Drawing Back the Veil

John Haber
in New York City

Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman

Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By

Even in his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci became easy to revere but difficult to see. Artists and princes alike turned to him, just when he, like his work, had already gone. He had skipped town, navigating Italy's treacherous politics and patronage. He left a project unfinished—or abandoned it to the elements.

Even since, the worshipful hordes have grown. Meanwhile the work has vanished that much further, behind the Leonardo myth. Leonardo da Vinci's Study for the Sforza Monument (Royal Library, Windsor Castle, c. 1485)

Can anything make Leonardo fresh and visible once again? If anything can take him out from under erasure, perhaps the Met can. A huge, intelligent show of his drawings tries to turn back the layers. It calls on his first thoughts, in notebooks, when ideas seemingly poured out as fast as he could catch them. Yet even that, in the end, may add to the artist's insistent self-effacement.

The High Renaissance found a new balance between god and man. In almost the same way, the myths surrounding Leonardo's genius juggle two views—of the passionate artist and the keen observer, above even nature. The exhibition of his drawings stresses the impersonal. In a postscript, I look at quite another version of Leonardo, one made for television. Television, of course, prefers local color.

Layer upon layer

Like the alternative poses in his drawings, the obstacles to seeing Leonardo keep multiplying. To start with, get practical. Unusually few paintings came to completion. An equestrian sculpture that Leonardo pondered for years never did. When he last settled down, in France, he never painted again.

What remains has landed in public and private collections from the United States to Poland and Russia. And time has not served it well. A Madonna seems to have lost her front teeth. A shotgun blasted into a drawing at London's National Gallery. French soldiers took aim, too, long before. They got hold of a plaster cast of that statue before Leonardo could cast it, and they shot it to pieces for target practice. Look, a horse is a horse . . . .

Giorgio Vasari, the famous chronicler of Renaissance art, called The Last Supper illegible from nearly its moment of completion (and long before Urs Fischer got a hold of it). Leonardo had painted directly on the wall, rather than into wet plaster, like a house painter angling for a call-back next year. He worked in oil paint to boot, which adheres especially badly. Vasari destroyed still another mural, an unfinished battle scene, to create his own. Then again, in the rivalries of the day, the younger artist backed Michelangelo.

And then, of course, comes the worship. Leonardo did not invent reverence for the work of art. (Why do you think artists had to make altarpieces?) He did, however, help establish the patent on genius.

He had the fairy-tale origins, as illegitimate son of a peasant mother. He had the lifestyle. As if planning for his Soho loft and New England retreat, he boasted that a painter can work in elegant clothing and to the accompaniment of music.

He had the reclusive habits, from mirror writing to the final years in exile. He helped start the tradition of working alone. Within a few years, Michelangelo was sculpting behind a curtain, to preserve his inventions from jealous eyes. Michelangelo also tried to bar the public, along with other artists, from his work in progress on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Breaking with the tradition of art as a trade, neither man left a workshop.

Sex and repetition

Leonardo sure had the range—from the art of painting to the art of war, from urban planning to the mountaintops, from the natural sciences to fantasies of nature. Best of all, he had talent and the charm to go with it. His teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, supposedly gave up painting after seeing Leonardo's angel of The Baptism. Verrocchio's own angel stays behind and gazes to his left, preferring his student's magic even to the miracle of divinity.

Leonardo offers his admirers, meaning everyone, something altogether personal and uncanny. Instead of a window onto nature and revealed truth, he turns the metaphor inside out. Now the window looks into nature—and into the soul.

Most often, that look comes with a sexual charge. One sees it from the vulnerability of an Apostle to the highway blues of a woman's smile. One senses it as Jesus fondles his lamb. One stops still at a Saint Anne almost as young and lovely as her daughter, Mary. Freud built a whole psychobiography around that one.

Like the actor within the painting, one becomes conscious of having to look and to look again. No wonder one can fail to see the work for its familiarity. One can fail to pick it out from behind the crowd. At least the swarm in front of The Mona Lisa at the Louvre leaves some of his other paintings in peace.

Reproductions have not been half so kind. Leo Steinberg, the critic and historian, says it all in his recent title: Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper. He opens with its reproduction on an advertising billboard. Repetition further establishes a myth. Leonardo now stands for a view of the world that he so helped to create, art as the expression of individualism and neurosis. The ideal still colors art today.

