In Other Words

384 pages

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Fred R. Kline

Leonardo’s Holy Child

At the Lou­vre Mu­seum in Paris, a crowd of tourists al­ways seems to be clus­tered in front of the Mona

Lisa. Many are at­tracted by the paint­ing’s fame, but oth­ers are there to ex­pe­ri­ence its enigma. The artist who pro­duced what is per­haps the best-known paint­ing in the world was not a pro­lific painter. A ma­jor artist who was also an im­por­tant sci­en­tist, Leonardo da Vinci strad­dled the line between dis­cov­ery and failure. His de­signs for fly­ing ma­chines and a parachute were as­ton­ish­ingly pre­scient, but it is no big sur­prise that his ma­chines did not fly — the tech­nol­ogy did not ex­ist to sup­port his vi­sion. Leonardo’s pas­sion, how­ever, was to study and find new ways of rep­re­sent­ing na­ture. In his es­say “The In­ven­tions of Na­ture,” Martin Kemp writes: “Leonardo en­deav­ored to find a for­mula for the ra­tio of wing-span to weight in birds which could be used to cal­cu­late the size of wing nec­es­sary to sus­tain a man. He was en­cour­aged by the fact that, whereas small birds and bats are equipped with rel­a­tively long wings, the larger birds such as pel­i­cans and ea­gles do not ap­par­ently need wings of a di­rectly pro­por­tional size.” As one who sought pro­to­types in na­ture, did Leonardo lean on other pro­to­types?

The artist has not left be­hind many fin­ished paint­ings, but he has left us a trea­sure trove of draw­ings — stud­ies, sketches, and note­books — some of which also yield clues to his cre­ative process. Santa Fe art dealer Fred R. Kline de­votes the first half of Leonardo’s

Holy Child to his dis­cov­ery of a Leonardo draw­ing, per­haps the first such dis­cov­ery in a cen­tury. Kline has made a ca­reer of look­ing for lost art. Over a decade and a half ago, he saw a draw­ing of an in­fant in a Christie’s cat­a­log. He felt strongly that the artist it was at­trib­uted to — An­ni­bale Car­racci — was not its ac­tual author. Moved by the sen­si­tiv­ity of the draw­ing, he de­cided to pur­chase it. Christie’s es­ti­mate was low, $1,500 to $2,000. Kline faxed in his bid and was thrilled when it was ac­cepted.

Some as­pects of Kline’s story are riv­et­ing. His dis­cov­ery of the draw­ing’s prove­nance hangs on such small details — a mole by the right eye­brow, a slight hook at the end of the nose — that it gets you to ap­pre­ci­ate how closely you must look at a draw­ing or a paint­ing in or­der to in­tel­li­gi­bly read it. The same attention to de­tail could have ben­e­fited Kline’s writ­ing: It is sur­pris­ing an ed­i­tor didn’t at least cut down on his overuse of caps, ital­ics, and ex­cla­ma­tion points.

Some of Kline’s pa­tient sleuthing, and the ways in which he cross-ref­er­ences what he calls the “Holy Child” draw­ing with the in­fant St. John the Bap­tist in Leonardo’s Vir­gin of the Rocks, among other paint­ings, could lead to fresh in­sights about the artist’s cre­ative process. Kline sug­gests that the draw­ing was Leonardo’s pro­to­type for later paint­ings in which he de­picted the in­fant Je­sus. Fi­nally, Kline as­serts that the “Holy Child” could have been a pro­to­type for the por­trait of a baby in the satir­i­cal Leda and her Chil­dren, a paint­ing at­trib­uted to a man who is be­lieved to have been Leonardo’s stu­dio as­sis­tant, Gi­ampi­etrino, but a work that Kline be­lieves Leonardo had a hand in cre­at­ing.

What comes through in this story is the gen­uine bond Kline feels with the draw­ing, which also ar­tic­u­lates a per­sonal tale of loss for him. As a young man, he and the woman he would marry two decades later lost their child to a mis­car­riage. Though they rarely spoke of it, the tragedy was ever-present for the cou­ple. For Kline, the draw­ing vis­ually honors that child.

The idea of the “Holy Child” draw­ing as a pro­to­type for Leonardo’s later paint­ings of in­fants is mes­mer­iz­ing, but it re­mains for future schol­ars to weigh Kline’s the­ory. What is clearly known is that Leonardo used birds as pro­to­types for his fly­ing ma­chines. Like the Amer­i­can or­nithol­o­gist and artist John James Audubon, Leonardo also had a childhood ex­pe­ri­ence in­volv­ing a bird — in this case, a kite — that made an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on him. Later, in his note­books, he made many draw­ings of birds, and es­pe­cially of their wings.

Among Leonardo’s many con­tri­bu­tions to art was his use of three-di­men­sion­al­ity in paint­ings. While Audubon rev­o­lu­tion­ized the draw­ings of birds by sug­gest­ing move­ment in the way he drew them, a few hun­dred years ear­lier, bi­og­ra­pher Gior­gio Vasari wrote that Leonardo gave “move­ment and breath” to his hu­man sub­jects. In Leonardo da Vinci: The Ge­nius

in Mi­lan, which screened re­cently as part of the CCA’s Ex­hi­bi­tion on Screen se­ries, Mi­lanese art his­to­rian Maria Teresa Fio­rio tells us: “Paint­ing from na­ture, us­ing char­ac­ters from na­ture, from life, was one of the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of Leonardo’s art.” If schol­ars con­firm Kline’s the­ory, it is a fur­ther tes­ta­ment to Leonardo’s power that a sin­gle unattributed draw­ing of an in­fant could speak across time and shout out his au­thor­ship. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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