Leonardo da Vinci

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Paul Valéry (essay date 1936)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11324

SOURCE: “Leonardo and the Philosophers,” in Leonardo da Vinci: Aspects of the Renaissance Genius, edited by Morris Philipson, George Braziller, 1966, pp. 350-71.

[The following essay was first published in French as the preface to Leo Ferrero's 1929 work, Léonard de Vinci, and reprinted in slightly revised form in Valéry's Variété III (1936).The translation by Malcolm Cowley originally appeared in volume 8 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by Jackson Mathews (1956-75). In this essay Valéry seeks to determine why Leonardo is not often recognized as a philosopher, despite his penetrating intellect. He proposes that it is because Leonardo“does not separate understanding from creating. He does not like to distinguish theory from practice, or speculative thought from an increase in external power.”]

This essay was written to serve as preface to a first book by Leo Ferrero, and I cannot let it be reprinted here without saying, to those who never knew the young writer, how much the loss of his person meant to Letters.1

Invoking Leonardo da Vinci almost at the beginning of your career, you have placed beneath his name a treatise and meditation on pure aesthetics. Many philosophies have finished or even perished in that field of speculation. Nothing could be nobler than your undertaking, or more venturesome.

With remarkable precision and subtlety you have examined some of the most delicate points in the endless researches that aim to render the Beautiful almost intelligible and to give us superior reasons for being moved by it.

But you are venturing into still more dangerous territory when you ask me to introduce your work to the public. It is not that I have failed to encounter problems of the sort on many divergent paths, or have failed to reflect on them at sufficient length; it is rather that my reflections have echoed one another and that my lights have been confined and confused as if between parallel mirrors. Between nature and artifice, between the pleasures of sight and those of power, the exchanges are infinite. Soon intelligence is lost in a maze. Intelligence, which undertakes and continually resumes the task of reorganizing that which exists, while arranging the symbols of all things round itself as the unknown center, grows weary and loses hope in this realm where answers precede questions, where caprice gives birth to laws, where we are privileged to take the symbol for the thing and the thing for the symbol, and where that liberty can serve as the means of achieving an inexplicable sort of rigor.

Uncertain as I am, you would still like me to prepare the minds of others for your dialectic. All I can offer them is the somewhat confused notion I hold of speculations concerning the Beautiful.

It must be confessed that aesthetics is a great and even irresistible temptation. Almost everyone with a strong feeling for the arts has something more than that feeling; he cannot escape the need for going deeper into his enjoyment.

How can we bear to be enchanted by some aspect of nature or by certain works of man without trying to explain this accidental or contrived delight? On the one hand it seems to be independent of the intelligence—although it may be the principle and hidden guide of the intelligence—while on the other hand it seems to be quite distinct from our ordinary feelings—although it may include and transfigure their variety and depth.

Philosophers could not fail to be puzzled by emotions of this curious type.2 Moreover, they had a somewhat less naive and more systematic reason for examining such emotions and for searching out their causes, operation, meaning, and essence.

The vast enterprise of philosophy, as seen in the philosopher's own heart, consists, after all, in an effort to transmute everything we know into what we should like to know, and the operation has to be effected, or at least presented, or at the very least presentable, in a certain order.

Philosophies are characterized by the order of their questions, for, in a philosophic mind, questions do not and cannot exist in complete independence and substantial isolation. On the contrary, what one finds in such a mind, as a sort of ground bass, is the feeling or fundamental tone of a latent though more or less close interdependence among all the ideas it contains or might ever contain. Awareness of this deep coherence imposes order; and the order of questions necessarily leads to a sovereign question, which is that of knowledge.

Now, as soon as a philosopher has postulated or founded or justified or depreciated knowledge (whether he has exalted and developed it ultra vires by potent logical or intuitive combinations, or whether he has measured knowledge and, as it were, reduced it to limited dimension by criticism), he always finds himself tempted to explain—that is, to express in his system, which is his personal order of comprehension—human activity in general, of which intellectual knowledge is only one of the modalities, although it stands for the whole.

Here we come to a crucial point in any philosophy.

A system of thought that had been so pure and central, one that had actually pursued (whatever its contents and conclusions might have been) the ideal of a uniform distribution of concepts round a certain attitude or characteristic preoccupation of the thinker, must henceforth try to recover the diversity, irregularity, and unexpectedness of other manners of thinking; and its order must regiment their seeming disorder.

It must reconstitute the plurality and autonomy of other minds as a consequence of its own unity and sovereignty. It must legitimize the existence of things it had convicted of error and so ruined; it must recognize the vitality of the absurd, the fruitfulness of contradictions; and at times it must even acknowledge that in itself, for all its sense of being informed with the universality from which it seems to proceed, it is no more than a particular production or the individual tendency of a certain person. Here is the beginning of wisdom, and likewise the twilight of a philosophy.

The truth is that other existences are always disturbing to the splendid egotism of a philosopher. He cannot fail, however, to come against the great riddle presented by the inconsequences of others. The thoughts, the feelings, the actions of another always seem to us arbitrary. The partiality we always show to what is ours has been strengthened by our feeling that we are agents of necessity. But the other does exist, and hence the riddle is forced upon us. It invades our minds under two forms: one consisting in the different types of conduct and character, the great variety of decisions and attitudes, in all that touches on the preservation of the body and its possessions; the other manifested by the diversity of tastes, expressions, and creations of the sensibility.

Our Philosopher cannot resign himself to not absorbing into his own light all the realities that he would like to assimilate to his reality, or at least reduce to being its possible possessions. He wants to comprehend, that is, to comprehend them all in the full meaning of the word. Hence he will dream of building himself a science of the values of action, and another science of the values of expression or of creating emotions—an ethics and an aesthetics3—as if his Palace of Thought would be imperfect without these two symmetrical wings, in which his omnipotent and abstract self could imprison action, passion, emotion, and invention.

Every philosopher, when he has finished with God and the Self, with Time, Space, Matter, the Categories, and the Essences, turns back toward men and their works.

Just as our Philosopher had invented the True, so he invented the Good and the Beautiful. Just as he had invented rules to harmonize isolated thought with itself, so he undertook to prescribe other rules designed to harmonize action and expression with precepts and models that were shielded from everyone's caprices and doubts by the consideration of a unique and universal principle, one that must first of all, and irrespective of any particular experience, be defined or designated.

Few events in the history of thought are more remarkable than this introduction of Ideals, in which may be seen an essentially European achievement. The decline of ideals in men's minds coincides with that of the virtues typical of Europe.4

We are still rather firmly attached, however, to the idea of a pure science rigorously developed on the basis of local evidence, but having properties that may be extended indefinitely from identity to identity. In the same fashion we are still half convinced of the existence of a single Morality and a single Beauty, both independent of times, places, peoples, or persons.5

Each day, however, the ruin of this noble edifice is a little more clearly revealed. We are witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon: that the very development of the sciences is tending to weaken the concept of Knowledge. I mean that a seemingly impregnable area of science, one that it shared with philosophy (in other words, with faith in the intelligible and belief in the inherent value of mental acquisitions) is gradually yielding ground to a new fashion of conceiving or evaluating the function of cognition. No longer can the efforts of the intellect be regarded as converging toward an intellectual limit, toward the True. A moment of self-examination is enough to reveal in ourselves this modern conviction: that any form of knowledge, unless it corresponds to some effective power, has only a conventional or arbitrary importance. The value of any knowledge consists only in its being the description or the means of exercising a verifiable power. From this it follows that any metaphysical system and even any theory of cognition, whatever these may be, are ruthlessly cut off and set apart from what is regarded more or less consciously by all as the only real knowledge—payable in gold.

By the same process and apparently of their own volition, ethics and aesthetics are dissolving into problems of legislation, statistics, history, or physiology … and into lost illusions.

Moreover, what excuse could we offer for making and elaborating plans to “do an Aesthetics”?—A science of the Beautiful? … Do modern people still use that word as a noun? It seems to me that they never pronounce it without a hint of apology or disdain, unless they happen to be thinking of the past. Beauty is a sort of corpse. It has been supplemented by novelty, intensity, strangeness, all the shock values. Raw excitement is the sovereign mistress of recent souls, and works of art are at present designed to tear us away from the contemplative state, the motionless delight, an image of which was at one time intimately connected with the general notion of the Beautiful. Art is more and more penetrated by the most immediate and unstable moods of psychic and sensual life. The unconscious, the irrational, the instantaneous—which are, as their names indicate, privations or negations of the voluntary and sustained forms of mental activity—have replaced the models expected by the mind. Seldom do we encounter anything produced by a desire for “perfection.”—Let us observe in passing that this antiquated desire was bound to be destroyed by the blind striving and insatiable thirst for originality. The ambition to perfect a work of art comes close to being a project for making it independent of any era; but the effort to be new is also an effort to make the work of art a remarkable event by virtue of its contrast with the passing moment.6 The former ambition admits and even requires heredity, imitation, or tradition, these being stages in an ascent toward the absolute beauty it dreams of attaining. The latter ambition rejects them, while implying them still more rigorously—for its essence is to differ from.

In our days a “definition of the Beautiful” has become scarcely more than a historical or philological document. This illustrious word has lost its ancient richness of meaning. Soon the numismaticians of language will put it away in their cabinets, with many another verbal coin that has passed from circulation.

Nevertheless, certain problems remain, and certain others might well arise, that cannot be assigned to any of the well recognized scientific disciplines and have no connection with any particular technique.7 They have also been neglected by the philosophers, although they keep reappearing—however vaguely or strangely they may be expressed—in the gropings and uncertainties of artists.

Take, for example, the general problem of composition (that is, of the different types of relationship between the whole and the parts); or take the problems resulting from the manifold functions of each element in a work; or the problems of ornament that border simultaneously on geometry, physics, and morphology without finding a definite center—although they permit us to glimpse a vague sort of kinship among the forms of equilibrium of physical objects, the figures of musical composition, the structure of living creatures, and the half-conscious or fully conscious productions of human activity when it endeavors to fill an empty space or time, as if in obedience to something like a horror of the void.

Questions of the sort do not obtrude themselves on abstract thinking. They take rise and acquire their strength from the creative instinct, at a moment when the artist has gone beyond the point of setting down what first occurs to him.8 He begins to look for solutions in a process of meditation that appears to be speculative, even assuming a philosophic form, and he hopes it will lead to some decision that will determine the form and structure of a concrete creation. It may well happen that the artist follows the same path as the philosopher, at least for a time, in his effort to formulate principles than can justify and clarify his intentions by giving them more than a merely personal authority; but what he achieves in this direction is only a biased sort of philosophy, one that aims beyond his principles at a set of particular consequences for the work in hand. The true philosopher regards what is as the limit to be attained and the object to be recovered at the extreme point of his mental excursions and operations. The artist, on the other hand, is at home in the possible and makes himself the agent of what is to be.

The clearest difference between the aesthetics of a philosopher and the reflections of an artist is that the former proceeds from a system of thinking that regards itself as foreign to the arts and of another essence than the thinking of a poet or a musician—in which respect it may well be mistaken, as I hope to show later. To a philosopher's mind works of art are accidents, or particular cases, or the effects produced by a busy sensibility as it gropes blindly toward a principle that Philosophy sees as a whole and possesses as an immediate and pure concept. The practice of the arts does not seem necessary to the philosopher, because its supreme object is one that should belong immediately to philosophic thought, or should be directly accessible to such thought as a result of the attention that philosophers apply to understanding, or to creating a system that jointly explains the perceptible world and the intelligible world. The philosopher does not feel a particular need for artistic activity; he underrates the methods and values of execution and the importance of materials, since he instinctively tends to distinguish these from the idea. He finds it distasteful to think of an incessant, intimate, and even-handed exchange between the desired and the possible, between what he judges to be accident and what he judges to be essence, between “form” and content, between consciousness and automatism, between circumstance and design, between “matter” and “spirit.” Now, it is precisely the great custom and acquired freedom of making such exchanges; it is the existence in the artist of a concealed standard of measurement applying to elements of radically different natures; it is the inevitable and indivisible collaboration, the coordination at every moment, in all his acts, of the arbitrary and the necessary, of the expected and the unexpected, of his body, his materials, his decisions, and even his fits of absence—it is all this that finally enables him to add something to nature considered as a practically infinite source of subjects, models, means and pretexts; to create some object that cannot be simplified and reduced to an abstract idea, since it owes its origin and its effect to an inextricable system of independent conditions. We cannot summarize a poem as we might summarize … a “universe.” To summarize a thesis is to preserve what is essential in it. To summarize a work of art, or replace the work with a diagram, is to lose what is essential. When we grasp the implications of this principle, it is easy to see that the analytical work of the aestheticians is largely an exercise in self-delusion.

The fact is that we cannot extract from an object, or from a natural or artificial arrangement, any group of aesthetic characteristics that can be found elsewhere and subsequently used as the basis of a general formula applying to beautiful things. Such an attempt has often been made, but those who make it are unaware that the method applies only to things “already found.” Moreover, the object under consideration cannot be reduced to a few of its traits without losing its intrinsic emotive power.

It is hard for a philosopher to understand that the artist passes almost indifferently from form to content and from content to form; that a form may occur to him before the meaning he will assign to it; or that the idea of a form is the same for him as the idea that asks to be given a form.9

In short, if aesthetics could exist as a philosophy, the arts would melt away before it, that is, before their own essence.

What I have just said does not apply to technical studies concerned only with methods or particular solution—those aimed more or less directly at the production or classification of works of art, but not proposing to attain the Beautiful by paths that lie outside its proper domain.

The truth may be that we cannot form a clear conception of anything unless we might also have invented it. Pascal tells us that he would not have invented painting. He did not see the need for duplicating the most insignificant objects by making laborious copies of them. And yet how often this great artist in words took pains to draw, that is, to make a spoken portrait of his thoughts! It is true that he seems to have ended by including all desires save one in the same gesture of rejection, and by regarding everything but death as something painted.10

What was Immanuel Kant really doing when he based his Ethics and his Aesthetics on a myth of universality, on the latent presence of an infallible and unanimous feeling about the universe in the soul of every man coming into this world? And what about all the other philosophers of the Good and the Beautiful?—The answer is that they were creators in spite of themselves, Creators who believed that they were merely substituting a more exact or complete notion of reality for a crude or superficial one, when, on the contrary, they were inventing—one by subtle division, another by an instinct for symmetry, and all by a profound desire for a certain state, by a profound love for that which might be. What did they do but create when they added problems to problems, entities to entities, and new symbols, new forms and formulas of development, to the existing treasury of intellectual pastimes and arbitrary constructions of the mind?

Philosophy marched out to grapple with the artist, to “explain” what the artist feels and does; but something quite opposite took place and is coming to light. Far from its enveloping and assimilating the whole domain of creative sensibility into the concept of the Beautiful; far from its becoming the mother and mistress of aesthetics, what now appears is that philosophy proceeds from aesthetics and no longer finds its justification, an answer to its qualms of conscience, or even its veritable “depth” save only in its constructive power and its freedom as abstract poetry. An aesthetic interpretation and that alone can shield the venerable monuments of metaphysics from the collapse of their more or less hidden postulates or from the destructive effects of semantic and logical analysis.

At first it may seem quite difficult for philosophers to approach certain problems as artists when they were accustomed to thinking about them as seekers of truth, or to regard the products of a desperate sincerity as beautiful lies and inherent fictions. “What a splendid past,” they will say, “and what a sad present!” They should set their minds at rest about this change, which after all is only a change in customs. I do not look on it as anything more than a reform demanded by the course of events, one for which a sort of model can be found in the history of the plastic arts. There was a time when the likeness of a man or an animal, even if people had seen the craftsman making it, was regarded not only as a living thing, motionless though it was, but as being endowed with supernatural powers. Many of the gods fashioned out of stone or wood did not even resemble men, yet people nourished and venerated these images that were scarcely images. The more formless they were, the more they were adored—a curious fact that is also to be observed in the relation of children to their dolls and of lovers to the beloved; it appears to be a deeply significant trait. (Perhaps we believe that the more life we are obliged to give to an object, the more we receive from it.) But little by little, as the communicated life grew weaker and was withdrawn from such rude images, the idol became Beautiful. Impelled by criticism, it lost its imaginary power over events and persons in order to gain a real power over men's eyes. Sculpture became free, and became itself.

Without shocking or cruelly wounding the philosophic sentiment, might I compare its idolized truths—its Principles, its Ideas, its Being, its Essences, its Categories, its Noumena, its Universe, the whole tribe of concepts that seemed indispensable each in its turn—with the idols of which I was speaking?—At present we might ask ourselves what sort of philosophy would stand in the same relation to traditional philosophy that a Greek statue of the fifth century b.c. stands to the faceless divinities of very ancient times.

I sometimes think that little by little, as it becomes possible and permissible to compose with ideas as with tones or colors—to make abstract constructions without having illusions about them and without recourse to hypostasis—it may become evident that this type of untrammeled philosophy is more fruitful and more true than the type that attached itself to a primitive belief in explanations, as well as more human and appealing than the type demanded by a rigorous critical aptitude. Perhaps it will then be possible to resume—in a new spirit and with quite different ambitions—the speculative work that was undertaken by the great metaphysicians, whose goals, in the course of time, have been sadly undermined by criticism. An example from another field might prove illuminating. Long ago mathematics made itself independent of every aim that was alien to the concept of itself created by the pure development of its technique and by its awareness of the intrinsic value of that development. Today everyone knows to what extent its freedom as an art, which had promised to carry it far from reality into a world of pastimes, difficulties, and useless elegance, has made it marvelously flexible, besides equipping it to come to the aid of the physical scientists.

An art of ideas—an art of the order of ideas, or of the multiple orders of ideas—is that a wholly vain conception? I find it permissible to think that all architecture does not exist in space, that all music is not heard. There is a certain feeling for ideas and their analogies that seems to me capable of acting and being cultivated in the same fashion as a feeling for sound or color; and I might even be inclined, if I had to propose a definition of the philosopher, to make it depend on the predominance in his person of this mode of sensibility.11

I also believe that one is born a philosopher, as one is born a musician or a sculptor, and that this innate gift, which has always taken the pursuit of a certain reality or truth as its theme and pretext, might henceforth confide in itself and, instead of merely pursuing, might create. The Philosopher would then expend in full liberty the forces he had acquired through discipline; and there would be an infinite number of questions, an infinite number of forms, on which he could lavish his vigor and the faculty proper to his nature: that of giving life and movement to abstract things.

Thus it would become possible to save the Noumena, by simple delight in their intrinsic harmonies.12

Finally I might say that there exists an excellent demonstration of what I have so far been proposing in a tentative way. It was no more than a possibility, but we have only to consider the fate of the great philosophic systems to find it already realized. In what spirit do we read the philosophers, and who consults them in the true hope of finding anything else than enjoyment or an exercise for the mind? When we now set out to read them, is it not with a feeling that we are submitting for a time to the rules of an admirable game?—What would happen to these masterpieces of an unverifiable branch of knowledge if it were not that we accepted these conventions out of love for an exacting pleasure? If we disproved a Plato or a Spinoza, would nothing remain of their astonishing constructions? Absolutely nothing—if there did not remain a work of art.13

Meanwhile, quite apart from philosophy, in certain stratetic areas of the search for understanding, there have appeared a few extra-ordinary beings of whom we know that their abstract thought, highly developed as it was and capable of the greatest subtlety and depth, never lost its concern for figurative creations or tangible applications and proofs of its attentive power. They seem to have possessed I cannot say what inner science that made it possible to effect a continual interchange between the arbitrary and the necessary.

Leonardo da Vinci is the supreme type of these superior individuals.

What is more remarkable than the absence of his name from the list of recognized philosophers, grouped as such by tradition?14

Doubtless the lack of finished texts of a specifically philosophic nature might pass as a reason for this exclusion. Moreover, the quantity of notes he left behind is a simultaneous mass of observations that leaves us in doubt regarding the order of questions in his thinking. One hesitates to say which of his curiosities and intentions stood first or last, since Leonardo himself seems to have lavished his ardor on the greatest variety of subjects, depending on circumstances and the mood of the hour—so much so that he gives the not unpleasant impression of being a sort of coniottiere in the service of all the Muses turn by turn.

But, as has already been said, the visible existence of a certain order of ideas is characteristic of the recognized philosophers whose qualities permit them to figure in the History of Philosophy (a history that can be written only with the help of certain conventions, including first of all a necessarily arbitrary definition of philosophy and the philosopher).

It follows that Leonardo would be excluded for lack of an explicit order in his thinking, and—let us not be afraid to say—for lack of an easily summarized statement that would enable us to classify his essential conceptions and compare them with other systems, problem by problem.15

But I should like to go farther and distinguish him from the philosophers by more tangible characteristics and for more substantial reasons than these purely negative considerations. Let us see—or imagine—in what respects his intellectual activity differs sharply from theirs, while closely resembling it at moments.

The philosopher, to the eyes of an observer, has a very simple purpose: to express in speech or writing the results of his meditations. He tries to constitute a body of knowledge that is completely expressible and transmissible by language.

But for Leonardo, language is not all. Knowledge is not all; perhaps he regards it only as a means: Leonardo designs, computes, builds, decorates; he makes use of all the concrete methods and materials that are subject to ideas, serve as a test for them, and give them an opportunity to rebound in an unexpected fashion, since the materials offer an alien resistance to ideas and provide the conditions of another world that no previous knowledge or degree of foresight would make it possible to encompass in a purely mental elaboration. Knowledge is not enough for this strongly willed and many-sided nature; what matters to him is power. He does not separate understanding from creating. He does not like to distinguish theory from practice, or speculative thought from an increase in external power, or the true from the verifiable, or the true, again, from that modification of the verifiable manifested in the construction of works of art and machines.

In that respect, this man is an authentic and immediate ancestor of science as it exists today. Who does not see that science is coming more and more to identify itself with the acquisition and possession of power?16 Hence I would venture to define it in this fashion—for the definition is within us, however we may protest. Science consists, I would say, in all the formulas and all the processes that are always successful, and it is coming progressively closer to being a table of correspondences between human actions and the resulting phenomena—an always longer and more definite table of such correspondences, recorded in the most precise and economical systems of notation.

Infallibility in prediction is, in simple fact, the only characteristic that modern man regards as having more than a conventional value. He is tempted to say, “All the rest is literature”; and the rest would include all explanations and theories. It is not that he fails to recognize their utility, even their necessity, but rather that he has learned to consider them as means and instruments, intermediate operations, steps in the dark, provisional methods that furnish him with logical formulations, with combinations of signs and images, in order to clear the way for the final decisive perception.

In the course of a few decades he has seen the successive and even simultaneous reigns of contradictory theses that proved equally fruitful; of doctrines and methods opposed in principle and making theoretical demands that canceled one another, while all of them produced positive results to be added to his stock of acquired powers. He has heard laws described as more or less helpful conventions; and he also knows that a great number of those laws have lost their pure and essential character, being reduced to the modest level of simple probabilities—in other words, to rules that apply only in the field of our observations. Finally, he understands the increasing and by now almost insuperable difficulties that inhere in any attempt to represent a “world” that we postulate; a world that imposes itself on our minds, but also a world—revealed as it is in a roundabout fashion by a series of relays and by its indirect effects on the senses; constructed as it is by a process of analysis with disconcerting results when these are translated into common language; excluding as it does any sort of images, since it must be the substance of their substance and must provide, in some sort, a basis for all the categories—that exists and does not exist. But all these terrifying indeterminate principles, these inhuman hypotheses, this knowledge incompatible with the knower, none the less leave behind them an always increasing and incorruptible treasure of achievements and modes of producing achievements—in other words, of powers.17

All the labors of the mind can no longer have as their object a final contemplation, even the mental image of which has lost its meaning (or comes closer and closer to being a theological concept, demanding a contemplator different in essence from ourselves); but, on the contrary, those labors appear to the mind itself as an intermediate activity connecting two experiences or two states of experience, the first of which is given and the second foreseen.

Knowledge of this sort is never separated from action or from instruments of execution and control, without which, moreover, it has no meaning—whereas if it is based on them, if it refers back to them at every moment, it enables us to deny meaning to knowledge of any other sort, and specifically to that which proceeds from words alone and leads only toward ideas.

What then becomes of philosophy, besieged and obsessed as it is with discoveries so unexpected as to arouse the greatest doubts concerning the virtues or value of all the ideas and deductions put forward by a mind reduced to its own resources and trying to encompass the world? What becomes of it when—in addition to feeling beset, wounded and astonished at every turn by the furious activity of the physical sciences—it is also disturbed and menaced in its most ancient, most tenacious (and perhaps least regrettable) habits by the slow and meticulous work of the philologists and semanticists?18 What becomes of the philosopher's “I think,” and what becomes of his “I am”? What becomes, or rebecomes, of that neutral and mysterious verb to be, which has described such a vast circuit in empty space? From those modest syllables, to which a strange career was opened by the loss or attrition of their original meaning, very subtle artists have drawn an infinite number of questions and answers.

If, then, we take no account of our habits of thought and confine ourselves to what is revealed by a glance at the present state of intellectual affairs, we can easily observe that philosophy as defined by its product, which is in writing, is objectively a particular branch of literature, characterized by its choice of certain subjects and by its frequent use of certain terms and certain forms. This very special type of mental activity and verbal production nevertheless aspires to a supreme place by virtue of its universal aims and formulas, but since it is lacking in any objective verification, since it does not lead to establishing any power, and since the very universality it invokes cannot and must not be regarded as a traditional state, as a means of obtaining or expressing verifiable results19—we are forced to assign it a place not far from poetry.

But the artists of whom I was speaking fail to recognize themselves as artists and do not wish to be such. Doubtless their art, unlike that of the poets, is not the art of abusing words by putting too great a burden on their resonance and their occult sympathies; yet it gambles on a certain faith in the existence of an absolute value that can be distilled from the meaning of words. “What is reality?” the philosopher asks, or likewise, “What is liberty?” He finds it possible to ignore the partly metaphorical, partly social, and partly statistical origin of these nouns, while taking advantage of their tendency to slip into indefinable meanings, as a result of which his mind will be able to produce combinations of an extreme depth and delicacy. It would not serve his purpose to answer one of his questions with the simple history of a word through the ages, or again with a detailed account of all the misunderstandings, figurative uses, and idiomatic expressions thanks to the number and incoherence of which a mere word becomes as complex and mysterious as a living person, arousing an almost anguished curiosity as a person might do, eluding any sort of definite analysis and—in spite of its being the fortuitous result of simple needs, an age-old device to facilitate social intercourse and the immediate exchange of impressions—sometimes rising to the very high destiny of calling forth all the interrogatory power and all the resources for finding answers of a marvelously attentive mind.20 This word, this nothing, this chance device created anonymously, altered in form and meaning by nobody knows whom, has been transformed by the meditation and dialectic of a few individuals into an instrument designed to torment the whole group or groups of ideas; it has become a sort of key that can wind all the springs of a powerful intellect, opening long vistas of possibility to the passion for conceiving everything that exists.

Now, every operation of an artist consists in making something out of nothing. Could there be anything more truly personal, moreover—anything more significant of a person and his separateness as an individual—than what is done by a philosopher when he inserts a thousand difficulties into a common expression in which those who invented the expression could see none whatever; or when he creates doubts and perturbations, discovers paradoxes, and disconcerts the minds of others by overawing them with an imposing interplay of substitutions—could there be anything more personal under the appearance of being universal?

The word, that means an end of the philosopher; the word, that handful of dust into which he breathes life, was for Leonardo only the least of his resources. We know that he even regarded mathematics, which, after all, is essentially a language with exact rules, as little more than a provisional device. “Mechanics,” he said, “is the paradise of the mathematical sciences.” The idea is already quite Cartesian, as is also his unending concern with the physics of physiology.21

From that point he went forward along the path in which our minds are now engaged.

But he belonged to an age less interested than ours, or at any rate less practiced, in identifying the useful, or the comfortable, or the exciting with that which induces a state of resonance and of harmonic reciprocity among sensations, desires, movements, and thoughts. What seemed most desirable to men of Leonardo's day was not something to increase the comfort of the body, save it time, and spare it from fatigue; or something to surprise and stimulate merely the soul of the senses; rather it was anything that multiplied sensual enjoyment by means of intellectual artifice and calculation, while adding to such a rare delight by the introduction of a certain specious and delightful “spirituality.” Between fauns on the one side and angels on the other, the Renaissance had mastered the art of making very human combinations.

And that brings me to the most difficult point for me to explain, one that may also prove the hardest to understand.

Here, then, is what means to me more extraordinary in Leonardo, something that both opposes him and joins him to the philosophers in a much stranger and deeper fashion than anything I have so far alleged of one or the others. Leonardo was a painter: I say that painting was his philosophy. The fact is that he said so himself, if not in exactly those words, and he talked painting as others talk philosophy, which is to say that he made everything depend on it.22 He formed an excessively high opinion of this art, which seems so specialized in comparison with abstract thought and so far from being able to satisfy the whole intelligence: he regarded painting as a final goal for the efforts of a universal mind. So it was in later days with Mallarmé, who held the curious notion that the world was made to be expressed, and all things would eventually be expressed, by the methods of poetry.

To paint, for Leonardo, was an operation that demanded every form of knowledge and almost all the scientific disciplines: geometry, dynamics, geology, physiology. A battle to be portrayed involved a study of whirlwinds and clouds of dust, and he refused to depict such phenomena before observing them in a scientific spirit, with eyes that had been impregnated, so to speak, with understanding of their laws. A human figure was for him a synthesis of researches extending from dissection to psychology.23 With exquisite precision he noted the bodily attitudes according to age and sex, as he also analyzed the movements proper to each trade. All things were as if equal before his will to perceive and grasp forms through their causes. It seems to have been the outward appearance of objects that set his mind in movement; then he reduced, or tried to reduce, their morphological features to systems or forces; and only after those systems had been learned—felt—and reasoned out did he complete or, one might better say, resume the movement by executing the drawing or painting, as a result of which act he reaped the harvest of his toil. In this manner he projected or recreated an aspect of his subjects by means of analyzing all their properties in depth.

But what part did language play in this process?—It served him only as an instrument, just as numbers did. It was no more than an accessory means, a working auxiliary, one that advanced his passionate enterprises in much the same way that sketches in the margin sometimes help those who write to sharpen a phrase.

In short, Leonardo found in the painted work all the problems that could be proposed to the mind by an effort to make a synthesis of nature—and many other problems as well.24

Then was he or was he not a philosopher?

If it were merely a question of the word! … But there is much else involved besides the choice of a rather vague appellation. What stops me at the point where the high title of philosopher might or might not be conferred on one whose name was rendered illustrious by so many works not in writing, is the problem of the connection between the total activity of a mind and the mode of expression it adopts—the connection, that is, of the mind with the sort of work that gives it the most intense sensation of its power and with the forms of external resistance it accepts.

The particular case of Leonardo da Vinci offers one of those remarkable coincidences that demand a reconsideration of our intellectual habits and something like a rebirth of awareness in the midst of ideas that had been passed on to us.

It can be affirmed of him, I think with some degree of assurance, that the place occupied by philosophy in the life of other minds—with the profound need to which it bears witness, the generalized curiosity that accompanies it, the hunger for facts to be retained and assimilated, and the constant search for causes—is the exact place occupied in Leonardo by his lasting preoccupation with painting. Here is something to disturb us in some of our long-standing distinctions, while tormenting both philosophy and art under the forms in which they had figured separately in our thinking.

Compared with what we are used to seeing, Leonardo appears to be a sort of monster, a centaur or a chimera, because of the hybrid species he represents to minds that are bent on dividing our nature into compartments. Philosophers, to them, are lacking in hands or eyes, and artists have such small heads that there is no room in them for anything but instincts.

We must make an effort, however, to grasp what is implied by this strange adoption of the cult of a plastic art as a substitute for philosophy. Let us start by observing that there can be no question here of arguing about the more subjective states or occurrences, since, in the depths or at the moment of psychic life, the difference between the philosopher and the artist are plainly indeterminate or even non-existent. We must therefore have recourse to what can be seen and distinguished “objectively”; and at this point we again meet with the essential problem of the part played by language. If philosophy is inseparable from its expression in words, and if that expression is the goal of every philosopher, then Leonardo, whose goal is painting, is not a philosopher in spite of his meeting most of the other requirements. But having offered this judgment, we are obliged to accept all its consequences, some of which are far-reaching. I shall try to suggest what they might be.

The philosopher describes what he has thought. A system of philosophy can be reduced to a classification of words or a table of definitions. Logic is only our method of using such a table in its permanent form.25 We take this condition for granted, and as a result of it we cannot but accord a quite special and central place in our intellectual life to articulated language. There can be no doubt that the place is deserved and that language, although composed of innumerable conventions, is almost ourselves. We can scarcely “think” without it, nor can we direct, preserve, or recapture our thought, or above all … foresee it in some measure.

But let us look at the matter a little more closely; let us consider it in ourselves. At the moment when our thinking starts to go deeper—that is, when it comes closer to its object, trying to operate on things in themselves (so far as its activity might be regarded as things), instead of on signs that merely suggest a superficial idea of things—at this moment when we start to live our thinking, we feel that it is drawing apart from any conventional language. No matter how closely woven into our lives the language may be; no matter how densely its “chances” are distributed, or how sensitive this acquired organization may prove in ourselves, or how quick it may be to intervene, still, by a process of enlargement, or under the pressure of continued attention, we are able to separate it from our mental life of the moment. We feel that words are lacking, and we know there is no reason why words should be found to answer us, that is … to replace ourselves—for the inherent power of words, from which comes their utility, is to carry us “into the neighborhood” of states already experienced; to systemize, or to establish, repetition; whereas at this point we are penetrating into a mental life that never repeats itself. Perhaps that is the real nature of “thinking deeply,” which does not mean thinking more usefully, accurately, or totally than we usually do; it is simply thinking far, thinking as far as possible from verbal automatism.26 We feel at such moments that vocabulary and grammar are alien gifts: res inter alios actas. We have the direct perception that language, organic and indispensable as it may be, can fully express nothing in the world of thought, where there is nothing that corresponds to its nature as an intermediary. Our rigor and our fervor both set us against it.

The philosophers, notwithstanding, have tried to bring language into a closer relation with their deepest feelings. They have tried to reorganize it, adding new words and meanings to meet the needs of their solitary experience, so as to make language a more flexible instrument, better adapted to cognizing and recognizing their cognition. We might picture philosophy as the attitude of concentration and restraint owing to which someone, at moments, thinks his life or lives his thinking in a sort of equivalence, or in a reversible state, between being and understanding—while he tries to suspend all conventional expression and waits eagerly for a combination much more precious than the others to take shape and reveal itself, a combination of the reality he feels impelled to offer with the reality he is able to receive.27

But the nature of language is not at all in keeping with the happy outcome of this great endeavor to which all the philosophers have devoted themselves. The strongest of them have worn themselves out in the effort to make their thoughts speak.28 In was in vain that they created or transfigured certain words; they could not succeed in transmitting the inner reality. Whatever the words may be—Ideas or Dynamis or Being or Noumenon or Cogito or Ego—they are all ciphers the meaning of which is determined solely by the context; and so it is finally by a sort of personal creation that their reader—as also happens with readers of poetry—gives the force of life to writings in which ordinary speech is tortured into expressing values that men cannot exchange and that do not exist in the realm of spoken words.

It can be seen that by basing all philosophy on verbal expression, and at the same time refusing it the liberties and even the inconveniences proper to the arts, we run the risk of reducing it to the different sorts of brayer offered by a few admirable and lonely figures. Moreover, we have never known, nor can we even imagine, two philosophers compatible with each other, or a doctrine open at all times to only one interpretation.

There is still another point to be noted about the relation between speech and philosophic activity, a simple matter of fact I should like to mention.

Merely by looking about us we can observe that the importance of language is steadily diminishing in every field of activity in which we also observe an increasing degree of precision. Common speech will doubtless continue to serve as the initial and general instrument for establishing relations between external life and internal life; it will always be the means of teaching us the other languages that have been consciously created; it will accommodate those potent and accurate mechanisms to the use of still unspecialized minds. But gradually, by contrast, it is coming to be regarded as a first crude means of approximation. Its function is being restricted by the development of purer systems of notation, each better adapted to a single purpose, and any new step in this direction leads to a further shrinking of the ancient horizons of philosophy.29 … Everything that becomes more precise, in a world where everything tends toward precision, escapes from its primitive means of expression.30

Today, in a number of truly remarkable cases, even the expression of things by means of discrete signs, arbitrarily chosen, has given way to lines traced by the things themselves, or to transpositions or inscriptions immediately derived from things. The great invention that consists in making the laws of science visible to the eyes and, as it were, readable on sight has been incorporated into knowledge; and it has in some sort overlaid the world of experience with a visible world of curves, surfaces, and diagrams that translate qualities into lines we can follow as they rise or fall, so gaining an impression of values in transition. The graphic method has a continuity of movement that cannot be rendered in speech, and it is superior to speech in clearness and precision. Doubtless it was speech that commanded the method to exist; doubtless it is now speech that assigns a meaning to the graphs and interprets them; but it is no longer by speech that the act of mental possession is consummated. Something new is little by little taking shape under our eyes; a sort of ideography31 of plotted and diagramed relations between qualities and quantities, a language that has for grammar a body of preliminary conventions (scales, coordinates, base lines, etc.), and for logic the relative size of figures or portions of figures and their situations on a chart.

An altogether different system of representation, but one that has certain analogies with the graphic method, is offered by the art of music. We know what an untold depth of resources exists in the “universe of sounds”; we know what immediate presence of all the affective life—what intuitions of the labyrinthine patterns and superpositions of memory, doubt, and compulsion; what forces, what lives, and what fictive deaths—are communicated, are imposed on us, by the artifices of the composer. Sometimes the design and modulation are so in accord with the inner laws of our changing moods that they make us dream of their being exact auditive formulas of those moods, capable of serving as models for an objective study of extremely subtle subjective phenomena. In this type of research, no verbal description could approach the effects produced by these auditive images, for they are transformations and restitutions of the vital states they transmit, even if they are presented—since we are dealing with an art—as the arbitrary32 creations of an individual.

From such examples we see that simultaneous groups and continued series of auditive sensations can be linked with what are supposed to be the “deepest” modes of philosophic thought—that is to say, those farthest from language. And we see that the most previous part of all that might be contained or perceived by philosophic thought—the part it communicates so imperfectly—is if not transmitted at least suggested by what are not in the least its traditional methods.

Philosophy has always sought, however, and will put forth greater and greater efforts, to protect itself against the danger of seeming to have a purely verbal aim. “Consciousness of the self,” which, under various names, is its principal means of existence (as well as an always convenient occasion for skepticism and a gateway to perdition), keeps reminding philosophy of its inner vigor and necessity, but also keeps revealing the weakness from which it suffers as a result of its dependence on speech. That is why almost all philosophers insist, in their different manners on distinguishing their thoughts from any accepted convention. Some, being particularly sensitive to what is produced and continually transformed in their inner worlds, are concerned with a region on the hither side of language, where they discover the nascent inner form that can be described as “intuition”—for our apparent real spontaneity includes among its other contributions a number of immediate illuminations, leading to instantaneous solutions and unexpected impulses or decisions. Other philosophers, less inclined to consider the eternally changing than intent on that which endures, try to entrench their thought in the language itself.33 They put their trust in formal laws, finding in them the true structure of the intelligible; and they hold that this is the source from which any language borrows its discontinuity and the typical forms of its propositions.

The first sort, if they further developed their tendency, might imperceptibly be carried toward the art of time and hearing; they are the musicians of philosophy. The second sort, who give language a framework of reason and a sort of well defined plan; who contemplate, one might say, all its apparently simultaneous implications and try to reconstruct it on a new foundation, or to complete this product of everyone and no one as though it were the work of one man—those other philosophers might be compared with architects.

I do not see why both sorts should not adopt our Leonardo, for whom painting took the place of philosophy.


  1. While [Leo Ferrero] was making a long trip abroad, a motor-car accident deprived us of that precious life. I have known few minds as precocious as his, and very few more subtle, quick, or sensitive. Depth, with the Italians, is not at all incompatible with liveliness and high spirits. That combination of qualities—not so much opposed to each other as they are rarely united in certain cultures—was strongly developed in Leo's case. He had a thoroughgoing knowledge of our language and an intuitive understanding of French authors and French ways of thought. Paris was adopting him as a son, when misfortune would have it that he must visit America, and there he was overtaken by death—of which he had written, “It is the thing that happens only to others.”

  2. We might define the philosopher as a specialist in the universal, his function being expressed by a sort of contradiction.

    Moreover, this “universal” appears only in a verbal form.

    These two considerations naturally lead to our classifying the philosopher under the species “artist.” But this artist will not admit to his being one—and here begins the drama, or the comedy, of Philosophy.

    Whereas the painters and the poets have only their rank to quarrel about, philosophers quarrel with one another about their existence.

    Does the philosopher think that an Ethics or a Monadology is something more serious than a Suite in D Minor?

    It is true that certain questions presented by the mind to the mind are more general and more natural than most works of art, but there is nothing to prove that the questions are the right ones to ask.

  3. —which are invariably the weak points of a philosophy.

    In my opinion, every philosophy is a question of form. It is the most comprehensive form that a certain individual can give to the whole of his internal and external experience—and this without respect to the knowledge he might possess. In his search for this form, the closer he comes to finding a more individual expression, one better adapted to his own nature, the further he will be from the deeds and works of others.

  4. Leonardo is one of the founders of a distinct Europe. He resembles neither the ancients nor the moderns.

  5. It is clear that the “Good” and the “Beautiful” have gone out of fashion.

    As for the “True,” photography has shown us its nature and limits. The recording of phenomena by means of the phenomena themselves, with as little human intervention as possible—such is “our Truth.”

    To this I can testify.

  6. It must be admitted that a positive or “practical” conception of life leads inevitably to a search for immediate effects and to the end of craftsmanship. We are living in the Twilight of Posterity.

  7. There is nothing more surprising to the innocent mind than certain problems that philosophers insist on placing foremost—nothing except the absence of other problems that the innocent mind would regard as being of fundamental importance.

  8. I mean to say: when an artist undertakes to produce a work that is so vast or complicated, or so new to him, that his plans for it and his choice of methods are not immediately determined by their mutual compatibility, he often starts by inventing a “theory” that appears to have a general application. He explores the resources of abstract language to find an authority opposed to himself, one that will simplify his task under pretense of subjecting it to universal conditions. Anyone who lives among artists and listens to what they say can observe this phenomenon, besides hearing many a wise precept.

  9. A type of sentence may precede the sentence as written. The masses of a picture may be established before the artist has decided on a subject.

  10. It is quite easy to demonstrate by a certain chain of reflections that all is vanity. Pascal was finding new words to adorn the subject of countless sermons. What lies behind it is usually no more than a feeling of revulsion that is purely physiological in its origin, or a wish to make a resounding impression at no great expense.

    It is as easy to evoke a horror of life, to picture its fragility, its hardships, and its folly, as it is to arouse erotic ideas and sensual appetites. All one needs is a different vocabulary. (But we can take for granted that the first exercise is of a nobler sort.)

    I might add (if only for some) that the determination not to let oneself be manipulated by words has something to do with the goal to which I gave, or thought I was giving, the name of pure Poetry.

  11. That is why courses in philosophy—unless they also teach the freedom of every mind not only with regard to doctrines but even with regard to the problems themselves—impress me as being antiphilosophical.

  12. In the intellectual life—so it seems clear to me—philosophical works occupy the same place for those who admire them that works of art occupy for those who admire them. There are art lovers of Spinoza, just as there are of Bach.

    Sometimes we find significant resemblances between the two species—as note Wagner and Nietzsche.

  13. For that matter, what else could be hoped for by thinkers of that grand sort?

  14. Nor is Montaigne in that same list.

    He would give the same answer, “I do not know,” to all the questions in a philosophical catechism, and therefore he could hardly be called a philosopher. And yet …

  15. Let us not forget that the broadest fame is based on the sort of merit that can be called to mind in a few words.

  16. Science in the modern sense of the word consists in making knowledge depend on power. And it has reached the point of subordinating the intelligible to the verifiable. Our confidence in science is entirely based on the assurance that a certain phenomenon will be produced again or observed again as a result of certain well defined acts. As for the manner of describing the phenomenon—of “explaining” it—that is the arguable, changeable, and perfectible part of the development or exposition of science.

  17. Such is the foundation of what we regard as true knowledge. The propositions of this true knowledge should be simply directions for performing certain acts: Do this, do that. All this amounts to power, in other words, to an assured external transformation that depends on a conscious internal modification.

  18. This is an age when metaphysics has been surprised by the sudden changes in science, some of which have produced a truly comic dismay.

    Hence it has sometimes occurred to me that, if I were a philosopher, I should apply myself to making my philosophic thought independent of all forms of knowledge that might be overturned by some new experiment.

  19. —but demands to be taken as an end in itself.

  20. It seems to be characteristic of the greatest philosophers that they add problems of interpretation to the immediate problems raised by observation.

    Each of them imports a terminology, and there is no case in which the terms they introduce are so definite that the argument about the value of their principles can be clearly separated from the other argument about their meaning.

  21. The idea of the animal as a machine expressed by Descartes and forming a remarkable element of his philosophy had been carried farther by Leonardo, who reveals it not only in verbo but in acto. I doubt whether anyone before his time had thought of observing persons with the eye of a mechanical engineer. For him the support of the body, its propulsion, and its respiration were problems in mechanics. He was more the anatomist and more the engineer than Descartes. The dream of creating a mechanical man and hence of achieving knowledge by construction was paramount in his thinking.

  22. For it was a condition of his painting that he should make a minute preliminary analysis of the objects he planned to represent, one that was not in the least confined to their visual properties, but went deep into their organic life, involving questions of physics, then physiology, then psychology—so that finally his eye would, as it were, expect to perceive the visible accidents resulting from the hidden structure of the model.

  23. Benvenuto Cellini tells us that Leonardo was the first to admire the adaptation of organic forms to mechanical functions. He revealed the special type of beauty possessed by certain bones (the omoplate, for example) and articulations (like that of the arm with the hand).

    A very modern system of aesthetics is based solely on this principle of functional adaptation. The Greeks had thought chiefly of optical effects, and they did not isolate the pleasure resulting from the virtual function of forms. Yet the men of every age have created perfect weapons and utensils.

  24. When circumstances led me to consider da Vinci, I approached him as the archetype of those who perform each task so consciously that it becomes both art and science, inextricably mingled; as the exemplar of a system of art founded on general analysis and demanding that every particular work should be created only out of verifiable elements.

    As a result of Leonardo's analysis, his desire to paint merged into a curiosity about all phenomena, whether or not they were visual; he felt that nothing was alien to the art of painting, which in turn seemed precious to perception in general.

    Another characteristic of Leonardo is the extraordinary reciprocity between making and knowing, as a result of which the second is guaranteed by the first. This reciprocity stands opposed to any purely verbal science and has become dominant in the present era—to the great detriment of philosophy, which now appears to be something incomplete, speech without action.

  25. Logic has only a limited value when it employs ordinary language, that is, a language without absolute definitions.

  26. It also consists in reconsidering the values of our thinking as originally given—by extending the conscious duration of the given thoughts.

  27. All thinking involves taking one thing for another: a second for a year.

  28. There is not a single problem in philosophy that can be stated in such a form as to banish all doubt concerning the existence of the problem.

  29. Although it must be observed that the accommodation is often very far from being satisfactory—as note the definitions of point, line, relation, etc.

  30. There has been no philosophy (till now) that could withstand a precise examination of its “definitions.”

  31. —as well as a sort of “analogistics.”

  32. There is much to be said about the arbitrary.

    Everything we do that is arbitrary in our own eyes—as, for example, letting the hand make random designs on a scrap of paper—is a more or less separate activity of some organ. Thus, we close our eyes in order to draw a card from a hat at random. Such acts, in which the attention is relaxed, are in contrast with our supervised activities.

    A briefer way of saying the same thing is to remark that the degree of consciousness required by an act can be measured by the number of independent conditions imposed on it.

  33. They have never done so, however—or not to my knowledge—by starting with an analysis of language that would reduce it to its statistical nature, and hence would permit them not to attribute verbal creations (including “problems”) to “the essence of things”—when their origin may have been innocence, or the poetic sentiment, or the gropings and fumblings of generations.

    A disregard of these humble beginnings is doubtless the precondition of more than one philosophic problem.

    In particular the existence of “notions” capable of being interpreted in different fashions, or the accidental coexistence of terms created independently of one another, opens a way for antinomies and paradoxes that favor a rich development of misunderstandings and highly “philosophic” subtleties.

George Kimball Plochmann (essay date 1952)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9419

SOURCE: “Leonardo da Vinci as Philosopher,” in The Resources of Leonardo da Vinci: Papers Delivered at Southern Illinois University, November 12th-15th, 1952, edited by George Kimball Plochmann, Carbondale, 1953, pp. 28-39.

[In the following essay, Plochmann asserts that, despite the fragmented nature of Leonardo's writings, his work was informed by a philosophical system. The critic concedes, however, that Leonardo failed to provide connections between his distinct areas of study, and that his philosophy lacked a “single guiding principle.”]

Just as men who see the tattered remains of The Last Supper feel certain that behind its hopeless flakes was once a dominant form, so may readers of the Notebooks be sure that looming over the miscellany is an integral system of ideas in which part with part make a catena, and in which every part is an intimate subdivision of an articulated whole. The philosophical interpretation of Leonardo should exhibit his work as a limning, at least, of a set of self-expanding coherent ideas which intend the real world.

An interpreter is unlikely to be more than partly wrong about Leonardo's crisp sentences, and almost never can he be wholly and comprehensively right, because the original is so spotty. This sketchiness applies chiefly to the middle range of magnitude, however: of the system as a whole, I do not believe Leonardo was in doubt, and in the single assertions he was usually quite abundantly clear. But in connecting principles with discreet subject matters he left much undone. The making apparent of these hidden connections is surely the first task of the philosophical interpreting of Leonardo da Vinci.


He was the inheritor of extremely subtle philosophic traditions, and he neither garbled them nor made use of them in a particularly subtle way. He was not like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham, and his finesse, when it appears, was either borrowed or arose out of the occasionally unresolved conflict of pairs or groups of his statements.

A new Plato and a new Aristotle erupted into Florentine intellectual society during the fifteenth century. It is customary to say that these Greeks were both humanized at this time; perhaps it is more correct to say that greater emphasis was now placed upon rhetoric than upon dialectic (reversing Plato) or than upon analytic (reversing Aristotle). But here Leonardo ran counter to the tendency of his day: abjuring the somewhat hortatory bearing of his contemporaries Marsilio and Pico (whom he virtually ignored), he preferred to make different use of the earlier masters. If he took anything directly or indirectly from the Greeks (and he did), he at least treated their principles much as they would have enjoyed having them treated—cavalierly, a little dogmatically, yet employing these bald principles as starting-points, not so much for debate as for meticulous exploration of the world. Certain assumptions and a considerable vocabulary in the Notebooks derive from Plato's Timaeus and from Aristotle's smaller physical treatises, plus the Hellenistic writers on mechanics. Surprisingly little seems to have stemmed from the emanation theory of Plotinus, who more than Plato and Aristotle, was ascendant in Florence in the days of Leonardo's young manhood and whose distant disciples made his hierarchies the scaffolding upon which the reader was exhorted to climb to the One.

Though not a scholar of any particular range, Leonardo apparently felt himself continuous with the past—there is little talk of a Baconian or Kantian reform of knowledge or of the society based upon knowledge. The several dozen authors Leonardo quotes are mentioned with some respect, a few of their more metaphysical pronouncements emerging in his jottings so unaltered as to sound like common coin, their value taken for granted because already in circulation. One soon feels that Leonardo stood at an advantage over his contemporaries not through his superior use of books but by reason of his wonderful eyes and hands.

About fifteenth-century Florence there must have been a little of Transcendentalism, wordy, humanity-inspirited, heady. If so, then remote, effulgent, and infinitely more fertile in his intellectual expedients than the others was Leonardo da Vinci, standing to his own time somewhat as Charles Sanders Peirce stood to nineteeth-century America. Leonardo was evidently something of a controversialist, living in an epoch when debate blew fresh air over Italy and the worth of a man was oftenest judged by the vigor of prosecution of his disputes. Yet the solitude of his Notebooks shows that Leonardo's debating oftenest took place in himself: in a time of symposia and of person-to-person antinomy, Leonardo was both demonstrator and respondent, orator and auditor. Apostrophes contribute the only slight heft that the otherwise sparse notebooks possess, for their leaves are hardly tricked out with prefaces, transitions, and summaries; and cross-references are brief to the point of uselessness. So Leonardo is set over against his rather easy and deceptively systematic time, and he must have preferred talking to himself, though not in the thorough and meditative fashion of Descartes or Kierkegaard.

So we have, then, this discrepancy between Leonardo's remoteness from his contemporaries and his tolerable continuity with traditions of scientific and humane letters. Much as Leonardo did, the other writers of the day were struggling to identify themselves with a notable past, although this identification of the Humanists had a quite different impulse from that of Leonardo. I think this teasing sameness and difference between him and his contemporaries arose out of his own duality—his emotional introversion and his intellectual extroversion; surely this must have been the cause. The introversion could account for his Parnassian hauteur, but the externalizing of his mind brought about his great passion for demonstrating the works of nature and his unceasing alertness and curiosity—alertness to the effects of nature, curiosity about the causes. However, the hauteur was personal. The natural desire of good men, he said, is knowledge (C.A. [Codex Atlanticus] 119 v.a; Aristotle would have put it all men.) The worst intellectual evil, for him, was not error but sloth; the lazy, as he remarked, leave nothing to posterity but “filled privies,” and this simple ad hominem sums up the feeling of his divergence from ordinary efforts.

Again, my supposal resolves the paradox that Leonardo is gathering glory in our own century, in which his impact is mental because it is now altogether conveyed through books and drawings. In his own day, he was neither obscure nor famous, but a little of both, depending chiefly upon currents of political favor. There was a contradiction in the way he affected other men, and their standards, even more than ours, must have shifted frequently as these men transferred their attention from his creations to his personality and back again.


Leonardo shows little interest in laying down distinction after distinction in a summating display of all human values and divine laws, as did certain earlier Italians like Thomas Aquinas. But he left distinct clues to the way he would organize knowledge: sequential propositions rather like those of Euclid and Archimedes, built into short treatises which were to receive titles that occasionally crop up in his extant notes—The Flight of Birds, Movements of Water, Treatise on Shadows, The Geometrical School, and so forth. (The Treatise on Painting was brought closer to completion.) Evidently the plan of these was based upon single topics within a science, not upon the science as a whole, such as aerodynamics, hydraulics, optics, or more broadly, physics. At least Leonardo had a potent impulse toward organization of his work.

Whether he intended these demarcations to be final or temporary is a steeper question. Occasionally he speaks of science in general, or of art in general, but never, so far as I know, does he absolutely differentiate between science and art. Where he mentions individual sciences, it is nearly always to join them with others: mechanics, he says, is the fruit of mathematics ([MS.] E 8 v), mathematics is the entrance-door, the beginning of knowledge (Quaderni IV, 14 v), painting is the highest of the sciences (MS. 2038 Bib. Nat. 20 r). Paradoxically, I think he intended to cut across the lines of the sciences by his topical treatment of separate problems. If the reader of the Notebooks sticks too rigidly to the conception of divided sciences, he soon meets passages unintelligible by his interpretation, for the passages assume a connection between disciplines which approaches a thoroughgoing unification of knowledge:

Therefore painting is philosophy, because philosophy deals with the increase and decrease [of bodies] through motion [as does painting]. …

(Tratt. d. Pitt., [Trattato della Pittura] 9, 1)

and again, we have the implied marriage of optics and mathematics:

… That which is not a part of anything is invisible, as is proved by geometry.

(Tratt. d. Pitt., 443)

So the subject matters, at least, of the sciences are not cut off; but in the procedures of sciences we do find differences:

Astronomy and the other sciences also entail manual operations although they have their beginning in the mind, like painting, which arises in the mind of the contemplator but cannot be accomplished without manual operation.

(Tratt. d. Pitt., 33)

No doubt the “beginning” is a beginning in temporal order. I take it that, manipulative operations aside, painting differs chiefly from a science like mathematics in that the former begins in the mind as a created image—or pre-image, such as Leonardo speaks of (Fogli B [Fogli dell' Anatomia B]2 v)—and moves to what the eye sees; while the latter, mathematics, begins in the eye and moves to the interior mind. The point has sometimes been made that Leonardo was a pioneer in science but a perfector in art. Yet this statement can be explained by saying that painting, through its very essence, requires an operation to render wholly visible the imaginative exemplification of the principles of perspective, and of course this operation is the process of perfecting; whereas the establishing of scientific principles upon the basis of the already visible is what constitutes the exploratory act of science—the inquiry, the pioneering. In this way, the sciences are kept close to the arts, even when the methods of both differ in direction.

There is, however, that supreme phase of a fine art such as painting which is beyond reason and science:

These [the scientific principles of painting] are understood by the mind alone and entail no manual operation; and they constitute the science of painting which remains in the mind of its contemplators; and from it is then born the actual creation, which is far superior in dignity to the contemplation or science which precedes it.

(Tratt. d. Pitt., 33)

We must make a further distinction: as a method of knowing, painting and any other science are much alike, even when differing in direction of movement; but the act of making is in painting superadded to that of discovering and formulating. In a science, the knowledge is a self-sufficient end, although crying out for applications; but in painting, knowledge is always a means, prior to artistic creation in time, posterior to it in dignity, but always inextricably bound up with this, its only true application. In a word, mathematics and painting differ not so much in their epistemic part as in their varying connections with technics.

Let us rephrase our points: art and science are both concerned with intelligible necessities and causes, and both deal with the same world of quantified and qualified bodies; but art is not altogether continuous with science for the art proceeds from that which is known to that which is to be made, and hence forms a propaedeutic for the act of insight, of inspiration, of making whole. If we can believe this, it is not impossible to see how Leonardo can say (in the Trattato della Pittura) that the science of painting is the mother of perspective, which is in turn the science of visual rays: as mother, painting may give birth either to works or else to principles worth while in the formulation of additional sciences.

Although mathematics is continuous with mechanics and optics, and optical science is continuous with painting, mathematics is related to painting in another way, for it is the “foundation.” Histories of ideas sometimes put it that Leonardo ranked the sciences in dignity according to their certitude, not according to their objects. This construction is not wholly wrong, for painting (as a mode of knowledge) is as certain as is hydraulics or mathematics, even though mathematics, with its comparative simplicity, may serve as the underpinnings of other knowledge. I think Leonardo intends that painter and mathematician and physicist deal with a common world, but vary in their emphases and in the order in which they should step forward to instruct the beginner. Let the mathematician be first, because he deals with what is common and simple. Physics and painting are both intimately connected with mathematics; and Leonardo adopts the Greek notion of four elements (or primary phases of matter, as we say now). It seems to me, although Leonardo never lets fall this remark, that for the physicist water (the cold and moist) is preponderant, as being active with respect to earth; whereas for the painter-scientist, fire (the hot and dry), with its color-breeding light, is chief component of the universe, and activates air. Certainly the leading results from the technical resources grounded in Leonardo's sciences are the canals and the luminous airy pictures.


The world for Leonardo reveals itself to us progressively, and although phenomena can be isolated for study, every part tries to unite with the whole, to overcome its own incompleteness. Not only has the world a real togetherness, but so has knowledge: more and more light is thrown upon the part as the context of knowledge about the part becomes wider. This widening is not entirely a matter of experience. It is true that we must augment and enhance our system of thoughts by constant reference to what the senses report, yet to know, we must reason:

You who speculate on the nature of things, I praise you not for knowing the processes which nature ordinarily effects of herself, but rejoice if so be that you know the issue of such things as your mind conceives.

([MS.] G 47 r)

Knowledge is not self-knowledge in any moral, Socratic sense, but the examination of the consequences of ideas. This conception helps illuminate a troublesome passage attesting to Leonardo's virtual identification of the principles of things with ideas:

Experience … always proceeds from accurately determined first principles, step by step in true sequences, to the end; as can be seen in the elements of mathematics founded on numbers and measures. …

(Tratt. d. Pitt., 33)

The world moves according to its own laws, the mind grows in contiguity (or should we say union?) with the world, and yet the growth of the mind is not the growth of the world: it is rather the logical self-expansion of the consequences of principles grasped after sensuous contact with the world, but going far beyond that contact. “The thing,” says Leonardo, “is known with our intellect” (Tratt. d. Pitt., 9 a). For these and other reasons, it is difficult to say whether Leonardo was a speculative man or not. Perhaps we are seduced by the sheer simplicity of his instruments of reasoning into believing he was a naive trundler after facts—the kind of observer that Jevons and, to some extent, Mill deluded us into thinking is the true man of science.

But beyond this intellectualism there is another, perhaps more significant aspect of Leonardo's philosophy, certainly one which has suffered neglect at the hands of most of his commentators. The absolutely radical fact, for him, is that there are two ultimate, and, I think, irreconcilable categories of existence and explanation, the rational and the irrational. What Leonardo consciously seeks is a particular effect brought about reasonably enough by a limited cause; yet at any point he is inclined to give way to a feeling that the categories of necessity and nature cannot wholly account for the world, and that outside these is an unknowable realm which for Leonardo assumes various guises—goodness, nothingness, creativity, and so on, depending upon the context. Over and over again, there is the injection of this mystery right into the heart of the analysis. If there is an explanation for Mona Lisa's smile, it lies not so much in what Leonardo thought characteristic of women as in what he thought typical of the universe.

Leaving this aside for the moment—it will turn up frequently hereafter—we must draw attention to some features of Vincian logic which are not so much stated as illustrated in the writings. In his frequent directions to himself Leonardo usually reminds himself to look for, or write of, effects—that a phenomenon is—rather than causes—why it is. That a thing exists can ordinarily be told by the eye; what it is is given by essential qualities or quantities, mentally discriminated. The mind penetrates to the why beyond existence, to causes; and since causes are necessarily related to phenomena, they, the causes, may be said to be universal—they always operate. The mind sees universally the law of the object which was seen by the eye as particular and as subject to birth and decay. Leonardo says that truth, as soon as it is known, is incontrovertible (Tratt. d. Pitt., 33), again an annoying remark to those who would make him out a simple empiricist, who erases all distinctions between sense and intellect, and who thinks of causes as being merely sensible particulars.

Leonardo's reason-guided eye and vision-nourished brain, however, were admittedly insufficient to his scientific purposes, for he urged experiment upon his readers. In his philosophy, an experiment seems to be either a sequence of like observations to determine whether experience produces the same effect (MS. A 47 r), or else mechanical devices to aid in the elimination that he requires to insure that the relations between causes and phenomena are necessary and are correctly stated.

The experiments Leonardo thought essential to the unfolding of knowledge are interpreted by him in the light of a multitude of principles, some of them physical, some logical, some moral, some mechanical—and, of course, some of them related to the ineffable realm which cannot be causal in any ordinary sense but which nevertheless makes itself felt. Because of this multitude of principles, whose applications are limited to specific types of phenomena (Leonardo never claims to find any single postulate at the bottom of all knowledge), the method seems to demand elaborate cross-classifications. But what we find in the Notebooks is rather different. The whole problem is avoided. Leonardo rarely attempts, for example, to use successive dichotomies in a subject matter. He often classifies, it is true (e.g. he lists kinds of shadows, kinds of limb joints, types of noses), but these classifications are very simple and remain “horizontal,” every subdivision being co-ordinate with its neighbors. He avoids the hierarchies dear to his Neoplatonic contemporaries, falling back instead upon literal statements of permanent diagnostic features of kinds of things. If he distinguishes primary and secondary illuminations in his notes on optics, it is in terms of physical sources and effects, not metaphysical perfections. So, too, he uses analogies sparingly. In order to rank levels into ladders, one must show how the lower is vaguely, the higher clearly, expressive of perfection, else there would be no reason for this ranking. One must say the low is like the high in order to make plain the correspondence and order. I think it fair to claim that Leonardo never sets up a hierarchy to which he adheres throughout; many different things are accorded highest place, and comparisons hold in narrow contexts only. Exceptionally, he analogizes certain things to water, but even in such cases, there are careful delineations which reduce the correspondences and which preclude the possibility of saying that water is an essence of all other things, that it is in water and its movements that other things find their manifest exemplifications.

There was for him no single master science. Because he eschewed analogies, seeking instead limited causes of disparate effects, Leonardo was little given to the kind of Cartesian generalization that casts into mathematical form the study of nature and art. No doubt Leonardo was a second rate mathematician; but I submit that this may well have been an effect rather than a cause, may easily have been owing to a pull away from mathematizing that his various physical methods, including the experimental, exerted. This is only one instance of the point that highly generalized principles, supreme sciences or highest things, and all-mastering methods (often mathematical), frequently go hand in hand—but not quite in Leonardo.

We should not be persuaded to believe that Leonardo's science universally rests upon inductions. Much of his writing merely seems inductive and empirical, e.g. his description of raindrop formation, which, with the instruments lying at his hand, could only have been a shrewd guess (see [MS.] F 35 r). Or take the passage:

When mountains fall headlong over hollow places they shut in the air within their caverns, and this air, in order to escape, breaks through the earth, and so produces earthquakes.

(C.A. 289 r. a)

Such accounts would be tales of the marvellous but for the fact that Leonardo makes a strenuous effort always to use natural laws as bases of his explanations. But a remark like this about terrestrial catastrophes can hardly be set down as the immediate result of inductive reasoning.


We have seen that Leonardo often mentions mathematics or mechanics or the science of painting, but that when he projects treatises, each one is planned to deal with one topic, albeit from several points of view. The very splitting up implied by the treatises involves carrying certain quite general concepts over from one set of problems to another. “Nature,” “quantity,” “force,” “movement”—these and a few others—pervade every discussion. This gives each work a family resemblance to every other, making the treatise on painting look like a book on nature and mathematical notes look like both.

Let us examine further the concept of nature. In Leonardo, metaphysics—the study of being for what it is in itself—is largely replaced by a philosophy of natural agencies. The illimitable natural causes produce results, but nature itself produces all production, all action, all process: nature is a cause of causes, a super-cause, and as such is identical with necessity. Since nature is everywhere operative, the distinction between nature and artifice is not an important one for Leonardo, and the chief bifurcation to which nature itself is properly subject is that between spirit and body, spirit being illustrated by powers not visible except through effect—heat, weight, gravity, and the like (Fogli B 31 v). The action of spirit upon body makes the world as it is, as it must be.

The spiritual parts have power to move and to carry with them in their course the material parts. We see that fire by reason of its spiritual heat sends out of the chimney amid the steam and smoke matter that has body and weight.

([MS.] A 56 v and 57 r)

Nature in any experiment has a fixed career (susceptible of deductive—or intuitive?—apprehension), unless other circumstances intervene to turn its course into another fixed line of action (C.A. 154 r.b). “There is no result in nature without a cause,” Leonardo asserts; “Understand the cause and you will have no need of the experiment” (C.A. 147 v.a). And not only is nature determined, but also it is determined in a way appropriate to an economy which we might list as mechanical had we not already seen that mechanics in an ordinary sense is no unique master science for Leonardo:

O marvellous Necessity, thou with supreme reason constrainest all effects to be the direct result of all their causes, and by a supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by the shortest possible process!

(C.A. 345 v.b. Cf. also B.M. [Codex Arundel in the British Museum] 85 v)

The necessity of which Leonardo speaks is clearly a physical process, and it is not different from nature, which is always and in everything identical.

But nature as an absolute totality is not the same as individual things natural, and these can work through chance: “… Nature varies its factors according to the variety of the things which it desires to produce in the world” (C.A. 76 v.a). And here creeps in the mystery of which I have already spoken, the irrational aspect of Leonardo's philosophy: “Nature is full of infinite causes which were never set forth in experience” ([MS.] I 18 r). In these pithy summaries Leonardo guards against a finite and regulated world-machine such as the later Newtonians foisted upon the writings of Sir Isaac himself. No doubt for Leonardo the world is regulated wherever we can discover causes; but there are so many of these that the human mind cannot cope with them, either directly or through the senses.

Now it would be easy to conclude from all this that nature must be alive because it is spontaneous, and that it strives to reach a goal; but we should be warned by such phrases as “shortest possible way” against interpreting Leonardo as a latter-day Aristotelian, who would undoubtedly have said that nature acts for the best. Nature is a totality, and this may not be evil; but the sense of wholeness which one discerns in Leonardo's philosophy comes not from an Aristotelian view of nature as purposive change, in which lower functions are taken over by and made to subserve higher ones, nor yet from a Platonic conspectus of a grand universe, a world animal, in which all parts are rationally interrelated by divinely ordained mathematical proportions. Leonardo's sense of wholeness arises rather through the vision of a plurality of finite physical things, each “seeking” to overcome its own inadequacy: “Every part is disposed to unite with the whole, that it may thereby escape from its own incompleteness” (C.A. 59 r. b). It is at this juncture that the part loses its natural individuality by attracting itself to the whole of nature.

Oneness in becoming allness has become nothingness, and nothingness, for Leonardo, is a paramount conception, something which eats into, though it cannot enter, the realm of existent things. Nothing, non-existence, is always around the corner in Leonardo's universe: cosmos is banked against unreasonable chaos, and to chaos it will revert.


Among the great things which are found among us the existence of Nothing is the greatest. This dwells in time, and stretches its limbs into the past and the future, and with these takes to itself all works that are past and those that are to come, both of nature and of the animals, and possess nothing of the indivisible present. It does not however extend to the essence of anything.

(C.A. 398 v.d)

So Leonardo might preface his account of the system of the world. Things begin in non-entity, just as knowledge commences in nescience. Yet in a way which only a Hegelian would have troubled to explain, the mirror image of nothing is everything, and it is from everything, says Leonardo, attempting to paraphrase Anaxagoras, that everything comes—“Because whatever exists in the elements is made out of the elements” (C.A. 385 v.c). The flux of existents stems from a series of limited changes all based upon the four elements, which, in Platonic fashion, are mainly relegated to four typical regions, each portion of the element always tending towards its own proper region. For example:

Water is by its weight the second element that encompasses the earth, and that part of it which is outside its sphere will seek with rapidity to return there. And the farther it is raised above the position of its element the greater the speed with which it will descend to it.

([MS.] A 26 r; see also C.A. 161 r.a)

These concentric spherical regions are contiguous one to the next, and each one is a plenum furthermore. The whole universe is filled, and there is no vacuum. Characteristically the natural changes taking place are regular fluxes and refluxes, not cyclic movements. The motions Leonardo describes so painstakingly—of falling bodies, of water, of shot and shell, of blood—are fundamentally rectilinear in his view, modified here and there by other forces acting, like externally imposed weights, upon the bodies. Leonardo evidently does not wish to affirm a heavenly sphere essentially different from the other four; there is no Aristotelian aither which could account for the seeming incorruptibility of the stars. Nor does Leonardo distinguish things on the earth's surface as being specifically terrestrial, from things aloft, except to note variations of degree.

In his universe it makes little difference whether the earth or the sun is the center. There is, of course, Leonardo's famous and glaringly unhelpful remark that the sun does not move (Quaderni V 25 r), but nothing is connected with this laconism to show just what kind of motion is denied the sun. The confusion is not lessened when we read that “the earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it” (B.M. 19 r). Surely if the earth suffers motion relative to objects near or upon it, the sun must likewise move in relation to the planets! Contradictions now proliferate. Gravity and levity grow out of the behavior of unlike elements in contact (B.M. 204 r, 205 r), and both are the causes of motion. Leonardo's best probable defense would be to show that the sun is never in contact with anything which is out of its proper region, a statement which would still seem wrong on the face of it.

The basic terms of Leonardo's astronomy are in any case those common to all physics: motion, size, distance; and he stresses judging of distances and rates of movement, but with only the most casual glance at mathematical causes by which to save appearances of the sun and stars. The cycles and epicycles of Ptolemy are hardly noticed, but other curves are not suggested for describing orbits.

Leonardo seems to be treating of time as uni-directional when he admonishes himself to “write of the nature of time as distinct from its geometry” (B.M. 176 r). Critics who have noted without pleasure that he gives a law of falling bodies that compares distance traversed with time rather than with the square of the time, are assuming that he adopted a Newtonian concept of time as being a quantity having squares and roots, a concept which allows time itself to travel in both directions, positive and negative roots being indifferently solutions of the equations. No doubt Leonardo was being clumsy; but since he thought that only the point and the line were strictly analogous to time (B.M. 17 v and 190 v), I doubt whether he could have used two-dimensional magnitudes as equivalent to time and put them in the same equations with movement.


We come to a point where I wish especially to stress the provisional character of my summary; but it does appear that most of the topics that Leonardo treats in connection with his mathematical diagrams, as well as those he promises to deal with in his “De Ludo Geometrico,” are derived from physics rather than from what we recognize as pure mathematics. An indication of this is the fact, for example, that continuity and contiguity, infinity and finitude, surfaces, etc., are described as characters of natural bodies, no matter how much the proofs are laid out in the form by Euclid.