Romanticism built the myth around him. One can hardly imagine people lining up for Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock without him. Museums could not make oil painting into calendar art either.


As usual, however, ideology codifies reality at the price of truths. Did Leonardo's remoteness truly come from within? Does it really imply genius or neurosis? Work left at the stage of underpainting could mean failure. Then again, it could stand for Renaissance valuing of drawing, anatomy, and perspective over color and illusion.

Besides, the world often makes things hard to finish, just as the art market makes life hard for artists today. As independent cities like Florence fell into the hands of cutthroats, religious revival, and foreign arms, artists struggled for a living even then. They had to knew when to hit the road. Michelangelo tried for four decades to get funding for a project, and he left an unfinished battle mural facing Leonardo's. Leonardo might have designed armaments, but he did not ask the French to shoot apart his horse.

Scholars have studied the myth without dispelling it. They still debate the subject of Leonardo's Last Supper. They still cannot agree on the subject and history of a Renaissance portrait.

Rona Goffen, an art historian known for a majestic volume on Giovanni Bellini, faces individualism head-on. Her Renaissance Rivals tackles Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael after his early years, and Titian, not to mention Frazier and Ali, Matisse and Picasso. (Well, okay, I could not resist adding the last few.) Goffen recasts their careers as a kind of sixteenth-century flame war. Yet she, too, only adds to the aura of art. She takes Michelangelo, years Leonardo's junior, as her unlikely focus.

In effect, Goffen gives a rambling novel its larger-than-life hero. With her theme in place, anything fits. If an artist copies a motif, as in a Raphael Madonna, it shows concern for the competition. If he deviates, it shows his one-upmanship.

The vagueness extends to the very notion of rivalry. Goffen ranges from respect for past masters to formal competitions for public commissions, personal animosities, claims of different cities, and even the classical question of priority among the fine arts. She starts with chapter titles in Italian but does not so much as mention each term within the text, much less tease out what David Summers has called Michelangelo and the Language of Art. She brings four careers alive. And yet she never quite explores whether they invented the notion of an avant-garde, kept it alive, or had an ideology all their own.

Hard facts . . .

I have been rehashing an old story myself. Yet another critic gets caught up in the Leonardo myth that he was trying to penetrate. The Met aspires to do better. It sticks to drawings, in quantity, to ensure scholarship and detail. It includes a canvas but a relatively unfamiliar one, Saint Jerome from the Vatican. Besides, Leonardo left that one at the stage of drawing.

It places him within an Early Renaissance tradition, like many a peer. The first room shows his roots in Verrocchio's studio. He adapts the older man's sfumato. Verrocchio's fluid curls of hair still echo in Leonardo's last, titanic sketches of clouds and floods.

Next come life studies. Leonardo carried his sketchbook everywhere, just as the master taught. Drawings then document the Adoration of the Magi, which served as a school for a whole generation of artists, and The Last Supper. Less public work, such as Madonnas and portraiture, gets less attention. The exhibition ends with artists in Leonardo's circle, although actually he taught no one and influenced everyone.

The Met presents not a slacker or a dreamer but a downright careerist. This guy simply cannot stop. The curators show him at work in all media. They highlight his letter promising to help a tyrant to invade his neighbors. They devote exhaustive if not exhausting space to battle plans, irrigation, and relief maps. They think of his reverse writing as mere efficiency, the natural stroke for a lefty pressed for time.

They stress the accuracy and foresight of his science. Leonardo notes types of plants. He takes long walks in the mountains, carefully observing the patterns of land, water, and life. The small writing and marginal illustrations in his last notebooks look not unlike a modern textbook.

They compare his analysis of currents and eddies to fluid dynamics today. They describe his accumulation of evidence for and against a Biblical flood, presumably without experience of Hurricane Sandy. They place his love for monstrous faces in context of a typology of humanity, rather than caricature or dreams of a human soul. In all these ways, wall labels linger on hard background, not empty praise. Even more unusual for the Met, they acknowledge uncertainty and disputes.

. . . And lingering fantasies

I knew a drier artist than before, but I could not lose the dream of humanism. Not even this show can cut through the haze. Leonardo worked too hard to create and to erase his reputation.

Certainly the Met has ample room for beauty. It manages to round up pretty much all the greatest hits. As a science editor, I pored over the notebooks wondering how not to let science gain mythic authority itself. Yet I may remember longest those early drapery studies that so astounded Vasari.

