Leonardo da Vinci, the un­re­li­able per­fec­tion­ist

500 years af­ter Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Alexan­der Hope re­calls the quest for per­fec­tion that made him a frus­trated, un­re­li­able ge­nius

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Alexan­der Hope

May 2, 2019, marks the 500th an­niver­sary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Over the cen­turies, any num­ber of crit­ics have lauded him as the great­est of all artists. Leonardo him­self would prob­a­bly not have de­murred.

Nor, one sus­pects, would those be­hind the 2017 ac­qui­si­tion of the Sal­va­tor Mundi – at £345 mil­lion, by some

mar­gin the high­est price pub­licly paid for a work of art. And that de­spite the ac­knowl­edged com­plex­i­ties of its con­di­tion and the fact that there are vo­cal op­po­nents of its at­tri­bu­tion to Leonardo.

In the face of the lat­est doubts, the Lou­vre’s pub­lic reaf­fir­ma­tion of its re­quest for the paint­ing in its forth­com­ing Leonardo ex­hi­bi­tion seems to un­der­mine those de­trac­tors’ pro­fessed sta­tus as au­thor­i­ties on the artist.

There is a tra­di­tion of ten­u­ous ex­per­tise ques­tion­ing ma­jor artis­tic dis­cov­er­ies, par­tic­u­larly when in­volv­ing huge prices: con­sider the weary­ing crit­i­cisms of Rubens’s Sam­son and Delilah in the Na­tional Gallery, Lon­don. Pe­cu­nia olet, it seems.

There is, of course, no great­est artist, and no great­est work of art. But it would be hard to dis­pute that Leonardo ranks among the great­est (and I would

per­son­ally guess that the Mona Lisa is – cer­tainly not the same thing – the most fa­mous work of art in the world to­day). And what is par­tic­u­larly re­mark­able about his rep­u­ta­tion is – an ex­quis­ite rar­ity in the richly frac­tious world of crit­i­cism – it has never been be­smirched.

King François I of France, in whose arms Leonardo is apoc­ryphally sup­posed to have died, said that no­body had been born who knew as much as Leonardo; not only in the arts, but also in phi­los­o­phy. Vasari wrote, ‘Some­times, in supernatur­al fash­ion, beauty, grace and tal­ent are united be­yond mea­sure in one sin­gle per­son. Truly mar­vel­lous and ce­les­tial was Leonardo.’

Ernst Gom­brich wrote, ‘There ap­peared no field of knowl­edge to which he had not made a con­tri­bu­tion: anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy, me­chan­ics, hy­draulics, botany and op­tics were all trans­formed by his magic touch. No won­der he was hailed as a ge­nius who had tran­scended all the lim­i­ta­tions to which hu­man na­ture is prone.’

But there was one lim­i­ta­tion that Leonardo never tran­scended: un­re­li­a­bil­ity. Such was the range of his in­ter­ests that his ex­tra­or­di­nary mind seemed ever dis­tracted by the next. Much was planned; lit­tle com­pleted. Among con­tem­po­raries, he was no­to­ri­ous for it.

Vasari con­tin­ued, ‘It is clear that Leonardo… be­gan many things and never fin­ished one of them, since it seemed to him that the hand was not able to at­tain to the per­fec­tion of art in car­ry­ing out the things which he imag­ined; for the rea­son that he con­ceived in idea dif­fi­cul­ties so sub­tle and so mar­vel­lous that they could never be ex­pressed by the hands, be they ever so ex­cel­lent.’

Much as to­day the bound­aries be­tween fine and ap­plied art are blurred, so Re­nais­sance artists were re­spon­si­ble for a range of ac­tiv­i­ties far broader than paint­ing and sculp­ture: ar­chi­tec­ture, ar­ma­ments, de­sign, pageantry, en­gi­neer­ing and more. Leonardo’s own ap­pli­ca­tion to work for Lu­dovico Sforza, the Duke of Mi­lan, fo­cuses on his po­ten­tial for Mi­lan’s mil­i­tary might. It only men­tions his artis­tic abil­i­ties as an ap­par­ent af­ter­thought.

Fur­ther­more, court artists – as Leonardo was for a long time – were re­quired to en­hance the ac­tiv­i­ties of the prince’s house­hold. Leonardo was such an or­na­ment (not just metaphor­i­cally: the early sources

record his phys­i­cal beauty and re­fine­ment, and the only known image of him sup­ports them). His con­tri­bu­tion to the courts of Mi­lan and France, in manners, ap­pear­ance and con­ver­sa­tion, were cel­e­brated.

It is un­sur­pris­ing that much of his time was di­verted from paint­ing. But he wasn’t the only artist so en­gaged; and most of them pro­duced more than the mere score or so known paint­ings by Leonardo. And none of them di­verted so much of their en­ergy into a mad­den­ingly, ex­traor­di­nar­ily vast cor­pus of notes, mus­ings and sketch­ings that even to­day con­sti­tute roughly 6,000 pages.