Perhaps my best support is seen in Leonardo's remark that “proportion is not only found in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights, times, positions, and in whatsoever power there may be” ([MS.] K 49 r). Were he a thoroughgoing mathematician, he would say, in all probability, that proportions are found in discrete and continuous quantities, and these in turn are found exemplified in weights and times. The discovery of a proportion, for Leonardo, can very easily turn out to be a physical operation, not a mere calculation.

On the other side we have his statement that mathematics is a fundamental science, and the further and still more conclusive fact that there are a number of his mathematical propositions which refer distinctly to points, lines, circles, much as the propositions of the older geometers would have done. The estimates of Leonardo as mathematician sometimes rank him fairly high; but I think his indecision in this discipline may confute these estimates. Certainly it is responsible for his curiously abrupt way of setting down mathematical propositions.

Mechanics is, for him, “the paradise of the mathematical sciences, because here we come to the fruits of mathematics” ([MS.] E 8 v). The chief contributions of the Peripatetics and of Archimedes had been statics, but Leonardo soon began to relate what is at rest to what is in motion. Mechanics he says, deals with four “powers”: local movement, weight, inherent power which produces “accidental weight”—we call this momentum—and finally percussion, that is, the cessation of movement (Quaderni I l r). Beginning here, Leonardo tries to account both for things which move because they are in contact with a mover, and those things which, lacking that contact, remain motionless ([MS.] F 36 v). No element, no body, can initiate movement without an impulse from without; a sphere on a plane, for example, would remain at rest until touched, because of its equilibrium ([MS.] A 21 v). The center of gravity when displaced, however, causes movement, and this lopsidedness continues to excite motion until other forces, usually friction, act to halt it (Sul Volo 13 r).

Acoustics comes closer than optics, apparently, to forming an alliance with general mechanics, for Leonardo's discussion of sound contains little pretense of mathematical explanations, being concerned chiefly with shock waves in air and resistance to motions of sound waves. One of his few exceptions to this is contained implicitly in a reference to the mathematical acoustics of the philosopher “Pictagoras,” but the point remains that Leonardo was largely interested in sound as a moving entity, not unlike a hard body or a wave in water, and that its ratios as an abstract quantity were in good part impenetrable by his methods.

Again, the basic conception of water is that of a natural body, and Leonardo's hydraulics has surprisingly little mathematical emphasis. Moving water is distinguished from “dead,” the latter being unable to flow anywhere of its own accord unless allowed to descend. Ordinarily water not self-moved has all parts of its surface equidistant to the center of the world ([MS.] F 27 r).

The element water is central to Leonardo's earth science. Practically all his geology is conceived in terms of rivers, lakes, seas, runoff, and the like; and he pays close attention to clouds and rain in their physiographic effects. The flight of birds, even, is reviewed in the firm conviction that air behaves as a liquid, having waves, shocks, propulsions, and viscosity:

In order to give the exact science of the movement of the birds in the air it is necessary first to give the science of the winds, and this we shall prove by means of the movements of the water.

([MS.] E 54 4; cf. C.A. 361 v.a)

Water occurs characteristically in what Leonardo calls rivers—his drawings of water nearly always show it confined within banks or conduits. The Mediterranean, he says, is but a river to the sea, and the great sea itself is continually moving the earth by its ebb and flow (C.A. 102 r. b). Here the reasonable account, the science, breaks off; and Leonardo's other references to water are in his prophecy of the manic Deluge.


In treating water (and other types of bodies), Leonardo concerns himself with shapes resulting from movements. In his biology, he deals with movements resulting from shapes. The bodily structure seems to be the whole and sufficient condition of the movement, and there are no final causes, no ends in themselves. The soul is an invigorating source of movement of the intricate and fascinating articulations which Leonardo labored so arduously to make demonstrable.

There is a soul, however, though its nature beyond being a mere mover is not further identified. Suffice to say, it is resident particularly in the judgment, and is not everywhere in the body at once (Fogli B 2 r). The relation between psychic and bodily changes is taken for granted, in most cases, and left unexplained. At least the philosopher never altogether commits himself to stating a simple correspondence between soul and body: there are movements of the soul, he says, which are not accompanied by any parallel or corresponding movement of the body, and in these instances the hands and other mobile portions of the body become limp. The soul, we should remember, is spiritual for Leonardo mainly in the sense that it is not a body, and he does not discuss further the separation of soul from body, any more than its joining.

In Leonardo's many studies of growth and of organic systems there is little distinction between anatomy and physiology, structure and function: everything living has shape, movement, development; yet these three are related in this order of priority. The foundation of life is movement ([MS.] H 141 r), but movement is possible only where there is a definite thing to be moved—a limb or organ. The typical motion is not circular, for Leonardo. In the isolation of systems—vascular, respiratory, digestive—one may demonstrate flux and reflux of blood, air, and nutriment quite handily. In a famous passage Leonardo likens the movements of water up and down a mountain to the behavior of blood in heart and brain ([MS.] H 77 r). It is for this reason, I believe, that Leonardo did not “discover” the so-called circulation of the blood: virtually all the motions, animate and inanimate alike, are forward and back, and one has the impression that even had Leonardo been in possession of all the observations made by William Harvey, he would have persisted in the view that the blood moves by flux and reflux. But then, the conceptual scheme would be quite as adequate to describe the phenomena as is the notion of circularity, which Harvey himself admits is a metaphor.

One of the peculiarities of Leonardo's remarks upon plants—very likely a leading cause of their excellence—is the fact that he recognizes that plants offer quite different problems from those raised by animal bodies. In animals, the form as definite is taken for granted, the functions are to be accounted for; but Leonardo sees plants as having certain regularities which must be explained, and these always in terms of the preservation and stability of the entire organism. This conception gives his remarkably acute insights a purposive character seemingly out of step with the animal studies. But if we bear in mind that he is dealing here with “spiritual” forces—he could just as well say universal physical forces—rather than with such mathematical necessities, as, say, D'Arcy Thompson sees in plants, the apparent discrepancy is eliminated. Plants are less definite functionally, less proportioned in growth than animals; and one cannot take for granted mechanical principles of movement and psychological principles of pursuit and avoidance to account for their structures. Consequently the modicum of organization in plant forms required Leonardo to set down more explicit categories by which to explain stem growth, phyllotaxis, root proliferation, and so on, than would have been needed for discussing animal forms and changes.


As water is the prime element for the earth scientist, so fire with its emanating light is the chief consideration of the painter or the optician. Light and its derivative, shadow, are found everywhere, and can be examined in multifarious appearances in terms of perfectly plain laws. To simplify his problems, Leonardo partially separates questions of perspective from those of optics (i.e. the geometric and the physical from the biological), and then divides perspective into three chief types: linear, that is, the projective type; aerial, the blurring of images as they recede in the atmosphere; and color perspective, the general alteration of a hue when it is removed to the background (MS. 2038 Bib. Nat. 18 r). Sometimes however, Leonardo speaks as if all perspective were linear:

Perspective is nothing else than the seeing of an object behind a sheet of glass, smooth and quite transparent, on the surface of which all the things may be marked that are behind this glass; these things approach the point of the eye in pyramids, and these pyramids are cut by the said glass.

([MS.] A l v)

When he comes to peculiarities of the way in which we see, Leonardo occupies himself with equalities and inequalities of images, but not with elaborate mathematical proportions—he does not advance very far beyond Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. Mainly, he attempts to distinguish kinds of light and kinds of images—primary (incandescent) and secondary (reflected) light (C.A. 116 r b). and primary (attached) and secondary (cast) shadows; and he carefully states the conditions under which bodies can be seen (vide e.g. C.A. 349 v d and Quaderni II 6 r).

Percussion, so important in Leonardo's notes on hydraulics, aeronautics, acoustics, and indeed elevated to the rank of a dominant principle of mechanical science, is of less significance in the “book” on shadows, although occasionally ([MS.] C 2 r, [MS.] C 7 r, C.A. 116 r. b) Leonardo speaks as if light or shadows strike objects. This language has somehow been inflated by scholars into an undulatory theory of light, but the correct ascription of such a theory to the Florentine would have to rest upon other grounds, since corpuscles are able to strike as well as waves can strike.

Much more significant is the high and noble use Leonardo made of optics and perspective in his theory of painting. If read just as it stands, his discussion of art appears to us singularly matter-of-fact, almost dull. Topics on which he has little or nothing to say loom very large today—beauty, either absolute or in its embodiments; emotions of artist and spectator; space in some specifically pictorial sense; compositional wholeness; relations of an artist to his epoch; and a painter's effort to interpret his age. It is quite true that once or twice Leonardo addresses himself lavishly to painting as to a deity, but the main reason he adduces for its supremacy is that the eye rather than the ear is the organ of knowledge, being so direct as to leave no need of words as intermediaries to our understanding (MS. 2038 Bib. Nat. 19 r and v, and 20 r).

It has been pointed out (by Irma Richter) that the main intention of the earlier portions of the Treatise on Painting is to show that that art is as worthy of respect as is the trivium or the quadrivium—the trivium presumably as embodying means of expression of surpassing clearness and persuasiveness, the quadrivium presumably as delineating a science of quantity and quality in objects both mathematical and natural. One might argue that Leonardo succeeded better in his purposes by the example of Cecilia Gallerani or La Belle Ferronnière or The Virgin of the Rocks; but the upshot of the treatise at any rate is to show the art of painting as hinging upon principles of sight—a sort of phaneroscopy. This is, we must remember, a science of painting, which although it converges upon its technology, is even so just the servant of that creative manipulation which makes pictures.

In his theory of painting, curiously enough, Leonardo abandons much of the theory of proportions (which would figure prominently were he considering questions of the composition of the picture as a whole—a more Aristotelian topic) in favor of representation and expression. Proportion depends upon limits, and the whole line of argument in Leonardo's theory of art seeks to get rid of just such limits as he copies, in his anatomical studies, from Vitruvius. Whereas earlier Florentines dealt chiefly with exact line and definite color, Leonardo's attention was focussed upon light and its infinite gradations through shadow to darkness.

It comes to this: for Leonardo, painting, the essence of painting, is the habitual and informed observation of all things, not simply of what is barely necessary for the rendering of this or that scene. The painter is, visually speaking, the universal man: Painting, says Leonardo, extends over works human and divine, insofar as they are bounded by surfaces.

Leonardo's own effort to give a smoky appearance to all receded outlines (sfumato) was a part of this striving after universality, for by it the human figure of foreground and the craggy mountain of background could be esthetically, visually, co-ordinated in fused image having both individual relief and general continuity. It would be, one might suppose, like using a single narrative style to bring the descriptions of disparate episodes into line in a novel. The fact that such a man as the elder Brueghel used little sfumato only points up the conclusion that not all painters have the same theory of what constitutes unity in a painting—or the same impression of the way distant rocks appear. As with Joseph Conrad, Leonardo tries with his shadings and auras to suggest an infinite slice of the universe, and the canvas becomes, for all the shrewdness and specificity of the painter's observation, an indication that his ocular sense has been gloriously receptive to all things everywhere.

One cannot be sure that Leonardo thinks of natural phenomena, taken as they stand, as beautiful, for it is only in rare passages that he speaks, for instance, of beautiful movements of boiling water ([MS.] F 34 v). His everlasting obsession with anatomical observation predisposes him to think that a painter unlearned in the fabric of the human body and unskilled in its most exact rendering, is a man unworthy of his calling. But Leonardo is quick to point out that too slavish a concern with mere bones and muscles leads to the cardinal fault of woodenness ([MS.] E 19 v and 20 r). A painter must be able to paint the interior passions of a man's soul through outer form (MS. 2038 Bib. Nat. 29 v). Knowledge of bone and sinew alone is insufficient to achieve this; hence expression of feeling rests upon insight into the special dispositions of parts at a given moment—the half-smile which combines many separate and unlike smiles, the vigorous threatening gesture, the horrid frown. All these are still a matter of nerve and muscle, but much more refined and subtle than would be true were the artist to begin with the intention to portray mere anatomical parts in their proper locations.

Depicting of the lifelike served as a substitute for the harder conventions of Leonardo's predecessors, and was perhaps necessary (so Malraux suggests) because the earlier lucid symbols of Christianity had begun to lose their appeal for the general imagination, had begun to fade into stark, well-drawn objects. To convince the spectator that the Virgin of the Rocks justified her name, every artifice of delicate shading, to catch the first innocence of pleasant eyes and mouth, was now required; no longer could a rather hard and worldly icon be labelled this way. The “realistic” movement, and its basis in the study of anatomy, had started earlier than leonardo, probably with men like Castagno. In Pollaiuolo, anatomy could account for the kinds of vital motion, not simply verisimilitude. Leonardo, absorbing these two trends, the use of real form and the use of movement, and creating so much more, added the incomparable grace of his lines hinted in, rather than imposed by, the painting, so that his best pictures, to use a famous phrase, combine a natural basis of the living subjects and at the same time suggest their ideal career. The universe, and more particularly the human body, carry a perfect fulfillment implicit in the rendering of the shapes, their incident lightings and shadings.

All the way through, however, Leonardo, while praising the art of the painter, rather underplays its esthetic, moral, and religious worth. He reminds himself that he should consult Horace's Art of Poetry ([MS.] G 8 r, marginal note), and his presumed contact with that book was not altogether fortunate for his philosophy. A painting of a battle, he claims, draws a bigger audience than does a poem and gives greater pleasure (MS. 2038 Bib. Nat. 19 r), a reason which seems too impoverished to support the painterly art, a reason more becoming the antique Roman. The fact must be accepted that Leonardo borrows, or at any rate coincides with, many of Horace's canons advocating naturalness of object, sheer skill of artifice in representing it; but of course he does not follow Horace always in the arguments to buttress these recommendations. Where Horace distinguishes between pleasing and teaching as ends of poetry, Leonardo ignores instruction, except for making the claim that drawing is chiefly an instructive substitute for language. But throughout, Leonardo speaks as if the poet must create a semblance of what appears to the eye in nature; and the combination of things we see (such as various wild animal parts he combined in the drawing of a monster) have special Horatian purposes like amusing or horrifying.

In Leonardo's own painting there is in the gracious balance, the smooth clear textures, an affinity with the bel canto style of singers of a later age—the even parity of line, the effortlessness requiring such great effort. Leonardo's work is carefully planned, severely conceived, sensuously executed. As such it bears resemblances to his enunciation and application of physical principles—the statements and the inventions which support each other. Like the mechanical devices, many of the pictures remained unfinished by Leonardo's own hand. Since his pupils were chiefly interested in painting rather than in scientific or technological research, Boltraffio and the others carried on the master's work rather onesidedly. Leonardo had said that painting is the supreme science; yet one feels it was supreme for him only if cultivated in closest conjunction with the other aspects—I hesitate to say branches—of his embracing philosophy. No doubt he was a little impatient of the brush; but for himself this was entirely right, for he felt strongly that painting was chiefly a work of intellect, imagination, and eye rather than of the hand. But the hand did perfect.


So much of Leonardo's metaphysics as did not advert to principles of nature is little more than a collection of tasteless commonplaces. And such, too, is his moral philosophy. In the ethical apothegms, the vestiges of his scientific method disappear. He is concerned chiefly with the condition of man, how man finds himself situated in a strange world, rather than with the precise specification of good habits, promptings of inner moral sense, or the purifications of man's soul through crisis. Leonardo was no doubt a stern moralist; but two things, his self-confessed inability to write comprehensively of human nature and life, and the preoccupations of his abstracted temperament, made him both weak in moral theory and maddening in his dealings with other men. Especially in his financial arrangements was he like the mighty Beethoven, indulgent toward self and harsh toward others in this department of ordinary life.

There appear to be two positive clues to Leonardo's attitude toward human life—I do not call it a theory, the tracings are so faint. One is the passion for freedom; the other, his ontological grounding of the world in crude nothingness. If, in the first place, there is any humane justification for Leonardo's virtual obsession with engines of war, it lies in the fact that he sought to preserve peace and liberty for his princes; we may take as perfectly sincere his characterization of war as a most bestial frenzy. In the second place, Leonardo was evidently filled with a dread consciousness of the bivalence of nature—it constructs all, but it destroys all. The works of nature are shot through with shortages. Leonardo's famous caricatures, mainly of the aged, show the ugliness of man, stripped of everything but the grimaces of vapid pretensions. And the animal tales abound in the cruelties of beasts, the fruitless struggle for perduring safety. Towards the end of his life, in Rome, when he was still vibrantly alive intellectually but giving way before Michelangelo and Raphael in his reputation as an artist, Leonardo drew a series of apocalyptic visions of the destruction of the world—the total inundation of all habitable places; and he wrote hair-raising descriptions of the effect of this catastrophe upon human life.

In our own day, no doubt Leonardo would be the greatest of existentialists, attentive to bare existence, and facing, in vacuous liberty, choices of infinite consequence. The barbed drawings of degraded humanity, the plaint against “fillers of privies”—are these not the Renaissance analogue of today's philosophical dread and nausea confronted by the order of nature and the human ordeal? If this seems to emphasize a negative side of Leonardo's moral life, still the interpretations harking back to Vasari that make Leonardo's personal generosity rotund and his companionship genial, must be set off by some plain and disturbing evidences of another side. The complex, brilliant, independent intellect was hardly supported by a sanguine temperament.

Much has been offered to prove Leonardo's religiosity, much more to confute. His written words are noncommittal, and I am inclined to believe that in his great pursuits Leonardo was content to neglect a supreme being. It would be a begging of the question even to inquire what secret word transpired when Leonardo was alone with his God, at midnight.


We have reviewed certain fundamentals of Leonardo's work, that, in a Greek phrase, “have philosophy.” No matter whether any particular idea was copied, altered, or newly created by him: these presuppositions pivot the sweep of his system. It is impossible, I think, to find any single guiding principle for the whole of his philosophy, and the postulates I have rehearsed in this essay have been chosen for their heuristic value, not for their constituting a full-dress theory, although one feels that the system was never far away from Leonardo's thoughts. Leonardo has shared with Leibniz and with our own Charles Sanders Peirce the character (and fate) of men whose brilliant ideas have been thrown out to the world as scintillating suggestions, and whose books have not been worked up in systematic completeness. Because the rushing fountain of his genius never abated from pouring out fresh discoveries, it was in his attempts to bring order into his thoughts that Leonardo continually failed. Hence to seek to outline his system in any rigid codification, using the familiar artifices of modern formalisms, would result in a distorting reduction. Doubtless the system is there, but it must be approached cautiously, on foot, and using only the principles Leonardo himself supplies. And even the system as he sketched it has this prevading element of irrationality—the nothingness, the creative imagination, the tight-lipped tantalizing smile.

Leonardo is broader and bolder than most attempts to codify his thought would suggest. In the twentieth century, when experimental procedure has hardened from a brave epistemic decision into a technical dogma, it is quite easy for us to take Leonardo's practices in philosophy for granted. Although the Middle Ages was a good deal more reliant upon experience than is commonly supposed, still Leonardo, coming at its final end, stands out with a peculiar eminence, because of the fantastic variety and precision of his observations, the great dexterity of his hands, which one feels must have guided him almost as often as did his eyes.

Leonardo's reluctance to arrange and narrow his findings is given his own sanction. “Abbreviations,” he says, “do harm to knowledge.” The mind is a free-loving spirit, for him, and like the eye which serves as a magnet for light, intellect and the object it properly knows are drawn together by similar total attraction. “Abbreviations,” he goes on (Windsor C II 14), “do harm to knowledge and to love, seeing that the love of anything is the offspring of this knowledge, the love being the more fervent as the knowledge is the more certain.” And in turn, love stimulates the growth of the mind. In Leonardo's superb extroversion, this is the generous and capable love that ever moves the intellect and all the other faculties.

Karl Jaspers (essay date 1953)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16222

SOURCE: “Leonardo as Philosopher,” in Three Essays: Leonardo, Descartes, Max Weber, translated by Ralph Manheim, Harcourt Brace & World, 1964, pp. 3-58.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in German in 1953, Jaspers provides “an account of Leonardo's philosophizing, describing first the character of his thinking, then its content, and its reflection in the painter's way of life.”]


Leonardo has left us a few marvelous paintings in a poor state of preservation, notably the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, a self-portrait whose authenticity is doubted, but which all who have seen it remember as the face of one of the world's unique great men, and thousands of pages of notes and sketches. In addition we have the reports of contemporaries and his influence on other painters, who echoed his ideas in their works. The barest glimpse of Leonardo can still be gained from the ruins and fragments of his painting, from his daily notes, and from his influence on others.

Leonardo is famous as the universal genius who could do everything, as the artist who inaugurated the classical art of Italy, but whose tragedy it was that he failed to complete many of his great projects. Since Vasari it has been generally held that he squandered his talents and is consequently inferior to Raphael and Michelangelo, who were artists in their whole being and completed innumerable great works.

He is famous as a scientist. He has been called the founder of modern science. But this has been questioned on the ground that he did not use the methods of the mathematical sciences in his investigations, that the similarities between certain of his formulations and the principles of the future science are misleading, that most of the machines he designed were products of his visual imagination and could not have been built, that his application of mathematics is very limited and nowhere commensurate with the scientific acumen of Galileo.

He has less frequently been called a philosopher, an allegation that others have resolutely denied, arguing that he was lacking in the power to construct systematic ideas and concepts, that his numerous references to philosophy are without cohesion, and that he did not share in the continuity of the philosophical tradition.

It has been asked: was Leonardo essentially an artist or a scientist, or a philosopher, or something that cannot be subsumed under any of these established categories of intellectual endeavor? Leonardo became a mythical figure, the incarnation of mysteriousness.

Historians of art, of the sciences, of philosophy, have communicated the results of intensive investigations. From Goethe to Jacob Burckhardt and down to our contemporaries, men have tried to state what has moved them in Leonardo, to recall what has been forgotten, to restore what has been lost, to reveal the hidden.

I shall attempt to give an account of Leonardo's philosophizing, describing first the character of his thinking, then its content, and its reflection in the painter's way of life. Finally we shall look into Leonardo's particular greatness, which perhaps transcends the distinction between artist, scientist, and philosopher.


1. Leonardo's thinking—and this is its distinctive feature—is based entirely on the eye and the hand. What has existence for him must be visible; what he knows must be brought forth by the hand.

Leonardo praises the eye. It is less deceptive than the other senses. It reflects all the works of nature. Only through the eye can the beauty of the world be enjoyed, and solely for the sake of this vision is the soul content to be confined in its human dungeon. The loss of sight leaves the soul in a dark prison, without hope of ever again beholding the sun, the light of the whole world. Thus there is no man who would not rather lose the senses of hearing and smell than that of vision.

Goethe describes the consequences of this identification with the eye. Because Leonardo's “grasp of nature was directly visual, because his thinking was grounded in the phenomenon itself, he hit upon the truth without detours.” “As clarity and discernment of the eye belong to the realm of intellect, so our artist was in complete possession of clarity and intelligence.”

But what the eye perceives becomes clear only when the hand creatively reproduces it. In dissecting an organism, the hand thinks in movements without words, and it does the same in drawing from nature or in projecting a design of the imagination, which creates what nature had not produced before. This thinking, not in concepts, but in lines, forms, and figures, is vision and action combined. The ancients disparaged painters as artisans. Leonardo reversed this judgment. In his view, nothing that arises in the mind through contemplation can attain perfection without a manual operation. The “theory of painting” leads to the “activity” of painting, which is superior to the mere theory. Thus Leonardo's thinking—and he himself looked upon it as thinking—was at once vision and action; it was thinking vision, vision made manifest by the work of the hand.

But the eye and the hand achieve knowledge neither by passively looking at things nor by blindly manipulating them. The visible becomes truly visible only through thinking action. This thinking action consists of two steps.

With the help of mathematics it creates and finds structure in the fluid chaos of sensation. It is mathematics that first makes possible an exact vision of things. “No human investigation can be called science unless it operates by way of mathematical representation.” Leonardo has in mind a concrete, visual mathematics. By mathematics he understands all order and law accessible to the eye.

But for Leonardo mathematical insight into the orders of reality is not yet a knowledge of the real. It must be accompanied by a penetration into the particular, into the endless detail of real perception. Consequently he criticizes impatience and the passion for abbreviation. Men, he laments, wish to grasp the mind of God, which encompasses the universe; but they behave as if they did not have time enough to acquire a thorough knowledge of a single detail such as the human body. He himself, as Hegel said of him, went into such details “with almost morbid thoroughness.”

For Leonardo the visible is known only through the tension between ordering structure and endless particularity. He never strays into fantasy. He always shows visually what he thinks, and he always thinks what he sees. Amid all the richness of his sensuous visions, he remains sober. He does not strive for special powers with which to contemplate the supersensory, but lives entirely in the real world; within it he preserves human proportions and remains a man speaking in terms intelligible to man.

Leonardo insists on perceptibility as the condition of certainty. Without the eye and the hand, nothing would exist for him. For something to be, it must be visible and tangible. All “things are doubtful that defy the senses—for example, the nature of God and the soul, concerning which men dispute endlessly.”

2. But Leonardo has more than this in mind. He does not content himself with the tangible and the visible. His philosophizing is far removed from ordinary empiricism and sensualism. Everything that can exist for us, he believes, is in some sense reproducible, not only the external nature that already exists, but also and above all the ideas that emerge in the mind, the potential reality. Knowledge is not random reproduction (comparable, for example, to our photography), but a bringing forth of what the mind sees. It ranges from the drawing of possible machines conceived by the technical imagination to the painting which manifests the invisible in the visible, and includes an awareness of the symbolic character of all visible things. The imagination opens up accesses to being, for which the artist creates visible figures; it is only through the truth of these visible things that being becomes truth.

Leonardo speaks of visible surfaces. What does not become surface does not exist. But in the surface we must see the ground; we must learn to see through the sensuous surface to its asensory origin. The origin speaks in the surface, it can, as it were, be grasped, but not by the mere senses.

From the standpoint of method, this is the crux of Leonardo's thinking. Everything that is real passes through the senses. But what the eye and the ear perceive is itself spiritual when seen in the right way. Within the sensory world we are always soaring above the sensory world, but not into a realm beyond the senses. And conversely: in order to exist for us, the spiritual must become surface.

Throughout his Treatise on Painting Leonardo speaks of the spiritual in the sensuous, of number, form, and reason in the concrete world. It is in this light that he treats perspective, proportion, the elementary laws of movement, the structure of organisms, the expression of constant character traits in the structure of faces and bodies, and of momentary passions in gestures, and so on. But these insights, which comprise Leonardo's “science of painting,” are by no means the ultimate secret of the spiritual. Leonardo does more than he says; of this he was aware, as he shows in occasional propositions, though he never states it systematically.

If it is true that his few pictures produce a unique effect on us, what is its source? The smile, the charm, the landscape as the background of man's being—are these in themselves the essential? Do these pictures affect us as they do because every last brushstroke is a product not only of intuitive creation but also of thought? Or because they matured in the lucidity of a philosophical consciousness? Do Leonardo's search for the true nature of being, his investigations in the universe, enter into the content of his pictures? Perhaps an indication is provided by two celebrated and fundamental features of his painting—his composition, which made him the founder of so-called classical art, and his use of chiaroscuro.

Pictures in which every detail throbs with life, but in which the whole is a unity thoroughly composed and in which nothing exists haphazardly for itself—this came as a revelation to his contemporaries and opened up a new world of art. Leonardo made a discovery which in essence could never be repeated. He found a cipher for the unitary order of the cosmos. In so doing, he achieved a classical perfection in which formula and convention had not yet made their appearance, the sublime and ceremonious, the pompous and decorative are still absent. But for Leonardo this cipher of perfection is only a part of his work, a step, not the conclusion.

Chiaroscuro seems to be the exact counterpart of this perfection of form. Hegel called it a magic of colored illusion, in which objects evaporate. The deepest shadows are suffused with light and rise by way of imperceptible transitions to the brightest radiance; nowhere is there a harsh dividing line. Objects dissolve in an objectless play of reflected illusions, which blend into other illusions, becoming so spiritualized that they verge on the realm of music. What Hegel intimates with these words was first discovered by Leonardo. It operates like a cipher of that which makes all objects transparent; with the pure surface of the most fugitive object it opens up a dimension that would be hidden by a solid bodily representation. What Correggio carried further and allowed to get lost in sensuous enchantment, what Rembrandt embodied through another unique metaphysics, has its beginning in Leonardo, as a new way of making visible the invisible—through the process of thought.

The character of spirituality in Leonardo's creative intention is also manifested in his attitude toward his work. He no doubt intended to finish his works, but with him completion was not an ultimate aim or criterion. The purpose of his visual thinking transcends the finished work.

It is no accident that Leonardo was not satisfied with any of his works. He was unable to complete his paintings, because his intention went beyond the limits of the work. In the Last Supper—it is believed—neither Judas nor Christ was finished. Goethe formulated an old explanation: “He was unable to complete either the betrayer or the God-man, because they are both mere concepts that are not seen with the eyes.” A higher meaning strives to make itself visible, but the visible work is not adequate to it. The essential expresses itself in something that shatters the limits of visibility or in an incompleteness that leaves the solutions open. In this indeterminate visibility the invisible speaks, but it can no longer be seen. We glimpse a transcendence which nevertheless remains hidden; the incorporeal in the corporeal speaks to us. The work as it stands says more than any perfection. Even in the seeming perfection of Leonardo's finished work there is something that points beyond it. Leonardo himself never formulates any such idea. But this interpretation seems to explain why he was never satisfied with his finished work.

Then there are the sketches and experiments in which Leonardo did not even strive for perfection. He took ugliness for his subject, depicted real and possible deviations and abnormalities. He did sketches of cosmic events impossible to visualize, pictures of the end of the world, or of rainstorms. His head was full of chimeras, said Castiglione when the aged Leonardo was in Rome.

It is hard to speak of individual pictures. A Frenchman has said that all those who speak of the Mona Lisa lose their reason. The open eyes under the high forehead, the barely suggested smile, the quietness of her attitude, the aristocratic negligence of the folded hands have made spirituality visible in the corporeal figure of this woman. It seems likely that in the ephemeral person Leonardo perceived the eternal idea of nobility, which he identified with human reason. In her there is no coquetry, no seduction, no social mask, but only the serene aloofness of the soul. In lucid awareness she combines heart and mind, love and thought, and maintains the tension between them. Leonardo saw the dignity of woman, of which her sexuality is only one component. This spirituality in the corporeal is beyond understanding; it transcends everything that Leonardo was able to teach in the Treatise on Painting.

In Leonardo the clearest visibility takes on a dreamlike quality because it points to essential reality. His objects are not vague; they are sharply defined but transparent. He knows no degrees of reality, no cosmic hierarchy as in the medieval view of the world, but the one reality, which is the Encompassing and in the Encompassing. But he knows different kinds of vision, namely, the blind vision for which a reality without transparence is everything, and the true vision, for which all the things of the senses become spiritual, as though the invisible were the true reality.

3. The problem is thousands of years old. Because art must be sensuous and can be spiritual, there is a sharp dividing line between the art which, for all the splendor of its artistry, is confined to the world of the senses, and the art that is the language of transcendence. With all its magnificence the art of pure visibility seems insubstantial beside the art which discloses the invisible; the impulse to enrich life pales before the attraction of eternity, the vitalization of the spiritual before the spiritualization of the living flesh.

Accordingly, philosophy, from Plato to Augustine to Kierkegaard, has claimed the authority to judge art, music, and poetry for the good and evil in them. The mere thinker who examines works of art and takes a critical attitude toward them consults a philosophical authority in the artist or poet himself.

Leonardo did not speak with the clarity of those great philosophers. But he shared in their struggle for the spiritualization of the sensuous. Sensuous reality is indispensable; without it there would be nothing but empty abstraction. The spiritual is the essential; it must not be engulfed by vital impulses, by the passions, by the sensuous figures in which it appears, for then there would be nothing but an intoxication of the senses and a reality without transparence. Nothing is real unless it enters into the realm of the senses. But the sensuous as such, the purely sensuous, is empty.

Leonardo may be regarded as one of those artists who have most astoundingly expressed the corporeity of the spiritual and the spirituality of the corporeal.

How did he accomplish this? A number of his remarks throw light on the matter. “Unfortunate is the master whose work is in advance of his judgment. Only one whose judgment towers above his work can move toward perfection in art.” But according to Leonardo this judgment which guides artistic creation has two stages. First there is the judgment which unconsciously deludes itself. Then there is a judgment concerning this judgment.

Leonardo describes the first kind of judgment. The artist's own physis involuntarily reproduces itself in the figures, gestures, movements of the work. “For the soul, master of the body, is itself one and the same as your judgment, and delights in works which resemble that judgment which it created by constituting your body.” “This judgment is so powerful that it guides the artist's hand and causes him to repeat himself.”

But this living soul, which in equal measure constructs the artist's body and guides his work, governs the creation of the work only until “it becomes our own judgment.” This true, “own” judgment sees through the other unconscious judgment. It comes to itself by constant listening to the judgments of others, by the practice of different styles, whereby it achieves harmony with all other judgments and rises above them.

Where the artist's own physis erupts blindly through its judgment and then remains captive to its individual vital essence, the result is works determined solely by the artist's nature. If this painter is “a fool,” his paintings (in narrative cycles, for example) “are without coherence and conciseness; the figures take no account of their function, one looks in this direction, the other in that, as though in a dream. Thus every psychic and bodily state represented in the picture follows the nature of the painter.” But if the painter's judgment is superior to his work and to the judgment of his physis, he is enabled to give proper guidance to his work.

In other words: the artist is master of his work as the thinker is master of his thoughts. He exercises this power by reflection. His judgment penetrates to every ramification of what his creative mind and his hand produce. This accounts for the length of time Leonardo spent on his works. Such judgment did not impede his creativeness, but stimulated and purified it. It was not the ruin of his work (like the artist's thoughts in Balzac's story about the unknown masterpiece), but its element. Leonardo's creative power increased with the power of his reflection. His work is the opposite of blind activity. The inexhaustible spell of Leonardo's pictures may well stem from this unity of thought and artistic ability, from Leonardo's fundamental attitude—all art and more than art—which placed him above his work and enabled him, thanks to his imagination, to express what cannot be said in words or formulated in terms of ideas or perceived by a passive looking at things, but attains conscious presence through thinking vision.

4. Leonardo's vision, this perception of the spiritual in the corporeal, helps us to understand the nature of his science and the attitude that governed his scientific investigation. Leonardo is rightly regarded as one of the creators of modern science. But in what sense?

A. For him, to know is to reproduce. In drawing and painting, in the fashioning of tools and technical devices, in scientific experiments, the work of the hand and the eye is at every stage bound up with, and completed in, visual reproduction.

The human body, says Leonardo the anatomist, cannot be represented in words alone. “For the more closely you describe it, the more you will confuse the reader. Consequently, you must picture as well as describe.” In Leonardo's anatomical studies the drawing almost crowds out the text. He analyzes and clarifies his ideas in the act of drawing. With Leonardo, drawing became a method of investigation in the morphological sciences. Anatomists, botanists, geologists revere him as a master. He created the visual thinking that develops from drawing.

The objection has been raised that knowledge and vision are two different things, that to see is not to know, that clear form is a question of aesthetic judgment and not a scientific finding. This is not so. In all morphology the draftsman works under the guidance of the scientist, the scientist himself works as a draftsman. This visualization, to be sure, cannot discover any natural law requiring measurement, experiment, formula. But it opens up a characteristic field of knowledge, which is first discerned in the image, though like all science it requires language for explanation.

Leonardo has also been criticized for identifying graphic reproduction and art. It is argued that scientific drawing represents facts, while art creates a vision, that scientific drawing deals in empirical reality, whereas the essence of art is to convey meaning. Leonardo is himself aware of the difference: painting, he says, derives its power, first from following nature, then from outdoing nature through creation. In both cases knowledge is embodied in a formative activity. The anatomical draftsman does not photograph; he abstracts and constructs the essential. But in so doing he does not invent; he finds what is already there, whereas the artist, working with what he finds, arrives at something new. The dividing line is fluid, as may be gathered from Leonardo's physiognomic sketches and the drawings of horses in which he varies their movements ad infinitum.

B. Knowledge is based on sense perception. “All knowledge is futile,” says Leonardo, “that is not born of sense perception, the mother of all certainty, and that does not end in visible experiment.” He denies that “there is truth in sciences which from beginning to end remain in the mind, chiefly because in such purely intellectual processes experiment has no place, for without experiment nothing can be known with certainty.” Thus knowledge does not reside in passive looking on, but in activity. The passive man is a mere parrot, the inventor is active. The inventor is the mediator between nature and man.

C. As a modern scientist, Leonardo strove for certainty. A reliable insight that stands up to inquiry is invaluable as such. “So contemptible is falsehood that, even were it to praise the works of God, it offends against His divinity; so excellent is the truth that it lends nobility to the most trifling things that it praises. Thus the truth, even when it deals with base and insignificant things, is infinitely superior to all sophistries and falsehoods concerning the highest and most sublime problems of the intellect.”

D. Modern science is universal. The striving for universality is dominant in Leonardo. All reality is worth knowing. The range of his interests was unlimited. Whatever exists, let it be seen and known.

E. In its consciousness of progressing toward the infinite, in its eagerness for discovery, modern science is open to the new and free from traditional opinions. Imbued with this striving, Leonardo passed from a grandiose but closed and unreal world into a world that is open to reality. For him realities were no longer examples confirming what was already fully known; they demanded to be examined in themselves and known in every detail. Rejecting authoritarian total knowledge, he moved forward, searching and finding. He reduced the old metaphysical abstractions to means of expression, useful for the formulation of his thoughts, but without validity in themselves.

Reproduction, reliance on sense perception, the striving for compelling certainty and universality—these impulses characterize Leonardo as a modern scientist. But when we look into the actual content of his science, limitations will become apparent.

1. Leonardo's discoveries, especially in anatomy, botany, and geology, are not guided by a constructive theory in the modern sense, but spring from an optical view of things, guided by an all-embracing cosmic consciousness.

Thus in describing the human form, he aspires to “reveal the nature and habits of men.” In his projected work on anatomy, he announces his intention of showing the development of the organism from conception to uterine growth, from the one-year-old child to the adult man or woman. Then he would proceed to represent the basic states of existence in bodily terms: joy in the different ways of laughing, suffering in the different ways of crying, combat “with different movements bearing witness to killing, flight, fear, boldness, and homicidal frenzy,” the exertion involved in pulling, pushing, carrying, holding, supporting. Modern anatomists admire the precision, fidelity, and clarity of his anatomical drawings, but are disappointed at the absence of all the principles of modern anatomy: the idea of comparative anatomy or of a system taking in the animals and plants, fundamental plans underlying the structure of the organisms, the basic vital functions. They are amazed that Leonardo should have drawn the structure of the heart correctly even in detail, but clung to Galen's conception of the movement of the blood despite its incompatibility with his own anatomical findings. Leonardo seems to stop where observation requires an encompassing conceptual view to lead it to new observations. Observation is guided by observation and not by a motivating abstraction. Though he employs many traditional concepts, such as “natural motion” and “center of the world,” he does not think them through systematically, but employs them inconsistently to express his observations, and not for their own sake.

2. Leonardo writes: “Let no one read me who is not a mathematician according to my principles”; and “mechanics is the paradise of the mathematical sciences.” “The instrumental or mathematical science,” he says, “is most noble and extremely useful.” Why? Because “by means of it, all living bodies that move perform their activities.”

On the strength of such statements, Leonardo has been regarded as one of the founders of modern mathematical science. But this view is not tenable, unless it is merely taken to mean that the general interest of the Renaissance in mathematics, its passion for technical contrivances, and the activity of the workshops created favorable conditions for the subsequent growth of the exact sciences.

Leonardo, it is true, speaks a good deal of mathematics. We have many mathematical drawings from his hand. But one cannot help noting how small a part mathematics played in his actual investigations of nature. In speaking of mathematics we may have in mind pure mathematics as a discipline of the constructive mind, dependent on nothing but its own evidence; mathematical science, in which mathematics goes hand in hand with observation; and finally, the mere calculation involved in technology. Leonardo made no original contribution in any of these departments.

It may be asked whether Leonardo understood the nature of mathematics. For practical purposes, in any case, it meant no more to him than the geometry that added clarity and precision to his diagrams, or than utilitarian arithmetic. Leonardo's thinking was often geometrical, more rarely arithmetical, because even arithmetic is less visual.

We must not look for the spirit of mathematical science in Leonardo. He was unfamiliar with the rigorous method of the scientist who elaborates a mathematical construction, interprets its consequences, and verifies it by experiment. Such procedure alone would have placed him in the community of true mathematical scientists, who advance into the infinite by secured stages. To him mathematics was merely an instrument for the exact representation of observation, never a means of pressing beyond observation and, by reducing experience to a minimum of measurements, of penetrating the world that has opened to mathematical science. For Leonardo the visual image remained the essential; thinking as he did, he could never have reduced it to the rank of a mere point of reference. In the visible world he sought for an invisible which expresses itself precisely in a qualitative abundance of forms. He did not look for physical laws, which cannot be represented graphically, but expressed only in quantitative or formal mathematical symbols. On the contrary, his investigations were a series of quick raids—he made discovery on discovery by observation and graphic representation, but failed to follow them through. He did not go beyond the visible to derive the process of the invisible and verify his theory by measurements. Radically committed to observation, he could not go beyond it. By their universal character certain of his statements seem to anticipate principles of mathematical science. In Leonardo the worlds of Newton and of Goethe had not yet parted. But in him the prevailing spirit was that of Goethe, not of Galileo or Newton.

For Leonardo, mathematics and mechanics remained a world of the visual and tangible, of what can be made in space with the hands, either directly or with the help of machines. He studied the mechanics of the body as he studied the mechanics of machinery. Both are functions of all-embracing life. In the light of the subsequent separation between mechanics and biology, Leonardo's conception is ambiguous.

In considering the priority he accorded to what is visual and alive, it is simple to say that Leonardo was not a modern scientist. But when we consider the implications of his mechanical view of the life process and the conception of the organism as a machine which, in the period beginning with Descartes, was to obstruct all true biological knowledge and inquiry, we must condemn Leonardo as a precursor of this fallacy. Leonardo was not yet aware of any contradiction between mechanism and vitalism. To him mechanism was a means of visualizing the structure of motion, not a general theory of process.

Thus Leonardo may be identified with the spirit of modern science, but not of mathematical science. Yet it should be remembered that mathematical science is only one component, and not the determining factor in the grandiose edifice of modern science.

Leonardo's modern scientific attitude is attested by his hostility to magic, to belief in spirits, and to all the opinions which spring from imagination uncontrolled by critical observation. He insists on reality. And what is real must come to us through the senses, the eye, through verified experience.

Leonardo attacks the prevailing belief in spirits. There are no such things as disembodied beings in space. In the realm of the elements, there is nothing without a body. “The spirit has no voice. There cannot be any sound without a movement or percussion of the air. But there cannot be a movement of the air when there is no instrument. Nowhere is there an instrument without body. Since this is so, a spirit can have neither voice nor form nor force. And if a spirit were to take on a body, it could not pass through a closed door.” Spirits are an impossibility. Neither they, nor the human magicians, who lift enormous weights, provoke storms and rain, transform other men into cats and wolves, can ever have existed. For if they had existed, they would have been more powerful than any army, they could have destroyed any fleet by stirring up tempests; they would inevitably have become the masters over all nations. Hidden treasures and jewels would have been visible to them. They would have flown through the air in all directions, from one end of the universe to the other. If such an art existed among men, why did they not preserve it? Moreover, if it had existed, how can it be that the world still endures? For there are many who would destroy God and the whole world to satisfy a single one of their desires.

Leonardo attacked the makers of gold. He praised the alchemists for the useful things they invented; but in trying to make gold they are led into error by an insane avidity for gain. Nature alone produces the elements. From them man produces an infinite number of compounds. He cannot produce the simple original substances. No alchemist has ever succeeded in artificially producing the least of the things that can only be made by nature, not to mention gold which is in truth begotten by the sun.

He assails the speculative chimeras, the hair-splitting and delusions of those who babble about sublime and mysterious things. “Will you take refuge in miracles and write that you have knowledge of things which are inaccessible to the human mind and of which there is no demonstrable specimen in nature?”

In opposition to magicians, alchemists, and speculative visionaries, Leonardo advises his readers to confine themselves to what is within their reach. Men should not waste their powers on futilities in disregard of the actual possibilities. Let them hold on to the things of nature, instead of attempting the superhuman, dig for gold in the mines instead of ruining themselves trying to make it. For “nature avenges herself, so it seems, on those who try to work miracles; they will possess less in the end than other men, who are more prudent.” Such will be the lot “for all eternity of the alchemists, the would-be creators of gold and silver, and of those supreme fools, the necromancers and magicians.”

To sum up: Leonardo's scientific endeavor brought forth numerous genuine discoveries in the empirical world, but each remained isolated, he did not integrate them into a guiding scientific theory. He arrived at discoveries through empirical mechanics, the morphological conception of organisms through practical manual operations. His fundamental attitude, however, was not a theory, but an all-pervading view of nature as a living totality.


A conceptual system of the world as a whole was alien to Leonardo's thinking. He took up every possibility of thought, but none became an assumption with him. With every observation he began all over again. The infinite detail of natural phenomena served him as a guide in the contemplation of the All, which is represented and perceived in every particular. To him, observation was not merely a means of confirming his opinions; he approached things without bias, experimenting, playing, as it were, with ideas and images, without fear of contradictions. He lived in the world as a whole, but he experienced it only in the particular. The scientific discoveries that he left behind him were mere by-products of his quest.

1. The cosmos is not only mechanism; it is all-pervading life. The earth as a whole is also a living organism. Its flesh is the soil, its bones the strata of rocks, its blood the water in the veins. The ebb and flow of the sea are its breathing. Its body heat is provided by fire. The seat of its life is the fire that erupts in curative springs, sulphur pits, and volcanoes.

The world is a unity. From this unity derive principles such as: each thing tries to maintain itself in being, but each thing strives to be whole, to escape its incompleteness. Mechanical principles also point to this unity: nature carries out every action in the shortest way. Once the cause is given, the effect occurs in the shortest possible way. The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a little bird that settles on it.

The core of all things is energy. When a wave in the surf breaks against the beach, dies down, and is carried onward by the next wave, when the power of a stream enters into a whirlpool that nothing can resist, when horsemen do battle and horses in endless formal variations disclose untrammeled power, when the emotions speak in the faces and gestures of men, they all bear witness to the same thing: motion springing from energy. Leonardo's energy was nothing like the concept of latter-day physics. He dimly anticipates such concepts, but only as partial aspects of the total energy which he calls an “invisible power,” a “supersensory power,” a “spiritual, incorporeal power.”

Leonardo describes energy. This invisible force has its source in living bodies. From them it is transferred to inanimate bodies and gives them an appearance of life. Without it nothing moves, no sound or tone is produced. Energy is infused in bodies by an external power, they are diverted from their natural state of rest. It is a wonderfully effective vital force, compelling all created things to change their shape and position. A body that is in its grasp has lost its freedom. Energy is in conflict with what it dominates. With overwhelming force it expels whatever resists it. Itself hard pressed, it overpowers all things. It is increased by resistance. But in this struggle it does not endure. The motion it induces does not last. It grows great in conflict, in peace it wastes away. The greater it is, the more quickly it consumes itself. Slowness makes it strong, swiftness makes it weak. While compelling all things, it rushes with furious speed toward its own dissolution.

Leonardo speaks of this energy almost as though of a living being: it consumes itself involuntarily. It lives in necessity and dies in freedom. It is forever striving to lose and waste itself. It impetuously drives away whatever resists it; but at the same time it banishes what opposes its dissolution. In struggle it overcomes its cause, namely, resistance; it kills resistance but at the same time itself. As resistance increases, it becomes more powerful, but thereby runs headlong toward the death it desires. Its great force magnifies its drive toward death. But such a drive is paradoxical, for all things strive to escape death, and force itself is only such a striving.

In all phenomena Leonardo “sees” the power that he calls invisible. He sees it in the struggle between the energy of the spirit and the inertia of lifeless matter. As it increases in intensity, this struggle between life and death destroys life, but death is immediately surpassed by new life. Struggle itself is the restless, indestructible principle that transcends life and death.

The most magnificent thing in this world of forces is the sun, which Leonardo praised as Ikhnaton did before him and Goethe after him. In the whole cosmos, he says, I see no body that is greater and more powerful. Its light illumines all the heavenly bodies. All souls have their source in it, because the warmth in living creatures comes from the soul. There is no other source of warmth or light in the universe. He admonishes those who prefer the worship of men, or the worship of gods such as Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, to that of the sun.

2. Our earthly world was not always as it is today, and someday it will end. Leonardo sees the world in process of drying out and burning: the air will be thinner and without moisture, the rivers will run dry, the soil will lose its fertility. The animals will starve. Man will take many measures to preserve himself, but in the end he will be doomed to die. The once fruitful earth will be barren and empty. And then the earth will be destroyed by the element of fire. Its surface will burn to ashes. Probably, says Leonardo, that will be the end of earthly nature.

Leonardo's prophecies are a product more of perception than of thought. He saw the past and future in the present. The fossils he collected showed him the life of a remote past, when there was ocean where now there are mountains. His famous exploration of a cave gives us a moving expression of what he looked for and how he looked: “Impelled by an ungovernable longing to behold the vast abundance of the varied and strange forms that nature has created … I came to the entrance of a large cave. Bending my back, my left hand clutching my knee and with my right shading my lowered, contracted eyebrows, I peered to see if there was anything to be distinguished, but the deep darkness impeded my view. After I had been there for some time, two feelings stirred within me: dread of the gloomy, menacing cave and desire to find out whether there was anything marvelous in it.” Leonardo made his way in and was lucky enough to find an enormous skeleton. At once he saw it as a living creature: “O mighty, once living instrument of constructive nature! Your greater strength was of no help to you; you too were compelled to leave your tranquil life and obey the law which God and time impose on creative nature. Of what avail were the branching, sturdy dorsal fins with which you went your way, impetuously dividing the salt waves with your breast in pursuit of your prey. … Here you rest now, destroyed by time, at peace in this narrow space, your bones, bared of skin and flesh, forming an armor and a prop for the mountain on top of you.”

Leonardo described and depicted natural catastrophes, the end of the world, the deluge. He perceived the primal forces of the cosmos through their creative workings and the destruction of their creation; he identified them with the one all-embracing necessity. Some of his drawings suggest atomic explosions. But the incongruity of such a comparison shows once again the radical difference between Leonardo's view of nature and modern mathematical science. For Leonardo the primal forces are the secret and limit of all things; they are the destruction of nature by nature, whose manifestations we perceive but not its forces. For modern physics, by contrast, the primary forces are knowable and largely known; they are invisible, unrepresentable forces, accessible only to an unintuitive mathematics; dormant in matter, they have now been seized upon by man and made available for his purposes. Leonardo's science is the mechanics of perceptible masses and at its limit a description of the rise and fall of the cosmos. Modern physics is the knowledge of the primary forces of matter and a technique making man the potential destroyer of the cosmos, or at least of the planet.

Leonardo represented the world process in his so-called “prophecies.” His pictures of the future are mere extensions of the present, not datable predictions of definite events. Along similar lines, his “fables” express wonderment at the destinies of man, noting what is and asking questions, but making little attempt to answer them. Mingling metaphor and immediate observation, he builds up a view of existence by observing what happens in nature, what men do to animals, the customs and occupations of men.

At the sight of a donkey being beaten, Leonardo reflects: “O indifferent nature, why are you so unjust to your children? … I see your children given to others in bondage, without ever deriving any advantage for themselves, their services requited by the worst mistreatment, and nevertheless they devote their lives to the welfare of their tormentor.”

Leonardo relates the ruthless acts of men to what they themselves suffer at the hands of nature. Of cannon: “From beneath the ground will come something that will deafen those nearby with its terrible roar, that will kill men with its breath and destroy cities and castles.” Of firewood, lime kilns, and boiled fish: “The trees and shrubs of the farflung woods will turn into ashes. … The earth will finally be made red by days of burning, and the rocks will be changed into ashes. … Creatures of the water will die in boiling water.”

Hearing the cries of infants being swaddled, he writes: “O cities of the sea, I see your inhabitants, women as well as men, fettered by strangers who do not understand our language. And only in sobs and laments will you be able to vent your grief at your lost freedom, for those who fetter you will understand you no more than you understand them.”

Watching ants, he thinks: “Many communities will hide in dark caves and sustain themselves and their families for many months in darkness”; considering the lot of the bees: “Many others will be robbed of their provisions and then be cruelly immersed and drowned by unreasoning men”; and of cows: “Their little children in countless numbers will be carried away to slaughter.” And he concludes: “O divine justice, why dost thou not awaken?”

He describes the cruelty of men, which will show its full fury only in the future: “Then creatures will be seen on earth who fight one another unceasingly. … There will be no limit to their wickedness. And when they are glutted, they will satisfy their lusts by spreading death and suffering, affliction, fear, and terror among all living beings. In their boundless pride they will even try to storm the heavens, but the weight of their bodies will hold them down. Then there will remain nothing on earth, under the earth, or in the water, that they will not hunt down, ferret out, and destroy, and nothing that they will not carry away from one country to another.” And again Leonardo concludes: “O earth, why dost thou not open? Why dost thou not fling them into the deep crevasses of thy giant chasms, and cease to offer heaven the sight of so cruel a monster?”

But Leonardo also sees smiling opportunities for man. The enthusiasm with which he set out to invent a flying machine is only the most striking instance of the hopes he attached to technical invention, both for its utility and for the new experience of the world it would open up. He envisaged the development of the mails and of other means of communication: “Men in countries far distant from one another will speak together and touch and embrace one another, although they are in different hemispheres, and they will understand each other's language.”

But in times of calamity men will succumb to madness: “They will hear animals speak in human language. They will see a glittering light in the darkness. … They will appeal to statues of the saints, but the statues will not hear them. They will obtain no answer. They will beg mercy of him who has ears but does not hear. They will offer up candles to him who is blind and clamorously implore him who is mute.” On the occasion of a funeral: “They will show the greatest honors to men who can know nothing of them.” And Leonardo concludes: “O strange mankind! What madness has driven you to such a pass?”

Leonardo was aware of transience, even in what is seemingly most enduring; he saw the corrosion of all things, and saw the cosmic process as a series of catastrophes. What happens today will happen for ever; he saw each barely perceptible incident from the standpoint of the whole; the evil that was done before his eyes would come upon all men.

But Leonardo's cries of horror were more lamentation than accusation. They are not prophetic agitation, not calls to rebirth, not penitential sermons. He merely contemplates the natural process, comprehensible in part, but though visible incomprehensible as a whole, the process which brings forth the cruelty but also the splendor of every day. “It is so”: that is the end of his horror.

3. It is strange when Leonardo, this always visual thinker, touches on the abstract. For it too must take on a kind of visibility.

He speaks of the fundamental form of happening as the envelope of things, and gains an intimation of dialectic: The forests will bring forth children who will help to kill them: the ax handle. A wall that harbors tiny seeds in its crevices will be destroyed by their roots. In growing, the power of nature devours itself.

The thrushes were glad that the owl had been caught, but through the lime-twig this same owl caused them to lose not only their freedom but their lives as well. Countries are glad when their overlords lose their freedom, although the consequence is defeat at the hands of their enemies, who deprive them of their freedom and often of their lives.

We produce the opposite of what we strive for. Man scrimps and saves for fear of poverty, in the illusory hope of someday enjoying the goods he has earned with so much hardship. The more you try to escape misfortune, the more miserable and uneasy you will be. In the belief that they are running away from horror, men race like madmen toward its boundless power. Many busy themselves trying to lessen it, but the more they take away from it, the greater it grows.

Leonardo speaks of time: “O time, devourer of things! Transforming them within you, you give new and different dwellings to the lives you have stolen.” “O time, quick ravisher of created things, how many kings, how many peoples you have destroyed! What transformations of states and conditions have taken place!”

Time affects the work of nature and the work of man differently. What nature produces is always the same in kind. What men produce is forever changing, languages, for example: They “have always been infinitely different and must remain so, because of the innumerable centuries contained in infinite time.”

Leonardo speaks of nothingness. It is distinguished from a vacuum. For a vacuum is divisible to infinity. Nothingness cannot be divided, because it cannot be less than it is. Of this nothingness he says: “It dwells in time, it stretches into the past and the future, it lays claim to all works past and those to come, but possesses nothing of the indivisible.”

In another connection he says: In the realm of nature we find no nothingness, it is impossible and has no being. And yet: “Among the great things around us, the existence of nothingness is the greatest.”

Let us sum up: in his reverence for the visible world Leonardo looks on nature as a secret which reveals itself to the investigator ad infinitum. This reverence finds its fulfillment through the eye, in thinking vision, in the determination to take account of everything that is visible or can be made so. It finds its fulfillment in the transparence of this visible world, in which all phenomena become metaphors and invisible forces become visible.

This view brings with it an infinite delight in appearance, but also an infinite sorrow over the way of the world. “Nature was for many a cruel stepmother and for some a kindly mother.”

Why is this so? Leonardo provides no answer. Indeed, he seldom raises the question. When he occasionally does, when the tension between the expediency and the inexpedience, the beauty and the ugliness, the kindness and the cruelty of nature demands an interpretation, he utters the immemorial twofold answer as though in passing: “Nature is full of innumerable reasons that have not yet been brought within the range of experience. … Nothing is superfluous and nothing is lacking in any species of animal or in any product of nature.” And as to the forbidding aspects: “The deficiency does not stem from nature but from the means with which she creates,” that is, matter. This, however, is not Leonardo's thought, but a random borrowing from ancient philosophy.

4. What is man's position in the universe? Is man or nature pre-eminent? For Leonardo there is no pre-eminence. As microcosm, man seems to be raised to the level of the totality, as a creative being he seems to outdo creative nature. But he is encompassed by nature, the All, as the great power beside which he is as nothing.

Leonardo sees man as part of nature. But within nature he is a unique being; he is nature, he exists entirely in and through nature, yet he is more than nature, because he is free to rise or fall. Leonardo sees both the greatness and the littleness of man.

“Man is distinguished from the animals, but only in the extraordinary. He is a divine being. For where nature stops creating forms, man begins, with nature's help, to make innumerable forms from the things of nature. For beings whose behavior is as appropriate as that of animals, such forms are not necessary. Consequently the animals are without any such striving.”

But Leonardo warns: “O man, what do you think of your way of being? Are you really as clever as you suppose?” Man is a strangely powerless and powerful being, powerless in the presence of nature as a whole, powerful in respect of himself. That is his way and his hope. “You can have neither a greater nor a smaller dominion than that over yourself.”

But Leonardo saw how many pervert man's potentialities and fail to live up to them. “Few men are displeased with their vices. Many hate their fathers and all those who reprove them for their vices. Neither object lessons nor human counsel make any impression on them.” In congratulating his brother on the birth of a son, Leonardo went so far as to write: “You were glad to have created an active enemy, who will strive for freedom with all his might, and find it only with your death.”

Utterly contemptible are “crude men with an evil way of life. They do not deserve so magnificent an instrument as the human body, but only a bag that takes in and excretes food. They are only a passage for food, and have nothing in common with the human race but their shape and voice; and in all other respects they are far inferior to animals.”

In view of men's crimes, he adjures them: “If one man be found virtuous and good, do not cast him out, but treat him with respect; do not compel him to seek refuge from your persecutions in deserts, caves, and other lonely places. If such a man be found, show him honor; for such men are like gods on earth for us.”

5. Death comes to all living things. Man alone knows this and bears death in mind. In his affirmation of life, Leonardo is always aware of death.

One animal lives by the death of another. Why is this so? “Delighting in the creation of ever new lives and forms … nature creates far more swiftly than time destroys. Therefore she has decreed that many animals should serve as food for others. But since this is not enough, she often sends down pestilential vapors on accumulations and herds of animals, and above all on human beings who increase very rapidly. … Thus for the sake of constant increase, the earth strives to lose a part of its life.”

This tendency, objectively a necessary factor in life, has its subjective counterpart in a death urge. “As a moth is drawn to light, so man always hopes and yearns to find his way back to primal chaos. With unflagging desire he eagerly looks forward to each new spring, each new summer, the new months, the new years, thinking that the things he longs for come too slowly, and unaware that he is longing for his dissolution. But this ardent desire is the quintessential spirit of the elements, which, imprisoned in the life of the human body, always desires to return to its source.”

The cosmic urge of the elements is present in the drives of men.

But what reality has death? It is and it is not. Its being is similar to that of sleep. “What is it that men passionately yearn for, but do not know when they possess it? It is sleep.” “Every evil leaves affliction in the memory, except the greatest evil, namely death, and this extinguishes memory along with life.”

Knowing the law of nature, Leonardo lived serenely and loved life. “Expecting to learn how to live, I learned how to die.” “As a day well spent brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.”

Even the thought of an egg being eaten reminds him of the invaluable gift of life: “Ah, to how many it will not be given to be born.” When ambitious men foolishly “content themselves neither with the gift of life nor with the beauty of the world,” that is their punishment for embittering their own lives.

6. What is the position of Leonardo's thinking in the history of philosophy?

Leonardo does not construct a system of metaphysics. If we were to derive a system from his thoughts, it might be roughly as follows: in the creation of the world art and knowledge were one. God created everything in forms, and ordered everything according to measure, number, and weight. Mathematics is at the source of creation, the Creator is a mathematician, but this in the widest sense, encompassing all formation, order, and law.

Cognitive man, the microcosm, repeats Creation in his cognition and carries it on in his own creation. His knowledge is itself form, it copies the forms of nature and brings forth new forms. Thus the work of the artist is not naturalistic reproduction of the contingent, but the form in which nature lives and is apprehended in its essence. The man who creates through knowledge penetrates to the foundation of the world, the revelation of which is essentially one with artistic creation.

Because Leonardo perceives the source in the manifold phenomena of the world, two things which are otherwise separate remain one in Leonardo's vision. From the standpoint of specialized, exact science or of art for art's sake, confusion reigns in Leonardo. For him morphological observation is inseparable from causal interpretation, mathematical mechanics from meaning and purpose, and beauty from symbolism. Thus every work becomes at once knowledge of an object, expression of a mood, and, by the infinite resonance of its meaning, metaphor.

But what of Leonardo's Christian paintings? The subject matter of his masterpieces, The Last Supper, the sketch for the Adoration of the Kings, the Virgin of the Grotto, the Madonna and Child with St. Anne, is Christian. Of this Leonardo, who seems to reflect on everything, does not say a word. To paint Christian subjects was as natural as the performance of Church rites at birth and death. Actually, Leonardo employed these themes as vehicles: for the expression of motherly love, feminine beatitude, the impact of emotion on men of different character, and as an excuse for a composition based on gestures of adoration.

In Leonardo many traditional philosophical ideas meet. The sources of his ideas have been studied in detail.

Western metaphysics can be broken down into several great historical types. In Leonardo we find elements of the Aristotelian cosmos with its degrees of motion, more of the Stoic cosmos as a rational totality of forces, a few ideas from the materialistic philosophy of Democritus and Lucretius, next to nothing of the Platonic division between world and transcendence, and very little of the Neoplatonic spirit, except in so far as it is implicit in the Stoic conception of the animated world.

Leonardo lived in no system, but used them all only as means of expression. He did not subsume phenomena under categories already presumed to be known, but investigated them and allowed them to open up new realms of knowledge. This fundamental attitude—to accept no knowledge as complete but restlessly to pursue every particular reality; to delight in observation, and look upon all things with serenity—this reverence for the visible world is what distinguishes Leonardo from all ancient and Christian metaphysicians.


Leonardo was conscious of his life as a magnificent form of being.

1. Many writers have called attention to the sociological situation of the artist in the Renaissance. Like other men, the artist was dependent, in so far as he required the support of the powerful, on princes, cities, and the Church. But an able artist was sought after. He alone possessed freedom along with his dependence, for he was at home everywhere and able and willing to move about. He was in a position to see and know the world. His arts were his letters of nobility. He acquired proficiency in science, invention, building, the arts, and personal skills, from riding to the playing of musical instruments. He built canals and war machines, planned ingenious festivities, created works of art which brought world fame to his city as well as himself. He became l'uomo universale. He lived as a prince among princes.

This was true of Leonardo. In applying for a post, he was obliged to laud his abilities, as in his famous letter to Lodovico il Moro in 1482. In his nine points, the greatest stress is laid on his accomplishments as a military engineer; only one point has to do with his peacetime accomplishments as an architect, hydraulic engineer, sculptor, and painter. To be sure, he too suffered great disappointments. “The Medici,” he notes, “made me great and ruined me.” He served Lodovico il Moro for sixteen years. When this prince was overthrown by the French, Leonardo wrote: “The Duke has lost his city, his property, and his freedom, he has completed none of his works.” A few years later he went to work for Lodovico's adversary, the King of France; in between he served Cesare Borgia and his native city of Florence. Leonardo gained and maintained his freedom.

Leonardo conceived the artist's sovereign way of life as an ideal, which he also fulfilled. He made great demands on the profession of painter, and formulated them more fully and clearly than anyone else. He planned literary works which would instruct painters in the knowledge that concerned them. This knowledge was by its very nature encyclopedic. If these books had been finished, they would have amounted to a new form of medieval speculum, a genre with which he was thoroughly familiar. But he conceived his encyclopedia in an entirely different and new sense, as a tool for painters considered as men of all-embracing science, and as a manual of original scientific investigation, to which he wished to lead painters. The painter's way of life was his great theme.

2. The true painter is universal. He “who does not take equal pleasure in all the things that are contained in painting is not universal.” He “who is not a universal master, able to depict every kind and quality of form, cannot be a good painter.” There is “no greatness in studying a single theme all one's life and achieving a certain perfection in it. Since painting embraces all the things that nature produces, all those which result from the fortuitous action of man, and finally, everything that can be understood with the eye,” “that man is a wretched master who is proficient at making only one figure,” “a nude, a head, garments, animals, landscapes.”

Universal painting of this kind is based on knowledge. Practice without knowledge is like navigation without helm or compass. Consequently, “practice should be based on sound theory,” and the painter should “study with rule and order.” “For one who knows it is easy to become universal.”

Leonardo praises activity as such. “You must exert yourself,” “the mind languishes without exercise.” “Fortune helps only those who bestir themselves.” But this activity must have its measure in the man. “Man deserves praise or blame only for the things which it is in his power to do or leave undone.” “Do not strive for the impossible.”

Activity is the main thing. “Death rather than weariness.” “A life well spent is long.” “He who is fastened to a star does not turn back.”

But it is love, and not mere empty industry and conscientiousness, that permits a man to soar in his action. “To learn to know the admirable things of nature, that is the way to love the architect, that great inventor. Great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object.” The lover is moved by the thing he loves, but if “what he loves is base, the lover becomes base.” False love leads downward. “In the beginning one resists more easily than at the end.” “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality.”

Neither knowledge, nor a skillful hand, nor industry, nor universality, nor love, can produce anything by itself. The essential is imagination, which is always original. “Never should a painter imitate the manner of another; for in respect of art he will be termed not a child but a grandchild of nature.”

Strange phenomena suggest to Leonardo how inventiveness can be stimulated: “If you look at walls spotted with all sorts of stains or at rocks of various composition, or at ashes in the fire, or at clouds or mud, you will discover wonderful inventions in them, landscapes and fantastic things such as devils, human heads, animals, battles, cliffs, oceans, clouds, or woods.” But he goes on at once to warn the reader: this vision is still nothing. “It is exactly as with the sound of bells, in whose ringing you may introduce any name or word you can imagine. But although such stains give you inventions, they do not teach you to complete anything whatsoever.”

Work on the basis of knowledge, and the judgment which precedes each work and makes critical decisions—these two make possible the activity of the painter whose imagination has given him forms.

3. How does a painter live with other men? He will inevitably suffer: “No perfect talent without great suffering.” He should learn “patience in the presence of great vexations.” If the vexations increase, you must multiply your patience, “just as you put on more clothes when the cold becomes more intense. Then vexations will no longer hurt you.”

A painter needs solitude. Then he can consider undisturbed what he sees and consult with himself; thus he becomes “like a mirror.” “If you are all alone, you belong entirely to yourself. But if you are with even one companion, you belong only half to yourself.”

But such solitude, necessary for reflection and inspiration, does not occupy all the painter's time. Leonardo insists on companionship: it is better to draw in the company of others than alone. Rivalry acts as a spur. You learn from those who work more ably than you. Praise encourages. Since we delude ourselves so readily about our own accomplishments, it is good “to listen willingly to what your adversaries say of your work; hate is more powerful than love.” Thus we should not refuse to hear the opinion of anyone.

In friendship Leonardo demands magnanimity: “Blame your friend privately, praise him in public.” But emulation should never cease: “Pitiful is the pupil who does not outdo his master.”

4. Leonardo's high ideal of the painter's existence is based on the importance of painting as an instrument of knowledge. In the manner of the traditional disputes about the relative merits of the active and the contemplative life, or of the humanities and medicine, Leonardo compares painting and poetry and accords the higher rank to painting.

Poetry is painting that is heard and not seen, painting is poetry that is seen. Poetry is blind painting, painting is mute poetry. Poetry treats of moral philosophy, painting encompasses natural philosophy. Poetry describes the activities of the mind, painting shows what the mind effects by movements of the body.

The pre-eminence of painting is evident for Leonardo. Painting is as far removed from poetry as the body from its shadow. Painting has the thing itself, it presents the works of nature to the intellect and feeling; poetry has only words. Hence if poetry is to convey an impression of reality, it must be complemented by the imagination.

Only painting can fully represent reality. It “extends to the surfaces, colors, and figures of all the things created by nature.” Thought, to be sure, penetrates to the inside of bodies, conceives their intrinsic forces. But it is not saturated with such truth as the painter brings forth. For in his own being he apprehends the first truth of bodies. The eye is less deluded than the intellect.

Painting is science, it is the source of sciences, and it goes beyond science.

It is based on geometry and arithmetic. It invented perspective. Through perspective it instructs astronomers, it shows geometry how to form figures, instructs engineers and builders of machines.

It studies bodies according to their structure and movement, so becoming anatomy, zoology, botany, and geology. It “concerns itself with works human and divine, all those which are contained by a surface, that is, contours of their own.”

It invented the signs used in writing.

It is more than a doctrine. It is an art. It not only studies but also produces. The scope of what the painter brings to knowledge by making it visible is all-embracing. “The painter is master over the worlds of reality and dream.” “He outdoes nature. For the productions of nature are finite in number, but the works which the eye commands the hand to execute are infinite, as the painter shows by inventing innumerable forms of animals, shrubs, trees, and situations.” “If a painter wishes to perceive beauties that move him to love, he is lord and God over them. If he yearns for inhabited regions or deserts, if he wishes to see valleys, or large expanses from mountain peaks, or the horizon of the sea, he has all these at his command. Everything there is in the universe, in reality or in the imagination—all this he has first in his mind and then in his hands.”

Painting is more satisfying, because it shows the exact portrait of the object that is loved; it arouses the sense more easily than poetry.

Painting is communicable to all; its language is equally comprehensible to the Greek, Latin, or German, while poetry is bound up with a particular language.

Painting is a more noble art; ability to paint cannot be acquired by all. Its works cannot be reproduced in many copies like books. Essentially literature garners up wares that have been made by other artisans. When a poet tries to speak of astrology, he steals from the astrologer, of philosophy, from the philosopher.

If some of Leonardo's formulations verge on the absurd, it is only because he allowed the richness of the visual world, which he actively knew, to blunt his feeling for the rest.

As a result he himself was unaware of the value of his writing, though he composed the clearest expositions and magnificent poetic passages. According to Goethe, it was Leonardo's lucid and rational visual view of the world that enabled him to paint also with words, setting before our eyes the violent movements of complicated happenings such as battles or storms.

It also followed that he did not revise his written texts, that he preserved all the stages of expression, from the haphazard and inane to the perfect formulation, nowhere striving for perfection; that he made no attempt at order or disciplined construction and did not go beyond the spontaneity of immediate diction.

Leonardo did not despise poetry, he merely placed it in a lower rank than painting. But a very different tone becomes audible in his angry attack on men of letters. Their high claims are absurd, their criticism infuriating. They find fault with inventors, because they themselves have never succeeded in inventing anything. They cite the authority of writers for their opinions, exercising not so much their intelligence as their memory. They deck themselves out with other people's accomplishments. They call painting a mechanical art. They look down on painters, because they are not scholars. But anyone who looks down on painting loves neither philosophy nor nature.

Leonardo carried on a memorable struggle. The wordless world of the eye, painting as a language of the visible, combats intellectual discourse as the abstract language of writing and speech. Experience is opposed to book learning. Active creation in concrete works is opposed to the derived character of the language of words. In his whole being, this man who gained knowledge through action, who created with his hands, despised the existence of the writer alienated from life.

Most painters do not write. Their lives are not long enough to complete their own work. And painting itself does not disclose itself and its ultimate intention in words. “Like the excellent works of nature, painting ennobles itself by its own resources, without the help of any other tongue.”

