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The Eyes of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Carmen C. Bambach
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 23–March 30, 2003.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 786 pp., $65.00


Now, can you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of the whole world? He draws the cosmos, he advises all the human arts and corrects them, he moves humanity to the diverse parts of the world. This is the king of mathematics, whose knowledge is certain; he has measured the distance and size of the stars; he has found the proper place for the elements; he has predicted the future by means of the stars’ course; he has begotten architecture, perspective, and divine Painting.1

When Leonardo da Vinci wrote these words about the human eye in the early years of the sixteenth century, he did so as part of a contemporary rhetorical contest between painting, poetry, and sculpture called the paragone, but in fact he meant everything he said, as he made clear in his work. The eyes of his figures, whether drawn or painted, are extraordinary, not only the eyes of people, but also of lions, of cats, horses, and dragons. In his paintings and his more finished drawings the eyes are highlighted by a splash of lighter color on the lower half of the iris, illuminating not just the eyes but the whole face around them; even in the dashed-off sketches of a baby playing with a cat, we see ink pools at the eyes where the artist’s pen must have pushed with special intensity. For Leonardo, the idea that eyes were the gateway to the soul was a matter of literal truth; he examined a human skull in hopes that its interior structure would reveal traces of the soul’s presence and chased down life’s evanescence in drawings that are a whirlwind of brief moments captured in furious succession. No matter how strange the fleshy clothing of his grotesque heads, their eyes look outward from the soul’s domain with fierce clarity; the splendid physique of his ideal man takes second place to the noble expression in that man’s eyes.

The eyes of Leonardo himself must have been more phenomenal still: something like the ravening eyes that stare out from photographs of Picasso, bright with a relentless fever to devour the world by looking, and through looking, to create. As for Leonardo’s remarks about the superiority of painting, they stung at least one young sculptor to reply to their accusations in stone. If Michelangelo’s Pietà, completed in Rome in 1500, achieves its effects despite the smooth blankness of Mary’s living eyes and the glazed dead eyes of Jesus, his David, finished in Florence in 1504, and hence under Leonardo’s rapacious scrutiny, takes on the world—and sententious old Leonardo—in a defiant sculpted stare.

Like Michelangelo’s David, moreover, Leonardo’s drawings have to be seen face to face, eye to eye, in order for them to communicate completely. They are that much better than any reproduction; their freshness startling, their liveliness irrepressibly vivid. Many of the people who see the collection of Leonardo’s drawings now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will have waited an hour and more to get close to these sketches on paper, some tiny, none of them particularly large, and, like the crowds who wait outside the Florentine Accademia every summer to see David, they will leave exhilarated in spite of it all. A milling throng is, of course, the wrong way to see either intimate sketches or a great piece of civic sculpture incongruously confined to a museum, but the message of these works is more appropriate than ever to our crowded world: for both Leonardo and Michelangelo insist on the paramount importance of two eyes and one soul in perceiving the rhythms of the universe.

However passionately Leonardo argued for the superiority of painting over the other arts, he dabbled in all of them: painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, mechanical design, and the art that underpinned them all in his mind and the mind of his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio: disegno, the art of drawing. Disegno lies at the very heart of Leonardo’s life; he was notoriously a sketcher of grand plans, physical and mental, and because those plans so seldom came to fruition the disegni were often the only traces left. He ruined his greatest paintings, the Last Supper in Milan and the Battle of Anghiari in Florence, by trying out new, unsuccessful fresco techniques that destroyed their surfaces already within his own lifetime. His huge bronze monument to Francesco Sforza in Milan envisioned an experimental casting technique that would have exploded the statue in its underground mold had the metal not been sold off previously to forge cannon in Ferrara. It is telling that Leonardo, alone of the great artists of his day, was never summoned to Rome to work for Pope Julius II, the papa terribile who set Michelangelo loose on the Sistine Chapel, Raphael on the Vatican Palace, and Leonardo’s friend Donato Bramante on St. Peter’s. Julius was a man who wanted results, not dreams—he spun dreams and disegni enough within the recesses of his own head, and he meant for every one of them to become real. (His eyes, incidentally, were so terrifying that no artist is known to have portrayed him head on.)

Leonardo, unlike his younger contemporary Raphael, who matured as an artist from a sometimes clumsy fascination with particulars into a graceful designer of truly universal scope, began first as a genial sketcher who gradually amassed and incorporated a staggering number of individual details into his vision of nature’s forms. The hands in Leonardo’s early drawings seem like gesturing mittens; those he drew decades later show his accumulated familiarity with every joint, ligament, and blood vessel. An early sketch of a toddler with a cat employs a minimum of lines to capture the voluptuous curve of the cat’s back as the child caresses it—a Leonardo child, who goes about his petting with gimlet-eyed concentration; a late sheet with studies of cats (and one tiny dragon) emphasizes the texture of their fur almost hair by hair. What never changes is Leonardo’s tireless drive to capture life and commit it, still quick, to line. Raphael and Michelangelo, each in his own way, pursued a kind of philosophical order in art; Leonardo, on the other hand, went after life at its source. He searched for that source in the structure of nature, in motion, in the weird irregularities and sovereign symmetries of the world his eyes scanned with such voracity and such evident delight.

