LEONARDO DA VINCI

A Leonardo Eye
LEONARDO DA VINCI
or
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

(Vinci, April 15, 1452 – Amboise, May 2, 1519)

~ Profession: Polymath Genius ~

Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" or universal genius, a man whose seemingly infinite curiosity was equaled only by his powers of invention. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.


Flying Machine by Leonardo - click to enlarge
The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

English Translation on Wikisource

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

Translated into English by Jean Paul Richter (1888)

Ibid. with Leonardo's Illustrations

From the Sacred Texts Website

Experience, Experiment, Design

Victoria and Albert Museum, London (14 September 2006-7 January 2007) - Studio International Website, with some Leonardo drawings

The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci
The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding --Leonardo

Vitruvian Man - click to enlarge
BIBLIOTECA LEONARDIANA e-Leo
Archivio digitale di storia della tecnica e della scienza Museo di Vinci.
Tutti i manoscritti ed i disegni di Leonardo sono consultabili - Bellissimo!
(Excellent digital repository of Leonardiana - Needs registration & login, and it's worth it! This site is truly exceptional, visually and for the richness of contents)

A Da Vinci Madonna - click to enlargeWEB GALLERY OF LEONARDO'S WORKS



~Some appraisals and book reviews on Leonardo...


click to view book on AmazonDRAWINGS (DOVER ART LIBRARY)

LEONARDO DA VINCI, POLYMATHIC GENIUS


The "greatest mind of all time" is probably a fitting definition for Leonardo Da Vinci. He enjoyed straddling the artificial boundary between art and science and proved that human potential need not lie in one field alone. A true Renaissance man, Leonardo was a painter, inventor, scientist, architect, engineer, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. Although centuries after his death he remains known primarily as the artist who painted the "Last Supper" and the "Mona Lisa," Leonardo placed a stronger emphasis on his scientific rather than his artistic endeavors. His investigations into almost every field of known science in his time resulted in plans for everything from airplanes to air conditioning systems. Leonardo was also prolific in the field of mathematics and physics, including squaring the circle and calculating the velocity of a falling object.

Born in Vinci, near Florence, Italy, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman. Leonardo's father recognized his genius early and ensured that he received a proper education in reading, writing, and arithmetic at his home. Leonardo never attended a university. Rather, at the age of 15, he was sent to Florence, where he became an apprentice painter under Italian sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio (1436-1488). It was during this apprenticeship that Leonardo became absorbed in science, and his interest in technical and mechanical skills was already leading him to sketch various machines. In 1482, Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan as the court painter and advisor on architecture and military issues. According to one report, after studying Euclid, Leonardo became so interested in geometry that he neglected his duties as court painter.

Leonardo's interest in mathematics soon led him to provide several approaches to squaring the circle (constructing a square with the same area as a given circle) using mechanical methods. In his notebooks, Leonardo described and drew plans for both a telescope and a mechanical calculator. Leonardo also formulated several accurate astronomical theories, including one which stated that Earth rotates around the Sun, and another stating the Moon shines because of the Sun's reflected light. Leonardo postulated that the shadowing image of the full moon that appears cradled between the horns of the crescent moon each month is illuminated by light reflected from the earth, a conclusion that was reached by German Astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) a century later. Through experimentation, Leonardo concluded that the velocity of a falling object is proportional to the time of its fall, predating Sir Isaac Newton's mathematical theory of force and gravity. Leonardo's greatest contribution to science and physics, however, may have been his belief that much of nature could be explained scientifically through a strict adherence to mathematical laws, a fundamental tenet of the philosophy of physics.

Leonardo was a keen observer of the rocks and fossils of his native Northern Italy. Among his 4,000 pages of unpublished notes (an unfinished encyclopedic work) are references to sedimentation occurring in the Arno riverbed and its flood-plain, and observations of rainwater rushing downhill, carrying fossilized rock with it. Leonardo reasoned that the fossils he observed embedded in the rocks of mountains were not washed uphill, and therefore, the hillsides had once been the site of the sea floor. He furthered this argument with his identification of fossilized corals and oysters, found more than 100 mi (160 km) inland. In the layers of stratified rocks and fossils, Leonardo grasped the concept of geologic time.

The Duke of Milan was defeated by the French Armies in 1499, and the following years were nomadic for Leonardo as he traveled to Mantua and then Venice, where he consulted on architecture and military engineering (Leonardo's notebook included plans for a triple-tier machine gun). Leonardo then returned to Florence briefly and, in 1506, returned to Milan where he worked on various engineering projects. Leonardo spent from 1513 to 1516 in Rome, then moved to France, where King Francis I employed him as a painter, architect, and mechanic. By this time, Leonardo worked little on painting and devoted himself primarily to his scientific studies. Leonardo's thousands of sketches and notes focusing on both practical matters of his day and visions of future scientific accomplishments remain as a testament to Leonardo's prolific genius. This book presents an illuminating selection of his work as an overture to comprehension.






click to view book on Amazon LEONARDO DA VINCI: THE DIVINE AND THE GROTESQUE

by Martin Clayton

GROTESQUELY DIVINE


Famous art historian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1896: "Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it be the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values."

The interest in Leonardo's genius has continued unabated; experts study and translate his writings, analyse his paintings using scientific techniques, argue over attributions and search for works which have been recorded but never found. Liana Bortolon, writing in 1967 (from Wikipedia), said: "Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge... Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe."

The evolutionary nature of da Vinci's art is evident in the intriguing history of the Mona Lisa, da Vinci's "long-term companion," which he worked on for four years and was still holding on to nine years later. What makes the story even more compelling is that at the same time he painted this legendary portrait he was engaged in configuring an enormous canal project meant to divert the course of the Arno River. Beyond artist and sculptor, da Vinci was an engineer, an inventor of flying machines, an architect, a mathematician, a cartographer, a theatrical designer, a naturalist, a revolutionary anatomist.

Astounding, yes, but also poignantly human. Incompletion was also the result of a career that forced him to dodge from patron to patron, from Florence under the Medicis to Milan under the Sforzas to Rome under the Medicis again and finally to France under François I. The times were restless, to say the least, but so was he. His scattered fire may also have resulted from an uncertainty about his multiple gifts. For instance, he recommended himself to one patron as an inventor of war machines, mentioning his skill as a painter almost as an afterthought. In his last years, comfortably housed and given a generous pension by the French king, it was his knowledge and wisdom that were valued.