But Leonardo took it upon himself to write. He believed that in general writers “can gain no insight into the science of painting,” but that his own precepts were different, since they were “derived not so much from the words of others as from experience.”


We have considered Leonardo's method (to penetrate to the spirit within the body by means of the eye and hand), his view of the world (the cosmos of forces), and his form of existence (the life of the painter, who gains knowledge through vision). Now let us go back to our initial question: in what sense was Leonardo a philosopher?

1. If Leonardo is taken as one of the founders of modern mathematical science, it is an easy matter to refute this contention and so seemingly discredit the whole of his scientific endeavor. If Leonardo is taken as a universal modern scientist, it can be shown that admirable as his discoveries in anatomy, geology, botany may be, they have been superseded in practice and are of purely historical interest. If he is taken as a painter, his greatness is unassailable, but here again it may be argued that his work itself is fragmentary, and that its author is more of a celebrity than a continuously active stimulus. Thus he is known chiefly as a historical figure, as one of the pioneers of classical art, as merely one—and not necessarily the greatest—among many great artists.

But in one respect we discern a unique greatness which is more than historical: in the being itself, who was the source of all this scientific and artistic creation and whom it served: the personal embodiment of a philosophical existence and knowledge of the world.

Here the scientist, the technician, the artist are one, and in this unity no one factor is dominant. It is not Leonardo's intention but the interest of posterity which singles out one as the essential—usually the artist. We may call this unity Leonardo the philosopher, if by philosophy we mean not a category of science, not a doctrine, but a universal knowledge which gains awareness of itself as a whole and takes itself in hand, hence as a form of human existence which embraces knowledge. In art, science, painting, architecture, and at the same time above them is situated a spiritual area, into which they all lead; they are not self-sufficient. Such a philosophy gains historical weight where it becomes communicable as a whole in existence, work, and thought. Leonardo is a philosopher in the same sense as Goethe.

There are several poet philosophers. Leonardo was the only artist philosopher of a high order. In him art became the organon of philosophy, because he not only carried on the activity of the artist as an instrument of knowledge but also made it an object of reflection. This distinguishes him essentially from such great metaphysical artists as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. But he is also distinguished from those who are explicitly termed philosophers by his method of philosophizing. Because art was the organon of his philosophy, Leonardo's philosophical medium was not so much rational logic and systematic conceptual construction as a concrete philosophical logic and a conscious way of life.

What Leonardo was and did demonstrates: First, that philosophy remains poor and incomplete without something that is more than thought, that first gives body to ideas, something that is created in art and poetry, and that this must become an organon of philosophical insight. Secondly: Leonardo's life and work bear witness to the authority which everywhere, and also in art, sees the alternative and decides between good and evil, true and false, substantial and empty, salutary and unsalutary. For art, like all other realizations, is an element of believing existence and as such subject to this Platonic judgment. What we speak of here is something fundamentally different from what connoisseurs of art call quality. For spiritual creation can be Luciferian, high in “quality” and worthless in its enchantment, beguiling men into irresponsible aesthetic enjoyment, admirable and terrifying.

2. Where unity of the whole becomes intellectual reality and is aware of itself as such, philosophy is present. Great philosophers of the nineteenth century believed the division of spiritual life into provinces such as art, literature, science, and religion to be fundamental. The tangible existence of works of art, works of literature, scientific findings, religions, made this classification convincing, and it became so deeply ingrained by habit that we have great difficulty in shaking it off.

Applied to Leonardo, such a view carries the following implications: He is famous for his paintings, much less for his scarcely known literary work, still less for his scientific findings, which seem to be mere curiosities, amazing us by their anticipation of future discoveries. From this standpoint, his science appears to be a mere secondary activity, without any real relation to his art. We can be interested in one without necessarily being interested in the other. Leonardo's many-sideness is not the many-sideness of a unity that lies in the nature of things, but the regrettable dispersion of an overversatile talent.

A proper appreciation of Leonardo is possible only if we understand the limited bearing of such a division of cultural spheres into art, literature, science, and technology. Then his painting, writing, and scientific endeavor point to a whole, which precedes all divisions and cannot be subsumed under them. In an existence such as his all the varied activities and states of being spring from a center and are directed toward a goal. This existence was a mode of being, of seeing, of loving, of experiencing sadness or joy, of perceiving reality and objectively communicating this perception. It is the unity which this man seeks as a living reality, which he himself becomes and represents.

When we try to grasp this unity, the historical reality that is present in this one man coincides with the objective problem that we are trying to clarify by a universal concept. One cannot understand a historical man on the strength of a concept. But we can attempt to know the reality in accordance with its universal principle.

On this point, I wish to say only the following: all these separate fields tend toward futility when they isolate themselves, when specialization becomes separation, when correctness within each autonomous field is taken for the truth, when each field, setting itself up as an absolute, lays claim to dominance. Then science, art, religion, love, politics, economics, each proclaims its independent law as an ultimate, against which there is no appeal. But the higher authority, which springs from the Encompassing, which imposes its measures on each of these domains and at the same time enables it to remain meaningful and in contact with the source, is not just another particular; it cannot be apprehended directly and objectively, but only by way of those separate fields. All of them derive their meaning from the source, which is one.

Yet the fulfillment of this totality is impossible for men. The more powerfully and profoundly it strives for expression in a human being, the more drastically it is bound to fail, and this failure itself manifests the truth. But this never happens without ambiguity; it cannot be compellingly demonstrated.

3. Leonardo has been much criticized. It has been said that his whole existence was contingent subjectivity; that he failed to keep his promises and disappointed his employers; that his work was at the mercy of moods; that he kept turning to new occupations and never finished anything; that his scientific methods were without logical structure, hence subjective and contingent like everything else about him.

The facts on which these reproaches are based are incontestable. But the way in which they are stated and interpreted in reference to Leonardo's character strikes me as utterly mistaken.

This much is certain: Leonardo's work is fragmentary. There are few finished works of art from his hand, and it is doubted whether even these were really completed. He was an indefatigable worker—witness the abundance of manuscripts and drawings he left behind him. But he never completed a book, neither the anatomy which was far advanced, including hundreds of drawings, nor the projected work on geology and cosmography, nor the encyclopedia for artists, which he seems to have planned. The Treatise on Painting was compiled after his death and the title did not originate with Leonardo. As for the countless projects of buildings, city plans, canalization, military engines, and contrivances of all sorts, it is certain that few if any were ever executed.

The question is: why did he leave his work unfinished?

The explanation that his moods led him to disperse himself is refuted by the persistence and meticulousness shown in the work he actually performed. If he nevertheless left his work unfinished, it was because the attraction of other, related tasks made him set aside the work in hand, though always meaning to go back to it. He considered his work as a totality and held that everything he did must be subordinated to that totality. But the whole was so enormous that it could not have been fitted into the life of any one man.

This whole was knowledge of the world. But this was a new kind of knowledge which by its very nature could not be completed: Leonardo's aim was not a rational schema of the universe, but knowledge growing from concrete perception. This was the modern scientific attitude, as opposed to all dogmatism. Consequently, every field demanded specialization. In everything he undertook Leonardo became a specialist. But how could any one man complete the task that has occupied the Western mind for centuries and is still far from concluded? He could not content himself with any special field, because what concerned him was the world as a whole; but only specialization offered real access to the whole. His superhuman effort to specialize in everything in a single lifetime was doomed to failure. He would fling himself wholeheartedly into a single field and soon set it aside, going on to something else but meaning to go back.

Another reason why Leonardo could not achieve total knowledge of the world by his innumerable specialized endeavors was that empirical reality was not enough for him. He was captivated by the spiritual content of all reality. In order to manifest this content, it was necessary to design images in his mind, which his hand would fashion into reality in works of art. But since the spiritual can never be fully represented and since the idea is in advance of every work, no work of art can be adequate.

Filled with the striving for totality, Leonardo was assailed by new images demanding to be set down and by ideas springing from observation and clamoring to be formulated. Nearly always he saw an obscure relationship between these images and ideas and his total conception of the world; this meant that he had to take them up, that he could not abandon them. As a result, Leonardo's work, which achieved world fame on the basis of a few relatively completed examples, grew, like his entire visual thinking, from a vast field of project and experiment, without definite goal. His endeavor was a “working in prefigurations,” as Gantner convincingly called it. Only in small part were these prefigurations projects that would attain their goal as finished works of art. They were not, like the sketches of other great artists, disciplined by their aims. Rather, they were a perpetual beginning, toward the translation into images of all things without exception. This accounts for the many projects which by their very nature defied completion, and for his daring attempts to make every mode of the invisible visible, often at the cost of failure. He did not see such failure as genuine failure, for he was convinced that everything could be made visible.

The fragmentary nature of his work with its abundance of projects in statu nascendi resulted also from the universality which finds all finished work inadequate. For in the context of a striving for total knowledge, which anticipates its fulfillment in prefigurations, the fully elaborated work, along with the satisfaction it confers, implies a limitation. Leonardo strove for perfection, because without such a striving everything would blur—in his art by persistent verification and in his scientific investigation by the closest attention to detail. But only for a time. He could not, and had no desire to, accept limitations. He desired perfection in every particular, but was unwilling to lose himself in the process of attaining it. In a few great works he became a great artist, and in his scientific investigation he became a specialist. But he wanted everything to serve the one totality, which was always present to his mind and which made every shortcoming a hopeful shortcoming.

Wishing to build an edifice superhuman as a whole but preserving human proportions in every particular, Leonardo inevitably left behind him—apart from the few magnificent pictures, which anyone else would have regarded as perfect, and a few fully realized scientific experiments—a mass of painstakingly gathered but unused building materials.

In working out his ideas, in improving and correcting, in moving toward a purer truth, Leonardo was not able to preserve his sure, unique stamp (as (Rembrandt did in every one of his drawings and engravings); he was unable to sustain his highest level in every one of his thoughts (as Pascal, Leibnitz, or Kant did in every note they jotted down).

But where he attained his best it is inimitable. In copies, in the work of his imitators, the essential is lost in favor of a beauty, an enchanting form perhaps, a deceptive perfection which, however, lack the uniqueness of vision, the reticence even in the smile, the indirectness of that which is made visible.

4. Leonardo has also been accused of other grave shortcomings. His life lacked roots. An illegitimate child, he was committed to neither family, home, nor country; he was a cosmopolitan, who lived where he was paid to live, without allegiance or loyalty. It is pointed out that he did not marry and had no friends, but only patrons, pupils, and admirers; that he took no interest in human institutions, in law, politics, or history, and identified himself with no country.

Consequently, it is maintained, he had no sense of responsibility, he worked unceasingly at one thing or another, but never acted; his life was spent in irresponsible contemplation, bringing forth pictures of everything the world disclosed to him; he never attempted to change the world, never felt impelled to play a part.

It has also been said that the problems of ethics and religion interested him no more than those of politics; that his occasional ironies about the errors in the Holy Scriptures, the sterility of syllogistics, and about monks were the typical ramblings of a skeptic, with which he tried to justify his lack of faith and will, his inability to call evil by its name and combat it.

There is no unequivocal evidence to support these accusations. Leonardo's nomadic life, his exclusive concentration on his work, his indifference to politics are subject to varying interpretations.

He did not take a hand in the affairs of the world. He had no inclination to seek a position of power. Ambition, jealousy, desire for success seem to have been alien to him. He cared nothing for public life. What we know of his private life argues fairness, magnanimity, and simplicity.

Despite his many acquaintances and admirers, despite all those who cared for him and loved him, he was solitary all his life, but we have no indication that he suffered from his solitude. Leonardo relied on himself, without protection or desire to be protected. His self-reliance was unshakable.

His mind was too clear to be overrun by hidden, uncontrolled forces within him. For all his extraordinary qualities, he was without extravagance; for all his depth, we discern no eruption of hidden powers. Everything we know of him gives an impression of moderation and rationality. His existence was not grounded in any profound inner upheaval or consuming passion. What we see, rather, is patience, serenity, and an unwavering love of the glories of the world.

But his serenity was conferred by an enormous and unflagging activity. There is no trace of resigned, weakwilled sadness.

Leonardo's loving universality shone like the sun upon all things. But it had one limitation: it was a universality of active vision. His interests could be so universal, because he refused to be limited by identification with any historical action. He engaged in no ideological struggle, neither against the Church, nor against any political powers, nor any faith. He himself followed no system of philosophical ideas, but lived with an infinite openness to everything that can happen.

Leonardo was aware of the advantage of such contemplation of all things: “With the help of ideas we are universal and dwell simultaneously in all places; the will puts us in a single place and settles us there.”

Nietzsche admired this universal impartiality. Leonardo, he wrote, “was supra-Christian in scope; he knew the Orient both inwardly and outwardly; there is in him a more-than-European quality, such as distinguishes every man who has seen too wide a range of good and evil things.” Nietzsche counts him among the “magically unfathomable and inconceivable men, those enigmatic individuals who are predestined to victory and seduction.” This strange characterization becomes valid only if reason itself, clarity itself, the pure love of the independent man, is regarded as enigmatic.

Leonardo's attitude toward Christianity was the unmilitant attitude of a man who does not know and is not touched. To him it was not a problem. He seldom spoke of it. He refuted the story of the flood, but on another occasion he wrote: “Do not lay hands on the crowned books [the Bible], for they are of supreme truth.” He was said to have provided that the Church rites should be performed at his death, remembered the hospitals for the poor in his will, and left wax candles to various churches. Yet these reports are questionable, suggesting an ecclesiastical mind rather than Leonardo's. Leonardo lived with the transcendence of the spiritual; he speaks of God, but the God he speaks of is not the revealed God of the Bible. He does not tell us whether or not he prayed, and if so, under what circumstances. His painting of Christian subjects is no indication of Christianity. He lived in the perfect freedom conferred by the religious indifference that was possible before the Reformation.

Thus Leonardo was impervious to human desires and passions, and to the consolations of faith. But one thing remains. Though he was without ambition and uninterested in honors during his lifetime, he clearly expressed his desire for posthumous fame. It was a spur to unflagging activity. “One who spends his life without fame, leaves no more trace on earth than smoke in the air and foam on the water.” “Oh, why do you not create such a work that after death you will be as one wholly alive, instead of sharing even in your lifetime the sleep of the pitiful dead.” And he notes with certainty: “I will endure.”

Here lie his greatest remoteness from Biblical religion and his kinship to antiquity and the Germanic world. The absolute transience even of posthumous fame is forgotten. For him, glory took the place of eternity, which can be known only in radically different dimensions, making an absolute of unceasing activity and leading him to forget that for all its grandeur it is as nothing in the face of transcendence. Here perhaps lies the hidden seed of a sublime inhumanity. And perhaps this accounts for the sudden misgiving which sometimes tempers our enthusiasm for Leonardo and which prevents us from being wholly at one with him.

5. What impression did Leonardo make on those about him? We hear of his physical strength, of his supremely beautiful face, of his winning charm, his ease of manner. We hear of the enormous impression made by his works, which no sooner became known than they were declared to usher in a new epoch in painting.

But in some accounts we sense that he may have struck certain observers as personally forbidding, lacking in warmth—and precisely because he was without passion or anger or immoderation, vices which create a bond of common weakness and make us prize those who overcome them.

Even today the general impression made by Leonardo has this sobering quality. This man—who needed no other, who in his quest for knowledge relied wholly on himself, who went through the world immured in solitude, without communication of the kind which enables a man to come to himself in relation to another self—commands our respect but does not draw us to him. His winning charm has often been mentioned. But on many occasions he seems to have made another impression, because perhaps he was lacking in that truly human charm, the weakness of the great man who for all his greatness stands in need of others.

Michelangelo and Raphael were idolized, whereas Leonardo, though welcomed by the King of France and various aristocrats, was not generally sought after.

When Leonardo and Michelangelo were both in Florence, the young men flocked to the much younger Michelangelo. When once Michelangelo in a group of painters shouted at Leonardo: “You who were never able to cast an equestrian statue, and the Milanese, those blockheads, had faith in you”—Leonardo said nothing and only blushed. He always maintained his distinguished bearing, while Michelangelo allowed his emotions to carry him away.

Michelangelo created figures which surpass Leonardo by the passion which informs them and the magnificence of their form. They reveal a world in upheaval, a despair that impelled to transcendence; Biblical faith became a new reality.

Leonardo and Michelangelo are two worlds between which there is little contact: Leonardo a cosmopolitan, Michelangelo a patriot; Leonardo serene and balanced, governed by moderating reason, Michelangelo beset by confused emotions from which he heroically rises; Leonardo controlling himself, calm amid passion, looking upon things and himself with detachment, Michelangelo given to shattering passions, unrestrained in his despair.

Leonardo produced unforgettable figures in the lucidity of reason; he reveals the mystery of reason itself, which seldom seizes upon things directly and is hard to understand in the depth of its lucidity. Michelangelo's creations, products of upheaval and eruption, carry infinite truth, and affect us in a different way; they are more torturing and more moving, more disturbing and more charged with memory.

Leonardo seems to live in an area of peace, unchanging amid happiness and grief; Michelangelo seems to reconquer himself in an area of continual crises, in gigantic oscillations between dejection and supreme exaltation.

Leonardo seems to contemplate the world of extreme human possibilities as a mere aggregate of natural phenomena; Michelangelo is part of it.

6. Those who meet with Leonardo are called upon to hear his appeal. Leonardo's mere fame is conventional. As long as we look on artists as a large group of men, all of whom have done good things in their way, we shall perhaps be dealing with art, but not with what speaks or fails to speak through it. Only if we feel the radical difference between mere art and art as an organon, shall we hear that appeal and be impelled to respond with our inner man from out of the Encompassing, whence words and images come to us only because we ourselves are in process of becoming. What do we hear through Leonardo?

The mute, unresponsive world demands to be known and loved. Leonardo's relentless activity pursued no other purpose than to see the world and to mirror it in the mind by means of the imagination.

There are few men who all through their lives are wanderers, seemingly detached from other men, wishing only to see the world and to communicate what they have seen. These men do for us what we can do only inadequately for ourselves. Constantly discovering and disclosing, they perceive with their whole being what we others learn to see through them. The fact that they do our work for us and allow us to look on to the best of our ability, gives them the privilege of standing aside while other men act and struggle and change the world of human affairs. Theirs is a different struggle, an intellectual struggle to perceive the eternal essences in the surface and appearance of the world.

And there is something more. We are fortunate in being able to meet in Leonardo an independent man, who, rising above society and history, neglecting both, lived in harmony with infinite nature through his vision of its revelations.

Our pleasure in accepting the gift of his manner of seeing and investigating, of his existence, does not imply that we ourselves should follow him in his way of life or mode of philosophizing.

Ludwig H. Heydenreich (essay date 1956)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12438

SOURCE: Introduction to Treatise on Painting [Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270], Volume I: Translation, by Leonardo da Vinci, translated and annotated by A. Philip McMahon, Princeton University Press, 1956, pp. xi-xliii.

[In the following essay, Heydenreich reviews the content, construction, and textual history of the Treatise on Painting. He also assesses the significance of the treatise, discussing its influence on other painters.]


The Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library, which contains the earliest known compilation of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, stems from the collection of the Dukes of Urbino.1 This famous library, founded by Federigo da Montefeltro in 1472, was left to the Roman Curia in 1626 along with the rest of the ducal domain, upon the death of the last of the line, Francesco Maria della Rovere. Unknown, or at least ignored, the volume remained in the Papal library until Guglielmo Manzi brought it to light again in 1817, and published it for the first time.2

How and when the Codex came to Urbino remains a mystery, as, for that matter, does the rest of its history. Nevertheless it is possible to establish upon the basis of textual and stylistic clues that it was written about 1550 under the supervision of Francesco Melzi, Leonardo's friend and pupil, and that it represents a careful compilation of texts taken from Leonardo's original manuscripts which Francesco Melzi had inherited.3 The appearance of the Codex, its extent, and the nature of its illustrations are discussed in the Introductory Note to the facsimile volume and need not be repeated here.

In the text proper, we can discern the hands of two collaborators: the scribe who copied specific, prescribed portions of Leonardo's manuscripts, and the editor, who went over the copy making corrections and indications for the transposition of various portions. There are also signs that Francesco Melzi took part in the project, inasmuch as his name appears upon three of the unfilled pages, indicating perhaps that the missing sections were those that he intended to edit himself.4

The proof that the book was compiled from Leonardo's original manuscripts rests upon two points: first, the transcriber makes more than one specific mention of the difficulties he encountered as a result of Leonardo's left-handed mirror script5; second, the Codex ends with a list of eighteen original Leonardine manuscripts from which the compilation was made, each of these with its own identifying symbol.6

All of these circumstances indicate that the compilation was undertaken in the presence of Francesco Melzi and with his help—indeed, in all probability, at his behest and in his own house. The manuscripts which he had inherited from Leonardo were anxiously guarded with loving care in his Villa Vaprio d'Adda in the environs of Milan. Through the indifference of his heirs, the manuscripts were dispersed soon after his death in 1570. Some were given away, some stolen; some were lost, while others were cut up so that only clippings (mostly drawings) remain. Many a long odyssey preceded their arrival in the places where we find them today: Milan, Turin, London, Windsor, and Paris.7

The fact that less than half of the chapters in the Codex Urbinas can be found among the still extant Leonardine manuscripts proves that substantial parts of Leonardo's literary legacy have been lost. Thus, the Codex Urbinas becomes the primary source for those lost texts, since the possibility of interpolations from some other source may safely be dismissed.8

This brings us to the following conclusions: 1519, the year of Leonardo's death, and 1570, the year of Melzi's death, serve as the termini for dating the Codex Urbinas. However this span of time can be further narrowed since the style of the drawings would indicate a date near the middle of the century.

The manuscript was to be preparatory to an edition of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, as conceived and interpreted by Melzi and his assistant. From the layout of the Codex we gain a keen understanding of the method followed in making the compilation. To begin with, the empty volume was divided into eight parts, which were presumably intended to encompass eight major divisions of the Treatise on Painting as planned by Leonardo. Each of his notebooks was gone over, and the various excerpts distributed among the eight subdivisions, according to content. In this almost mechanical process of collecting it is hardly surprising to find that repetitions, such as occur in the originals, crop up here too.9 On the other hand there are a number of passages in the preserved originals which, according to their content, should have found a place in the Treatise on Painting. Since they are missing in the Codex Urbinas, however, we may postulate that the transcription as planned was to have been more all-embracing than the existing versions. The numerous blank pages, on which the missing passages would have appeared, are evidence of the premature abandonment of the work, part of which Melzi had probably reserved for himself.10 The final version would have been based on this preliminary compilation of material, had it ever been completed. From the copious corrections that we find in the text, and from the related marginal notes, it is evident that a great deal of condensation and regrouping was envisaged.11

Even though it was never finished, the Codex Urbinas, evaluated upon its own merits, is of great importance: it is the only transcription taken from Leonardo's original manuscripts, and it was made by men who had known him personally and who still lived under the direct influence of his thinking. It contains many excerpts from Leonardo's lost texts, and all in all, forms the most complete collection of Leonardo's studies for the Treatise on Painting that has come down to us.

The Codex Urbinas is the archetype of all versions of the Treatise on Painting, written or printed, that were available before Manzi's rediscovery of the volume itself. The numerous other handwritten versions of the Treatise (some fifty have come to my attention, but I believe that the number could easily be doubled if a search were made)12 have one thing in common: none of them contains more material than the Codex but all of them follow the same abbreviated version of the Urbinas text, and differ among each other only in unimportant details. None of them includes the first part of the Codex Urbinas, the so-called Paragone: they all begin with the second part, the Precetti del Pittore.13 In the copies, this second part has been shortened by more than 50 chapters, and the third part by more than 70. Of the fourth part, which in the Codex Urbinas contains 15 chapters, only 7 appear in the copies. The fifth, the sixth and the seventh parts are missing entirely, and of the eighth part we find only one or two chapters. This makes a total of between 365 and 375 chapters in the copies as against 1,008 in the McMahon arrangement.14

These abridged versions may be classified into three groups: Type A, best represented by the Codex Barberinus 832 in the Vatican Library, is closest to the Codex Urbinas.15 Here we find the same general layout: the individual chapters retain their titles and are not numbered. Type B omits the titles in the text, substituting consecutive numeration of the chapters, and appending an index wherein the missing titles appear as indications of the content of each chapter. This type is later than Type A, and derived from it.16 Type C follows Type B for the most part; however, in editing, use was evidently made of the Type A group; moreover certain corrections of the text give grounds for belief that some of Leonardo's original manuscripts were consulted. Type C consists of the group of manuscripts which were prepared for the famous first publication of the Treatise by Du Fresne in 1651.

The story of how this Editio Princeps came into being is known; here we shall give only a summary of the most important facts.17 The idea of publishing Leonardo's Treatise on Painting was conceived in the fourth decade of the seventeenth century, in the circle that surrounded Cardinal Francesco Barberini in Rome. His secretary, Cassiano del Pozzo (1588-1657), was a friend of Nicolas Poussin, and it was he who persuaded the latter to do the illustrations for the project. The manuscripts which they worked from (the Codex Barberinus 832 Type A, and another, not specifically identifiable, of Type B—perhaps the Codex Corsinianus in Rome) were compared with Leonardo's originals, or such of these as were available at the time in the collection of Count Galeazzo Arconati in Milan. An extensive correspondence between Arconati and Pozzo reveals the enthusiasm with which the work was undertaken.18 A whole series of manuscripts exists relating to this preparation of the first edition: of these, the most important are Ms. H 228 in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan; the manuscript formerly in the collection of Comtesse de Béhague, in Paris and inherited by her nephew, Marquis Hubert de Ganay; and a manuscript in The Hermitage in Leningrad. Poussin delivered the drawings, which were probably copied in his workshop too, so that it is impossible to say with certainty which of the three sets of illustrations in the abovementioned manuscripts is closest to the master's own hand.19 These illustrations were later altered in the most arbitrary manner by the engravers of the copper plates, especially by Errard, who inserted entire landscape backgrounds. This tampering made Poussin exceedingly angry, as his famous letter testifies. In 1640 in Rome, Pozzo entrusted a completed manuscript, with Poussin's illustrations, to Paul Fréart, Sieur de Chantelou, who took it with him to Paris where he was to arrange for the printing. However he got around to it only after ten years, at which time it was brought out by Raphael Trichet Du Fresne.20

From this final version, which appeared in the same year in French translation, all subsequent editions are derived, up to the rediscovery of the Codex Urbinas.21 The sole exception is the edition of 1792 by Fontani, in Florence; this one was based on the Codex Riccardianus in Florence, a manuscript of Type B. It dates from about the middle of the seventeenth century and is adorned with splendid drawings by Stefano della Bella, which come closer to Leonardo's originals than any of the other illustrations with the exception of those in the Codex Urbinas. The composition of the text however is already based upon the Du Fresne edition.22

Thus we find that all the printed editions, including that of Fontani, contain only a sharply curtailed version of the Leonardine manuscripts including 375 chapters since the Codex Urbinas remained unknown until 1817. I have included a chart of the most important manuscripts and printed editions up to that time, in order to clarify the relationship between the various types.

Now that we have established the importance of the Codex Urbinas as the archetype of all other versions of the Treatise on Painting which have come down to us, there remains the task of determining the relationship of this first of the compilations to the original manuscripts; and more especially, insofar as possible, of seeing how well it accords with the treatise project as envisioned by Leonardo himself.


Dr. McMahon's exceptional contribution in preparing this edition of the Codex Urbinas consists of finding out which of the chapters can be traced to Leonardo's original manuscripts, insofar as the latter are preserved. This information may be found in the Concordance. Although there have been other scholars similarly occupied (notably the late Monsignor Enrico Carusi in Rome, who devoted his life to the preparation of a critical edition of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting from the original texts; and Amelia Clelia Pierantoni, whose studies are worthy of mention),23 Dr. McMahon's edition is the first to offer a systematic concordance of the Codex Urbinas' chapters with Leonardo's own texts. This enables us to determine exactly which of the latter have been lost, and no longer exist except in the Codex Urbinas and its derivatives.

Furthermore, it is easier now, with the help of the fascimile publications of the complete surviving writings of Leonardo, to determine how much material pertinent to the Treatise on Painting as he envisioned it, has been left out of the Codex Urbinas.24

These considerations bring us to the crucial problem, which is to endeavor to determine to what degree the material compiled in the Codex Urbinas gives a true reflection of Leonardo's own conception of the Treatise on Painting; and whether it is possible for us to obtain a more exact picture of that conception. Having posed this question we find ourselves embroiled in the confused and confusing problems of Leonardo's literary output.

Leonardo repeatedly asserts in his own notes that he intended to write a book on painting. With the exception of a few partial abstracts, such as On the Flight of Birds, and the Ludi Geometrici, the entire collection of manuscripts, fruits of a lifetime of work, was directed toward the goal of three large publications: The Book on Painting, The Book on Mechanics, and The Book on Anatomy. In his notes Leonardo makes frequent reference to these as clearly separate entities. In his Anatomy he alludes to his Mechanics, and vice versa; and similarly, in that portion of the Anatomy which deals with the eye, he makes a reference to The Book on Painting: “Make the rainbow in the last book ‘On Painting.’ But first make the book of the colours produced by the mixture of the other colours so that by means of these colours used by painters you may be able to prove the genesis of the colours of the rainbow. …” (Quad. II, 6r).25

Again, in another note on optical experiments: “The surface of each body takes part of the colour of whatever is set against it. The colours of the objects in light are reproduced on each other's surface at different spots according to the varieties in the positions of these objects … and the rest will be set forth in the Book on Painting. In that book it will be demonstrated, by transmitting the images of the bodies and colours of the things illuminated by the sun through a small round hole in a dark place onto a smooth surface which in itself is white. …”26

In addition to such allusions to the Treatise on Painting in connection with other fields of study, the Codex Urbinas itself contains several of Leonardo's indications for the over-all plan of his book. In one place he says that the work is “woven together of these functions [i.e., of the eye], reminding the painter according to what rules and in what fashion he should reproduce with his art all of these things, the work of nature and the beauties of the world.”27 In another place he gives tables of contents, which we shall discuss later in greater detail.28

We can no longer ascertain with exactitude how much of this plan had taken decisive shape during Leonardo's lifetime, and was known to his contemporaries. Although we have a whole series of contemporaneous references to Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, none of these permits us to come to an unequivocal conclusion as to its form and contents. On the contrary, if we compare these quotations one with another, we are left with a disparate, indeed contradictory impression. The earliest mention is to be found in the Divina Proportione of the famous mathematician, Luca Pacioli. In his dedication of the book to Ludovico Sforza he writes as follows about Leonardo: “After he had already finished with all diligence the worthy books on painting and human movement. …”29

Next Cellini relates, in his Discorsi sopra l'Architettura, that ca. 1540 he acquired from an impoverished nobleman a small book, copied from Leonardo, on the three great arts, “Scultura, Pittura, e Architettura”; that it contained “the most beautiful discourse on perspective ever composed”; and that he later lent the book to the architect, Sebastiano Serlio, who used it, insofar as he was capable of understanding it, for his own treatise on architecture.30

The manuscripts in Francesco Melzi's possession were known to Vasari also. He mentions especially the writings on anatomy, and marvels at Leonardo's versatility; “Whoever reads these notes of Leonardo will be amazed to find how well that divine spirit has reasoned of the arts, the muscles, the nerves and veins, with the greatest diligence in all things.” Then he continues: “N. N. a painter of Milan also possesses some writings of Leonardo written in the same characters, using his left hand in reversed writing, which treat of painting and of the methods of design and colour. Not long ago he came to Florence wishing to have the work printed. He afterwards went to Rome to put it in hand, but I do not know with what result.”31

Finally, Lomazzo notes in his Trattato della Pittura (1584) “In the same way Leonardo discoursed and argued in one of his books which I read some years ago. This book was written with the left hand at the request of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. …”32

Pacioli's statement is usually interpreted as meaning that Leonardo's Treatise on Painting was essentially complete in 1498. Upon scrutiny of Leonardo's manuscripts up to that date, however, it becomes plain that a large part of the notes for the Treatise on Painting was written considerably later than 1498.33 Thus, Pacioli's words can only have reference to a more or less completed fractional version that he had seen. It is my belief that this can be identified as Codex 2038 of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, since it not only contains the themes mentioned by Pacioli, but also dates from between 1490 and 1495.34

Cellini's manuscript probably represented a compilation of excerpts from Leonardo similar in type to the so-called Codex Huygens in the Morgan Library, which has been expertly edited by Panofsky.35 Leonardo's notes received greater attention during the sixteenth century than is generally supposed; although the numerous early copies have never been the object of systematic research, a perusal of them discloses wide variation in the selection of subject matter from the originals, which shows that they were studied by people of many different sorts and of diverse interests.36 The loss of the Cellini-owned manuscript is particularly regrettable, since the highly praised essay on perspective that it contained would doubtless have helped to decide how far Leonardo had progressed with his book on perspective, a matter which must remain undetermined in view of the paucity of notes on this subject that have come down in the remaining original manuscripts.37

The texts referred to by Vasari and Lomazzo—there is a possibility that they are one and the same38—must be regarded as lost. Lomazzo's words, “written for Ludovico Sforza,” point to the conclusion that the text he knew was dedicated to the Duke, and hence must have been written before the latter's fall in 1499.

These source accounts do not give a precise picture of Leonardo's treatise as a whole; all of them are based merely upon an acquaintance with some fractional manuscript or other, if not upon copies.

This fact enhances the importance of the Codex Urbinas as a source document, especially in any attempt to reconstruct Leonardo's original treatise plan. As we have pointed out, the compilation of these passages, nearly two thirds of which stem from manuscripts since lost, is indubitably traceable to Francesco Melzi, who probably intended to organize the treatise exactly as he thought Leonardo had conceived it. In this task of reconstruction he had the following aids: 1) the recollection of Leonardo's spoken opinions, which the latter must often have shared with his friend and favorite pupil; 2) the written references contained in Leonardo's notes; and 3) the literary tradition for treatises of this sort that was prevalent before and during Leonardo's lifetime. It is possible for us to verify only points 2 and 3.

Two plans for the organization of the treatise are to be found among Leonardo's notes; these, however, are so vaguely formulated that they would not suffice as working outlines. In the chapter “On the mixture of colors” (McM. 178), he says that this subject is to be placed between the theory and the practice of painting, from which one may draw the conclusion that the treatise was to be divided into two principal parts, the one on theory and the other on practice. In the second instance Leonardo speaks of the ten categories of visual perception: light and dark, color, volume, shape, locale, nearness and distance, motion and rest (McM. 427), and says that he will weave these ten categories together in his work. However, since he indicates concomitantly that the study of light and shade should form one book, he thereby abandons the ten-partition plan, so that it seems preferable to regard the latter merely as an enumeration of the problems that his book would cover and not as a specific sequence of chapters. In this general sense, the ten useful functions of the eye are frequently alluded to in the first book, the Paragone.39 From other passages we gather that the treatise was to have included a book on perspective; one on shadows; and another on movement.40

The arrangement of the Codex Urbinas reflects relatively little of the above-cited elements. Of its eight principal parts, as can be seen by a glance at the Table of Contents for this translation, only portions of the second, the third with the fourth included as appendix, and the fifth, can be related to Leonardo's scheme. Parts VI to VIII inclusive must at best be understood as subheadings under the broader categories of “figure” and “situation.”41 By examining the treatises of this kind that antedate Leonardo we may judge whether or not the first part and the beginning of the second can be fitted into some kind of scheme that goes beyond those discussed in his own original manuscripts.

Although there is no direct reference in Leonardo's writings to the four most important treatises on painting that preceded his, demonstrably he knew all of them, either directly or indirectly: Cennino Cennini's (ca. 1400); Leone Battista Alberti's (1435); Averlino Filarete's (ca. 1460); and Piero della Francesca's (ca. 1485).42 We cannot be sure that he saw Cennini's in the original version, but it is certain that he was familiar with Filarete's big treatise, which made extensive use, albeit without acknowledgement, of Cennini's book on painting.43 Leonardo made use of the Filarete book, which existed in a large and splendidly decorated manuscript in the Sforza library, for his own architectural studies.44 Therefore he must have known the sections dealing with the art of drawing and painting also (in books 22-24), which are largely derived from Cennini. In addition to Cennini, Filarete is here indebted to Alberti, whose treatise he imitated, in crude and debased form, in every train of thought.45

That Leonardo knew Alberti's then famous and widely accessible treatise in the original is certain. The astonishing parallelism of many of their ideas; their critical analyses by means of various theorems; and especially the significant furthering and enriching of the subject as a whole, testify amply to this.46

Leonardo was doubtless familiar with Piero della Francesca's treatise. Even if it might have escaped his notice earlier, he could not have failed to be introduced to it by Luca Pacioli, who was active in Milan between 1497 and 1499, and who worked in close collaboration with Leonardo. Pacioli refers to Piero in his works as his venerable and revered teacher, and makes specific mention of the latter's De Prospectiva Pingendi.47

In all of these treatises, painting is founded on three basic studies: the representation of line, of surface, and of solid bodies. The categories are systematically developed in the second book of Alberti's treatise; Filarete takes them over from him, almost exactly, while Piero della Francesca makes use of them, though only in principle, in the introduction to his Prospectiva. The formula obviously goes back to the Middle Ages and echoes of this older form are still to be found in Cennini's book.48 Under the heading of Circumscriptio, this traditional scheme discusses all the elements of linear representation; under Compositio, we find the directions for gathering the individual elements, as learned in the former category, into a planimetric surface composition. This chapter also included directions for the representation of men and objects; proportion, measurements, and movement—even descriptions of entire pictorial scenes. Finally, under Ricevimento del lume there are instructions for endowing these elements with the appearance of plastic, corporeal reality by means of light, shadow, and color.

Cennini's treatment of painting as a purely practical matter is also in accord with medieval tradition. His recipes are aligned according to the various individual techniques: drawing, fresco, oil painting, etc. These practical recipes are interspersed with directions for the representation of various pictorial themes, and in the resultant conglomeration the three subdivisions, as described above, are discernible only as basic premises. In contrast to him, the Renaissance authors beginning with Alberti make a significant innovation in that they divide their material into a theoretical and a practical part.49 The Theory of painting, which is expounded before the Practice, deals with the principal achievements of this period: the knowledge of mathematical perspective, which puts painting on a scientific basis. The tripartition along Euclidian lines, into line, surface, and bodies makes its appearance in the chapter on Theory in connection with the explanation of optical phenomena. It forms the framework of the second chapter dealing with Practice.50

This main theme, the doctrine of painting subdivided into theory and practice, is accompanied by two minor themes: an apologia, or definition of painting, in which its position as one of the Artes Liberales (hence as a “science” according to the medieval classification of human activities) is proved; and secondly, a moralistic and aesthetic chapter on general “rules of life” (precetti) for the painter, wherein specific mention may be made of the cultivation of the painter's talents, his powers of observation and imagination.

Let us now compare the construction of Leonardo's treatise, insofar as it can be determined from his own expressions on the subject and the Codex Urbinas, with these treatises of the early Renaissance. We find that all themes treated by his predecessors reappear in Leonardo; and furthermore, that there is an astonishing similarity of arrangement, especially in the division of the subject into a theoretical and a practical part.51

Perspective, subdivided under the headings of linear-, color-, and aerial-perspective, would have been included in the first part. Here too, the chapter on light and shade would have found its place, and presumably also his twice-mentioned discussion of color theory.52 Part 2 would have encompassed drawing and color in their practical application; and following this would have come the important sections on the human figure (proportion and anatomy), and its movements (bodily and psychic). Both parts would naturally have included, as they do in Alberti, rules for composition and other similar advice. Again, as in Alberti, we may assume that the section on drapery would have been included under the discussion on movement.

After these rules and suggestions for the representation of the human being, Leonardo, by a concatenation of thought thoroughly characteristic of him, intended to add a book on the representation of nature. This was the great central theme of his art as it was of his research. In it, his studies of atmosphere, clouds, water, air and wind, the morphology of plants, and the structure of the earth, would have coalesced into a view of the cosmos and the forces that govern its configuration.

Like his predecessors, Leonardo would have opened his treatise with an exposition of the essential nature of painting, a definition of art as science in connection with the Paragone, which establishes the preeminence of painting over the other arts, especially poetry and sculpture. Whether the Precetti (the rules by which the artist should regulate his life) were intended to follow the introduction, as they do in the Codex Urbinas, or to conclude the work, as they do in Alberti's treatise, cannot be determined; but this is a matter of minor importance.

The existing sources tell us nothing more about Leonardo's general scheme. This is not surprising since it is highly doubtful that he himself had a definitive and detailed plan in mind. This may be deduced from a chronological examination of the material intended for the Treatise on Painting, insofar as it can be studied in his original notes. In checking these for dates, we find that they were written over a span of years from 1490 to 1513, i.e., throughout the major part of his active life, and well into old age.53 In this same period of time, Leonardo's scientific studies underwent a most extraordinary development, as can be seen by comparing the plan for the Anatomy as it first appears in 1490, with its counterpart of 1513; or by noting the change in the very formulation of the problems in his hydrodynamical and aerodynamical studies.54 In this light, it is not too much to suppose that the Treatise on Painting also had assumed a different form and content in the mind of the aged Leonardo, from the plan in Codex 2038, conceived when he was forty. If we read the passages in this same original manuscript written ca. 1495 that deal with a battle or a storm, and compare them with his description of The Deluge (1513), we cannot fail to be impressed by the change in his observation and evaluation of natural phenomena, and by the pervasive transformation that had taken place in his entire mode of thinking; for, whereas in the earlier work, the forms of nature are described according to their outer appearance, or introduced into a pictorial composition merely as manifestations of certain motions or emotions (e.g. agitated draperies, puffs of dust behind a horse's hoofs, etc.), his later works all present the phenomena, observed and recorded, under a new aspect of “forms symbolizing cosmic energies,” wherein the law and order of nature are revealed.55

Now let us turn back to the Codex Urbinas and try to decide how much of Leonardo's original project it preserves. Although itself incomplete and not fully articulated, it encompasses such substantial segments of Leonardo's program that it gives us a broader understanding of his plan. The introductory part on the essential nature of painting contains an extensive collection of raw material.56 In the theoretical section, on the other hand, the division dealing with mathematical perspective is so fragmentary that a question arises as to whether this entire portion has, in reality, been lost in the original, or whether it was intentionally neglected by Leonardo; in view of the existence of the treatises by Alberti and Piero della Francesca, it may well be that Leonardo felt it unnecessary to treat the subject systematically again.57 If this were the case, then Melzi would purposely have avoided the inclusion of the many isolated notes that deal with all manner of matters pertinent to mathematics, from the principles of Euclidan geometry, to drawings of perspectival constructions; and would rather have limited himself to the compilation of notes relating to light and color perspective. The latter are presented both forcefully and explicitly in the Codex Urbinas; the part on light and shade is particularly extensive.

The subjects of drawing and color, scattered throughout the second half, are rather sparse. These problems were apparently neglected to a large extent by Leonardo himself, for even in the original manuscripts we find relatively little material that could be used to piece out the Codex Urbinas where painting technique is concerned. As we shall have further occasion to observe, the entire subject of color is one which did not greatly interest Leonardo, at least not in its technical aspects.58

The book on the human figure, which was to have included the studies in proportion and anatomy, is fragmentary also. But it is precisely this portion of the Codex Urbinas that contains the greatest number of those empty pages marked “Meltius” indicating that Melzi himself either wished to complete them or was supposed to have done so.59 To anyone familiar with the awesome abundance of Leonardo's anatomical studies, Melzi's failure will be perfectly understandable. The mere sorting of the notes into those which might rightfully be included in the painting treatise, as against those which were destined for the Treatise on Anatomy, presents a huge problem, upon which, or so it seems to us, even Melzi's zeal foundered.60 The best complement to this portion of the Codex Urbinas is the material compiled by Richter which brings together the more important of the studies on proportion, as well as some on anatomy-for-artists that can, quite certainly, be related to the Treatise on Painting.61 Moreover, the Codex Huygens, as Panofsky has convincingly demonstrated, offers us some insight into the broad scope of Leonardo's original plan for this portion.62

Greatest in quantity as well as in significance, is the collection of material for the next part, on movement. This has always elicited the most interest, and exerted the most influence, from the time of Leonardo's direct followers on through the art theory and practice of the seventeenth century, and finally down to the Classical and other Revival styles of the nineteenth century.63 Of all the parts, it is also the most profusely illustrated; the changes that these illustrations have undergone in the countless copies, both drawn and printed, that are descended from them, form a problem which is, in itself, of great interest to art history. It demonstrates, for example, that elementary questions such as how to represent movement, are common to all styles, no matter how heterogeneous. For proof one need only compare Poussin's classicizing copies of the Leonardo or Codex Urbinas originals with the Baroque versions of the same made by Stefano della Bella for the Fontani edition.

The material included in the sixth, seventh, and eighth parts of the Codex Urbinas, as well as some of the notes in Part V, were undoubtedly originally to have found their place in the book on Nature. This portion of Leonardo's treatise, as he conceived it, would have embraced the essentials of his entire cosmology, to the degree that this knowledge lends itself to the painter's task. Many of these passages are among his most powerful, both as to their thought content and the creative language in which they are couched. To those in the Codex Urbinas might be added a large number from the original manuscripts, which were not transcribed; some of the most significant of these may be found in Richter's and McCurdy's splendid Leonardo anthologies.64

This part of the Treatise on Painting must, at one time, have included several magnificent color illustrations by Leonardo; there are two specific references to these in the Codex Urbinas.65 Like most of Leonardo's other watercolor paintings, which are frequently mentioned in the sources, these have been lost. Only a few examples of that technique are preserved but bear no relation to the treatise. However, we reproduce some drawings of Leonardo's, which are closely connected with the Treatise, and may have been preparatory studies for those lost colored illustrations. …66

The second half of the Codex Urbinas contains a wealth of material relating to the Precetti. These too are masterpieces of expression as well as thought, especially the parable of The Mirror, which is an impressive piece of prose poetry.

The influence of Leonardo's treatise on painting was both strong and constant, even while its contents were available only in abridged versions, preceding Manzi's rediscovery and publication of the Codex Urbinas. Beginning with Du Fresne's Editio Princeps, the stream of printed editions of the work has continued uninterrupted to the present day. Thus it is fitting that the introduction to this latest edition should conclude with an examination of Leonardo's realm of thought as it is expressed in the treatise with the purpose of finding out what makes it of special and lasting significance.

Even in the fragmentary state in which it has come down to us, Leonardo's Treatise on Painting is the most thoroughgoing of all similar Renaissance works in scope as well as content.67 Three features which are basic to Leonardo's scientific method and which find vent and application in all of his studies distinguish his treatise from the others: first, Leonardo's astounding powers of observation which enabled him to perceive phenomena that were entirely outside the limits of artistic problems, and belonged within the sphere of scientific study; second, his equation of seeing with comprehending, which led Leonardo to the conclusion that sight is the natural medium for the collection of scientific data, while graphic reproduction is its perfect means of dissemination; finally, the constant interrelating of theory and practice, i.e., of experimental data and practical application, so that, to quote Leonardo, “sometimes the effects are deduced from the causes, and sometimes the causes from the effects.”68 All of these led inevitably to the bursting of the traditional treatise pattern; Leonardo's book on painting had, properly speaking, grown into an encyclopedia of visually transmissible science. To this is due its great and unique historical value; but also, it must be admitted, the unfortunate fact that he was never able to bring it to a state of final completion.

Leonardo made use of all the principal themes of earlier treatises, in order to transform and utilize them according to his own concepts. In his introduction he takes the old idea of defining the position of painting in relation to the other sciences, and changes it into an apodictical demonstration. He is on the side of the newly awakening experimental approach to science, as against the old scholastic view, which classified all knowledge gained through experience as “mechanical,” and as “scientific” only such knowledge as arises out of the mind or spirit. Against the latter he argues: “But to me it seems that those sciences are vain and full of errors which are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, and which do not end in recorded experience. … But the true sciences are those which become known through the senses, by experience, and which put to silence the tongues of the contentious. They do not feed those who investigate them on a dream but always, based on true and verified first principles, proceed to the end in orderly fashion and with true consequences. This is seen in the elementary principles of mathematics which deal with number and measure and are called arithmetic and geometry, and which treat with utmost truth of discontinuous and continuous quantity. … The scientific and true principles of painting, first determining what a shadowed body is, and what primary and derivative shadows are, and what is illumination, i.e. darkness, light, color, body, form, location, distance, nearness, motion and rest, are principles which are comprehended by the mind alone without manual participation. This is the pure science of painting which is in the mind of those who reflect upon it. From it is born creative action which is of much more value than the reflection or science just mentioned.” (McM. 19)

Leonardo considers sight to be the most refined, as well as the most reliable of the five senses, and concludes from this that painting, being the sphere which makes fullest use of this faculty, is therefore also the best transmitter of knowledge: “That science is most useful the results of which are most communicable, and, conversely, that is less useful which is less communicable. Painting makes its end result communicable to all the generations of the world because it depends on the visual faculty; not reaching understanding through the ear. … Thus painting does not have need of interpreters for different languages as does literature and at once satisfies mankind, no differently than do things produced by nature.” (McM. 17)

Thus in Leonardo's opinion, the qualities of truthfulness and directness of statement confirm the primacy of painting among the sciences; it was his further conviction that the sensory impression that painting makes is more penetrating, and more conducive to knowledge than that produced by the disembodied word. Lastly, Leonardo concerns himself with the truth of representation, which he considers to be the result of objectively correct knowledge. Although the debate in the Paragone (an early work dating from his forties) is often dialectic in tenor, and makes use of some well-worn literary and metaphorical devices which do nothing to lend it either conviction or force,69 it nevertheless contains some ideas of revolutionary import. In the contest between poetry and painting (McM. 32) he concedes that painting, like poetry, must borrow from the other sciences, such as rhetoric, philosophy, and theology, in order to do justice to an important subject; but he contends that painting is less dependent upon these than poetry which lives exclusively upon borrowing, and that this is the weakest part of painting anyway. Here we find the first, still somewhat literary formulation of his thesis that the true task of painting is to represent nature directly. This thesis was so boldly implemented by the mature Leonardo that the original “literary” subject becomes merely an excuse for representing the phenomena of the universe, to the point where a reversal of the significance of form and content takes place: in his series of drawings of The Deluge, the myth of the end of the world serves only as the welcome motive for the representation of Leonardo's own ideas of the self-dissolution of the cosmos. These develop out of his scientific observations on the ultimate consequences of natural laws and forces70 quite apart from any iconographic tradition of the theme.

The equation of painting and natural science, meaning the utilization of the artist's perceptual powers in the service of scientific knowledge, appears in another early intimation. “If poetry includes moral philosophy, painting deals with natural philosophy.” (McM. 30).

Therefore the value of the Paragone lies less in its establishment of painting as the highest of the arts—for as we have seen, Leonardo was only following a traditional argument in doing this—than in the flashes of a far bolder theme which appear from time to time in this disputation, i.e., that painting is the most perfect instrument for the transmission of scientific knowledge. This basic idea is traceable in his treatment of all the material that pertains to the treatise, and it explains the constant interpenetration of theoretical and practical discussions. In the texts that belong to the theoretical half of the book, many of the postulates are based upon examples taken from actual observation, just as in the practical division, that is, suggestions for the representation of specific pictorial themes, the theoretical principles of the first part are constantly referred to. The basic rules of color perspective, in particular the definition of the blue of the sky, may well be chosen to illustrate this. These rules make their appearance throughout the book, and in the most diverse contexts; they naturally have their place in the chapter on color perspective; but in addition they are mentioned in the sections on anatomy (McM. 848), on the composition of historical scenes (McM. 282), and in the description of landscapes (McM. 966).71

Leonardo does not set forth a theory in Alberti's sense. Schlosser has made an excellent analysis of the degree to which Leonardo adopted the principal ideas of Renaissance art theory, and in so doing, was led to the astonishing observation that the classical art of antiquity, the idol of that period, played a very minor role in Leonardo's scheme.72 To him, nature alone was the authoritative teacher. He looks upon mathematical perspective with a distinctly critical eye, pointing out that it is insufficient—indeed misleading—unless supplemented by a knowledge of aerial and color perspective.73 This is an interesting indication of the differences between mathematical and physiological vision. For the same reason he warns against exaggerated reliance upon mechanical aids for proportion (McM. 48), whose usefulness he would limit to the pedagogical (McM. 118 and 119). His discussions of aerial and color perspective are all the more intensive for this; he collected a most awe-inspiring mass of observations on individual phenomena in their most varied aspects, whether for use in the book on light and shade, or the section on color, or merely as practical suggestions for the representation of natural forms or landscape conformations. He has the least to say on the subject of color; a typical Tuscan, he classifies it under rilievo, and at one point even denies its independent artistic value (McM. 108). Upon closer examination however, this seeming prejudice is found to apply mainly to “tinting” in the narrow sense, and to be directed against the primitive color treatment of the Tuscan school.74 That his own sensitivity to color was of the subtlest order cannot be doubted: were the products of his brush not enough to prove it so, the extraordinarily perceptive discussions of color and tonal values in connection with color perspective, or of the harmony of color values in connection with the practical section on colors, would leave small doubt. Many of these problems as analyzed by Leonardo, anticipate the solutions that were found in the color-created forms of the Venetian school. His famous “Sfumato” must be regarded as the synthesis of light and color perspective: it is a brilliant conciliation of clair-obscur and color value, and his discussion of the subject in the treatise defines the problem for the first time. It continued to be one of the chief problems of setting down forms on a painted surface, right through the Pleinair and Pointilliste schools of the nineteenth century.

Leonardo's section on the representation of the human body and its movements is likewise an extended and intensified continuation of the theme as it had been treated by his predecessors, Alberti in particular. He turns his mind to the development of an entire new concept of movement, based on the laws of mechanics;75 he regarded anatomy as an independent field of science, and used the results, obtained through scientific investigation, in formulating his anatomy-for-artists.76 He discusses the relatedness of physical movement and psychic emotion, between gesture and expression, and in the process always lays stress upon the things that give to a representation truth, conviction, meaning, and measure. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that this portion of his treatise was capable of becoming the canon of the academicians, whose teachings remained consistent from Poussin far into the nineteenth century. In this section, too, we find a spontaneity of language which is as affecting today as it ever was.

Lastly, great significance must be attached to the ethical and moral observations which Leonardo, in his Precetti, formulates as rules for the artist to live by. What he has to say about the education and knowledge of the painter, his deportment and dignity, and, above all, his truthfulness and self-criticism, belongs among the finest of his utterances. Furthermore it illuminates the purity of his own personality, whose very impersonality manifests itself in his aloofness from other human beings and in the love that he expends on all objects of his research. The most beautiful and lucid of these statements is, perhaps, his paraphrasing of the use of the mirror to verify the painter's work; in this he takes a practical rule and turns it into an ethical precept.77

“The painter should be solitary and consider what he sees, discussing it with himself, selecting the most excellent parts of the appearance of what he sees, acting as the mirror which transmutes itself into as many colors as exist in the things placed before it. And if he does this he will be like a second nature.” (McM. 72)

The supreme significance of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, and the strong influence that it has exercised upon the artistic concepts of the following eras, continuing into our own time, is mainly owing to his specific capacity of visualization: it characterizes his method of unearthing and communicating all those experiences, that he, one of the greatest artists, had gained from his practical work. No greater man has ever undertaken to speak as a painter to other painters; and none has ever equaled him in wealth of ideas and information, and in his considered expression of them.

The unusual, and in fact unique feature of Leonardo's system of teaching, is his completely new correlation of word and image. In the treatise as he originally conceived it we may assume that this correlation might have been even more striking; however, the scope of its intent is recognizable in the Codex Urbinas.

Alberti, in his treatise, consciously deviates from the formula of the medieval pattern and recipe books:78 to the practical workshop knowledge of the latter he opposes a theory determined by systematic thought; one that establishes principles without regard to concrete artistic practice. Perspective, alone, as the mathematically scientific foundation of painting, is demonstrated, albeit without stressing its application. The latter was done by Piero della Francesca who made use of drawing—and this is both characteristic and important—as an aid to demonstration.79 In his treatise the perspectival constructions described in the text are brought to view, thus taking up once again the principle of the medieval pattern book, inasmuch as it too gives graphic examples of various types of representation,80 although in a totally new sense. He no longer gives typical examples which provide a basic scheme for all cases, but individual examples dependent upon the unique combination of optical and perspectival circumstances. What all of these individual instances have in common is the method of perspectival construction that demonstrates the rule by which any given scene is analyzed as a variant of the same basic act of seeing.

Leonardo takes over Piero's idea of didactic illustration and applies it to all of the fields that are the concern of artistic representation. His illustrations for the book on light and shade place all the variables of the phenomenon in a paradigmatic scheme based upon optical principles, so that the painter is enabled to recognize every individual variant of the phenomenon.

The illustrations for his book on proportion are similarly systematically developed: taking its point of departure from an ideal canon of the human figure and its proportions, which are never fully realized in any one individual, he expounds the endless variability of these relationships, in order to make it possible to define each individual example in the light of its deviations from the ideal norm.81 In this connection, Leonardo's recommendation that one take special notice of faces that are memorable because of some “landmark,” such as the shape of the nose, is very characteristic. In some, he offers a system, abetted by illustrations, for determining what is individual about any individual.

The principle of visualization, i.e., of giving graphic representation to processes which are governed by set laws, is developed to the full in his book on movement. Here we find a prodigious illustrated catalogue of the factors that regulate movement, from the most seemingly insignificant bending of a finger, to the most vehement motion of an entire body; their purpose is to enable the painter to recognize, and therefore represent, each and all of them correctly. Leonardo also makes a thorough examination and explanation of the connection between movement and expression. This collaboration of graphic illustration with textual elucidation, to lay bare the basic types of human movements and expressions (cf. the masterly formulations in McM. 404, 405, 409), provides a method of learning whose impact is damaged neither by the passage of time nor changes of style.

Leonardo also intended to make full use of this collaboration of word and image, of linguistic explanation and pictorial representation, in his book on nature. The extremely graphic drawings for passages on the growth of trees and plants give us at least an inkling of the illustrative material that was prepared, but not used in the Codex Urbinas. We can only guess at the reason for this omission. It may be that copying the illustrations for The Rainstorm or The Deluge both of which are mentioned by the transcriber (footnotes to McM. 471, 552), was beyond his powers, since they represent artistic creations which would require the understanding services of a copyist who is himself an artist of no mean power; or it may be that the original drawings were to have been inserted once the book had been put into final shape.82 Several reproductions of the illustrations which were, beyond doubt, intended for this section of the original treatise, are included in this volume. They clearly reveal how varied and far-reaching was Leonardo's conception of illustration. The finished sketch of a rainstorm to be used for the landscape background of a painting possesses a pictorial value and an effect of its own; there are other preparatory drawings, which analyze the individual forces that have simultaneously materialized in the various forms in the rainstorm picture. There is the one of the boulder, whose strata show the general forces of nature which account, also, for this particular shape;83 the superlative drawing of The Deluge is annotated by a marginal text explaining the mechanical principles involved in the catastrophe, and also by schematic stylizations which illustrate a shower of rain, a cloud formation and a whirlpool or whirlwind. Pictures such as that of The Last Judgment, or The Deluge series, are made up of pictorial formulae like these; whatever the title, the subject itself becomes an artistic interpretation of scientific phenomena, and is totally subordinated to the main theme: the representation of nature as cosmos.84

Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, then, represents a unique combination of theory and practice, a fusion of the thought legacy of the Middle Ages with Renaissance ideas, welded into a completely new didactic method. Whereas the medieval pattern books consisted of typical examples which could be used as references for the ever-recurrent compositions that the artists of the Middle Ages were asked to paint, Leonardo's illustrations are demonstrations of “basic categories,” each proved by relative laws. These help to verify the individual phenomenon, so that it can be represented with objective correctness. Thus every variation of individual forms and processes in nature, whether these be human, nonhuman, or purely functional can be determined exactly.

This synthesis of scientific observation and artistic representation is the Leitmotiv of Leonardo's doctrine. The Treatise on Painting is an exhortation to the painter to make use of saper vedere, that gift which, according to Leonardo's conviction, the painter possesses above all other men, predestining him to the service of science. Doubly blessed with the gift of seeing and with the faculty of reproducing what he sees, the artist is enabled in the course of his activity to obtain exact knowledge, and to communicate this to all the generations of the world. This proud but exacting consciousness is the crown of Leonardo's conception of art, as defined in his Treatise on Painting.

The treatise originated at the significant moment in history when art and science met in the task—important to both—of gaining “objective experience.” But Leonardo feels that art is superior even to science. He maintains (McM. 15) that the mathematical sciences “do not encompass anything but the investigation of continuous and discontinuous quantity. They are not concerned with quality, the beauty of nature's creations, and the harmony of the world.” In our time of disintegrating worlds, both physical and sensory, his words echo as though they were an exhortation to us: painting shows not only truth, but the beauty of our world; and the harmony that is beyond regulated order.


  1. The best survey of the history of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting is given by Irma Richter in the introduction of the second edition of Jean Paul Richter, The Literary Work of Leonardo da Vinci, 1939 (see Bibliography, List D). It is also surveyed in Jordan, Untersuchungen über das Malerbuch, 1873, pp. 272ff.; G. Uzielli, Ricerche, Florence 1872 and Rome 1884 (Bibliography, List A3); and Heinrich Ludwig, Das Buch von der Malerei, 1882 (Bibliography, List A2), II, 383ff. and III Iff.

  2. Trattato della Pittura … curata da Guglielmo Manzi, 1817 (Bibliography, List A2).

  3. Francesco Melzi (1473-1570), a nobleman of Milan, stayed with Leonardo in Rome, and afterwards in France (1513-1519). Leonardo designated him the executor of his last will and bequeathed him his library, manuscripts, and scientific instruments. Cf. Luca Beltrami, Documenti (Bibliography, List Ei), Document 244 (last will) and Document 245; Richter, op.cit., I, p. 6, n. 6.

  4. On fol. 78v, 79 and 102v. Only the first of these is reproduced in facsimile since the second and third were otherwise blank. It may be possible that Hand 2 is identical with Francesco Melzi. The handwriting of the latter, discovered by G. Calvi on various sheets of Leonardo's literary legacy, is very similar to that of Hand 2, but the scarcity of examples of Melzi's writing does not admit of definite graphological conclusion. Melzi's handwriting is reproduced in G. Calvi, I Manoscritti di Leonardo da Vinci (Bibliography, List A3), pp. 255ff., figs. 54 and 57.

  5. Cf. McM. 53 and n. 25.

  6. Folios 330v and 331 of the Codex Urbinas list the original signed Leonardo manuscripts from which the Codex was compiled. The scribe has given each a symbol and has noted marginally on the Codex the source of his text.

  7. Cf. Uzielli, op.cit.; Richter, op.cit., II, 400.

  8. The coherence of the compilation, and the numerous marginal notes of the copyists, referring in almost every case to the original manuscripts of Leonardo, are proof of the great responsibility which the compilers felt to be vested in them. The stylistic unity of the texts is added testimony to the authorship of Leonardo da Vinci.

  9. Cf. the marginal notes of the compilers on fols. 28v, 85, 124, 127v, 149, 157v.

  10. See Volume II, Introductory Note.

  11. Cf. the marginal notes of fols. 28v, 53v, 85 (McM. 53, 283), H. 280.

  12. Cf. Bibliography, List A1.

  13. In these manuscripts the phrase Parte Seconda is sometimes written together with the title Precetti del Pittore, which proves that the archetype of those copies must have been the Codex Urbinas.

  14. The difference in the number of chapters, which vary between 365 and 375 results from the fact that in the copies some short texts separated in the Codex Urbinas are contracted into one chapter or vice versa.

  15. The Codex Barberinus is the best example of the abbreviated version, and is one of the earliest copies (end of the sixteenth century). Cf. Ludwig, op.cit., III, 18, and Amelia Clelia Pierantoni, Studi sul Libro della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci (Bibliography, List A1).

  16. Cf. Bibliography, List A1.

  17. Cf. Richter, op.cit., p. 8.

  18. Enrico Carusi, “Per il Trattato della Pittura,” p. 433 ff. (Bibliography, List A3); Sulla redazione abbreviata (Bibliography, List Ai).

  19. The illustrations of theCodex H 228 are very spontaneously drawn and of good quality, so that possibly they were done by Poussin himself, or under his direction in his workshop. The same can be said of the illustrations in the manuscript Béhague, now in the possession of the Marquis de Ganay-Béhague, Paris. This manuscript was probably a copy brought to Paris by M. de Chantelou. The illustrations in the manuscript at the Hermitage, Leningrad, known only through rather mediocre reproductions in a short Russian essay, seem to be of the same quality as those in the manuscripts mentioned above. The opinion that it is impossible to determine which of these series of illustrations is closer to those of Poussin is shared by Walter Friedlaender. Special studies by Kate T. Steinitz have appeared in the Art Quarterly, Spring 1953, and in the Communications du Congrès du Val de Loire 1953 (Bibliography, List A3).

  20. Raphael Trichet du Fresne, Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci (Bibliography, List A2). Poussin's criticism in a letter to the engraver Abraham Bosse, published in Nicolas Poussin, Correspondance, Paris 1911, pp. 420-421. Concerning Poussin's illustrations, cf. Hautecoeur, Bulletin d'histoire de l'art Français, 1913 (Bibliography, List A2). F. S. Bassoli in “Racc. Vinciana,” XVII, 1954, pp. 157ff.

  21. Bibliography, List A2.

  22. Trattato della Pittura … di Stefano della Bella (Bibliography, List A2).

  23. Enrico Carusi, op.cit., Amelia Clelia Pierantoni, op.cit. (Bibliography, List A3).

  24. A. C. Pierantoni, op.cit., gives the number of texts which belong to Leonardo's preparatory studies for the Treatise on Painting. Also in Richter, op.cit., I, 112 and in McCurdy, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, 1938, Vol. II, Ch. 28-34 (Bibliography, List D) a great deal of material is brought together from the original manuscripts, some of which is not to be found in the Codex Urbinas. Recently C. Gould in The Burlington Magazine, 1947, pp. 239ff. for the first time deciphers the notes on the drawing from the collection at Windsor (W. 12412) which give a fascinating description of the beds of rivers seen through the water, and which were undoubtedly also intended for the Treatise.

    In addition to these meticulous works of scholarship, the task still remains of excerpting systematically Leonardo's original manuscripts for the purpose of bringing together a complete collection which would include every passage referring to the Treatise on Painting. This fatiguing work has to be done in the same way as the stupendous corpus of Leonardo's studies on mechanics by Arturo Uccelli, Leonardo da Vinci, I libri de meccanica, and the no less admirable corpus of Leonardo's studies on flight by Giacomelli, Gli scritti di Leonardo da Vinci sul volo (Bibliography, List C1).

    Since 1919 the project of a complete edition of Leonardo's studies for the Treatise on Painting has occupied the minds of scholars internationally; many plans have been announced, but the work has not yet begun. There was hope that it might have been started in the Quincentennial year 1952. Cf. Per il quarto Centenario della morte di Leonardo da Vinci, and L. H. Heydenreich in Rinascita, pp. 161ff. (Bibliography, List A3), and Kunstchronik IV (1951), pp. 255ff.

  25. Dell'Anatomia Fogli A 10. “Arrange it so that the book of the elements of mechanics, with examples, shall precede the demonstration of the movement and force of man and of other animals, and by means of these you will be able to prove all your propositions.” Quaderni d'Anatomia, I.i “On machines. Why nature cannot give the power of movement to animals without mechanical instruments, as is shown by me in this book on the works of movement which nature has created in the animals. And for this reason I have drawn up the rules of the four powers of nature without which nothing through her can give local movement to these animals” (i.e., movement, weight, force, and percussion). Cf. furthermore the notes on Ms.E. 19v and 20 (McCurdy I, 194ff.).

  26. Cod. Atl. 181. r.a.

  27. McM. 427.

  28. Cf. L. H. Heydenreich, “Quellenkritische Untersuchungen,” Leonardo Malereitraktat, in Kunstchronik, IV (1951), pp. 255ff.

  29. Luca Pacioli, De Divina Proportione, editio princeps, 1509 and 1896, II, 33 (Bibliography, List E2).

  30. Benvenuto Cellini, I Trattati dell'oreficia, 1857, De L'Architettura, pp. 225ff. (Bibliography, List A3).

  31. Giorgio Vasari, Le vite …, Florence 1568 (Bibliography, List E2), here quoted from the English translation in Leonardo da Vinci, Phaidon Press, Oxford and London, 1945, p. 10.

  32. G. P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell'Arte de la Pittura, Milan 1584 (Bibliography, List E2) here quoted from Luca Beltrami, op.cit. Document 263: 25 (Bibliography, List Ei).

  33. Cf. note 53.

  34. For this date cf. Richter, op.cit., 1, 108.

  35. Erwin Panofsky, The Codex Huygens, London 1940 (Bibliography, List B2 Proportion).

  36. The Codex Huygens was compiled before 1570, the year of Melzi's death, after which the rapid dispersal of Leonardo's manuscripts made the compiling of such a work impossible. Cellini's manuscript, bought in 1541, must of course have been written before that date. The copies of Wenzel Hollar, the drawings of the Codex Vallardi, reproduced in Panofsky, The Codex Huygens, fig. 108, and finally the existence of hundreds of single copies, not only from artistic but from scientific drawings (cf. Heydenreich, I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci nella Galleria dell'Accademia di Venezia, Folio, Florence 1949) prove that Leonardo's manuscripts were fairly well known in the sixteenth century. A systematic study of the various groups of copies after Leonardo would give us valuable information about the interest which Leonardo attracted in the Cinquecento both as artist and as scientist. In the seventeenth century the study of Leonardo is very obvious, as the various compilations of his Treatise on Painting, of his studies on water, and of the other aspects of his scientific work amply prove.

  37. For Leonardo's studies of perspective, most of which are collected in Richter, op.cit., 1, cf. Panofsky, Perspektive als Symbolische Form, 1927, pp. 258ff. especially pp. 287 and 324: idem, Dürer's Kunsttheorie, vornehmlich in ihrem Verhaeltnis zu den Italienern, Berlin 1915 (passim); idem, Codex Huygens, pp. 90ff.; W. M. Ivins, Jr., On Rationalization of Sight, 1938; and John White, “Developments in Renaissance Perspective” 1949-1951, p. 40 (Bibliography, List B2 Perspective).

  38. I suppose that the manuscript presented to Vasari was the same as that mentioned later by Lomazzo. Probably it was also the Ms. 2038 in Paris.

  39. Cf. McM. 19, 51, and passim.

  40. Quotations from the Book on Perspective in the Codex Urbinas text: McM. 174, 195, 524, 966, 1006, 1007. From the Book on Light and Shade: McM. 435, 478, 617, 630, 710. From the Book on Movement, McM. 312, 331, 394.

  41. “Figure” means every object: “situation” means locale (i.e. the relation of the object to space and time).

  42. Cennino Cennini, Libro dell'Arte, editio Milanesi, Florence, Le Monnier 1859 (English translation by Christiana Herringham, London, 1899). Leone Battista Alberti, De Pittura libri II (written in 1435) editio princeps, Basel 1540; first critical modern edition: H. Janitschek, L. B. Alberti, Kleinere kunsttheoretische Schriften, Vienna 1877 (Bibliography, List A3). A good modern edition by L. Malli, Florence 1950. Antonio Filarete, De Architettura libri XXV (written between 1451 and 1461). There is no printed edition, although an incomplete version was done by W. von Oettingen, Antonio Averlino Filarete's Tractat ueber die Baukunst nebst seinen Buechern ueber die Zeichenkunst, Quellenschriften N.F. III, Vienna 1896. Piero della Francesca, De Prospectiva Pinghiendi (written about 1485), first edition by C. Winterberg, Strassburg 1899, and recently a new and good edition, presented by Giusta Nicco Fasola in Raccolta di Fonti per la Storia dell'Arte, V, Florence 1942 (Bibliography, List A3). For all four treatises, see the historical and critical statements in Schlosser, op.cit.

    Cennini and Filarete are not especially mentioned in Leonardo's manuscripts. Concerning his acquaintance with the books of Alberti and Piero della Francesca, see notes 45 and 47.

  43. Books XXII-XXIV of Filarete's Treatise on Architecture are dedicated to the art of drawing and painting, with many technical remarks taken from Cennini.

  44. Among the architectural drawings of Leonardo there are some which have reference to illustrations found in Filarete's treatise. See L. H. Heydenreich, Die Sakralbau-Studien Leonardo da Vinci, Leipzig 1929.

  45. Alberti is often quoted and enthusiastically praised by Filarete. His book on painting furnished the basis for Filarete's treatment in Arte del disegno.

  46. See the splendid essay by Sir Kenneth Clark, Leone Battista Alberti on Painting, Annual Italian Lecture of the British Academy, 1944 (Bibliography, List A3). Alberti is twice mentioned by Leonardo, in connection with the speed of ships (Ms.F, folio 82 and Ms.G, folio 54. McCurdy, I, 561, and II, 170).