With Giotto, in the early 1300s, drapery had conveyed dignity, bulk, naturalism, and the raw emotion of a human gesture. In his own first sketches, Michelangelo had returned to Giotto for all that. Leonardo naturally turns to drapery, too—although, characteristically, to a woman's. At the same time, he brings to Giotto's old values, literally, a new light. His luminosity unites surface, texture, and substance in a work of art.

My bourgeois prejudices only begin the dilemma. The work remains physically hard to see as well. Rarely does a museum blockbuster build on such small media. Visitors had better rest up first. Lines snake around the second-floor balcony for easily an hour. Inside, one learns to wait one's turn. Again and again, one jockeys to get up close or to step back. Leonardo would have charmed a prince into a private showing.

Inevitably, too, the very focus on drawings reinforces the myth of genius. It invokes the moment of origins, the priority of thought, and the privacy of the mind. Even for a conservative painter, drawings have a way of looking modern. For Leonardo moreover, even the drawings have become canonical. To an extent impossible for another artist, I recognized almost all.

Leonardo's very spontaneity makes the first moment elusive. This control freak loves the challenge and permanence of silverpoint, just as he stuck to oils instead of a true fresco. Rather than correct an idea, he tosses off a new one. When he starts painting, he does not transfer a fixed scheme from paper but tosses off a few more.

Above and within

Truth to nature slips away just as quickly. Did Leonardo ever observe that eerie forest landscape? The schemes for aerial bombardments look practical enough, but which describe fantasies of mass destruction or faith in a last judgment? Where do vast floods tip from hard science into science fiction or religion?

That ambiguity is in fact the show's greatest contribution. It helps pin down Leonardo's sensibility and the whole idea of the High Renaissance.

The early Renaissance described the world of gods in human terms. By Leonardo's death, with artists such as Parmigianino, in his Antea and Schiava Turca, or with Leonardo's heirs in Lombardy, Mannerism was giving humans a frightening, otherworldly sensibility. They kept god and nature apart, and they kept both in view. They had to do that. Humanism was not going anywhere fast, but a sense of peace, trust, and stability sure were.

In between, Leonardo introduced a stunning dual perspective, at once out of this world and within it. Others of his time, from Piero di Cosimo to Jacopo Bassano, followed the trajectory, but it was he who cast it. And he helped identify that perspective with the artist.

One sees it in the transformation of his teacher's art. Verrocchio demanded discipline in drawings as a means to an end, the commission. When he draws a face, he puts spots on the eyes that make no sense as drawing. They anticipate the sculptor's tiny gouge, to take in light and give unyielding bronze the illusion of plastic reality. Even the legend of his abandoning painting sounds like good business practice more than the stuff of romance. Why not delegate to the workshop's specialist?

Leonardo instinctively multiplies unconnected studies. However, he also gives every sheet a compositional unity apart from all those single points of view. In the same way, he transforms Verrocchio's curls into the impersonal flow of nature and humanity's last doom. The artist never loses both points of view, the transient and the impersonal, and he challenges the viewer ever to comprehend them both.

Both sides now

Leonardo invites the observer into the space of the work and places himself, the artist, far above. Each thought, each point of view, complements and erases the other. Land forms look natural, but the relief map shouts abstraction and analysis. Saint Jerome kneels across from his lion, within a circle that allows the viewer onto the stage. He also defines a pyramid, an ideal form in the two dimensions of art.

Leonardo sees everything from both sides, in motion and in the round. The horseman rears as he tramples on the fallen enemy, who makes a fragile platform for the sculpted horse. Could cantilevered bronze ever have captured that? As the infant Jesus reaches for the lamb, he flaunts both the playful humanity of an active child and the eternal symbol of sacrifice. He fills out the pyramid of Madonna and child while breaking it up into three-dimensional beings.

Steinberg's book on The Last Supper has the insight to bring the two sides together. By incessant, Steinberg invokes more than an age of mechanical reproduction. Jesus's announcement detonates in the present, like an explosion. Yet it also institutes the Eucharist as timeless ritual. By a trick of perspective, the painted room connects to the refectory in Milan and yet towers above it.

Mostly, however, from Leonardo's time on, every observer has come down on one side or the other, the personal or the impersonal. Frederick Hartt's classic textbook on Italian Renaissance Art comes down hard for the impersonal. He sees an artist "as inaccessible to hate as to love." Leonardo watches "the elusive quality of natural life and motion" with "his only passionately held conviction—the superiority of the painter."