Leonardo's writings and drawings - perhaps even more than the paintings - take us directly into the life of the Tuscan Maestro, as if they are themselves a kind of memory, cluttered with fragmentary records of the travails of his days, the secrets of his dreams, the flights of his mind. Engaging and illuminating is Leonardo's preoccupation with flight -- his obsession, from his earliest infancy, with birds, as well as his designs for parachutes, hang-gliders, helicopters and planes. It convinces us readers that this fascination was a major, abiding concern of Leonardo's life, but why? A very simple reason may be that levitation was the one thing that offered a reprieve from all that earthly movement. In the most fundamental sense, the aspiration to take flight deeply informed Leonardo's paintings, far beyond the depiction of birds and winged angels. An example may be the famous landscape drawing in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, proudly dated 1473 by a 21-year-old Leonardo: not a sketch of any one view from a given spot, but a composite of various landscapes in the area around his hometown of Vinci -- a composite presented as if seen from the air. It is a bird's-eye view!

A certain quality of ethereal levitation pervades all of Leonardo's works. The untranslatable Italian word `sfumato', which alludes to an effect like smoke disappearing into the air, well describes the characteristic atmosphere of Leonardo's painting. It was a technique devised to depict gradual transitions of light and shade, and its effect was to place objects into a surrounding atmosphere -- that is, into conditions that could have meaning only in the perceptual experience of a viewer. In fact, the paintings emerge looking like the result of a heightened visual experience, even a trancelike state. A fancy word for this process is sublimation -- literally, the transmutation of solids and liquids into airborne gas -- and it had real consequences for Leonardo's practical life as a painter. One by one, his works tended to untie themselves from the concrete circumstances of their commissions, remaining suspended in the more rarefied state of the work-in-progress or the autonomous Work of Art.

~THE SEAT OF THE SOUL
Leonardo's conception of the neurological functions of the body provided the foundation for his artistic and scientific philosophy. In the "Diagrammatic drawing illustrating how sight works", sensory information gathered in the "Imprensiva" travels to the sensus communis where fantasia (imagination), intelletto, and most importantly, the human soul reside. Elsewhere, Leonardo labels the "sensus communis" as "volontà" -- voluntary action or movement that includes overall motion such as walking or running, and extends to small details of expression, such as the raising of an eyebrow. The sensus communis therefore, not only had receptive and analytical roles, but also performed the dynamic function of transmitting the commands for human motion.

In his "Diagrammatic drawing of the brachial plexus", Leonardo illustrates a system of "neurological plumbing", whereby motor impulses are transmitted from the brain throughout the body via the spine. Tubular chords carry commands and sensations from the brain to the limbs and command the movements of the muscles and sinews. Because the soul instigates all physical movement in the body, in paintings, the gestures and expressions of every figure must visually communicate the "concetto dell'anima" or the "motions of their mind".

Leonardo advises that "if you wish to show a good man speaking make his attitudes fitting accompaniments for good words; if you have to portray a bestial man, make him with fierce movements".

The Last Supper is a perfect demonstration of Leonardo's obsession with the concetto dell'anima. His understanding of the nervous system, muscles and tendons, "which and how many nerves are the cause of movement", is already evident in the surviving preparatory drawings for the heads of the Apostles, for example in the "Study for the head of Judas". In the painting, the ebb and flow of movement along the table is the outward effect of the inner causes of motion and emotion, as the individual movements of each disciple speak the body language of their mind.

~READING FACES
Legend has it that Leonardo searched Milan for expressive facial types to use for the disciples in the Last Supper. He stressed the importance of carrying a notebook at all times to record observations directly from nature to create an aide memoire of faces. In line with the age-old tradition of physiognomy, he also recommended to painters to use a physiognomic classification of features. "Noses" for example, "are of ten kinds".

Leonardo subscribed to the general view that the signs of the face show the nature of men, their vices and temperaments. Those who have facial features of great relief and depth are "bestial and wrathful men with little reason", and those who have strongly pronounced lines located between the eyebrows are wrathful.

In "Two busts of men facing each other" familiar types are juxtaposed in old age and youth. Both are "idealized" to enhance the contrast and to highlight a favourite theme of the transient nature of beauty - a mortal thing of beauty passes and does not endure.

~EMOTIONS AND FANTASIA
For Leonardo, emotion was a "continuous quantity". Ever-changing, feelings cannot be fixed at one point. In the Mona Lisa, he created the equivalent of a mobile face in painting. The physiognomic signs do not constitute a single, fixed definitive image. The features of the face are difficult to read, the corners of the mouth and the eyes veiled in a mist of translucent glazes, dissolve into shadow.

According to Dante in the "Convivio", the soul operates largely in two places, the eyes and the mouth. "These two places, by a beautiful smile, may be called the balconies of the lady who dwells in the architecture of the body, that is to say the soul, because she often shows herself there as if under a veil." The unknowable motions of Mona Lisa's mind as the product of her very soul do seem to be reflected in her face.

According to Leonardo, fantasia and intelletto also resided in the sensus communis. Fantasia was a sort of active, combinatory imagination that could combine and recombine sensory impressions to create new compounds.

"Study of a Dragon" illustrates how realistic monsters could be created on the basis of knowledge of real animal anatomy. The concept of fantasia was already well established as a valuable artistic quality prior to Leonardo. The Florentine inventor and architect Antonio Filarete, for example, was well known for his ability to create fantasy buildings and ingenious allegories. But Leonardo's vision of the imaginative faculty as an integral part of the inner senses was unique. It gave artistic invention the status of a scientifically recognized process of the human mind. It also gave artists a divine power to fabricate their own universe.

~FROM IMAGINATION TO IMAGE
The importance of an artist's creative faculty in Leonardo's philosophy had a profound effect on his approach to compositional drawing. He advised that an artist must "first strive in drawing to give to the eye in indicative form the notion and invention made first in your imagination, subsequently taking away and adding on until you satisfy yourself".

The surviving tiny sketch of "Two skirmishes between horses and foot soldiers" are a perfect demonstration of his creative method. Beginning with "the invention made originally in your imagination"..."composing roughly the parts of the figures attending first to the movements appropriate to the mental motions of the protagonists involved in the narrative." The definition of individual parts must be preceded by the fluent search for narrative force in the composition as a whole.

In the preparatory sketch for "The Sea God Neptune commanding his quadriga of sea horses" the fluidity of Leonardo's creative process is equally astonishing. He freely creates forms inspired by Classical antiquity to create a coherent composition. Some of the rapidly worked black chalk lines emphasise key elements. Others suggest alternative poses, performing a creative role in their own right in the emergence of the most effective composition.