  47. The name Piero della Francesca “Maestro de Borgo” is written by Leonardo in a list among his personal records in the Codex Br.M., folio 190v (McCurdy, II, 588). We find the name of Luca Pacioli on another sheet (Codex Atl. 120. McCurdy II, 583), where Leonardo writes: “Learn how to multiply roots from Messer Luca.” Luca Pacioli, who eulogizes Leonardo in the dedication to Lodovico Sforza in his Divina Proportione, op.cit. (cf. note 29), left Milan together with Leonardo in 1499. Both went to Venice where Leonardo drew the figures of the five regular bodies for Pacioli's De Cinque Corporibus Regolaris. On the collaboration between Pacioli and Leonardo, see Schlosser, op.cit., and L. Olschki, Geschichte der neusprachlichen wissenschaftlichen Literatur in Italien, Heidelberg 1919, pp. 151ff. (Bibliography, List B3 Other Sciences.)

  48. The exact terms used by Alberti, Filarete, and Piero are: Alberti “circonscrizione, componimento, ricevimento dei lumi”; Filarete “disegno stati e movimenti, luce e colore”; Piero “disegno, commensuratio, colorare.”

  49. Cf. Panofsky's concise exposition of the development from the practical instruction in the medieval treatises to the focusing on the theory of art in the Renaissance treatises, and the significance of perspective (Codex Huygens, op.cit., pp. 90ff.).

  50. In the disposition of the geometrical constructions (“linea superfici piani—superfici composti,” i.e. corpi) we find one of the first allusions to this tripartition. Later, in the same book, Alberti speaks of the three “cose mediante le quali li superfici appariscono a chi le reguarda disforme e varie: la positione del ragio centrico, la distanza del radio centrico ed il ricevimento dei lumi.”

  51. A systematic study of the reciprocal relationships among the main treatises of the Renaissance and their influence on Leonardo is in preparation.

  52. Quaderni d'Anatomia, II, 6, and Treatise, McM. 178.

  53. The notes made by Leonardo on the Treatise on Painting are spread over most of his manuscripts, and all of them can be dated fairly exactly. To help in fixing the dates of those single texts incorporated in the Codex Urbinas which can be identified in Leonardo's original manuscripts, note this outline of chronological order:

    1490-1500: Mss. A, B, C, D, H, I. Ashburnham 2037, 2038; SKM II, III; also Anatomia Fogli B, Codex Trivulzio .

    1500-1513; Mss. L (1502), K (1504-09), Codex Leicester (1504-10), SKM I (1505), F and Codex Br.M. (1508-13), Anatomia Fogli A (1510-13).

    1513-1517: Mss. E, G, Quaderni d'Anatomia III, IV.

    In the Codex Urbinas these original texts are distributed among the eight parts as follows:

    Part I: Ms. Ashburnham 2038 and Quaderni d'Anatomia IV.

    Part II: Codex Trivulzio, Ms. Ashburnham 2038, Mss. L, F, E, G.

    Part III: Mss. A, H, E, G, L, Codex Leicester.

    Part IV: Ms. Ashburnham I, 2037.

    Part V: Mss. C, K, E, G, F. Codex Br.M.

    Part VI: Mss. E, F, G.

    Part VII: Mss. SKM II, Codex Br.M.

    In addition, there are many texts taken from the Codex Atlanticus, an intermingling of texts from 1480-1519, so that the single notes should be dated individually in relation to the text involved.

  54. Cf. L. H. Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, New York, 1953, pp. 136ff., 151-154; Giacomelli, op.cit.

  55. Cf. L. H. Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, New York, 1953, pp. 120, 150.

  56. The material compiled in the Codex Urbinas is full of repetitions both in the main themes, and in the various ideas expressed in them. There is no doubt that Leonardo intended to give final shape to his Paragone, with much reduction in quantity and with a clearer and much more carefully selected argumentation.

  57. There are many clearly apparent indications but no documentary evidence for this hypothesis. Authorities, from Winterberg to Olschki, Schlosser, and even G. Nicco Fasola have noted that “Luca Pacioli mentioned that Leonardo, after having seen Piero's treatise, abandoned work on his book on the same theme.” Yet no direct mention of this is to be found in the works of Luca Pacioli, either in Divina Proportione, or in De Cinque Corporibus Regolaris. The vague statement was first made by Winterberg in his introduction to his edition of Piero's work, where he may have remembered wrongly some passage in Luca's Divina Proportione, which he had edited a decade earlier.

  58. See note 74.

  59. Cf. Volume II, Introductory Note.

  60. The interdependence of the artistic and scientific elements in his anatomical studies is indicated by Leonardo da Vinci himself in some notes, e.g. “This demonstration is as necessary for good draughtsmen as the derivation from Latin words is to good grammarians; for anyone must needs depict the movements and actions of the muscles and figures badly, unless he knows which are the muscles that are the cause of these movements.” (Anatomia Fogli B 4v) and: “Different muscles become apparent in the different movements of animals, and other muscles become hidden in this diversity of movement; and concerning this it is necessary to write a long treatise for the purpose of recognizing the places that have been injured by wounds and also for the convenience of sculptors and painters.” (ibid., 20). Cf. S. Esche, Das anatomische Werk Leonardos, Basel, 1954.

    The twofold orientation of Leonardo's study of anatomy is also documented by drawings such as Windsor 12640, where Leonardo, while making a preliminary sketch for his painting on the Battle of Anghiari, becomes inspired by an anatomical problem, and in the accompanying notes describes the functioning of the shoulder muscles in an almost scientific way. Leonardo's tendency to stylize his drawings for his own specific purposes often makes them almost impossible to classify as either completely artistic or scientific.

  61. Cf. Richter, op.cit., I, 243ff.

  62. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, p. 106.

  63. Leonardo's theory on human movements is analyzed and characterized by Panofsky, Codex Huygens, pp. 122ff. with special reference to its influence on Dürer on the one hand, and on the other to its manneristic extension by Lomazzo.

  64. McCurdy, op.cit., II, 227ff.; Richter, op.cit., I, passim.

  65. McM. 552 and 280-281.

  66. The group of maps, some allegorical drawings, and a drawing of a countryhouse, all in Windsor Castle. See Kenneth Clark, Catalogue of the Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci at Windsor Castle, London 1939 (Bibliography, List E4).

  67. Cf. Schlosser, op.cit., pp. 150-163.

  68. Codex Atlanticus, 203r. The passage is taken almost literally from John Peckham's Perspectiva Communis of the thirteenth century. See Solmi, Leonardo da Vinci, Frammenti Letterari, Florence 1908, pp. 91 and 407, note 101 (Bibliography, List D).

  69. Leonardo's texts for more than half of the chapters found in the Codex Urbinas concerning the Paragone are lost, and only a small group is to be found in the Ms. Ashburnham 2038 (written between 1490 and 1495). We must take into consideration that Leonardo's opposition to poetry was directed, and for very good reasons, against the very mediocre poetry produced by the court poets of his time. Furthermore, it is important also to take into consideration the fact that he takes issue only with the content, and never with the form, of poetry.

  70. Cf. Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, 1953, pp. 157ff.

  71. Other quotations: Part II: McM. 148, 221, 226, 244; Part III: McM. 507, 523; Part IV: McM. 578, 579, 741; Part V: McM. 675ff., 824, 955 and passim; Part VI: McM. 935, 936, 952, 960.

  72. Schlosser, Materialen zur Quellenkunde der Kunstgeschichte, p. 163.

  73. Cf. McM. 528 and 822; Ms.E. folio 15v, 16r. (McCurdy, op.cit., II, 372.)

  74. Cf. Schlosser, op.cit., p. 159. In the technique of colors, Leonardo was too great an experimenter, particularly concerning painting on walls—and with negative results, as the fate of his pictures demonstrates. So his experience in this field was not as good as he himself may have felt it to be.

  75. Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, 1953, pp. 103ff.

  76. Cf. Dell'Anatomia A, folio 10. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, passim.

  77. Cf. McM. 211, for the use of the mirror as an instrument of technical control.

  78. Cf. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, pp. 110-111.

  79. Piero's drawings are now available in the new edition of his work by G. Nicco Fasola, op.cit. where they are completely reproduced.

  80. Compare Villard de Honnecourt's examples, particularly on folio 18-19 (H. R. Hahnloser, Villard de Honnecourt, Vienna 1935).

  81. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, pp. 122ff.

  82. Cf. Quaderni d'Anatomia II, f.6.

  83. Compare the absolute contrast between the way Cennini recommends painting a mountain using a stone as a model, with Leonardo's drawing of a rock which, with its traces of erosion, represents the structure of a whole mountain.

  84. Cf. Heydenreich, op.cit., Chapter Kosmologie.

Augusto Marinoni (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5493

SOURCE: “Leonardo as a Writer,” in Leonardo's Legacy: An International Symposium, edited by C. D. O'Malley, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 57-66.

[In the essay that follows, Marinoni traces the critical opinion of Leonardo's literary work from the disdain it garnered from early scholars to the “mythological” image of Leonardo established by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics.]

The fame of Leonardo as a writer—if we can speak of real fame—remained for some centuries limited to the Treatise on Painting, which was in great demand and deeply appreciated by the artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A medal struck about the middle of the eighteenth century can be considered a symbol and synthesis of this fame; it bears Leonardo's head on the obverse and a crown, a pen, and the words scribit quam suscitat artem on the reverse. This means that Leonardo was considered as great a writer and theorist on art as he was an artist. Yet when real men of letters, not artists, set about examining Leonardo's original writings with the intention of publishing them, their disappointment was keen. At first Ludovico Antonio Muratori and Antonio David, and later the professors of the University of Pavia, after examining Leonardo's papers, expressed their dismay at that chaotic mass of fragmentary notes which they judged absolutely unfit for publication. Antonio David, though convinced that Leonardo had written books and treatises, refused to identify them with those manuscripts. Muratori declared them “a barren field.” Apart from the wonderful drawings, he considered the notes to be too few and, besides, not sufficiently explanatory. Later on, Padre Fontana, in his unfavorable report on Leonardo's writings, complained again of the lack of proof. In other words, if language is an instrument of communication, it cannot be said that Leonardo's language is so, according to Fontana, because it fails to communicate the author's thought. And this seems to be a completely negative judgment.

In the nineteenth century Venturi, Bossi, Manzi, Libri, and others showed greater confidence and even enthusiasm, but for the novelty of Leonardo's scientific thought more than his literary expression. Only in our century has Leonardo been held in increasing esteem as a writer, after the great romantic revolution had destroyed many formal prejudices and had predisposed men's minds to accept even a splintered and fragmentary work. The situation has even been reversed at times, because at the very point where Leonardo's expression fails to communicate his thought many have yielded to the fascination of the riddle and abandoned themselves to the most arbitrary conjectures.

The generation that lived in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth bequeathed us a mythological image of Leonardo. Both the enthusiasm aroused by the discovery of the manuscripts, which had lain hidden and unpublished for so many centuries, and the ignorance of the actual state of medieval scientific thought contributed to the creation of this image. A deeper knowledge of the cultural environment in which Leonardo lived and worked, together with a deeper and more analytical scrutiny of the actual contents of Leonardo's writings, has brought about a revision of that myth. This revision, instead of destroying Leonardo's greatness, has freed it from many ridiculous misconceptions. If it is true, as Leonardo says, that love derives from knowledge, we think we love Leonardo more than he was loved by his blind admirers of the past, especially because, having a deeper knowledge of the man and his limits, we can base our admiration on surer foundations. Even from the literary point of view, Leonardo as a writer has been judged in different ways; some critics maintain he was the founder of Italian scientific prose, while others deny this. Some are inclined to consider him one of the greatest Italian writers, while others put him among the minor ones. I think it is possible to clear up this problem by carrying out an analytical examination of Leonardo's style.

We may consider as a starting point for our research the Codex B, which is the oldest of Leonardo's Codici that can be dated. In this Leonardo piles up, without any order, drawings of arms, machines, fortifications, civil and sacred buildings, accompanied by some short explanations and others less short; or he transcribes, with a summary, certain passages from the De Re Militari of Valturio. In all these writings there are very scanty traces of an attempt at style, of any particular attention to rhythm, to the sound of words, to their position in the sentence, or even to the syntactical structure of the period. The practical and utilitarian purpose of this type of writing, which aims at fixing rules and standards for the activity of an artist, only requires brevity and conciseness, and not always clarity since it is not intended for the common reader. The more usual form of expression is the independent clause, which is as simple as possible: “Il pié dalla punta al calcagno, entra due volte”; “A la Fama si de' dipigniere tutta la persona. …” The verb often has the peremptory form of the imperative or of the commanding future. The main clause is often connected with a subordinate conditional one which expresses the circumstance in which one must execute the order given. And this is precisely one of the most frequent syntagma used. (See fol. 17v, for example, for the five notes on the way to prune or grow trees; four notes out of five are written according to the pattern of the hypothetical period.) There is a prevalence of simple propositions, sometimes accompanied by one subordinate proposition. Generally no care has been taken to compose these simple periods into a harmonic whole. When the speech exceeds the usual limits of brevity, Leonardo does not think of varying the phrasing in order to avoid monotony, but, following the rhythm of oral speech, directed to a practical end, he links one proposition to the other with a sequence of “ands.” (See fol. 37r, for example, and the description of a cannonball.) We can say that the typical phrasing of Leonardo in this sort of writing is generally linear, but disharmonious, that is, it is made up of one or more straight segments, one after the other, which do not join together so as to form any design. The extremely simple vocabulary, too, is made up of the usual names of the objects described and of their parts, a language that, unaided by the imagination, remains purely technical. It is used by a craftsman who is writing for himself what are absolutely private notes.

Yet there are at least two points where Leonardo's words have an unusual depth and energy. In folio 4r he fights against the belief in spiriti or ghosts, and he sums up in a few lines a speech that will be developed more fully in another paper. Here we can trace unusual stylistic care. The sentences are simple and short, of the usual rectilinear type. Yet they are repeated three times, identical at the beginning and varied at the end, with a concentration of energy that shows itself in the rapid conclusion: “non pò essere voce dove non è movimento e percussione d'aria; non pò essere percussione d'aria dove non è strumento, non pò essere strumento incorporeo. Essendo così, uno spirito non pò avere né forma, né forza; e se piglierà corpo, non potrà penetrare né entrare dove li usci sono serrati.” In this way the few uniform sentences have a unitary rhythmic and musical structure, which derives from insistent repetition and from parallelism of the opposed parts. Instead of developing the thread of his thought on a wide canvas with subtle and progressive argumentations Leonardo arrives at a vigorous and definite conclusion immediately. But, to tell the truth, he does nothing but fix the most important subjects of a theme which he intends to develop more widely. Therefore even here he is writing for himself.

The second point concerns one of the deepest themes of Leonardo's cosmology: the definition of Force. The definition is so solemn as to require the use of latinizing forms: “Forza dico essere una potenza spirituale incorporea e invisible, la quale con breve vita si causa in quelli corpi che per accidentale violenza stanno fori di loro naturale essere e riposo.” The same concepts are developed in the Codex Atlanticus (fol. 302v, b) in a still more interesting page. Force is defined in a series of bare sentences grammatically detached, yet connected by so insistent a rhythm as to transform them into a kind of biblical hymn, almost like the verses of a psalm. “Tardità la fa grande e prestezza la fa debole.—Vive per violenza e more per libertà.—Trasmuta e costrigne ogni corpo a mutazione di sito e di forma.—Gran potenza le dà desiderio di morte.—Scaccia con furia ciò che s'oppone a sua ruina.—Trasmutatrice di varie forme.—Sempre vive con disagio di chi la tiene.—Sempre si contrapone ai naturali desideri.—Da piccola con tardità s'amplifica, e fassi d'una orrible e maravigliosa potenza.—E costrignendo se stessa ogni cosa costrigne.” It is not a logical discourse, but the enunciation of experimental facts that have, however, the solemnity of an epic poem and the strength of dogmatic truths. The impression is one, not of scientific prose, but of a sudden lyrical outburst.

In many pages of the Codex B Leonardo transcribes or summarizes certain parts of the De Re Militari of Valturio, which he read in Ramusio's bad translation. The quickening spirit of this book is clearly humanistic. Though the author intends to turn the military experience of the ancients to his contemporaries' advantage, the admiration and love for the classical world is so striking as to take the reader back through the centuries, as if the world had stopped its course in that age. In every line the author talks of ancient writers and figures as if they were alive: Quintilian, Caesar, Vitruvius, Plutarch, Xenophon, and even the smallest facts concerning their lives and sayings are mentioned with eager curiosity. Leonardo read the book from a different point of view. In his letter to Ludovico il Moro he said he knew every aspect of military engineering, both on land and sea. Each paragraph in that letter corresponds to parts or chapters of the De Re Militari, and this may be sufficient to demonstrate with what deep interest Leonardo consulted that book. When Valturio speaks of a weapon he dwells on the etymology of its name, on the passages of the authors who give us information about it, on when and how it was invented, but he fails to describe the weapon itself in detail. On the contrary, Leonardo's first concern is to make a drawing of it, so taking the first step toward its concrete realization. Yet the immense humanistic vitality of that book is not completely lost. In no other manuscript of Leonardo do we find the quotations from ancient authors so numerous and so detailed; which leads us to suspect that at least for once Leonardo wanted to try the method of contemporary men of letters and “allegare gli altori” or adorn himself with other men's labors.

But Leonardo must have found the reading of this book difficult. The language in which it is written, though similar to that used by many translators in North Italy of that time, must certainly have appeared ugly and abstruse to a Tuscan with a scanty knowledge of Latin since it is a mixture of Latin, Tuscan, and northern words, without any rigid syntactical order. He must have found many words either completely new or unusual by virtue of their particular meanings and spelling. Leonardo already had the intention of becoming a writer himself, and, while reading that book, he must have realized the insufficiency of his own vocabulary, rich in technical words but poor in those abstract ones that all writers with a deep knowledge of Latin were continually transferring from the ancient language of Rome to their own vulgar tongue, so enriching and ennobling it. Leonardo thought it possible to obtain directly from these books, translated from the Latin, that lexical wealth which others were able to draw directly from the Latin language. And he began transcribing from these books thousands and thousands of words, which were in those days called vocaboli latini and which are Latinisms. The technical terminology that he had learned in the artisan shops was rich but tied to the everyday things. The vocaboli latini that Leonardo learned to “derive,” as he called it, were more flexible and more suited to the expression of ideas and sentiments, that is to say, the objects of thought. A few years later he attempted a more radical solution of the problem, studying Latin directly from Perotti's grammer. He filled several pages of the Codices H and I with verbal conjugations, declensions, and syntactical schemes. But this attempt, which was soon interrupted, did not have any visible results.

The Codex Trivulziano, in which Leonardo made copious lists of about nine thousand vocaboli latini, was written a short time after the Codex B and shares a common characteristic: it contains a confused mass of personal notes, devoid of any literary value. Yet on folio 6r it gives us a famous evocative and enigmatic passage: “Muovesi l'amante per la cos'amata come il senso e la sensible e con seco s'unisce e fassi una cosa medesima.—L'opera è la prima cosa che nasce dell'unione.—Se la cosa amata è vile, l'amante si fa vile.—Quando la cosa unita è conveniente al suo unitore, li seguita dilettazione e piacere e sadisfazione.—Quando l'amante è giunto all'amato, lì si riposa.—Quando il peso è posato, lì si riposa.—La cosa cogniusciuta col nostro intelletto.” The meaning of these seven propositions is not immediately clear. They are preceded by three words, which probably belong to this passage: “Sugietto colla forma.” I think that the whole passage deals with the Aristotelian relationship between substance and form, that is, between power and act, from which motion derives. But it also deals with the Neoplatonic concept of “appetite,” which, said Ficino, is an “inclinatio ab indigentia quadam adnitens ad plenitudinem.” The appetite which drives the lover toward his beloved and the heavy object to come to rest is the same as that which drives the mind toward the joyful completeness of knowledge. This theory of ours has been formulated because we consider it to be implicit in the seven sentences of Leonardo; it is a theory that, were it actually developed by Leonardo, would involve the reader in the coils of his dialectics. But Leonardo, who is only speaking for himself, is not concerned with clearing up logical connections: he is only enunciating certain transparent truths with linear and parallel statements. But the parallelism and the symmetry of each part constitute a rhythmic, resonant, and musical link. Three consecutive sentences begin with the same word “when”; two end in the same way, with an undulating movement; and at once a sudden inversion of rhythm indicates that the conclusion has been reached. The dynamic contents are fixed and almost frozen in the rigid and categorical formulation of scientific laws.

Our mind turns at once to another passage, which in a very few lines would seem to sum up an immense speech: “De Anima. Il moto della terra contro alla terra ricalcando quella, poco si move le parte percosse. L'acqua percossa dall'acqua fa circuli dintorno al loco percosso. Per lunga distanza la voce infra l'aria. Più lunga infra'l foco. Più la mente infra l'universo. Ma perché l'è finita non s'astende infra lo'nfinito” (MS H, fol. 67r). A philosopher, who died a short time ago, expressed his disappointment and perplexity on reading this note, which promises to deal with the soul but instead talks about physical tremors that shake the earth, move water, air, and fire, while the mind is at the same time taking in the whole of infinite space.

But Leonardo is perfectly consistent with his logical principles. He avoids all metaphysical discussion. It is not possible to give a definition of the elements; only their effects are known. And since the soul (or mind) is made up of the fifth element, it is compared with the other four and included in a scale that goes from the most solid and inert to the most mobile and ethereal. From this very simple comparison the nature of the soul can be clearly seen as pure activity, energy, and very rapid and unseizable motion. Here, too, Leonardo's real aims are implicit. If he were speaking to a reader, Leonardo would be more diffuse; but speaking to himself, he limits himself to registering certain indisputable physical phenomena, and says nothing about the deductions he wishes to draw from them. Yet the direction of his concealed thought, which hides itself behind these simple aspects of the natural world, is revealed by the rhythm of the sentences, which gets gradually faster to the point where it relaxes and finds its rest in the final conclusion.

So far we have examined how Leonardo put down on paper personal notes, which were not intended for a reader, notes which range from the most disordered and hurried to the deepest and most intense. They have a characteristic in common: the brief, concise, linear sentence, like the segment of a straight line. When the thought broadens out and is more deeply felt, these rectilinear sentences are set out parallel to each other, and join together to form one rhythmical, unitary group, charged with compressed energy. Their structure is no longer that of a continuous, logical discussion, but the musical structure of a poetic creation. However, even in Leonardo's manuscripts there are many pages that were evidently written for a reader to come. He decided to write several treatises on painting, on water, on anatomy, which unfortunately he was never able to finish. The Codex A, which was written a short time after the Codex B and Trivulziano, contains many passages of the Treatise on Painting. Many of them are bare rules for the painter, but many set out the reasons for those rules. Here Leonardo talks with his reader-pupil, without the strong conciseness of scientific definitions, and without the carelessness of hurried notes, but with an average tension, which neither avoids the anacoluthons of everyday speech nor leaves out those contemplative pauses when he dwells upon the most suggestive aspects of beauty. At those moments the rhythm of the word acquires a particular purity, which accompanies the trepidation of the soul. The words join together in uniform, rhythmical entities, which often coincide with lines from the Italian poetical tradition. “Poni mente per le strade,—sul fare della sera,—i volti d'omini e donne,—quando è cattivo tempo,—Quanta grazia e dolcezza—si vede in loro!”

Afterward, too, Leonardo happens to insert verse into his prose unconsciously. Some passages begin and end with resonant hendecasyllables. When in a moment of fervid enthusiasm he sees—unfortunately only with his imagination—the first aeroplane built by him rise and fly like a big bird from a hill in Florence, he expresses his joy in a series of hendecasyllables, “Piglierà il primo volo il grande uccello sopra del dosso del suo magno Cecero, empiendo l'universo di stupore, empiendo di sua fama tutte le scritture, e gloria eterna al nido dove nacque.”

The Codex C has a particular interest for us. The perfection of its drawings and the care of the writing are certain proof that Leonardo intended to present his notebook to an important reader. Here the literary form must have received special attention, and it probably represents Leonardo's ideal at that moment. In fact we can see that all traces of hurry and improvisation have disappeared, and the style reveals a sustained confidence, which can only be seen at intervals in the preceding manuscripts. A peculiarity that strikes the reader is the frequent use of indirect constructions, which were adopted chiefly by Latin scholars. To give only a few examples, instead of writing “la quale fia causata dal lume più alto che largo,” Leonardo writes “la qual dal lume più alto che largo causato fia;” instead of “del corpo ombroso piramidale posto contro a sè,” he writes “del contr'a sé posto piramidal corpo ombroso.” The affectation of putting the adjective before the noun is frequently repeated even in those cases where common usage prescribes the contrary. Consider also the use of latinizing words: propinquo instead of vicino, circundare instead of circondare, conducere instead of condurre, etc. The use of these latinizing devices reveals Leonardo's purpose: he wants to attain to a nobler and more dignified style by slackening the rhythm. In fact the rhythm is no longer rapid and broken, as it is in the passages we have already examined, but calm, solemn, and above all “legato.” This term is used deliberately in its musical sense because we can clearly see Leonardo's predilection for a particular type of melody: “la piramidal pura ombra dirivative,” “Quel corpo parrà più splendido, il quale da più oscure tenebre circundato fia.” The syntax of the periods remains extremely simple, but the modulation of the sentences, prolonged and amplified, takes on a sense of grandeur. The language is also ennobled by coupling the nouns with particular adjectives: “le usate tenebre,” “le ombrose cose,” “la pupilla tenebrata,” “lo sopravenente splendore.” Adjective and noun are musically joined in one ample modulation which echoes the sonorous sound of the great poetry of the fourteenth century. His long practice in the choice and derivation of words from the books of men of letters had certainly helped him in refining his language, which has now become nobler and more sensitive.

If in these passages of the Codex C Leonardo enlarges and ennobles his sentences with various devices, yet still retaining a very simple syntax, in the Fables, on the other hand, he makes strenuous efforts to abandon the linear form and to arrive at that complex articulation of periods which is obtained by employing many subordinate propositions, hierarchically arranged (according to their importance) around the main proposition. By adopting this structure writers such as Boccaccio and, later on, Bembo established the so-called round period. Yet in Leonardo's Fables we see a great number of subordinate propositions, but not the “round period.” In fact these subordinate propositions are mostly of the same degree and of a simple type. The verb has the gerund form or is a past participle, and the propositions are joined together as if they were co-ordinate clauses. Consequently the structure of the sentences remains linear (for example: “Il misero salice trovandosi … e raccolti … apre; … e stando … e ricercando … stando … corse; … e crollato … parendoli … e fatto … rizzò”). We can conclude, therefore, that Leonardo's effort to arrive at more dignified literary forms is restricted to the simple proposition and is never realized within the complex structure of the period.

It is well known how writers at the time of the Renaissance were led by preference to use certain literary forms when expounding a scientific subject, forms such as the Treatise, the Discourse, the Dialogue, the Epistle. It is very interesting to notice how Leonardo tried to use each of these forms. Besides the Treatise, for which it is not necessary to give any examples, as far as the Dialogue is concerned, I shall merely quote the famous passage in which two interlocutors expound in turn the arguments “for” and “against” (pro and contra) natural law, according to which men unconsciously long for death (C. Ar. [Codex Arundel], fol. 156v). As for the Epistle, we all remember the fanciful ones addressed to Benedetto Dei and to the Diodario di Soria in which he describes fabulous lands and monsters he has discovered—through his imagination. And by analogy we cannot but remember the Letters in which, some years later, Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci described their wonderful discoveries in the New World. As for the Discourse, the examples are numerous, and it will be enough to remember those written against the “Abbreviatori,” against the “Negromante” and the “Alchimista.”

All we have said so far confirms the intention of the omo sanza lettere to devote himself to a vast literary activity. He tried to enrich his language with a mass of learned words taken from books. He tried without any great success to learn Latin. He introduced into his style some of the devices frequently used by the men of letters of his day. He experimented with almost every type of literary production then in fashion. But it is evident that these attempts were not made according to any organic plan or firm decision. His literary projects had ripened in Milan, at the court of Ludovico il Moro. After the fall of the duke the environment in which Leonardo had cherished his projects changed greatly. He began to live an unsettled way of life, frequently moving from one prince to another. Besides, the more he devoted himself to the study of nature, the more the matter of his observation grew in volume, and consequently the length of his treatises. He continued to collect thousands of preparatory notes, but, perhaps unconsciously, he gave up writing his book, whatever book it was to have been, and even the idea of a complete series of chapters. Neither his exacting nature nor the adverse events of his life can give a sufficient explanation of this renunciation. The real reasons are the very ones that establish his position in the history of science. J. H. Randall so sums them up: “Science is not oracular utterances, however well phrased: it is not bright ideas jotted down in a notebook. Science is systematic and methodical thought” and Leonardo “has no interest in working out any systematic body of knowledge.” The real reasons derive from his cultural formation. In the artisan shops he learned, together with manual skill, the cult of experimental research, and he sharpened his spirit of observation. He realized, and openly declared, that the progress of science could not be guaranteed without the experimental method, and, polemicizing with men of letters and philosophers, he asserted the superiority of the painter above all other artists and scientists. He thought that his anatomical drawings not only surpassed but could eliminate and take the place of any treatise. He was convinced that it was not permitted for man to discover the nature of the soul or of the natural elements, but only to describe their behavior and mode of functioning in the physical world. But the men of letters and philosophers, whom he opposed and despised, knew how to set up and bring to an end a discussion, and how to write a book—something that Leonardo appears never to have learned.

In the Treatise on Painting Leonardo exhorts: “Se vuoi aver vera notizia delle forme delle cose, comincierai dalle particole di quelle, e non andare alla seconda, se prima non hai bene nella memoria e nella pratica la prima” (fol. 47). Even when writing he always composed the particole, the very small parts of his books, going over them again and again, always unsatisfied and incapable of ever putting them together. He thought of his books as of his final aim, but meanwhile he wrote only for himself, even neglecting certain attentions to style which we saw in the Codex C. It is significant that certain latinizing forms (such as the verb placed at the end of the sentence) are very frequent in the last ten years of the fifteenth century, but are very rare and almost disappear in the later manuscripts (G, E). This habit of writing “by particles” certainly influenced Leonardo's style. Think, for instance, of the famous description of the Deluge, which is rich in splendid details, but without any central core, and not conceived as a whole, but developed only within short, interchangeable periods. This is a characteristic of a great number of Leonardo's pages, where the propositions, even in the longest periods, follow one another, but are not strongly linked together.

Nevertheless, his style has become much more refined in comparison with the Codex B and Trivulziano. He still piles up series of short, linear, parallel sentences, but sometimes he is able to link them together with a very lively rhythmic cadence, as when he describes the aspects of water, where his style reproduces the extremely changeable forms of water. “Questa l'alte cime de' monti consuma. Questa i gran sassi discalza e remove. … Questa l'alte ripe conquassa e ruina … salutifera, dannosa, solutiva, stitia, sulfurea, salsa, sanguigna, malinconica, frematica, collerica, rossa, gialla, verde, nera, azzurra, untuosa, grassa, magra. Quando apprende il foco, quando lo spegne … quando con gran diluvi le amplie valli sommerge” (C. Ar., fol. 57r). Even simple lists of titles appear musically linked, as in the “Partizioni” of the Deluge: “Tenebre, vento, fortuna di mare, diluvio d'acque, selve infocate, piogge, saette dal cielo. … Rami stracciati da' venti, misti col corso de' venti, con gente di sopra. …” The adjectives have become richer and more sensitive, and the phrasing solemn due to the nobility of the words and the purity of rhythm. Long and suggestive modulations, often easily divisible into rhythmical entities corresponding to the lines of Italian poetry, alternate with the excited energy of brief and concise sentences. “Mare, universale bassezza e unico riposo delle peregrinanti acque de' fiumi” (C.A., fol. 108v, b) “… con continua revolvizione per li terrestri meati si va ragirando” (C. Ar., fol. 236r). And often we are astonished at the precision with which the words adhere to the most complex objects of reality.

Leonardo's visual qualities, even as a writer, have always been praised. But he does not only grasp the proportion of forms, the splendor of surfaces, and the sweetness of shadows in the natural world. Beauty does not exist only in the harmonious correspondence of the parts but also in the quickness of actions, “la prontitudine delle azioni,” as he states, translating Marsilio Ficino's words, “actus vivacitas et gratia quaedam in fluxu ipso refulgens.” Leonardo differs from the writer of his time because of his deeper, inner adherence to the dynamism of universal life, which he feels in every place and in every being as a longing and a passion, as sorrow and happiness, triumph and tragedy. Let us read one last and not very well-known fragment. “La setola del bue, messa in acqua, morta, di state, piglia senso e vita e moto per sé medesima; e paura e fuga, e sente dolore. E prova ne é che stringendola, essa si storce e si divincola. Rimettila nell'acqua. Essa, come di sopra dissi, piglia fuga e levasi dal pericolo” (MS K, fol. 81r). A sense of continuous wonder at almost every word arrests the movement of the phrase to propel it forward again only after the pause. The movement of the hair in water is followed with such wonder because it reveals a mysterious world of invisible forces that give life both to man and nature. Leonardo's poetry derives from this immense and harmonious vision of the universe.

We have tried to demonstrate here that Leonardo's poetry did not find a full and orderly expression in his writings, as he did not submit himself to a complete literary discipline. Therefore those who considered him as the founder of scientific prose or as a great writer used inexact terms. I think that the opinion of Attilio Momigliano is right: “Leonardo's fragments are for the most part the puffs of poetry, which arise and die out suddenly … he remained for the most part a poet in potential.” But Leonardo was not only a writer, and if we catch these sudden puffs of poetry in his writings and connect them to those which burst forth from his pictures and drawings, we shall easily recognize the greatness of his spirit and receive the incomparable gift of his poetry.


Trat.: (1) Treatise on Painting. Published by H. Ludwig, 1882. Ed. I. A. Richter (1955). Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. (2) Treatise on Painting. Trans. A. P. McMahon.

C.A.: Codex Atlanticus. Published by Giovanni Piumati. Milan, 1894-1904.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M: Notebooks of Leonardo in the Library of the Institut de France. Published by Ravaisson Mollien, Paris, 1881-1891. They include B.N. 2037, B.N. 2038, formerly in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Ash.: MS Ashburnham 2038, now in the library of the Institut de France.

Wind.: Manuscripts at the Royal Library, Windsor. Catalogued by Sir Kenneth Clark, Cambridge, 1935.

Fors.: Codices Forster (I, II, and III) in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. Published by the Reale Commissione Vinciana, Rome, 1930-1936.

Q.I-VI: Leonardo da Vinci Quaderni d' Anatomia. Published by O.C.L. Vangensten, A. Fonahn, H. Hopstock, Christiania, 1911-1916.

F.B.: MS di Leonardo da Vinci della Reale Biblioteca di Winsor. Dell' Anatomia fogli B. Published by T. Sabachnikoff and G. Piumati, Milan, 1901.

Tr.: Codex Trivulzianus. Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

C. Ar.: Codex Arundel. 1923-1930.

D. van Maelsaeke (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “Goethe and Leonardo: A Comparative Study,” in Theoria, Vol. XXXIV, May 1970, pp. 21-47.

[In the following essay, van Maelsaeke highlights similarities between the philosophical thought of Leonardo and that of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He notes, for example, that in terms of natural philosophy, both men advocated the use of the experimental method, and both viewed nature as a force with both good and evil qualities.]

Goethe's providential encounter with Leonardo's art was one of the leading experiences of his human and artistic rejuvenation in Italy (1786-88). From his reading of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura in Rome (1788) Goethe may intuitively have inferred the similarity of both Leonardo's and his own views of the universe to those of Empedocles in whose cosmology the elements constantly interact under the influence of Love and Hate as respectively creative and destructive powers:

In turn they get the upper hand in the revolving cycle, and perish into one another and increase in the turn appointed by Fate. For they alone exist … sometimes uniting under the influence of Love into one ordered Whole, at other times again each moving apart through the hostile force of Hate, until growing together into the Whole, which is One, they are quelled.1

While creative Love allows all things to be separated out of chaos in order to be transformed into the harmony of the cosmos, Hate is the centrifugal force which must be held responsible for the urge of both the macrocosm and the microcosm towards a new chaos.

Love and Hate are the respectively attractive and repulsive forces at work in the fresco of the ‘Last Supper’ which Leonardo was commissioned to paint for the Refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan (1495-97). Goethe saw Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’ in May 1788 when his return from Rome to Weimar led him to Milan. Although he had already become familiar with the classical serenity of Raphael's ‘School of Athens’ (Vatican, Rome), and the superhuman grandeur of Michael Angelo's ‘Last Judgment’ (Sistine Chapel, Rome), Goethe was struck by the unique character of Leonardo's artistic achievement, which he calls a ‘keystone’ in European art. Almost thirty years later Goethe's interest in Leonardo's personality was renewed and considerably strengthened by the publication of the first scientific study of Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’ by G. Bossi the secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan who was also to become the founder of the Brera Gallery in the capital of Lombardy. Goethe's renewed interest in Leonardo culminates in the essay ‘Giuseppi Bossi:Über Leonardo da Vinci's Abendmahl zu Mailand’ which Goethe published in his own Weimar periodical ‘Über Kunst und Altertum’ (1817). Goethe's discussion of Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’ is mainly based on Raphael Morghen's engraving after a drawing of 1800 by Theodoro Mateini. Goethe himself testifies to the unique character of Morghen's engraving as a reliable copy of Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’. Even a modern art critic like Goldscheider still stresses the fact that Morghen's engraving rightly enjoys a more than merely historical documentary value because it was made before the Napoleonic occupation of Milan when Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’ suffered its worst damage.2

Goethe gives the first literary interpretation of Leonardo's well-known fresco. He looks at it with the eyes of the dramatic poet and he intuitively sees in Christ's announcement of his betrayal the self-revealing moment in Christ's relationship with his disciples. Indeed, although we learn from two early composition sketches, now respectively in the Royal Library at Windsor and the Venice Academy, that, like his predecessors from Giotto to Ghirlandaio, Leonardo originally chose the moment of the Last Supper when according to the Gospel of John, Christ passes the cup to Judas, the fresco in the Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie represents the psychologically more interesting moment when according to Matthew and Mark Christ exclaims: ‘Verily I say unto you, one of you shall betray me’. The disciples are, as Goethe remarks, stirred by one single surprise; a wave of the most contradictory feelings like fear, indignation, wrath and grief, all of which are reflected in the gestures and expressions of the disciples, at once spread to the left and the right of the table in order to return to Christ himself as the protagonist of the drama. Goethe draws attention to the fact that the more expressive manners of Mediterranean countries enabled Leonardo to display an immense variety of emotions in the figures of the disciples. Their hands and arms are as eloquent as their faces. Goethe admires the economy in the distribution of dramatic roles which Leonardo harmonized with the dynamic rhythm of grouping.The disciples are split into two symmetrical groups of six on either side of Christ, each of the two groups being subdivided into two groups of three. He pays special attention to the group of three disiples on the right side of Christ representing Peter, Judas and John. The vehement Peter is not only ready to declare his innocence; he also wants John to ask Christ who is the traitor so that he may take revenge. Peter's hand forms the bridge between the heads of John and Judas who, in conformity with Leonardo's way of seeing the human world in terms of outlook on the antinomies, respectively embody Love and Hate. The resigned John as Christ's beloved disciple stands for the creative power of Love, while Judas, who is clutching the bag and whose looks are furtive and threatening, represents Hate. It is noteworthy that the originality of Leonardo's interpretation of the ‘Last Supper’ enabled him to depart from the clumsy convention of his predecessors like Ghirlandaio and Andrea del Castagno according to which Judas was to sit alone on the near side of the table. Leonardo takes Judas out of his usual isolation and places him as the antagonist of Christ between John and Peter. The dramatic unity of Leonardo's ‘Last Supper’ is as Goethe remarks greatly enhanced by the contrast between the agitation of the disciples and the serene calmness of Christ as the protagonist of the drama. Christ alone remains calm after the announcement of the betrayal; he sits framed in the light of the doorway with his hands spread out as if he were to express by this gesture his insight into the inevitability of his tragic fate. The head of Christ on the fresco itself is unfinished, but Goethe knew the preparatory drawing of Christ's head which at that time belonged to the art treasures of the Ambrosiana Library in Milan and which nowadays may still be admired in the Brera Gallery in the same city. Goethe had Bossi's copy of this drawing before him in Weimar when he wrote his review of Bossi's book on Leonardo. This copy of Leonardo's drawing enabled Goethe to appreciate the special attention Leonardo had reserved for the artistic representation of the head of Christ. Leonardo always looked for the justification of the supernatural in nature, and Goethe admires the way in which Leonardo managed to reconcile the nobility of the idea of Christ in his mind with the highest possible serenity expressed in a human face.

Both Leonardo and Goethe seem to have looked upon the biblical scene of the ‘Last Supper’ as a deeply human tragedy of Love and Hate: ‘Hate is more powerful than Love since Hate ruins and destroys Love.’3 Neither Leonardo nor Goethe interpret the ‘Last Supper’ in the light of the Christian doctrine of salvation according to which the ‘Last Supper’ must be seen as the prologue to Christ's Passion or the mystical inauguration of the Eucharist. From Leonardo's own testimony we know that he deliberately rejects a supernatural interpretation of the world as incompatible with his belief in experience as ‘the mother of all certainty’:

If we doubt the certainty of everything which passes through the senses, how much more ought we to doubt things contrary to these senses, such as the existence of God or of the soul or similar things over which there is always dispute and contention?

(Se noi dubitiamo di ciascuna cose, che passa per li sensi, quanto maggiormente dobbiamo noi dubitare delle cose ribelli a essi sensi, come dell'essenza di Dio e dell'anima e simili, per la quali sempre si disputa e contende?)4

Leonardo explicitly rejects the dogmatic God of abstract theological speculations. His God is Nature ‘for all visible things are produced by Nature’ (‘perchè tutte le cose evidenti sono state partorite dalla natura’)5; he is Necessity governing the interdependence of Love and Hate in the cosmos. Vasari rightly states that Leonardo was so preoccupied with the scientific observation of natural phenomena that he did not adhere to any kind of dogmatic religion, ‘believing that it was perhaps better to be a philosopher than a Christian’.6 Like Dostoyevsky, Leonardo seems to have seen Christ's death on the cross in the light of the tragedy of the great man who becomes the victim of his own struggle for a better and juster world. Leonardo explicitly censures the vulgarisation of Christ's suffering and death by the sale of crucifixes because he finds it incompatible with his own respect for Christ's noble personality: ‘Alas! Whom do I see? The Saviour crucified again! I see Christ again sold and crucified and his Saints suffering martyrdom.’ (‘Omè! che vedo il Salvatore di novo crocifisso. I'vedo di novo venduto e crocifisso Christo e martirizzare i sui santi.’)7

The similarity of Leonardo's and Goethe's approach to the personality of Christ is obvious. Indeed, in his last novel Wilhelm Meister's Travels Goethe describes an art gallery in a Utopian state (‘Pädagogische Provinz’) in which the tragic end of Christ on the cross is intentionally separated from his life and teaching. Like Leonardo, Goethe condemns the vulgarisation of Christ's suffering and death through crucifixes:

We regard it as a damnable audacity to expose the scaffold of the martyr and the Holy One who suffered thereon to the eye of the sun, which hid its face when a wicked world pressed the spectacle upon it, to play with these secret things, to trifle with and adorn them, and not to rest till what is most worthy appears common and in bad taste.

(Wir halten es für eine verdammungswürdige Frechheit, jenes Martergerüst und den daran leidenden Heiligen dem Anblick der Sonne auszusetzen, die ihr Angesicht verbarg, als eine ruchlose Welt ihr dies Schauspiel aufdrang, mit diesen tiefen Geheimnissen, in welchen die göttliche Tiefe des Leidens verborgen liegt, zu spielen, zu tändeln, zu verzieren und nicht eher zu ruhen, bis das Würdigste gemein und abgeschmackt erscheint.)8

Although Goethe sees Christ's death on the cross as a prototype of noble suffering, the portion of the art gallery dealing with the life of Christ ends with and culminates in the departure of Christ from his disciples (‘Last Supper’). Like Leonardo, Goethe sees Christ mainly as the wise man, the philosopher and the individualist who becomes the victim of a world governed by two passions as contradictory as Love and Hate:

In life He appears as a true philosopher … as a wise man in the highest sense … From youth onwards, He amazes those around Him; one portion of them He wins to Himself, stirs up the other against Him, and shows to all who are concerned, with a certain loftiness in teaching and life, what they have to expect from the world. And so His way of living is for the noble part of mankind still more instructive and fruitful than His death, for to the former trials everyone is called, to the latter only few; and now passing over everything which follows from this consideration, consider the touching scene of the ‘Last Supper’! Here the wise One, as always, leaves behind His own entirely deserted, and while He is careful for those who are good, He at the same time nurtures a traitor who is to ruin both Himself and the better ones.

(Im Leben erscheint er als ein wahrer Philosoph, als ein Weiser im höchsten Sinne … Auf diese Weise setzt er von Jugend auf seine Umgebung in Erstaunen, gewinnt einen Teil derselben für sich, regt den andern gegen sich auf und zeigt allen denen es um eine gewisse Höhe im Lehren und Leben zu tun ist, was sie von der Welt zu erwarten haben. Und so ist sein Wandel für den edlen Teil der Menschheit noch belehrender und fruchtbarer als sein Tod: denn zu jenen Prüfungen ist jeder, zu diesem sind nur wenige berufen; und damit wir alles übergehen, was aus dieser Betrachtung folgt, so betrachtet die rührende Szene des Abendmahls. Hier lässt der Weise, wie immer, die Seinigen ganz eigentlich verwaist zurück, und indem er für die Guten besorgt ist, füttert er zugleich mit ihnen einen Verräter, der ihn und die Besseren zu Grunde richten wird.)9

Besides the ‘Last Supper’, which he saw, then, as the artistic representation of Love betrayed, Goethe was deeply impressed by Leonardo's ‘Battle of Anghiari’, in which he perceived the visualization of triumphing Hate. From contemporary biographers we learn that Leonardo was commissioned to paint the fresco of the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ for the decoration of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Leonardo was supposed to paint the fresco in competition with Michel Angelo. While Leonardo was to paint the victory of the Florentines over the Milanese at the ‘Battle of Anghiari’, Michel Angelo was expected to represent a group of bathing soldiers surprised at the ‘Battle of Cascina’. Neither Leonardo's nor Michel Angelo's fresco was ever finished, but we know from Benvenuto Cellini's ‘Autobiography’ that the two cartoons which formed the two composition sketches for the frescoes aroused the admiration of all. ‘So long as they remained intact, they were the school of the world.’10 No complete testimony remains of Leonardo's cartoon except the description of the dramatic scene in Vasari's biography:

One soldier, putting his horse to the gallop, has turned round and, grasping the staff of the standard, is endeavouring by main force to wrench it from the hands of four others, while two are defending it, trying to cut the staff with their swords; an old soldier in a red cap has a hand on the staff, as he cries out, and holds a scimitar in the other and threatens to cut off both hands of the two, who are grinding their teeth and making every effort to defend their banner. On the ground, between the legs of the horses, are two foreshortened figures who are fighting together, while a soldier lying prone has another over him who is raising his arm as high as he can to run his dagger with his utmost strength into his adversary's throat; the latter, whose legs and arms are helpless, does what he can, to escape death.11

The original dimensions of Leonardo's cartoon must have been enormous. R. Monti supposes that Leonardo took parts of it with him to France, and that only the central part which was copied by Raphael and Michel Angelo remained in Florence, where it deteriorated and in 1565 was covered over by Vasari's frescoes.

Goethe's discussion of the ‘Battle of Anghiari’, which is found in his essay accompanying his sympathetic translation of Benevenuto Cellini's Autobiography, is founded upon Gustavus Edelinck's engraving made after the drawing of the ‘Battle around the Standard’ (Dutch Royal Collection, The Hague) which Rubens made in France from a section of the cartoon brought there by Leonardo himself. Edelinck's marvellous engraving shows, as Goethe remarks, how the art of engraving can be used to preserve the immortal works of great artists the originals of which have disappeared as a result or tragic historical circumstances.12 Goethe praises the dramatic force of the ‘Battle around the Standard’ while he stresses Leonardo's unequalled skill in displaying the anger and the vindictiveness of men and horses. The horses are placed upon a par with men, and the warriors, fiery with bestial impulses, are characteristic of Leonardo's view of man in which human and animal properties constantly interchange. (‘… alle Figuren, Menschen und Tiere waren von gleicher Tätigkeit und Wut belebt, sodass sie ein Ganzes von der grössten Natürlichkeit und der hochsten Meisterschaft darstellten.’)13 Goethe's admiration of Leonardo's ‘Battle of Anghiari’ shows how far Goethe, as a result of his affinity, was able to penetrate into the interdependence of Love and Hate as the respectively creative and destructive forces in Leonardo's interpretation of the cosmos.

Leonardo's insight into the interdependence of Love and Hate in the cosmos runs parallel to his dialectical view of nature and the human world which is abundantly documented in his notebooks and in his treatise on painting. From Goethe's own testimony we know that he was deeply impressed by Leonardo's descriptions of both constructive and destructive natural phenomena as he found them in G. Manzi's edition of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura (Rome 1817).14 On the other hand Goethe had already become familiar with Leonardo's outlook on nature through Venturi's Essai sur les ouvrages physico-mathématiques de Léonard de Vinci (1797) which he probably had learnt to know through his likeminded contemporary, the scientist-traveller Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt may indeed have drawn Goethe's attention to Venturi's essay which illustrates the wide range of Leonardo's scientific research in fields so various as geology, anatomy, botany, optics, hydraulics and meteorology. Venturi's essay revealed for the first time, and almost 300 years after Leonardo's death, the importance of Leonardo's role as the anticipator of scientific and technical progress in modern ages.

Indeed, Leonardo's versatility in art goes, as Goethe remarks, hand in hand with the universality of his genius as a scientist. Leonardo portrays himself as the man who, unsatisfied with the mastery of art, seeks to discern the secrets of nature:

Drawn on by my eager desire, anxious to behond the great abundance of the various and strange forms created by nature … I came to the mouth of a huge cavern before which for a time I remained stupefied, my back bent to an arch, my left hand clutching my knee, while with the right I made shade for my lowered and contracted eyebrows. Suddenly there awakened within me two emotions, fear and desire, fear of the dark threatening cavern, desire to see whether there might be any marvellous thing therein.

(… subito salse in me due cose: paura e desidero: paura per la minaccviante e scura spilonca, desidero per verdere se là entro fusse alcuna miracolosa cosa.)15

While Leonardo's fear of the awe-inspiring in the menacing cavern reminds us of Pascal's fear of the eternal silence of infinite space, his eager desire to inquire into the laws of nature is the main starting point of his passionate search for truth. Leonardo was much in advance of his age. He had the courage to call himself a ‘disciple of experience’ at a time when his contemporaries still preferred to be disciples of Plato or Aristotle. Leonardo anticipates both Francis Bacon and Campanella when he connects his own originality as a scientific investigator and natural philosopher with his whole-hearted belief in experience as the only true foundation of science:

Since experience has been the mistress of whoever has written well, I take her as my mistress and to her in all points make my appeal.

(Or non sanno questi che le mie cose sou più da esser tratte dalla sperienzia, che d'altrui parola; la quale fu maestra di chi bene scrisse, e così per maestra la piglio e quella in tutti i casi allegherò.)16

Goethe shares Leonardo's belief in the experimental method which clearly dominates his own scientific observations of both constructive and destructive natural phenomena. Indeed, Goethe's outlook on nature is as fully based on an awareness of antinomies as Leonardo's is. He sees nature as a force which is both creative and destructive, beyond good and evil:

What we see in nature is force, force that consumes, nothing present, everything transient, thousands of seeds trodden to death every moment, thousands born, great and significant, infinitely varied, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, all existing side by side with the same right.

(Was wir von Natur sehen, ist Kraft, die Kraft verschlingt, nichts gegenwärtig, alles vorübergehend, tausend Keime zertreten jeden Augenblick, tausend geboren, gross und bedeutend, mannigfaltig ins Unandliche; schön und hässlich, gut und bös, alles mit gleichem Recht nebeneinander existierend.)17

From their geological investigations Leonardo and Goethe know water and fire to be constructive and destructive modifiers of the earth's face. While water carves landscapes into hills and valleys and while it floods the land and forms sedementary strata, fire bursts through the earthcrust and raises up mountains.

On the other hand Leonardo's and Goethe's investigations into the interdependence of life and death in the organic world pave the way for the Darwinian interpretation of nature in the light of the ‘struggle for existence’. Indeed, Leonardo answers the question why nature allows one animal to make its life by the death of another in a way that clearly anticipates Darwin's view of ‘natural selection’.

Nature is capricious and takes such a pleasure in creating that she is more ready and swift in creating than time is in destroying and therefore she has ordered that the animals make their life by the death of others; and as this does not satisfy her desire, she sends forth frequently certain noisome and pestilential vapours and continual plagues upon the vast accumulations and herds of animals, and especially upon human beings who increase very rapidly because other animals do not feed upon them.

(La natura essendo vaga e pigliando piacere del create e fare continuve vite e forme, perchè cognosce che sono accrescimento della sua terreste materia, è volonterosa e più presta col suo creare che'l tempo col suo consumare e però ha ordinato che molti animali sieno cibo l'uno de l'altro, e non sodisfacendo questo a simile desiderio, i spesso manda fuora certi avvelenati e pestilenti vapori e continua peste sopra le gran moltiplicazioni e congregazione d'animali, e massime sopra gli omini che fanno grande accrescimento, perchè altri animali non si cibano di loro, …)18

Like Leonardo, Goethe sees nature as an unsearchable, capricious and self-contradictory being that wants to limit its creativity through the dialectical interdependence of life and death: ‘Life is her most beautiful invention and death her trick for getting more life’. (‘Leben ist ihre schönste Erfindung, und der Tod ist ihr Kunstgriff, viel Leben zu haben.’)19 Like Leonardo, Goethe recognizes that to attack and to prey upon others is for the majority of the animals their charter of existence. Nature is, as Goethe puts it in Werther, ‘an eternally devouring, eternally ruminating monster’ (‘ein ewig verschlingendes, ewig wiederkäuendes Ungeheuer.)20 It is, as the Earth Spirit in Faust says, at once ‘the cradle and the tomb’ (‘Geburt und Grab’). Nature is prodigal in variety though niggard in innovation, and the mutual destruction in the world of plants and animals gives evidence of nature's insatiable zest-for-life. Goethe pauses with astonishment before nature's ‘productiveness’ which, as he says in his conversation with Eckermann of February 20, 1831, makes the world swarm with creatures to such a degree that even war, pestilence, fire and water cannot prevail against them.

Leonardo and Goethe are equally far from a beautifying and moralizing anthropocentric interpretation of nature, as was characteristic of the idealistic outlook on the world of the Florentine humanists or the moralizing philosophers of the Enlightenment. Both Leonardo and Goethe want to show that the laws governing the interdependence of creation and destruction in the macrocosm are also responsible for the interrelatedness of life and death in the human world. Paradoxically, life implies longing for death. The image of the moth rushing to the light as to its own death symbolizes the urge of both the macrocosm and the microcosm towards their own destruction:

Behold now the hope and desire of going back to his own country or returning to primal chaos, like that of the moth to the light, of the man who with perpetual longing always looks forward with joy to each new spring and each new summer, and to the new months and the new years, deeming that the things he longs for are too slow in coming; and who does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction!

(Or vedi, la speranza e 'l desidero del ripatriarsi e ritornare nel primo caos fa a similitudine della farfalla al lume, dell'uomo, che con continui desideri sempre con festa aspetta la nuova primavera, sempre la nuova state, sempre e nuovi mesi, e nuovi anni, parendogli che le desiderate cose, venendo, sieno troppo tarde, e non s'avvede che desidera la sua disfazione.)21

However, Leonardo and Goethe equally believe the macrocosm and the microcosm to be governed by the law of metamorphosis. Leonardo uses the image of the candle to illustrate his cosmic insight into the dialectical unity of life and death in the organic world:

The body of anything whatever takes nourishment, constantly dies and is constantly renewed; … just as the flame of the candle is fed by the nourishment afforded by the wax of this candle, and to this flame a rapid supply continually restores from below as much as is consumed in dying above.

(Il corpo di qualunque cosa la qual si nutrica, al continuo muore e al continuo rinasce … a similitudine del lume della candela col nutrimento datoli dall'omore d'essa candela, il quale lume anchora lui al continuo con velocissimo socorso restaura di sotto, quanto di sopra se ne consuma morendo.)22

Like Leonardo, Goethe returns to the image of the moth, rushing to its own destruction in the consuming and purifying fire, in order to illustrate the urge of both the macrocosm and the microcosm to constant metamorphosis: ‘I would praise the living thing that longs for death by fire’ (‘Das Lebendige will ich preisen, das nach Flammentod sich sehnet’).23 Not only plants and animals but also man, the individual as well as the species, is subject to the laws of organic evolution: ‘Everything is constantly transformed in life, plants, animals and man himself too.’ (‘Alles ist Metamorphose im Leben, bei den Pflanzen und bei den Tieren, bis zum Menschen, und bei ihm auch’.)24 The laws of organic evolution run parallel to those of spiritual evolution and, like Leonardo, Goethe discovers the secret of the art of living in a constant renewal of human personality: ‘And until you possess it, this commandment “Die and become”, you will be but a dismal guest on the dark earth.’ (‘Und solang du das nicht hast, dieses Stirb und Werde, bist du nur ein trüber Gast auf der dunklen Erde.’)25

Leonardo's and Goethe's views of man are as antinomical as their views of nature in general. Leonardo and Goethe are equally impressed by the discrepancy between man's grandeur and dignity on the one hand and human insignificance and wickedness on the other hand. Leonardo who as the immediate precursor of Vesalius was fearless in his anatomical research at a moment when ecclesiastical and magical taboos still intimidated his contemporaries, repeatedly stresses the perfection of the human body ‘in which nothing is superfluous and nothing is lacking’. Leonardo's praise of the perfection of the human body goes hand in hand with his apology for dissection:

Oh speculator concerning this machine of ours, let it not distress you that you impart knowledge of it through another's death, but rejoice that our Maker has ordained the intellect to such excellence of perception.

(O speculatore di questa nostra macchina, non ti contristare perchè col altrui morte tu ne dia notizia, ma rallegrati che il nostro Altore abbia fermo lo intelletto a tale eccellenzia di strumento.)26

Contrary to the Orphics and the Neoplatonists who saw the human body mainly as the prison in which the soul is separated from the realm of Ideas, Leonardo infers the nobility of the human soul from the perfection of the human body. Although he ironically asserts that he leaves the definition of the soul to the friars, ‘those fathers of the people who know all secrets by inspiration’ (‘padri de popoli, li quali per ispirazione san tutti li segreti’),27 he identifies the soul with the eternal life-spirit. From his notes on anatomy we can infer how deeply Leonardo was imbued with a respectful feeling of the infinite value of life:

And thou, man, who by these my labours dost look upon the marvellous works of nature, if thou judgest it to be an atrocious act to destroy the same, reflect that it is an infinitely atrocious act to take away the life of man … since in truth he who values it not does deserve it. For we part from the body with extreme reluctance, and I indeed believe that its grief and lamentation are not without cause.

(E tu, omo, che consideri in questa mia fatica l'opere mirabile della natura, se giudicherai esser cosa nefanda il destruggerla, or pensa essere cosa nefandissima il torre la vita all'omo … che, veramente, chi non la stima non la merita-, poichè cosi mal volentieri si parte dal corpo, e ben credo che 'l suo pianto e dolore no sia sanza cagione.)28

Like Leonardo, Goethe is deeply impressed by human grandeur as it manifests itself in the perfection of the human body. Although the chance discovery in 1784 of the presence in man of the intermaxillary bone had proved to Goethe the rightness of the thesis that biologically man and the mammals are one race, he repeatedly asserts that nature had to produce a long line of varying beings each deficient in certain human essentials in order to arrive at man as nature's highest creature. Although the animals are physiologically as perfect as man and perfectly fitted to their mode of life, man distinguishes himself from the rest of the organic world by his mental faculties. Man alone is aware of his being the peak of the organic world. Goethe bids man rejoice in the eternal law of metamorphosis governing Nature's creativity: ‘Rejoice, supreme product of Nature, in your ability to re-think her supreme thought, the highest to which in her creativeness she has risen.’ (‘Freue dich, höchstes Geschöpf der Natur, du fühlest dich fähig, Ihr den hochsten Gedanken zu dem sie schaffend sich aufschwang, nachzudenken.’)29 Goethe agrees with Leonardo that man is subordinated to an amoral world order in which nature acts according to its own unalterable laws and in which good and evil are enigmatically intertwined; however, due to the creativity of his mind man can turn every moment of his life into eternity by thought and deed: ‘Only man can do the impossible: he distinguishes, chooses and judges; he can give permanence to the moment.’ (‘Nur allein der Mensch vermag das Unmögliche: er unterscheidet, wählet, und richtet; er kann dem Augenblick Dauer verleihen.’)30

Leonardo's admiration of the creative power of the human mind as it manifests itself in artists (Giotto, Masaccio), scientists (Archimedes) and statesmen (Ludovico Moro) runs parallel to Goethe's praise of the ‘productiveness’ of genius in artists (Phidias, Raphael and Mozart), scientists (Alexander von Humboldt) and statesmen (Napoleon). Like Leonardo Goethe is aware of the discrepancy between the greatness of the exceptional personality and the insignificance of man in general:

I cannot but think that the daemons, to tease and to make sport with men, have placed among them single figures so alluring that everyone strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them.

(So kann ich mich des Gedankens nicht erwehren, dass die Dämonen, um die Menschheit zu necken und zum besten zu haben, mitunter einzelne Figuren hinstellen, die so anlockend sind, dass jeder nach ihnen strebt, und so gross, dass niemand sie erreicht.)31

It is proof of Goethe's antinomical approach to human greatness that he witnesses with a strange impassivity the correlation of triumph and defeat in the lives of great personalities:

Man must be ruined again! Every extraordinary man has a certain mission to accomplish. If he has fulfilled it he is no longer needed upon earth in the same form and Providence uses him for something else; but as everything here below happens in a natural way, the demons keep tripping him up till he falls at last.

(Der Mensch muss wieder ruiniert werden! Jeder ausserordentliche Mensch hat eine gewisse Sendung, die er zu vollführen berufen ist. Hat er sie vollbracht, so ist er auf Erden in dieser Gestalt nicht weiter vonnöten, und die Vorsehung verwendei ihn wieder zu etwas anderem. Da aber hienieden alles auf natürlichem Wege geschieht, so stellen ihm die Dämonen ein Bein nach dem andern bis er zuletzt unterliegt.)32

Like Goethe, Leonardo does justice to the triumph and tragedy of great men who not seldom become the victims of their arrogant and insignificant contemporaries:

If any be found virtuous and good, drive them not away from you but do them honour lest they flee from you and take refuge in hermitages and caves or other solitary places in order to escape from your deceits. If any such be found, pay him reverence, for as these are as gods upon the earth, they deserve statues, images and honours.

(E se alcuno se ne trova vertuoso e bono non lo scacciate da voi, fateli onore, a cio che non abbia a fuggirsi da voi e ridursi nelli ermi o spelonche o altri lochi soletari per fuggirsi dalle vostre insidie, e se alcum di questi tali si trava, fateli onore, perché questi sono i nostri iddei terresti, questi meritan da noi le statue, simulacri e li onori.)33

In both Leonardo's and Goethe's view of man, the praise of human grandeur goes hand in hand with a pitiless exposure of human insignificance and wickedness. Leonardo, who is deeply aware of the relativity of human achievements, deliberately breaks away from Ptolemy's and Brunetto Latini's geocentrism and anticipates Galileo Galilei's heliocentric theory. Before Galileo, Leonardo censures the arrogance of man who dares to regard himself as the mode and measure of all things in the universe. He even condemns famous philosophers like Epicurus and Socrates because they extolled the worship of man above that of the sun:

I could wish that I had such power of language as should avail me to censure those who would fain extol the worship of man above that of the sun, for I do not perceive in the whole universe a body greater and more powerful than this, and its light illuminates all the celestical bodies which are distributed throughout the universe … and indeed, those who have wished to worship men as Gods such as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and others, have made a very grave error seeing that even if man were as large as our earth, he would seem like one of the least of the stars, which appears but a speck in the universe; and seeing also that these men are mortal and subject to decay and corruption in their tombs.

(Ma io vorrei avere vocaboli che mi servissino a biasimare quelli che vollon laldare più lo adorare li omini che tal sole, non vedendo nell'universo corpo di maggiore magnitudine e virtu di quello. E'l suo lume allumina tutti li corpi celesti che per l'universo si compartano … e certo costoro che han voluto adorare omini per iddei, come Giove, Saturno, Marte e simili, han fatto grandissimo errore, vedendo che ancora che l'omo fussi grande quanto il nostro mondo che parrebbe simile a una minima stella, la qual pare un punto nell'universo, e ancora vedendo essi omini mortali e putridi e corruttibili nelle lor sepolture.)34

Like Leonardo, Goethe condemns man's anthropomorphic conception of religion. Although he looks upon all four Gospels as thoroughly genuine because he finds in them the reflection of the greatness which emanates from Christ's personality, he contrasts his own cosmic religiousness which culminates in his worship of the sun with the dogmatic worship of human beings as ‘messengers of God’:

If I am asked whether it is in my nature to revere the Sun, I say—certainly! For he is likewise a manifestation of the highest Being, and indeed the most powerful that we children of earth are allowed to behold. I adore in him the light and the productive power of God; by which we all live, move and have our being—we, and all the plants and animals with us. But if I am asked whether I am inclined to bow before a thumb-bone of the Apostle Peter or Paul, I say—spare me, and stand off with your absurdities.

(Fragt man mich, ob es in meiner Natur sei, die Sonne zu verehren so sage ich: durchaus! Denn sie ist gleichfalls eine offenbarung des Höchsten und zwar di mächtigste die uns Erdenkinder wahrzunehmen vergönnt ist. Ich anbete in ihr das Licht und die zeugende Kraft Gottes, wodurch allein wir leben, weben und sind und alle Pflanzen und Tiere mit uns. Fragt man mich aber: ob ich geneigt sei, mich vor einem Daumenknochen des Apostels Petri oder Pauli zu bücken? so sage ich: verschont mich und bleibt mir mit eueren Absurditäten vom Leibe!)35

Both Leonardo and Goethe seem to have been fascinated by the strange enigma of human existence. Leonardo's own belief in the creative power of the mind which enables man to rival and to compete with nature as an artist, is counterbalanced by his still stronger belief in the omnipotence of Time as the eternal destroyer of all things: ‘O Time, swift despoiler of created things! How many Kings, how many peoples hast thou brought low!’ (‘O tempo, veloce pledatore delle cleate cose, quanti re, quanti popoli hai tu disfatti.’)36 Like Leonardo, Goethe is struck by the arrogance of man who makes himself master of the vegetable and animal world and who, while he claims other creatures as his fitting diet, thanks God for his paternal care and regards himself as the final cause of creation. Man is, as Goethe puts it, not born to solve the problems of the universe and should restrain himself within the limits of the comprehensible:

Altogether, man is a darkened being; he knows not whence he comes, nor whither he goes; he knows little of the world, and least of himself. I do not know myself, and God forbid I should.

(Ubrigens ist der Mensch ein dunkles Wesen, er weiss nicht, woher er kommt noch wohin er geht er weiss wenig von der Welt und am wenigsten von sich selber. Ich kenne mich auch nicht, und Gott soll mich auch davor behüten.)37

The demonstration of human insignificance goes hand in hand with the attacks on human wickedness. Leonardo stresses the contrast between the perfection of the human body and the coarseness of mind which he believes separates the majority of mankind from human greatness:

Methinks that coarse men of bad habits and little power of reason do not deserve so fine an instrument or so great a variety of mechanism as those endowed with ideas and with great reasoning power, but merely a sack wherein their food is received, and from whence it passes away.

(Non mi pare che li omini grossi e di tristi costumi e di poco discorso meritino si bello strumento, né tante varieta di macchinamenti, quanto li omini speculativi e di gran discorsi, ma sole un sacco, dove si riceva il cibo e donde esso esca …)38

Leonardo never tires of condemning the cruelty of those who ‘have nothing in common with the human race except speech and shape, and in all else are far below the level of the beasts’ (‘… niente mi pare che essi participino di spezie umana altro che la voce e la figura, e tutto il resto è assai manco che bestia’.)39 While the cruelty of animals is part of nature's design for richness and multiplicity as well as for the need to limit her own creativity, human cruelty is monstrous. Man knows what suffering is, and in inflicting it, becomes a monster. Leonardo agrees with Macchiavelli that man and brutes are often alike not in having but in lacking reason. In his fables, Leonardo depicts the infinite variation of mutual destruction in the world of animals, wherein the stronger overpowers the weaker. The spider who wants to capture the fly in its secret web is cruelly slain above it by the wasp. The mouse is besieged by the weasel and both are devoured by the cat. The eagle who wishes to mock the owl gets its wings smeared with bird lime and is captured by man and killed. But are things different in the human world? Man who in his arrogance often mistakes cunning for the intellect is no less a brute when, in a world ordered by the unchangeable laws of Necessity, he plays the role of a subverter and devastator:

All the animals languish, filling the air with lamentations. The woods fall in ruin. The mountains are torn open, in order to carry away the metals which are produced there. But how can I speak of anything more wicked than the actions of those who raise hymns of praise to heaven for those who with greater zeal have injured their country and the human race.

(Tutti li animali languiscano, empiendo l'aria di lamentazione, le selve ruinano, le montagne aperte per rapire li generati metalli, ma che potro io dire cosa piu scellerata di quelli che levano le lalde al cielo di quelli che con piu ardore han nociuto alla patria e alle spezie umana.)40

Goethe's attacks on human wickedness are not less violent than Leonardo's. After his chance discovery of the intermaxillary bone had enabled him to demonstrate man's affinity with the world of the animals, Goethe sees man not simply as the peak of the organic world. He agrees with Leonardo that man, for all his mental and social qualities, bears (and not only in his bodily frame) the stamp of his lowly origin. Man even uses, as Mephisto puts it in Faust, the creative power of his mind to behave worse than the animals: ‘He calls it reason, and only needs it to be more bestial than any animal.’ (‘Er nent's Vernunft und brauchts allein, nur tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein.’)41 In a conversation with Eckermann of July 1827, Goethe asserts that princes and kings are often so tormented by disagreeable men that they regard animals that are more disagreeable as a means of balancing disappointing impressions of the human world: ‘Princes are right to drive away one repulsive thing with something still more repulsive’. (‘Die Fürsten haben recht etwas Widerwärtiges mit etwas noch Widerwärtigerem zu vertreiben.’)42 Goethe's observations of human wickedness are summarized in an extremely pessimistic view of man in his last novel, Wilhelm Meister's Travels, in which social institutions are seen as primarily ‘works of necessity’:

Man has only too much cause for defending himself before man. Of those who wish evil, there are certainly many; of those who do evil, not a few; and in order to live as is fitting, it is not sufficient to be always benevolent.

(Der Mensch hat nur allzusehr Ursache, sich vor dem Menschen zu schützen. Der Missvollenden gibt es gar viele, der Misstätigen nicht wenige, und um zu leben wie sich's gehört ist nicht genug immer wohlzutun.)43

The insight into the perfectibility and corruptibility of man accounts for both Leonardo's and Goethe's ambivalent attitudes towards man's exploration of the world. Both Leonardo and Goethe were living in Ages of Discovery.

Leonardo was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the New World in 1492, and of the Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama, who opened a new route from Europe to the East round Africa (1497-98). Leonardo was personally acquainted with Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine of great birth and education, who gave his name to the New World and whose four voyages across the South Atlantic led to the exploration of the whole Eastern coast of South America (the bay of Rio de Janeiro as well as the mouths of the Amazon, the Orinoco and the La Plata). We know from Vasari's biographical testimony that Leonardo made a charcoal drawing of Amerigo Vespucci as an old man, and the portrait of the great Florentine navigator by an unknown painter (Florence, Uffizi) might well, as Goldcheider suggests, be a copy after Leonardo's drawing. Leonardo was aware of the importance of this Age of Discovery as the beginning of a new era in the history of mankind, in which East and West met for the first time without intermediary.

The trees of the vast forests of Taurus and of Sinaï, of the Apennines and of Atlas, shall be seen speeding by means of the air from East to West, and from North to South, and transporting by means of the air a great quantity of men … there will be great winds through which the Eastern things will become Western and those of the South, mingled together in great measure by the course of the winds, will follow these through distant lands.

