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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

1.

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.

This transfer meant more than a change of place; it also brought on a change in Leonardo’s way of life. Florence, despite the heavy hand of the Medici clan on every government office and public commission, was nominally a republic, a large city-state with an elaborate set of public institutions. Ludovico, on the other hand, was a professional soldier who had seized Milan by force and aimed to keep control of the city by maintaining an efficient system of government and an active cultural life. In this he was like many an Italian warlord of the era—Federico da Montefeltro, Francesco Gonzaga, and Sigismondo Malatesta are among the most famous—and he succeeded for a time.

Ludovico’s Milan boasted talents of European reputation, attracted to the city by his own efforts, those of his cultured Ferrarese wife, Beatrice d’Este, and of his younger brother, shrewd, skinny Cardinal Ascanio, whose entourage admired the elegant Flemish composer Josquin Desprez and the popular singer Serafino Aquilano, a lutenist whose outrageous sendups of Petrarchan love sonnets swept Italy in the 1490s to become the latest fashion in music. Se-rafino taught his wild songs in turn to the painter and architect Donato Bramante, a transplant from Urbino already set on becoming Milan’s version of Brunelleschi. Amid the sti-fling etiquette and social striving of so many Northern Italian courts, Ludovico’s Milan, with Josquin’s provocative songs, Serafino’s crazy rhymes, and Bramante’s improvisations, must have stood out as conspicuously for its rampant humor as for its luxury. It was an environment in which Leonardo, handsome, witty, and talented beyond measure, could do nothing but thrive.

Leonardo seems to have applied to Ludovico Sforza with an offer to serve as a military architect, and a copy of that letter of application still survives, as do some early drawings, on view in the exhibition, of bristling, pointed weapons and a heroic view of a foundry in which tiny naked men struggle to forge a gigantic cannon; the sixteenth-century metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio would liken such guns to birds of prey “that offend with their claws and beaks.” But the artist’s plans for war machines and fortifications, many of them drawn from old manuscripts as well as a contemporary treatise by the Sienese engineer Mariano Taccola, were as crazily impractical as his other inventions. He seems to have become, at least for a time, what he himself describes as a disegnatore, a word that means both “master draftsman” (as he is described in the apt title of the Metropolitan show) and planner, that is, a maker of designs in a figurative sense. His own remarks on painting provide a rounded portrait of what a disegnatore might do:

Painting, and its principle, disegno, teaches the architect to make his building pleasing to the eye, and the makers of vases, goldsmiths, weavers, and gilders; it has discovered the characters by which the various languages are expressed; it has given the numerals to mathematicians; it has taught geometers to make their figures; it teaches the makers of perspective, the astrologers, mechanics and engineers.2

In Milan, Leonardo certainly spent much of his time with Bramante and with the mathematician Luca Pacioli, providing the illustrations for Pacioli’s popular book On Divine Proportion, some of them originally pillaged from Piero della Francesca; Leonardo, as his drawings of war machines also reveal, was not always scrupulous about citing his sources. Under Fra Luca’s influence, this reluctant student of abacus suddenly became a passionate proponent of purer mathematics—Pacioli, unlike the Florentine maestri di abbaco, must have been an inspiring teacher for this mature but brilliant student.3 Leonardo wrote:

No human investigation can be called real knowledge if it does not pass through Mathematical demonstrations and if you say that the kinds of knowledge that begin and end in the mind have any value as truth this cannot be conceded but rather must be denied for many reasons, and first of all because in such mental discussions there is no experimentation, without which nothing provides certainty of itself.4

A sheet of drawings from Leonardo’s first Milanese period shows how “Mathematical demonstrations” interact with disegno. We see several tentative layouts for the figures in his Last Supper alongside a geometric diagram: the figures are posed to reveal their motions of the soul through expression and gesture just as the lines intersecting a circle are posed to reveal the motions of nature. In both cases, Leonardo bears out his belief that sight reigns supreme among the senses:[]

The ear greatly deceives itself about the placement and distance of its objects because the perceptions do not come to it by straight lines like those of the eye, but by tortuous and reflected lines; the sense of smell deceives itself less; it can certify the place where an odor is caused, but taste and touch, which touch their object, have knowledge only of that touch.5

While in Milan, Leonardo also devised a series of allegories: enigmatic images of virtues and vices, truth embodied in a blazing sun whose rays bounce off a mirror-polished shield as lions, serpents, and dragons struggle with each other in some blind conflict. These are the kinds of riddling pictures that Renaissance courtiers loved to ponder and decipher, and like so many of those fifteenth-century enigmas, Leonardo’s still resist interpretation: Are the struggling beasts the military powers whose wranglings tormented Italy from 1494 onward, or are they components of the soul, or both or neither?

