The first public exhibition of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci took place in Florence around 1500. According to Giorgio Vasari, writing fifty years later, Leonardo, who had been asked by a patron for an altarpiece, instead made a cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, “which not only filled all the artists with wonder, but when it was finished men and women young and old continued for two days to crowd into the room where it was exhibited, as if attending a solemn festival, to see the marvels of Leonardo, which astonished all those people.” By modern standards the success of the exhibition seems modest enough, but Vasari evidently thought it remarkable that members of the public as well as artists had gone to see a drawing, even a particularly elaborate one like Leonardo’s cartoon. He would have been much more surprised by the crowds at the recent exhibitions of Leonardo and Michelangelo, held in London and Washington respectively, not because these artists are still so much admired after more than four centuries, but because most of the exhibits were drawings.
During the Renaissance, interest in drawings was largely confined to artists, who found in them ideas for their own work and lessons in technique. Raphael, for instance, once sent Dürer a preparatory figure study in red chalk, but there is no indication that his patrons would have wanted such things. Outside the profession, the only types of drawing in demand were cartoons for panel paintings or occasionally for frescoes and tapestries, and highly finished studies made as works of art in their own right. Leonardo produced some for favored clients and friends, and Michelangelo made many more. After his death these presentation drawings, as they are now usually called, were greatly prized by collectors, unlike his preparatory drawings for paintings and sculptures, which are now generally regarded as among the supreme masterpieces of Renaissance draftsmanship. In the middle of the sixteenth century the one notable collection of this kind of material was assembled by Vasari, himself a painter, as a visual counterpart to his history of Italian art.
Even in the seventeenth century, which saw the gradual creation of major collections of drawings, taste was slow to change. Thus Rubens, a painter who more than most revered the great masters of the past, seems to have had no compunction about extensively retouching drawings that he owned. In much the same way the great collector Everard Jabach employed a group of artists to “improve” many of the items in his collection. Their intervention went far beyond the requirements of conservation, being based on the idea that the most desirable drawings were the most highly finished.
The behavior of Jabach or even Rubens now seems little better than vandalism. Today we value drawings precisely for their unfinished quality, for their freshness of observation and apparent spontaneity of expression. We enjoy the evidence they provide of how an artist worked and the unique insight they seem to offer into the creative process. Italians of the sixteenth century saw things rather differently, as a passage of Vasari makes clear. Michelangelo, he tells us,
had an imaginative power of such a kind and so perfect that the things which occurred to him in his mind were such that he could not express these great and terrible concepts with his hands; so he would often abandon his works, and even damaged many of them. And I know that shortly before he died he burnt a great number of his drawings, sketches and cartoons, so that no one would see the labours that he had endured or the ways in which he had tested his talent, in order not to appear less than perfect.
In other words, Michelangelo destroyed his drawings not because they provided an insight into his mind, but because they failed to do so.
This attitude (which in Michelangelo’s case may well have been combined with a fear of plagiarism) is easy enough to understand if one remembers the Renaissance belief that the task of the artist was to improve on nature by representing an idea that he had conceived in his mind, and more specifically in the imagination, that part of the brain concerned with the sense impressions. The function of drawings was to facilitate the difficult process of translating the mental image into an image on the canvas, so to prefer a drawing to a painting would be like preferring a rough draft to a finished poem.
There are two main ways in which one can consider drawings: as works of art in their own right, and as preparatory material for work in other media. In practice, scholars of Michelangelo and of other outstanding draftsmen such as Raphael have tended to treat their drawings in the first of these ways, as if they were almost on a par with paintings. The favorite form of publication is the comprehensive catalog, whose main purpose is to define the master’s graphic output, the sheets of paper touched by his pen or his chalk. In such publications relatively little attention is paid to the information that the drawings may provide about the creation of paintings or sculptures, and this is why copies of lost drawings or sketches of assistants tend to be given scant attention, even though they may contain much historical information.