(Vedrassi li alberi delle gran selve di Taurus e di Sinai, Apennino e Talas scorrere per l'aria da oriente a occidente, da aquilone a meridie, e portarne per l'aria gran moltitudine d'omini … sarà gran venti per li quali le cose orientali si faranno occidentali e quelle di mezzodì, in gran parte miste col corso de' venti, seguirannolo per lunghi paesi.)44

From this prophecy we can infer that Leonardo welcomed the internationalization of the world as a result of man's exploration of new continents; he also clearly foresaw the bulk of emigration which was to follow the discovery of the Eldorado and the opening of new horizons in the light of a cosmopolitan view of the world:

Many shall leave their own dwellings, and shall carry with them all their goods and go to dwell in other lands. Men from the most remote countries shall speak one to another and shall reply. Men shall speak with and touch and embrace each other, while standing each in different hemispheres, and understand each other's language.

(Molti abbandoneranno le propie abitazioni, e porteran con seco tutti e sua valsenti, e andranno abitare in altri paesi. Parleransi li omini di remotissimi paesi l'uno all'altro e risponderansi. Parleransi et toccheransie e abbracceransi li omini, stanti dall'uno all'altro emisperio, e 'ntenderansi i loro linguaggi.)45

However, Leonardo was too realistic an observer of the world not to see the tragic aspects of explorations. The praise of man's adventurous longing for the exploration of new continents is counter-balanced by reflection on the disasters which are the outcome of man's ambitious craving:

There shall be huge bodies devoid of life, carrying great numbers of men with fierce speed to the destruction of their lives. How many deaths! what partings between friends and relatives shall there be! How many who shall nevermore behold their own lands or their native country, and shall die unsepulchred, and their bones be scattered in diverse parts of the world.

(O quanti voti, o quanti morti, o quanta separazion d'amici e di parenti, o quanti fien quelli che non rivedranno piu le lor provincie, né le lor patrie, e che morran sanza sepoltura colle lore ossa sparse in diversi siti del mondo.)46

Leonardo's familiarity with the human lust for riches and power, combined with his knowledge of human cruelty, enabled him to censure in an almost apocalyptic vision the inhuman consequences of man's conquest of the New World in search of precious metals:

There shall come forth out of dark and gloomy caves that which shall cause the whole human race to undergo great afflictions, perils, and death … It shall bring to pass an endless number of crimes; it shall prompt and incite wretched men to assassinate, to steal and to enslave; it shall hold its own followers in suspicion; it shall deprive free cities of their rank; it shall take away life itself from many; it shall make men torment each other with many kinds of subterfuge, deceits and treacheries.

(Uscirà delle oscure e tenebrose spelonche chi metterà tutta l'umana spezie in grandi affanni, pericoli e morte; … Questo commetterà infiniti tradimenti, questo aumenterà e persuaderà li omini tristi alli assassinamenti e latrocini e le servitu, questo terrà in sospetto i sua partigiani, questo torrà lo stato alle città libere, questo torrà la vita a molti, questo travaglierà li omini infra lor co'molte flalde, inganni e tradiment.)47

Like Leonardo, Goethe witnessed during his lifetime an important series of explorations of new continents. He was not only a friend of Forster, who accompanied Captain James Cook on one of his voyages around the world. He was also a contemporary of Mungo Park, one of the earliest explorers of Africa, who made two remarkable journeys of discovery in tracking the source of the Niger in whose waters he was drowned. But above all, he was interested in Alexander von Humboldt's contribution to the exploration of Spanish America. Humboldt continued what Vespucci and Cabral had begun in Leonardo's age of adventure. From 1799 till 1804 Humboldt undertook his historic voyage to South and Central America, in the company of the French scientist Aimé Bonpland and under the patronage of the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano de Urquijo. The navigation of the Apure and Orinoco rivers enabled Humboldt to confirm the existence of a link between the drainage of the Orinoco and that of the Amazon. The exploration of the Magdalene river (Columbia) and of the Andes Mountains between Bogota (Columbia) and Quito (Ecuador), as well as of the Upper Amazon (Peru), was followed by the ascent of the Chimborazo (Ecuador), which led to new scientific data in fields so various as geology, botany and climatology. Humboldt's observations of the voyage from Peru to Acapulco (Mexico) form an important contribution to the study of oceanography, while the journey through Mexico enabled Humboldt to make practical suggestions for a more efficient exploration of the richest mining country in Central America. Humboldt planned what was only realized in our age, after Mexico had liberated itself from Spanish colonial mercantile administration to become one of the most prosperous countries of Spanish America.

Goethe admired in the scientist-traveller Humboldt that remarkable inter-relatedness of bodily strength and mental vigour which he praised in Leonardo's personality. In his conversation with Eckermann of December 1826, he does justice to Humboldt's universal genius:

What a man he is! Long as I have known him, he ever surprises me anew. He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. He has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes under which you need only hold a vessel; refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

(Was ist das für ein Mann! Ich kenne ihn so lange, und doch bin ich von neuem über ihn in Erstaunen. Man kann sagen, er hat an Kenntnissen und lebendigen Wissen nicht seinesgleichen. Und eine Vielseitigkeit, wie sie mir gleichfalls noch nicht vorgekommen ist! Wohin man rührt, er ist überall zu Hause und überschütet uns mit geistigen Schätzen. Er gleicht einem Brunnen mit vielen Röhren, wo man überall nur Gafässe unterzuhalten braucht und wo es uns immer erquicklich und unerschöpflich entgegenströmt.)48

Goethe read Alexander van Humboldt's works on Spanish America in 1827, and became particularly interested in Humboldt's projects for the Panama Canal which could only be definitely realized in 1914. In his conversation with Eckermann of February 1827, Goethe's interest in the Panama Canal is combined with a prophetic vision of the political and economic role the United States would play in modern history as well as with a prophecy of intercontinental trade between East and West:

All this is reserved for the future, and for an enterprising spirit. So much, however, is certain, that, if they succeed in cutting such a canal that ships of any burden and size can be navigated through it from the Mexican Gulf to the Pacific Ocean, innumerable benefits would result for the whole human race. But I should wonder if the United States were to let slip an opportunity of getting such a work into their own hands. It may be foreseen that this young state, with its decided leaning towards the West, will, in thirty or forty years, have occupied and peopled the large tract of land beyond the Rocky Mountains. It may furthermore be foreseen that along the whole cost of the Pacific Ocean, where nature has already formed the most capacious and secure harbours, important commercial towns will gradually arise, for the furthering of a great intercourse between China and the East Indies and the United States.

(Dies ist nun alles der Zukunft und einem grossen Unternehmungs geiste vorbehalten. So viel ist aber gewiss, gelänge ein Durchstich derart, dass man mit Schiffen von jeder Ladung und jeder Grösse durch solchen Kanal aus dem Mexikanischen Meerbusen in den Stillen Ozean fahren könnte, so würden daraus für die ganze zivilisierte und nicht zivilisierte Menschheit ganz unberechenbare Resultate hervorgehen. Wundern sollte es mich aber, wenn die Vereinigten Staten es sich sollten entgehen lassen, ein solches Werk in ihre Hände zu bekommen. Es ist vorauszusehen, dass dieser jugendliche Staat, bei seiner entschiedenen Tendenz nach Westen in dreissig bis vierzig Jahren auch die grossen Landstrecken jenseits der Felsengebirge in Besitz genommen und bevölkert haben wird. Es ist ferner vorauszusehen, dass an dieser ganzen Küste des Stillen Ozeans, wo die Natur bereits die geräumigsten und sichersten Häfen gebildet hat, nach und nach sehr bedeutende Handelsstädte entstehen werden, zur Vermittelung eines grossen Verkehrs zwischen China nebst Ostindien und den Vereinigten Staaten.)49

However, like Leonardo, Goethe had the courage to look at both sides of reality in the New World. He could make himself familiar with the less edifying chapters of the exploration of new continents by European countries in Humboldt's Essai politique sur l'Ile de Cuba (1826), in which the author deliberately opposes slavery in a growing plantation colony like Cuba. Goethe cannot but have admired the genuine humanity of his famous contemporary, who in this essay on Cuba gives practical hints for the gradual abolition of slavery, and who through his influence on the young Simon Bolivar obtained the reputation of a promoter of the liberation of Spanish America from European colonization. Moreover, in his conversation with Eckermann of September 1829, Goethe sharply criticises the hypocrisy of European countries over the African slave trade. The solemn use of humane maxims at the Congress of Vienna served, as Goethe points out, more to disguise political opportunism than to favour true humanity:

They have founded large colonies of negroes in America, which are very productive, and yearly return a large profit in blacks. From these they can supply the demand in North America, and, since they thus carry on a highly profitable trade, an importation from without would be against their commercial interest. So, they preach with a practical view against the inhuman African slave-trade.

(In Amerika haben sie selbst grosse Negerkolonien angelegt, die sehr produktiv sind und jährlich eine grossen Ertrag an Schwarzen liefern. Mit diesen versehen sie die nordamerikanischen Bedürfnisse, und indem sie auf solcher Weise einen höchst einträglichen Handel treiben, wäre die Einfuhr von aussen ihrem merkantilischen Interessen sehr im Wege, und sie predigen daher, nicht ohne Objekt, gegen den inhumanen Handel.)50

Leonardo's and Goethe's familiarity with both the dignity and the wickedness of man also accounts for their ambivalent attitude towards scientific and technical progress.

Leonardo's own technological inventiveness, based on scientific investigations into organic and mechanical laws, enabled him partly to anticipate, partly to foretell, modern technical progress.

Leonardo was the first engineer who realized that human flight could be accomplished by a mechanical imitation of nature; his experimental study of the flight of birds, combined with an almost unique inventiveness, induced him not only to construct the prototypes of a plane, a helicopter and a parachute but also to foretell the development of aeronautics in our century:

… the great bird will take its first flight filling the whole world with amazement and filling all records with its fame, and it will bring eternal glory to the nest where it was born.

(Piglierà il primo volo il grande uccello, empiendo l'universo di stupore, empiendo di sua fama tutte le scriture, e gloria eterna al nido dove nacque.)51

Leonardo invented machinery for water-mills and aqueducts; he designed plans for connecting rivers and draining marshes; he drew up projects for clearing harbours and piercing mountains. As a military engineer in the service of Ludovico Moro and Caesar Borgia, he anticipated modern instruments of warfare. In his letter of self-recommendation to his Milanese patron Ludovico Moro, he stresses the fact that he could contrive ‘machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use’. Indeed in the field of military engineering Leonardo must be credited with the invention of several engines for both offence and defence. He drew the project for an ‘armoured car’ which can be recognized as the prototype of the modern tank; he foretold the use of the bombing aeroplane and of poison gas; while in the field of naval warfare he originated the mechanism of the diving apparatus and the submarine. However, it speaks for the strange dichotomy in Leonardo's personality between the man of action and the man of thought that he tried to reconcile his theoretical and practical activities as a military engineer with his extremely pessimistic view of man as the devastator of the world. As a man of action, Leonardo sees offensive and defensive warfare in the light of the necessity to safeguard all that life holds most dear: ‘When besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find the means of offence and defence in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty.’ (‘Per mantenere il dono principal di natura, cioè libertà, trovo modo da offendere e difendere, in stando assediati da li ambiziosi tiranni.’)52

However, the man of thought immediately pre-imagines the disastrous use of such technical inventions as the submarine and the diving apparatus in the service of man's cruelty. In his notes on hydraulics and naval warfare, Leonardo explicitly states that he refuses to make public the method which he has discovered for remaining a long time under water because he knows the amoral character of man who would use his inventions for massacres in the sea.

… and this I do not publish or divulge on account of the evil nature of man, who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas, by breaking the ships in their lowest parts and sinking them together with the crews who are in them; and although I will furnish particulars of others, they are such as are not dangerous, for above the surface of the water emerges the mouth of the tube by which they draw in breath, supported upon wine-skins or pieces of cork.

(… e questo non publico o divolgo, per le male nature delli omini, li quali userebbono li assassinamenti ne' fondi de' mari col rompere i navili in fondo e sommergerli insieme colli omini che vi son dentro. E benchè io insegni delli altri, quelli non son di pericolo, perchè di sopra all'acqua apparisce la bocca della canna onde àlitano, posta sopra otri e sughero.)53

Leonardo asserts that man's inventiveness as a ‘divine thing’ makes him differ from the animals only in what is merely ‘accidental’. Being ‘nature's chiefest instrument’ (‘massimo strumento della natura’) man is able to create numerous new implements with the aid of nature, where nature herself finishes producing her species, but ‘as these are not necessary to those who govern themselves rightly as do the animals, it is not in their disposition to seek after them’ (‘le quali, non essendo necessarie a chi ben si corregge come fan le animali, a essi animali non è disposizion cercarne’).54 It speaks for Leonardo's highly ambivalent approach to technical progress that, in spite of his own prodigious inventiveness, he finally decides against a ruthless divulgation of devices which could lead to the self-destruction of mankind at the hands of those ‘who in order to gratify one of their appetites would destroy God and the whole universe’ (‘che per saddisfare a un suo appetito ruinerebbono Iddio con tutto l'universo’).55

Goethe looked upon scientific and technical progress in much the same way as Leonardo. Although he was not an inventor himself, he witnessed during his lifetime an impressive series of scientific and technological discoveries:

I had this advantage, that my life fell in a time richer than any other in great natural discoveries … I feel like one who walks towards the dawn, and when the sun rises is astonished at its brilliancy!

(… so kam mir zugute, dass mein Leben in einer Zeit fiel, die an grossen Entdeckungen in der Natur reicher war als irgend eine andere. … Es ist mir wie einem, der der Morgenröte entgegengeht und über den Glanz der Sonne erstaunt, wenn diese hervorleuchtet!)56

Goethe took a lively interest in the technical revolution brought about by the development of modern means of communication and transport. He was the contemporary of the brothers Montgolfier, of Fulton and Stephenson. The flight of the ‘Montgolfière’ as the first free manned balloon took place in November 1783 over Paris and was the first great achievement in the history of human flight. In 1807 Fulton's steamboat travelled for the first time from New York to Albany through the Hudson Bay, while in 1819 modern intercontinental traffic was inaugurated when the first steamboat travelled from America to Europe. Finally, in 1829 the contest of the Liverpool and Manchester railway was won by Stephenson's first steam locomotive (‘Rocket’), so that the first public railway could be opened on September 15th, 1830. Goethe kept in his house a model of the Liverpool-Manchester railway and foresaw the important role the railways would play in the surging industrial revolution. The technical revolution coincides with the industrial revolution. Indeed, by 1800 Watt's steam engines were being installed in mines, metal plants, textile factories and breweries; while Crompton's, Cartwright's and Jacquard's inventions gradually replaced handspinners with machinery in the textile industry. It is an indication of Goethe's alertness to the spirit of the age that he was immediately aware not only of the advantages but also of the dangers of industrialization. In Wilhelm Meister's Travels he prophesies the decline of the industrialized world and the return to a new barbarism as a result of man's becoming a victim of his own technological inventiveness:

The prevailing business of machines torments and causes me anxiety; it revolves like a storm, slowly, slowly; but it has taken its direction, it will come and destroy us. … And who would like to visualize such horrors? Imagine this happy country, this well-dressed crowd, and imagine how all that will gradually sink into ruin, die away; the desert, made alive and inhabited for centuries, will fall back again into its ancient solitude.

(Das überhandnehmende Maschinenwesen quält und ängstigt mich. Es wälzt sich heran wie ein Gewitter, langsam, langsam; aber es hat seine Richtung genommen, es wird kommen und treffen. Wer möchte sich solche Schrecknisse gern vergegenwärtigen. Man denke sich dieses frohe Land, diese geputzte Menge; und man denke, wie das nach und nach zusammensinken, absterben, wie die Ode, durch Jahrhunderte belebt und bevölkert, wieder in ihre uralte Einsamkeit zurückfallen werde.)57

Goethe also clearly foretells the social consequences like chronic unemployment and emigration on a large scale which were to be the unavoidable outcome of the industrial revolution:

I know very well that in the neighbourhood they are considering the possibility of erecting machines and drawing to themselves the livelihood of the multitude. I cannot take it amiss if anyone puts his own interests first; but it seemed to me contemptible that I should rob these good people and at last see them wandering poor and helpless, and wander they must sooner or later.

(Ich weiss recht gut dass man in der Nähe mit dem Gedanken umgeht, selbst Maschinen zu errichten und die Nährung der Menge an sich zu reissen. Ich Käme mir verächtlich vor, sollte ich diese guten Menschen plündern und sie zuletzt arm und hilflos wandern sehen; und wandern müssen sie, früher oder später.)58

Goethe looks upon the industrial revolution as a more important event than the French revolution of 1789. In Wilhelm Meister's Travels he is mainly concerned with the necessity to harmonize the aims of the individual with the rapidly changing economic and social conditions of his age. He agrees with a social reformer like Saint Simon that the age of mechanization calls for a new social order in which each man should be placed according to practical abilities and rewarded according to merit. He also sides with Saint Simon when he asserts that the whole of society must strive towards amelioration of the physical and moral existence of the poorest class and that society ought to be organized in the way best fitted for attaining this end. Moreover in Faust II Goethe's belief in the internationalization of the world through the technological and social revolution culminates in his prophetic vision of man's triumph over the elements of nature through the communal spirit.59 However, it speaks for the Leonardesque character of Goethe's approach to progress that the Faustian vision of a new paradise on earth is counterbalanced by the Mephistophelian belief that whatever man achieves can ultimately be undone by the operation of inexorable natural laws.60

Both Goethe and Leonardo know the conditions of human life to be governed by the law of opposites: ‘Supreme happiness will,’ as Leonardo puts it, ‘be the greatest cause of misery, and the perfection of wisdom the occasion of folly’ (‘La somma felicità sarà somma cagione della infelicità, e la perfezion della sapienza cagione della stoltizia’).61 Like Leonardo, Goethe finds the paradoxical sense of life in the strange contradictions which are the very essence of human existence. Like Faust, he is looking for a life full of ‘painful enjoyment and loving hatred’. With Mephisto, however, he agrees that everything that exists is worthy of death. (‘Denn alles was entsteht ist wert, dass es zugrunde geht.’) Finally he agrees with Leonardo that life demands no other justification than that it has to be lived intensely for the sake of life itself:

Let life be as it will, yet it is good.
(Wie es auch sei, das Leben es ist gut.)


  1. Empedocles Fragment 26 (Diels. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 1957).

  2. Goldscheider. Leonardo (Phaidon, 1967) p. 173.

  3. Leonardo. Treatise on Painting (Transl. MacMahon).

  4. Leonardo. Op. cit.

  5. Leonardo. Op. cit.

  6. Goldscheider. Op. cit. p. 13.

  7. Leonardo. Scritti Letterari (Rizzoli, 1952) (Transl. MacCurdy).

  8. Goethe. Werke. (Artemis, 1961) p. 179, Vol. 8 (Transl. R. O. Moon).

  9. Goethe. Op. cit. p. 178, Vol. 8.

  10. B. Cellini. Autobiography.

  11. Goldscheider. Op. cit. p. 21.

  12. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 15, p. 870.

  13. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 15, p. 868.

  14. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 13, p. 778.

  15. Leonardo. Notebooks. (MacCurdy, London 1956). Vol. II, p. 472.

  16. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. I, p. 58.

  17. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 13, p. 29 (Translation E. Mason).

  18. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, p. 72.

  19. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 16, p. 923.

  20. Goethe. Werther. Vol. IV.

  21. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, pp 72-73.

  22. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. I, pp. 135-36.

  23. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. III, p. 299.

  24. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXII, pp. 800-804.

  25. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. III, p. 299.

  26. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, p. 161.

  27. Leonardo. Op. cit. p. 78.

  28. Leonardo. Op. cit. p. 78.

  29. Goethe. Werke. Vol. I, p. 519.

  30. Goethe. Op cit. Vol. I, p. 324.

  31. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 373.

  32. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 682.

  33. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, p. 82.

  34. Leonardo. Op cit. Vol. I, p. 263.

  35. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 771.

  36. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. II, p. 473.

  37. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 359.

  38. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, pp. 128-29.

  39. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. I, p. 129.

  40. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. II, p. 470.

  41. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. V, p. 150.

  42. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 258.

  43. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. VIII, p. 54.

  44. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. II, pp. 457-58; 452.

  45. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. II, pp. 456, 458.

  46. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. II, p. 458.

  47. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. II, p. 455.

  48. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. 24, p. 185.

  49. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, pp. 599-600.

  50. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 371.

  51. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, p. 391.

  52. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. II, p. 167.

  53. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. II, p. 109.

  54. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. I, p. 116.

  55. Leonardo. Op. cit. Vol. I, p. 80.

  56. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. XXIV, p. 238.

  57. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. VIII, p. 460.

  58. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. VIII, p. 461.

  59. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. V, pp. 508-09.

  60. Goethe. Op. cit. Vol. V, p. 508.

  61. Leonardo. Notebooks. Vol. I, p. 59.

Carlo Pedretti (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11461

SOURCE: “Supplement to Giovio's Leonardi Vincii Vita,” and “The Codex Huygens,” in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. 1, edited by Jean Paul Richter, University of California Press, 1977, pp. 9-11, 48-75.

[In the following excerpts, Pedretti discusses Leonardo as a teacher of art and analyzes the Codex Huygens,a compilation of Leonardo's writings that deals with, among other things, the form, structure, and movement of the human figure.]

The short biography of Leonardo da Vinci written by Paolo Giovio around 1527 has been well known since 1796, the date of its first publication in Tiraboschi's Storia della letteratura italiana.1 Giovio's account of the life of Leonardo, written in Latin, is based on information that he must have obtained from Leonardo himself. It was Giovio who reported that Leonardo intended to publish his own anatomical studies by means of copper plates.2 Furthermore, his report on Leonardo's studies on optics and painting is an unmistakable reference to the artist's activity after 1508. An Italian translation of Giovio's biography of Leonardo was published by Giuseppe Bossi as early as 1810.3 An English translation was included in the second edition of Richter's anthology,4 and again in the Goldscheider edition of Vasari's biography of Leonardo.5 Giovio's references to Leonardo, however, are not confined to this short biography. A passage concerning Leonardo is also in the fragment of a dialogue that Giovio wrote as an introduction to the biographies of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. This dialogue was published by Tiraboschi along with the biographies of the three artists. The Latin text of the passage concerning Leonardo was reprinted by Beltrami in 1919,6 with some misspelling, however, and incomplete—moreover, under the wrong date c. 1540. (Since Giovio refers to Perugino as still alive he must have written the dialogue before 1524.) But never before or since has this document been considered or translated into English.7

This is the only known document concerning Leonardo as a teacher of art. We are told that Leonardo's pupils under the age of twenty (and we may think of Francesco Melzi as one of them8) were forbidden to touch brushes and colours, and that they were taught to practise with the lead stylus, drawing from the antique9 and rendering the essential lines of the ‘force of nature’ (simplicissimis tractibus imitando naturae vim). Leonardo's studies on the structure and movements of the human body are mentioned again, this time as a work that was prepared for didactic purposes. Late in his life Leonardo was undoubtedly carrying on a system of teaching from which he himself had profited in the studios of Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo.10 He certainly knew of the anecdote concerning Donatello, which is not recorded by Vasari, and which Giovio places at the end of his account of Leonardo as a teacher of art. Donatello's dictum: Facere saepius atque reficere in arte proficere est may be taken to explain why on April 23, 1490, Leonardo ‘recommenced the horse’, as he mentions in the memorandum given in §720 below.

Another reference to Leonardo in Giovio's dialogue is found in the introductory passage pertaining to Perugino.11 This painter is said to have acquired at one time great reputation, but the emergence of such stars as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael was to set him aside: ‘… These, who had suddenly come out of the darkness of that age, obscured his fame and reputation with their marvellous works; and to no avail did Perugino strive to hold to his achievements by following better models: as his fantasy dried up he kept falling into the stereotyped images of his youth, hardly bearing the shame of it, while the others (Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael) represented the nude limbs of majestic figures and the compelling power of nature with an admirable variety of subjects’—quando illi augustarum imaginum nudatos artus et connitentis naturae potestates in multiplici rerum omnium genere stupenda varietate figurarent.


… Adhibenda enim est cura cupidis et alacribus ingeniis, ne ut implumes aviculae non plane siccatis alis festinantius provolent, sicuti in dispari, sed non omnino dissimili facultate, carioribus discipulis praecipere erat solitus Leonardus Vincius, qui picturam aetate nostra, veterum ejus artis arcana solertissime detegendo, ad amplissimam dignitatem provexit: illis namque intra vigesimum, ut diximus, aetatis annum penicillis et coloribus penitus interdicebat, quum juberet, ut plumbeo graphio tantum vacarent, priscorum operum egregia monumenta diligenter excerpendo, et simplicissimis tractibus imitando naturae vim, & corporum lineamenta, quae sub tanta motuum varietate oculis nostris efferuntur; quin etiam volebat, ut humana cadavera dissecarent, ut tororum atque ossium flexus et origines et cordarum adjumenta considerate perspicerent, quibus de rebus ipse subtilissimum volumen adjectis singolorum artuum picturis confecerat, ne quid praeter naturam in officina sua pingeretur. Scilicet ut non prius avida juvenum ingenia penicillorum illecebris et colorum amaenitate traherentur, quam ab exercitatione longe fructuosissima commensuratas rerum effigies recte et procul ab exemplaribus exprimere didicissent. Hoc itaque directo tramite, quamquam fastidioso atque difficili, ad verum scribendi laborem, qui in fine jucundissimus efficitur, studiosis erit procedendum, ne aliquando, si haec in ipsis probatae antiquitatis authoribus indagasse, atque observare piguerit, te demum nimis cito scribere ausum fuisse poeniteat. Caeterum postea quotidianus stili usus sine controversia rectissimus atque optimus bene scribendi magister existimatur, sicuti in aliis quoque artibus id verum esse liquido perspicimus. Ferunt Donatellum Florentinum, cuius est cum insignis artis gloria in Foro Patavino statue Gatamellatae aenea equestris, quum de summa discendae artis ratione ex arcano sententiam rogaret,12 respondere solitum: Facere saepius atque reficere in arte proficere est.


… Again, one ought to watch that alert and keen youths do not do as fledglings do, which fly up too hastily with their wings still wet. A similar principle of teaching was adopted by Leonardo da Vinci, who in our time has raised painting to great dignity, and with great subtlety has revealed the mysteries of this art in the works of the ancients. He would forbid youths under the age of twenty to touch brushes and colours, and would have them practise only with the lead stylus, after the best examples left of the ancients, to become able to show the force of nature by means of essential lines, and the aspect of the human body in its great variety of movements. And he wanted that bodies be dissected to reveal the structure of flesh and bones, and the origin and function of each muscle. On this subject he had prepared a most accurate book in which each joint was explained with figures, because he did not want anything painted in his studio that did not conform to nature. Thus the talented but impatient youth was not to be seduced by the attraction of brushes and by the charm of colour before he could achieve the right understanding of the proportions of figures through a long and profitable study, and until he was able to render such figures without the help of a model. Painstaking and difficult as it might be, it is the right path that students should follow in their practice of writing. At the end it will become quite pleasant. Indeed, one should not disregard to investigate the works of ancient excellence, taking them as models, else one may regret having dared to begin writing too soon. Again, he who goes through an everyday practice of writing will undoubtedly master his art and become a proficient and accomplished writer. And the same is true of the other arts. It is said of Donatello the Florentine, whose bronze equestrian statue of Gattamelata at Padua is a glorious testimony to supreme art, that when he was to ask himself how best to acquire proficiency he used to reply: ‘To make and to remake in art is to progress.’



The Codex Huygens in the Morgan Library, New York (MS. M.A. 1139), takes its name from its former owner Constantine Huygens, the brother of the famous physicist Christiaan and the secretary to King William III of England. Huygens records having acquired the book on March 2, 1690, from Mrs. Remy, ‘a woman from Brabant whose husband had been a painter at the time of van Dyck’.13 She has been identified with the widow of the Flemish painter Remy (Remigius) van Leemput, called ‘Remy’ or ‘Remee’. As Erwin Panofsky has shown in the introduction to his edition of the codex, Remy was born in Antwerp, and had come to London during the reign of Charles I. He is best known for his collection of prints and drawings, which was sold by his heirs in 1677, the year of his death.

The first description of the contents of the codex is in a letter that Constantine Huygens wrote to his brother Christiaan on March 3, 1690. He says that the book is in-quarto and is written and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci: ‘It deals with the design of nude figures of men, female and infants, and contains also something about horses and perspective. The figures are for the greater part simply outlined, the muscles are lightly indicated, but these figures are extremely beautiful, as one may expect from a great hand. The purpose of the author is to explain all the proportions of members and parts of the body. I have paid 3[frac12] guineas for it, but I would not sell it for four times that price.’14

An entry in Huygens' Diary, under the date September 1, 1690, records that the Queen had sent for him in order to show him the books of drawings of Leonardo and Holbein. This is undoubtedly the first mention of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal collection, not of the Codex Huygens as Panofsky suggests with his paraphrase of the entry (‘the Queen sent for him in order to be shown the precious volume’). The Leoni volume, which was acquired by Charles I about 1630, was described for the first time by Rogers in 1778, but nearly a century earlier Queen Mary was fully aware of its existence.

The Codex Huygens reappeared about 1915 and was acquired by the Morgan Library in the 1930s.


We know from Huygens' Journal that between November 26 and December 27, 1690, he had taken apart the codex in his possession in order to have its sheets carefully restored and inserted between the pages of a volume of blank folios. Then we are told that he gave the loose sheets to a dealer in prints called Cooper for mending and mounting, and examined Cooper's work on December 27.15

In Verga's Bibliografia Vinciana, under the date ‘1720 circa’, is mentioned a set of nine engravings after Leonardo's drawings on human movement published in London by the print dealer Edward Cooper. The engravings are so rare that they are known only through eighteenth-century descriptions. In fact, Verga's source is the well known letter of Mariette to Count de Caylus.16 His search for the engravings in various libraries of Europe was unsuccessful, and he had to admit reluctantly that not even the British Museum had a set of them.

The curious mystery was discussed by Gustavo Uzielli in 1884.17 He reported Amoretti's hypothesis that the Cooper engravings were reproductions of originals in the possession of Cardinal Silvio Valenti. This hypothesis proved to be wrong.18 Uzielli suggested that the drawings reproduced by Cooper were probably those in the Royal collection at Windsor Castle.

For some unknown reason the Cooper engravings went out of circulation quite soon. In 1797 Giovan Battista Venturi mentioned them in his Essai,19 but it does not seem that he had ever seen them, as we can infer from one of his letters to Giuseppe Bossi.20 In fact for two centuries no one has been able to see them, otherwise the text of the Leonardo notes, which was even translated into English, would have reproduced in some later publication. On the other hand, there are indications that the Cooper engravings were not reproductions of drawings in the Royal collection. In fact, in 1730, Mariette described them as follows:

Fragment d'un Traité sur les mouvemens du corps humain & de la maniere de dessiner les figures suivant des regles geometriques. Cet ouvrage qui a été mis a jour à Londres depuis quelques années par E. Cooper, ne consiste qu'en neuf planches sans le titre. Quelques-unes son de démonstrations avec des explications en Italien, données par Leonard, auxquelles on a joint la traduction Angloise. D'autres representent des figures d'hommes & des femmes au trait. Elles sont executées avec esprit, & forment un très-petit cahier in-folio.21

This description fits precisely the type of figures and notes in the first part of the Codex Huygens. No original drawing of Leonardo, explaining the ‘maniere de dessiner les figures suivant des regles geometriques’, was ever reported in England, and only Federico Zuccaro seems to have seen some of them in Italy.22 It is reasonable to assume that Edward Cooper was the same print dealer who restored the Codex Huygens in 1690.

In 1767 a second edition of Caylus' Recueil de Charges was issued in Paris, and Mariette's letter was given according to the text revised by the author. The paragraph concerning the Cooper engravings is somewhat expanded. Mariette now describes figures that are undoubtedly those of the Codex Huygens. He also specifies that the plates are nine plus the title page (before he had said ‘neuf planches sans le titre’, and it was not clear whether the title page was also a plate or whether the nine plates came without any title page); and finally that the date of publication was ‘vers l'année 1720’:

Fragment d'un traité sur les mouvemens du corps humain & la maniere de dessiner les figures humaines suivant des regles géometriques. Cet ouvrage qui a été mis au jour à Londres vers l'année 1720, par E. Cooper, ne consiste qu'en dix planc. y compris celle du frontispice, dont les plus importantes sont des démonstrations d'un systême, à l'aide duquel on voit que Léonard prétendoit assujettir à des regles invariables les mouvemens des membres qui entrent dans la composition du corps humain. Dans d'autres planches sont représentées des figures d'hommes & de femmes de différentes proportions: tout cela est entremêlé de quelque écrits italiens, tels qu'ils étoient sur les desseins, suivis de la traduction en anglois; ce petit cahier in-folio est curieux. Celui qui a gravé les plances y a mis de l'esprit.23

A set of Cooper's engravings reached Italy as early as 1732. It was Mariette himself who sent them, in 1731, to his friend Niccolò Gaburri in Florence:

Io ho il libro che ha dato alla luce Cooper da' disegni di Leonardo, e fate già conto, che sia vostro, ed averlo in vostro potere, perché ve lo manderò per la prima occasione.

(I have the book published by Cooper with engravings after Leonardo's drawings. Consider it already yours, because I propose to send it to you at the first opportunity.)24

In a letter of January 28, 1732, Mariette announced that the book was on its way to Florence.25 On October 4 of the same year Gaburri acknowledged receipt of it:

… Per ultimo mi son riservato a discorrervi del libro di Leonardo da Vinci delle proporzioni del corpo umano, per dirvi, che questo mi è stato caro al segno maggiore; principalmente perché è rarissimo, ed io non l'aveva mai veduto: in secondo luogo perché voi ne parlate in quella vostra lettera, che va avanti alle teste di caricature di Leonardo intagliate dal suddetto signor Conte [of Caylus]. La medesima lettera mi diede lume, che un disegno, che io posseggo già da gran tempo di quello autore, attenente alle sopradette proporzioni, potesse essere un foglio di quel libro stesso, che fu venduto alla spicciolata da chi non ne conosceva punto nè poco il merito; ed avendo confrontato il disegno istesso colle stampe del libro mandatomi, ho trovato, che è della stessa misura tanto per l'altezza, che per la larghezza. Io ne ho fatto fare una copia più esatta, che è stato possibile da un giovane diligente, e che disegna bene, e questa mi fo ardito di mandarvela …

(… I have left it till last to mention the book by Leonardo da Vinci on the proportions of the human body, as I want you to know that I consider this the most precious gift you sent me; first because it is extremely rare, for I have never seen it before; second, because you mentioned it in that letter you published as an introduction to the series of Leonardo caricatures engraved by the above mentioned signor Conte [of Caylus]. That letter gave me the idea that a Leonardo drawing on proportions, which I had for long time, could have been a sheet of the same book, since that book might have been sold sheet by sheet by someone unaware of its value. Now, comparing this drawing with the engravings you sent me, I find that their measurements are exactly identical, both in height and width. I am sending a copy of it to you …)26

In the introduction to the Florentine edition of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, published in 1792, the statement that Leonardo composed ‘un'opera sulla Meccanica del corpo umano’ is based on the information that a fragment of it had been published by Cooper in London. But it is doubtful that the engravings were known in Florence. The set which belonged to Gaburri, as well as the drawing which he owned and which was probably a missing folio of the Codex Huygens, were apparently already out of reach. In fact they must have been unknown even to the well informed Monsignor Bottari, if he could suggest that the Cooper engravings could have been after the codex that a ‘signore Inglese’ brought to Florence in 1717, that is, the Codex Leicester.27

After several years of search (see my note in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXVIII, 1965, pp. 336-8), and when the present Commentary was going to press, in the Fall of 1970, I was able to locate a set of the Cooper engravings in the library of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. This is listed in J. P. Lacaita's Catalogue of the Library at Chatsworth (London, 1879) under Cooper, but not under Leonardo. It measures 22.5 by 35.7 cm., and is composed of nine plates plus the title-page, which is also engraved. The title-page carries the dedication to ‘the R.t Hon.ble Tho: Coke Vice Chamberlain to his Most Sacred Maj.ty King George’. This is not the same Thomas Coke, afterwards Lord Leicester, who purchased the Leonardo codex on water in Florence in 1717. Mr W. O. Hassall of the Bodleian Library kindly informs me that the first Lord Leicester is often confused with another Thomas Coke (of Melbourne Hall), who was no relation but was vice-chamberlain to Queen Anne, obviously the same person to whom the Cooper's engravings are dedicated.

The engravings do indeed reproduce as I suspected a selection of pages of the Codex Huygens, some with texts which are transcribed and translated into English. It is therefore the earliest example of an English edition of Leonardo's writings according to a system that was to be adopted by Richter about two hundred years later. I am grateful to His Grace the Duke of Devonshire for permission to reproduce the Cooper engravings. …


The ‘codex’ consists of 128 loose sheets inserted between the blank pages of a book bound in red morocco. Huygens himself informs us that he personally took the book apart in order to have it arranged as it is to-day, that is, as a collection of loose sheets. These all measure about 13-13.5 by 18 cm, with the exception of seven double sheets. Huygens gives no information as to the original structure of the book, but states that he had the print dealer Cooper restore the sheets (‘on op te placken’, rendered by Panofsky as ‘mending and mounting’). Panofsky points out that all the small sheets, as well as the halves of the larger ones, are reinforced at the edges by narrow strips of paper, and states that this was obviously done by Cooper in order to prevent the edges from fraying. I have reasons to suspect that Cooper's work was less elaborate, and that the narrow strips of paper are the left-over of the margins of a previous mount that Cooper might in fact have tried to remove.28 It is what the folios of the Codex Atlanticus would look like were they separated from the original mount by cutting them along their margins.29 Thus the sheets of the Codex Huygens must have been mounted originally on the sheets of a larger book, and in fact Huygens refers to it as a book in-quarto, whereas the individual sheets can be more properly designated as being in-ottavo.

There is no doubt that the 128 sheets represent only a fragment of a larger work. The way they were mounted originally may even suggest that they had been kept loose until they came into the hands of a collector, probably Leoni himself. It is only conjectural but quite probable that they had come from the same source as the bulk of the Leonardo manuscripts, that is, from the Melzi estate.

Huygens does not question the attribution of the book to Leonardo, yet drawings and handwriting are unlike anything produced by Leonardo. Probably the previous binding or mounts included some information about a traditional attribution to Leonardo in the sense of a compilation based on Leonardo material. There seems to be no doubt, however, that Federico Zuccaro had seen the original manuscript from which the Codex Huygens was copied. Not only does he speak of the manuscript as being written backwards, but he identifies it as Leonardo's ‘regola del disegno’, which is the same title of the Codex Huygens (Le Regole del Disegno). It may be surmised that Zuccaro had seen it in Rome, probably the book brought there by the anonymous Milanese painter who had visited Vasari shortly before 1564. (Vasari refers to that painter as the owner of ‘alcuni scritti di Lionardo, pur di caratteri scritti con la mancina a rovescio, che trattano della pittura e de' modi del disegno, e colorire’.) This would suggest a reason for a copy of them to originate in Milan and remain there, probably in Melzi's hands. A reexamination of the contents of the Codex Huygens as suggested by Irma A. Richter may reveal that the material is much closer to Leonardo than one may be inclined to believe.30 And one may add that even its structure, although the mere fragment of a greater work, probably reflects a Leonardo plan.

The codex is an unfinished treatise on design by a Milanese painter active in the later half of the sixteenth century. The paper has watermarks pointing to a date around 1560-70, and it is reasonable to assume that the compiler had access to the Leonardo material when it was still kept all together in one place, thus before Melzi's death in 1570. In fact the originals which have been identified as some of his sources are now at Windsor, at Paris, and in Venice. His compilation is only a fragment of a greater work which was to comprise fourteen ‘regole’ or ‘libri’, of which only the first five are included in the codex, and these are in an uneven and confused form. They are almost all on the human figure. The first book deals with its form and structure; the second with its movements; the third with methods of transforming the profile elevation of the human figure into front and rear elevations; the fourth with proportions of the human figure and of the horse; and the fifth with perspective.

The Leonardo sources still in existence are the Windsor folios with studies of proportions of the human figure and the horse; the pertinent section in the Codex Huygens includes copies of drawings which must have belonged to the same series and which therefore reproduce Leonardo material now lost. Of special importance is that the original notes and drawings are countersigned by a small circle slashed through: as the same signet occurs next to the notes on painting transcribed in the Codex Urbinas, one may conclude that the author of the Codex Huygens copied directly from the original manuscripts at the same time as Melzi was compiling the Treatise on Painting. They were probably working together, and it is even possible that the author of the Codex Huygens had something to do with the Codex Urbinas, since his handwriting resembles closely that of the mysterious Manus 3 in the Vatican manuscript. Furthermore, the Windsor drawing no. 12293a, proportions of the horse's forelegs, hints at Melzi's role in the compilation of the Codex Huygens. In fact, the drawings on the left half of the folio are Melzi's tracings of the Leonardo drawings on the right half (note the vertical fold in between). The Melzi tracings complement the annotations of Leonardo (top centre), in that they are accompanied by the actual equations (left margin, in Melzi's handwriting) according to the ‘minuti’ system.31 The author of the Codex Huygens copied only the Melzi equations, including the one near the right margin, and not the notes by Leonardo which deal with the increase and decrease of the thickness and the length of certain parts of the leg as it bends or stretches.32

Irma A. Richter has followed up Panofsky's suggestion that the author of the Codex Huygens had access to the Leonardo papers, and has pointed out a number of cases in which Leonardo's writings can be sensed as a direct source. In particular she stresses the importance of the Venice drawing illustrating the Vitruvian proportions of man: its inherent kinetic element is fully developed in a series of drawings in the Codex Huygens. According to Miss Richter, Leonardo had developed his theory in the last years of his first Milanese period, in a book to which Pacioli refers in 1498 as being completed: ‘… havendo con tutta diligentia al degno libro di pittura e movimenti humani posto fine’.33 It is indeed revealing that Pacioli's remark occurs in a work, the Divina proportione, which is based on the thirteenth book of Euclid's Elements and which deals with the five regular solids, for which Leonardo drew the illustrations. Miss Richter then suggests that the drawing on fol. 7a of the Codex Huygens …, showing the human figure related to two circles, a square, equilateral triangles, and to various regular polygons, was not necessarily inspired by Gothic architectural geometry, as Panofsky suggests (p. 22), and may have no direct connection with Cesariano's well-known cross-section of Milan Cathedral, where the geometrical pattern is based on a square and on a scheme of equilateral triangles. ‘Our drawings,’ concludes Miss Richter, ‘where the proportions of the figure and the gyratory movements of its limbs are related to the sides and angles of a square, of three regular polygons, and of three equilateral triangles, is so closely connected with the drawings by Leonardo in Venice that it may derive from a lost design by Leonardo, made at a time when he was writing the degno libro di pittura e movimenti umani, and when his interest in Euclidean geometry had been aroused by his friend Fra Luca Pacioli, i.e. before 1498.’

Such a perceptive analysis of the drawing can be complemented by an observation on its style. It is precisely the style of a Leonardo drawing of about 1498 that it reflects. The human body is rendered with the neatness and precision of the technological drawings in the first part of the newly discovered MS. I at Madrid (MS. 8937) [Madrid Codex I], which dates from 1498-1500 and which can be taken as the counterpart of Leonardo's treatment of the human body as a machine. The anatomical drawings of about 1510, which are based on the same principles of design, reflect a later phase in the study of the kinetic aspect of the human body, indications of which are also found in notes of the Treatise of Painting which were copied from the lost Libro A of c. 1508-10.34

Leonardo's sense for the kinetics of the human body can be traced back to his earliest drawings, when he begins to show it in the flashing images of figures in action from the time of the Adoration of the Magi. Such exhilarating sketches as the child affectionately clutching a cat in his early Madonna studies (Popham, pl. 13) show how a sequence of pentimenti may well become a device to convey the effect of movement. A fan-like sequence of images stresses the presence of a fulcrum as in the diagrams in the Codex Huygens, and can be profitably taken to show the spirited movement of a child's legs in the Louvre drawing of a Madonna (Popham, pl. 25), or the arm of a man hammering in a drawing at Bayonne (Popham, pl. 45). Even when his sense of form had developed, after 1500, to such a degree as to convey a greater weight and roundness to his figures, Leonardo still resorted to the early device and rendered the tossing heads of his Anghiari horses or the splashing legs of Neptune's sea-horses as in a cinematographic sequence (Popham, pls. 84 and 205). With this in mind one is prepared to understand that the kneeling Leda, with her remarkable coiling quality enhanced by the curved lines of shading (Popham, pl. 208), is in fact the image of a human body about to rise to a standing position. Just as in the theoretical drawings in the Codex Huygens, Leonardo deals here with ‘moto azionale’, that is ‘contained movement’—as opposed to ‘moto locale’, motion in space. These problems are explained in a chapter of the Treatise on Painting (Lu 304, McM 355) which I had already dated c. 1505-10:

          de li mouimenti
del huomo et altri animali

Li moti de gli animali sono di due spetie, cioé moto lochale e moto actionale, il moto lochale è quando l'animale si moue da locho a locho, el moto actionale è'l moto che fa l'animale in se medesimo senza mutation di locho e'l moto lochale é di tre spetie cioè salire, disendere, et andare per locho piano, a questi tre se n'aggiongie due cioè, tardo, e ueloce, e due altri cioè il moto retto et il tortuoso et un altro apresso cioè il saltare, ma il moto actionale è infinito, insieme coll'infinite operationi le quali non sanza suo danno spesse uolte si proccaccia l'huomo.

li moti sono di tre spetie cioe lochale, actionale semplice et il terzo è moto composto d'actionale co lochale.

Tardità et uellocità nō si debbono cōnumerare nelli moti lochali ma nelli accidenti d'essi moti——

infiniti sono li moti composti perche in quelli è balare sc

          of the movements
of man and other animals

The motions of animals are of two kinds, that is, motion in space and contained motion. Motion in space is that of the animal moving from place to place, and contained motion is that which the animal makes within itself without change of place.

Motion in space is of three kinds, that is, ascending, descending, and motion on a level, and to these three are added two qualifications: that is, slowness and rapidity, and two additional forms of motion: which are straight and tortuous motion, and then one more, that is, the motion of leaping. But contained motion is infinite, like the infinite actions in which, not without danger to himself, a man engages.

Motions are of three general kinds; that is, motion in space, simple contained motion, and the third, motion compounded of contained motion and motion in space.

Slowness and rapidity ought not to be counted among motions in space but are incidental conditions of those motions.

Compound motions are infinite, and among them are: dancing, fencing, playing, sowing, plowing, and rowing, but rowing is really a simple contained motion, because motion made by a man in rowing is not combined with man's motion in space, but with the motion of the boat.35

Other references to the problems of ‘moto azionale’ are in the preceding chapters Lu 300-303, which I had also dated c. 1505-10. In chapter 300 the problem of percussion could be aptly illustrated by sketches on Windsor drawings dating from after 1505, in particular those on W. 19149b (Richter, Pl. v …), in which the figures of hammering men almost approach the type of diagram in the Codex Huygens.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the sketches just mentioned are on a sheet which contains studies of optics related to MS. D (c. 1508) and therefore linked to the problem of perspective treated in the ‘Fifth Book’ of the Codex Huygens. The relationship may be even closer, suggesting that the lost source of that book was actually the manuscript to which Leonardo himself refers as ‘5° di prespettiua’, and of which the present MS. D and the Windsor signature 19149-19152 were probably part.36

Irma A. Richter's theory that the Codex Huygens may be a fragment of the manuscript owned by Cellini is strengthened by the general aspect of the codex and by the contents of its ‘Book Five’ in particular. Cellini describes his manuscript as follows:

Questo libro era di tanta virtù e di tanto bel modo di fare, secondo il mirabile ingegno del detto Leonardo … sopra le tre grandi arti, scultura, pittura et architettura … infra l'altre mirabil cose che erano in su esso, trovai un discorso della prospettiva, il più bello che mai fusse trovato da altro uomo al mondo, perchè le regole della prospettiva mostrano solamente lo scortare della longitudine, e non quelle della latitudine e altitudine. Il detto Leonardo aveva trovato le regole, e le dava ad intendere con tanta bella facilità et ordine, che ogni uomo che le vedeva ne era capacissimo.

(This book was of great excellency and so beautifully articulated conforming to the admirable ingenuity of the said Leonardo … It dealt with the three great arts, sculpture, painting and architecture … Among the admirable things treated in it, I found a discourse on perspective, the most beautiful a man ever made—since the rules of perspective usually explain only the foreshortening in depth, but not in width and height. The said Leonardo had found the rules [for the latter] and explained them with such a facility and order that they were comprehensible to everyone who saw them.)37

Of interest is Cellini's repeated references to the notes as ‘regole’, which recalls the title of the Codex Huygens, Le Regole del Disegno. But the attractive theory is probably to be abandoned. The early origin of the Cellini manuscript (before 1542) would be conflicting with the evidence of style and water-marks of the Codex Huygens, which point to a date around 1560-70.

The ‘Fifth Book’ has been the object of much study recently, but the most lucid and perceptive analysis of it remains that by Irma A. Richter in her review of Panofsky's publication:

The rest of the fifth book is devoted to problems of linear perspective, which are described as ‘the diversity of the collocation of objects according to the angles caused by the eye and the object with reference to three principal points of view’ (p. 58). The three views are the normal view when the object is seen on a level with the beholder, the bird's-eye view, when the object is seen from above, and the worm's-eye view when it is seen from below. In the numerous illustrations the point of sight is conceived as located in the centre of a spherical field of vision whence the visual rays radiate. This is the Euclidean conception described also by Vitruvius, who speaks of the point of sight as the centre of a circle such as that formed by the horizon round the spectator; and it was a conception known also to Leonardo;38 and it was therefore not as unique as Panofsky supposes (p. 99).


Two unpublished sheets of the Codex Huygens series are found in the drawing collection at Christ Church, Oxford. I am grateful to Mr J. Byam Shaw, cataloguer of the drawings, for having informed me of their existence and for permission to study and publish them. Both sheets are from the Carlo Ridolfi collection (as some of the Leonardo drawings in the same Picture Gallery), and it can be shown therefore that about 1630 they were no longer part of the codex. As they have no foliation number, it is possible that they were independent of the group gathered in the Morgan manuscript. But their relation to the contents of the Codex Huygens is unmistakable.

One of the two sheets (inv. no. 0012) is of large format, about four times the size of a regular sheet of the Codex Huygens, 25.5 by 38.5 cm. … It is of a relatively strong paper with a water-mark (scales in circle) that Briquet dates no later than 1555. Close to the margins are traces of a line in pen and ink with which to frame the drawing, as well as the remainder of a previous mount. The verso is blank except for a formless scribble.

This drawing represents a standing male figure shown in front view, the right arm stretched out. The top of the shoulder is made the point for arm-length and elbow-length openings of the compass with which to trace half circles. A full circle is traced with a compass opened from the navel to the sole of the feet; another circle, partly shown as dotted line, is made with a compass which is centered on the penis and is opened to the line of the knees. A concentric circle is traced with an opening that reaches the sole of the feet and the top of the head. The right side of the diagram shows the intention of inscribing the figure in a square, but only a straight line from the top of the shoulder to the corner of the square indicates what would have been the axis of the lifted arm. The corresponding leg would have been lifted laterally so as to bring the level of the foot to correspond with the base of the square. This intention becomes evident when considering the circle made with the penis as the centre: a straight line drawn from the centre to a point in the circle corresponding to the intersection of the base of the square indicates the lifted leg. In fact the distance from the point of intersection to the corner of the square is exactly the measure of a foot as shown in the vertical subdivisions on the left and in the second scale below. Compare also Codex Huygens, f. 7a. On the left side of the diagram the author seems to be testing the alternative solution of lifting the leg according to an axis which passes through the navel and reaches the top of the shoulder. He is dealing with a basic problem of ‘moto azionale’ within the framework of the Vitruvian configuration of the man inscribed in a circle and a square. The newly discovered sheet, which is inscribed Simetria Del Corpo Humano, serves therefore as a link between the Leonardo drawing at Venice and the elaborated illustrations in the Codex Huygens. As such it reflects the programme of the ‘Prima Regola de' lineamenti guidati dalla verità et semplicità del compasso’ (‘First Regola on the linear schematization determined by the truth and simplicity of the compass’) as presented in Codex Huygens, f. 8a. The scheme is also used to show the four systems of Vitruvian proportions which are explained in the notes as the four-cubit, six-foot, eight-head and ten-face canons. (Compare Codex Huygens, f. 1a.) These are the same as described by Venusti in 1562 as having originated from Gerolamo Figino, the Melzi pupil here identified as the author of the Codex Huygens. (See Section E below.) The Codex Huygens contains only one sheet that may be related to this, i.e. f. 3 of the First Book, which shows back, side, and front views of the same type of figure with a nine-face system of subdivision. The model is identical, but the author is trying to apply a different system of proportions, with a result which is not fully successful in the drawing and which in fact should have conformed to the description of the nine-face canon as given by Ambrogio Figino in Comanini's book of 1590. For a full comment on this problem see note to § 343 below.

The other drawing at Oxford (inv. no. 06771) is of about the size of the sheets of the Codex Huygens, 13.8 by 18.4 cm. …, and like them is of thin paper but is laid down on a sheet of heavy paper on the back of which is an old attribution to Raphael. Only a few words of an inscription on its verso are visible by holding it against a strong light: della Prospettiua … delle Regole del Disegno. The concealed inscription consists of at least six lines of writing, which may be the draft of titles of books or headings of chapters.

The drawing and the notes are so untidy that they may be taken at first as the work of a different hand, but this untidiness appear often in the Codex Huygens. The drawing of a standing male figure shown in three views which merge one into the other pertains to the subject of ‘Transformation’ as treated in the Third Book of the Codex Huygens, while the subdivision of the figure into eight parts indicates the intention of including proportions as well. The principle of parallel projection is applied to the human figure in the same way as shown in the Codex Huygens, ff. 32 and 33. A note to it, much uncertain as a draft, is nonetheless sufficiently clear for its reference to the principle of taking the side view of the human body as containing the data necessary for the representation of back and front views. This principle is applied time and again in the section on perspective in the Codex Huygens, compare e.g. the draft entitled ‘Regola di cav[a]re la faccia et parte di dietro del corpo dal pro[filo]’ on f. 100b. The example of parallel projection in W. 12605 quoted by Panofsky as an original Leonardo may well be by the same author of the Codex Huygens. On the other hand, Leonardo was certainly acquainted with the system as adopted by Piero della Francesca and by such Milanese theoreticians as Foppa and Bramantino, and eventually by Dürer. This is shown by a sketch in W. 12603b, c. 1490. Codex Atlanticus 115 v-b, c. 1515 …, contains a light profile of a head projected into a three quarter view of the same head by means of parallel lines which had been drawn with a metal point on the recto of the sheet (f. 115 r-b) as an aid to construct a foreshortened circle. …


The anonymous author of the codex has been tentatively identified with Aurelio Luini by Panofsky, Ambrogio Figino by Irma A. Richter, and Bernardino Campi by A. E. Popham.39 It is probably useless to speculate on attributions based only on the style of the drawings. Indeed, the author's preference was in conformity with a tendency in the Milanese school which was undoubtedly inspired by the works of Mantegna at Mantua and Padua. It is a tendency which stresses the use of the worm's-eye point of view and bold foreshortenings in the compositions, and which can be followed through the works of Bramantino, Gaudenzio Ferrari, and eventually Giulio Romano at Mantua. After some reference in Cristoforo Sorte's treatise of 1580, explaining the system of Giulio Romano's foreshortenings, the theory is fully discussed by Lomazzo in 1584 as a codification already carried out by Bramantino. Leonardo must have contributed to it, but it is impossible to determine the nature and extent of his influence. The role of Francesco Melzi as the first disseminator of Leonardo's theories is still practically unknown, so that the identification of the author of the Codex Huygens would undoubtedly throw light on his activities. This person, according to Panofsky, should be sought amongst the Milanese painters who are not on record as authors of printed books but are known to have had theoretical interests, as well as special opportunities to see drawings by Leonardo. Since the identification with Aurelio Luini is proposed by Panofsky only as a working hypothesis, one is left with the alternative that Panofsky himself was prepared to accept of ascribing the Morgan manuscript to an entirely anonymous artist. My proposed identification with Girolamo Figino is based on a portrait included in Albuzzi's Memorie and inscribed: Girolamo Figino, Miniatore discepolo di Francesco Melzi, vivente nel 1562.40

This is a line drawing designated as having been taken from a small self-portrait owned by Count Francesco Litta of Milan, the original of which, still unpublished, is to be found in the Brera Gallery at Milan.41 The original is a beautiful, highly finished drawing which shows how much intensity of expression is lost in the copy. … It is inscribed below: Jo Girolamo Figino M.D.LXII. The script is calligraphic and yet it can be identified with reasonable certainty with that of the notes in the large sheet at Oxford. … Compare also the inscription: ‘Prima figura del moto’ in Codex Huygens, f. 12. It is surprising how the ductus of the notes in the Codex Huygens may change, but there is no doubt that it is always the same person who writes, just as it is the same person who draws the sketchy figures on f. 32 preliminary to the carefully finished drawing on f. 33. In fact at times the writing of the notes in the Codex Huygens may approach the calligraphic composure of that of the Codex Urbinas.42 I have already stressed the evidence that both the Codex Urbinas and the Codex Huygens originated at about the same time and that their compilers must have worked together.43 The handwriting of the Oxford sheet is somewhat in the nature of a missing link, in fact it is identical to that of a number of notes in Leonardo's MS. A and in the Codex Trivulzianus and Codex Atlanticus. Such notes reflect the early project of a compilation of Leonardo's Book on Painting, as well as a compilation of Leonardo's literary writings which, if it was actually carried out, has not come down to us.44 As a pupil of Melzi, Girolamo Figino is now to be identified not only as the author of the Codex Huygens but also as Melzi's assistant in the compilation of the Codex Urbinas. His hand can be recognized as the so-called Manus 3, the editor who is suggesting revisions in the titles or occasional changes in the sequence of the chapters. His handwriting, as shown in the Oxford sheet and in the notes in the Leonardo manuscripts (e.g. MS. A, f. 28a: ‘del ritrar li nudi’, and Triv., f. 40b: ‘motto detto da un giouane a un uechio’) is really not much different from that of Melzi, the compiler of the Codex Urbinas. And in fact the handwriting of the inscription on the Brera drawing can almost be taken as that of the Codex Urbinas. But there is indisputable evidence of Melzi's handwriting (including a sample dated 1546) which leaves no doubt that the compilation of the Codex Urbinas is by Melzi.45 Figino may be the author of the identification of the texts copied from Libro A and Libro B and other marginal notes, e.g. the one on f. 36a. And I am now inclined to recognize his hand in the collation notes in the Leonardo manuscripts. Compare the one in MS. G46 with the notes in the Oxford sheet. The slanting form of the ‘g’ can be singled out as a characteristic that does not occur in Melzi's handwriting. Figino's rêle in the compilation of the Codex Urbinas is best shown by the addition ‘traenti al giallo’ (note again the form of the ‘g’) to the heading ‘De lumi delle foglie di uerdura’, at the bottom of f. 256a. Only afterwards, following up his suggestion, the compiler (that is, Melzi) added the missing part of the heading, which in fact comes to be an extra line in the page as compared to the lines in the facing page.47

The identification of Girolamo Figino as the author of the Codex Huygens is confirmed by his notes on proportions as reported by Venusti in 1562 (the same year as Figino's self-portrait), which correspond exactly to the illustration in the large sheet at Oxford.48 It is certainly ironic that one should know even his face and still know next to nothing about his life and activities.49 His self-portrait shows that he must have been in his forties in 1562. He was certainly famous at his time (at least as famous as Ambrogio Figino, who was probably his relation), but he was soon to fall into oblivion. The sonnet that Lomazzo dedicates to him (Rime, 1587, p. 113) implies that he had much reputation amongst his contemporaries, and indicates a date, 1560, which is significantly close to that of the self-portrait:

                              di girolamo figino
Scrivea de la virtù che tale e tanta
          Splendea nel Figin nostro Milanese;
          Poi che non senze lode à molte imprese
          Attende, pinge, suona, e in lira canta:
Quando …
          Ciò fù nel anno mille cinquecento
          Sessanta: hor per gl'occhi mi lamento.

Lomazzo refers again to Girolamo on p. 423 of the Rime, mentioning him only by the curious and somewhat revealing nick-name ‘Fatuttonulla’ (‘He-does-everything-and-nothing’), a sort of affectionate scolding, which is not a derogatory remark but probably a way to point out how dangerous is to take the illustrious precedent of Leonardo as a model. There is no doubt that he writes about Figino: not only is the page number given in the index under Girolamo Figino, but the words are almost the same as in the preceding sonnet, except that Lomazzo changes the sentence ‘à molte imprese attende’ to ‘a molte imprese si caccia’, and specifies that he is writing the biography of Figino. He gives again the date 1560:

Nel anno mille cinquecent sessanta
          Alli diciotto del primiero mese
Fù, quando il sonno à cinque hore scortese
          Mi saltò in capo, doue ancor sen' vanta.
Ch'all'hor scriuea l'historia tutta quanta
          D'vn famoso e honorato Milanese,
          Detto il Fatuttonulla, che à più imprese
          Si caccia, pinge, scriue, e in lira canta.
Pe 'l qual doppo dormendo hebbi in visione
          Del gran palazzo del Duca Marino
          Ogni Architraue, fregio e cornigione.
Ma quando fu l'hora del Mattino,
          Mi risuegliai, vedendo la struttione
          Futura contra i detti di Pasquino.

Another reference to Figino in Lomazzo's Trattato (1584), p. 336, well applies to the author of the Codex Huygens. Girolamo is in fact mentioned for his proficiency in perspective, in that he is said to have produced anamorphical representations of horses according to a Leonardo precedent as reported by Melzi:

Con la medesima via riferi / Francesco Melzo che Leonardo fece vn Drago, che combatteua / con vn Leone, cosa molto mirabile à vedere, & parimenti i caualli che fece per donare à Francesco Valesio Rè di Francia; la qual'arte / fù molto intesa da Girolamo Ficino nell'esprimere i cavalli.

(Francesco Melzi reported that Leonardo with the same technique [i.e. anamorphosis] made a dragon shown as fighting a lion, a most admirable subject, as well as the horses which were to be presented to Francis I, King of France; this technique was well understood by Girolamo Figino in representing horses.)

Venusti mentions that Figino was also a poet. Three sonnets in a Miscellanea Maglibechi in the National Library at Florence are identified as being by a Girolamo Figino, but their date would suggest that in 1610 he was still alive.50 Venusti also mentions that he was a medallist, and this is confirmed by a medal which reproduces Figino's profile (bust to left, bearded) with an inscription which bears again the date 1562: hieronimvs · figinvs · mdlxii.51 One may wonder how important a date this could have been in his life. According to L. Forrer,52 Girolamo Figino was mint-master at Rome in the second half of the sixteenth century. The source of this information is still unknown to me, but the information could be of great importance when taken in conjunction with Vasari's statement about a Milanese painter who went to visit him (sometime between 1550 and 1568) on his way to Rome, seeking a publisher for certain Leonardo writings that he was carrying along. Was he carrying only an original Leonardo manuscript or did he also have a compilation ready for the printer, perhaps an extract from the Codex Urbinas, that is, the abridged version of the Treatise on Painting? It is impossible to answer this question. But shortly afterwards copies of the abridged version of the Treatise on Painting began to appear in Florence. And not long afterwards Federico Zuccaro, who had spent much time in Rome, was to record the original Leonardo drawings of the Codex Huygens type.


  1. G. Tiraboschi, Storia della letteratura italiana, Venice, 1796, Tomo VII, Part IV, p. 1641ff.

  2. Libro A, pp. 140, 146. As a physician Giovio was in relation with Marco Antonio della Torre when the latter was associated with Leonardo. Cf. K. D. Keele, ‘Leonardo da Vinci's Influence on Renaissance Anatomy’, Medical History, VIII, 1964, p. 365.

  3. G. Bossi, Del Cenacolo di Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, 1810, pp. 19-22.

  4. Vol. I, pp. 2-3.

  5. L. Goldscheider, pp. 28-29.

  6. Beltrami, Documenti, no. 256.

  7. As early as 1776 Count Giovan Battista Giovio referred to this Dialogue in his Discorso sopra la pittura, London, 1776, p. XLIX, as a manuscript in his library. All the Giovio texts pertaining to art are now given in Scritti d'arte del Cinquecento, ed. by Paola Barocchi, Tomo I, Milan-Naples, 1971, pp. 7-23. See also J. Schlosser Magnino, La letteratura artistica, Florence, 1956, p. 196: ‘L'antico modello è evidente. Precisamente come nel X libro della Retorica di Quintilliano ha tentato qui in un leggiadro e ricercato latino umanistico una breve esposizione dello stile dei maestri viventi e il confronto con lo stile letterarío.’

  8. Giovan Francesco Melzi entered Leonardo's studio c. 1508, about seventeen years of age. His drawing in the Ambrosian Library, which is dated 1510, is inscribed as his first copy from a relief: ‘1510 adi 14 Augusto prima cauata de releuo.’ Cf. Libro A, pl. 13.

  9. Giovio's Dialogue is evidence of Leonardo's admiration for the Antique, as confirmed by Leonardo's own statement in Piattino Piatti's epigram for the Sforza Monument (1489):

    Sum Florentinus Leonardus, Vincia proles:
    Mirator veterum discipulusque memor.

    The Classical principle of a common foundation for the styles of painting and literature, as suggested by Giovio, is indeed shared by Leonardo. Cf. W. 19021b (B. 4), c. 1506-8, given by MacCurdy, Anatomy: ‘This demonstration is as necessary for good draughtsmen as the derivation from Latin words is to good grammarians …’ See also K.3 110b, c. 1506-7 (Richter, §657): ‘Men and words are actual, and you, painter, if you do not know how to execute your figures will be like an orator who does not know how to use his words.’

  10. An echo of Leonardo's method of teaching is in Vasari's Introduction to the Lives (1550 and 1568). Cf. Vasari On Technique, pp. 209-210. It was in fact Giovio who suggested to Vasari to write the biographies of the artists. Leonardo must have had his studio equipped with didactic material of the kind suggested by Vasari, including plaster casts on which the much scorned activities of the seventeeth-century academies were based. As it was inherited by Melzi together with the manuscripts (compare Leonardo's Last Will, given in §1566), it must have been kept in the Villa at Vaprio as long as Melzi lived (c. 1570). Mazzenta's report of the dispersion of the Leonardo manuscripts after Melzi's death refers to the material that was originally part of the Leonardo studio: ‘… molti andarono dal medesimo dottore Melzi, e ne buscorno disegni, modelli, plastice, anatomie, con molte preziose reliquie del studio di Leonardo.’ Lomazzo, who was in direct contact with Melzi, writes in his Trattato, p. 160, that Leonardo ‘non meno seppe fare che insegnare.’

  11. Leonardo and Perugino are mentioned as most promising and congenial youths in Giovanni Santi's Rhyming Chronicle as early as 1475. They appear together in the 1504 commission for the installation of Michelangelo's David, and, the same year, are both engaged by Isabella d'Este. They are mentioned again by Giovanni Battista Caporali in his commentary to Vitruvius (Perugia, 1536, f. 16a) for their proficiency in perspective, but Perugino is singled out as one who did not write any book. For Lodovico Sforza's attempt to summon Perugino to Milan from Venice in 1496 see Beltrami, Documenti, no. 70.

  12. The original MS. had probably rogaret

  13. Panofsky, Codex Huygens (see List of Abbreviations), p. 9.

  14. Ibid., p. 11. The Codex Huygens was first discussed by M. W. M. Mensing, ‘De Leonardo's van Constantijn Huygens den Zoon’, Feestbundel Dr. Abrahm Bredius aangebooden, Amsterdam, 1915, pp. 186ff. This publication is not listed in Verga's Bibliografia Vinciana, nor in the year-books of the Raccolta Vinciana. This has undoubtedly contributed to what Panofsky calls ‘a little comedy of errors’, as the Leonardo scholars were not informed about the connection between the Morgan MS. and the codex described by Huygens in the letter reproduced by A. Favaro in Raccolta Vinciana, VIII, 1912-13, pp. 176ff. Cf. O. Kurz, ‘A Contribution to the History of the Leonardo Drawings’, Burlington Magazine, LXIX, 1936, pp. 135ff. See also Richter's account in Vol. II, p. 398, note 5.

  15. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, p. 11.

  16. E. Verga, Bibliografia Vinciana, Bologna, 1931, pp. 85-6.

  17. Uzielli, Ricerche (1884), pp. 415-416, and 421.

  18. Ibid., pp. 360-1. The drawings in the collection of Cardinal Valenti were caricatures identical to those reproduced by Count de Caylus. Cf. G. Bottari, Raccolta di lettere sulla pittura …, Rome, 1757, vol. II, p. 170. C. Amoretti, Memorie (1804), p. 169 (177), mistakes Cooper for Caylus: ‘Altri ne incise Cooper in nove tavole, per lo più relativi ai movimenti del corpo umano. Il sig. card. Silvio Valenti compronne poi gli originali, almeno in parte.’ The Valenti caricatures are probably those which are now in the Chatsworth collection. Amoretti's mistake is repeated by Rigollot, Catalogue de l'œuvre de Léonard de Vinci, Paris, 1849, p. xxxiv.

  19. J. B. Venturi, Essai sur les ouvrages physicomathématiques de Léonard de Vinci …, Paris, 1797, p. 52: ‘Edw. Cooper grava vers 1720, en Angleterre, le fragment d'un Traité de Vinci sur les mouvemens du corps humain; et sur la manière de dessiner les figures suivant les règles géométriques. (Dix planches in-fol. y compris le frontispice).’

  20. On December 15, 1807, Bossi wrote to Venturi as follows: ‘Mi avevate in altro tempo scritto che avevate fatto acquisto di molte stampe di Hollar. Sonvi fra queste delle cose leonardesche? Le cose sopra Leonardo del Conte di Caylus le avete? E quelle di Cooper?’ On May 4, 1808, Venturi replied to all the questions but the one concerning the Cooper engravings He says that ‘le stampe che cito nel mio Saggio, le ho vedute allora nel Gabinetto R. delle Stampe a Parigi’, but as he does not have at the moment his publication at hand he cannot remember which prints he had mentioned in it. See Raccolta Vinciana, XI, 1920-2, p. 233, and G. B. De Toni, G. B. Venturi e la sua opera Vinciana …, Rome, 1924, p. 224.

  21. [J. P. Mariette] ‘Lettre sur Leonard de Vinci, peintre Florentin, a Monsieur le c.[omte] de C.[aylus]’ in Recueil de Testes de Caractère & de Charges dessinées par Léonard de Vinci …, Paris, 1730, p. 23. See also p. 10, note (c): ‘M. Cooper, Marchant d'Estampes à Londres, en a donné depuis quelques années un essay. Ce n'est qu'un fragment d'un plus grant ouvrage sur la mécanique du corps humain …’ Mariette's letter was translated in Italian in Bottari's Raccolta di lettere sulla pittura, cit., pp. 168-200.

  22. F. Zuccaro, L'Idea de' pittori, scultori ed architetti …, Turin, 1607, p. 31. (Not in Verga's Bibliografia Vinciana. Reprinted in Bottari, op. cit., vol. VI, pp. 33-199; see p. 135.) I give the text direct from the first edition: ‘Parimente di poco frutto fu, e di poca sostanza, l'altra [regola] che lasciò disegnata con scritti alla rovescia altro pur valent'huomo di professione, ma troppo sofistico anch'egli, in lasciare precetti pur mathematici a muouere e torcere la figura, con linee perpendicolari, con squadra, e compassi: cose tutte d'ingegno si, ma fantastico, & senza frutto di sostanza: pur come altri se la intendino, ciascuno può a suo gusto operare. Diro bene che queste regole mathematiche si deuono lasciare a quelle sciēze, e professioni speculatiue della Geometria, Astrologia, Arithmetica, e simili, che con le proue loro acquietano l'intelletto: ma noi altri professori del Disegno non habb iamo bisogno di altre regole, che quelle che la natura stessa ne dà, per quella imitare’. Cf. Libro A, pp. 72, 241, 258.

  23. Curiously enough, this second edition of Caylus' Recueil (Paris, Jombert, 1767) is not in Verga's Bibliografia Vinciana, but its title page is even reproduced in the volume Leonardo da Vinci, a cura della Mostra, Novara, 1939, p. 516. The passage is on pp. 14-15. A reprint of the second edition of Mariette's letter is in Abecedario de P. J. Mariette, ed. by P. de Chennevières and A. de Montaiglon, Paris, 1854-6, vol. III, pp. 139ff. Cf. K. T. Steinitz, P. J. Mariette, Los Angeles, 1974, pp. 14, 21.

  24. Bottari, op. cit., p. 228.

  25. Ibid., p. 266.

  26. Ibid., p. 289.

  27. Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura, ed. by F. Fontani, Florence, 1792, p. xv, note 26. See also Bottari, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 179-80, note 4.

