Leonardo da Vinci

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Plagued by the paradigmatic fault of perfectionists, the inability to complete projects, Leonardo left to posterity fewer than twenty paintings, many of them in unfinished or in badly deteriorated condition, and not an entire statue, machine, building, or book. Despite the fragmentary nature of his legacy, his influence on succeeding generations has been surprisingly strong. Although his public creations did not match in quantity or quality those of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian, many critics have ranked him with these masters because of such works as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Giorgio Vasari, his first important critic, pointed to Leonardo’s restless heart, which propelled him to multiply his nonartistic activities, as the source of his poor record of bringing his ventures to completion. Leonardo tried to do too many things too well, and after making propitious beginnings on many of these projects, he abandoned most of them. His notebooks reveal an imagination bubbling over with many brilliant ideas and a mind eager and able to develop these ideas in inspired ways, but unfortunately, his will seemed unable to resist the temptation to stray from one seductive idea to another. This muddy picture of Leonardo’s accomplishments has not prevented artists, historians, and critics from constructing an image of him as the universal man. He certainly sampled much of the knowledge then accessible to Renaissance scholars, and he even probed, with some ingenuity and insight, such areas as anatomy and optics. The creative products of his mind, eye, and hand that were available to artists and scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped them construct the traditional image of Leonardo as the inspired man of genius whose native intelligence and independent spirit led him to explore new ideas in new ways.

During the past few decades, modern scholars have begun to construct a different picture of Leonardo, less celebratory and more critical, based on exhaustive analyses of the drawings and text of the notebooks published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Because of the higgledy-piggledy nature of the material in these notebooks, scholars have had to perform Herculean labors in arranging hundreds of sheets in thematic and chronological order. Leonardo’s work on various subjects is often found on sheets in different museums and even on distantly separated pages of a single volume. Furthermore, not everything in Leonardo’s notebooks is original, for scholars have found that he often adapted material from other authors and artists. Since he did this without acknowledgment, scholars have had to discover Leonardo’s sources through arduous detective work. These sources have provided a better understanding of how Leonardo capitalized on the work of his contemporaries and predecessors. For example, historians of science have found that Leonardo was heavily indebted to ancient and medieval precursors in his optical work, and historians of technology have shown how Leonardo’s architectural and engineering designs were derived from the work of others.

Although this emerging picture of Leonardo does dim the traditional image of his creative brilliance, it also reveals a more human individual whose inventiveness, still astonishing, is more carefully delineated. In terms of his scientific achievements Leonardo was neither a revolutionary nor a dilettante, but an artist with an eye for the pregnant detail that revealed, though in a glass darkly, the inner workings of nature. He also had the common sense to realize that perpetual motion is impossible and that natural forces, not Noah’s Flood, formed fossil shells. Some of his engineering drawings exhibit great originality, but historians of technology have failed to find a single invention for which Leonardo can be unambiguously given credit. He was skillful in his anatomical dissections and the drawings he derived from them, but, because of his preconceived ideas, his beautiful and detailed drawings sometimes depict forms and functions that do not exist in reality. Finally, Leonardo’s secretiveness—a characteristic inimical to the spirit of modern science—meant that he kept most of his scientific and technological ideas to himself Consequently, those ideas that had genuine value failed to influence the development of these fields.

Before the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London from January to April of 1989, the revisionist portrait of Leonardo was largely unknown to the general public. The exhibition therefore succeeded, as does the book that served as its catalog, in revealing the unity and complexity of Leonardo’s vision of the world largely through a study of his graphic works. Most of the items in the exhibit were drawings, and the largest group of these came from the Queen of England, who loaned eighty-eight drawings from the Leoni volume in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle (this volume, acquired either by Charles I or Charles II, contains about six hundred individual drawings). Unfortunately, the Codex Atlanticus, into which Pompeo Leoni, the sixteenth century sculptor and collector, bound many of Leonardo’s drawings of various machines and other inventions, was not available to be included in the exhibition. Nevertheless, the creators of the show were able to augment the Windsor drawings with loans from several museums in Europe and America. Thus, the exhibition and its catalog provide an enlightening survey of the principal themes in Leonardo’s graphic work. This thematic organization allows the viewer to see the mind of Leonardo at work and also to trace his intellectual and artistic development.

Some critics found the lack of chronological organization of the exhibit disturbing, and others found fault with the juxtapositions of vastly different drawings in some sections. For example, an anatomical drawing of the body’s system of veins and arteries is juxtaposed to a drawing of river systems. These sometimes jarring juxtapositions make valid points, however, for Leonardo did believe that the body’s machinery and the earth’s machinery obeyed the same basic laws. These analogies also help to unveil the visual and intellectual structures behind Leonardo’s creativity as artist and as scientist.

In one of the introductory essays, “Disciple of Experience,” Martin Kemp, a professor of fine arts at the University of St. Andrews, analyzes a theme that reappears as a leitmotif throughout the catalog—Leonardo as an empiricist. Leonardo, who was trained as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, was never a part of the university culture of the Renaissance. He did try to teach himself Latin in order to read his beloved Archimedes (whose works existed then only in Latin translations), but his Latin remained rudimentary and he was usually unable to decipher a text without the assistance of learned friends. He boasted of his lack of book learning and used it to underscore his dedication to experience. For him, experience was the mistress of those who truly know. In his writings, he emphasized again and again that the art of painting was rooted in experiential knowledge. Without a deep familiarity with nature’s laws, the artist could never imitate the Creator. Consequently, Leonardo’s empiricism was not a prison of the particularities of the senses but a door into the basic principles by which God formed the universe. In his search for the shared principles undergirding the diverse phenomena of nature, Leonardo acted very much as a scientist. For example, he believed that every light effect must be understood in terms of intensity, color, distance, atmosphere, angle, reflection, and so on. Only when an artist had achieved a total understanding of natural forms and functions could a second world of nature—an imagined world-be created. Such an ideal of total understanding inevitably doomed Leonardo’s quest to incompletion.

Some scholars have seen something abnormal in Leonardo’s appetite for information, but the distinguished art historian Kenneth Clark viewed Leonardo’s consecration to experience as the one belief he held with genuine nobility. Leonardo once wrote that to him it seemed that those sciences not born of experience, which is the mother of all certainty, are vain and full of error. He even went so far as to state that we should doubt the certainty of everything that does not pass through the five senses. Since the knowledge of God and the soul are contrary to the senses, these beliefs are...

(The entire section is 3476 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Burlington Magazine. CX XXI, April 1989, p.306.

Choice. XXVI, July, 1989, p.1826.

Library Journal. CXIV, July, 1989, p.76.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, August 17, 1989, p.16.