~LEONARDO'S REVOLUTION
Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists of 1550 conceded that Leonardo had instigated a revolution in the realm of art. By that time, Leonardo's concept of the human figure as the primary vehicle for expression had become an ideal for all Renaissance artists. But Leonardo's revolution was not merely a question of style. It was an entire reform of the creative procedures of the artist, based on the most profound understanding of nature.

A tiny archer, illustrated in the "Codex Forster, Fol. 44r" illustrates the point perfectly. The sketch accompanies a description of how "Someone who wishes to draw back his bow...must set himself entirely on one foot, lifting the other so much higher than the first that it makes it necessary to counterpoise the weight which is thrown over the first foot". When he wishes to let go of the bow "he suddenly and simultaneously leaps forward and extends his arm and releases the bowstring".

A comparison between Leonardo's archer and an archer from Antonio Pollaiuolo's The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, painted in the 1470s, indicates the extent of the revolution that is Leonardo's art. His mind transcends the period of the Renaissance and every epoch thereafter. It is universally acknowledged that his imagination, his powers of reason, and his sheer energy surpass that of any person in history.

Please, open yourself to Leonardo and surmount your awe to enjoy it all.





click to view book on AmazonTHE WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI: ORDER AND CHAOS IN EARLY MODERN THOUGHT

by Robert Zwijnenberg

DRAWING TO THINK


In the words of its author, THE WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI seeks to demonstrate that "for Leonardo to think was to draw and to write, and to draw and to write were to think". Robert Zwijnenberg's contention is that "Leonardo's method of working makes it evident that thought cannot happen without the activity of the hand". Proof of that fusion between verbal and artistic thinking is contained in the master's remaining notebooks, now preserved in Madrid, Milan, and England. A careful and contextual analysis of the structure of those notebooks is the task set by the author of this valuable addition to Leonardo studies.

The very word "notebook," imposes in our minds a sort of conventional, classroom meaning inappropriate to the Leonardo manuscripts. His notebooks actually were never meant as a means to some end but, rather, represent a realized process of continuous thinking. According to Zwijnenberg, Leonardo's notebooks were a fundamental and constant endeavor. "Without doubt, working on his manuscripts was the most important of his activities, perhaps even the foundation of the others". In fact, as the author makes clear, Leonardo used his notebooks as a stream-of-consciousness dialogue with himself. This is really exciting, and Zwijnenberg's analysis allows us to listen in.

This book was born of the author's "fascination with Leonardo's obsessive writing and drawing. It proposes to answer why incessant writing and drawing were so important to Leonardo, and in what way was the apparent disorder of the manuscripts productive for him". Much of the difficulty we have in understanding the nature of Leonardo's writings and drawings lies in what the author has defined as the "labyrinthine gaze," a thought process in constant motion and of such diversity that it obscures the focus of his textual and visual notes. It describes the fusion of synoptic and micrologic approaches and it typifies Leonardo's intellect.

While aiming at an understanding of how and why Leonardo wrote and organized his notebooks, Zwijnenberg presents, along the way, a sequence of perceptive investigations into Renaissance philosophical reasoning and visual conception. We learn much of the mind of Leonardo and so much more: of the impact of Quintilian and Ciceronian rhetoric on the formation of Renaissance thought, of Aristotelian method and its Renaissance application, of the new illustrative treatises of Mariano Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio, of the far-reaching influence of Nicholas of Cusa, of the geometrical and rhetorical underpinnings of linear perspective. We revisit, with new understanding, the ancient debate of the paragone, the discussion of the hierarchy of the arts of painting and sculpture, and learn that much of the controversy was contrived by the late sixteenth-century editors who selectively presented the relevant contents of Leonardo's notebooks. We also review the old arguments involving the primacy accorded manual and mental labours and the nature of artistic invention and execution. For those interested in the evolution of Florentine philosophy during the Quattrocento and who have read George Holmes's "The Florentine Enlightenment" (1969) and Arthur Field's "Origins of the Platonic Academy in Florence" (1988) and still remain a bit perplexed, Zwijnenberg offers a succinct excursus into the Renaissance response to classical rhetoric and, thereby, provides a needed background against which to view Leonardo's literary and artistic compositions.

Zwijnenberg has subjected the entirety of each page of Leonardo's notebooks to careful and integrated scrutiny, reading text and drawing against each other. His care in explaining such a seemingly mundane page as that of folio 22v of Madrid I, showing a waterwheel, is a case in point. Art historians who have skimmed such pages looking at only their immediate pictorial impact will be unable to do so again, for "the act of writing itself and perhaps also rereading what he had written made him consider new options". With Zwijnenberg's aid, we can finally "see a fragment of Leonardo's thinking that has become quiet and that only needs Leonardo's reading eye to start moving again".

For those interested in following the evolution of Leonardo's stylistic method as it relates to the progress of his thinking, Chapter 6, dealing with the master's anatomical studies, should prove especially intriguing. Many of us have cast admiring glances at these studies of the inner workings of the human form, but the author's illuminating and contextual analyses should provoke more extended and respectful examinations. Seeing Leonardo's "exploded view" renditions of vertebrae as the result of a new awareness of the mechanics of Galenic teleology is a revelation. That Leonardo's dissections aimed at a total understanding of how organs functioned within the entire corpus can beset against the totality of Leonardo's world view and can be seen as emblematic of the new universal imperative of the Renaissance.

Zwijnenberg's contextual considerations of Leonardo's method extend even to the artist's curious (and quirky) practice of "mirror writing." He explores, in Chapter 4, the practical explanation that, since Leonardo was left-handed, such reverse writing avoided (in the days before pencils and ball-points) the danger of smearing the wet ink of words already written. Yet Leonardo is the only person known to have practiced this technique with any consistency. An alternative rationale might be found in Zwijnenberg's argument that Leonardo intended to set his writings into print and, thus, developed the practice to facilitate this process. At this point another interesting aside intrudes, this time dealing with the history of writing and the development of the italic letter and the separation of words. One learns much, and not just of Leonardo, in these tangential excursions. At first they seem a bit distracting, but then one remembers that such an approach is quite in keeping with Leonardo's own method of discourse; Zwijnenberg seems so attuned to his subject that his own organizational mode has become harmonized and energized by its structure.

In fact, Zwijnenberg's volume proves a fascinating and adventuresome read not only for what it purports to do but also for how it does it. Taking the physical evidence contained within the surviving notebooks, analyzing it against the contextual setting of such phenomenon as the rhetorical revival, the author presents a perceptive reconstruction of an extraordinary, wide-ranging, yet calculated working methodology and he does so in a manner which clearly reflects the "style" of his study.