When scholars set about defining an artist’s oeuvre in painting they can use various types of evidence, such as signatures, contracts, or inventories, to establish a basic corpus of autograph works. Then they have to rely on their own judgment of quality and their sense of historical plausibility to decide whether other pictures are by the same hand. Clear evidence for the authorship of drawings is usually of a rather different kind, if it exists at all. For example, a drawing may include a specimen of an artist’s handwriting, or it may be a preparatory study for a known work in another medium. Even these indications are not conclusive proof of authorship, since such drawings could be the work of pupils or assistants. In general, therefore, the attribution of drawings often poses many more problems than that of paintings, and as a result connoisseurship plays a more important role.
Connoisseurship is an activity that enjoys great and not wholly undeserved prestige among art historians. Certainly it takes unusual gifts, notably a prodigious visual memory, to suggest plausible names for a mass of unidentified drawings or paintings by minor provincial masters. It is not so clear what special gifts are needed to distinguish the drawings of Michelangelo from those of copyists and assistants. Here, one might think, the problem is much like that of distinguishing different types of handwriting. Connoisseurs, however, tend to argue that a special kind of sensibility is needed, because the crucial issue is one of quality. The point was well put by Berenson, who once declared, writing specifically of the drawings of Michelangelo: “The great draughtsman is bound to reveal the utmost that he has in him at a given moment in any scrawl whatsoever, even though this scrawl have ever so little representative, illustrative value.”
Something more is implied here than that good artists make skillful drawings, though they generally do. There is an assumption that everything that Michelangelo produced must somehow reveal his genius, and more specifically that drawings can be judged in much the same way as paintings, that is to say as autonomous works of art. Except in the case of the presentation drawings, this is not something that Michelangelo or his contemporaries would have accepted. In fact scholars have long debated which of the presentation drawings are originals and which copies. It is not surprising that they have had no more success with Michelangelo’s working drawings. The problem is not that art historians cannot distinguish good from bad, but that quality is often an inappropriate and always an inadequate criterion, because the standards we apply will almost inevitably be anachronistic. This is why the drawings that have most often been accepted as Michelangelo’s are the ones that conform to modern ideals of liveliness and spontaneity, whereas doubts have most often been raised about those that are very highly finished or very sketchy—the former being dismissed as copies, the latter as the work of pupils.
That connoisseurship is an imperfect guide to attribution should not dismay us. Where better evidence is lacking, art historians have to rely on their own responses. But they can be criticized for failing to look for that evidence. In the study of Renaissance art most of the advances in our knowledge have come from patient research in archives and libraries. Yet there are art historians who seem to feel that they make a significant contribution to knowledge simply by reading the standard literature on a famous artist and then producing yet another catalog of the paintings or drawings. In most cases their time would be better spent in an effort to discover new information. Fortunately, there are some scholars who have adopted a more constructive approach to Michelangelo, and in consequence have put everyone in their debt. One of these was the Viennese art historian Johannes Wilde, who never lost sight of the fact that the drawings were working material, and as a result made fundamental contributions to our knowledge of Michelangelo’s career in his catalog of drawings in the British Museum.
Now Michael Hirst, who was once Wilde’s pupil, has written a book on the drawings of a kind which has been needed for decades and whose absence—apart, it must be said, from a pioneering study by Berenson in The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903)—underlines the unhelpful character of so much Michelangelo scholarship and the dullness of so much of the literature on Renaissance drawings. He has produced an essay, as he terms it, centered not on connoisseurship, but on the more mundane issue of what purpose the drawings might have served; and this approach has largely determined the selection of drawings that he made for the Washington exhibition. Here the most notable feature was the range of different types of drawings displayed, from the famous life studies in chalk, mostly for the Sistine ceiling, and the presentation drawings, to, more controversially, highly finished studies in pen and wash for architectural projects, and, at the other end of the scale, the most summary sketches for the lunettes in the Sistine Chapel.
