accept the entry as clinching evidence that the traditional designation is correct.

Even more recently, however, a book by Frank Zöllner has come out in Germany which seems designed to lay these doubts to rest.3 Zöllner has collected fresh evidence concerning the life and associates of Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo, and has certainly demonstrated that the traditional view nowhere clashes with the historical evidence. According to that view the portrait was commissioned from Leonardo in 1503 (probably before the artist was asked to paint the mural in the town hall of Florence) and in this year Francesco, a rich silk merchant, moved into a new house and, having lost two spouses in childbirth, may well have wanted to commemorate the safe delivery of a boy. Zöllner also argues convincingly that such a commemoration and the form of the portrait fit perfectly into the traditions of Florentine society and art.

It is moving to discover from his pages that Mona Lisa (born in 1479) was probably still alive as a widow of seventy-one at the time when Vasari’s Lives appeared. We cannot therefore exclude the possibility that Vasari, who can never have seen the portrait, which Leonardo had taken with him to France, need not have invented the famous story of the artist having engaged musicians and entertainers to relieve the boredom of the sittings; he might conceivably have heard it from Lisa herself.

Be that as it may, one may well ask whether Mr. Turner does not risk misleading the general reader, for whom he writes, when he heads a chapter “Giorgio Vasari Invents Leonardo.” True, Vasari cannot have met Leonardo; but when he came to Florence in 1524 as a very precocious thirteen-year-old he must have spoken to many who had, and who probably shared the excitement when Leonardo started his mural in the Town Hall in 1503, and the disappointment when he left it unfinished in 1506. Nor should it be overlooked that Vasari served at that time as an unhappy apprentice to Andrea del Sarto, who had recently been at the court of Francis I, where his stay must still have coincided with that of Leonardo. To be sure, Vasari was not a scrupulous historian, but the portrait he draws of Leonardo can be corroborated in many respects by independent evidence, not all of which is considered by our author. Thus a Latin poem in praise of Florence by Ugolino Verino that probably dates back to the years before Leonardo’s move to Milan in 1481 contains eulogies of a number of prominent artists and continues: “possibly Leonardo da Vinci surpasses all others, but he is unable to take his hand from the panel and, like Protogenes, spends many years to complete one.”4 For all its learned allusion to an anecdote from Pliny5 the observation obviously was and remained true throughout Leonardo’s life. Almost more surprising is the casual reference to our artist in a letter from overseas to Giuliano de Medici, mentioning a tribe who never eat anything that contains blood or wish to harm any living being “like our Leonardo da Vinci.”6 There is no reason therefore to doubt Vasari’s story that Leonardo liked to buy and free caged birds.

It may be more interesting to ask whether or to what extent Vasari “invented” Leonardo’s position in the history of art. Yet it is hard not to see his Last Supper as the culmination of an evolution, the high point that marked the character of what Wölffin called “Classic Art,” making us forget Leonardo’s frequent indulgence in complexities that we might classify as “Mannerist” if we met them elsewhere. Strangely enough, however, even Berenson’s hostile assessment of Leonardo’s position does not contradict Vasari’s interpretation. As a champion of the “hard edged” art of the Quattrocento that paid tribute to “tactile values” Berenson deplored the influence of Leonardo’s sfumato and went so far as to claim that “no Tuscan painter born after Leonardo’s death produced a single work with the faintest claim to any general interest.” Value judgments, of course, may change, but facts remain facts, and Leonardo’s enormous influence on the later history of painting appears to be a fact.

Maybe Mr. Turner also somewhat overstates the degree to which Leonardo’s literary and scientific legacy was forgotten. While his so-called treatise on painting was not printed before 1651, and that from an incomplete manuscript, it should not be overlooked that some twenty manuscript copies are still extant which may have circulated among painters.7 Even his detailed notes on hydraulics were collected by a learned Dominican in 16438 who would not have undertaken this labor if he had not heard of Leonardo’s eminence as an investigator.

Of course it is undeniable that with the discovery and gradual publication of Leonardo’s own manuscript notes the interpretation of his achievement underwent the most dramatic changes. How could it have been otherwise? These abrupt jottings interspersed with drawings, diagrams, and calculations were bound to mislead the casual reader, for it looked at first sight as if Leonardo had mastered every subject that had attracted his attention. To quote the opening paragraph from the beautifully illustrated monograph by Paul Müller-Walde of 1889:

Where is there an art, where a science that would not be fully justified in celebrating him, if not as its founder, at least as its most glorious representative and most brilliant discoverer? Where can we find a field of human creativity, as far as it might be worthy of the efforts of an unusual mind, to which he did not open entirely new paths and anticipated entire centuries?9

Compare these words with the remarks of George Sarton, one of the leading historians of science, in 1952:

Leonardo’s thoughts were much more scientific, or let us say, more rational than that of the large majority of his contemporaries but this does not mean that he was free from all their prejudices. Such a state of mind would hardly be possible today and it was wholly impossible in his time.