Certainly the public votes for the personal. But which is the greater myth of genius? Perhaps it is no accident that the two conceptions arose together. One holds court in a private world, as unstable as meaning or the neurotic mind. The other lingers in a public world, as lasting as fables and their symbols. Together, they give inwardness and art their place in time and culture.

This show has the courage to opt for the impersonal Leonardo. It can hardly help restoring the Leonardo myth despite itself. Leonardo would have skipped the crowds, but he might have liked it that way.

A postscript: a code made for TV

Too strapped for cash to visit New York? One Sunday evening almost two years later, the History Channel, too, looks at Renaissance art. Well, not exactly, but it does portray the prototypical Renaissance artist. If one thinks of exploring the origins of a work of art as akin to watching grass grow, that focus makes Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By quite entertaining. If one expects insight from seeing art in context of a life, its time, and its place, however, the show may prove disappointing. Yet its TV audience may not mind one bit.

In a sense, Leonardo da Vinci gets what he deserves. A true Renaissance man if there ever was one, he completed few paintings but studied everything. In time of war, he promoted himself to ruthless leaders as the designer of armaments. Then he switched countries entirely, in the guise of sage and esthete. The program's turning point, in which a friend's assassination awakens Leonardo to the horrors of war and the venality of warriors, seems at best superfluous. Its conclusion, that he exemplified a life of integrity, seems a trifle undermined by everything that comes before.

If the History Channel, then, prefers to lean on historians of Medieval Europe, military affairs, and science, it has found a not unreasonable subject. The program does a good job tracking power shifts and the men behind them, although it loses sight of related power centers and papal politics once the artist takes his business elsewhere. It covers an entire life without any serious mistakes, conveying Leonardo's often-noted charm. The title aside, it does not waste time debunking The Da Vinci Code—apparently the subject of another program entirely—or speculating on sexual activity and inmost thoughts. The gadgets that Leonardo devised look cool, and so do costumed soldiers in the open air. Perhaps the breathless tone, like the sunlight filtered through a moist sky, recalls a movie trailer, but I had fun.

The search for drama does sometimes push the envelope. Would the armies of Naples really have razed Florence to the ground, given the chance? Did all those designs really get past the drawing stage? When Leonardo boasted of painting's superiority to sculpture, he may have meant his superiority to Michelangelo, or maybe not. By favoring a date for a charge of sodomy after the artist's first great acclaim, the show makes that scandal a key to his early moves, and yet the charge went nowhere anyhow. A scene in which a little-known assistant unveils a work to great applause seems designed mostly to build up the lad as a major character.

I enjoyed the speculation and the human interest it affords. The program has, perhaps necessarily, less luck evoking the most influential art of its time. It says that one does not even know if an actual person sat for the Mona Lisa, but in the very next line it says that the artist entertained her with music. It mentions his thousands of pages of notebooks, and it shows him at a canvas, with a small brush and maul stick, but it mentions few of his paintings, and it does not ask how his inspiration found its way into paint. The tendency toward overstatement may make a naive viewer think that Leonardo invented perspective, but it has trouble addressing what he did invent—the High Renaissance. In the end, the program sees his contribution in his art's turbulence, from the horse rearing in an unfinished Adoration or the stunned disciples in The Last Supper to the cataclysms imagined in his drawings.

In other words, between the ultimate detached observer, living according to his own code, and the human being touched by passion, the History Channel comes down squarely on both sides. Come to think of it, that sounds like the theme of a promising show. I still think, though, that the evening misses a real chance to do what history and the camera can to illuminate a great artist—although I recognize that cutting through tourists and other additions to Renaissance Europe would take quite a budget. Scholars are doing more to show how art acquires meaning from its place in society and its physical sites, while still agonizing over the tough old questions of motivation and sexuality. For all the running about, Da Vinci shows little of the streets, buildings, and monuments of Florence that served Leonardo as his school. A gorgeous close-up of the painted ceiling within The Last Supper does not draw back to show the room in which others once broke bread.

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"Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman" ran through March 30, 2003, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among recent titles, I refer particularly to Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, by Rona Goffen (Yale University Press, 2002), Michelangelo and the Language of Art, by David Summers (Princeton University Press, 1981), and Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, by Leo Steinberg (Zone Books, 2001). "Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By" first aired December 3, 2005, on the History Channel.


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