Although it is not his immediate concern, Hirst’s discussion is directly relevant to questions of attribution, because if we know how Michelangelo worked, then we can begin to see if and how individual drawings fit into a pattern. Hirst gives us that knowledge. His short book is based on a deep familiarity not just with the drawings which have been assigned to Michelangelo, but with every aspect of his career. It demonstrates how much such an investigation can reveal about an artist’s creative process, and it ought to be read by anyone interested in Michelangelo or in Renaissance drawings. Whether he is discussing Michelangelo’s efforts to teach his students how to draw, or the ways in which he developed his narrative compositions, or the place of life drawing in his working procedure, Hirst’s analysis is illuminating and persuasive. His approach has led him to credit Michelangelo with a stylistically more varied group of drawings than some earlier scholars would admit; but in those cases where his new attributions will be most contentious—the highly finished sheets that could arguably have been produced by competent assistants—the question of authorship is not really central except to collectors; what matters more is whether such works record Michelangelo’s inventions, and here Hirst’s arguments are difficult to refute.
As we have seen, various rather untidy sketches were often rejected by Michelangelo scholars just because they were so scrappy. This may surprise anyone who visited the Leonardo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. For here were displayed drawings in a great variety of techniques, from the wonderfully eloquent chalk studies of heads of apostles for The Last Supper and the delicate early silverpoints to little diagrams that make no claim to artistic merit. Yet the attribution to Leonardo is not in doubt, since they come from notebooks that have an impeccable provenance and that are full of his handwriting.
Whereas the exhibition in Washington (which could be seen, in a somewhat revised form at the Louvre, until the end of July) was simply intended to illustrate Michelangelo’s activity as a draftsman, the one in London more ambitiously sought to demonstrate the range and unity of Leonardo’s thought in the fields which we anachronistically call art and science. This is why there were reconstructions of machinery illustrated in the notebooks, including, most spectacularly, a flying machine suspended like a vast albatross over the last room, as well as architectural models of other machines and computer graphics demonstrating his use of perspective and his approach to architectural design. But most of the exhibits were drawings. While the largest group came from Windsor, there was also a good selection of loans, making this as impressive a display of Leonardo’s graphic work as one is likely to see.
The idea that Leonardo was a universal man, committed to mastering the entire range of human knowledge and equally creative in every aspect of his activity, emerged in the nineteenth century with the gradual publication of the notebooks. The growth of his fame was almost inevitable, since nothing has survived from the period that is comparable in the accomplishment of the illustrations, the range of topics addressed, and the sheer bulk of the text. But Leonardo’s reputation was made more by the mere existence of this material than by any real understanding of its character, because it has taken a century and more to establish in general terms just what the notebooks contain. His comments on individual subjects often have to be assembled from passages on different pages and in different volumes. Once collected, they have to be put into some chronological sequence. And finally, because much of what he wrote was copied or paraphrased (often inaccurately and without acknowledgment) from books, his sources have to be identified.
Many of the larger claims that were once made for Leonardo no longer seem tenable. Anyone who has looked at the notebooks will soon be struck by the fact that he was no more systematic at notetaking than the rest of us, and that he was certainly not good at bringing any of his ideas to a conclusion—or indeed to anything resembling publishable form. What has also become much clearer is the extent of his dependence on earlier writers. Seen in this light, his protestations against those who blindly follow received authority rather than experience take on a defensive tone, simply because he was well aware that his lack of Latin excluded him from the higher learning of his day. Indeed, in other strictly practical matters, such as ability at arithmetic, Leonardo was by no means remarkable.
Just as Leonardo’s originality as a speculative thinker now seems less marked than it once did, so too is it difficult to maintain that he was wholly exceptional in the variety of his interests and activities. On the contrary, the areas in which he was engaged—principally painting, sculpture, civil and military architecture, mechanical and hydraulic engineering, cartography, geometry, and anatomy—were all subjects in which men trained as artists often became involved. The Sienese painter and architect Francesco di Giorgio, for instance, has left us a manuscript filled with drawings of machines not unlike those illustrated by Leonardo, whom he knew personally; Piero della Francesca wrote treatises on perspective and commercial arithmetic; and, most conspicuously, Brunelleschi, having trained as a goldsmith, was apparently a pioneer in the use of linear perspective and successfully carried out one of the greatest feats of engineering since antiquity, the construction of the dome of Florence Cathedral.