Thus Sarton concludes that in the theory of mechanics Leonardo could not but “grope like a blind man, albeit a blind man of genius.”10

The reasons for this reversal of judgment are well known and have frequently been rehearsed: an exaggerated idea of the Renaissance as the “birth of modern man” and the consequent stereotype of the preceding centuries as the “dark ages” had all but blotted out the memory of Leonardo’s predecessors in science and technology and made it hard to find out where, in his notes, he followed, and even quotes from, earlier authors, and where he departed from their views. Moreover, a naive conception of science as a collection of random observations and ignorance of his linguistic usages compounded these errors. It took some time to realize that Leonardo made no distinction between what we call experience and even today some historians of science doubt whether he ever set up a genuine experiment to confirm or refute a theory. His limited mastery of arithmetical calculation frequently led him into errors, though the eminent mathematician Clifford Truesdell, who has consistently opposed the overrating of Leonardo’s scientific achievement, is prepared to grant that he was endowed with “geometric insight of high order.”11

In his last four sections Turner seeks to arrive at a reasonable compromise between starry-eyed adulation and hard-nosed dismissals of Leonardo’s science. He is right when he reminds his readers that Leonardo was not a scientist in the modern sense of being able to craft a theory, and that he sought control of his observations by correspondences or analogy. But Turner may have underrated the importance of one of these analogies, the analogy with perspective, which has been brought out by the late Kenneth Keele.12 It was in perspective that Leonardo encountered those simple geometric relationship which he came to describe as “pyramidal laws” (meaning by pyramid what we call a cone). In this branch of applied geometry an object seen at double the distance projects as half its size on a vertical plane, and Leonardo was eager to establish similar relationships in any number of fields, among them acoustics and stylistics.

One lacuna in Turner’s stimulating book will especially puzzle the general reader. There is no mention of Leonardo’s heroic efforts to build a flying machine, and only a passing reference to his study of the flight of birds, which was to help him to achieve this end. We know that he failed, and also why he failed, but if he had done nothing else but to proclaim his faith in the feasibility of constructing an artificial bird he would still stand high in the annals of technology.

The author, of course, is a historian neither of technology nor of science; he is a historian of art; yet in the last four sections, which are intended to deal with “general questions about Leonardo in relation to the concerns of our own time,” he has little to say about the meaning Leonardo’s art may hold for “us” (whoever “we” may be).

Few of his predecessors have confronted this question more frankly than the great Wilhelm von Bode, the all-powerful creator of Berlin’s museums at the turn of the century. When, toward the end of his life, von Bode collected his frequently controversial studies of Leonardo between the covers of a book, he appended a conclusion on Leonardo’s development as an artist in which he wrote: “Leonardo’s art is totally removed from what is called art nowadays. A painter who asserted that modeling was the soul of painting and who carried the elaboration of his paintings so far that he never regarded them as complete…who considered the most minute study of nature as the basis of all art, cannot arouse any interest among modern artists who, in their paintings, do not go beyond the most fugitive indications, who no longer want to acknowledge nature as the foundation of their art and who will therefore never warm to him.”13 Bode’s verdict may be somewhat jaundiced but it deserves attention. It is not unlikely that “Leonardo today” would have been even more “impatient of the brush” as he is reported to have been in 1502. Like it or not, what may have interested him now would be the new technology for the creation of illusions, the holograph and the computer-generated image.

The author ends by speculating how Leonardo will be regarded in the year 2019, the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. Of course we cannot tell, but the odds are that he will again be celebrated as the great precursor who, in his writings and his paintings, endeavored to lay the foundations of what may by then be the dominant medium, the art known as “virtual reality.”

  1. 1

    History and Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3 (1993), pp. 227–247.

  2. 2

    Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, “Salai and Leonardo’s Legacy,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 133, No. 1055 (February 1991), pp. 95–108.

  3. 3

    Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, Das Porträt der Lisa del Giocondo, Legende und Geschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1994).

  4. 4

    Ugolino Verino, De illustratione Urbis Florentiae (Paris, 1790), p. 130.

  5. 5

    Historia Naturalis, Book XXXV, p. 80.

  6. 6

    J.P. Richter, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (Oxford University Press, 1939), Volume 2, p. 104.

  7. 7

    Carlo Pedretti, “Belt 35: A New Chapter in the History of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting,” in C.D. O’Malley, editor, Leonardo’s Legacy (University of California Press, 1969), pp. 149–170.

  8. 8

    Fra Luigi Maria Arconati, see Richter, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Volume 2, p. 139.

  9. 9

    Published by G. Hirth’s Kunstverlag, Munich, 1889.

  10. 10

    George Sarton, “Léonard de Vinci, Ingénieur et Savant” in Léonard de Vinci et L’Expérience Scientifique au XVI Siècle, a colloquium in Paris in 1952, (Presses Universitaires de France, 1953), pp. 11–22. The passages quoted are on pages 19 and 14.

  11. 11

    C. Truesdell, Great Scientists of Old as Heretics in ‘The Scientific Method’ (University Press of Virginia, 1987), p. 32.

  12. 12

    Kenneth D. Keele, Leonardo da Vinci’s Elements of the Science of Man (Academic Press, 1983).

  13. 13

    Wilhelm von Bode, Studien über Leonardo da Vinci (Berlin: G. Grote, 1921), p. 145.

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