Leonardo is no easy person to understand and the extent, scope, and organization of commentary and drawings on the pages of his many surviving notebooks is bewildering. The most obvious questions are, of course, why he made the effort and how he set about it. Zwijnenberg brings to his thoughtful analysis the talents of an aesthetician and the understanding of an historian of Renaissance philosophy. The term "provocative" is overused in reviews but, in this case, it seems to truly fit. Appropriately enough, this intriguing look at the Leonardo notebooks is contained in a handsomely packaged volume and presented in a discursive manner which perfectly complements its subject.





click to view book on AmazonLEONARDO DA VINCI: ARTIST, THINKER AND MAN OF SCIENCE (PRESTIGE COLLECTION - 2 BOOKS IN SLIP CASE)

by Eugene Muntz

ECLECTIC MARVEL


During his lifetime,Leonardo produced 13,000 pages of sketches, encoded mirror writing and engineering drawings, an accomplishment perhaps greater than any of his more famous works of art including that smiling lady.

From the time he was 30, Leonardo carried around notebooks into which his creative energy could overflow. He made sketches for paintings, drew fragments of human and animal anatomy, drafted letters to his patrons, invented machines for moving water and making war, and recorded his thoughts on various topics. He published only one book during his lifetime, on painting, although he had enough for several volumes on a variety of topics. How different the path of science might have been if Leonardo had only published his experiments and theories on optics, anatomy and engineering as other scientists did. But the collection of notebooks was broken up after his death. Many of them were sold a page at a time, as souvenirs; only about half of the pages have survived to this day.

One of the few subjects Leonardo avoided in his notebooks was his own private life. This has made the biographer's work challenging, since various legends have grown up to fill this void. We have to sift through the myth to reach the kernels of truth at its heart and also fill out the bare bones of recorded facts to create a complete portrait of the artist. One mustbe wary of drawing too many conclusions, no matter how tempting, when there is insufficient evidence for them. Nonetheless, it's necessary to attempt a portrait of genius in motion, with its sublime as well as its ridiculous sides.

Leonardo, like most Renaissance artisans, did much of his work on commission. He wanted the fame as well as the fortune that these jobs could bring him. But he was often impatient with the demands his wealthy clients made on his time, and he would pursue his own interests, to the despair of those who had paid him to work for them.

He worked on the mural of "The Last Supper" for two years, on and off, and even when he was actually on the site, his method of working must have been frustrating to behold. One observer recalled, "He would also sometimes remain two, three and four days without touching his brush, although he spent several hours a day standing in front of his work, arms folded, examining and criticising the figures."

The friar of the church finally complained to Leonardo's patron, who then reprimanded his artist. Leonardo coolly replied that since he drew from life, he had been taking the time to find a truly wicked ruffian from which to paint Judas. If the friar complained again, the artist would be happy to have him pose. Needless to say, the patron was far too amused by this response to press the point.

This publication is a lucid and engaging presentation of the Tuscan Maestro, detailing its subject's life with as much care and attention as the artist gave to his anatomical drawings. But just as human life is not quite reducible to its sinews and blood vessels, so the genius of the man is not exactly located in his creations. The life of Leonardo da Vinci still retains a pleasant sense of mystery, like a haunting half smile that refuses to be precisely explained or defined.






Leonardo's  skeletonsLEONARDO DA VINCI: EXPERIENCE, EXPERIMENT AND DESIGN

by Martin Kemp


Some five hundred years after his departure, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-- 1519) is still capturing hearts, minds, and headlines. In November 2001, an elegant bridge supported by huge rings was inaugurated on the outskirts of Oslo, Norway. Originally intended to span the Bosporus, the contemporary-looking structure was designed in 1502 by the Tuscan genius. In 1485, while he was living in Milan, Leonardo designed a parachute. Its caption read, "A man supplied with a linen covering 23 feet long, wide, and high over his head can jump from any height without getting hurt." In July 2000, an Englishman, Adrian Nicholas, took these words literally: he launched himself from a hot-air balloon wearing Leonardo's 187-pound, pyramid-shaped parachute from a height of ten thousand feet. Nicholas used a traditional parachute, just in case, for the last three thousand feet of his descent and landed without getting hurt. In Time Magazine he commented, "It took more than 500 years to find a man with a small enough brain to put into practice the theory of the greatest mind of all time."

The "greatest mind of all time" is probably a fitting definition. Leonardo enjoyed straddling the artificial boundary between art and science and proved that human potential need not lie in one field alone. Those who hope to emulate him must possess an inquisitive mind and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, understanding, and perfection. Although he is universally recognized as the man who painted the Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait of all time, many now realize that Leonardo was much more than a brilliant artist. Scientists and artists alike have been scrutinizing, restoring, experimenting with, or realizing his works from his drawings and instructions with increasing frequency. The results are inevitably a source of inspiration.

As another case in point, in October 1999 Leonardo's equestrian statue, Il Cavallo, was unveiled next to the horse-racing tracks, the Ippodromo of Milan, before a huge crowd. When I visited recently, I found a powerful bronze horse with a mighty fifteen-ton weight, towering twenty-three feet in the middle of a pleasant public garden. Its flaring nostrils, piercing eyes, pricked ears, and menacing teeth made it look anything but serene. Although it was realized by a Japanese- American sculptor, Nina Akamu, Il Cavallo was conceived and planned by Leonardo. Thus, it has become the latest gift bequeathed to Milan by the eclectic Renaissance genius, who spent twenty-five years of his adult life there and left many indelible marks.

Il Cavallo was the main reason for Leonardo's move from Florence to Milan in 1482. Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, commissioned the colossal depiction of a horse mounted by his father, Francesco. It was to be, and probably is, the biggest equestrian statue anywhere. Leonardo originally envisioned a rearing horse but was plagued by technical problems. How do you balance a huge structure weighing many tons on two legs and a tail? His multifarious interests permitting, he worked on the horse for eleven years. He observed and sketched horses in the duke's stables and, finally, to universal acclaim, displayed a clay model of the expressive, trotting horse in 1493 in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco. By 1499 Leonardo had prepared moulds from the model and was ready to cast his masterpiece. Alas, because of imminent war, all the bronze he needed was moved to the city of Ferrara to make cannons. The moulds were lost forever; the clay model was used for target practice by the invading French soldiers and eventually reduced to rubble.