Leonardo’s interests may well have been wider than those of his fellow artists—though how much wider it is impossible to say in the absence of their notebooks—but the record of his achievements in applying his knowledge in a practical way is very meager. There is surprisingly little evidence of his various architectural and engineering projects being put into effect, and at least one important instance in which his ideas were apparently rejected. In short, there is a question mark over Leonardo’s competence, which perhaps should not surprise us given his uniquely poor record at bringing paintings and sculptures to completion. In the field of technology, too, it is clear that he was less original than was once supposed—a point made eloquently in the London exhibition by the inclusion of a model of the crane built by Brunelleschi for the construction of the cupola in Florence, of which drawings are preserved in Leonardo’s notebooks. Indeed, in the history of technology there is not a single invention with which he can confidently be credited. In anatomy, by contrast, there is no doubt about his brilliance in dissection and observation; but here too it is clear that where observation conflicted with his preconceived ideas, the latter often took precedence.
The development of Leonardo scholarship, then, has transformed him from an isolated genius into a more plausible figure. Even now we cannot fail to be astonished by his curiosity and his intelligence. But the purpose of Leonardo’s entire enterprise is unclear, if indeed it had a single purpose at all. Yet the seductive notion of Leonardo the universal man dies hard, and scholars have been reluctant to abandon it, as was evident in the arrangement of the London exhibition, where the drawings were not exhibited chronologically or even according to subject, but so as to bring out supposed parallels in Leonardo’s approach to different fields of knowledge. Studies of the human reproductive system, for example, were juxtaposed with drawings of plants, and sketches of machines with those of the structure of the arm and hand. There is some justification for this approach, in that Leonardo certainly did suppose, for example, that the body was a kind of machine, obeying mechanical laws, that the system of the veins and heart was not very different from the system of rivers; and it seems that this way of thinking by analogy became more marked as he grew older.
What was missing was a clear statement of why Leonardo’s ideas are worth studying, if they are so often mistaken or derivative. Are they of more interest, say, than Newton’s theories about the chronology of the Old Testament? In fact, even if we cease to think of Leonardo as a superman there remain two reasons for investigating his thought. The first is that the survival of the notebooks gives us a unique body of evidence about important fields of activity of Renaissance artists and engineers. Leonardo has left the fullest group of studies of technology of the period, and his writings even provide an ideal case study (though they do not seem to have been much used for that purpose) of just how much—or, in this case, how little—Renaissance artists were able to pick up of the Latin-based culture of their day, without direct access to the texts. The other reason why the notebooks deserve the closest scrutiny is that Leonardo was a remarkable painter. It is this that gives a focus and purpose to many of his speculations and observations.
The one aspect of Leonardo’s thought that was valued after his death was his comments on painting. These are far more extensive than those of anyone else writing in Italy up to that time, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they had the reputation of being original and useful. Leonardo was certainly planning to compose a treatise on painting, but characteristically he never managed to assemble or organize his many scattered remarks on the subject. Already in the sixteenth century some of them were collected in a volume called the Codex Urbinas. Using this and other sources, Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker have now tried to compose the ordered treatise that Leonardo never managed to produce. Although their work necessarily gives a false coherence to his typically unsystematic ideas, the result is certainly easier to read and in many ways more convenient than previous compilations.
If we assume that Kemp and Walker are true to Leonardo’s intentions, most of his treatise would have been of an essentially practical kind, similar in character to his observations on other subjects in the notebooks. Leonardo, in short, was chiefly concerned with creating an art that would be true to natural appearances. This is why so many pages of the notebooks are devoted to the study of perspective, the fall of shadows, and the visual appearance of natural features like trees and distant mountains. Even in his writings on the paragone, the comparison of painting with sculpture, poetry, or music, again and again it is in the ability of painting to bring the real world before the eye of the spectator that provides the principal argument for its superiority over the other arts.