Eventually, as many of his projects continued unrealized and his notebooks and sketchbooks filled with scattered observations and marvelous drawings, the traces of so many lost conversations, Leonardo’s role at the Milanese court may well have evolved into that of a genial mad-man, a sport of nature like the dwarves and exotic animals that Renaissance lords gathered around them for their own amusement. Handsome at every stage of his life, Leonardo also sang and conversed beautifully, but at heart he was a loner, as he would later write:

So that the prosperity of the body does not waste that of the wit, the painter or draftsman should be solitary, and especially when intent on speculations…. I remove myself so far off that their words cannot reach me, and will not obstruct me; in this I say that you’ll probably be taken as mad but you’ll see that by so doing you will be left alone.6

Leonardo’s chronic impracticality may not have mattered to Ludovico Sforza any more than it matters to us: discussing ideas with Leonardo, seeing the world through Leonardo’s eyes—these may already have been reward enough for a lord who had little time for fantastic dreams of his own. In 1494, the King of France, Charles VIII, invaded Italy, bringing on political havoc and a new disease, syphilis. By 1499, Milan had fallen to French troops who imprisoned Ludovico Sforza and shortly thereafter put him to death. Donato Bramante and Ascanio Sforza set out for Rome; Leonardo, in the company of Luca Pacioli, returned to Florence, but not before he had seen the huge clay model for his never-completed statue of Francesco Sforza used for target practice by Burgundian bowmen.

2.

The Florence to which Leonardo returned had once again become a republic, although this change in government seems to have made little difference to him; he had been a creature of the Medici throughout his youth and was content enough with the company of warlords, so long as they were cultured. In 1502, another of these warlords presented himself: Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, for whom Leonardo worked briefly as a military engineer in central Italy, until Borgia’s military campaigns began to be reined in by his worried father. Leonardo returned to the Florentine Republic, which had begun an extensive remodeling of the Palazzo della Signoria. Here, in a monumental room designed to hold the republic’s new five-hundred-member representative council, Leonardo was asked to paint scenes from the Battle of Anghiari, a skirmish in which Florence had gotten the best of its inveterate rival (and sometime port), Pisa. On the opposite wall, the city council had engaged Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose newly completed David still provides the most eloquent testimony to the spirit of the early-sixteenth-century Florentine Republic.

Leonardo worked up at least part of his design for the Battle of Anghiari to full size and transferred it to the wall of the council hall, but he de-cided to paint it in a medium that would lend the chalky plaster surface of fresco something of the sheen of oil paint. The experiment failed miserably, and Leonardo never finished the work. Yet a sixteenth-century drawing of what remained (on display in the exhibition) shows that the ideas and the sheer energy of the Battle, like the Last Supper, shone through the painting’s ravaged surface. The work was finally covered by another fresco, executed by none other than Leonardo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari.

Florence is also the place where Leonardo began to become preoccupied with water and its motions, especially with the River Arno, which arises in the rugged mountains behind Florence and empties into the sea from the placid plain of Pisa. The potential for wildness of that river is still visible today in the remnants of the disastrous flood of 1966. One of the great coups of the Metropoli-tan show is a display of eight leaves from Leonardo’s Leicester Codex, a manuscript on whose pages he explores the actions of water in his retrograde script (the artist’s left-handedness is the subject of a lively essay by the show’s curator, Carmen Bambach) and in a series of tiny, evocative drawings.7 Most striking of all are Leonardo’s late drawings of cataclysmic floods engulfing cities in their swirling toils; within the maelstrom, faint figures give a human face to the eruptions of nature, and once again we do not know whether Leonardo refers to natural or to human violence. Two books by Roger Masters have linked Leonardo’s deluges to Machiavelli’s vivid comparison of Fortune to a river in The Prince, and these images to a concrete moment: a plan on behalf of the Florentine Republic to divert the course of the Arno so that Pisa would be drained dry.8

Another side of nature shows forth in Leonardo’s sketches for his lost painting Leda and the Swan, an open hymn to fertility (see illustration on page 35). If ever a bird has leered, it is this incarnation of womanizing Jove, gazing up lasciviously at his plump lady-love in a stand of phallic cattails as their four children, Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux, hatch forth from enormous eggs. Even the grass, curling in voluptuous curves, seems to be trembling with anticipation.