Some 478 years later, an American, Charles Dent, took up the challenge of turning Leonardo's dream into reality. He set up Leonardo Leonardo's Horse Inc. and began a scrupulous study of the master's drawings. In 1993, he came up with a 8.3-foot clay model. Sadly, it turned out to have anatomical inaccuracies that would only have been magnified in the full-scale sculpture. Dent passed away in 1994 but made his associates promise that they would complete the project. Akamu spent a year analyzing Leonardo's drawings, deciphering what he really wanted to create. She made a new, eight-foot clay model in 1997 and cast the final version the following year. A copy of the Milan statue is currently drawing crowds at the Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Leonardo's LAST SUPPER (unrestored) - click to enlargeTHE LAST SUPPER
The most evocative site connected with Leonardo is in Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church in Milan. It was here that the master created Il Cenacolo, known as "The Last Supper."

I stood in line for forty-five minutes and was allowed barely fifteen minutes to contemplate Il Cenacolo. In a soundless, dimly lit hall, the fresco solemnly salutes the visitors, who seem more like pilgrims venerating a god than mere tourists. Leonardo combined mathematical precision, great artistic ability, and human insight to depict a significant moment in the life of Jesus Christ, who has just announced, "One of you will betray me." As he looks down, grieved, his words are received by the twelve apostles, who begin a heated debate in groups of three. Their faces display disbelief, outrage, disappointment, anxiety, incredulity. A revelation is awaited but will never come.

Those who visited Il Cenacolo between 1978 and May 1999 would have noticed scaffolding and sometimes a spectacled lady, Pinin Brambilla, working patiently on the fresco. It took this Milanese restorer twenty- one years to remove the dust, dirt, and paint applied by seven other restorers through the centuries and bring it back to life. On May 28, 1999, the masterpiece was unveiled to present itself once again as Leonardo intended. Soon after the inauguration, Brambilla declared: "Leonardo and I had a long silent dialogue of many nuances, he is a difficult man. ... He paints from the heart, is unsure how to transfer his feelings, he is hesitant."

It took Leonardo three years (1495--98) to complete Il Cenacolo, but rather than applying the standard fresco technique by painting quickly on wet plaster, he used oil on a dry surface, as if painting a canvas slowly. The fresco began deteriorating soon after. In 1560, art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote, alarmingly, "All I can see is a shiny stain." Soon after its completion, Il Cenacolo was copied by able artists; excellent copies survive in good condition in the tiny parish church of Ponte Capriasca, in southern Switzerland; the Louvre; and the Academy of London. None can compete with the original; when one stands before the emotionally charged scene, the spirit of the master almost seems to be there, pondering, in line with his philosophy "to reflect is noble, to realize is servile," how to better the composition.

Santa Maria delle Grazie was part of a Dominican monastery. Compared to Milan's colossal Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, it is a minor church, yet it was decorated by Leonardo and built by his contemporary Donato Bramante, the architect who designed and partly built St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Why so much honour for this small church? Ludovico il Moro apparently intended to transform it into the family mausoleum. Alas, the French captured Milan in 1499 and the duke's dreams came to an abrupt end.

MULTITALENTED LEONARDO
I stood in the Piazza Duomo, one of Italy's largest plazas, looking at Milan's marble cathedral. The third-largest sacred building in the world, it can hold 40,000, counts 135 pinnacles, and boasts more than 2,200 statues. When Leonardo arrived, the cathedral had been under construction for a century, though it would not be finished until nearly the end of the nineteenth century. The cathedral had a temporary cupola and was in need of a solid dome. Many leading architects submitted their projects to the duke, and so did Leonardo.

In a square to the right of the cathedral is the palace, where Leonardo lived and worked undisturbed. The living quarters and workshop he called la fabrica occupied a whole wing of this palace, which has since been rebuilt and enlarged. He could see the cathedral from his window and spent much time designing a dome for the cathedral. (He defined it as "sick" and in need of a "physician-architect.") Although his project was rejected, his effort was seen as stiff competition for more established architects such as Bramante and Giovanni Antonio Amedeo, the winner.

During his first years in Milan, Leonardo painted Virgin of the Rocks. It has baffled art critics more than the enigmatic Mona Lisa, which he painted twenty years later in Florence.

Virgin of the Rocks features the Madonna, the angel Uriel, and two infants, Jesus and Saint John. Uriel is smiling at someone out of the scene, but who? She is pointing at Saint John with her index finger; no one knows why. Jesus is sitting next to Uriel, protected by her, and the Madonna has her right arm around the shoulders of Saint John. Her left hand, opened like a talon, is moving toward Jesus' head; is it a gesture of protection or menace? Jesus has two fingers raised, blessing Saint John. How to explain this reversal of roles? Wasn't John the one who baptized Jesus? And why is the background so disquieting and surreal? Aren't paintings of the Madonna and child supposed to be serene?

As if to add to the mystery, a little later, Leonardo, in association with Ambrogio de Predis, painted another Virgin of the Rocks, which is exactly the same save for a few details. All subjects have a halo; Uriel is not pointing at Saint John, and John has a cross lying against his shoulder. For a long time, critics thought that one was a fake. Now most agree that both are originals, but no one can explain their subtle differences.

Virgin of the Rocks was commissioned by the newborn Confraternity of Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and was to be displayed at the altar of San Francesco church in Milan. Excited by the idea of seeing another masterpiece signed by Leonardo, I went in search of San Francesco. Alas, it was demolished long ago. One of the paintings is in the Louvre, and the other, with the halos, is in the National Gallery of London.

While in Milan, Leonardo also produced Lady With the Ermine, his second most popular portrait to the rest of the world. To the Milanese, it is more significant than the Florentine Mona Lisa. It depicts Cecilia Gallerani, the graceful mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. Recently, the painting was loaned to Milan by its current owners in Krakow, Poland. The demand to see it was so massive that Leonardo fans had to book their visit by phone. Thousands jammed the phone lines for days. Countless lucky people managed to get a glimpse of Cecilia; just as many couldn't get through. I was one of the unlucky who kept getting the busy signal.

When Leonardo agreed to paint Cecilia, he had still not been officially commissioned to do the bronze horse. He thought this favour might impress the duke. Soon after, he began working on Il Cavallo.

Leonardo is often called an eclectic genius and for good reason. He was not only an artist, architect, and sculptor but a well-rounded scientist. He dissected human bodies and recorded their anatomy, designed civil engineering projects, and constructed war machines. In Milan he began his famous studies on flying, coming up with the parachute and machines he called ornitotteri. One of the most ambitious plans called for a man to be strapped onto enormous wings extending forty feet each. A courageous individual, probably Leonardo himself, was to secretly jump off the palace roof, flapping them, and land in the cathedral square. Although no one can say with certainty that the inventor actually carried out a manned mission, it won't be long before an audacious twenty-first-century fan hurls himself into the void in front of thousands of onlookers and international TV crews.