  28. Cf. Windsor Catalogue, p. xiii, note 5.

  29. As in the Codex Atlanticus, the double sheets would have been mounted with a portion hanging loose and folded back as a flap—hence the presence of a strip of mount across the middle of the double sheet. See my Romorantin Palace, illustration on p. 141.

  30. Art Bulletin, XXIII, 1941, pp. 335-8

  31. For an explanation of this system cf. Panofsky, Codex Huygens, pp. 51-4. Compare § 708 below, to which see note.

  32. The problem is related to the subject of Libro A 108. Folio 74a is described but not reproduced by Panofsky, Codex Huygens, p. 55.

  33. Pacioli, Divina proportione, Venice, 1509, fol. 1a. Cf. Uzielli, Ricerche (1884), p. 369.

  34. Cf. Libro A 39, 85. See also notes to §§ 353 and 355 below.

  35. As I specify in my comment (Libro A, p. 190) a date in the Sforza period is also possible on account of Pacioli's report referring to 1498. However, the concluding reference to the motion of the boat may be linked to Leonardo's extensive experiments in Piombino in 1504, as shown by Madrid MS. II. See also the text in W. 19106b given in note to § 1130 B below.

  36. Cf. Lu 741 (McM 806) and my note to it in Libro A, p. 211.

  37. B. Cellini, Discorso dell'architettura, published by J. Morelli, I codici manoscritti della Libreria Naniana, Venice, 1776, p. 155-9. See also Vol. II, p. 395 below.

  38. Irma A. Richter suggests to compare Codex Huygens, ff. 93-7 with the Leonardo texts reproduced by Richter, §§ 86, 107, 108. The latter are the well known notes from MS. E, ff. 16a-b, which have been taken (J. White) as evidence of a system of ‘curvilinear perspective’ developed by Leonardo in the late period of his activity. For a different interpretation of these texts see my notes to the corresponding paragraphs.

  39. A. E. Popham, ‘On a Book of Drawings by Ambrogio Figino’, Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, XX, 1958, p. 274, note 3.

    Panofsky, op. cit., p. 86, quickly rules out Bernardino Campi as a candidate on the ground that Campi in his short treatise Parere sopra la Pittura (1584) postulates the use of small wax models as an aid to the painter's compositions, a practice that the author of the Codex Huygens rejects. It should be mentioned, however, that at the end of Campi's treatise is a reproduction of side and front views of a human figure squared for proportion, which does not reflect the style of the illustrations of the Codex Huygens. Campi does not explain these figures but his Parere ends up with a reference to a section that was not included in the publication: ‘… ed il mio Parere della Misura è questa segnata qui dietro, osservando però, che le figure di Ercole, ed altri Eroi vogliono essere più piene, e le figure delle Donne vogliono avere le mani, e i piedi alquanto più piccoli, e le unghie lunghe’. Some relationship may therefore be detected between Campi's principles and those of the author of the Codex Huygens. But the handwriting of Bernardino Campi, which is very similar to that of the apograph of the Treatise on Painting at Bologna (Studi Vinciani, fig. 55), does not correspond to that of the Codex Huygens. Compare his letters dated 1588 and 1590 in the Piancastelli collection, Biblioteca Comunale, Forlì.

  40. Cf. L'Arte, LV, 1956, p. 111, and illustration on p. 50. (In the editor's comment Girolamo is mistaken for Ambrogio Figino.) Albuzzi, who writes about 1775-6, does not reveal the source of his information about Figino having been a pupil of Melzi. For other pupils of Melzi see Lomazzo, Rime (1587), as excerpted in Raccolta Vinciana, XX, 1964, p. 374, note.

  41. Metioned but not reproduced by G. A. Dell'Acqua, ‘Disegni inediti della R. Pinacoteca di Brera’, L'Arte, XL, 1937, pp. 138-9.

  42. Copare Codex Huygens, f. 2, and especially f. 12 (Panofsky, pls. 2 and 7). See Libro A, pp. 90, and 263-4.

  43. Se Libro A, pp. 104-5.

  44. Se my article in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, XXXI, 1968, pp. 201-202 which includes (Appendix E) a list of the sixteenth-century notes in the Leonardo manuscripts. See also note to § 1565 below.

  45. Libro A, pp. 260-4 and figs. on p. 262.

  46. Reproduced in Libro A, pl. 16b. In my article quoted on p. 72 note 5 above, p. 200, I had already suggested that the word ‘Milano’ and the collation marks on the last sheet of the Codex Trivulzianus were probably by the same sixteenth-century hand.

  47. Mcahon, note 7 on p. 312, does not explain the anomaly and states simply that the words ‘traenti al giallo’ (‘tending towards yellow’) have been added a second time, besides the first line of the heading.

  48. See note to § 343 below.

  49. He is praised as a painter and a miniaturist by P. Morigi, La nobiltà di Milano (col “supplemento” di G. Borsieri), Milan, 1619, p. 469. Cf. R. P. Ciardi, Giovan Ambrogio Figino, Florence, 1968, p. 44, note 6.

    There is no record of any of Figino's works as a painter, but the notes in the Codex Huygens are indirect evidence of his activity as such. It is also remarkable that the distinctive style of his drawings in the Codex Huygens should not find a parallel in drawings in other collections. I fear that the comparison proposed by Panofsky with drawings by Aurelio Luini is far from convincing. In the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana at Los Angeles there is a sixteenth-century drawing after Leonardo's Last Supper which looks very close in style to the drawings in the Codex Huygens. Furthermore, the paper is of the identical size and quality as several sheets of the Morgan manuscript and like them is bordered by the remainder of a previous mount (cf. Windsor Catalogue, p. xiii, note 5). On the verso of the Belt sheet is a drawing of one of the Dioscuri of Monte Cavallo and a detail of a twisted column, both elements pointing to the presence of the anonymous author in Rome. There is some evidence that Girolamo Figino went to Rome. See note 40 below. A drawing of a Last Supper (not after Leonardo) in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge (no. 3015: Anonymous North Italian of the sixteenth century) may also be attributed to Girolamo Figino for its general character of style and for the particular expression of the faces, which have the same cadaverousness as the figures in the Codex Huygens (cf. f. 43a).

  50. Cod. Magl. II. IV. 16, ff. 201b 203a. The first sonnet has the title: ‘Nella nascita feliciss.a del Seren.mo Principe di Parma 3. Alless.o 2. Di Girol.o Figini. 1610.’ The same sonnets are copied in another Miscellanea (Magl. VII. 345, ff. 449a-450b), but no date is given.

    A search undertaken in the Municipal archives at Milan has had no positive results, except for a document of June 23, 1553 (Archivio Storico, Castello Sforzesco, Famiglie, Cart. 659, no. 967), which is a brief notation about some transaction bearing the signature ‘Hiero figino M[anu] p[ropria] affermo vts[upr]a’. The handwriting does recall that of the Codex Huygens, but there is no certainty that the Figino of the document is the painter.

  51. Cf. G. F. Hill, Portrait Medals of Italian Artists of the Renaissance, London, 1912, pp. 63-4, pl. XXVI, no. 43; and by the same author, The Gustave Dreyfus Collection. Renaissance Medals, London, 1931, pl. XXVIII, which includes a reproduction of the verso of the medal.

  52. L. Forrer, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, London, 1904, vol. II, p. 92. In 1560, the date of Lomazzo's sonnets, Figino was probably still in Milan. The date 1562 on his self-portrait as well as on the medal may be that of his journey to Rome, but his name does not appear in the documents published in such standard works as A. Bertolotti, Artisti Lombardi a Roma, Milan, 1881 (2 vols.) and E. Martinori, Annali della Zecca di Roma, Rome, 1917-18. Professor Eugenio Battisti kindly informs me that Lomazzo's unpublished manuscript I Sogni preserved in the British Museum does not contain the biography of Girolamo Figino. (The manuscript is now published in G. P. Lomazzo, Scritti sulle arti, ed. by Roberto Paolo Ciardi, Florence, 1973, Vol. I, pp. 1-270. See also Vol. II [Florence, 1974], p. 291, note 3, for the reference to Gerolamo Figino in Lomazzo's Trattato.)

Emanuel Winternitz (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10420

SOURCE: “The Paragone: The Role of Music in the Comparison of the Arts,” in Leonardo da Vinci as a Musician, Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 204-23.

[In the essay that follows, Winternitz examines the Paragone, the section of Trattato della Pittura in which Leonardo reveres painting as the noblest of the arts. The critic maintains that upon close analysis of this text, music is demonstrated to be an art equal to painting.]

Leonardo's most interesting ideas about the nature of Music and her noble status as an art are included in his Paragone (comparison of the arts), a treatise animated by the intention to exalt the noblest of all arts, Painting, “the grandchild of Nature and relative of God.” Yet for the reader between the lines it is a fascinating spectacle to see how Music, the inferior sister of Painting, and “ill of many defects,” appears at closer study and at second thought to be an art equally as noble as Painting and a discipline in her own right, the figuratione dell' invisible. The Paragone, or Comparison of the Arts, is part of the Trattato della Pittura, a book arranged after Leonardo's death from his writings on the arts scattered throughout many of his manuscripts, including some now lost, by his pupil Francesco Melzi. Melzi's manuscript is now in the Vatican library, known as Codex Vaticanus (Urbinas) 1270. We can only guess why Leonardo did not himself arrange and edit these ideas in book form—most probably he did not have the time.1 Often in his manuscripts he reminds himself to write “a book” on this or another matter, but none of these has come to us.

The first printed editions of the Trattato appeared in 1651, in French as well as Italian. The Paragone forms the first part of the Trattato and is comprised of 45 small sections, which we will call chapters, retaining the numbers given to them in the edition by Heinrich Ludwig.2

If we seek to clarify the role and rank assigned to music by Leonardo, we find that the existing translations do not suffice, because the translators were not familiar enough with all the evidence of Leonardo's theoretical and practical concern with the art of music; also they were not sufficiently acquainted with the structure of music as an aesthetic phenomenon and with the musical thought and terminology of Leonardo's day. Thus, I had to make my own translations of the chapters, or parts thereof, relevant to music.

Whenever my translation of certain passages did not seem to me to be the only possible one, or when no exact equivalent existed in English, I inserted an alternative in square brackets.



che differentia é dalla pittura alla poesia. La pittura è una poesia muta, et la poesia è una pittura ciecha, e l'una e l'altra va imitando la natura, quanto è possibile alle loro potentie, e per l'una e per l'altra si pò dimostrare molti morali costumi, come fece Apelle con la sua calunnia. ma della pittura, perchè serue al' occhio, senso più nobile, che l'orecchio, obbietto della poesia, ne risulta una proportione armonicha, cioè, che si come di molte uarie uoci insieme aggionte ad un medesimo tempo, ne risulta una proportione armonicha, la quale contenta tanto il senso dello audito, che li auditori restano con stupente ammiratione, quasi semiuiui. ma molto più farà le proportionali bellezze d'un angelico uiso, posto in pittura, della quale proportionalità ne risulta un' armonico concento, il quale serue al' occhio in uno medesimo tempo, che si faccia dalla musica all' orecchio, e se tale armonia delle bellezze sarà mostrata allo amante di quella, da chi tale bellezze sono imitate, sanza dubbio esso resterà con istupenda ammiratione e gaudio incomparabile e superiore a tutti l'altri sensi. Ma della poesia, la qual s'abbia à stendere alla figuratione d'una perfetta bellezza con la figuratione particulare di ciaschuna parte, della quale si compone in pittura la predetta armonia, non ne risulta altra gratia, che si facessi à far sentire nella musicha ciaschuna uoce per se sola in uarj tempi, delle quali non si comporrebbe alcun concento, come se uolessimo mostrare un' uolto à parte à parte, sempre ricoprendo quelle, che prima si mostrano, delle quali dimostrationi l'obliuione non lascia comporre alcuna proportionalità d'armonia, perchè l'occhio non le abbraccia co' la sua uirtù uissiua a' un medesimo tempo. il simile accade nelle bellezze di qualonque cosa finta dal poeta, le quali, per essere le sue parti dette separatamente in separati tempi, la memoria nō ne riceue alcuna armonia.

what the difference is between painting and poetry. Painting is mute Poetry, and Poetry is blind Painting, and both aim at imitating nature as closely as their power permits, and both lend themselves to the demonstration [interpretation] of divers morals and customs, as Apelles did with his “Calumny.” But since Painting serves the eye—the noblest sense and nobler than the ear to which Poetry is addressed—there arises from it [from Painting] harmony of proportions, just as many different voices [tones of different pitch] joined together in the same instant [simultaneously] create a harmony of proportions which gives so much pleasure to the sense of hearing that the listeners remain struck with admiration as if half alive. But still much greater is the effect of the beautiful proportions of an angelic face represented in Painting, for from these proportions rises a harmonic concent [chord3] which hits the eye in one and the same instant just as it does with the ear in Music; and if such beautiful harmony be shown to the lover of her whose beauties are portrayed, he will no doubt remain struck by admiration and by a joy without comparison, superior to all the other senses. But if Poetry would attempt a representation of perfect beauty by representing separately all particular parts [features] that in Painting are joined together by the harmony described above, the same graceful impact would result as that which one would hear in music, if each tone were to be heard at separate times [in different instruments] without combining themselves into a concert [chord], or if [in Painting] a face would be shown bit by bit, always covering up the parts shown before, so that forgetfulness would prevent us from composing [building up] any harmony of proportions because the eye with its range of vision could not take them in all together in the same instant—the same happens with the beautiful features of any thing invented by the Poet because they are all disclosed separately at separate [successive] times [instants] so that memory does not receive from them any harmony.


The precedence of the eye over the ear—or rather, of sight over hearing—is mentioned throughout almost all chapters of the Paragone that deal with the comparison between Painting and Poetry. But as soon as Leonardo sets out to demonstrate this preeminence of the eye, he seems to fall immediately into contradictions, for the distinction of Painting is based on a fundamental feature of music—harmonious proportions; and Painting is accorded precedence over the arts of the ear because it shows harmony, just as does an art for the ear—music. Very clearly, Leonardo describes the phenomenon of the chord (the simultaneous occurrence of several tones) although the term chord is not yet in his vocabulary; he rather speaks of the armonico concento created simultaneously by proportions—evidently the proportions among tones of different pitch.4

Although Music is a temporal art like Poetry, it has proportions, of which Poetry is deprived. This is demonstrated by comparing a poem with a piece of music performed, not by all voices simultaneously, but one voice after another (in vari separati tempi), an absurd procedure that would prevent the formation of vertical harmony.

Memory is briefly mentioned in the last sentence, but its basic function in the temporal arts of retaining the past sections of the work is not described.5 Otherwise, Leonardo would have been forced to acknowledge, besides pitch, proportions of simultaneous musical tones, proportions between successive portions of works of music or poetry.


della differentia et anchora similitudine, che ha la pittura co' la poesia. La pittura ti rapresenta in un' subito la sua essentia nella uirtù uisiua e per il proprio mezzo donde la impressiua riceue li obbietti naturali, et anchora nel medesimo tempo, nel quale si compone l'armonicha proportionalità delle parti, che compongono il tutto, che contenta il senso; e la poesia rifferisce il medesimo, ma con mezzo meno degno che l'occhio, il quale porta nella impressiua più confusamente e con più tardità le figurationi delle cose nominate, che non fa l'occhio, uero mezzo infra l'obbietto e la impressiua, il quale immediate conferisce con somma verità le vere superfitie et figure di quel, che dinnanzi se gli appresenta. delle quali ne nasce la proportionalità detta armonia, che con dolce concento contenta il senso, non altrimente, che si facciano le proportionalità di diverse uoci al senso dello audito, il quale anchora è men degno, che quello dell' occhio, perchè tanto, quanto ne nasce, tanto ne more, et è si veloce nel morire, come nel nascere. il che intervenire non pò nel senso del vedere, perche, se tu rappresenterai all' occhio una bellezza humana composta di proportionalità di belle membra, esse beliezze non sono si mortali nè si presto si struggono, come fa la musica, anzi, ha lunga permanentia e ti si lascia vedere e considerare, e non rinasce, come fa la musica nel molto sonare, nè t'induce fastidio, anzi, t'innamora ed è causa, che tutti li sensi insieme con l'occhio la uorrebbon possedere, e pare, che a garra uogliono combatter con l'occhio. pare, che la bocca se la uorebbe per se in corpo; l'orecchio piglia piacere d'udire le sue bellezze; il senso del tatto la uorrebbe penetrare per tutti gli suoi meati; il naso anchora vorebbe ricevere l'aria, ch'al continuo di lei spira. …

… un medesimo tempo, nel quale s'include la speculatione d'una bellezza dipinta, non può dare una bellezza descritta, e fa peccato contro natura quel, che si de'e mettere per l'occhio, a uolerlo mettere per l'orecchio. lasciaui entrare l'uffitio della musica, e non ui mettere la scientia della pittura, uera imitatrice delle naturali figure di tutte le cose.

of the difference and again the similarity between painting and poetry. Painting presents its content all at once to the sense of sight [and it does so] through the same means [organ] by which the perceptive sense receives natural objects, and it does so in [at, within] the same span of time, in which there are established the harmonic proportions of those parts which together make up the whole that pleases the sense; and Poetry presents the same thing, but through a means [organ] less noble than the eye, and brings to our perception with more confusion and more delay the shapes [forms, delineations] of the designated [verbalized] things [the things presented]. The eye [on the other hand], that true link between the object and the sense of perception, presents [supplies] directly and with greatest precision the actual surfaces and shapes of the things appearing before it. From these [surfaces and shapes] arise those proportions called harmony which in their sweet combination [unity, concord] please the sense, in the same manner in which the proportions of diverse voices please the sense of hearing which again [as I said before] is less noble than the eye, because there [in the sense of hearing] as soon as it is born, it dies, and dies as fast as it was born. This cannot happen with the sense of sight; for if you [as a painter] represent to the eye a human beauty [the beauty of the human body] composed by the proportions of its beautiful limbs, all this beauty is not as mortal and swiftly destructible as music; on the contrary, it [beauty] has permanence [long duration] and permits you to see and study it [at leisure]. It is not reborn [does not need to reappear, come back] like music is when played over and over again up to the point of boring [annoying] you; on the contrary, it enthralls you [makes you love it] and is the reason that all the senses, together with the eye, want to possess it, so that it seems as if they wanted to compete with the eye. [In fact] it seems as if the mouth wants to swallow it bodily, as if the ear took pleasure to hear about its attractions [the beauties of it], as if the sense of touch wanted to penetrate it through all its pores, and as if even the nose wanted to inhale the air exhaled continually by it [by beauty]. … The same instant within which the comprehension of something beautiful rendered in Painting is confined cannot offer [give] something beautiful rendered by [verbal] description, and he who wants to consign to the ear what belongs [must be consigned] to the eye, commits a sin against nature. Here, let Music with its specific function enter, and do not place here [into this role] the science of Painting, the true imitator of the natural shapes of all things. …


Although here only painting and poetry are compared, music comes into the argument. The argument focuses on the simultaneity of all elements of a painting (“in un subito,” “nel medesimo tempo”). The main argument contrasts the eye, as the more noble instrument of perception, with the ear. The eye as the real (“vero”) mediator between the world of objects and human receptivity presents shapes at once and simultaneously. Only in this way harmony based on proportions can materialize. The ear, or rather the sense of hearing upon which poetry depends, furnishes the shapes of things less clearly and with delays. “Delay” (“tardità”) evidently means “not in medesimo tempo.” “L'armonica proportionalità delle parti” is evidently synonymous with expressions used frequently later such as “proportionalità detta armonia.” The discussion of this armonia gives occasion to throw a side glance upon music, which, paradoxically enough, is considered to lack this harmony that is made possible only by a simultaneously composed object such as the limbs of a beautiful harmonious body and their proportions. Music suffers from the defect of repetitiousness or rather its need to be performed over and over again (“molto sonare”), which creates nausea, boredom (“fastidio”).6 This implies, of course, another flaw of music, its main defect, namely, its quick passing or fading away; in TP [Trattato della Pittura] 29, 30, and 31b Leonardo again refers to this flaw.

After this brief side glance at music, Leonardo returns to poetry and painting, and arrives at a sharper formulation of their basic difference by introducing the concept of, as we would call it today, art in space versus art in time. In poetry, time separates one word from the next; oblivion interferes and prevents any harmony of proportions.

This is a rather naive and unfair criticism of poetry. Oblivion does not prevent the listener and even less the reader of Poetry from retaining past parts of the work of art; there is memory, for the function of which Leonardo finds beautiful formulations, for instance, in CA [Codice Atlantico] 76a and CA9a, and a poem can be envisaged in retrospect as a harmony of its successive parts. More important for our purpose, Leonardo himself seems, later in the Paragone, to suggest proportions between successive parts. But he does so only for Music, not for Poetry (see TP 30 and 32 and also perhaps 29). Here, however, Leonardo does not elaborate any further on successive parts and their proportions. Yet he makes an important statement that seems to take Music out of its position as sister of that other temporal art, poetry, and seems to suggest that if the flow in time prevents harmonious proportionalità in Poetry, this is not necessarily so in Music, if only Music is considered by its own rights and merits. Poetry, as we must read between the lines, cannot legitimately do for the ear what Painting can do for the eye, and he insists it is a sin against nature to blur this borderline. But where does this leave music? “Here let music with its specific function take its own place [assume its specific role] and do not confuse it with the science of painting, “that true imitator of true shapes of all things.”

Two words deserve comment here: l'uffitio della musica and imitatrice. The first emphasizes music's characteristic role and realm; it does not aim at imitation but is hors de concours, in a class of its own and not inferior to either painting or poetry. This term of the argument anticipates the more explicit definition of music in TP 32 as figuratione delle cose invisibili. In his writings on anatomy Leonardo gives a long and careful outline of a planned book on anatomy. Immediately after this outline he says: “Then describe perspective through the office of the sight or the hearing. You should make mention of music and describe the other senses.”

Imitatrice and imitare in general must not be understood as literal, or rather passive copying but as the act of re-creation of shapes and figures; only this interpretation of the function of painting supports its claim to being the noblest and most scientific of the arts.


risposta del re mattia ad un poeta, che gareggiaua con un pittore. Non sai tu, che la nostra anima è composta d'armonia, et armonia non s'ingenera, se non in istanti, ne quali le proportionalità delli obietti si fan uedere, o' udire? Non uedi, che nella tua scientia non è proportionalità creata in istante, anzi, l'una parte nasce dall' altra successiuamente, e non nasce la succedente, se l'antecedente non more? Per questo giudico la tua inuentione esser assai inferiore à quella del pittore, solo perchè da quella non componesi proportionalità armonica. Essa non contenta la mente del' auditore, o' ueditore, come fa la proportionalità delle bellissime membra, componitrici delle diuine bellezze di questo uiso, che m'è dinanzi, le quali, in un medesimo tempo tutte insieme gionte, mi danno tanto piacere con la loro diuina proportione, che null' altra cosa giudico essere sopra la terra fatta dal homo, che dar la possa maggiore.

Con debita lamentatione si dole la pittura per esser lei scacciata del numero delle arti liberali, conciosiachè essa sia uera figliuola della natura et operata da più degno senso. Onde attorto, o scrittori, l'hauete lasciata fori del numero delle dett' arti liberali; conciosiachè questa, non ch'alle opere dit natura, ma ad infinite attende, che la natura mai le creò.

reply of king mathias to a poet who competed with a painter. Do you not know that our soul is composed [made up] of harmony, and that harmony is generated only in those instants in which the proportionality of things can be seen or heard? Do you not see that in your art [Poetry] proportionality is not created in an instant, but that on the contrary, one part is born from the other, succeeding it, and that this succeeding one is not born if the preceding one does not die? Therefore I regard your invention [art] much inferior to the painter's for the sole reason that in your art no harmonious proportionality is formed. Your invention [art] does not satisfy the mind of the listener or beholder like the proportionality of the beautiful parts that together form the divine beauties of this face here before me, which joined together in the same instant give me so much pleasure with their divine proportion, that I believe there is no man-made thing on earth that can give greater pleasure. … It is a justified lamentation if Painting complains of being expelled from the number of the Liberal Arts, [justified] because she [Painting] is a true daughter of nature and serves the noblest of all senses. Therefore, it was wrong, oh writers, to have left her out from the number of the mentioned Liberal Arts; because she devotes herself not only to the creations of nature but to countless others that have never been created by nature.


TP 27, which introduces King Mathias Corvinus, does not contain a direct reference to Music; still it is important in our context because of its reference to armonia, proportionalità, and divina proportione in relation to the minds of the listener and the onlooker. Harmony is denied to Poetry because in Poetry one part is born from its predecessor “successively.” Here, if a reference to Music would have been made at all, it would have become clear that Music knows at least one form of harmony, namely, harmony in simultaneity (“nel medesimo momento”), i.e., as a combination of tones of different pitch into chords; and this alone would have established the superiority of Music over Poetry. As it is, this is suggested only later in TP 29. By the way, Leonardo does not recognize explicitly harmony or proportionality between successive portions of a poem or any work of Poetry, for instance, the formal balance between the strophes or the lines of a sonnet, although he seems to recognize this kind of proportionality in Music (see TP 29).

The last two phrases of TP 27 are of interest because here Leonardo proffers openly his complaint that Painting is unjustly omitted from the ranks of the liberal arts, which is especially unfair if one considers that Painting is not only dedicated to the works of nature but can create infinite works never created by nature.


come la musica si de' chiamare sorella et minore della pittura. La Musica non è da essere chiamata altro, che sorella della pittura, conciosiach' essa è subietto dell' audito, secondo senso al occhio, e compone armonia con le congiontioni delle sue parti proportionali operate nel medesimo tempo, costrette à nascere e morire in uno o più tempi armonici, li quali tempi circondano la proportionalità de' membri, di che tale armonia si compone non altrimenti, che si faccia la linea circonferentiale le membra, di che si genera la bellezza umana. ma la pittura eccelle e signoreggia la musica, perch' essa non more imediate dopo, la sua creatione, come fa la sventurata musica, anzi resta in essere e ti si dimostra in vita quel, che in fatto è una sola superfitie. …

how music should be called the younger sister of painting. Music cannot be better defined than as the sister of Painting, for she depends on hearing, a sense inferior to that of the eye, and establishes harmony by uniting her proportional parts [elements] that are performed simultaneously [i.e., the voices or melodic strands that run at the same time, that is, in juxtaposition within the polyphonic web], elements that are destined [forced] to be born and to die in one or more harmonic sections which confine [include] the proportionality of the elements [members], a harmony composed [produced, established] the same way as is that outline of the members [of the human body] which creates human beauty. But Painting surpasses and outranks Music since it does not die instantly after its creation as happens to unfortunate Music, on the contrary, it stays on [remains in existence] and so shows itself to you as something alive while in fact it is confined to a surface. …7


Trattato 29 begins with a meditation on Music itself and is fraught with seeming contradictions. Clear is the statement that Painting excels and lords over Music because Music dying immediately after birth lacks permanence. Leonardo has stressed this aspect before (TP 23). Yet Music, in spite of its flow, is credited with harmony of proportions, which poses the question of whether Leonardo means proportions between successive portions of the work of Music. It is here that the text seems obscure or at least inconsistent. For first harmony is described as a conjunction of proportionate parts performed simultaneously (“nel medesimo tempo”); but right afterward the text introduces the plural: “in uno o più tempi armonici,” and this seems ambiguous. It could mean that chords occur one after another and that each is equipped with harmony in the sense defined. But it could also refer to successive portions of Music and in favor of this interpretation is the formulation that the “tempi armonici circondano la proportionalità de membri,” which could be translated as instants in the flow that include between them sections of Music proportionate to one another. If this interpretation is correct, then Leonardo, in a remarkably independent approach to the phenomenon of Music, would have applied the concept of proportion to the relation between successive portions of Music and thus established the notion of a quasi-spatial structure of portions balanced against one another.

There are two facts that would invite such an interpretation of TP 29: first, it falls in with Leonardo's definition of Music as the figuratione del invisible (figuration evidently meaning shape or form [see TP 32]); second, the text of TP 29 goes on to compare the proportional sections (“membri”) of Music with spatial portions or members that by their proportions produce the beauty of the human body. The limbs of the body could, of course, hardly be compared with musical chords but only with sections of the musical flow.

It is thus the painter Leonardo, who, starting from his most beloved art, Painting, finds similarities with Music, an approach basically different from that of the musical theories of his time. As far as I can see, no treatise on Music of Leonardo's day developed this notion of musical form as a balance between the parts of a composition, although contemporary treatises abound, of course, with the notion of numerical ratios between tones of different pitch. Leonardo must have been familiar with this traditional element in musical theory, at least through the treatises of his friend Gaffurius.


parla il musico col pittore. Dice il musico, che la sua scientia è da essere equiparata a quella del pittore, perchè essa compone un corpo di molte membra, del quale lo speculatore contempla tutta la sua gratia in tanti tempi armonici, quanti sono li tempi, nelli quali essa nasce e muore, e con quelli tempi trastulla con gratia l'anima, che risiede nel corpo del suo contemplante. ma il pittore risponde e dice, che il corpo composto delle humane membra non da si se piacere é tempi armonici, nelli quali essa bellezza abbia a variarsi, dando figuratione ad un altro, ne che in essi tempi abbia a nascere e morire, ma lo fa permanente per moltissimi anni, et è di tanta eccellentia, che la riserva in vita quella armonia delle proportionate membra, le quali natura con tutte sue forze conservare non potrebbe. quante pitture hanno conservato il simulacro d'una divina bellezza, ch'el tempo o' morte in breve ha distrutto il suo naturale esempio, et è restata più degna l'opera del pittore, che della natura sua maestra!

the musician speaks with the painter. The Musician claims that his science is [of a rank] equal to that of the Painter because it [music] produces a body of many members whose whole beauty is contemplated by the listener [observer, contemplator] in as many sections of musical time8 as are contained between birth and death [of these sections]; and it is these [successive] sections with which Music entertains the soul residing in the body of the contemplator.

But the Painter replies and says that the human body, composed of many members, does not give pleasure at [successive] time sections in which beauty is transforming itself by giving shape (form) to something else, nor that it [beauty] needs, in these time sections, to be born and to die, but rather that he [the Painter] renders it [the body] permanent for very many years and the painting is of such excellence that it keeps alive that harmony of well-proportioned members which nature with all its force would not be able to preserve—how many Paintings have preserved the image of divine beauty whose real model has soon been destroyed by time or death, so that the Painter's work has survived more nobly than that of nature, his mistress.


TP 30 actually does not expound any new arguments in favor of the Musician, but repeats his claim that his science equals that of painting because it operates by combining one “corpo” out of many members. Whether these members are successive sections of the musical flow is not entirely clear but seems to be suggested by the term tanti-tempi armonici confronting the contemplation of the listener—if speculatore could be at all translated by “listener.”

When the Painter, however, tries to defend his claim of superiority, he adds to his old arguments one new angle: he credits painting with the capacity of “figuratione,” implying that this capacity is lacking in music. We must emphasize this here because later in TP 32 that “figuratione” is regarded also as a characteristic of music, although, unlike the “figuratione” used by painting, it is the figuration of the invisible.

The end of chapter 30, emphasizing the power of painting to preserve the image of a person beyond his death, echoes Ovid, Metamorphoses, book xv, with the famous lamentation of the aging Helen of Troy observing in the mirror the wrinkles of her face and weeping about Time, the great destroyer of things, and Leonardo's own paraphrase in CA 71ra:

O tempo, consumatore delle cose, e, o invidiosa antichità, tu distruggi tutte le cose e consumi tutte le cose da duri denti della vecchiezza a poco a poco con lenta morte!

Elena quando si specchiava, vedendo le vizze grinze del suo viso, fatte per la vecchiezza, piagnie e pensa seco, perchè fu rapita due volte.

O tempo, consumatore delle cose, e o invidiosa antichità, per la quale tuttle le sono consumate.

O Time, thou that consumest all things! O envious age, thou destroyest all things and devourest all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little, in slow death! Helen, when she looked in her mirror and saw the withered wrinkles which old age had made in her face, wept, and wondered to herself why ever she had twice been carried away.

O Time, thou that consumest all things! O envious age, whereby all things are consumed.


il pittore dà i gradi delle cose opposte all' occhio, come'l musico dà delle voci opposte all' orecchio. Benchè le cose opposte all' occhio si tocchino l'un e l'altra di mano in mano, nondimeno farò la mia regola di XX. in. XX. braccia, come ha fatto el musico infra le voci, che benchè la sia unita et appiccha insieme, nondimeno a pochi gradi di voce in voce, domandando quella prima, seconda, terza, quarta e quinta, et così di grado in grado ha posto nomi alla varietà d'alzare et bassare la voce.

Se tu o musico dirai, che la pittura è meccanica per essere operata con l'esercitio delle mani, e la musica è operata con la bocca, ch'è organo humano, ma non pel conto del senso del gusto, come la mano senso del tatto. meno degne sono anchora le parolle ch'e' fatti; ma tu scittore delle scientie, non copij tu con mano, scrivendo ciò, che sta nella mente, come fa il pittore? e se tu dicessi la musica essere composta di proporzione, o io con questa medesima seguito la pittura, come mi vedrai.

the painter uses degrees for the objects appearing to the eye, just as the musician does for the voices received by the ear. Although the objects confronting the eye touch one another, hand in hand [one behind the other], I will nevertheless base my rule on [distances of] XX to XX braccia, just as the Musician has done, dealing with [the intervals between] the tones [voices]: they are united and connected with one another, yet can be differentiated by a few degrees tone by tone, establishing a prime, second, third, fourth, and fifth, so that names could be given by him to the varieties [of pitch] of the voice when it moves up or down.

If you, oh Musician, will say that Painting is mechanical because it is performed by using the hands, [you should consider that] music is performed with the mouth, which is also a human organ though not [in this case] serving the sense of taste, just as the hands [of the Painter] do not serve the sense of touch—[and as for word-arts] words are even more inferior than actions [such as those just described]—and you, oh Writer on the sciences, doest thou not copy by hand, like the Painter, that which is in the mind? And if you say that Music is composed of proportion, then I have used the same [method] in Painting, as you will see.


TP 31 touches on another comparison between music and painting which is far-fetched but reveals how eager Leonardo is to do justice to music within the Paragone. He compares the objects as they confront the eye in a continuous receding row or chain (“opposte all' occhio si tocchino l'un altra di mano in mano”) with the gradation of tones, that is, with the musical tones that by their numerical ratios (“gradi di voce in voce”) form a scale. The mathematical rationalization of pitch values of tones is, of course, old Pythagorean and Boethian tradition and was commonplace in Leonardo's time; it is this mathematical quality of music that gave it a place among the liberal arts, but to credit painting with a similar rational basis was a relatively novel idea. Leonardo's argument is expressly, although only in passing, stated in TP 31b: “Since you accorded to music a place among the liberal arts, either place there painting also, or remove music from there.”

It is, of course, the science of perspective which Leonardo has in mind when he speaks of “la mia regola di XX in XX Braccia” (receding of objects from the eye by a standard distance of 220 yards). It is easy to see how forced the whole comparison is—a much more substantial comparison between linear perspective and acoustical phenomena is found in MS L 79 v, where Leonardo tries to find the ratios of fading sound or, more precisely, the proportions between the volume of sound and the distance between the ear and the source of sound; there he establishes a “regola,” which in his own language could be termed a perspective of sound.

TP 31a deals with the art of sculpture.


Quella cosa è più degna, che satisfa a miglior senso. Adonque la pittura, satisfatrice al senso del vedere, è più nobile che la musica, che solo satisfa all' udito.

Quella cosa è più nobile, che ha più eternità. Adonque la musica, che si va consumando mentre ch'ella nasce, è men degna che la pittura, che con uetri si fa eterna.

Quella cosa, che contiene in se più universalità e varietà di cose, quella fia detta di più eccellentia. adonque la pittura è da essere preposta a tutte le operationi, perchè è contenitrice di tutte le forme, che sono, e di quelle, che non sono in natura; è più da essere magnificate et esaltata, che la musica, che solo attende alla voce.

Con questa si fa i simulacri alli dij, dintorno a questa si fa il culto divino, il quale è ornato con la musica a questa seruente; con questa si dà copia alli amanti della causa de' loro amori, con questa si riserua le bellezze, le quali il tempo e la natura fa fugitive, con questa noi riserviamo le similitudini degli huomini famosi, e se tu dicessi la musica s'eterna con lo scriverla, el medesimo facciamo noi qui cō le lettere. Adonque, poi chè tu hai messo la musica infra le arti liberali, o tu vi metti questa, o tu ne levi quella, e se tu dicessi li huomini vidi la d'operano, e cosgl è guasta la musica da chi non la sa.

That thing is worthier which satisfies the higher sense. Thus, Painting, since it satisfies the sense of seeing is nobler than Music, which satisfies only the ear.

That thing is nobler which has longer duration. Thus Music, which withers [fades] while it is born, is less worthy than Painting, which with the help of varnish renders itself eternal.

That thing which contains within itself the greatest universality and variety of objects may be called the most excellent. Thus Painting is to be preferred to all other activities because it is concerned [occupies itself] with all the forms which do exist and also with those which do not exist in nature; it is to be more praised and exalted than Music, which is concerned only with sound [voice].

With Painting one makes the images of gods, around which divine rites are held which Music helps to adorn; with the help of Painting, one gives lovers likenesses [portraits] of those who aroused their ardor; through Painting one preserves the beauty which time and nature cause to fade away; through Painting we preserve the likenesses of famous men, and if you should say that Music becomes eternal when it is written down, we are doing the same here with letters. Thus, because you have given a place to Music among the Liberal Arts, you must place Painting there too, or eject Music; and if you point at vile men who practice Painting, Music also can be spoiled by those who do not understand it.


TP 31b, combining earlier and new arguments, expounds various reasons for the preeminence of painting over music. (1) Painting satisfies the highest sense, sight, music only the sense of hearing—but why sight should be nobler than hearing is not elaborated. (2) Painting is permanent, music evanescent. (3) Painting occupies itself with objects of more universality and variety than music, which is based only on sound (an argument so questionable that one is not surprised to find it nowhere else in Leonardo's writings).

The passage on the place of painting and of music among the liberal arts has been commented on in my explanation of TP 31.

Other arguments proffered here, such as the comparison between musical scores and letters, are rhetorical rather than serious.


Se tu dirai le scientie non mecaniche sono le mentali, io ti dirò che la pittura è mentale, e ch'ella, sicome la musica e geometria considera le proportioni delle quantità continue, e l'aritmetica delle discontinue, questa considera tutte le quantità continue e le qualità delle proportioni d'ombre e lumi e distantie nella sua prospettiva.

If you [the Musician] say that only the nonmechanical [physical, bodily, material] sciences [liberal arts] are concerned with the mind9 and that, just as Music and Geometry deal with the proportions of the continuous quantities, and Arithmetic with the proportions of the discontinuous quantities, [so] Painting deals with all the continuous quantities and also with the qualities of the proportions [degrees] of10 shades and lights and distances in their [its?] perspective.


TP 31c introduces a new basis of comparison, the question of whether Painting and Music are concerned with proportions of “continuous quantities,” as is geometry, or with “discontinuous quantities,” as is arithmetic. The answer given is that both arts concern themselves with continuous quantities. This statement must be understood in the light of the former explanation that Painting is based on perspective (“le cose si toccano l'un l'altra di mano in mano”) (TP 31) and of the awareness that Music exists as continuous flow. Heretofore its flow, by a poetic rather than scientific argumentation, was proffered as evidence of its transience and mortality, flaws not inherent in the nobler art of Painting. Now the flow—that is, the smooth gliding from one tone to the next—elevates Music to a “scientia mentale” dealing with continuous quantities, like Geometry and Painting. Thus, under scientific scrutiny, a sort of equality of rank is established between Painting and Music.

Leonardo's distinction between continuous and discontinuous quantities comes, of course, from Aristotelian tradition (see especially Metaphysics, 6. 1, 2). Its application to the arts of Painting and Music is Leonardo's own. According to Aristotle (Logic 5a), line, space, and time belong to the class of continuous quantities, “for it is possible to find a common boundary at which their parts join.” Leonardo's judgment of Poetry (or “speech” in Aristotelian terminology) as inferior to Music and Painting is probably also based on Aristotle: “Speech is a discontinuous quantity, for its parts have no common boundary” (Aristotle, Logic 4b32).

As for the distinction between scientie meccaniche and mentali, one should look at TP 33, not reprinted here, because it does not deal with Music. There, the problem is approached through the consideration of “esperientia,” that is, empirical research. The classification of arts into artes mechanicae and artes liberales is medieval.


conclusione del poeta, pittore e musico. Tal diferentia è inquanto alla figuratione delle cose corporee dal pittore e poeta, quanto dalli corpi smembrati a li uniti, perchè il poeta nel descrivere la bellezza o'brutezza di qualonche corpo te lo dimostra a membro a membro et in diversi tempi, et il pittore tel fa vedere tutto in un tempo. el poeta non può porre con le parole la vera figura delle membra di che si compone un tutto, com el pittore, il quale tel pone innanti con quella verità, ch'è possible in natura; et al poeta accade il medesimo, come al musico, che canta sol' un canto composto di quattro cantori, e canta prima il canto, poi il tenore, e cosi seguita il contr' alto e poi il basso; e di costui non risulta la gratia della proportionalità armonica, la quale si rinchiude in tempi armonici, e fa esso poeta a similitudine d'un bel volto, il quale ti si mostra a membro a membro, che cosi facendo, non remarresti mai satisfatto dalla sua bellezza, la quale solo consiste nella divina proportionalità delle predette membra insieme composte, le quali solo in un tempo compongono essa divina armonia d'esso congionto di membre, che spesso tolgono la libertà posseduta a chi le vede. e la musica ancora fa nel suo tempo armonico le soavi melodie composte delle sue varie voci, delle quali il poeta è privato della loro discretione armonica, e ben che la poesia entri pel senso dell' audito alla sedia del giuditio, sicome la musica, esso poeta non può descrivere l'armonia della musica, perchè non ha potestà in un medesimo tempo di dire diverse cose, come la proportionalità armonica della pittura composta di diverse membra in un medesimo tempo, la dolcezza delle quali sono giudicate in un medesimo tempo, cosi in comune, come in particolare; in comune, inquanto allo intento del composto, in particolare, inquanto allo intento de' componenti, di che si compone esso tutto; e per questo il poeta resta, inquanto alla figuratione delle cose corporee, molto indietro al pittore, e delle cose invisibili rimane indietro al musico. ma s'esso poeta toglie in prestito l'aiuto dell' altre scientie, potrà comparire alle fere come li altri mercanti portatori di diverse cose fatte da più inventori, e fa questo il poeta, quando s'impresta l'altrui scientia, come del oratore, e del filosofo, astrologho, cosmografo e simili, le quali scienze sonno in tutto separate dal poeta.

conclusion of [the discussion between] the poet, the painter, and the musician. As for the representation of bodily [corporeal] things, there is the same difference between the Painter and the Poet as between dismenbered and united things, because when the Poet describes the beauty or ugliness of a body, he shows it to you part by part and at different [successive] times, while the Painter lets you see it in one and the same moment [simultaneously]. The Poet cannot create [establish] with words the real shape of the parts which make up a whole, as does the Painter, who can put them before you with the same truth that is possible in nature [in the concrete appearance of nature], and the same thing happens to the Poet [the Poet encounters the same difficulty] as would to the Musician, if the latter would sing by himself some music composed for four singers, by singing first the soprano part, then the tenor part, and then following it by the contralto and finally the bass; from such a performance does not result [ensue] the grace [beauty] of harmony by proportions [musical harmony as produced by the consonance of several voices of different pitch as established by the acoustical proportions], which is confined to moments of harmony (endowed with harmony, i.e., chords)—this is precisely what the Poet does to the likeness of a beautiful face when he describes it feature by feature. You would never be satisfied by such a representation of beauty [of the beauty of the face], because that can only be the result of the divine proportionality of these features taken all together since it is only at the very same moment [simultaneously] that they create this divine harmony of the union of all features which so enslaves the beholder that he loses his liberty.

Music, on the other hand, within its harmonious flow [time], produces the sweet melodies generated by its various voices, while the Poet is deprived of their specific harmonic action, and although Poetry reaches the seat of judgment through the sense of hearing, it cannot describe [render, create] musical harmony because he is not able to say different things at the same time as is achieved in Painting by the harmonious proportionality created by the various [component] parts at the same time, so that their sweetness can be perceived at the same time, as a whole and in its parts, as a whole with regard to the composition, in particular with regard to the [single] component parts.

For these reasons the Poet remains, in the representation of bodily things, far behind the Painter and, in the representation of invisible things, far behind the Musician. But if the Poet borrows from the other arts he can compete at fairs with merchants who carry goods made by various inventors [makers]—in this way he acts when he borrows from other sciences such as those of the orator, philosopher, astronomer, cosmographer, and others which are totally separate from his own art.


First, a difference is stated between Painting and Poetry as far as they occupy themselves with the representation of bodily things (“figuratione delle cose corporee”)—disjointed features are found to be the subject of Poetry, and united features the subject of Painting. In fact this distinction is only another version of the distinction between arts which present their objects in succession, in the flow, and those arts which present their objects in simultaneity (see TP 30). It must, however, be pointed out that Leonardo does not mean to restrict altogether the field of Poetry to figurazione delle cose corporee, because later in this chapter 32, he has it compete also with music in the field of the figuratione delle cose invisibili.

A very important point is touched upon when Leonardo exalts Painting for being able to put before us features with the truth of nature (“con quella verità, che'è possible in natura”) because here a basic aesthetic phenomenon is accounted for—the concreteness of visual appearance—or to say it more precisely, the simultaneous impact of an infinite number of features integrated in their concrete, immediate appearance. This observation of Leonardo's goes beyond the famous paragone of the eighteenth century, Lessing's “Laokoon,” which strangely enough, does not analyze this phenomenon of the visual arts. Goethe, we recall, was deeply aware of it, for instance, when he admired Delacroix's illustrations for Faust, which, as he remarked (Gespräche mit Eckermann, Nov. 29, 1826) added, or rather, were forced to add by their very medium, details to the scene which were beyond his, the Poet's, medium.

Very striking and almost humorous is Leonardo's argument to prove the inferiority of Poetry to Painting by the absurd picture of the performance of a polyphonic four-voice composition by one single singer, who could sing the four parts of the polyphonic web one after another, thus losing harmony and thereby the whole musical purpose altogether. At the same time, this caricature of Music reveals that Leonardo credits Music, if correctly performed, with proportionalità armonica, one of the important advantages inherent, according to him, also in Painting.

The remainder of TP 32 returns to the argument about proportions which was taken up before in TP 21, 23, 27, 29, and 30. We will briefly examine later in the epilogue whether proportions can really mean the same thing in Painting and in Music.

In a peremptory summary Leonardo states that in the figuratione delle cose corporee the Poet ranks behind the Painter, and in the figuratione delle cose invisibili, behind the Musician. What then, we ask, is the comparative rank between Leonardo's most beloved and exalted art, Painting, and Music? He has accorded proportionality and harmony to both of them; he seems also to ignore here the cliché disparagement of music—its evanescence—la malattia mortale (see TP 29: “la pittura eccelle e signoreggia la musica, perche essa non more immediate dopo la sua creatione”). Nothing then hinders him from regarding Music as equally noble in its own right, in consideration of the peculiarities of this discipline. But this ultimate verdict had already been pronounced in chapter 23 [of Paragone], which warns against the confusion of arts for the eye and arts for the ear, concluding: “Lasciavi entrare l'uffitio della musica (the peculiar business of music): Let music enter by its own merits and do not confuse it with painting, the true imitative science.”11


These chapters of Leonardo's Paragone seem to amount to a mixture of naive, often contradictory statements, commonplaces of his time, rhetorical attempts to bolster the social status of the Painter, and profound original ideas about the nature of the arts, including that of Music.

To be fair, we have to recall that the Trattato was not a book compiled by himself but composed by Francesco Melzi out of relevant passages—but by no means all the relevant passages—in Leonardo's notebooks and manuscripts.

Furthermore, Leonardo himself was never a consistent organizer of his thoughts, although he frequently reminds himself in his notebooks to write a treatise on this or that—treatises never found and most probably never written in the continuous onslaught of tasks and problems upon him, the artist, scientist, engineer, and provider of entertainment for the court.

Leonardo states clearly in TP 34 (not included in our selection) that it is only through ignorance that Painting was classed below the “sciences,” by which he means the liberal arts. This ignorance is the lack of familiarity with the most recent achievement of Painting, linear perspective: an exact rationalization of sight based on mathematical proportions. This made Painting a quasi-mathematical science of the same nobility as Music, for centuries one of the members of the quadrivium together with geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. Leonardo was not the only one to fight for the inclusion of Painting among the liberal arts. Half a century earlier Leon Battista Alberti had taken the same stand. And when Pollaiuolo in 1493 designed the tomb of Sixtus IV, he added the allegorical figure of Prospettiva to the figures of the quadrivium and trivium. …

For a summary it seems practical to list the criteria and arguments proffered by Leonardo in his Paragone for judging the comparative nobility of Music among the arts. Many notions were in the air, so to speak; some echo arguments indispensable in the fashionable, intellectual pastime of Leonardo's day, the disputation of the arts and their merits among courtiers and humanists; some are contradicted by deeper thoughts in the Codice Atlantico and other notebooks of Leonardo, where they are mostly just hinted at and jotted down in Leonardo's typical “self-reminder” fashion. A few, finally, contain new and ingenious ideas.


a. The eye (Painting) more noble than the ear (Poetry and Music): 16, 20, 21, 24, 27, 28, 29, 31b.

b. The evanescence of Music; her mortal disease: fading: 23, 29, 30, 31b. Strangely enough, the same blame is not laid on Poetry.

c. Boredom and disgust caused by repetitiousness: 23.12

d. Poverty of the musical realm; Music concerned only with sound, while Painting is universal, concerning itself with all things that enter the mind: 31b.

e. Mechanical arts: Music performed with the mouth: 31; see also, 19, 31c; and, deviating from the clichés, 33, not included in our selection.




The distinction is retained in various versions throughout nearly all the chapters of the Trattato included in the present essay: 16, 20, 21, 24, 27, 28, 29, 31b. Curiously enough, the exaltation of Painting as the foremost visual art is often based on harmony, which is an integral feature of a temporal art: Music. In these contexts Leonardo stresses harmony as a phenomenon restricted to one single instant, namely, the combination of several tones of different pitch in one chord (or as he terms it, “concento”); he never fails to emphasize in medesimo tempo. It is perhaps a pity that the complier of the Trattato did not include also some of the most salient statements of Leonardo on the nature of time as a continuous quantity, for instance, Arundel (BM) 263, 173v, 190v, and 132r.


A discussion of the various meanings of “proportions” in Leonardo's writings would go far beyond the limits of this little chapter. In the Paragone two kinds of “harmonious proportions” are ascribed to Painting: first, the proportions of the single features of a face or any other object of representation that create the harmony of the whole; second, the numerical proportions that are implied in mathematical perspective, that as a new method used by the Painter made Painting a mathematical art worthy of admission into the quadrivium. The first kind of proportions is [seen] paralleled in musical harmony, that is, in the numerical relations between the pitch of the tones united in one chord. This would restrict proportions to the “vertical” aspect of the flow of music. However, Music admits also the concept of “lengthwise” or “horizontal” proportions—that is, the relation between successive sections of a piece of music. There is no direct acknowledgment of such proportions in the Paragone (see my comment to TP 30), but Leonardo's awareness of the problem appears clearly from statements in British Museum Arundel 263, 1736. There he discusses, in the Aristotelian vein, the concept of continuous quantities in geometry (already touched upon in TP 31c), compares point and line with their counterparts in time, and, on this basis, affirms the proportionality of time sections. The passage is too interesting for its bearing on musical time not to quote it here:

Benchè il tenpo—sia annumerato infra le continue quātità, per essere inuisibile e sanza corpo, non cade integralmēte sotto la geometrica potentia, la quale lo diuide per figure e corpi d'infinita varietà, come continuo nelle cose uisibili e corporee far si uede; Ma sol co' sua primi principi si cōuiene—, cioè col punto e colla linia—; il punto nel tempo è da essere equiparato al suo instante, e la linia à similitudine colla lūghezza d'una quantità d'un tempo, e siccome i pūti sō principio e fine della predetta linia—, così li instanti sō termine e principio di qualūche dato spatio di tempo; E se la linia è diuisibile in īfinito, lo spatio d'ū tênpo di tal diuisione non è alieno, e se le parti diuise della linia sono proportionabili infra sé, ancora le parti de tenpo saran̄o proportionabili infra loro.

Although time is included among the continuous quantities, it does—since it is invisible and incorporeal—fall into the realm of geometry, whose divisions consist of figures and bodies of infinite variety, as a continuum of visible and corporeal things. But only in their principles do they [geometry and time] agree, that is, with regard to the point and the line; the point is comparable to an instant in time; and just as a line is similar to the length of a section of time, so the instants are ends and beginnings of each given section of time. And if the line is infinitely divisible, so is the section of time resulting from such division; and if the sections of a line are proportionable to one another, so are the [successive] sections of time proportionable to one another.13

Similar statements based on Aristotle's book 6 of Physics, esp. 231b, 7; 232a; 233a; and 233b, 15, are found in Leonardo, Arundel 263 (BM) 176r and 190v; but the reference to proportions between successive sections of time is Leonardo's own, and so is the application of Aristotle's concept of continuous quantities to the field of aesthetics, particularly to music.

If Leonardo thus admits proportions between successive sections of time and therefore also of successive sections of a work of music, it remains strange that he does not explicitly recognize the role of memory in creating forms in the flux. Memory is hardly ever investigated or analyzed by Leonardo as a psychological or philosophical problem, except in connection with Painting, the art that stems the flight of time by eternalizing the presence of a visual image. One of his rare general references to memory is found outside the Paragone, in CA 76a:

A torto si lamētā li omini della fuga del tenpo, incolpando quello di troppa velocità, nō s'accorgiēdo quello essere di bastevole trāsito, ma (la) bona memoria—, di che la natura ci à dotati, ci fa che ogni coas lungamēte passata ci para essere presente.

Wrongly do men lament the flight of time; they accuse it of being too swift and do not recognize that it is sufficient [sufficiently moderate] in its passage; good memory, with which nature has endowed us, makes everything long past seem present to us.

figuratione delle cose corporee vs figuratione delle cose invisibili. This distinction may seem at first glance similar to that between arts for the eye and arts for the ear; yet it goes deeper. In chapter 12 Leonardo speaks of the divinity of the science of Painting and, paraphrasing Dante,14 calls the Painter the lord and creator (padrone, signore, creatore) of all the things which occur in human thought. This concept seems to go far beyond the qualification of Painting as an art copying nature.15 Should not then the idea have occurred to him that Music is still more free and god-like, since it creates “out of nothing”? This seems to be implied in his concept of the figuratione dell invisible.

Music in the last analysis is not anymore the “younger and inferior sister of Painting” (TP 29) but in every sense “equiparata” (equivalent) to Painting (TP 30). If Leonardo had never said anything else about Music beyond defining her as a figuratione dell invisible, this definition alone would suffice to convince us of his profound understanding of the nature of Music as a discipline that is not bound to copy nature but with an unparalleled degree of freedom creates forms (“figure”) out of a material neither tangible nor visible.


  1. The most recent accounts of the Trattato are: Anna Maria Brizio, Il Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo, in Scritti di Storia dell'Arte in onore di Lionello Venturi, Rome 1956; A. Philip McMahon, Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci (Princeton University Press, 1956); Kate Trauman Steinitz, Leonardo da Vinci's Trattato della Pittura, a bibliography (Copenhagen, 1958); Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo da Vinci, On Painting, A Lost Book (Berkeley 1964).

  2. Heinrich Ludwig, Leonardo da Vinci: Das Buch von der Malerei; vol. 15 of the Quellenschriften für Kunstgeschichte (Vienna, 1882).

  3. The terms chord and, for that matter, polyphony were not yet idiomatic in the musical treatises of Leonardo's time, although polyphonic musical practice used chords. In fact, full triads had become fashionable about one generation before Leonardo.

  4. Leonardo was, of course, well versed in the tradition of Pythagorean proportions and entirely at home in the theory of harmony, especially the musical treatises of his friend, Franchino Gaffuri. He also was familiar with Leon Battista Alberti's theory of proportions in De Re Aedificatoria, completed 1452, published 1485. There, Alberti recommends borrowing the laws of visual shapes (figure) from the musicians since “the same numbers that please the ears also fill the eyes and the soul with pleasure.”

  5. About Leonardo's notion of memory as victor over time, see the “Epilogue” (pp. 219-23).

  6. Leonardo does not explain whether Poetry is not affected by this same disadvantage.

  7. The remainder of TP 29 is of no interest for Music.

  8. Mistranslated with “rhythms” by J. P. Richter and Irma Richter, Paragone (London, 1949), p. 75.

  9. Mistranslated by Irma Richter, Paragone, p. 77: “If you say that the sciences are not ‘mechanical’ but purely of the mind,” which implies that all sciences are not mechanical, while Leonardo evidently wants to distinguish between scientie meccaniche and scientie mentali.

  10. I. Richter mistranslates as follows: “… with the qualities of proportions, shadows and light. …”

  11. André Chastel, The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci (New York: Orion Press, 1961), p. 33, seems to underrate this assessment of music when he says: “Ultimately these [the spatial] arts take a higher position than the temporal arts,” perhaps because he does not reprint the critical chapters 23 and 32 of the Trattato.

  12. On evanescence and disgusting repetitiousness, see also CA 332 va: “La musica ha due malattie, delle quali l'una è mortale, l'altra e decrepitudinale: la mortale e sempre congiunta allo instante sequente a quel della sua creazione; la decrepitudinale la fa odiosa e vile nella sua replicazione.” (Music has two ills: one is mortal, the other is related to its decrepitude [feebleness]; the mortal one is always linked to the moment that follows its incipience [each tone of it]; its feebleness causing repetitiousness makes it hateful and vile.)

  13. See n. 4, above.

  14. “Arte, nipote di Dio.”

  15. When Leonardo speaks of Painting as an art or a science “imitating” nature, he means, in line with current theory, by “imitare,” recreating nature, and not “ritrarre,” i.e., redrawing, as for instance in a camera obscura. See on this point also the forcible statements at the end of chap. 27, that Painting can concern itself with creations that have never been created by nature.

Leonardo's Manuscripts Referred to in This Book

Abbreviation Description and/or location
MSS A through M Institut de France, Paris
Arundel 263 (BM) British Museum
CA Codice Atlantico, Ambrosiana, Milan
Forster I, II, III Forster Codices, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Madrid MS I, II Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid
Metropolitan Museum Drawing at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Quaderni d' Anatomia I-IV 6 volumes of anatomical drawings in Royal Library, Windsor (sometimes referred to as Anatomical MS. C)
TP Trattato della Pittura, Codex Urbinas, Vatican Library
Triv. Codex Trivulzio, Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Windsor Folios in Royal Library, Windsor
Windsor AN. A, B 2 manuscripts of anatomical drawings in Royal Library, Windsor (Fogli dell' Anatomia A and B)
MS 2037 Bib. Nat. Institut de France
MS 2038 Bib. Nat. Institut de France

Richard Fly (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7010

SOURCE: “Great Observers: A Comparative Essay on Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 146-66.

[In the following essay, Fly contrasts the differing conceptions of human sight reflected in the works of Leonardo and Shakespeare. For Leonardo, he declares, “the primary function of the eyes” is “the scientific scrutiny of the phenomenal world,” while for Shakespeare it is “the acknowledgment and expression of essential human relationships.”]

He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men.

(Julius Caesar I.ii.202-3)

My general subject in this essay is the role of vision as a mode of discovery in the work of two great Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare. The particular kind of comparison I want to make, and the crucial distinction I hope to reveal, can best be set forth by placing a famous passage from Leonardo's Treatise on Painting beside an equally famous bit of dialogue from a Shakespearean play. The Leonardo quote comes at the end of a long celebration of human vision when he caps an emotional crescendo with the exclamation, “but what is there which is not accomplished by the eye?” (23).1 The Shakespearean dialogue occurs at the emotional peak of his most powerful tragedy, King Lear, when the old king, exhausted by exposure and maddened by betrayal, suddenly meets Gloucester, brutally blinded and expelled from his home. Both old men are ripe with new knowledge of the cruel ways of the world, but Lear has broken through to a deeper apprehension:

Lear. No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.

Glouc. I see it feelingly.

Lear. What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.


Leonardo's “what is there which is not accomplished by the eye?” and Shakespeare's “a man may see how this world goes with no eyes” are representative expressions, I believe, of the basic assumptions of these two geniuses. Between Leonardo's rhetorical question and Shakespeare's paradoxical answer exists a profound difference that can only be partially explained by the dissimilarities in medium or the one hundred years that separate the two men. Beyond all differences in date, nationality, medium, and education there remains a fundamentally different understanding of how one engages with the world.


Leonardo would not appreciate being compared to a poet, even such a poet as Shakespeare. Much of Book One of his Treatise on Painting (Paragone: Of Poetry and Painting) glorifies painting at the expense of poetry. Painting gives a more comprehensive representation of the world, Leonardo argues, because “the painter will create an infinite number of things which words cannot even name, since there are no words appropriate to them” (14). Poets also suffer from another disadvantage in that their words can only be the shadow of reality whereas paintings can present the thing itself. “Poetry places things before the imagination in words,” Leonardo reasons, “while painting really places the object before the eye, and the eye accepts the likenesses as though they were real. Poetry offers things without this likeness and they do not make an impression by way of visual impact as does painting” (13). To Leonardo, then, poetry is inferior to painting on two essential counts: its finite vocabulary severely limits its representational scope, and its insubstantiality greatly lessens its sensual impact. Rhetorically addressing his inferior competitor, Leonardo summarizes these differences: “Painting in itself includes all forms of nature, but you, poet, have nothing but their names, which are not universal, as are their forms” (19). Exit poet, chagrined.

It may be objected that Leonardo's whole argument in the Paragone is mostly academic and rhetorical in nature and, therefore, should not be understood as a mean-spirited attempt to denigrate poetry but rather as his desire to elevate the dignity of painting. That explanation is difficult to accept, however, when one considers the basic premise of his case for the superiority of the painter. I am referring to the relationship Leonardo repeatedly constructs between the hierarchy of the senses and the hierarchy of the arts. This curious relationship, and the distinctions that follow from it, take the form of a simple syllogism: poetry appeals to the ear and painting to the eye; the eye is the noblest of the five senses; ergo, painting is superior to poetry. We know that sight is the most valued sense, Leonardo argues, because everyone prefers all other sensual deprivations to blindness:

If asked which he would rather select, to be in perpetual darkness or to be willing to lose his hearing, no man's judgment is so senseless that he would not at once reply he would sooner lose his hearing, together with the sense of smell, rather than to be blind. For whoever loses his sight loses the beauty of the world and all forms of created things, and the deaf man loses only the sound made by the motion of air under percussion, which is the least thing in the world.


That a man might “see how this world goes with no eyes” is simply inconceivable to Leonardo. Indeed, the absolute certainty with which he can dismiss the unique realm of human discourse as “the least thing in the world” is a peculiarity in his character of some importance. It certainly distinguishes him from Shakespeare.

The preeminence of sight in a hierarchy of senses is a venerable concept which can be traced through Aristotle's Metaphysics to a number of Renaissance theorists.3 In Leon Battista Alberti's influential treatise on architecture, for instance, Leonardo could have read that “There is nothing more powerful, nothing more rapid, nothing more worthy than the eye. What more can be said? The eye is such that among the members of the body it is first, the chief one, it is king and, as it were, God.”4 Alberti's coronation and deification of the eye became a commonplace in the Renaissance. Even so, his question “what more can be said?” is fully answered only by Leonardo, who far outdoes his contemporaries in his exaltation of sight. As many have remarked, Book One of the Treatise on Painting could more accurately be titled “In Praise of the Eye,” since it is this organ's presumed total sufficiency as an instrument of knowledge about the world that causes Leonardo to privilege painters over all other artists. In such passages as the following we come close to the essence of Leonardo's engagement with the world:

The eye, by which the beauty of the world is reflected for those who behold it, is of such great excellence, that he who consents to lose it deprives himself of the representations of all the works of nature. Because it views these works by means of the eye, the soul is content in the human prison of the body; by means of the eyes the soul represents to itself all the manifestations of nature. But he who loses his eyes leaves the soul in a dark prison, in which all hope is lost of again seeing the sun which is the light of the world.


Once again, it is Leonardo's extremism that is significant here. His unqualified hyperbole collapses the hierarchy of the senses, leaving the sense of sight as the soul's only contact with the external world. Such exclusivity makes possible his outbursts of unrestrained admiration for this glorious and liberating faculty: “O, most excellent above all other things created by God, what praises are there to express your nobility? What peoples, what tongues, can describe your scope? … What is there which is not accomplished by the eye?” (23).

It should be clear that, for Leonardo, this question is rhetorical, since he has no doubt that all knowledge comes to us via the eye. Indeed, such a conviction underlies his entire artistic and scientific endeavor. To my knowledge, no one has put more clearly the purely visual basis of Leonardo's enterprise than Ernst Cassirer:

To traverse the realm of visible forms completely, to grasp each of these forms in its clear and certain contours; and to keep them in their full definiteness before both the internal and external eye; these are the highest aims recognized by Leonardo's science. Thus, the limit of vision is also, of necessity, the limit of conception. Both as an artist and as scientist, he is always concerned with the “world of the eye.” It is certainly true that Leonardo's ideal of science aims at nothing but perfection of seeing.5

Cassirer's direct, confident phrasing is refreshing and quite a propos. He knows, of course, that no more complex individual has ever existed than Leonardo. But when one considers the fundamental “aims” of his program, the mystery vanishes and Cassirer and other Leonardo scholars can speak with certainty and unanimity. E. H. Gombrich has no doubt that “Leonardo was the greatest of visual explorers.”6 “Leonardo looked at nature directly,” Jacob Bronowski adds, “not through the mind but through the eye.”7 Kenneth Clark strikes the same note of confidence: “Certain things in Leonardo's art are clear and definable, his passionate curiosity into the secrets of nature, and the inhumanly sharp eye with which he penetrated them.”8 Echoing through all these modern assertions is Goethe's famous judgment. “Leonardo's grasp of nature was directly visual,” he said, “and because his thinking was grounded in the phenomenon itself, he hit upon the truth without detours.”9

Most everyone, too, has noted and commented upon the supernatural quickness and accuracy of Leonardo's “inhumanly sharp eye.” Not only in his great masterpieces but in his studies of birds in flight, in his numerous tracings of swirling water, in his astonishing diagrams of anatomical structure, and in his detailed sketches of plant and animal life, there is overwhelming proof that his was no ordinary vision. “His was a wonderful eye,” Bronowski remarks, “sharp and abrupt as a camera, which could stop a bird in flight and fix the muscled movement of its wing.”10 Contemporary scholars are often amazed to discover that certain of his observations are so precisely delineated that they can stand comparison with results obtained by the most subtle modern instruments. There seems no doubt that Clark is right in his suggestion that “the nerves of his eye and brain, like those of certain famous athletes, were really supernormal,” and that consequently he could see and draw movements imperceptible to the ordinary eye.11 We may wonder whether it was Leonardo's extraordinary eye that led him to privilege visual knowledge so exclusively, or whether it was his insatiable curiosity for detailed factual information that focussed and sharpened his vision. In any case, both the hunger and the dependency on sight are beyond dispute.

Not surprisingly, Leonardo's ambition as a painter is to realize the most exact possible imitation of nature—and here, too, he far surpasses his contemporaries. “That painting is most to be praised,” he writes in the Treatise, “which agrees most exactly with the thing imitated” (98). His much-imitated technical innovations—the soft modelling of forms, the chiaroscuro and sfumato effects of light and shade, the use of color and blurring of line in the creation of perspective, even the outward depiction of inner feeling—all arise in answer to his desire to give his paintings the fullest possible illusion of life. And in the great portraits—the Ginevra Benci, the Cecilia Gallerani, and above all the Mona Lisa—he may have come as close as a mortal can come to this ideal. We do know that the awesome effect his masterpieces had on his contemporaries arose primarily from his seemingly magical imitation of nature. “If one wanted to see how faithfully art can imitate nature,” Vasari wrote of the Mona Lisa, “one could readily perceive it from this head; for here Leonardo subtly reproduced every living detail.”12 The highest compliment Vasari can pay is to stress how lifelike the portrait is, and he does this in embarrassing specificity: “On looking closely at the pit of her throat one could swear that the pulses were beating.” Indeed, the mass of commentary on the Mona Lisa offers little more than variations on Vasari's theme of miraculous re-creation. Thus, a French theorist in the seventeenth century finds that “there was so much grace and so much sweetness in the eyes and the features of the face that it seems alive.”13 And everyone recalls, I imagine, Walter Pater's description of the portrait as “beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.”14 Pater's lyricism may carry him well beyond Vasari's clumsy enthusiasm, but the focus of his praise remains the same.

The Mona Lisa, the most celebrated work of pictorial realism in the history of the visual arts, painted by the greatest of the visual explorers, may be taken as Leonardo's proof that painting is superior to poetry and that the eye is the noblest of the five senses. It triumphantly answers his question “what is there which is not accomplished by the eye?” Later in this essay I want to look more critically at this accomplishment and to suggest another possible answer to this question. But for now we can leave Leonardo in his glory and turn to Shakespeare to see how this great poet both shares and qualifies Leonardo's appreciation for and reliance on visual knowledge of the world.


Shakespeare left us no “treatises” setting forth his thoughts on the relative merits of poets and painters as agents of knowledge about reality, but it is clear that he felt closely implicated in the mimetic program of the visual arts. After all, it's his Hamlet (that Mona Lisa of the dramatic arts) who enunciates the proposition that “the purpose of playing … is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own features, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii.19-23). And in the marvelous mirror of Shakespeare's art we find images of human nature so carefully observed and so precisely delineated that they seem to live independently of the scripts that contain them: Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra—one could swear, a Vasari would say, that the pulses were beating. Indeed, the history of commentary on Shakespeare is not unlike that on Leonardo in its fascination with lifelike representations. “This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare,” Samuel Johnson definitively proclaims, “that his drama is the mirror of life … for there is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction here which books and precepts cannot confer.”15 We could be hearing Vasari or Goethe speaking in praise of Leonardo's art.

Johnson concentrates attention primarily on Shakespeare's representations of human nature, but that same “vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction” is equally present in Shakespeare's depictions of the animal and physical worlds. For example, consider the dramatist's almost Leonardosque fascination with the subtle contrast of light and darkness in the words he gives the Ghost in Act One of Hamlet as hints of the approaching dawn compel him to leave his son:

                                                            Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu.


The fading spark of the firefly against the receding night sky allows Shakespeare to capture that imperceptible moment of transition when darkness with its ghostly visitors and supernatural powers, gives way to light. An even more startling effect occurs when Shakespeare fixes his eye on that opposite moment when evening light flickers out into an ominously encroaching darkness. For instance, here is what Macbeth sees as he watches the blackness fall that will cover, he hopes, his arranged murder of Banquo:

                                                            Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th'rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys to rouse.


Here the eye is carried forward into the gathering darkness by the slow drowsy flight of the crow, whose disappearance into the “rooky wood” marks the extinction of the field of vision itself with its moral controls. The last vestiges of light actually seem to thicken and curdle in futile defense against the enveloping gloom.16 All students of Shakespeare know how much he loves to situate his actions on these precisely observed thresholds of experience. We are convinced by the “vigilance of observation” that he could not have taken these glowworms and crows from any handbooks on imagery—he had to have seen them directly. In such instances Shakespeare reveals a capacity for visual particularity matched only by Leonardo; and like Leonardo, that particularity results from his curiosity and responsiveness to the phenomenal world around him.

Shakespeare also shares with the great Italian painters a keen interest in problems of perspective. The lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, looking back at the bewildering experiences they have passed through in Athens' woods, declare, “These things seem small and undistinguishable, / Like far-off mountains turned into clouds” (IV.i.186-7). And when Imogen in Cymbeline hears a report of her banished husband's gradual disappearance from view as he sailed away from England, she describes how she would have watched his departure:

I would have broke mine eyestrings, cracked them but
To look upon him till the diminution
Of Space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turned mine eyes and wept.


One might almost think these lovers had been preparing for their roles by reading Leonardo's instructions on perspective. But certainly the most fully developed instance of Shakespeare's fascination with “the diminution of space” occurs in King Lear—a play about diminution in all its forms. I have in mind that moment in Act Four when Edgar positions his blinded father at what he pretends is the top of Dover Cliff and then describes the precipitious view:

Come on, sir; here's the place. Stand still. How fearful
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beatles. Halfway down
Hangs one that gathers sampire—dreadful trade;
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark
Diminished to her cock; her cock a buoy
Almost too small for sight … I'll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.