The first biography of this ingenious man was composed in the mid-sixteenth century by the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, a wonderfully amusing writer, but a writer who, like the Muses, told the truth and many lies besides. Vasari’s Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects is shaped to tell a selective story that begins with a new artistic style in the late twelfth century with Cimabue and Giotto and moves to a climax in Michelangelo. Leonardo and his teacher Andrea del Verrocchio mark some of the later stages in this triumphal progress, and Verrocchio in particular suffers from conscription into Vasari’s edifying tale. With relish, Vasari tells how the young apprentice Leonardo painted so ethereal an angel for Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ that the master threw up his hands and admitted defeat. The painting itself still exists, in London’s National Gallery, and the contrast between the gentle modeling of Leonardo’s angel and the hard, linear contours of Verrocchio’s Christ and John the Baptist is every bit as striking as Vasari suggests.

But Verrocchio was also a far better artist than Vasari lets on; the first section of the Met exhibition presents a series of Verrocchio drawings that reveal precisely how much Leonardo’s famous sfumato—“smudged” shading, the very technique that lends the London angel its otherworldly air—actually owed to his versatile master. As a sculptor, Verrocchio was unrivaled in his own day, and his meticulous attention to detail (unlike his apprentice, he usually finished his commissions), his ability to see three-dimensionally, and his skill at rendering light and shadow all had a direct effect on the young Leonardo.

Verrocchio lavished nearly as minute attention on horses as Leonardo himself; his two measured drawings of horses in the exhibition are covered with notes and numbers. Leonardo’s fixation on eyes, on the other hand, is entirely his own, and it can be seen already in his earliest drawings. Verrocchio’s cherubs are babies with chubby faces; Leonardo’s cherubs scowl with concentration, as Leonardo might once have scowled at his own parents, both sets of them—he was born illegitimate to a young notary and a farm girl, both of whom married other people of their own social station shortly after Leonardo’s birth.

Before becoming an apprentice to Verrocchio, Leonardo had been adopted into his father’s household when his stepmother remained childless; the Metropolitan catalog presents an informative essay by Alessandro Cecchi that uses the extensive archives preserved from fifteenth-century Florence to place Leonardo and his family in their neighborhoods, among their friends and associates. Unlike his father, Ser Piero, who had learned Latin in connection with his profession, Leonardo, for all his intelligence, proved a poor and distracted student; he received the arithmetical training known as “abacus school” (scuola di abbaco) without taking much to its problems involving calculation of exchange rates, pricing of commodities, and triangulating the height of buildings, and he seems to have quit his formal schooling at this point.

He was not the first son of a notary in Florence to be apprenticed to an artisan instead of learning Latin and following in the family profession; the great Filippo Brunelleschi, inventor of one-point perspective and designer of the dome of Florence Cathedral, had done exactly the same two generations earlier. Over the first half of the fifteenth century, Brunelleschi’s spectacular achievements as an architect had greatly improved not only his own social status in Florence, but also that of his other colleagues in the visual arts, who were quickly turning their city into a showcase of new art and architecture. Verrocchio, like Brunelleschi, stood at the summit of his craft, and by becoming so eminent a master’s apprentice, Leonardo, whose talents must have been evident early on, could certainly aspire to a career involving fame and aristocratic company, if not necessarily aristocratic status in his own right. For an illegitimate son, barred by Florentine statute from inheriting property or assuming full citizen status, these prospects were more than favorable.

In retrospect it is also clear that one of the great favors Verrocchio granted Leonardo as master was to impose deadlines on his work; the younger man’s first independent commission, an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the great Florentine city hall, the Palazzo della Signoria, contracted in 1478, was never completed, and this unfinished business set a pattern for the rest of his life. When his father procured him the assignment of an altarpiece with the Adoration of the Magi for the Augustinian Canons Regular at San Donato in 1481, he put in several months of hard work on the ambitious painting, and then, abruptly, left Florence in September for Milan, where he joined the court of the warlord Ludovico Sforza.

  1. 1

    Leonardo’s Notes on Painting were compiled by his student and heir Francesco Melzi in a manuscript now in the Vatican Library, MS Urb. Lat. 1270. The quotations from the manuscript cited in this review are my own translations. My thanks to Andrew Butterfield for his help with this review.

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