HIS INVENTIONS LIVE ON
When walking around Milan, I was amazed at how often the Florentine master crops up. He seems to have a connection with virtually every major historical monument. In the square before the famed La Scala is a lofty statue of a young Leonardo with a cap and long beard. He seems to survey the goings-on at the opera house, almost as if saying, "I could have built something better than this." He wouldn't have approved of the theatre's eighteenth-century neoclassical style. Leonardo shied away from classics, not wanting to repeat what had already been done. Perhaps that's what makes him a genius.

After the cathedral, the symmetric, Renaissance-style Castello Sforzesco is Milan's prime tourist destination. Today, the castle is a huge complex of museums. Leonardo spent much time here in the company of Duke Ludovico, updating him on the progress of Il Cavallo and various engineering projects, or entertaining the court by playing the lyre, telling stories, and designing sets and costumes for pageants. I tracked down the Sala delle Asse (hall of the wooden boards), a room with vaulted ceilings decorated by a labyrinth of leaves and branches interspersed with white crosses, the duke's coat of arms. This fresco, now in pitiful condition, is the work of Leonardo, who was called on to adorn the castle because the duke was to receive important ambassadors. The odd name given to it derives from a document dated April 23, 1498, which states that a request has been made to remove the wooden boards so that Master Leonardo, ingegnere camerale (court engineer), can finish his work by September. The Sala delle Asse and Il Cenacolo are Leonardo's only surviving frescoes still in their original place of realization.

A mile or so from the castle is a 500-year-old monastery now serving as Milan's Museum of Science and Technology. In 1952, to mark the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, a new wing devoted to the Florentine master was inaugurated. Accessed through huge glass doors bearing an etching of Leonardo in old age, the hall exhibits one hundred machines made by contemporary engineers to his designs. I was fascinated by the taut, cloth helix that anticipated the aerodynamic principles behind the modern helicopter, but instead of a rotor he envisaged a helix. Leonardo noted, "If this machine, shaped like a screw, is properly made in starched linen cloth and made to turn fast, the screw will create a helix and rise in the air rapidly." He explained how to turn the helix: "the axis will be made of a steel blade placed under strong torsion, and when released, it will turn the helix."

The inventions on display range from the destructive multiple crossbow, eight-barrelled gun, scythed chariot, and assault battleship to the constructive revolving crane, trench-digging machine, and the lagoon dredge. Other marvels include a revolving bridge, floats for walking on water, a visionary deep-sea diving suit, and the model of an ideal city. Would these "machines" actually have worked? More often than not, they wouldn't have. But perfectly in keeping with the Renaissance spirit, Leonardo did predict many inventions yet to come in the following centuries. (For detailed descriptions of his inventions displayed at the science museum, visit www.museoscienza.org/english.)

In downtown Milan is a distinguished library/art gallery known as Ambrosiana, which houses two portraits Leonardo painted during his Milanese period and the most famous of his manuscripts, the Codex Atlanticus. I couldn't possibly miss it. The paintings are veiled in mystery, as are most things signed by Leonardo. Who was the beautiful woman adorned by pearls in Lady in Profile? Was she the duke's wife, Beatrice d'Este; his illegitimate daughter, Bianca Maria Sforza; or an unidentified mistress? A painting of a man was thought to portray Duke Ludovico, but in 1905 restoration revealed that he is holding sheet music. Since then the experts have changed their minds. Now known as The Musician, it probably depicts Franchino Gaffurio, the choirmaster of Milan's cathedral. Leonardo's association with a musician is hardly surprising. He was deeply interested in music, which he defined as the "representation of invisible things." He played the lute excellently, did research into acoustics, and even invented or improved musical instruments.

sketch by Leonardo
LEONARDO'S NOTEBOOKS
All his life Leonardo recorded his thoughts, drawings, and designs in notebooks, taking care to codify his ideas by writing from right to left; as a left-handed individual he may also have found this method more convenient. The Codex Atlanticus is a treasure trove. Its 1,119 pages contain material on an array of subjects: astronomy, botany, military applications, math, and zoology.

After returning to Florence in 1500, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (1503--6) and worked as an architect and engineer to defeat the rival city of Pisa. He was summoned to Milan in 1506 and became the French king's court painter and engineer. Leonardo arrived in Milan with the Mona Lisa tucked under his arm; he never separated from it until his dying days. He took up residence at a villa in the quiet town of Vaprio on the River Adda to the east of Milan as the guest of his disciple, Francesco Melzi. The master divided his time between scientific experiments, writing, and engineering. He spent the last three years of his life at Chateau Cloux, near Amboise, France, at the court of Francis I.

Melzi inherited all of his master's manuscripts, an estimated thirteen thousand pages, and brought them to the villa in Vaprio for safekeeping. Little did he know that all of Leonardo's writings would be sold or given as gifts by his descendants, who, to their detriment, failed to recognize the value of what they had under their roof. The seven thousand pages that survive are divided into ten manuscripts and several notebooks kept in museums in Italy, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Only one, the Codex Leicester, is privately owned, by a certain Bill Gates.

I drove to Vaprio and found the Melzi villa easily. It was mostly hidden behind tall walls, but the plaque near the entrance attested that Leonardo had lived there. I rang the bell and waited anxiously. A caretaker appeared, eyed me up and down, and then adamantly informed me that the villa was private property; the Melzi descendants had given him specific instructions to admit no one. Alas, I was left to imagine Leonardo in a fifteenth-century building, coming and going through those gates, then getting into a carriage and travelling to Milan. Or perhaps he travelled on the river.

At the township of Imbersago, just up the river from Vaprio, I learned of another site: a ferry built to the master's design. I asked the ice-cream parlor attendant for confirmation. With amazing confidence, she explained how the thing worked. "Its like a sailboat turned upside down. A cable and pulley system powered by the force of the flowing river moves the ferry from one bank to the other." Though incredibly simple, it still functions. No fuel is needed to run a noisy engine, so no pollutants are produced--an amazing, environmentally friendly invention that modern engineers could do with.

YESTERDAY AND TODAY
In Lives of the Artists (1550), Vasari praised Leonardo profusely. "The heavens often rain down the greatest gifts on human bodies, but sometimes with lavish abundance they supply a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that, whatever he does, every action is so divine that he surpasses all other men, and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not acquired through human artifice. ... The fame of his name spread so widely that not only was he held in high esteem in his own times, but his fame increased even more after his death." Vasari was prophetic indeed. Since January 1999, more than forty books have been published on Leonardo in English alone, and numerous Web sites are devoted to him. Martin Kemp's is one of the very best, although a partial work limited by space. However, in an unprecedented editorial move, publisher Giunti of Florence began publishing beautiful facsimiles of all his manuscripts and drawings, which are jealously guarded in museums and private collections around the world. I would therefore suggest that, after reading Kemp's book, a really dedicated Leonardian student should absolutely attempt to get these reproductions: a truly fascinating experience!