In addition to the clarity of vision and the sense of precise and distanced physical detail, notice how Edgar's word-painting firmly controls a perspective in which crows in “the midway air” shrink to beatles, the sampire-gatherer “halfway down” foreshortens to a head, and the fishermen “upon the beach” diminish to mice. The gaze sweeps downward from cliff edge to precariously hanging sampire-gatherer to beach to tall anchoring bark and its minute cock to the shapeless expanse of the sea beyond the vanishing point of the buoy, creating in the viewer an overpowering sensation of vertigo. Edgar's ruse is fraught with moral complexities, but his perspectival organization of imagined space is a tour de force worthy of Leonardo.

Given Shakespeare's interest in visual particularity and problems of perspective, it's not surprising to find many references to painters in his plays. In every instance, the assumption is that the goal of painters is to create lifelike images, and the best are those who come closest to this ideal. We find no mention of Leonardo, of course; but in Act Five of The Winter's Tale we do hear of “that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape” (V.ii.91-4). When Leontes sees what he thinks is an example of Romano's work—a painted statue of his dead wife—he is astonished by its lifelikeness. “What was he that did it,” he exclaims:

                                                            See, my lord,
Would you not deem it breathed? and that those veins
Did verily bear blood? …
The fixture of her eye has motion in't,
As we are mocked with art.


This miraculous artwork is actually Leontes' wife, returned to him after sixteen years of supposed death. But that rare master of lifelike paintings makes nameless contributions to several other Shakespearean plays, always creating in his viewers the same amazed response. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, when Bassanio discovers Portia's portrait in the lead casket, he remarks, “Fair Portia's counterfeit! What demigod / Hath come so near creation?” (III.ii. 115-6). And in the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew the befuddled Christopher Sly is tempted to lecherousness by the sight of realistic Ovidian paintings. “Dost thou love pictures?,” his tempters ask:

We'll show thee Io as she was a maid
And how she was beguiled and surprised,
As lively painted as the deed was done.
Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one shall swear she bleeds.


But such references to the mimetic skill of the painter reaches its fullest development in Timon of Athens where the play opens with a discussion between a poet and a painter about the relative merits of their crafts. The poet is quite impressed with a portrait of Timon that the painter has done:

                                                            Admirable. How this grace
Speaks his own standing! What mental power
This eye shoots forth! How big imagination
Moves in this lip! To th'dumbness of the gesture
One might interpret.


“It is a pretty mocking of the life,” the proud painter confesses. But all the painters in Shakespeare's plays, from first to last, elicit from their audiences this same admiration for verisimilitude in portraiture. That they express their appreciation in terms that recall Vasari's praise of the Mona Lisa suggests the degree to which Shakespeare and Leonardo share basic assumptions about the role of vision in artmaking.


Why, then, does Shakespeare not also share Leonardo's conviction of the supremacy of sight in a hierarchy of senses? Why can't he, too, find the eye a fully sufficient and reliable instrument through which to know and possibly master the world? To Leonardo's question “what is there which is not accomplished by the eye?,” why does Shakespeare answer that “a man may see how this world goes with no eyes?” To raise these questions is to confront sharp differences in the world-views of these two men, and it is these differences I now want to explore in more detail.

One certainly cannot accuse Shakespeare of lacking appreciation for the eye. It is referred to in Troilus and Cressida as “the most pure spirit of sense” (III.iii. 106) and in King Lear as “the most precious square of sense” (I.i.74). In Love's Labor's Lost we are told that “a lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind” (IV.iii.329) and in Richard II we hear of how the King's “eye, / As bright as is the eagle's, lightens forth / Controlling majesty” (III.iii.68-70). “If you will, cut out my tongue,” Arthur tells his tormentor in King John, “So I may keep mine eyes. O, spare mine eyes” (IV.i.101-3). As Arthur's dilemma shows, when Shakespeare wants to dramatize the most extreme degree of human depravity he tends to think of an assault on the eyes. Surely nothing is more shudderingly awful in Shakespeare than that moment in King Lear when Cornwall snarls “out, vile jelly” as he crushes Gloucester's eyeball. “The extrusion of Gloucester's eyes,” Johnson states uncategorically, “is an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition.”17 If this is true it is so because Shakespeare associates the visual faculty with the moral faculty, so that Cornwall's attack on the old man's eyes strikes us as a direct attack on the very principle of morality itself. Perhaps nowhere in the plays is this conjunction of vision and morality more clear than in Macbeth, where evil is simply impossible without first blinding the eye. Invocations of darkness must precede all acts of violence, as in this chant by Macbeth just before his planned murder of Banquo:

                                                                                Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.


In effect, Macbeth must become his own Cornwall and engage in self-mutilation in order to attack his victims. Staring at his bloody hands after his murder of King Duncan, he exclaims, “What hands are here? / Ha! they pluck out mine eyes” (II.ii.58-9). His bloody hands must remain invisible to his tender eyes if Macbeth is to succeed in annihilating the great bond that maintains his essential humanity.

This emphasis on the moral dimension of sight is what distinguishes Shakespeare's celebration of the eye from Leonardo's. For Shakespeare, the primary function of the eyes is not the scientific scrutiny of the phenomenal world, but rather the acknowledgement and expression of essential human relationships. Thus, the most characteristic use of the eyes in the tragedies is to weep for the misfortunes of others. In his most lucid moment Macbeth imagines that “the sightless couriers of the air, / Shall blow the horrid deed [of Duncan's murder] in every eye / That tears shall drown the wind” (I.vii.23-5). “I know thee well enough,” Lear says to blind Gloucester during their fourth act meeting, “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes” (IV.vi.173-4). After his murder of Desdemona, Othello, his mind clear for the first time, describes himself as “one whose subdued eyes, … / Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum” (V.ii.348-51). In Hamlet and Measure for Measure even the supposedly pitiless gods—those “burning eyes of heaven”—are imagined as weeping as they observe the tragic human scene. Clear-sightedness itself is never enough in Shakespearean tragedy; it must also be informed by feeling and compassion. Perception comes through sorrow, and often those who see most clearly are those, like Cordelia and Miranda, whose eyes are blurred with tears.

Conversely, Shakespeare is always critical of the sort of person described by Gloucester “that will not see / Because he does not feel” (IV.i.68-9). Perhaps our best analysis of the personality that prides itself on its powers of unfeeling observation comes in Julius Caesar's famous characterization of Cassius. “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” Caesar tells Antony:

                                                                                He reads much,
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men.


Shakespeare allows Cassius to suffer the same misfortune that usually overtakes his “great observers.” Near the end of the play he makes a devastating visual mistake and commits suicide after confessing “My sight was ever thick” (V.iii.21). The most hopeless souls in the Shakespearean universe are those who think they have purged their sight of emotional coloring and can look dispassionately on the human scene: Richard of Gloucester, Shylock, Jacques, Iago, Goneril and Regan, Lady Macbeth. These characters survey the immediate world with “a lean and hungry look” and although they are shrewd observers of human behavior, they always miss the spirit that valorizes it—like Cassius, they “misconstrue everything.” “Give me the daggers,” Lady Macbeth tells her fearful husband, “The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures. 'Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil” (II.ii.52-4). Yet this morally liberated observer is reduced to a pathetic sleep-walker before the play is over: “You see her eyes are open,” her Doctor says. “Ay, but their sense are shut” (V.i.22-3), a Gentlewoman answers. Lady Macbeth's initial tone of confident observation is shared by Shakespeare's most heartless villains. “I have looked upon the world for four times seven years,” Iago brags, “and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself” (I.iii.311-4). “You see how full of changes [our father's] age is,” Goneril tells Regan, “The observation we have made of it hath not been little” (I.i.288-90). Such people measure the depth of their potential inhumanity by their capacity to make these clear-eyed and rational observations. This is so everywhere in Shakespeare.18

Despite his tremendous powers of observation and representation, Shakespeare is highly critical throughout his work of those who rely too exclusively upon the evidence of sight. He finally cannot endorse the concept of the hierarchy of the senses or accept the superiority of the eye. His engagement in the world around him is simply too sensually complex to be contained within such reductive categories. He does not deny that the eye is a most precious organ; but he knows that sight is a distancing sense that requires a degree of disengagement and withdrawal—a sacrifice for which the observer is partially compensated by both a clearer image of the world and the promise of greater control over it.19 For Leonardo, if not for Shakespeare, such compensation is sufficient. In this regard, as in many others, Leonardo is more akin to Francis Bacon than to Shakespeare. Bacon's program to bring nature under man's control, like Leonardo's, depends entirely on an interplay of visual accuracy and scientific objectivity. “It all depends,” Bacon writes in The Great Instauration, “on keeping the eye steadily fixed upon the facts of nature and so receiving their images simply as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our imagination for a pattern of the world.”20 Shakespeare's engagement with the world is more dynamic than this, more reciprocal, and, for this reason, far more erotic. His dramas do not arise out of a Faustian desire for knowledge and mastery of the world, but from a desire for a full and fruitful participation in it. Indeed, he is not afraid to “give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world,” since he knows that “dream” is an integral part of that pattern. His creative stance, finally, is like that of his lovers who seek consummation—and love, as Helena explains in A Midsummer Night's Dream, “Looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (I.i.233-4).


I want to conclude by returning for a final look at Leonardo, and in order to underscore the essential difference between him and Shakespeare I will risk displeasure by focussing on some of the less endearing aspects of his character. In particular, I want to direct attention to that quality in his life and work which can be subsumed within that famous aphorism he wrote in the Codice Atlantica: “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality” (66).21 To few people is this cliché of scholarship more applicable than to Leonardo; and this is so, I suggest, because his “intellectual passion” finds its fulfillment almost exclusively in the eye. The word “love” appears very rarely in his writings, and when it does it never refers to the love of one person for another.22 Even the act of sexual intercourse is repugnant to him. “The act of procreation,” he writes in an oft-quoted passage, “and the members employed therein are so repulsive that if it were not for the beauty of the faces, and the adornment of the actors, and the pent-up impulses, nature would lose the human species” (97). For me, the operative word in this passage occurs in the phrase “the adornment of the actors,” where the term “actors” emphasizes Leonardo's position as a spectator observing a particularly ludicrous scene from the human comedy. Such a detached stance encourages a rather harsh view of human behavior, and one may think in this regard of his famous sketches of grotesque heads and of his frequent misanthropic comments on the appetitive nature of his fellow man: “Some there are who are nothing else than a passage for food and augmentors of excrement and fillers of privies” (80).

We find in Leonardo's character an undeniable strain of emotional remoteness and general solitariness. “Above all, he writes, “the observer should keep his mind as clear as the surface of a mirror” (48), and “the painter or designer ought to be solitary.” “If you are all alone,” he explains, “you belong entirely to yourself. But if you are with even one companion, you belong only half to yourself, and if you have more than one companion you will fall more deeply into the same plight” (49). Leonardo seems to have found this advice easy to follow, for although he spent his entire lifetime among the most fascinating figures of the Italian Renaissance—Verrocchio, Bramante, Machiavelli, Rafael, Michelangelo, Caesare Borgia, Pope Julius II—one searches in vain through his manuscripts for any hint of his feelings for them. Biographers have also pointed out the rather disturbing ease with which he could switch his loyalty from Medici to Sforza to Borgia to Louis XII to Pope Julius II to Francis I—but I suspect loyalty was never really a part of his relationship with these patrons. Indeed, he must have observed their political and military activities with the same curiosity and fundamental detachment he brought to the study of hydraulics or human sexuality. Vasari tells a fascinating anecdote about Leonardo which nicely illustrates his sense of himself in relation to the crowded world around him:

Leonardo used to get the intestines of a bull scraped completely free of their fat, cleaned and made so fine that they could be compressed into the palm of one hand; then he would fix one end of them to a pair of bellows lying in another room, and when they were inflated they filled the room in which they were and forced anyone standing there to retreat into a corner. Thus he could expand this translucent and airy stuff to fill a large space after occupying a little, and he compared it to genius.23

Leonardo's genius expresses itself by crowding out the immediacy of the human world, creating for it a special place of observation but leaving him in lonely isolation. Another anecdote, this one by Giovanni Paulo Lomazzo, gives us an even more startling picture of Leonardo. “They also say,” Lomazzo reports, “that he took great delight in going to see the gestures of the condemned being led to punishment, in order to observe those raised eyebrows and those expressions of the eyes and of life.”24 For the solitary observer who keeps his mind as clear as the surface of a mirror, such emotional remoteness is possible.

The breadth, the originality, the quality of Leonardo's achievements in art and science are, of course, truly remarkable. He deserves his reputation as the “universal man” par excellence of the Renaissance. But the knowledge and pleasure he gives us, wonderful as they are, must compensate for what he withheld from the world. This strange and complex man, this “Hamlet of art history” as Clark calls him,25 was unencumbered by the usual burden of human and cultural obligations. The degree of intellectual freedom Leonardo cultivated has been summarized in its most extreme form by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. “He was committed to neither family, home, nor country,

He was a cosmopolitan, who lived where he was paid to live, without allegiance or loyalty. … He took no interest in human institutions, in law, politics, or history, and identified himself with no country; problems of ethics and religion interested him no more than those of politics. … He did not take a hand in the affairs of the world. He had no inclination to seek a position of power. Ambition, jealousy, desire for success seems to have been alien to him. He cared nothing for public life. … Despite his many acquaintances and admirers, he was solitary all his life, but we have no indication that he suffered from his solitude. His self-reliance was unshakable. … He was impervious to human desire and passion, and the consolations of faith.26

There is some overstatement in this characterization, of course; but Jaspers captures the essence of Leonardo's singular personality. In his pursuit of knowledge he relied completely on himself—on his powers of observation and representation—and he was content to live without communication of the kind which enables a man to locate himself in relation to others. Leonardo was capable of sustaining throughout his life a kind of radical disengagement which may appear troubling in its absoluteness. Later in his life, as the accumulated weight and variety of his scientific observations passed out of his control, he seems to have withdrawn further into a melancholy and mysterious solitude. From this final position of detachment, in a series of shocking drawings, he contemplated the cataclysmic annihilation of the world he had so carefully observed.

Shakespeare and Leonardo embody two world-views between which, finally, there is not much contact. “Some men are wanderers all through their lives,” Jaspers writes: “Seemingly detached from other men, wishing only to see the world and reproduce what they have seen, they perceive with their whole being what others learn to see through them. The fact that they do our work for us and allow us to look on to the best of our ability gives them the privilege of standing aside while other men act and struggle and change the world of human affairs.”27 Such a man was Leonardo. Some men situate themselves in one place, and through a process of identification with the dense immediacy of life about them, achieve a depth of understanding we accept as the measure of authentic living. Like Gloucester, they “see the world feelingly.” The fact that they speak from the very center of human interaction and struggle gives them the privilege of disregarding the observed world of precise measurement. Such a man was Shakespeare. We are fortunate to share the special wisdom of both.


  1. All quotations from Leonardo's Treatise on Painting are taken from Treatise on Painting, ed. and trans. Philip A. McMahon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 2 vols.

  2. All quotations from the plays are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  3. “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses, for even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. … We prefer seeing to everything else.” The Works of Aristotle, ed. J. A. Smith, W. D. Ross, et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928-1931), I.I.980a. An excellent discussion of general attitudes towards sight in the Renaissance and Leonardo's response to them can be found in V. P. Zubov, Leonardo da Vinci, trans. David H. Kraus (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968). See the chapter “The Eye, Sovereign of the Senses,” pp. 124-68.

  4. The Architecture of Leon Battista Alberti in Ten Books, trans. James Leoni (London: Thomas Edlin, 1726), bk. 2, pp. 19-20. Quoted by Zubov, p. 125.

  5. The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. M. Domandi (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 157.

  6. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 83.

  7. The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 12.

  8. Leonardo da Vinci, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 159.

  9. Quoted by Cassirer in The Individual and the Cosmos, p. 158. For parallels between Leonardo and Goethe see Zubov, pp. 161-63.

  10. Bronowski, p. 12.

  11. Clark, p. 121.

  12. Lives of the Artists, trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 266.

  13. Andre Felibien, as reported by Roy McMullen in Mona Lisa: The Picture and The Myth (New York: Da Capo Press, 1977), p. 158.

  14. The Renaissance (New York: Mentor Books, 1959), p. 90. Pater's remarks on the Mona Lisa first appeared in an article in the Forthrightly Review for 1869.

  15. Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 23.

  16. For a fuller analysis of this passage see William Empson, 7 Types of Ambiguity, 2d. ed. (New York: Noonday Press, 1955), pp. 18-20.

  17. Johnson, p. 196.

  18. If the most hopeless souls in Shakespeare are those loveless individuals who step back in order to see more clearly, the happiest are those who step forward to accept the gift of love in spite of the evidence of the eyes. Berowne in Love's Labor's Lost sees that Rosaline is “a whitely wanton with a velvet brow, / With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes” (III.i.185-6), but he eagerly accepts her in marriage. Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing declares that if ever he fall in love “pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker's pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid (I.i.223-5), but he succumbs instantly to the suggestion of Beatrice's love. And Sebastian in Twelfth Night, although mystified when Olivia, a total stranger to him, offers herself in marriage, nevertheless accepts saying “I am ready to distrust mine eyes / And wrangle with my reason” (IV.iii.13-4). From The Comedy of Errors to The Winter's Tale a precondition to happiness in Shakespearean comedy is a willingness to distrust the eyes in exchange for a greater more mysterious form of wisdom.

  19. See the excellent essay, “The Nobility of Sight: A Study in the Phenomenology of the Senses,” in Hans Jonas' The Phenomenology of Life (New York: Delta Books, 1966), pp. 135-56.

  20. Francis Bacon: A Selection of His Works, ed. Sidney Warhaft (Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1965), p. 323.

  21. All quotations from Leonardo's notebooks are taken from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, arr. and trans. Edward MacCurdy (New York: George Braziller, 1958), 2 vols.

  22. In MacCurdy's “Index” the word “love” has only five entries. See p. 1223.

  23. Vasari, p. 269.

  24. Trattato dell'arte della pictura (1584).

  25. Clark, p. 159.

  26. Three Essays: Leonardo, Descartes, Max Weber, tran. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964), pp. 51-2.

  27. Jaspers, p. 57.

Robert J. Rodini (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4599

SOURCE: “The Weight of Words: Leonardo da Vinci and the Anxiety of Language,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer 1991, pp. 277-84.

[In the following essay, Rodini focuses on Leonardo's fascination with both the potential and the limitations of language, stressing that “Leonardo shared with his contemporaries the notion that language defines culture and the individual, and that our humanity resides in our capacity to articulate or to concretize abstractions.”]

All language, if you examine it scrupulously and pick its components apart deliberately, turns out to be made of the same loose texture.1

In an important book published in 1987 by Princeton University Press and entitled, Language and Meaning in the Renaissance, Richard Waswo considers at length the significance of language and language acts in the European Renaissance. He argues that “one of the principal defining energies of the entire Renaissance” was the “intoxicating and terrifying possibility of making meaning, reacted to and against in a bewildering variety of ways” (132). Situating Plato as a particularly important voice at the fountainhead of ambivalence to language, and noting St. Augustine's interest in the dichotomy between “sign” and “thing,” Waswo proceeds to trace the important echoes of Plato's anxiety from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, pausing to give particular due to the contributions of Lorenzo Valla and his preoccupation with semantic precision, or “elegance.”

Waswo's study thus traces the Renaissance's constant, all-consuming concern with language: its nature, its form, its potential, its authority, and, finally, its limitations. In Italy, from the early Quarttrocento until the end of the sixteenth century, there is almost no writer who is not viscerally involved with the art of the word. In humanist Italy, it was an obsession: Machiavelli and innumerable others wrote tracts on language and the power of the word; the effect of the word, the politics of speech, haunts Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (see, e.g., 1:29-30; 35-36); and much of the history of Renaissance letters consists in textual revision. In short, Dante's conviction—to cite Waswo once again—that there is an equivalence between what is said and what is real, is replaced in the Renaissance by a realization that a correspondence between word and fact is problematic (50).

The problematics of semantic correspondence and of the fixity of linguistic referentiality in the Renaissance is basic to any number of tracts and to any number of literary works, where it often appears metaphorically. Waswo has cited the case of Hamlet, who “must interpret everything in a world where no text is transparent, where nothing is as it seems” (154). In the same context, one might recall the central cantos of the Orlando Furioso (23-24), where the play between the text (inscriptions on trees) and the multiplicity of meanings it can generate in the reader (Orlando), is basic to Ariosto's casting into doubt the fixity of phenomena, be they linguistic or otherwise.2

The nature of language and its fluidity, or its mutant quality and therefore its vitality, and ultimately its “mortality” and potential demise, was a preoccupation of humanist writers. Echoing Horace's Ars poetica, where words decay and are revived (Waswo, 100), humanists like Valla and Bembo couch their discussion of semantic shift in terms of organic metaphors, a type of biology of language, which can be nurtured or left to atrophy. It is perhaps not inappropriate, then, to speak of an anxiety, in Renaissance Europe, before the word, the very rhetorical power of which is due to its multiplicity of significations, to its complex referentiality.

The purpose of this essay is to consider Leonardo da Vinci, the writer and humanist, in the context of my prefatory remarks and to put into focus his fascination with both the potential and the limitations of language. Despite his declaration that he was not a man of letters and despite his staunch resolve to remain at the periphery of humanist circles, we know that he was a humanist par excellence, if for no other reason than for his fascination with human intellective activity. One of his most frequently cited observations is a condemnation of the unthinking, inarticulate man who remains, in his eyes, a sack which receives food and from which it is expelled, a type of post-Dantean image of the defilement of human intellectual potential and a consequent reduction of the human to the bestial:

Non mi pare che li omini grossi e di tristi costumi e di poco discorso meritino sì bello strumento, nè tanta varietà di macchinamenti, quanto li omini speculativi e di gran discorsi; ma solo un sacco dove si riceva il cibo e donde esso esca, che invero altro che un transito di cibo non son da esser guidicati, perchè niente mi pare che essi participino di spezie umana, altro che la voce e la figura; er resto è assai manco che bestia.

(Scritti scelti, 157)3

It seems to me that men of coarse and clumsy habits and of small knowledge do not deserve such fine instruments or so great a variety of natural mechanisms as men of speculation and of great knowledge; but merely a sack in which their food may be stowed and whence it may issue, since they cannot be judged to be anything else than vehicles for food; for it seems to me that they have nothing about them of the human species but the voice and the figure, and for all the rest are much below beasts.

(Richter, 2:245)

As this passage reveals, Leonardo shared with his contemporaries the notion that language defines culture and the individual, and that our humanity resides in our capacity to articulate or to concretize abstractions.4

Not surprisingly, then, what Leonardo has to say about words, and the way in which he used and manipulated words, reveal a life-long preoccupation with the nature of language. Early in his notebooks, we find him experimenting with Latin lexical elements, creating neologisms, and seemingly fascinated by the resultant nuances.5 If Valla strained for “elegance” through semantic precision, Leonardo continued to marvel at the protean nature of words and syntax. When I metaphorically use the term “weight” in my title in reference to Leonardo's own prose, I do not do so capriciously but rather to convey a sense of the density and texture of language—signification aside—toward which Leonardo strived and which Marinoni (1:21-22) has so well described: “Le parole nel loro succedersi, come le note della Musica, … non muoiono ‘immediate’ dopo la loro singola creazione, ma, fissandosi nello ‘spazio’ della memoria, stabiliscono l'armonioso concento delle loro proporzioni, scandiscono i loro ritmici accenti, variano toni e timbri, obbedienti a una misura interiore, tremando e vibrando docili …” (words in their succession, like musical notes … do not die immediately after their singular creation but, fixing themselves in the ‘space’ of memory, they establish a harmoniousness in their proportions, set up rhythmic patterns in their accents, vary tone and timbre, [always] obedient to an interior measure, sweetly vibrating … [translation and emphases mine]).

It has already been shown that in Leonardo, the phenomena of the physical universe such as weight, movement, and force, are raised to the level of myth; they become players in the drama of life, both protagonists and antagonists.6 They destroy, just as they create, in a type of constant flux and antithesis. It does not seem inappropriate, then, if weight is part of the dynamic of the physical universe, that it be used in association with the building blocks of syntax: words have a charge, a configuration, a density, a life, which not only give vitality to the syntactical period, or sentence, but serve as signifiers of Leonardo's vision of creativity. In the words of Giovanni Ponte, “la parola deve incarnare tutto il pensiero e svelarlo” (15): the word for Leonardo becomes substance, a vital element which carries the charge of human emotion and thought.

The word fascinated Leonardo in the same way that bones, and veins, and musculature fascinated him. The human body was for Leonardo a metaphor of the structure of universals and of a universal animism. His use of anatomical vocabulary to speak of natural phenomena is well known: bones, veins, and tendons become synonymous with rocks and water. They all function in sustaining physical structures and they are all subject to erosion and decay. Words have an analogous function in discourse: the word is the basis of human communication and a vehicle for the manipulation of discourse. And though words, too, like everything which is vital, are subject to change and extinction, they are the lymph (always in flux?) which sustains the structure of syntax and thought. In that regard, the following is an especially suggestive observation:

L'inchiostro displezzato per la sua nerezza dalla bianchezza della carta, la quale da quello si vide imbrattare. Vedendosi la carta tutta macchiata dalla oscura negrezza dell'inchiostro, di quello si dole; el quale mostra a essa che per le parole ch'esso sopra lei compone essere cagione della conservazione di quella.

(Scritti scelti, 115)

The black ink brought into relief by the whiteness of the paper, which saw itself stained by it [the ink]. The paper, seeing itself spotted by the blackness of the ink, laments; [the ink] shows it [the paper] that it is due to the words which the ink forms upon it that the paper survives [translation mine].

As is not uncommon with Leonardo, he anthropomorphizes the inanimate, and in this brief, fragmented note, a piece of paper grieves when ink is spilled on it and is made to realize that words destroyed mean the destruction of the text's existence and of the paper's usefulness. The word is connective tissue in the living body of human locution.

The animism of the semantic unit places it in a state of constant flux: signification changes; its emotional charge varies according to syntactic position; its weight is defined by attributes such as case and gender. One might say that words have much the same qualities for Leonardo as the line of a drawing or the tonal qualities of pigment. His use of words and his visual technique reveal the same preoccupation with capturing the tentativeness of phenomena.7 But more than with the brush or pen, Leonardo struggled with the word: he frequently lamented, for example, the “slowness” of the word (“sono lente”; my emphasis), which does not have the immediacy of an image; metaphorically, the poet languishes, overcome by thirst and hunger before the word is recorded; the instrument of writing, the pen, disintegrates: “… la tua penna fia consumata, innanzi che tu descriva appieno quel che immediate il pittore ti rappresenta co' la sua scienza, e la tua lingua sarà impedita dalla sete, e il corpo dal sonno e dalla fame, prima che tu co' parole dimostri quello che in un istante il pittore ti dimostra …” (from Trattato della pittura; Fumagalli, 239) (… your pen will be worn out before you can fully describe what the painter can demonstrate forthwith by the aid of his science, and your tongue will be parched with thirst and your body overcome by sleep and hunger before you can describe with words what a painter is able to show you in an instant [Richter, 1:531]). In the words of Martin Kemp regarding Leonardo's observations on painting and poetry, “an image described in words must be reconstituted by the imagination whereas a visual image requires no such processing” (380).

Even more frequently, following the topos of poetic limitations, Leonardo decries the inadequacy of the word: “Come potrò io dire? Certo io non mi sento bastevole a tanta dimostrazione …” (How will I be able to express it? I feel inadequate to such a task); “Ma con quali vocavoli potrò io descrivere le nefande e spaventose inondazione …” (But with what words will I ever be able to describe the destructive and frightening floods); “O scrittore, con quali lettere scriverai tu con tal perfezione la intera figurazione [del cuore e delle vene che notriscono il core], qual fa qui il disegno” (Oh writer, with what characters will you write with such perfection the entire form [of the heart and arteries which nourish the heart] as this drawing here is able to do [translations mine]). One notes in these laments the priority given to a sense of impotence: come potrò, with the verb in the future tense, and often placed in the interrogative mode to underscore the sense of doubt which, for him, surrounds authorial power.8 And in such exclamations, one notes also the insistence on the particulars of language, the elements which constitute discourse: in one instance Leonardo asks, precisely, with “which words” he could ever describe a flood; in another, with “which letters or characters” he could reproduce an image equal to that of a drawing. This is Leonardo perennially conscious of the minutiae of any phenomenon.

It is perhaps, then, not inappropriate to say that Leonardo experiences the same sense of marvel, dismay, and inadequacy before the drama of language that he does before the drama of universal flux, before death and renewal. In both instances there is a tension created: in a classic metaphor of Platonic stamp in Leonardo's writings, he describes himself, the scientist, in awe of the universal unknown through the image of a man, poised in a state of physical tension, before the dark abyss of a cave. His back is arched; his legs are planted firmly on the earth; and one hand is cupped over the eyes to facilitate penetration of the mental eye into the unknown. And he says that he experiences both dread and excitement. There is a tension between possibility and the expectation of failure.9 In an analogous way, Leonardo views the craft of writing as one constantly frustrated by a reality too complex to render in human speech. One can argue here, of course, for a modern Leonardo experiencing anxiety before the word; what is certainly true is both an affinity with and a separation from contemporary humanists: the humanists honed the word so that each “shown like a jewel in the solemn slowness of diction” [(ogni parola) risplendesse come una gemma nella lentezza solenne della dizione], where the final product was intended as a kind of prosastic stasis, a perfect balance without surface tension (Marinoni, 1:149; 168-69).

For Leonardo, on the other hand, the anxiety before the word is transferred to an unstable reality he is recreating in language; and so the word—in its spatial placement within the syntactical frame and in its grammatical mode—serves to reflect the precarious balance of nature, captured in language, a universe always on the brink of disintegration, only to be born anew.

If one considers Leonardo's style closely, one notes a variety of elements, both in syntax and in morphology, which give shape to an anxiety in the face of having to use language to articulate thought. For example, as many critics have noted, Leonardo is particularly given to the use of relative pronouns and subordination in his prose; at other moments, one idea or observation follows upon another in a cumulative effect as if the writer were intent upon giving expression to a multitude of thoughts before words failed him. In an alternation between parataxis and hypotaxis we have a linguistic system with a highly dynamic charge.10 So what in modern terminology we might call “close-ended” when we speak of the prose of Leonardo's humanist contemporaries (“updating,” as it were, the concept of humanist Ciceronianism), in Leonardo we can discern a very open-ended style which threatens to come to no conclusion: a concatenation of ideas and observations for which words seem unable to provide a structure. One might say that the non-finito is characteristic of his style: sentences begin with syntactical structures which logically require a parallel clause, and the parallel clause is often missing; or causative constructions fail to state a logical effect. In such cases the prose also acquires a sense of drama: the period left dangling, the thought unfinished, words failing. In other instances, anxiety is conveyed by a system of dialogic structures: not unfamiliar with the classical tradition of the dialogue, Leonardo uses it as a vehicle to express uncertainty, ambivalence, and the drama of life forces. He uses dialogue to interrogate words. In Leonardo the dialogue form is often employed to convey the dynamic of inner uncertainty, ambivalence, and dismay, rather than, in the fashion of the humanists, as a rhetorical tool for persuading the audience to a particular philosophical or ethical position.11

Weight, in Leonardo, just as movement and force, gains mythic proportions. Weight, movement and force are all, of course, integral to the dynamics of universal physics; but they are also stimulants to Leonardo's fantasy and important components of his prose style. Both his drawings and his words are intent on reproducing the dynamic energies of the universe. And so the “weight” of my title has a multiple significance. It defines the impact of the potential inefficacy of language, what language cannot do; it alludes to the charge which lexical elements have in syntax; and it registers a characteristic of Leonardo's prose which, to stick to the metaphor, is weighty: word choice and word position consciously aim for a ponderous effect, in short, the gravitas of humanistic rhetorical style. But it is a gravitas, though related to Pietro Bembo's prescriptions for stylistic elegance, which mirrors a deliberateness in attempting to understand phenomena and to render their emotional impact through the art of writing.

One final example will suffice to reveal how Leonardo combines his sense of dismay, his self-doubt, and a solemnity of style which is almost metaphorical of deliberation, as he distills, of all things, the weight and density of the moon:

“La luna densa e grave, densa e grave, come sta la luna?”

(Scritti scelti, 595)

It is the query of the artist, eyes piercing the skies and in awe before a mass of material suspended in space. The cadenced line gives additional weight to adjectives which already insist on the seeming impossibility of such dense matter suspended above; and the rising intonation and then diminuendo of the final words express, in one of Leonardo's most lyrical moments, his complete inadequacy in comprehending such a marvel.12

It is another subject altogether, but it is this language of Leonardo, standing between poetic exhilaration and scientific precision, which is a beacon for the sustained lyricism of Galileo a hundred years later—Galileo, whose writings are so infused with a lyric charge that it will make his and all scientific prose one of the most significant literary phenomena of the late Renaissance.


  1. Robert M. Adams, “Lucy and Lucifer,” The New York Times Review of Books, March 1, 1990, p. 38.

  2. See the recent discussions of the Orlando Furioso in this context in Ascoli and Shapiro; in addition to Waswo, see important discussion of the “anxiety of linguistic mutability” (6) in Greene, The Light in Troy, ch. 2.

  3. All references in Italian are either to Leonardo da Vinci, Scritti scelti or to Leonardo, omo sanza lettere. Unless otherwise noted, translations are those of Jean Paul Richter and references are to his two-volume edition, The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. Richter's edition contains transcriptions from the original manuscripts as well as English translations. However, I have chosen to use modernized versions of the original.

  4. Reinhard Kuhn remarks on how the earliest humanists created the self through locution. In speaking of Petrarch, for example, he notes: “Words … are the elements with which Petrarch creates himself. Writing is no longer a mere recording of an already existing reality but the bringing into being of reality. It is an existential act whose product, the book, is no longer just a transcription of an intellectual and emotional case history but the very arena of the spiritual struggle that is life. … Petrarch is a man of words and it is through them that he exists” (69).

  5. See, especially, the fundamental work of Augusto Marinoni, Gli appunti grammaticali e lessicali di Leonardo da Vinci. For a more general, succinct discussion of Leonardo's style, see also his “Leonardo as Writer.” For a recent study of Leonardo's prose style, see Ponte, Leonardo prosatore.

  6. See, for example, Marinoni, 1:196, n. 2.

  7. Leonardo's observations on language are often in conjunction with observations on painting or drawing. Or better, in the tradition of the fifteenth-century paragone, he compared in herarchical fashion the means of expression available to him. And the conclusion is that of the two, painting is superior to the art of language:

    Se voi storiografi o poeti o altri matematici non avessi coll'occhio viste le cose, male le potresti riferire per le scritture; e se tu, poeta, figurerai una storia colla pittura della penna, el pittore col pennello la farà di più facile sadisfazione e men tediosa a essere compresa; se tu dimanderai la pittura muta poesia, ancora il pittore potrà dire del poeta orba pittura: or guarda quale è più dannoso mostro, o cieco o muto. Se 'l poeta è libero, come 'l pittore, nelle invenzioni, le sua finzioni non sono di tanta sadisfazione a li omini quanto le pitture. …

    (Scritti scelti, 203)

    If you historians, or poets, or mathematicians, had never seen things with your eyes, you could report but imperfectly on them in your writing. And if you, oh poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness, and so that it is less tedious to follow. And if you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting.

    Now which is the more grievous affliction, to be blind or to be dumb?

    Though the poet is as free to invent, as the painter, his fictions do not give so great a satisfaction to men as painting. …

    (Richter, 1:56-57)

    In part, at least, such observations were provoked by Leonardo's realization that the drawing on the page—such as one depicting the movement of water—had a visual impact which could not be equalled by the mediation of the word. Like so much within Leonardo's experience, the word had an ambivalence which both frustrated and challenged his imagination. The word was an obstacle, incapable of conveying the visual impact of a drawing; at the same time, it was a kind of signifier subject to subtle manipulation which, at its most effective, could vie with the visual arts. For a discussion on this and for other important observations on Leonardo, see Kemp, especially pp. 376 ff.

  8. On the inadequacy of the word for Leonardo, see Ponte, p. 63 and passim. The topos has, of course, deep resonance in Dante, whom Leonardo knew well. See, for example, Carlo Dionisotti, “Leonardo uomo di lettere.”

  9. Non fa sì gran muglia il tempestoso mare, quando il settentrionale aquilone lo ripercuote, colle schiumose onde fra Silla e Cariddi, nè Stromboli o Mongibello quando le zolfuree fiamme, essendo rinchiuse, per forza rompendo e aprendo il gran monte, fulminando per l'aria pietra, terra, insieme coll'uscita e vomitata fiamma; nè quando le nfocate caverne di Mongibello rendan il male tenuto elemento, rivomitandolo e spigniendolo alla sua regione, con furia, cacciando innanzi qualunche ostacolo s'interpone alla sua impetuosa furia.

    E tirato dalla mia bramosa voglia, vago di vedere la gran copia delle varie e strane forme fatte dalla artifiziosa natura, raggiratomi alquanto infra gli ombrosi scogli, pervenni all'entrata d'una gran caverna, dinanzi alla quale, restato alquanto stupefatto e igniorante di tal cosa, piegato le mie reni in arco, e ferma la stanca mano sopra il ginocchio, e colla destra mi feci tenebre alle abbassate e chiuse ciglia, e spesso piegandomi in qua e in là per vedere dentro vi discernessi alcuna cosa, e questo vietatomi per la grande oscurità che là entro era. E stato alquanto, subito salsero in me due cose: paura e desidero; paura per le minacciante e scura spilonca, desidero per vedere se là entro fusse alcuna miracolosa cosa.

    (Fumagalli, 35)

    Nor does the tempestuous sea bellow so loud, when the northern blast dashes it, with its foaming waves, between Scylla and Charybdis; nor Stromboli, nor Mount Etna, when their sulphurous flames, having been forcibly confined, rend and burst open the mountain, fulminating stones and earth through the air together with the flames they vomit …

    Nor when the inflamed caverns of Mount Etna, rejecting the ill-restrained element, vomit it forth, back to its own region, driving furiously before it every obstacle that comes in the way of its impetuous rage …

    Unable to resist my eager desire and wanting to see the great multitude of the various and strange shapes made by formative nature, and having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood for some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my tired hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows: often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there for some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvellous thing within. …

    (Richter, 2:324)

  10. See, for example, the discussion on parataxis and hypotaxis in Ponte, Chapter 3, and the general discussion on syntax for effect in the preface to Leonardo, omo sanza lettere.

  11. For a succinct discussion of the use of dialogue in Renaissance texts, albeit of a later period, see Eva Kushner, “Le dialogue de 1580 à 1630.” I am grateful to Ullrich Langer for bringing this article to my attention as well as for his other suggestions after reading an early draft of this essay.

  12. For a discussion of this particular question, see, e.g., Marinoni, 1:213 ff. Such inquiries on natural phenomena, transported to the realm of lyricism, are essential to Giacomo Leopardi, both in his lyric poetry and in his Operette morali. See Marinoni's comments on Leonardo and Leopardi in the discussion referred to above. Many have commented on the fact that Leonardo's prose can be scanned as if it were verse and that he is particularly fond of rhythmic cadence which mirrors the Italian hendecasyllable. See Marinoni, 1:179.

    An earlier version of this essay was read at the ACTFL-AATI Meeting, Boston, 1989.

Works Cited

Ascoli, Albert Russell. Ariosto's Bitter Harmony: Crisis and Evasion in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton U. Press, 1986.

Castiglione, Baldessar. The Book of the Courtier. Tr. Charles S. Singleton. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959.

Dionisotti, Carlo. “Leonardo uomo di lettere.” Italia medievale e umanistica 5 (1962): 183-216.

Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. Yale U. Press, 1982.

Kemp, Martin. “From ‘Mimesis’ to ‘Fantasia’: The Quattrocento Vocabulary of Creation, Inspiration and Genius in the Visual Arts.” Viator. Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 8. U. of California Press, 1977: 347-98.

Kuhn, Reinhard. Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature. Princeton U. Press, 1976.

Kushner, Eva. “Le dialogue de 1580 à 1630: Articulations et fonctions,” in L'Automne de la Renaissance, 1580-1630. Ed. Jean La Fond and André Stegman. XXIIe Colloque international d'études humanistes. Tours, 2-13 juillet, 1979. Paris: J. Vrin, 1981. 149-62.

Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, omo sanza lettere. Ed. Giuseppina Fumagalli. Florence: Sansoni, 1943.

Leonardo da Vinci. The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci. Compiled and Edited from the Original Manuscripts by Jean Paul Richter. Third edition. 2 vols. New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1970.

Leonardo da Vinci, Scritti scelti, a cura di Anna Maria Brizio. Turin: UTET, 1952.

Marinoni, Augusto. Gli appunti grammaticali e lessicali di Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. Milan: Castello Sforzesco. 1944.

Marinoni, Augusto. “Leonardo as Writer,” in Leonardo's Legacy: An International Symposium. U. of California Press, 1969. 57-66.

Ponte, Giovanni. Leonardo prosatore. Genoa: Casa Editrice Tilgher, 1976.

Shapiro, Marianne. The Poetics of Ariosto. Wayne State U. Press, 1988.

Waswo, Richard, Language and Meaning in the Renaissance. Princeton U. Press, 1987.

Claire J. Farago (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12081

SOURCE: “Leonardo's Defense of Painting,” in Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone : A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in the Codex Urbinas, E. J. Brill, 1992, pp. 92-117.

[In the following essay, Farago outlines the method by which Leonardo distinguished painting as superior to poetry, music, and sculpture. She also analyzes Leonardo's treatment of painting as a science, discussing his views on the creation of optical effects.]


The 46 passages compiled in the Parte Prima originate in various manuscripts of which only two are identified today.1 The heterogenous nature of the Parte Prima is due in part to its being an anthology of excerpted paragraphs and in part to the many sources of its richly conceived arguments. None of Leonardo's defenses of painting seem to derive wholesale from another source, but most of his individual arguments do have precedents, in some cases so many diverse precedents that it would be difficult to favor one at the expense of others. The passages are assembled thematically and arranged in roughly five subdivisions that reflect a humanist interpretation of the liberal arts. It is unlikely that Leonardo would have arranged his treatise in the same way.2 The organization is useful, however, because the range of his comparisons between painting and each of the other arts can be seen at a glance.

Leonardo's central defense of painting is that it is a science, based on perspective and defined as the branch of optics that represents things on a flat surface.3 Painting is the primary focus in all of his polemics: the other arts merely help him to define it by contrast. Thus, his discussion of sculpture revolves around his scientific investigations of relief feigned in painting. Similarly, musical harmony, which he compares to the geometric proportions of perspective, is largely based on an understanding of proportionality as something that can be expressed as a visual configuration, an idea that he probably drew from Alhazen's optical theory or perhaps more immediately from Nicole Oresme.4

The comparisons with poetry form a somewhat special case, because such comparisons are so prominent in Leonardo's sources. … Aside from isolated texts like Dio Chrysostom's Twelfth Olympic Oration, there is no established literature for critical comparisons of painting and sculpture or painting and music. In several drafts included in the Parte Prima, Leonardo refers explicitly and repeatedly to the classical tradition of comparative literary criticism, ut pictura poesis, paraphrasing the maxim of Simonides told by Plutarch that painting is a mute poem. But in these passages Leonardo defines painting in literary terms insofar as pictorial ornament is an attribute of descriptive poetry. Thus, in his comparisons of painting to poetry the usual roles are reversed. Here as with all the other arts, however, poetry merely provides differentiating characteristics for defining painting.5

The pervasive influence of literary theory is most apparent when Leonardo's critical terms are considered. His central argument concerns the nature of artifice. Leonardo claims that painting is superior because perspective is evident artifice, which ornaments painting with copious variety that delights all viewers. This artifice is due to the inventive powers or ingegno of the painter who represents natural appearances truthfully. The painter's inventions spring from his imagination, which, by means of disegno, depicts the emotions and mental states (“mental accidents”) of figures.

Much of this argument was indebted to Alberti's treatise on painting, which in turn was based on ancient Roman rhetorical theory, but the ut pictura poesis analogy also had an immediate history in artistic practice that valued ornament in a manner directly opposed to Alberti's restrained, neo-classicizing critical stance. Leonardo's coupling of rilievo and ingegno, key terms in his critical vocabulary, was fundamentally indebted to the workshop tradition that Cennini, more than Alberti, records. Leonardo praises painting in conventional terms by comparing it to poetic ornament, the discrezioni of landscape in particular, but he simultaneously devalues poetic artifice by claiming that visual images are better than verbal ones. Leonardo borrows from medieval contrasti and uses related motifs in the tradition of neoplatonic love poetry, but his adaptations are permeated with a scientific rationalism foreign to the original metaphors.6

One of the intriguing aspects of Leonardo's polemics on the arts is the manner in which a few motifs suggest so many different issues. The complexity of his ideas can be appreciated best by studying each individual passage, as the commentary notes accompanying the texts here do, but the main arguments against poetry, music, and sculpture can each be reduced to a sentence or two:

1. Painting is superior to poetry because it represents the works of nature, whereas poetry represents the lesser works of man, namely words, which are arbitrary conventions. A number of related issues, such as the scientific status of painted images, criteria for liberal as opposed to mechanical arts, and the reasons for preferring a visual image, stem from this basic argument.

2. Painting is superior to music because, even though both compose a “harmonic proportionality,” painting can be contemplated as a whole at once and enjoyed for a longer period of time. Leonardo also adapted this argument to poetry, which is likewise ephemeral because it is temporal; and to sculpture, which does not present a whole seen [sic] all at one time.

3. Painting is superior to sculpture because it involves more mental effort and less physical exertion. A number of related issues develop from this argument, too, such as the characterization of sculpture as a “natural body” totally lacking in artifice (and therefore inferior to painting, the artifice of which, perspective, requires great ingegno, or mental effort); and praise of difficult artifice that measures the nobility of art by the role of the artist. These passages also present additional arguments about the liberal and mechanical arts, distinguished from one another on the basis of the kind of labor required, physical or mental, with reference to concrete artistic procedures.


Displays of skill and ingenuity that emulate both nature and man-made art are at the center of Leonardo's defense of painting. Now that Leonardo's fragmentary literary remains have been ordered and medieval optics has been shown to be an important basis for the artist's definition of painting, it is finally feasible to study developmental aspects of the extensive manuscript evidence. The rest of this chapter is concerned with the ways in which Leonardo expected to create the optical effects that he associated with pictorial artifice in his theoretical considerations of painting.7

As we have already seen in Chapter Two, Leonardo defined painting on the model of a scientia media, a term that was applied to Aristotelian sciences that “mixed” theoretical and practical knowledge. Leonardo defended the primacy of painting over the other arts on this foundation that painting is a physical science grounded in both mathematical principles and experience, like optics. The most mature version of his definition of painting is preserved in the first chapter of the Codex Urbinas, which has direct precedents in Madrid Codex II, defining painting as a mathematical science that belongs to geometry, the investigation of continuous quantities.8 In the Madrid Codex drafts, however, Leonardo did not yet distinguish clearly between mathematical and physical entities, as he would in later statements in the Codex Urbinas and elsewhere concerning pictorial composition based on optical principles.9

As Leonardo gradually refined his definition of painting as a science capable of achieving mathematical certainty, he drew close connections between sight and imagination (in terms of painted and mental images) grounded in the geometric analysis of light associated with Alhazen's theory of direct vision and medieval, non-Aristotelian psychology of the internal senses.10 The geometry that explains how light rays strike surfaces, and the conception of the imagination as part of a complex of internal organs with the capacity first to receive external images (like a mirror), then to combine, analyze, and store them, are the foundation for Leonardo's continuing discussions of color and light in relation to the visual force of painted images. A clear schematic diagram of this geometry is preserved in the Parte Prima, Chapter 4, in a passage entitled “Principle of the Science of Painting.”11

Leonardo synthesized literary and scientific theory when he discussed the visual force of painted images in terms of color and light. In many passages, he defended painting both as a science and as the most noble art because its artifice presents images to the imagination in conformity with the conditions of vision.12 That is, painting was based on a theory of light and vision that accounted for actual appearances. For example, on Ms. G, fol. 23 verso, and CA 277 v-a, ca. 1513-1514, perhaps his latest comparison of painting and sculpture, Leonardo discussed how the artist manipulates oppositions of light and dark by selecting contrasting values for the sake of pictorial harmony. Leonardo's considerations of the bounding surfaces of objects, which developed through his study of mathematics, are the key to his evolving definitions of pictorial relief. His discussions of disegno in late writings such as the opening chapters of the Codex Urbinas identified painting completely with the science of chiaro e scuro, concerned with visible things like the (material) surfaces of bodies covered by (immaterial) color.

Only a sketchy chronology can be established for Leonardo's paintings. Extensive manuscript evidence, however, confirms and provides a rich context for examining Leonardo's developing interest in reflected color, manifested as an increasingly complex tonal structure and progressively lighter palette, as John Shearman discovered by means of formal visual analysis.13 As a prime example of Leonardo's late style, Shearman discusses the Louvre Virgin and Child with St. Anne. But the ongoing conservation of the Last Supper demonstrates that Leonardo had lightened his palette at the least by the mid-1490s, about three years after he recorded extensive discussions of reflected color in Ms. A. As the following discussion will clarify, even if the Last Supper was not entirely typical due to the experimental nature of the medium Leonardo employed, its coloristic qualities are in line with trends clearly noticeable in the Louvre Virgin and Child with St. Anne. New evidence arising from the conservation of the Last Supper indicates that Leonardo tried to apply color in transparent layers, probably in imitation of oil techniques indebted to the example of Flemish art, which he emulated even in his earliest Florentine works.14

But Leonardo's considerations of tonal relief and color cannot be separated in the way that many scholars today assume. Modern distinctions between “hue” and “value” are misleading categories to provide criteria against which to judge Renaissance discussions.15 In De sensu et sensato (442a), a leading source of these discussions, Aristotle arranged colors on a linear scale as intermediaries between the extremes of light and dark, and compared the mixture of colors to sounds and to the layering of pigments by painters (De sensu et sensato, 442a and 439). This seven-color scale, however, is more complex than a scale based simply on light intensity, such as Plato's color ladder of gradations arranged according to luminosity(Timaeus 67E5-8), or the even older classification of Democritus, who identified white, black, red and green with the four elements. This system apparently dominated ancient literature.16 Working within the Aristotelian tradition he inherited, Leonardo tried to formulate a theoretical model for painted color consistent with direct visual experience—or at least consistent with certain critical assumptions that he defined in terms of direct experience, such as the beauty of apparent color fully illuminated by light. Leonardo belongs to a scientific artistic tradition that needs to be distinguished from the tradition of modeling with color, most recently glimpsed in the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling frescoes, and already discussed in medieval painting manuals as early as the tenth century.17

If he had differentiated between qualitatively and quantitatively intense light as we do today, Leonardo probably would not have arrived at the conclusion that painting can represent on optical principles the beauty of color fully illuminated by light. Like many of his contemporaries, Leonardo expressed values in relative terms as geometric ratios, not absolute measurements.18 This habit of thinking in terms of ratios and proportional relationships (a:b=c:d) allowed him to develop principles of pictorial composition that do not differentiate between the quantity of bright light and its quality of brightness. As early as Ms. A, fol. 84 recto, ca. 1492, Leonardo cautioned painters not to be misled by heightened contrasts resulting from the direct juxtaposition of white and black.19 Yet the same habit of comparing qualitative and quantitative values (expressed as proportional relationships) also allowed Leonardo to claim that the viewer who cannot tolerate a certain quantity of intense, colored light when he looks directly into the path of that light can delight in its quality of splendore, or brilliance, when he sees it from an oblique angle.

Accordingly, Leonardo devised optical principles to guide painters that take into account hue, value, and point of view, even though he never separated these considerations into such modern categories. In his early writings, he followed the same headings derived from optical treatises as Alberti, to devise categories like corpo, figura, and colore (Ms. A, fol. 92 verso); or linear perspective, perspective of color, and the perspective of moving into the distance (or more literally, “expedition” [spedizione] but there is no adequate translation for the term) which describes how things appear less defined when they are further away (Ms. A, fol. 98 recto). These categories are the precedents to Leonardo's eventual distinction between formal optics and pictorial perspective, i.e. between “natural” and “accidental” or “artificial” perspective.


Leonardo's emerging thoughts on the qualitative aspects of color can be examined in a series of substantially intact notebooks accounting for the thirty years of his literary activity. According to this evidence, Leonardo did not articulate clear distinctions between formal optics and pictorial perspective until the end of his career: not until ca. 1508 did he define a discipline concerned exclusively with graphic representations on a flat surface. Leonardo recognized differences between natural vision and artificial perspective as early as Ms. A, ca. 1490-1492, but these categorical terms first appeared in his writings around 1508. The actual state of affairs has been clarified only very recently by Martin Kemp, who notes that Leonardo differentiated between “natural” and “artificial” (i.e., “artificial” (i.e., pictorial) perspective for the first time in writings datable to the late period of his literary activity.20

For the most part, Leonardo's categories and terminology regarding the nature of perspective remained fluid throughout his career, but we can generalize upon the forty-plus definitions that survive in his notes. In their original context, his formal definitions of painting as perspective record how Leonardo progressively and definitively shifted painting away from the direct imitation of natural appearances and towards a theory of artificial pictorial composition. He consistently counseled painters to choose carefully among appearances in nature. In his early writings, however, Leonardo recommended that painters imitate as closely as possible the most subtle gradations of light and shadow,21 whereas in his last recorded statements he advised painters to create strong contrasts of color according to their own ingegni, but founded on a knowledge of optical principles.22

We can examine the development of Leonardo's ideas by comparing the formal definitions of perspective embedded in discussions of painting preserved in four manuscripts for which we have a firm relative chronology: Ms. A, ca. 1490-1492; Madrid Codex II, 1503-1505; and Mss. E and G, ca. 1510-1515. In writings that span the course of Leonardo's literary career, these definitions recur in connection with loosely associated topics of discussion that are found in a repeated sequence. This recurring sequence of topics may be described as a “trattato sequence” inasmuch as the order and form of discussion follow Alberti's Treatise on Painting of 1435, which Leonardo studied at the time he wrote Ms. A. The pattern of ideas, moreover, does not occur in Leonardo's earlier discussions of perspective, such as the optical treatise Ms. C, ca. 1490, or the series of sheets from a dismembered notebook datable ca. 1489, which was incorporated into the Codex Atlanticus.23

The “trattato sequence” occurs eighteen times in Leonardo's intact manuscripts. If partial sequences are taken into account, the sequence occurs over forty times. … With some variations, the sequence consists of a formal definition of the parts of perspective, followed by a discussion of problems of rilievo associated with painting. Comparisons of the arts, or of the senses, occur in the midst of these discussions. The sequence ends with precepts addressed to painters on the order of Alberti's prescriptions for figurative decorum in Book 2 of the della Pittura (II.34-45).24 In the course of time, Leonardo progressively conflated the definition of painting as perspective and Albertian prescriptions for figurative decorum, so that pictorial decorum was described in increasingly formal terms. Late statements by Leonardo owe little to Alberti's moralizing theory of pictorial order, although these discussions preserve traces of the “trattato sequence” in both form and content. The earliest sequences are closest to Alberti, and Ms. A includes closely paraphrased passages. On the other hand, Leonardo's discussions of perspective and rilievo composed even earlier than Ms. A reveal a level of knowledge beyond anything Alberti wrote—as one might expect from Leonardo's assimilation of medieval optics by 1489-1492.25

Leonardo's idiosyncratic interest in optics, which seems so peculiar from the standpoint of the history of science, is substantially clarified by the discussions of painting in the “trattato sequences.” We can gain an overview of ongoing issues he investigated in these sequences by singling out his treatment of color in relation to lustre. Leonardo approached the problem as a painter who needs to create the illusion of lustre. He examined color in painting from the viewpoint of a scientia media that reconciles experience with optical principles.

Leonardo considered the topic of lustre as part of the larger problem of reflected color, a subject that accounts for many if not most of his studies of the action of light. Lustre, a point of light which moves as the eye moves, is a special case of the general principle that the reflected image of an object can be seen from all points of a plane mirrored surface placed parallel to that object. Today we restrict the definition of lustre to that gleam or sparkle that changes and scintillates as the viewer moves—distinct highlights, that tend to settle on ridges or protrusions of lit objects.26 For many years, Leonardo investigated the phenomenon of lustre—in ways departing radically from modern understanding of the phenomenon—in broader terms as the most beautiful condition of apparent color.

The subject of lustre occurs only incidentally, along with many other observations, in the early Ms. A but is reformulated with increasing insistence and clarity in later sequences. In early passages, Leonardo associated the uncolored light of lustre reflected off the surface of an object with the study of color reflected onto that object by other, colored objects in its vicinity. On folio 100 recto of Ms. A, he applied the problem of reflected color to painted rilievo, in a passage entitled “Come i corpi bianchi si devono figurare,” (how white bodies ought to be represented) which occurs in the original manuscript between two other passages included in the Parte Prima.27 On folio 113 verso of Ms. A …, Leonardo defined lustre as uncolored right, distinguishing it on this basis from other kinds of light, and compared it to the beauty of colored, reflected light: “Which part of color, reasonably speaking, ought to be the most beautiful? … [with a geometric diagram]. … The illuminated part which we call rose … will be much more beautiful. … The difference between lights and lustres is that lustres are not numbered among the colors, and they are always white, and born from the crests [highlights] of bodies which are bathed [in light], and its light takes its color from the place where it is born, like gold or silver, or similar things.”28

About ten to fifteen years after he wrote Ms. A, when he recorded his thoughts on lustre in Madrid Codex II, Leonardo made the same connection between lustre and reflected color on even stronger terms. On folio 26 recto, he described lustre according to three categories of colored light: the color of the light source, the color of the body that reflects the light source, and the color of the body through which this light passes if the body is transparent:

Lustre will take on much more the color of the light that illuminates the reflecting body than the color of that body. And this occurs in the case of opaque [dense] surfaces. The lustre of many umbrageous bodies is entirely the color of the illuminated body as in the case of burnished gold and silver and other metals, and similar things. The lustre of leaves, glass, and jewels will participate little in the color of the body where it is born, and a lot in the color of the body that illuminates it. Lustre generated in the depth of transparent solids has the first degree of beauty of that color, as is seen in the case of rubies, glass and similar things. This happens when all the natural color of the transparent body comes between the eye and that lustre.29

Leonardo's language makes sense if we understand the phenomenon of lustre on the principle that rays causing lustre travel through a medium (such as air or water), just like other forms of reflected light that strike the surface of a mirror or some other kind of body. Reflected color was a subject traditionally discussed in optical treatises which, even before Leonardo, had entered into scientific discussions of painting.30 Aristotle, as is well known, defined color as visible, sensed light that moves the imagination (De anima 428b). Color resides in the limit of the transparent; it “always inheres in the bounding surface. … Thus the conditions which in air produce light and darkness in bodies produce white and black” (De sensu et sensato 439b). Aristotle also discussed apparent color in terms of its movement through the medium of air, in the Meteorologica, and he ordered the hues sequentially on the model of nature's rainbow (Meteorologica 374b). It seems that Alberti was indebted to this discussion since he evolved the same ideas in the same order in the first book of De pictura.31 Alberti reserved a discussion of lustre for his second book, to describe a difficult challenge for pictorial representation: skillful painters can juxtapose light and dark pigment to imitate the appearance of shiny metal surfaces.32 Writing about two decades after Alberti, Lorenzo Ghiberti also included a passage on reflected color entitled “corpo bianco et mondo,” in his third Commentari, copied directly from an Italian translation of Alhazen's De aspectibus, perhaps even the same manuscript that Leonardo later consulted.33 Leonardo's investigation of reflected color follows the same scientific tradition.


In the scientific tradition of Alhazen, Leonardo examined the optical laws governing rilievo and investigated the representability of appearances on a flat surface. By considering the difficult cases for the representation of relief, Leonardo also confronted those natural conditions in which the causes of appearances are unknown or of relative uncertainty. This brought the burden of proof to bear on the ingegno of that painter who could discover means of demonstrating nature's laws in painting.

Leonardo judged painted color according to the manner in which its bellezza, chiarezza, splendore, and varietà correspond with direct optical experience.34 Since Leonardo thought about painted color in terms of apparent color, and since he defined apparent color in terms of colored light (that, according to the Aristotelian tradition, inheres in the boundaries of objects), it is not surprising that he described color using the vocabulary of light—color has beauty, clarity, and brilliance (bellezza, chiarezza, splendore), thus producing the conditions that the painter imitates to achieve varietà. The most beautiful color, and the greatest variety of colors, he argued, were produced by the natural conditions that governed lustre, a special case of reflected color, on the principles of geometry.

By demanding a close correspondence between painted images and direct experience, however, Leonardo raised a conflict not raised in the optical literature. The mingling of reflected colors in mirrors had been discussed among the errors or “fallacies” of vision as early as the second century by Ptolemy, one of Alhazen's main sources, who included it as a difficult problem of perception that potentially refutes (but actually verifies) optical theory; Ptolemy also discussed the case of illusionistic painting in his section on fallacies, describing the difference between constructions on a flat surface and actual sculpted relief.35 One interesting variant of this discussion that praises the deceptive appearance of imitated relief over actual relief, occurs in fourteenth-century commentaries on Aristotle's De anima.36

Leonardo, however, investigated the relationship between color fully illuminated by light and the limited ability of the pupil of the eye to endure such brightness. Among his artistic predecessors, Alberti notably avoided all consideration of ocular anatomy, and did not deal with the internal senses. The problem of pupil dilation was discussed by optical theorists, however, and Leonardo's considerations of pupil dilation have been singled out as central to his investigations in optical science, and an area in which he made original contributions.37 In Madrid Codex II, Leonardo discussed at length in relation to painting the problem of how the imagination is to receive the most beautiful color.38 On folio 26 verso, for example, he stated that: “When the object is strongly luminous, the pupil, not being able to tolerate it, contracts until the likeness of the luminous object reaches the pupil with diminished brightness and magnitude. Because of this diminution the sense is capable of tolerating the brightness facing it.”39

Leonardo's considerations of pupil tolerance are closely related to discussions at the beginning of optical treatises in the tradition of Alhazen, who, following Aristotle's theory of the limits of sense discrimination, associated intensely bright light with pain.40 Although he rejected the argument by ca. 1490 (in favor of intromission), Leonardo was also familiar with Pecham's discussion of the extramission of light by the eye, which followed Aristotle even further by contending that the natural light emitted by the eye plays a role in vision by moderating excessively bright lights so that they do not overwhelm the power of sight.41

Leonardo formulated the same problem concerning pupil tolerance that he had raised in the Madrid Codex more clearly about five years later in Ms. E, which was composed after further investigations of pupil dilation and image formation (found in Mss. D and F, both datable ca. 1508).42 Related statements on pictorial rilievo, also subsequent to these investigations, probably occur first in Libro A, ca. 1508-1510, where the exact sequence of the passages, however, cannot be reconstructed.43 Leonardo defined the problem in a series of propositions in Ms. E, fol. 17 verso, dated by Pedretti 1513 or slightly later. The conflict that concerned him is that darkness is the best condition for the eye to see and know, but brightness is the best condition for essential, or fully illuminated, color:

Painting. First. The pupil of the eye diminishes as much as the quantity of illumination increases and impresses itself.

Second. The pupil of the eye increases as much as the brightness of the day or other light that impresses itself on the pupil diminishes.

Third. The eye sees and knows the things that are its object so much more intensely as its pupil dilates and this is proved in nocturnal animals like cats and other, flying [animals] like the owl whose pupil makes the greatest variation between large and small in darkness and illumination.

Fourth. The eye placed in illuminated air sees darkness behind the illuminated windows of dwellings.

Fifth. All the colors placed in shadowed places appear to be of equal obscurity among themselves.

Sixth. But all the colors placed in luminous places never vary from their essence.44

As this sequence clearly shows, the problem Leonardo saw (taking sides with those scientists who defined categories of dark, unsaturated and bright, saturated colors) is that colors are most essentially themselves in bright light, which the pupil cannot tolerate.45 He restated the last two propositions about color in terms of the “natural bellezza,” in a passage on the next page, folio 18 recto, under the heading “pictura”:

Colors placed in shadow participate more or less in their natural beauty as they will be more or less dark; the greatest beauty is in the luminous, great splendore.46

Leonardo imagined a scenario in which an adversary argued that the variety of colors visible in shadow is equal to the variety visible in bright light. Leonardo disagreed, maintaining that there is less variety in the darker surfaces (vestite) of painting.

The solution that Leonardo worked out to this problem of representing the splendore and varietà of color on optical principles (first in Madrid Codex II and elaborated in the lost Libro A and Mss. E and G with respect to pictorial composition) has already been mentioned: the viewer who cannot tolerate the intense light of splendore when he looks directly into the path of that light can delight in its beauty when he sees it from an oblique angle. Thus, by selecting these conditions for his depiction (which substitute perception of the quality of intense light for its quantity), the painter can present the viewer with the beauty of fully illuminated color on optical principles. Here, then, Leonardo defined painted color in terms of natural light effects. And, consequently, he defined painted color in terms of tonal unity: without light, all colors are perceived as being dark. In this way, Leonardo transformed the quantitative aspects of color into qualitative aspects that had critical values attached to them. And in doing so, he transformed words like splendore, chiarezza, and obscurità from the descriptive vocabulary of optics to the critical language of art.47


That Leonardo intended to provide the art of painting with a set of unified, scientific principles is suggested by the two distinct kinds of writings in which he treated problems of pictorial composition: advice addressed to students in the form of precepts, and discussions of optics, often in the form of propositions like the passage just cited from Ms. E, concerning the appearance of rilievo in painting. The original editor of the Codex Urbinas destroyed the organic relationship of these discussions when he separated passages connected in the original manuscripts to arrange them according to subject matter. Their context must, therefore, be studied in the original manuscripts. In their original order, that we have dubbed the “trattato sequences,” Leonardo recorded problems formulated with reference to optical principles tested against various kinds of experience such as descriptions of direct observations and imagined situations, “thought experiments,” geometric sketches and calculations, and practical demonstrations. In other passages, he reduced his conclusions to the rules of a preceptive “art” suitable, like Alberti's treatise, for training students. These are the passages, most familiar to modern readers from the Trattato, commonly associated with Leonardo's pictorial procedures. Yet the precepts are intimately connected with, and truly inseparable from, the specific scientific discussions they once accompanied.

We can fully understand how the subject of lustre figured into Leonardo's considerations of painting only by turning to a second pictorial problem that he investigated through his study of formal optics. Discussing principles of pictorial composition in Madrid Codex II around 1503-1505, Leonardo was concerned with the problem of representing the most beautiful (i.e., fully illuminated) color, given the limited tolerance of the pupil to let light into the internal sense of the imprensiva. In the later Mss. E and G, the focus of discussion gradually shifted from the relationship between light and the internal senses of the explanation of the causes of observed phenomena. Comparison of the late writings with Madrid Codex II and Ms. A, and related evidence in other notes, suggests that in the course of his investigations of optics, Leonardo synthesized two distinct problems of pictorial representation that he drew from his Albertian inheritance and qualified on the basis of his scientific studies. One problem is what drawn lines can correspond to in nature, given that mathematical lines are not visible. The other is how to represent the greatest beauty of color on optical principles, given that the pupil cannot tolerate splendore. Beginning with his studies of Euclidean geometry around 1497, and during his subsequent investigations of light and shadow ca. 1502-1505 (and until his latest writings), Leonardo developed the basis for a new definition of painting that made the distinction between mathematical and physical line (a commonplace of Euclidean geometry) an important consideration.48

The core of a consistent program for the representation of optical relief, the basis of Leonardo's last definitions of painting, appears in Mss. E and G. Here the artist was primarily concerned with light reflected at the boundaries (termini) of colored, curved surfaces, to the variable extents that these boundaries are distinct. In Ms. G, on fol. 23 verso, Leonardo gave a clear definition of artificial, or pictorial, perspective in these terms, corroborated by many other notes of the same period. Seen from the standpoint of his pictorial considerations in Ms. G, Leonardo's investigations of lustre in Ms. A and Madrid Codex II make much more sense:

The primary principal part of painting are the fields (champi) of painted things in which the boundaries (termini) of natural bodies have convex curvature. One always knows the figures of such bodies in the fields even though the colors of the bodies are the same color as the fields. This comes about because the convex boundaries of the bodies are not illuminated in the same mode by the same light that illuminates the field. Because of this, the boundaries are often more bright or more obscure than the field.

But if such a boundary is the same color as the field, without doubt, information about the figure with such a boundary will be prohibited in that part of the painting. And the choice of painting such as this is loathed by the ingiegni of good painters who know that it is the intention of the painter to make his bodies project from these fields. And in the said case the contrary thing happens—not only in the painting, but also in the things in relief.49

In his late writings on painting, notably in Libro A and articulated even more fully in this passage from Ms. G, Leonardo seems to have reconciled the nature of line to the problem of representing the beauty of color: light is reflected at the edges of objects (i.e., boundaries seen in oblique view) differently from the way it is reflected from surfaces that face the viewer. His considerations, like Alberti's, belong to the Aristotelian-Euclidean science of optics that defines boundary as a surface which becomes an edge when it is seen in profile view. Lines are contours, and contours define the continuous gradation of surface, that is sculptural relief. But Leonardo's theory of pictorial composition is based on optical principles that, even more than Alberti's, evolved from the physical science of optics. Discussion of the difference between natural and mathematical lines in earlier mathematical theory was also readily available to Leonardo in a number of forms, including the practical handbooks of geometry that he owned at the time he wrote Madrid Codex II50 Leonardo “corrected” Alberti, who recognized the difference but nonetheless equated mathematical lines with drawn lines (or marks on a surface), and said that the lines that can be represented in painted relief are the edges of objects visible in conditions related to lustre on the principles of geometry.51 In other words, continuous points of lustre are joined to make visible, physical “lines.” We might think of the way the edge of an object sometimes glistens or gleams when the light strikes it in a certain way.

Beyond the simple incidence of lustre, Leonardo's main principle of pictorial composition in its most fully developed form, still within the Albertian tradition, was based on the optical principles governing the complex phenomenon of heightened contrast which results from the direct juxtaposition of different intensities of reflected colored light. Painters who do not develop their compositions carefully will produce images lacking in grazia according to a statement in Libro A, ca. 1508-10:

Objects against a bright and illuminated field display much more relief than against a dark one.

The reason for this proposition is that if you wish to show relief in a figure, you must depict it so that the part of the body farthest from the light participates least in that light, and thus will be darker, and since it terminates against a dark field, its boundaries become confused. For this reason, if no reflected lights fall on it, the work remains without grace and from a distance nothing will show except the luminous parts. It is correct, therefore, that the other parts be of a darkness similar to the same field from which the things appear detached and be kept less [dark] than they should be.52

Overwhelming evidence suggests that Leonardo's desire to endow painted images with the greatest beauty of apparent color largely shaped the way he addressed pictorial issues. We are used to thinking about Leonardo's “tonal composition,” but our modern vocabulary mitigates the central role played by colore, defined in Aristotelian terms different from our own, throughout the scientific artistic tradition.


The problem of depicting line and color on unified optical principles was central to the artistic tradition Leonardo inherited and tried to improve by providing painters with principles to manipulate pictorial structure. Leonardo's statements about composing paintings on optical principles seem closely related to the pictorial inventions we associate with new styles of optical naturalism, from Raphael's Roman period to painters associated with the reform of Italian painting in the later part of the sixteenth century, like Federico Barocci and the Carracci.53 Even today we tend to think of painting that imitates optical effects as being devoid of artifice, although every image constructed of colors on a surface is, of course, completely artificial.

Leonardo's formulations have significant consequences for later scientific, artistic practices, but he was by no means the only writer to describe painting as a mathematical science. Like Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filarete, and Piero della Francesca, he followed Alberti's precedent.54 Beyond this, issues that concerned Leonardo interested many other artists and writers. The scientific investigations of fifteenth-century artists were foreshadowed in Cennino Cennini's remarks that painting is scienza that deals with rilievo.55 Less studied but equally significant, as we have seen in Chapte Two, are new versions of an Aristotelian classification of knowledge proposed by leading Quattrocento humanists who aligned painting, sculpture, and architecture with the new productive, applied sciences, as well as the liberal arts. By the mid-sixteenth century, arguments for the liberal (or near-liberal) status of the visual arts were conceived in a fully Aristotelian framework that, like Leonardo's, drew on Galen's discussions of methodology.56

Historians of science like David Lindberg have recently suggested that Leonardo was an autodidactic thinker who had a poor conception of the issues facing formal optics. In relation to the history of art, however, his scientific investigations had significant historical consequences. For Leonardo, the primary importance of the geometry that explains the physical action of light is the analogy between mental images, painted images, and images reflected in mirrors. Leonardo championed the nobility of sight in Scholastic terms, and furthermore he investigated vision on the mechanical model of percussive motion. The implications of his theory of vision for the status of art as knowledge are enormous. In his comparison between painted images of God and “any other science of human work,” in Parte Prima Chapter 7, for example, Leonardo followed the tradition of Hugh of St. Victor and Bonaventure to argue eloquently for the power of the artist's ingegno. Leonardo's argument also recalls medieval justifications for images based on their ability to communicate the intelligible. St. Augustine had described the didactic function of “illumination” as throwing “light upon meaning” for those who desire instruction (De doctrina christiana, 4.30). He distinguished between good, functional artifice (which instructs) and bad artifice, which is merely decorative, resting on false doctrines. Writers following Augustine described figures of speech as “images” indispensible to poetic language because, like painting, verbal images communicate by signs and function as language for the illiterate, as in the case of the Biblia pauperum. Thus (borrowing an ancient rhetorical paradox), illusionistic painting is more true the more false it is. Leonardo's conception of painted images, that artifice is praiseworthy if it is substantive, if it not only delights but also moves and instructs the beholder, is in effect an answer to Plato's condemnation of sophistry in the form that it was elaborated by the Christian tradition of St. Augustine.