Leonardo’s ideas were very different from those of the next generation of Italian painters. In particular, he did not share their belief that the principal task of the artist was to improve on nature. This is probably why he did not strongly advocate that painters develop a personal style and why he did not have much to say about the process of creation. Evidently he regarded the business of representation as far more onerous than that of conception. That, at least, is the message of the notebooks. Martin Kemp has argued, however, in the London catalog and elsewhere, that Leonardo did come to believe that “the painter needed to forge a new kind of union between intelletto and fantasia—between rational understanding and imaginative recomposition.” His claim, which has been well received by other scholars, fits so well the familiar notion of Leonardo as universal man, combining in a wonderfully original way the diverse demands of art and science, that it needs to be treated with some suspicion; and I do not think it can be sustained.
Leonardo, like everyone else at that time, accepted the Aristotelian idea of mental faculties, and like most people he located these in the cavities or “ventricles” of the brain. Although various authorities differed on details, there was general agreement that memory was located in the rear ventricle and the rational intellect (intelletto) in the central ventricle, while the two front ventricles were the seat of the sensus communis (the confluence of the senses) and the fantasia, which can roughly be translated as imagination. Until long after Leonardo’s time it was accepted that painters principally dealt with sense impressions, using the fantasia. In this respect they were fundamentally different from poets, whose activity, involving language and intellect, was concentrated in the central ventricle.
Leonardo, according to Kemp, challenged this notion, by shifting the sensus communis to the central ventricle, and giving the front ventricles a new function as receptors of data from the eyes alone. The effect, he argued, was to place the sensus communis and so also the fantasia in the same ventricle as the intellect. Unfortunately, this attractive hypothesis cannot be proved. In none of his various drawings of the brain does Leonardo explicitly indicate the location of the fantasia; only once does he indicate the seat of the intelletto, and then it is in the front ventricle, whereas the sensus communis is in the middle ventricle. Nowhere does he explicitly link imagination and intellect, and there is no good reason to suppose that in this respect he was challenging conventional ideas of creativity—or indeed that he gave much thought to the workings of the imagination at all. His revision of the traditional ventricular scheme, such as it was, may as well have been due to a misunderstanding of Latin texts, which he could not read, as to any fundamental rethinking of the problem.
Even though Leonardo’s views on painting, and in particular his stress on the importance of truth to natural appearances and his indifference to selfexpression, now seem disappointingly prosaic, he himself clearly did not consider it an anodyne activity. On the contrary, he thought that painting was uniquely effective because it addressed the highest of the senses, sight. Painters can move spectators more effectively than poets, because of the vividness with which they can depict figures or landscapes. Painters can also instruct, because art can show things better than words.
It is this last idea that is Leonardo’s chief claim to fame as a theorist of art. He was not, of course, the first Italian artist to try to represent the natural world; but we do not know that any of his predecessors undertook this task with such energy or commitment. And what distinguishes, for example, Leonardo’s drawings of machines from others of this period is the information they contain and the powerful representation of force and motion. Leonardo was technically the most innovative draftsman of his age, as the drawings in London so beautifully illustrated. But the motive behind his innovations was not some internally generated desire for self-expression, but a wish to perfect the technical resources of his craft. Leonardo drew things, not ideas, even if, as David Rosand has recently argued, his understanding of natural phenomena reflected the ways in which he chose to represent them.*
Today the notion of art as illustrative, as being a means of conveying information, hardly seems very exciting. Hence the low status of scientific illustration and the stress on spontaneity and fluency in drawings. Here Leonardo’s drawings ought to give us pause for thought. More generally, the history of Leonardo studies, and likewise of the connoisseurship of Michelangelo drawings, ought also to remind us how hard it is to avoid modern values in investigating the artists of the past, not least our modern notion of genius. This has led generations of scholars to search in Leonardo’s writings for the brilliance that he displayed in his drawings and paintings, and to judge Michelangelo’s drawings on the premise that everything he touched must have turned to artistic gold. We may like to be dazzled by their work, but it is surely better to see their achievements clearly.
August 17, 1989
See The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian, The Franklin D. Murphy Lectures VII (Spencer Museum of Art, at the University of Kansas, 1988). ↩