As global awareness of his achievements spreads, Leonardo is likely to continue capturing hearts, minds, and headlines. Recently, a theatre set with special effects (a mountain separating into halves) that he designed for a musical play, Orpheus, was displayed at the Tuscan city of Arezzo. It was realized from a drawing owned by a Frenchman. The drawing was kept in a safe in a Swiss bank. Close inspection showed that it came from the Codex Atlanticus. Who knows what else is embedded in Leonardo's paintings and mysteriously encoded manuscripts?






click to view book on AmazonLeonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind

by Charles Nicholl


AWESOME AND BEAUTIFUL LEONARDO


Famous art historian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1896: "Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it be the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values."

The interest in Leonardo's genius has continued unabated; experts study and translate his writings, analyse his paintings using scientific techniques, argue over attributions and search for works which have been recorded but never found. Liana Bortolon, writing in 1967, said (from Wikipedia): "Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge... Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe."

It is a fact that, at the mention of Leonardo da Vinci, most of us reverently think of an old, bearded man, an archetypal and distant figure of polymathic genius. How arresting, then, to learn in this impressively researched biography that he was athletic and "extraordinarily beautiful," ringlets falling down his back, nattily dressed, a bit of a charmer. In fact, the famously well-proportioned Vitruvian Man may be in part a self-portrait.

Kindhearted and averse to conflict - even when publicly goaded by his rival Michelangelo - he harboured "the sense of himself as an outsider: illegitimate, unlettered, sexually illicit." A moving record of his life (he died at 67, highly lauded by his contemporaries), LEONARDO DA VINCI: FLIGHTS OF THE MIND documents how the interplay of loneliness and drive, and of artistic and scientific genius, allowed for the creation of masterpieces often imbued with "an autumnal suffusion of transience and regret" - what da Vinci himself called "the perspective of loss."

It is a testament to the graceful writing and sheer narrative likability of Charles Nicholl that this capacious text - which includes substantial end notes, lovely black-and-white illustrations and 30 colour plates - reads as easily as it does. An award-winning writer of 11 previous books of history, travel and biography, Nicholl retranslates many of da Vinci's mirrorscript writings. He approaches his subject with a contagious excitement while noting the ultimate inscrutability of many areas of the past. "It is a biographer's job to be sceptical more often than romantic," he acknowledges, yet he does a superior job of fleshing out someone who will essentially remain a mystery but who has left his soul behind with his legacy of ideas and inventions.

Nicholl's archaeological attention to detail opens up da Vinci's world for the reader. We know, for instance, the street names and what sorts of shops surrounded Verrocchio's studio, which books our subject had in his library, how much money went to household expenses on a given Saturday in 1504 - for a trip to the barber and another to the market for eggs, bread, partridge.

But it is in the consideration of da Vinci's creative processes that this history is most riveting. We learn of cartooning and underpaintings, we see tantalizing sketches of lost work, we read da Vinci's notes on the exact positions and busywork of each disciple in The Last Supper: "Another who has turned, holding a knife in his hand, knocks over a glass on the table." A study exists of the muscles surrounding the lips, one experimental drawing identical to that of the most well-known of enigmatic smiles.

Nicholl reflects on artwork beautifully and concisely, describing the portraits done during the Milan years, for example, as "soothing, velvety backgrounds against which the foreground figures seem spotlit, as if performing in some subtle metaphorical cabaret." A novice monk witnessed da Vinci at work on The Last Supper and noted how he could sometimes paint all day without food or drink, while at other times he would stand before the wall for hours without making a mark. "That massive sweep of visual narrative ... is made up of thousands of tiny brush-strokes, thousands of microscopic decisions," Nicholl writes. "The familiarity of a world-famous painting makes it seem somehow inevitable - how could it be other than it is? - but every inch has been fought for."

The evolutionary nature of da Vinci's art is evident in the intriguing history of the Mona Lisa, da Vinci's "long-term companion," which he worked on for four years and was still holding on to nine years later. What makes the story even more compelling is that at the same time he painted this legendary portrait he was engaged in configuring an enormous canal project meant to divert the course of the Arno River. Beyond artist and sculptor, da Vinci was an engineer, an inventor of flying machines, an architect, a mathematician, a cartographer, a theatrical designer, a naturalist, a revolutionary anatomist.

Astounding, yes, but in Nicholl's treatment he was also poignantly human. He fell for a lover who took advantage of him financially for years. He had his share of abandoned projects, what the author refers to as "Leonardo's might-have-beens." Part of the beguiling thrill of Charles Nicholl's biography is the manner in which he meticulously salvages the fragmentary evidence, the missing half-lines, like the restorers of the Burlington House cartoon after a man shot it with a 12-bore in 1987. The author has not supplied so many new facts, but the arrangement of them brings a slippery genius down from his lonely pedestal and into the world of the men he worked with and for, and the women who dominate his paintings.

Of course, incompletion was also the result of a career that forced him to dodge from patron to patron, from Florence under the Medicis to Milan under the Sforzas to Rome under the Medicis again and finally to France under François I. The times were restless, to say the least, but so was he. His scattered fire may also have resulted from an uncertainty about his multiple gifts. For instance, he recommended himself to one patron as an inventor of war machines, mentioning his skill as a painter almost as an afterthought. In his last years, comfortably housed and given a generous pension by the French king, it was his knowledge and wisdom that were valued.

Nicholl concludes that it is his "writings and drawings which - perhaps even more than the paintings - take us directly into the life of Leonardo, as if they are themselves a kind of memory, cluttered with fragmentary records of the travails of his days, the secrets of his dreams, the flights of his mind."

Sometimes, Nicholl rushes to alchemise guesswork into fact, but he is honest about it and you can forgive these hard-won deductions. On one page, he wonders whether the woman who turns up in Milan in 1493 might be Leonardo's 60-year-old mother, Caterina. On the next page she suddenly is. With Freud, he notes the oedipal absence of the father from the bastard son's depictions of the Sacra Famiglia. Mercifully, he stops short of attributing Leonardo's homosexuality to a mother fixation, though he is brilliant on the dangers of playing "the backside game" in Lorenzo il Magnifico's Florence. The young Leonardo, anonymously accused of sodomy, may well have spent a night in the clink. Why and when else, wonders Nicholl, would he have designed a contraption "to open a prison from the inside"?