The praise that critics accorded painted rilievo constructed on a model of perception that Leonardo inherited from his predecessors (and bequeathed to his successors) is well documented by seventeenth-century writers such as Mosini, Agucchi, Félibien, Bellori, and even by less theoretical writers like Gerolamo Tezio, the author of the guide to Urban VIII's “Museum” in the Palazzo Barberini, mentioned in Chapter Two. Leonardo's writings on light and shadow, color, and atmosphere took on a new importance in the seventeenth century. Mathematical treatises on perspective did not furnish academically trained painters with the information they needed to compose bello rilievo. Writings devoted to shadow projection, which also dealt with the tonality of surfaces (i.e., rilievo), come closest and artists utilized these texts.57 But Leonardo's writings on optics in the tradition of natural science, and other treatises in the same vein (which included Zaccolini's commentary on Leonardo's optics, treatises by Accolti, Cardano, Cigoli, Lomazzo, and others who are less well studied, that have been mentioned in Chapter One), met artists' needs for the graphic treatment of rilievo, and especially for a systematic explanation of color based on optical principles.

Growing interest in Leonardo's writings since the mid-sixteenth century points to a complex situation, but from the information presently available it is already obvious that of all his writings, his statements on optics in relation to painting most interested, and indeed preoccupied, artists and patrons by the opening decades of the seventeenth century. Sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century artists had access to Leonardo's optical writings from the original notebooks and especially from abridged manuscripts of the Trattato.58 While these artists would not have had the overview of Leonardo's writings that we have today, their own familiarity with the same basic sources in Euclid, Galen, and the optical literature would have enabled them to grasp the pictorial issues he addressed. Indeed, from the critical literature as well as the visual evidence, it might be suggested that the artist's inventive powers, his license to invent, were redefined in terms of the optical science concerned with the representation of surfaces, a science that was exclusively the province of painters in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when the modern separation of art and science did not yet exist.59

Counter-Reformation writers and their seventeenth-century successors who wrote about artistic invention were aware that the faculties of the artist's imagination remain free to combine and analyze images, as poets and painters traditionally had license to do, but they added the new stipulation that their inventive powers be subordinated to the decorum of the subject matter defined in conformity with the conditions of vision. Thus, optical effects were appropriate for the representation of supra-natural events such as the celestial visions favored by post-Tridentine painters of devotional subjects. Images like these supposedly called attention away from the artist's skill by presenting an image so real that it could be taken for the event itself. The critical dimensions of these developments have a long history.


  1. The two known texts are Ms. A and the lost Libro A, reconstructed by Pedretti (1964). As the commentary notes to the Parte Prima texts reveal, because of the nature of this anthology, each passage must be established independently of the others in the context of Leonardo's surviving original notes.

  2. See the introduction to the Parte Prima texts.

  3. There is a long history of scholarly debate concerning Leonardo's views on perspective; for a recent review, see Veltman, Studies on Leonardo da Vinci I, Introduction, and CN 3-6 here.

  4. See discussion at CN 31.

  5. On the other hand, when he compares painting to poetry with reference to compositional procedures, he probably depends on the theory of music rather than directly on literary theory. See CN 25.

  6. Echoes by his contemporaries like Lorenzo de' Medici, Ficino, and Poliziano are discussed in CNs 22 and 24.

  7. In addition to the recent ordering of Leonardo's literary remains by Carlo Pedretti and Anna Maria Brizio, significant specialized studies have contributed to a clearer understanding of Leonardo's optics; see Lindberg, Theories of Vision, 154-168; M. Kemp, “Leonardo and the Visual Pyramid”; Ackerman, “Leonardo's Eye”; Strong, Leonardo on the Eye; and most recently Veltman, in collaboration with Keele, Studies in Leonardo da Vinci I, 30-142 on the long history of scholarly debate concerning Leonardo's views on perspective. M. Kemp, review of Veltman, Studies in Leonardo da Vinci I justifiably takes Veltman's methodology to task. Lindberg, Theories of Vision, 168, writes that Leonardo frequently expressed a “confused and garbled form of traditional theory” that showed no understanding of the central issue of traditional optics, namely the problem of the multiplication of rays influencing all parts of the eye, and he tended to treat radiation in “an unsatisfactory holistic manner.” Like the majority of studies to date, the analysis of Leonardo's optics by Eastwood, “Alhazen, Leonardo, and Late-Medieval Speculation,” refers Leonardo's innovations to the history of science. The art historical scholarship has also emphasized the progressive aspects of Leonardo's optics at the expense of the Euclidean foundation of his views. As James Elkins recently noted in “Did Leonardo Develop a Theory of Curvilinear Perspective?,” the Euclidean basis of Leonardo's knowledge is a significant factor even in his late writings, for example in his considerations of image size dependent on the viewer's angle of vision. The importance of the Euclidean tradition to Renaissance artists in general deserves further study, but see now, M. Kemp, The Science of Art. Euclid's optics was available in Leonardo's day in the recension of Theon of Alexandria: on the manuscript tradition, see Lindberg, A Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Optical Manuscripts, especially “version 1” of De visu, discussed on pp. 50-52, the text to which Leonardo most likely had access. For direct references to Euclid's Optica in Leonardo's manuscripts, see Hart, The Mechanical Investigations of Leonardo da Vinci, 62-63; and Pedretti, Commentary, passim.

  8. The definitions in Madrid Codex II, are found on fols. 62bis/r, 66r, and 67v. Another draft is preserved in the Codex Urbinas, Parte Prima, Chapter 33. Pedretti, Commentary, 1: 122-123, discusses Leonardo's definitions of painting, with a transcription and translation of Madrid Codex II, fol. 67r.

  9. Among the earliest indications of a changed attitude is a passage on CA 68 v-a: see Appendix 2.

  10. A study of Alhazen that, unfortunately, appeared too late to be used here is Sabra, The Optics of Ibn-al-Haytham.

  11. Compare Pecham, Perspectiva communis, I.29 {32} (ed. Lindberg, 111, with a diagram): “The eye would be unsuited for perception of size if it were not round.”

  12. A majority of these passages are collected in the Parte Prima of the Codex Urbinas. A guide to related passages in Leonardo's extant notes is given in Appendix 2.

  13. J. Shearman, “Leonardo's Color and Chiaroscuro.” For a historiographical overview, see Gage, “Color in Western Art.”

  14. On the restoration of the Last Supper, see Brambilla Barcilon, Il Cenacolo di Leonardo, especially p. 12; Brown, Leonardo's Last Supper. On Leonardo's color, see Matteini and Moles, “A Preliminary Investigation,” and “Il Cenacolo.” I am grateful to Jennifer Rashleigh, to whom I owe these references, for discussing the issues with me. See her Master's thesis, “The Science of Leonardo's Art,” 57-62.

  15. For example, Cropper, “Poussin and Leonardo,” 570-582, who states (578) that Pietro Accolti's joint interests in relief and color “seem to reflect his criticism of the continuous quality of Leonardo's sfumato, where color is often sacrificed to shadow, or where relief melts away into an infinity of reflections”; and (581) that Poussin's ordering of light and darks in Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Paris, Louvre, painted in the 1640s, “is quite contrary to the sfumato of Leonardo's practice.” A similar misconception underlies Dempsey's Annibale Carracci, in which he superbly analyzes (30-36) how sixteenth-century painters handled color, a subject of considerable complexity that deserves even further attention, yet Dempsey also claims that “Leonardo had all but banished color from his art through his infinitely minute divisions of the half-tones of reflected light” (31). The basis of all Renaissance discussions of color is Aristotle, who also defined the kinds of colors as originating from the ontologically essential white and black, which are contrary extremes between which every color comes to be or passes away (Generatione et Corruptione 328b). According to this principle of arranging colors on the ontological model of opposing contraries, paired colors had opposing values. White and black were one accepted pair, followed either by yellow (or red) and blue, and red and green (or gray). This organization could suggest other, similar patterns such as musical notes to name an analogy offered by Aristotle, or patterns of painted color, as Alberti suggested (On Painting, Book II.48). For a useful overview of Renaissance terminology, see Gavel, Colour. On the Aristotelian tradition of color inherited by Renaissance artists including Leonardo, and its later association with musical theory, see now M. Kemp, The Science of Painting, 264-284 ff., and my remarks in the Acknowledgments, n. 4; here, n. 36.

  16. Democritus identified white, black, red and green with the four elements. This classification is rudimentary in its understanding of hue, as compared with Aristotle's classification. Democritus differentiated light intensities alone; Aristotle ordered hues sequentially on the model of nature's rainbows. Pliny, Galen, and the anonymous author of De coloribus demonstrate the tenacity of Democritus's views (see de Santillana, The Origins of Scientific Thought, 165).

  17. See Bulatkin, “The Spanish Word ‘Matiz.’” On related Renaissance uses of color as evident artifice, see Summers, “Contrapposto.”

  18. On the practical applications of the “Rule of Three” and other useful kinds of computation based on proportional relationships, like gauging, see Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy, 86-108.

  19. Leonardo, Ms. A, fol. 84r: “On painting.” The varied comparisons of various qualities of shadows and lights oftentimes make the painter who wants to imitate and counterfeit things that he sees hesitant and confused. The reason is this: if you see a white drapery compared with a black one, the part of the white drapery that is juxtaposed to the black one will appear much brighter than the [same] part juxtaposed to the greatest whiteness, and the reason for this is proved in my perspective. (De pittura. Il vari paragoni delle varie qualità, d'ombre e lumi fanno spesse volte, ambiguo e chonfuso il pittore che vuole imitare e chontraffare le cose che vede. La ragione è questa: se tu vedi un panno biancho, al pari ad uno nero, cierto, quella parte d'esso panno biancho, che chon finerà chol nero, apparirà molto più chandida che quella che confinasse con maggiore bianchezza. E lla ragion di questo si prova nella mia Prospettiva.) Transcription based on Ms. A., ed. de Toni/Corbeau.

  20. M. Kemp, “Leonardo's Visual Pyramid,” 147-148, citing Codex Arundel 62r (R. 109, c. 1508), one of the earliest recorded statements of this distinction, along with discussions in Libro A; see especially Cartas 16, 34, 64, and 68). We usually (mistakenly) assume that these categories were clearly differentiated by the time of Leonardo. Alberti, notably, never used the word optica or perspettiva in his treatise on painting (1435/1436), despite the long discussion he devoted to the subject we call pictorial perspective. Leonardo's reluctance to define pictorial perspective has caused a great deal of confusion among modern students of his writings, who have transferred his late terminology to discussions of his early writings. This confusion has been perpetuated by the most comprehensive ordering of Leonardo's manuscripts to date: see Pedretti, Libro A, 171, and Commentary, 1: 119; Strong, Leonardo on the Eye, xxxii, expresses agreement with Kemp, but his study depends on Pedretti's widely accepted views (compare Strong, 208).

  21. For example, on Ms. A, fol. 100v: “Dell'elezione dell'aria, / che dia grazia ai volti. / Se avrai una corte, da potere a tua volontà coprire con tenda di lino, questo lume sarà buono. Ovvero, quando vuoi ritrarre uno, lo ritrai a cattivo tempo, sul fare della sera, … ai volti d'uomini e donne quando è cattivo / tempo; quanta grazia e dolcezza si vede in loro! … E questa è / perfetta aria.” Transcription based on Ms. A, ed. de Toni/Corbeau.

  22. For example, in Ms. G, fol. 23 verso.

  23. The Codex Atlanticus sheets are related to Anatomical Ms. B, fol. 42r, dated April 2, 1489, according to Brizio, “Correlazioni e rispondenze”; the texts are collected in Brizio, “Fogli d'anatomia e di ottica,” in Scritti scelti, 153-172. See further Pedretti, Commentary, to R. 60 (CA 138v-b). On Leonardo's study of Alberti, see Clark, “Leon Battista Alberti on Painting”; Zoubov, “Leon Battista Alberti et Leonardo da Vinci”; Pedretti, Libro A, 59-61, 117, and passim.

  24. Alberti, On Painting, 2: 35-45. Furthermore, Leonardo's scientific discussions of painting correspond to the first book of Alberti's treatise, while his comparisons of the arts correspond to Alberti's praise of painting at the beginning of Book 2. Many of Leonardo's arguments in defense of painting repeat points made by Alberti. On the history of the term, see Freedman, “‘Rilievo’ as an Artistic Term in Renaissance Art Theory.”

  25. Problems of interpretation concerning Leonardo's understanding of optics around 1490 are discussed most fully by M. Kemp, “Leonardo's Visual Pyramid,” and Ackerman, “Leonardo's Eye.”

  26. As the following discussion elaborates, Leonardo defined lustre in terms never intimated by Gombrich in his two classic essays reconstructing historical notions of lustre from both visual and textual evidence, “The Heritage of Apelles,” and “Light, Form and Texture in Fifteenth Century Painting,” both reprinted in The Heritage of Apelles. Leonardo would not have disagreed with Gombrich's characterization, but his conception led him to incorporate other phenomena as well in his definition.

  27. This paragraph continues a discussion on the adjacent page, folio 99, a polemical comparison of painting and poetry included in the Parte Prima as Chapter 19, by adding to that discussion that surfaces such as faces are “animated” by shadow and light, which are the components of aria. It also precedes another passage included in the Parte Prima, as Chapter 12, so its relationship to Leonardo's polemical comparisons of the arts could not be clearer. See also, CN 19.

  28. In Ms. A, fols. 112-113, Leonardo discussed light, including lustre. The full text of the passage on folio 113 recto is: “Dico che il lustro, perche è tutto per tutto e tutto nella parte, che, stando nel punto. d., il lustro sembrerà nel punto. c., e tanto quanto l'occhio si tra muterà dal. d. all'.a., tanto il lustro si tramuterà da.c. ad.n. [fol. 113v:] Quale parte del colore, ragionevolmente, deve essere / più bella? [Figure]. Se.a. sarà il lume,.b. sarà illuminato per linea da esso lume.c., che non puo vedere esso lume, vede solo la parte illuminata, la quale parte diciamo che sia rossa. Essendo così il lume ch'essa la faccia.c.. E se.c. sara ancor esso rosso, vedrai essere molto più bello che.b.. E se .c. fosse giallo, vedrai li crearsi un colore cangiante fra giallo e rosso. Che differenza è da lumi a lustri è come i lustri non sono nel numero dei colori, ed è sempre bianco, e nasce nei colmi dei bagnati corpi, ed il lume è / del colore della cose dove nasce, come oro od argento o simili cose. Transcription based on Ms. A., ed. de Toni/Corbeau.

  29. Madrid Codex II, fol. 26 recto: “Il lusstro participa assai più del color del lume che allumina il corpo che lusstra che del colore d'esso corpo, e cquesto nasscie in superfitie dense. Il lustro di molti corpi onbrosi e integralmente del colore del corpo alluminato, come quello dell'oro brunito e argiento e latri metalli e simili corpi. I' lusstro di foglie, vetri e gioie poco participerà del colore del corpo ove nasscie e assai del color del corpo che llo allumina. I' lustro fatto nella profondita de' densi trasparenti, sono in primo grado della belleza di tale color, come si vede dentro al rubino balasscio, vetri e ssimil cose. Quessto acade che' infra ll' ochio e esso lusstro s'interpone tutta il colore natural del corpo transparente.” Emphasis added. Transcription based on Madrid Codex II, ed. Reti, 5: 39.

  30. For the closest parallel in optical treatises to Leonardo's formulation of the problem of reflected color, see Pecham, Perspectiva communis, 88-89, Proposition 1.14 {29} (based on Alhazen, Opticae thesaurus, Bk. 1, sec. 17; and cited by Witelo, Opticae, [bound as part of Alhazen, Opticae Thesaurus], Bk. 4.156. The problem of reflected color was also discussed by Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon; see Lindberg, Theories of Vision, 245, n. 43. This and other correspondences between Witelo and Leonardo were first discussed by Tea, “Witelo prospettico del secolo XIII.” The problem of reflected color can be traced to Aristotle, De sensu et sensato 439a30 ff.; and the anonymous author of De coloribus, IV.793b24. The medieval transformations point to a widely diffused tradition. Leonardo's discussions related to Ms. A, fol. 100r (cited in n. 27), have been assembled by Maltese, “Leonardo e la teoria dei colori.”

  31. Another important early record attesting to the acquaintance of artists with Aristotle's discussion of color in the Meteorologica is Giovanni da Fontana's (lost) treatise on perspective, which treated gradations of color and light (not linear mathematical perspective), known through a publication of 1544. Fontana was a leading personality in Venetian scientific culture around the middle of the fifteenth century; his treatise cited Biagio Pelacani as his “master,” and the work was dedicated to Jacopo Bellini. See Canova, “Riflessioni su Jacopo Bellini.” Perhaps the earliest indication that Aristotle's scientific discussion of color was useful to artists is Francesco della Lana's description of drapery folds in terms of advancing and receding color, in his commentary on Dante's Paradiso, Book 24.25-27 (first noted by von Schlosser, La letteratura artistica, 91; see most recently Summers, The Judgment of Sense, 16, n. 8).

  32. In his discussion of the science of painting, Alberti, On Painting 1.11, observed that: “Reflected rays assume the colour they find on the surface from which they are reflected. We see this happen when the faces of people walking about in the meadows appear to have a greenish tinge.” Alberti discussed lustre in a separate passage concerning pictorial composition (Book 2.47): “This composition with white and black has such power that, when skillfully carried out, it can express in painting brilliant surfaces of gold and silver and glass.”

  33. Both texts are cited by Federici-Vescovini, “Il problema delle fonti ottiche medievali del Commentario terzo di Lorenzo Ghiberti,” 370 (see also p. 369, on the contraction of the pupil in bright light). There is another fifteenth-century treatise on perspective in the vernacular that is indebted to Alhazen: variously attributed to Alberti, Leonardo, and the mathematician Paolo Toscanelli, it is reprinted by Parronchi, who attributes it to Toscanelli (Studi su la dolce Prospettiva, 599-641).

  34. Leonardo's use of splendore and chiarezza corresponds closely to his sources in optical treatises, while his valuation of varietà is also indebted to Alberti; see further discussion at CNs 20 and 21. On the critical value of optical metaphors pervasive in rhetorical theory and literary criticism, such as chiarezza, lustre, splendore, obscurità, which were returned to their original context of the visual arts by Renaissance writers, see Summers, “Contrapposto”; and Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators. A study that deals with Leonardo's optics in relation to his pictorial conventions but does not account for the mitigating role played by critical metaphors is Gombrich, “The Trattato della Pittura: Some Questions and Desiderata.”

  35. Ptolemy included imitated relief among the errors of vision, where he also discussed the manner in which apparent color mingles with color reflected from other things in mirrors (L'Optique de Claude Ptolémé, Book 2.108, 67 ff. on the mixture of colors reverberating in a mirror; Book 2. 124, 74 ff. on illusionistic painting); Book 4, devoted to the mingling of colors in reflected light. On the contribution of the fallacies of vision to Renaissance art, see Summers, The Judgment of Sense, 36.

  36. Marshall, “Two Scholastic Discussions of the Perception of Depth.” The problem of reflected color can be traced to Aristotle, De sensu et sensato, 439a30 ff., and the anonymous author of De coloribus, a text attributed to Aristotle and widely read during the Renaissance period (Aristotle, Minor Works, iv.793b24). Medieval transformations of the problem point to a widely diffused tradition which became conflated with certain Platonic ideas. As early as De coloribus, a distinctly Platonic list of simple colors is combined with observations of nature dependent on Aristotle. Compare Bartolomaeus Anglicus (On the Properties of Things, p. 1268). For studies of Renaissance color, see Ackerman, “On Early Renaissance Color Theory and Practice”; Edgerton, “Alberti's Color Theory”; Hall, ed., Color and Technique.

  37. Lindberg, Theories of Vision, 162, 168; see also Strong, Leonardo on the Eye, 343-345.

  38. On fols. 24 verso and 26 verso, the pages immediately preceding and following his discussion of lustre in the Madrid Codex, Leonardo considered how the internal organ of the imprensiva will respond to intense light. On Leonardo's term imprensiva, a physical organ of perception which receives the images of objects, is apparently an original coinage that corresponds roughly to Avicenna's imaginatio; see further discussion in CN 2. All the passages on painting in Madrid Codex II concern the relationship between the imagination and perceived color; see Appendix 1 for a summary of the subjects.

  39. Madrid Codex II, fol. 26 verso: “Quando il predetto obbietto sarà forte luminoso, la popilla, non la potendo soportare, si fa ttanto minore, che la similitudine di tale luminoso obbietto viene alla popilla non manco diminuità de ssple[n]dore che di magnitudine. Per qual diminuitione il senso po suportare l'antiposto splendore.” Transcription based on Madrid Codex II, ed. Reti, 5:41. A closely related discussion occurs on fol. 27r: see the Appendix. As Martin Kemp notes in “Leonardo's Visual Pyramid,” 137, one of the earliest coherent discussions of pupil contraction in bright light, in relation to the brain, is recorded in the Codex Forster II; 2.2, fol. 158 verso, c. 1495 (Il Codice Forster, 280-281). Kemp also cites a group of related passages in the Codex Atlanticus, of uncertain date (on the dating of these passages, compare Pedretti Commentary to R. 111), but he did not discuss Leonardo's treatment of this problem in Madrid Codex II.

  40. Sense discrimination was described in terms of pain and pleasure by Aristotle throughout De anima. The tradition developed through Galen whose De usu partium, Book 10 (on the eye), became another textual source for the association of sight with pain. Leonardo's knowledge of Galen is discussed in Chapter Two. On the history of the textual tradition, see Lindberg, “Alhazen's Theory of Vision and Its Reception in the West,” especially 322-323.

  41. Lindberg, Introduction to Pecham, Perspectiva communis, 34-35, on proposition 1.46 {49}. Leonardo was aware of Pecham's argument, which he rejected ca. 1490 (see further discussion by Ackerman, “Leonardo's Eye,” 127 ff.). But as late as ca. 1510 Leonardo referred to Pecham's examples of the nocturnal vision of animals, for example in Ms. E, fol. 17v.

  42. My dating of these manuscripts follows the persuasive argument by Strong, Leonardo on the Eye, 212 ff.

  43. Pedretti, Libro A, 25. These passages are included in Appendix 1.

  44. Ms. E, fol. 17v: “Prima / Pictura. La popilla dell'ochio diminuisscie tanto la sua quantità quanto ecresscie illuminoso che in lei s'inpreme. / Seconda / Tanto cresscie la popilla dell ochio quanto diminuisscie la chiarezza del giorno od altra lucie che in lui s'inprema. / Terza / Tanto più intensivamente vede e chonosscie l'ochio le chose ch'elli stanno per obbietto quanto la sua popilla più si dilata e questo proviamo mediante li animali nocturni chome nelle ghatte e altri volatili chome il ghufo e ssimili li quali. La popilla fa grandisima variatione da grande appichola ec nelle tenebre o nella luminato. / Quarta / L'ochio possto nell'aria illuminato vede tenebre dentro alle finesste delle abitationi alluminate. / Quinta / Tutti li cholori posti in llochi onbrosi paiano essere de quale osschurità infra lloro. / Sesta / Ma ttutti li cholori possti in lochi luminosinosi varian mai della loro essentia.” Transcription based on Ms. E, ed. Ravaisson-Mollien. On lustre, see also Ms. E, fol. 31 verso, cited in Appendix 1.

  45. On these categories of apparent color, See Gavel, Colour. A Study of its Position, 27, who notes that lucidus means distinct or saturated, just as obscurus means indistinct or unsaturated colors in Ptolemy's Optica, although saturation was elsewhere connected with dark colors. See further discussion of Leonardo's study of saturated color in M. Kemp, The Science of Art, 267—269, connecting Leonardo's definitions with his knowledge of De coloribus around 1506 and his reading of Roger Bacon's Opus majus, which reinforced his fascination with colored lights and related phenomena.

  46. Ms. E, fol. 18r: “Pictura / Li cholori possti nelle onbre participeranno tanto più o meno della lor natural belleza quanto essi saranno i minore o in maggiore osschurità. / Ma se lli cholori saran situati in ispatio luminoso allora essi dimossteran di tanta magiore belleza quanto iluminoso sia di maggiore splendore” (“chiarezza” preceding “splendore” and cancelled). Transcription based on Ms. E., ed. Ravaisson-Mollien.

  47. Optical splendore refers to highlights and lustre, but as a metaphysical principle, splendore signifies radiance, a reflection of supra-natural light; see Barasch, Light and Color in the Italian Renaissance, 171-179.

  48. See discussion in CNs 1, 3-6, 9; and see passages cited in Appendix 2.

  49. Ms. G, fol. 23v: “De pictura / Principalissima parte della pittura son li chanpi delle chose dipincte nella qu li chanpi li termini delli chorpi naturali cheanno in lor churvita chonvessa senpre si chognosschano le figure di tali chorpi in essi chanpi anchora chelli cholor de chorpi sieno del medesimo cholor del predecto chanpo ec questo nasscie chelli termini convessi de chorpi non sono alluminati nel medesimo modo che dal medesimo lume è alluminato il chanpo, perché tal termine molte volte sarà più chairo oppiù osschuro che esso chanpo. / Ma sse ttal termine è del cholore di tal chanpo sanza dubbio tal parte di pittura proibiera la notitia della figura di tal termine, ecquesta tale eletione di pictura he da essere sciftata dalli ingiegni de buoni pictori chonciossia che lla intentione del pictore è ddi fare parere li sua chorpi di qua de canpi, e innel sopra decto chaso achade in chontrario, non che in pictura ma nelle chose di rilievo.” Transcription based on Ms. G, ed. Ravaisson-Mollien. See Appendix 1 for other related notes of this period.

  50. On Leonardo's collection of geometry books known as abbachi, see The Madrid Codices, ed. Reti, 3:97, n. 34. Leonardo's commitment to the mathematical nature of line has even been singled out as a fundamental difference between his theoretical views of pictorial art and those of Alberti: Marinoni, “L'Essere del Nulla.”

  51. Copare Alberti, On Painting 1.2: “The first thing to know is that a point is a sign (signum) which one might say is not divisible into parts. I call a sign anything which exists on a surface so that it is visible to the eye.” Alberti, Book 1: 48, also defined line “according to the philosophers” using the terminology of optical theory (derived from Galen, De usu partium 10.12; see Edgerton, “Alberti's Color Theory,” 125). Compare Leonardo, Parte Prima, Chapter 37.

  52. Libro A Carta 26.38: “Molto più rilievo dimostreranno le cose nel campo chiaro e alluminato che nell'oscuro. / La ragione di quel che si propone è che se tu vuoi dare rilievo alla tua figura tu le fai che quella parte del corpo ch'è più remota dal lume, manco partecipa d'esso lume, onde viene a rimanere più oscura; e terminando poi in campo oscuro viene a cadere in confusi termini, per la qual cosa, se non vi accade riflesso, l'opera resta senza grazia e da lontano non apparisce se non le parti luminose, onde conviene che l'oscure paino essere del campo medesimo onde le cose paiono tagliate, e rimanere tanto men che 'l suo dovere quant'è l'oscuro.” (Emphasis added.) Transcription from Pedretti, 1964, 49 (see his n. 45 for discussion of the translation), translating the last problematic phrase as follows: “It is correct, therefore, that the other parts be of a darkness similar to the background from which the figure has to appear detached, but keep them less dark than they should be on that background.” The principle of heightened contrast through direct juxtaposition recurs frequently in Libro A on Cartas 25.35, 27.42, 30.53, 30.54, 35.77, and 43.93. On the relationship of these statements to the “trattato sequences,” see Appendix 1. An early statement on the subject of heightened contrast occurs in Ms. A, fol. 84 recto, ca. 1492.

  53. On Leonardo's contribution to Raphael's style, see Weil-Garris Posner, Leonardo and Central Italian Art. For an introduction to recent issues concerning the late sixteenth-century reform of painting, see Dempsey, Annibale Carracci. Barocci may have known Leonardo's Codex Urbinas from the Castle Durante near Urbino where he was trained: See Gary Walters, “Federico Barocci,” 43-44 ff. I thank Angela Lafferty for this reference.

  54. F recent surveys of Leonardo's precedents, see Elkins, “Piero della Francesca and the Renaissance Proof of Linear Perspective”; and Klaus Bergoldt, ed., Der dritte Kommentar Lorenzo Ghibertis: Naturwissenschaften und Medizin in her Kusttheorie der Frührenaissance (Weinheim, c. 1988), which became available only after the present study was completed.

  55. Cenini, Il libro dell'arte, Chapter 1. Most recently on the scientific investigations of fifteenth-century artists, which are relatively well studied, see M. Kemp, The Science of Art, Chapter 1.

  56. Fo the personalities, see Mendelsohn, Paragoni. Benedetto Varchi and Vincenzo Borghini set traditional issues of the debate between painters and sculptors firmly into the Aristotelian context of the productive sciences. See Chapter Four.

  57. For the history of writings on shadow projection, see most recently Bauer, “Experimental Shadow Casting”; see also Kaufmann, “The Perspective of Shadows”; M. Kemp, “Geometrical Perspective from Brunelleschi to Désargues,” who assembles massive evidence to argue, p. 89, that “the development of perspective science away from the concerns of artists had become pronounced by 1600.” Field, “Giovanni Battista Benedetti” characterizes Benedetti as a “natural philosopher employing the methods of geometry” (p. 95). This turn of events nonetheless suggests, in fact corroborates the likelihood, that Leonardo's writings on chiaro e scuro and other treatises in the same tradition filled a much-needed gap in the education of artists during the same period. Brown University, Children of Mercury, includes an overview of teaching practices in early art academies, with a thorough bibliography.

  58. While the Parte Prima of Leonardo's Trattato evidently did not circulate, four of the passages could have been known from Ms. A, and perhaps others from Madrid Codex II, Libro A (now lost), and other notes, such as several sheets compiled into the Codex Atlanticus and the lost Codex Sforza mentioned by Gian Paolo Lomazzo: see Steinitz, Leonardo da Vinci's Trattato della Pittura, 21-26; Pedretti, Libro A, 121-128, and Commentary 1: 76-86. On the history of the Codex Urbinas, see Steinitz, 39-44, and Pedretti, Commentary 1: 12-14. An overview of the evidence, with references, is found in Chapter One. Most of these activities centered around Cassiano dal Pozzo in Rome; see Haskell, Patrons and Painters, 97-114. On Cassiano's use of Leonardo's manuscripts, see most recently Bell, “Cassiano dal Pozzo's Copy of the Zaccolini Manuscripts.” On Poussin's study of Leonardo's writings, see Elizabeth Cropper, “Poussin and Leonardo.”

  59. Bell, “Cassiano dal Pozzo's Copy of the Zaccolini Manuscripts,” draws the same conclusion from her evidence. The forthcoming study of Federico Borromeo by Pamela Jones will clarify the relationship of Counter-Reformation art theory to earlier writings and later artistic practices.


AB: The Art Bulletin

DHI: Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Ed. Philip Wiener. 5 vols. New York, 1973.

JHI: Journal of the History of Ideas

JWCI: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes

Scritti: Scritti d'arte del cinquecento. Ed. Paola Barocchi. 9 vols. Turin, 1977.

Trattati: Trattati d'arte del cinquecento. Ed. Paola Barocchi. 3 vols. Bari, 1961.

References to Leonardo's manuscripts follow standard forms of abbreviation:

CA = Codex Atlanticus (I follow the folio numbers of Il Codex Atlantico di Leonardo da Vinci nella Biblioteca Ambrosiana di Milano, Reale Accademia dei Lincei, transcribed by G. Piumati, 35 vols., Milan, 1894-1904, in order to permit concordance with the existing anthologies and literature; the current critical edition edited by A. Marinoni has been consulted).

R.1 = Richter, J.P., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, 2 vols., 2d rev. ed., London, 1939, passage number 1.

All references to the last 24 folios of Ms. A, which have been bound separately as Ashburnham II, are cited as Ms. A, following the recent edition by A. Corbeau and N. De Toni.…

CN = Commentary Notes numbered 1 through 46, accompanying the passages in the Parte Prima of the Codex Urbinas.

Chapters One through Four = introductory chapters of the present study.

Chapters 1 through 46 = numbered passages of the Parte Prima.

Ernst H. Gombrich (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9066

SOURCE: “The Tratatto della Pittura, Some Questions and Desiderata,” in Leonardo's Writings and Theory of Art, edited by Claire Farago, Garland Publishing, 1999, pp. 371-84.

[In the following essay, Gombrich calls for a new edition of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura, one in which the problems of the “derivation and date” of particular items are addressed, and one which provides an analysis of the relationship between Leonardo's theories and practice.]

In accordance with traditional usage I mean by Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura the collection of the master's notes compiled by Melzi and preserved for us in the Codex Urbinas 1270 (henceforth abbreviated CU), of which a facsimile edition together with an annotated translation with numbered paragraphs has been published by A. Philip McMahon (Princeton, 1956), (henceforth abbreviated TP McM).1 Despite its fragmentary nature and somewhat confusing arrangement it represents the outline of a project of awe-inspiring ambition, a project such as only Leonardo could have conceived but which even he could never have completed—the plan to record in words and diagrams all recurrent phenomena of the visible world which are the painter's legitimate province.

Naturally this gigantic enterprise has never been neglected by students of Leonardo, and yet it may be said that his individual propositions and observations in this field have been less fully analysed than has his corpus of anatomical studies or his mechanical investigations. I shall argue here that a new edition of the Trattato in the light of these and similar precedents is one of our desiderata, and that such an edition would have to address itself not only to the problems of the derivation and date of individual items (admirably studied by Carlo Pedretti2), but also to the relation of Leonardo's theories to his practice, to the validity and purpose of this individual statements, and to the relation of his conceptions to the traditions he inherited. Such an edition would probably demand the collaboration of many scientists, geologists, botanists, and psychologists specializing in what J. J. Gibson has called “The ecological approach to visual perception”3—a phrase admirably describing one of Leonardo's purposes. All that is intended here—as indicated in my title—is to draw attention to “some questions and desiderata”.

I hope I may be forgiven if I approach these questions from the point of view presented in my book on Art and Illusion.4 I tried there to sum up the thesis of that book on the psychology of representation in two connected formulas: the first that ‘making comes before matching’ and the second that what we call the faithful imitation of nature can therefore only be achieved through the process psychologists describe as ‘schema and correction’.

Speaking in these categories Leonardo must be seen essentially as a ‘maker’ rather than an imitator. I has always seemed to me that this celebration of the painter's creative powers in the Paragone (TP McM 35, CU 5) represents much more than a magnificent piece of rhetoric. It adumbrates the programme the master was to follow all his life. He wanted to be and he was a creator of people, scenes, events, indeed of new worlds through his knowledge of the forces that governed the laws of the universe. But it may be argued that to carry out this program he had to practise an unusual economy of means. However much he celebrated the powers of the human eye it was not from visual observation that he derived the basic elements of this creation, but from two contrasting sources—tradition and reasoning. It should not demand any detailed demonstration to show that many of the basic schemata which Leonardo used throughout his creative life were those he had learned in the workshop of Verrocchio. This has been frequently observed in relation to his favourite physiognomic types, the man with the ‘nutcracker profile’ and the female head with the enchanting smile.5 It is true that Leonardo also seemed sometimes to struggle against the compulsion to repeat these schemata, but when he did so he mostly called in aid the power of reasoning rather than of observation. I have attempted to connect his socalled caricatures with this effort to vary the schema by means of systematic variations and permutations6 but it still remains in evidence—to use a scholastic term—as forma formans trans formam formatam translucens.

The tenacity with which the master stuck to inherited schemata in his landscape seems to me even more astonishing. Nothing could strike us as more creative and dramatic than the landscape backgrounds of the Mona Lisa and the Louvre St. Anne.7 One is again reminded of his exaltation of the painter's power in the passage from the Paragone invoked above: “… if he wishes from the high crests of mountains to disclose a great countryside and if, after that, he wishes to see the horizon of the sea, he is their lord, and so too if he wishes to see high mountains from deep valleys, or from high mountains to see low valleys and seashores” (TP McM 35, CU 5). But it was in his mind's eyes that he perceived the panoramic visions of infinite expansion and complexity he painted, for no earthly eye has ever seen such formations.

This is not the place to review once more the role of landscape motifs Leonardo has left us, but it seems to me that the topographical element in many of these works, or at least their topographical fidelity has been overrated by many commentators.8 The elements out of which Leonardo created his landscapes also derive from the tradition he had absorbed in his youth. Like the stepped rocks I discussed elsewhere9 the formulas for mountains in the shape of steep cliffs can also be traced in an unbroken tradition from Hellenistic painting (Odyssey landscapes) via Byzantine conventions to the stage props used by Tuscan painters where the ‘schema’ is slowly ‘corrected’ so as to approximate a plausible reality. Even so, when Leonardo in his early sketch for a Madonna and Child (W 12276) wished to indicate a landscape background he rapidly drew a steep triangle to stand for a mountain. He continued to use the schema in the background of many of his paintings such as the Uffizi Adoration and the St. Jerome, but he also knew how to transform and transfigure the motif throughout his artistic career. From the Paris version of the Madonna of the Rocks to his fantastic drawings we can observe how he modified the elements through changes in structure, in the fall of light and through the effects of atmosphere. Like a musician who choses a simple theme in order to display the power of his inventive imagination, Leonardo placed his stage props into the gloom of caverns, in sunlit planes, on distant horizons or in thunderclouds to show how the schema was metamorphosed through what he might have called the ‘accidents’ of illumination and distance. This is not to deny that he occasionally incorporated in his compositions elements he had observed and drawn during his explorations of Alpine scenery, but the selection of these motifs was again guided by his visual vocabulary. Indeed it might even be argued that his geological theories were not uninfluenced by that schema he had inherited. It is well known that he considered the shape of peaks and ranges to be entirely due to the action of water.10

Hence to him the steep precipices where the rock appears to have been cut as with a knife struck him as most characteristic. The shape of ‘folds’ which influence our idea of mountains had no place in his thoughts. As a maker rather than a portrayer of mountain scenery he considered them as little as did the ancient Chinese. Only as an engineer concerned with the lie of the land as in his studies of the Tuscan hills, made in connection with the diversion of the Arno, did he attend to these features.11

I should like to ask whether the type of detailed commentary of the Trattato which seems to me desiderable would not also reveal a similar selectivity of vision, marked by the master's power of combination and permutation. I am aware of the immense variety of observations we find in these dazzling notes dealing with the phenomena of nature, but I suspect them to be more systematic, indeed a priori, than purely empirical. Admittedly this interpretation, which still remains to be tested, is at variance with the conception of Leonardo's procedure put forward by such authorities as Ludwig Heydenreich to whom we owe the perceptive introduction to McMahon's standard edition of the Trattato. My reservations about his conceptions go back over many decades. In fact I remember a conversation I had with him some thirty years ago in a London restaurant, when he stressed the role which the eye played in Leonardo's scientific and artistic life and I was prompted to ask him whether he really thought that the view through the window resembled in any way any of Leonardo's creations? I would not have asked the same kind of question if we had been talking about Camille Pissarro. Such a question and such a comparison only appears unorthodox and almost illicit because most art historians are brought up in a relativist creed. Even if they may grant that the world looks to them more like a painting by Pissarro than like one by Leonardo, they may still think it possible that Leonardo and the Impressionists “saw” the world exactly as they represented it. In other words they refuse to commit themselves to any objective standards by which we can discuss the transition from making to matching or from the schema to its correction. The kind of commentary I should like to see of Leonardo's propositions in the Trattato would be stillborn if it is assumed that he must have seen what he described.

Anatomists, to repeat, do not take that view. They allow us to stand in awe before his drawings and descriptions of the muscles and organs of the human body while pointing out his debt to the tradition and the occasional errors he incorporated in his creations. They know, as he also knew, that science is not simply based on looking but on informed questioning. But while Leonardo the anatomist had a whole corpus of knowledge at his disposal which he could probe and correct, the task of sistematising the visible phenomena of our experience had lamost been confined to the study of optics. Considering the narrow base on which he had to build his edifice of observation his success is indeed astounding, however puzzling some of his remarks may be.

I should like to turn to some examples of such puzzling features as they can be found in Part V of the Trattato the section entitled, “Of the shadowed and bright parts of mountains” (TP McM p. 272 note, CU 231) though the scribe found he had inserted the heading prematurely and only came to the point on the next page (TP McM 824, CU 231 v) Fig. 1:

Of the peaks of mountains as seen from above. The peaks of mountains, seen one beyond the other from above, do not grow bright in proportion to the distances of those mountain peaks from one another, but do so much less, according to the seventh proposition of the fourth book, in which it is stated: the distances of landscapes seen from above grow darker toward the horizon, and those which are seen at the same distance as the first but from below always/grow lighter.

This comes about according to the third proposition of the ninth book in which it is stated: the thickness of the air seen from below is much brighter and more resplendent than that seen from above, and this happens, because the air seen from above is somewhat penetrated by the dark visual images of the earth which is below them, and so it appears to the eye to be darker than that which is seen from below, for that air is penetrated by rays of the sun that reach the eye with great brilliance.

Thus the same thing happens with mountains and the landscapes in front of them, the visual images of which, passing through the air, appear dark or bright, depending on the darkness or brightness of the air.

The structure of this statement is the same as that of many others in the Trattato: a visual phenomen is described and then explained by reference to general propositions which are cited by ‘book’ and ‘number’. It would be the task of the commentary here envisaged to extract and explain all these propositions in the light of the theories applied by Leonardo, for instance the idea derived from Epicurean optics that the darkness mentioned is due to “the visual images which fill the air from below”. But the commentary would also have to address itself to the question as to the nature of the observations on which Leonardo here relies. Do landscapes seen from above generally grow darker towards the horizon?

Used as many of us are to look down at a landscape from the window of a plane we do not have to wait for such exceptional opportunities as Leonardo may have enjoyed when he climbed the Monte Rosa.12 Whatever he may have seen on that particular day, we will not find it to be the norm that landscapes grow darker towards the horizon. But was it really an abservation which led Leonardo to pronounce this rule or was it again a memory of what he had learned as a painter's apprentice? Cenino Cennini13 codifies Tuscan Trecento practice as follows:

On the way to paint a mountain, in fresco or in secco. chapter LXXXV. If you want to do mountains in fresco or in secco, make a verdaccio color, one part of black, the two parts of ocher. Step up the colors, for fresco, with lime white and without tempera; and for secco, with white lead and with tempera. And apply to them the same system of shadow and relief that you apply to a figure. And the farther away you have to make the mountains look, the darker you make your colors; and the nearer you are making them seem, the lighter you make the colors.

What may have led to this rule of thumb is the fact that tonal contrasts diminish with distance. This fact which was known to the ancients and became incorporated in medieval practice14 leads to the avoidance of strong colours in the distance and a general veiling of tones which might well be confused with an over-all darkening. A glance at Leonardo's own practice, notably the backgrounds of the Mona Lisa and the Louvre St. Anne convinces us that he fully mastered the skill of manipulating contrasts, stepping them down to achieve the impression of distance with truly compelling effect.

Moreover Leonardo seems to pass over the rule he stated in the previous note according to which the mountain peaks can look bright or dark from different standpoints. In any case he insists in a number of notes and diagrams that the peaks are always darker than their base. Did he simply generalise here on an observation he made in the Po Valley when the hazy mists might have caused the foothills to look whiter than the soaring heights? Certainly this contrast is not the norm, nor did Leonardo treat it as such in his paintings and drawings,15 but the Trattato has it otherwise; as in TP McM 826, CU 232 v (Fig. 2).

Why distant mountains appear/darker at the summit than at the base. With regards to that which has already been said on the preceding page, I continue by saying that although the spaces between the mountains, AO, OP, and PQ, are equal in proportion, the summits of these mountains, O, P, Q, do not observe the same proportion in respect to their brightness, as they would if they were of the same height, because, if they were of the same height, their extremities would be in air of equal density, and then the proportions of distances and of colors would be the same. But such an arrangement cannot be shown to the eye because, if the eye is as high as the summit of the mountain, it is necessary that the summits of all the mountains that are beyond the first one should be at the height of the eye and of the first mountain, and from this it follows that the second mountain and the third, and also the others that follow, would not exceed nor be exceeded in height by the first mountain, nor by the eye. Therefore, as the surface of the summit of the first mountain is even with the summits of all the mountains that are behind the first, these cannot be seen, except for the summit of the first one. Thus this demonstration is vain, for example: let A be the eye, B the summit of the first mountain, C, D, the other summits; and you see how the summit B/ meets (the height of) the other two summits, C and D, and the eye A sees the three summits B, C, D, within the outlines of the mountain B. And the distances and colors of these are similar in proportion, but neither the distance nor the color is seen.

The paragraph with its three lettered diagrams is of some interest in my context, because it shows Leonardo's a priori reasoning at its extreme. Far from being concerned with what the eye sees, it demonstrates at some lenght what the eye cannot see, or as he himself puts it, that “this demonstration is vain”. We obviously cannot see mountain peaks hidden behind peaks of the same height if our eye is level with them, and therefore we cannot tell how dark their summits would look if we saw them.

But this, we may supplement the argument, is a limiting case, which seems only to have been discussed for the sake of completeness. The next section (TP McM 823, CU 233, Fig. 3) discusses the case when the mountains of equal height are seen from a higher station point. In that case, of course, we must take account of their distance from the eye rather than from each other and, again, of the varying thickness of the air through which they are seen. It is here, again, that the next paragraph (TP McM 833, CU 233 v, Fig. 4) reverts to the thesis that the higher peaks must look darker. The reasoning is reiterated in TP McM 827, CU 234 (Fig. 5), with more diagrams and yet again in the subsequent paragraph, TP McM 828, CU 234 v (Fig. 6). There is yet another diagram and brief restatement of that principle in TP McM 830, CU 235 v (Fig. 7).

It must be granted that some of these paragraphs may represent various versions of the same note Leonardo was trying to draft. Even so his obsession with an untypical phenomenon is intriguing. It becomes intelligible, however, if we consider his ambition to systematize the rules of aerial perspective as precisely as those of linear perspective had been systematised.

As the name implies aerial perspective could be interpreted as a consequence of the ‘thickness’ of the air which, on level ground, would affect the appearance of objects in proportion to their distance. The varying thickness of the air in the vertical dimension obviously introduced a complicating factor which Leonardo wished to incorporate in his system. He must have reasoned that if dense air tones down the colours, the thinner air in the higher regions must preserve darkness. Only after having established this general proposition did he introduce such further modifications of the schema as the variations of the weather, (TP McM 832, CU 235) the seasons (TP McM 834, CU 235) and of vegetation (TP McM 835, CU 237 v). Finally, in TP McM 839, CU 236 v/237, Leonardo the naturalist takes over from the theoretician.

The soil is drier and more meager on rocks, of which mountains are composed. The trees will be smaller and thinner the nearer they are to the summits of mountains, and the soil will be more meager the nearer it approaches those summits; and more abundant and rich the/nearer it is to the concavity of the valleys. Therefore, painter, you will show the summits of mountains composed of rocks, in large part not covered by soil, and the grass that grows there in large part turned pale and dry through lack of moisture, and the sandy and meager soil appearing among the pale grass. And show small bushes, dwarfed and aged and diminutive in size, with short, thick branches and few leaves, revealing in large part their decayed, dry roots interwoven with the cracks and broken places of the decomposed rocks, created by chips broken off by men and by winds. And as you descend farther toward the bases of the mountains, the trees are more vigorous and thick with branches and leaves, and their verdure is of as many kinds as there are species of plants that compose the forest. This spread of branches is manifested in various ways and in varying densities of branches and leaves, and also in varying shapes and heights; some trees having thick branches an leaves, such as the cypress and the like, and other with sparse and expansive branches such as the oak, the chestnut and others; some with minute leaves, and others with slender ones, such as the juniper, the plane tree and the like; some masses of trees having become separated by spaces of different sizes,/and others united, without division by meadows or other spaces.

The vivid and detailed description of the variations of vegetation encountered during a mountain tour leaves no doubt that he speaks from experience. But the question remains: would Leonardo ever have match such a word-painting in a real painting?

Part six of the Codex Urbinas may here offer more food for thought. This lengthy section on Trees and Foliage is particularly rewarding in showing the combination in Leonardo's method of a prior reasoning and detailed observation.

Trees and greenery had of course formed an element of painting since classical antiquity and there was a rich stock of schemata for the artist to apply. But in this case, it appears that Leonardo was determined to correct the basic schema from the outset, starting with the structure of trees and going on to the rendering of their foliage in the ambient air. Once more it appears that the fundamental ‘correction’ of the schema is based on reasoning rather than observation. In concerning himself with the morphology of trees he characteristically started with the laws of their growth.16 In a diagram which we have both in the original (Ms M 78 v) and in the TP McM 900, CU 246 (Fig. 8), he implicitly compared the branches of a tree with the delta of a river. Every division must diminish the timber or water available in equal proportion, so that any section through the branches at an equal distance from the trunk or river course must add up to the equal amount of matter (TP McM 899, CU 244 v and 245; TP McM 947, CU 266 v/267).

Consulting a dendrologist I found that he was much impressed by Leonardo's exercise in ‘biometrics’, though the ideal law he postulated rarely quite holds. Leonardo himself reflected on the reasons for this modification of the schema, though he explicitly says that (TP McM 900, CU 246 v, Fig. 8). “Although these things do not serve painting, yet I will note them, so as to leave out as little about trees as is possible” (a reference to the way tree rings will indicate fluctuations of weather and climate). It would be of great interest if botanists could comment on the detailed descriptions of the characteristic growth patterns of various species and on Leonardo's theories concerning the advantages the tree derives from them (TP McM 887, CU 247).

But here, as in the case of mountains, the study of structure, of morphology, is only one aspect of the painter's concern. He must know how these structures appear to the eye in the varying conditions he wants to represent them. Of course this task of representing objects not as they are but as they appear to the eye is part and parcel of the Western tradition of art. In the rendering of trees and foliage this need has always been explicity acknowledged. It is notoriously impossible to paint every twig and leaf of a tree; all the brush can render is the global impression, achieved through some kind of summary treatment. There was a convenient schema at hand for the rendering of trees and leaves which is well described in Cennine's Handbook17:

The way to paint trees and plants and foliage, in fresco and in secco. Chapter LXXXVI. If you wish to embellish these mountains with groves of trees or with plants, first lay in the trunk of the tree with pure black, tempered, for they can hardly be done in fresco; and then make a range of leaves with dark green, but using malachite, because terre-verte is not good; and see to it that you make them quite close. Then make up a green with giallorino, so that it is a little lighter, and do a smaller number of leaves, starting to go back to shape up some of the ridges. Then touch in the high lights on the ridges with straight giallorino, and you will see the reliefs of the trees and of the foliage. But before this, when you have got the trees laid in, do the base and some of the branches of the trees with black; and scatter the leaves upon them, and then the fruits; and scatter occasional flowers and little birds over the foliage.

The chasm which separates this precept from the innumerable modifications recorded by Leonardo is indeed a measure of his mental power and achievement. And yet it might be that some sections in his book VI are more easily understood if they are seen against the background of this tradition. The method which medieaval painting had inherited from antiquity and passed on to the early Renaissance relied basically on the three stage method which Cennini also advocates for the modelling of drapery. The crown of the tree was painted in dark green and on this ground branches and leaves were painted in layers with the lightest in front. Needless to say the formula was enriched and modified in a variety of ways which could only be fully analysed with the help of faithful colour plates, too expensive to produce in such numbers. They would show, for instance, that account was taken of the fall of light so that the gradation towards brightness was shifted from the centre towards the source of the illumination,18 how the elements were multiplied and refined, and variations were introduced to indicate various types of trees.

It is in this development that Leonardo inserts himself. In fact his systematic statement can best be understood in this context (TP McM 910, CU 251 v):

Of the states of the foliage of trees. Four states of the foliage of trees are: luster, light, transparency, and shadow. If the eye looks down on this foliage, the illuminated part will seem to be greater in quantity than the shadowed part, and this occurs because the illuminated side is larger than the shadowed side and is subject to light, high light and transparency. For the moment I shall leave transparency aside and describe the appearance of the illuminated part, which is considered the fourth of the qualities of colors which vary on the surfaces of bodies. This is a medium quality, which means that it is not the principal light but a secondary one, which is accompanied by a secondary rather than a principal shadow. This medium, illuminated part comes between the high light and the shadowy quality which, in turn, comes between the medium illuminated part/and the principal shadows.

The third state, which is transparency, occurs only in transparent objects, and not in relation to opaque bodies. But I am speaking, at present, of the leaves of trees and it is necessary to describe the second state of foliage which is important in depicting plants. This has not been employed by anyone before me insofar as I am aware. It is, as has been stated, the portion of the foliage situated in the lower part of the tree.

It seems to me that in speaking of “the medium quality, in other words not the principal light but a medium one” Leonardo was addressing painters who were used to the traditional methods of gradation in the rendering of light and shade.

Having thus established his ground, however, he reminds them of the incompleteness of the schema, the effect of transparency, an effect which, as he explicitly states had never yet been employed in the rendering of foliage.

It looks as if Leonardo here exceptionally referred to his achievement as a painter, claiming that nobody before him had ever painted the transparency of leaves.19 There are few passages in the Trattato where the identity in Leonardo's mind of what we call ‘art’ and what we call ‘science’ is more clearly brought out. He writes not only as a painter but also as a scientist, who has discovered a new variable that must be taken into account in the description and explanation of effects, though he himself is not yet quite at ease with the consequences of this discovery. In fact it will be noticed that the four states “accidenti” he enumerates at the outset of the paragraph quoted are not really on the same level. Light “lume” and shadow “ombra” are really dependent on one variable, the rays of the sun or their reflection from the sky, ‘lustre’ “lustro” depends in addition on the quality of the leaf, whether it is smooth or mat, and transparency again both on the intensity of the light and the thickness of the leaf.

Such slight inconsistencies are not rare in the section, and yet, I believe, they would present no obstacle to a detailed commentary such as I envisage. It might then turn out that here as elsewhere Leonardo had set himself the aim of an Euclidian demonstration more geometrico, classifying and tabulating one of the most elusive and varied visual phenomena in our environment on the basis of a strictly limited number of elements. Admittedly an understanding of his intention is not helped by the jumbled sequence in which his observations are presented in the Codex Urbinas. Here, as elsewhere, the editor of the standard English edition, A. Philip McMahon, has attempted to bring order into this confusion by radically re-arranging these paragraphs, but the reader who goes through the relevant notes from 910 to 980 will be more impressed than enlightened. Not that any arrangement can be expected to work, there are too many repetitions, overlaps and complexities in the individual paragraphs to permit a perfect systematisation on the basis of Leonardo's text alone, but it seems to me that an approach through the analysis of the variables he considers might help initially to clarify his ideas and his method.

Having established frist what he calls the “vera figura” of a tree including the distribution and character of its foliage, he largely operates with three elements: the light, the eye and the air. In most of the paragraphs the light is that of the sun, for this makes it easy to plot the direction of the fall of light on the tree in descriptions and diagrams, though Leonardo characteristically advises the landascape painter (TP McM 978, CU 256) to avoid painting sunlight and rather select the diffuse light emanating from the sky alone. It is the fall of light, of course, which creates the objective condition of the distribution of shadows but it is the condition of foliage which accounts fot the places where sunlight penetrates or where leaves throw shadows on other leaves (TP McM 911, CU 253 v, Fig. 9):

Of the ends of branches of leafy trees. The primary shadows which the first leaves cast upon the second leafy branches are less dark than those which these shadowed leaves cast upon the third leaves and also less dark than those cast by the third shadowed leaves upon the fourth. This brings forth the fact that the illuminated leaves which have the third and fourth leaves which are in shadow, as their backgrounds, appear in greater relief than those which have the first shadowed leaves as their background. For example, if the sun were E, and the eye N, and the first leaf illuminated by the sun were A, which has as its background the second leaf B, I say that this leaf would stand out less, since it has as its background that second leaf, than if it projected farther out and had as its background the leaf C, which is darker because more leaves lie between it and the sun. The leaf A would stand out still more if it/had as its background the fourth leaf, that is, D.

What matters to the painter, however, is not only which part of the trees are lit, but what of these conditions can be seen from a particular vantage point: in other words appearance here, as always, depends on the second variable, the position of the eye. The simplest case is discussed in TP McM 920, CU 262:

Of plants in the south. When the sun is in the east, trees in the south and north have almost as much light as shadow. The amount of light is greater the farther west they are, and the amount of shadow is greater the farther east they are.

By “the amount of shadow” Leonardo means of course visible shadow, as he also demonstrates in a diagram TP McM 968, CU 262 v (Fig. 10):

Of landscapes in painting. Trees and mountains represented in painting should show shadows from that side of the picture from which the light comes and their illuminated parts should be shown from that side from which/the shadows come, so that the light and shadow is shown in those parts where the eye sees both light and shadow. This is proved by the figure in the margin.

The a priori character if this observation is neatly brought out in TP McM 922, CU 259:

Of the shadows of trees. Shadows of trees in landscapes do not appear to be the same in trees at the right as in those at the left, particularly when the sun is at the right or at the left. This, proved by the fourth proposition which states: opaque bodies lying between the light and the eye appear to be entirely in shadow, and also by the fifth proposition which states: the eye placed between the opaque body and the light sees the opaque body all illuminated; and furthermore by the sixth proposition which state: if the eye and the opaque body are between the darkness and the light, the opaque body will be seen half in shadow and half in light.

It is from this rational schema that Leonardo proceeds to qualify and refine the explanation of appearances as in TP McM 921, CU 254 v:

Of the shadows of trees. When the sun is in the east, the trees to the west of the eye appear to have very little, almost imperceptible, relief if the air which lies between the eye and the trees is very dusty. According to the seventh proposition of this book,/these trees are without shadow, and although there is shadow in each division of the foliage, it happens that because the visual images of the shadow and the light which reach the eye are confused and intermingled, and because of the smallness of their size and form they cannot be envisaged.

The principal lights are in the middle of the trees, and the shadows toward the edges, and the spaces between are marked by the shadows in these intervals when the forests are thick, but when they are sparse the outlines are but little to be seen.

More possible permutations are introduced in such paragraphs as TP McM 916, CU 255:

Of the sizes of shadows and lights on leaves. The branches and foliage of trees are seen from below, above, or from the center. If they are seen from below, then the light will be universal and the shadowy part will be greater than the illuminated part; if they are seen from above, the illuminated part will be larger than the shadowed part, and if they are seen from the center, the illuminated part will be as large as that in shadow.

The two primary variables, let us call them the position of the sun and that of the eye, will of course also effect the two “accidents” Leonardo had enumerated in TP McM 910, CU 251 v, transparency and lustre. Clearly the first of these will be strongest if we see the leaf against the sun as Leonardo specifies in two annotated diagrams in which he now distinguishes the three “accidents” of shade, lustre and transparency, where the leaf is shown to be transparent exactly at the point between the eye and the source of light (TP McM 939, CU 261 and 261 v, Figs. 11 and 12a):

Of the shadow of the leaf. Sometimes a leaf has three incidental conditions; that is, shadow, high light, and transparency; for example, if the light were from N on the leaf S, and the eye at M, it would see the part A illuminated, B shadowed, and C transparent.

The leaf with a concave surface, seen in reverse from below, sometimes appears half shadowed/and half transparent. For example, let P O be the leaf, and the light M, and the eye N, which sees O shadowed because the light does not strike it at equal angles on the right side nor on the reverse, and let P be the right side, illuminated with a light which shines through to the reverse side.

Even here, though, these simple conditions are complicated in reality by the overlap of foliage as Leonardo demonstrates in one of his most beautiful diagrams, TP McM 927, CU 260 v (Fig. 12b):

Of dark leaves in front of transparent ones. When leaves are placed between the light and the eye, then the leaf nearest the eye will be the darkest and the most distant will be the brightest, provided that it does not have the air as its background. This happens in the case of leaves which are beyond the center of the tree, that is, toward the light.

No wonder here, as with the effects of sunlight as such, Leonardo interrupts his demonstrations to warn the painter against incorporating them in his paintings (TP McM 977, CU 260):

Of never portraying foliage transparent to the sun. Never represent leaves which are transparent to the sun. These are indistinct, because on the transparency of one leaf there will be impressed the shadow of another leaf which is above it, and this shadow is sharply bounded and of a determinate density and sometimes it takes up a half or a third of the leaf that is shadows, and thus that cluster is confused and its portrayal is to be avoided.

When it comes to the question of lustre Leonardo is more specific about the need to consider the quality of the leaf itself. “that leaf which has a hairy surface does not have sheen” he observes (TP McM 972, CU 268). But in generally considering the effect of lustre Leonardo introduces his third main variable, the “air”. We have seen what important role he assigned to this element in his discussion of mountains and once more it is the air as much as the light which accounts for the modification of appearances.

Again he relates these effects to general propositions to which he refers more geometrico (TPMcM 936, CU 256 v):

Of the high lights on the foliage of trees. The leaves of trees commonly have a polished surface, because of which they mirror in part the color of the air, and because the air takes on white since it is mixed with thin and transparent clouds, the surfaces of the leaves, when they are naturally dark, like those of the elm, and when they are not covered with dust, have high lights which appear to be blue. This happens according to the seventh proposition of the fourth book which shows that brightness compounded with darkness produces the color blue.

These leaves will have high lights that are bluer as the air which is mirrored in them is more pure and blue, but if these leaves are young, like those at the tips of branches in the month of May, then/they will be green tending toward yellow, and if their high lights are produced by the blue air which is mirrored in them, then these will be green according to the third proposition of the fourth book which states: the color yellow mixed with blue always produces the color green.

The high lights of all the leaves of a dense surface will take on the color of the air, and the darker the leaves are, the more they will function like mirrors, and as a consequence these high lights will become blue.

Leonardo, of course, is the pioneer of ‘aerial perspective’ so the effect of distance on the shape and colour of trees is attributed to the amount of air intervening between the eye and the object. Once again he aims at mathematical precision in describing the loss of detail with distance (TP McM 950, CU 253):

Branches and twigs of trees at diverse distances. The trees in the first plane show their true shapes to the eye, and each cluster of leaves growing on the last twigs of the trees shows sharply its lights, high lights, shadows and transparent parts; in the second plane within the distance from the horizon to the eye, all the clusters of leaves appear like points on the twigs; at the third distance all of the twigs seem to be points sown among the larger branches; at the fourth distance the larger branches are so diminished that they remain only as indistinct shapes in the tree; then follows the horizon, which is the fifth and last distance, where the tree is completely diminished in such a way that is like a point in shape. Thus I have divided the distance from the eye to the true horizon, which ends on a plane, into five equal parts.

In another paragaph which is rightly famous he goes further still and relates the gradual change of apparent shape to the effect of the intervening air (TP McM 956, CU 258 v, Fig. 13):

What outlines distant trees display against the air which forms their background. The outlines which the branches and foliage of trees display against the illuminated air, have a shape tending toward the spherical the farther distant they are, and the nearer they are, the less they show of this spherical shape. For example, A, the first tree, because it is near/to the eye displays the true shape of its branching, which almost disappears in B, and is entirely lost in C, where, not only are the branches of the tree not seen, but the whole tree is recognized only with great effort.

It is in this context also that he formulates what might be called the law of diminishing tonal contrasts which had been known empirically to the ancient world and which he himself had applied with such powerful effect in his landscape background (TP McM 951, CU 258/258 v):

Of the luminous part of the verdure of plants. Luminous parts of the verdure of trees in the vicinity of the eye appear to be brighter than those of more distant trees, and their shadowed parts appear darker than those of the more distant trees.

“The bright parts of distant trees are darker/than those of adjacent trees, and their shadowy parts seem brighter than the shadowy parts of those adjacent trees. This comes about because the concurrence of the visual images becomes confused and mixed on account of their great distance from the eye that sees them.

The commentary to the full text, such as I envisage it, would not, of course, have the drawback which this relatively small selection inevitably exibits. It would be able to do justice to the richness and subtleties introduced by Leonardo in his countless modifications of the principal schemata. These modifications would then be seen to range from wholly subjective to purely objective phenomena. By subjective I mean those responses of the eye which are due to the effects of contrast or dazzle, effects which always fascinated Leonardo, as in the following observation which forms part of TP McM 973, CU 259 v: “When one green is behind another green, the high lights and transparencies of the leaves appear to be of greater power than those which border on the brightness of the air”, an effect which must be due to that “brightness” appearing to tone down the highlights more prominently in evidence towards the centre.

Among the objective phenomena those would have to be considered which are due to passing physical conditions, as where Leonardo describes the effect of wind (TP McM 946, CU 266) which renders the appearance of trees brighter “because each leaf is paler on the revese side than on the right side”, a condition not necessarily universal. Other phisical modifications are strangely neglected, such as the effect of rain or dew with their sparkle, or the change of the colour of foliage in the autumn. The fact that these points are omitted and that conifers are nowhere mentioned in this section, though some species are referred to in other parts of the treatise, underlines the fragmentary character of the notes we have. Leonardo, of course, was aware of the fact that the topic was inexhaustible. He made a brief reference at least to the effects of chance, or as he puts it, the “mixture of accidents”, but being Leonardo he even wished to quantify its working (TP McM 965, CU 258 v):

Of the appearance of chance conditions. At a distance there is produced a mixture of the chance conditions affecting the foliage of trees. The foliage participates more in such chance conditions which is largest in mass.

Enough has been said, though, to make the point that Leonardo's review of visual phenomena of which the landscape painter should be aware is not ‘inductivist’ in the sense of a naive Baconian ideal of science based entirely on first-hand observation. On the contrary, true scientist as he was, he used a deductive model starting with first principles but testing his deductions in the world around him. It is in the nature of such a procedure that it remains wedded to universals, to categories and classes of phenomena, in other words to visual schemata, however articulated. The individual and unique will never be matched through such a procedure. Maybe it was an awareness of this limitation which made the compiler close his account with a note which boldly disregards the variability of appearances which had been the subject of the preceding pages (TP McM 981, CU 268):

Precept, for imitating the color of leaves. Those who do not wish to rely entirely on their own judgment in duplicating the true colors of leaves, should take a leaf from that tree which they desire to represent, and mix their color based on this, and when there is no difference between their color and the color of the leaf, than you can be certain that your color is an exact duplication of the leaf, and you can do the same with other objects that you wish to represent.

Did Leonardo pen this note tongue in cheek, or did he perhaps want to return to base and remind the painter of the elementary facts of ‘matching’ which underlies even the study of the countless modifications he has set himself to investigate and to explain? He knew that appearances cannot be fully matched in painting, because the world we see with two eyes is three dimensional while paintings are flat,20 and also because the painter only has white pigment to emulate the brightness light, a fact first observed by Alberti.21 If we are to believe Vasari it was this handicap of the painter which drove Leonardo to adjust his scale towards the dark end of the spectrum to enhance his contrasts.22

Today we have mechanical methods of matching nearly all effects of nature; the camera which can be enhanced by the borrowed light of projectors not to mention the stereo effects achieved by holographs. Even without these additional devices colour photography has reached a degree of perfection which no longer allows us to dismiss the varied images we find in the best books on natural scenery with a superior smile. Leonardo certainly would not have done so. He would have scrutinized these records with infinite patience to supplement his observations. An ideal edition of the Trattato might well do the same, confronting Leonardo's verbal descriptions and diagrams of trees, leaves or mountain scenery with carefully selected images which would show both the accuracy and the limitations of his research.

It certainly needs an effort of the imagination to envisage such a sequence of illustrations. For the section would present us with panorama of nature wholly remote from the landscape not only of Leonardo himself but also from that of his fellow Italians. Would not a naive reader of these descriptions of scenery and atmospheric effects rather conjure up in his mind something like the backgrounds of Netherlandish paintings? Leonardo certainly knew the Portinari Altar by Hugo van der Goes and must have been impressed by it. But the notes for the sixth book of the Trattato nearly all date from the sixth decade of his life.23 Do they testify to yet another attempt to enrich his creativity and to create a new kind of painting? The famous sketch of a copse at Windsor (12431) is a precious testimony to his effort to link once more his theory with his practice, but miraculous as it is, it remains isolated and enigmatic. Maybe his theoretical ambition had once more overtaken his practical reach and made him still more “impatient of the brush”.24

Owing to an accident of history the version of the Trattato on which the editio princeps was based, lacked most of the observations here discussed. The development of landscape painting occurred therefore rather independent of Leonardo's heroic effort. In fact more than three hundred years had to elapse before his enterprise was taken up again, in that astounding catalogue of visual phenomena, Ruskin's Modern Painters.25 His beautiful chapter ‘Of Truth of Vegetation’, like the other pages of that multivolume work, is conceived as a defence of Turner and a vindication of his fidelity to Nature. The author is at pains to contrast his hero with his predecessors who failed to look at the world around them. Judging by his comment there are indeed many works by famous exponents of landascape painting in which the laws of the morphology of trees which Leonardo had established are flouted. To compare Ruskin's observations with those of Leonardo would altogether be a rewarding task but like the other desiderata here outlined it has to be left to another generation of scholars.


  1. Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting (Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270), Translated and annotated by A. Philip McMahon, with an Introduction by Ludwig H. Heydenreich, Vol. I. Translation, Vol. II, Facsimile, Princeton University Press, Princeton (New Jersey), 1956.

  2. Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo da Vinci ‘On Painting’, A Lost Book, (Libro A), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1964; and, the same, The Literary Works of Leonardo Da Vinci, A Commentary to J. P. Richter's Edition, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1977.

  3. J. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1979.

  4. Art and Illusion, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorical Representation, New York and London, 1960. Italian Translation Arte e Illusione, Torino, 1965.

  5. In my Gerda Henkel Vorlesung of 1982, Ideal und Typus in der Renaissancemalerei which is due to be published soon in Duesseldorf. I have attempted to place this phenomenon into a wider context.

  6. See my essay Leonardo's Grotesque Heads originally published in Achille Marazza, (ed.) Leonardo, Saggi e Ricerche, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Roma, 1964, and reprinted in my The Heritage of Apelles, Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1976.

  7. Ludwig Golscheider, Leonardo da Vinci, Landscapes and Plants, Phaidon Press, London, 1952. Giorgio Castelfranco, Il paesaggio di Leonardo, Studi Vinciani, Roma, 1966.

  8. See my The Heritage of Apelles, cit., p. 33.

  9. See my The Heritage of Apelles, cit., pp. 11-13.

  10. Giorgio Castelfranco, Sul pensiero geologico e il paesaggio di Leonardo, Studi Vinciani, cit.

  11. See the Madrid Codex II (ed. L. Reti).

  12. Richter, The Literary Works, as quoted above, 300, Lei 4 r (Ham 4 A).

  13. Cennino D'Andrea Cennini, Il libro dell'Arte, edited by Daniel V. Thompson Jr., Yale University Press, New Haven, Cap. LXXXV.

  14. See for instance the apse mosaic of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, as discussed in my The Heritage of Apelles, cit., on p. 12.

  15. According to André Chastel in The Unknown Leonardo edited by L. Reti, London, 1974, p. 147, Leonardo applied this rule in the magnificent mountain panorama of W 12410. But did the artist here not rather wish to isolate the soaring peaks which were the main object of his interest?

  16. See my Art and Illusion, cit., Ch. V, section Iv.

  17. As cited in ref. 13, Cap. LXXXVI.

  18. An early example is Taddeo Gaddi's fresco of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Santa Croce, Firenze.

  19. The foliage seen against the sky on top of the Louvre Madonna of the Rocks may be an early example; but Leonardo may have been anticipated by Piero della Francesca in whose Baptism of Christ (London, National Gallery) the radiance is seen behind the leaves of the tree.

  20. TPMcM 220, CU 46 v and 47, as discussed in my Art and Illusion, cit., Ch. III, section 1.

  21. L. B. Alberti, De Pictura, ed. C. Grayson, Phaidon Press, London, 1972, II, paragraph 47.

  22. See for this interpretation my The Image and the Eye, Oxford, 1982, p. 229.

  23. Nearly all the notes used in section VI come from Ms G and are dated by Pedretti in his Commentary on Richter (cit.) around 1510.

  24. The quotation is from Nuvolara's famous letter to Isabella d'Este of April 8th 1501.

  25. First published in 1843; I know of no evidence that Ruskin at that time knew the full text of Leonardo's Trattato.

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