From 1506 to 1513, Leonardo moved between Milan and Florence, evading both the irate city councilmen who clamored for the rest of their Battle of Anghiari and the violent skirmishes that plagued the region around Milan. He filled a series of notebooks with his writings, his sketches, and his anatomical studies. In 1512, the Florentine Republic fell to a restored Medici dynasty, a development that Leonardo welcomed as an old Medici client; in 1513, Medici rule was reinforced by the election in Rome of a Medici pope, Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. When the Pope invested his brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, with honorary Roman citizenship, Leonardo traveled along with Giuliano’s entourage, and continued to study and write from a special apartment reserved for him in the Vatican Palace. In a city dominated by the imposing influence of Raphael, who had transformed himself from a painter to a designer—a disegnatore—of international fame, Leonardo began to compile his own notes on painting, which would eventually be gathered together by his pupil Francesco Melzi after Leonardo’s death. Unlike Raphael, who exploited the medium of print with an immediate sense of its importance, Leonardo proclaimed the uniqueness and, implicitly, the superiority, of his own works of art:

Painting does not make endless children as printed books do; she alone is unique and never gave birth to children who are exactly like her, and this singularity makes her more excellent than those that are published everywhere.9

And unlike Raphael, whose innovations in painting and architecture, ranging from style to publication to overarching theory to workshop structure, were of immense import in sixteenth-century Europe, Leonardo’s influence was as lone and singular as his vision of the art of painting. His pupils were relatively few, and as their contributions to the Metropolitan show reveal, he could never quite convey to them the spark of his own inventiveness. In 1516, the aging artist accepted an invitation to become paintre du Roy by François I of France and moved north with Melzi and his servant Salaì. He died there in 1519 at the age of sixty-seven.

The Metropolitan displays sketches for Leda and the Swan and the Deluges among other works from his later years, including a ravishing stand of trees in red chalk, and the sheet with studies of cats, animals that continued to draw his attention from the beginning of his career to its very end—but cats of course have, like horses, large, expressive eyes.

The Metropolitan’s catalog is immense; more than seven hundred pages long. Many of these pages are taken up by reproductions of the drawings on display, a valuable document for everyone who has seen the show and cannot hope to see these drawings gathered together again anytime soon. The essays, however, like the entries, raise a question about the audience for such monumental tomes. Evidently the Metropolitan has aimed this large volume primarily at other curators or art historians, and much of it is couched in their shared language of densely academic prose. Yet the show itself attracts a large public, which might be better rewarded by essays that clearly present basic information, bolstered by a narrative account, rather than a chronology, of the artist, his life, his world, and his work.

The National Gallery in Washington recently tried to achieve this broader aim in the catalog for its exhibition Virtue and Beauty, which focused on a single work by Leonardo, his portrait of Ginevra Benci. Its essays demonstrate that it is entirely feasible to take on a large, general topic in the context of some specific work of art; indeed, the contributors rise to their challenge with evident gusto. And it is only in Washington, not in New York, that the connection is made between Leonardo’s drawing of a young woman with a unicorn and his portrait of Ginevra Benci, even though the resemblance is unmistakable—in fact, the coquettish pose of the drawing tells us a good deal about Ginevra that cannot be discerned from the somber formality of her portrait.

The Metropolitan show lacks most of Leonardo’s best-known monumental drawings: the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne from London, the Vitruvian Man from the Uffizi, the so-called Self-Portrait from Turin; and the only painting it contains is the stark unfinished Saint Jerome from the Vatican. Still, no one can go away from this exhibit disappointed; if anything, these less-known, unassuming works of Leonardo seem all the closer to the source of his volcanic soul.

  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.

  2. 2

    MS Urb. Lat. 1270, 13r.

  3. 3

    In fact, Luca Pacioli is portrayed in the act of teaching a well-dressed young man (and implicitly the viewer) in his fine portrait by Jacopo de’ Barbari, one of the treasures of the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.

  4. 4

    MS Urb. Lat. 1270, 1v.

  5. 5

    MS Urb. Lat. 1270, 4v.

  6. 6

    MS Urb. Lat. 1270, 31v.

  7. 7

    Unfortunately for those with imperfect eyesight (in the present writer’s case brought on in part by reading Renaissance manuscripts) the codex is displayed at that frustrating distance so beloved of museum curators and so hated by the people who actually read documents: just beyond the reach of myopia and stubbornly outside the range of any stratum in trifocal glasses.

  8. 8

    Roger D. Masters, Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996); Fortune Is a River: Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli’s Magnificent Dream to Change the Course of Florentine History (Plume, 1999).

  9. 9

    MS Urb. Lat. 1270, 3r.

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