In this deeply researched, engaging and illuminating biography, Charles Nicholl is drawn again and again to Leonardo's preoccupation with flight -- his obsession, from his earliest infancy, with birds, as well as his designs for parachutes, hang-gliders, helicopters and planes. Nicholl will convince any reader that this fascination was a major, abiding concern of Leonardo's life, but he never tells us why this should be so. A very simple reason may be that levitation was the one thing that offered a reprieve from all that earthly movement. In the most fundamental sense, the aspiration to take flight deeply informed Leonardo's paintings, far beyond the depiction of birds and winged angels. Nicholl shows, for example, that the famous landscape drawing in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, proudly dated 1473 by a 21-year-old Leonardo, is not a sketch of any one view from a given spot, but a composite of various landscapes in the area around his hometown of Vinci -- a composite presented as if seen from the air. It is a bird's-eye view.

A certain quality of ethereal levitation pervades all of Leonardo's works. The untranslatable Italian word 'sfumato', which alludes to an effect like smoke disappearing into the air, well describes the characteristic atmosphere of Leonardo's painting. It was a technique devised to depict gradual transitions of light and shade, and its effect was to place objects into a surrounding atmosphere -- that is, into conditions that could have meaning only in the perceptual experience of a viewer. In fact, the paintings emerge looking like the result of a heightened visual experience, even a trancelike state. A fancy word for this process is sublimation -- literally, the transmutation of solids and liquids into airborne gas -- and it had real consequences for Leonardo's practical life as a painter. One by one, his works tended to untie themselves from the concrete circumstances of their commissions, remaining suspended in the more rarefied state of the work-in-progress or the autonomous Work of Art.

With this book, I must say, I got gradually more comfortable with Leonardo's genius and his Art, gaining a better overall understanding -- however, my awe of him did not diminish with this understanding. Rather, it increased!




click to view book on GoogleLEONARDO DA VINCI: THE MARVELLOUS WORKS OF NATURE AND MAN

by Martin Kemp


Drawing on a multiplicity of sources-including the Madrid manuscripts -- Professor Kemp traces the evolution of Leonardo's vision of man and nature and presents 188 line drawings and halftones that embody the richness of his vision. He takes us into the mind of Da Vinci, trying to show us how the great mind thought, what his concerns were, what he accomplished and what kind of a man he was. It is rare for an author to be allowed to bring out a revised edition of a book published twenty-five years earlier. One cannot be blamed for wondering if the Press was originally keen to take advantage of the interest aroused in the uneducated classes by the novel and film, 'The Da Vinci Code'? Whatever the reason, it is good to have this marvellous book back in print.

The author has corrected and updated the text and, where new information (especially of the paintings) or understanding is relevant, has rewritten various passages, with particular reference to the publication of Salai's inventory. In some cases he has inserted new material and now includes all paintings 'that contribute definitively to his autograph oeuvre'. The book remains essentially what it was when first published, 'a cultural biography' of a genius who never ceases to fascinate.

In fact, Leonardo has always been regarded with awe; the breadth of his mind and the frightening range of his interests make him unique. Considering that more than 500 years have elapsed since his birth, a great deal is known about Leonardo, his family and the details of his life. Both his grandfather and his father were notaries, semi-public officials in Renaissance Italy akin to commercial lawyers. Although Leonardo was illegitimate, when he was baptized no less than five sets of godparents were present at the event, an indication of the happiness sparked by his arrival in a previously childless household. His life was the subject of the first psychobiography, Freud's famous treatise, which, despite historical and linguistic lapses, still remains full of insights. Freud's essay, in turn, elicited from Meyer Schapiro a classic article about Leonardo and Freud.

Apart from a liaison with Leonardo's mother, Caterina, who was married off to a local farmer, his father was married four times, producing 11 additional children. Despite vast age differences, Leonardo maintained an ongoing exchange with his brothers and sisters. He even left them 400 florins in his will. Leonardo also appears to have established relationships with his father's wives, particularly the fourth one. There is evidence to suggest that Leonardo's father actively furthered his son's career; in any case, a rapport between them can be inferred until the father's death in 1504. This traumatic event may have affected Leonardo's work, coinciding as it did with a particularly creative period. Although past 50 at the time, an emotion-filled Leonardo noted, with a tremulous hand, both the day and the hour of his father's death in two places among his papers.

In the Kemp's book, we also have detailed information about Leonardo's thoughts, his friends, even his personal life. Certain themes, often set in the form of prophecies, fables or riddles, crop up regularly in his writings, including that of being unappreciated. Characteristic is the following example: "Those who do the best will be struck the most, and their children will be taken away, stripped, and their bones will be crushed and broken." Although this is written in reference to walnut trees, an autobiographical connection may be assumed. To see Leonardo as a whole man, not exclusively as an artist, is the admirable aim of the author. For his raw material, he relies heavily upon Leonardo's own words, drawn from the notebooks as well as the posthumously published 'Treatise on Painting.'

Kemp's grasp of Leonardo's scientific and artistic writings is exceptional and exhibits a commanding control over the entire history of thought that was available to Leonardo and his contemporaries, drawing a number of convincing analogies. For example, he relates Leonardo's designs for an ideal church to his drawings of the human skull. The author observes that "within the bony dome of the cranium, sectioned along the main axis like some of the temple designs, (Leonardo) searched for the inner secrets of proportional design, the secrets which were the vital concern of every Renaissance architect from Brunelleschi to Palladio."

In another insightful connection, Professor Kemp relates Leonardo's puzzling drawings of grotesques to a traditional literary form practiced by Florentine writers, including Leonardo himself, known as facezie. These were satirical, sharply worded stories concerning human weaknesses. Through this connection, certain of Leonardo's drawings are given a new narrative dimension. Furthermore, Kemp has the uncanny ability to explain Leonardo's inventions and his engineering experiments even to readers who may not have a scientific turn of mind.

However much the scientific aspects of Leonardo's work provide insights to the whole man, one can hardly deny that what triggers our interest is Leonardo the artist. He was above all a painter, and it is in this capacity that his influence was the strongest. The LAST SUPPER and the MONA LISA are probably the most familiar images in Western painting, but here the author's discussions become perhaps too cluttered by effusive, uninformative language. A small criticism, because on the whole, Martin Kemp has written an enticing book remarkably free of errors, and with impressive scholarly expertise. If at times he becomes too enthusiastic about his subject, we can surely excuse him and fully empathize in wonder.



Labels: ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home