Books: Recent works on Leonardo take different but complementary approaches

Who was the real Leonardo da Vinci?


Who was the real Leonardo da Vinci? And why are we seemingly so obsessed by the question? Two very different views are presented in these new studies by the art historian Pietro C. Marani, and Sherwin B. Nuland, Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale University.

Professor Nuland’s book is part of Weidenfeld’s “Lives” series, which provides a forum for non-academics or non-specialists to offer a personal view of their subject. With regard to Leonardo’s art, Professor Nuland’s book is written essentially from a layman’s perspective, and its most original contribution lies, unsurprisingly, in the discussion of his anatomical experiments.

By contrast, Dr Marani’s research places itself at the centre of current scholarly debates about the chronology and execution of Leonardo’s paintings. As joint co-ordinator since 1993 of the major campaign to restore the ruinous “Last Supper” in the refectory of Santa Marie delle Grazie in Milan, his concern with rediscovering the artist’s lost intentions has real material consequences.

In Leonardo: the complete paintings, Dr Marani sets out to take account of recent documentary and technical discoveries, combining this information with rigorously detailed analysis of the paintings.

Neither a biography nor a catalogue raisonné, the book takes the form of an extended essay on Leonardo’s development. Focusing on the earlier part of his career, it traces his role in Verrocchio’s workshop, his emergence as an independent master, and his interaction with his own pupils, including the talented Boltraffio.

It proceeds principally through a series of case studies, stressing throughout the role of a painting’s conservation history and the historical availability of accurate photographic reproductions in assessing questions of authorship and technique.

Beginning with the early years in Florence, Dr Marani re-assesses Leonardo’s contribution to several paintings produced in Verrocchio’s shop. He shares David Alan Brown’s conclusion that parts of the National Gallery’s “Tobias and the Angel”, currently labelled “workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio” are by the young Leonardo. First advanced by Suida in 1954, the argument centres on the depiction of the fish and the small white dog that trots beside Tobias. No drawing for either survives in Leonardo’s hand, although a comparison is made with the study for a lively little dragon at Windsor (inv. 12369), usually dated considerably later. Dr Marani argues that Leonardo’s involvement in Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ” was greater than most scholars have assumed.

More than just the left-hand angel—the subject of Vasari’s famous anecdote in which the master, realising the extent to which his pupil has surpassed him, resolves to give up the brush— Leonardo supposedly reworked considerable areas of the composition in an attempt to unify it. (Incidentally, the possibility is raised that the other angel is by Sandro Botticelli).

The book also offers new suggestions about the two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks”. It is now generally considered that the painting in the Louvre is the prime version and the one in the National Gallery a replica, probably executed with help from assistants. Dr Marani goes further, identifying the London picture as a collaboration between Marco d’Oggiono and Giovan Antonio Boltraffio, with Leonardo supplying the finishing touches—although again these hypotheses rely largely on stylistic interpretations.

Dr Marani’s view of Leonardo, as it emerges from the scholarly minutiae, is as a typical Renaissance artist, interested in classical antiquity and engaged in collaborative enterprises. Seeking to debunk the popular image of the lone genius alienated from his generation, Dr Marani has little time for the cultural “baggage’ attached by earlier writers—he contrasts Walter Pater’s haunting meditation on the Mona Lisa with Vasari’s workmanlike admiration of its life-like flesh tones.

Sherwin B. Nuland takes the myth of Leonardo as his starting point, with an account of his attempts to locate the artist’s birthplace. His likeable book skims lightly over the biographical details and contains some fresh insights. Professor Nuland is one of the few modern writers to take Freud seriously. He also quotes Pater approvingly, noting how his description of “a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh” precisely evokes Leonardo’s anatomist’s eye. His enthusiasm is foremost and while scholars may wince occasionally, some gems are included—such as the account of William Hunter, the celebrated 18th-century anatomist, testifying to his astonishment at Leonardo’s drawing of the placental vascular system, seen at Windsor in 1784.

Dr Marani’s desire to liberate his subject from a history of mistaken romantic impressions may be related to the rhetoric of his essay on the restoration of the “Last Supper”—a radical intervention that removed old repaints and sought to piece together Leonardo’s original intention from preparatory drawings.

He defends the restoration as having “rescued” the master’s hand, yet it remains debatable whether the “Last Supper” holds together as an image. With Leonardo the man, too, there is always the possibility that if we look too closely, the image will dissolve entirely.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dissolving images'