Even the works that he did paint can be prob­lem­atic: some un­fin­ished, some (like the Sal­va­tor Mundi) in sad con­di­tion. The Last Sup­per is one such. It was hard enough to get him to fin­ish it, and, when he did, dis­as­ter struck. Striv­ing for new artis­tic sub­tleties, Leonardo de­cided to paint in glazes onto dry – rather than ap­ply pig­ment into still-wet – plas­ter. Sadly, but not wholly sur­pris­ingly, the re­sult was in­her­ently un­sta­ble. With the damp Mi­lanese win­ters, his paint has been flak­ing off ever since, leav­ing merely the ghost of his work, cor­rupted through­out by suc­ces­sive restora­tions.

Although Leonardo is frus­trat­ing, it would take an im­pos­si­ble ob­tuse­ness to deny his ge­nius; and a sim­i­lar wil­ful­ness to deny his vex­a­tious­ness. His tal­ent, how­ever flawed, was, sim­ply, as­ton­ish­ing: at its worst, ag­o­nis­ing in lost po­ten­tial; at its best, in­ef­fa­ble in qual­ity.

There is, para­dox­i­cally, much to ad­mire in his flaws. Vasari was per­cep­tive in at­tribut­ing his un­re­li­a­bil­ity not to lack of fo­cus, but the op­po­site. To read through Leonardo’s writ­ings is to sense a ge­nius ca­pa­ble of mono­ma­ni­a­cal

en­quiry: op­tics, fluid dy­nam­ics, ge­ol­ogy, anatomy… The list con­tin­ues. There are flights of fancy, and mo­ments of frus­tra­tion and er­ror, but the in­ten­sity and depth are ex­tra­or­di­nary, even if the prac­ti­cal re­sults are ex­tremely lim­ited.

But that knowl­edge hob­bled him. Paint­ing is, ul­ti­mately, a representa­tional short­hand; Leonardo wanted – needed – to paint in long­hand. But that is hu­manly im­pos­si­ble, an un­sur­mount­able bar­rier be­fore which, one sus­pects, he re­peat­edly ended up de­feated, aban­don­ing his pic­tures or projects ei­ther at in­cep­tion or part-way through.

Leonardo is often per­ceived as the Re­nais­sance Man, his Vitru­vian Man a leit­mo­tif of the uni­ver­sal­ity of hu­man­ity. But he was self-taught, with an uncer­tain grasp of Latin, and with com­par­a­tively lit­tle in­ter­est in the let­tered cul­ture of an­tiq­uity – his knowl­edge was not the Re­nais­sance ideal. His sci­en­tific works drew more on the scholas­tics than con­tem­po­rary hu­man­ists, and his be­lief that knowl­edge could re­veal to its mas­ter the fab­ric of ex­is­tence re­flects that.

Ar­tis­ti­cally, he was cer­tainly a Re­nais­sance man: the prod­uct of the ex­tra­or­di­nary con­cate­na­tion of some four cen­turies of philo­soph­i­cal, lit­er­ary and sci­en­tific de­bate, in­fused by me­dieval courtly cul­ture and a bur­geon­ing na­tion­al­ism that, loosely, is the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance. But he was very much a pi­o­neer as well.

Over the course of his life, he de­vel­oped an artis­tic vo­cab­u­lary that, although daunt­ingly com­plex, none­the­less en­gen­dered a com­po­si­tional vigour and ex­pres­sional sub­lim­ity in art. Per­haps, his in­flu­ence was most suc­cess­ful at a re­move; em­u­la­tors found his skill inim­itable. The sub­lime qual­ity of his finest work – the tonal sub­tleties, di­aphanous flesh, evanes­cent ex­pres­sion and ab­sorb­ing com­po­si­tions – ex­poses the lim­i­ta­tions of even his ablest pupils, the prox­im­ity of whose artis­tic vo­cab­u­lary is too close to bear the com­par­i­son com­fort­ably.

In the work of an artist be­yond Leonardo’s im­me­di­ate or­bit, that in­flu­ence is more nu­anced – gen­tler. So, with Raphael, it doesn’t over­power him, but in­stead lifts him higher, im­bu­ing the stately grace of his early style with the com­po­si­tional life and psy­cho­log­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity ev­i­dent in Raphael’s Alba Madonna.

This, then, was a prodi­gious tal­ent, but flawed; as in a Greek tragedy, Leonardo’s hamar­tia was his ex­tra­or­di­nary mind. Driv­ing the re­lent­less search for per­fec­tion that so en­riched his nat­u­ral tal­ent, it raised for it­self im­pos­si­ble stan­dards that har­ried him to his own fail­ures. He may not have been a Re­nais­sance Man, but he is, per­haps, an artis­tic paragon of a deeper, more uni­ver­sal hu­man­i­tas.

Alexan­der Hope was an Old Masters spe­cial­ist and di­rec­tor at Christie’s

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Draw­ing, the Queen’s Gallery, Buck­ing­ham Palace, May 24 to Oc­to­ber 13, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci, the Lou­vre, Oc­to­ber 24, 2019 to Feb­ru­ary 24, 2020

‘The sub­lime qual­ity of his work ex­poses the lim­i­ta­tions of his ablest pupils ’

Fake or for­tune? Sal­va­tor Mundi, prob­a­bly by Leonardo da Vinci

The Queen’s Leonar­dos: The head of Leda (c1505-08); Head and shoul­ders of a woman (c1485-90); A man tricked by Gyp­sies (c1493)

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