Leonardo da Vinci

Books: Leonardo as larger-than-life, but also human

Two studies of the Renaissance artist’s works reveal divergent assumptions about interpretation

Rarely out off the eye of the public, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has recently seen a great deal of exposure on British television. From programmes devoted to the reconstruction of Leonardo’s “machines” to examinations of Leonardo’s life, few aspects of his life and work have gone without due consideration in the media. Much of the television discussion of Leonardo has focused on the rich variety of his studies of aspects of art, science and technology, presenting Leonardo as a curiosity and a man of universal genius.

In contrast to the media’s representation of Leonardo as polymath theorist, scientist, inventor and artist, much of the scholarship on this icon of Western civilisation has persisted in focusing on just one of the many aspects of Leonardo’s rich and varied output. What makes the artist so notoriously difficult to study is the discrepancy between the rather slim volume of his finished work and the enormous body of extant drawings and writings that survive in a number of manuscripts.

Two new studies on the artist, one a single-volume collection of Leonardo’s complete paintings and drawings, and the other a catalogue accompanying the first comprehensive international loan exhibition of Leonardo’s drawings in the US, now seek to bring together a much more comprehensive overview of the different aspects of Leonardo’s output, exploring such diverse roles as artist, draughtsman, military engineer, scientist, inventor and theorist.

Dr Zöllner’s and Dr Nathan’s literally weighty volume on Leonardo’s complete paintings and drawings is certainly a monumental undertaking. The publishers, Taschen, advertise the edition as of “XXL size”, and the reader’s first impression on opening this lavishly illustrated book is one of sumptuous celebration of the visual aspects of Leonardo’s œuvre.

The images in this stunning book certainly deserve a mention here, as the generous reproductions allow for a very detailed study of drawings and writings that are rarely that accessible to the scholar and amateur interested in Leonardo. Many of the illustrations are reproduced at a much larger scale than the originals, again bringing Leonardo closer to the reader who can really appreciate the surety of touch of one of the great Renaissance draughtsmen. The details of numerous pages of manuscripts allow for a full appreciation of Leonardo’s explorative drawing technique, where he can be seen brainstorming ideas for new compositions and poses, or where he is simply playing with his observations, for example, on a charming sheet from the Royal Collection, HM Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle12363. On this sheet, thought to have been part of a series of studies by Leonardo into the movements of animals, he has closely observed more than 20 different poses of cats preening, playing, sleeping and watching, yet at one point Leonardo’s mind has clearly strayed from the task of faithfully observing and recording the movements of cats to the more fanciful depiction of a little dragon.

These lavish illustrations are accompanied by a series of chapters where Drs Zöllner and Nathan explore different aspects of Leonardo’s life and career, offering a reliable, up-to-date, comprehensive introduction to the artist.

The catalogue, Leonardo da Vinci: master draftsman, of the eponymous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this year, currently in Paris (Musée du Louvre, until 7 July), brings together the contributions of nine leading Leonardo scholars. In turn, these scholars explore such themes as the significance of Leonardo’s notorious left-handedness (Carmen Bambach), the complex interrelationships between word and image in Leonardo’s writings (Carlo Vecce) and the critical fortune of Leonardo’s drawings (Carlo Pedretti). After covering these basics, subsequent chapters go on to explore particular aspects of Leonardo’s production in more detail, such as his early drapery studies (Françoise Viatte), his relationship with his Florentine patrons (Alessandro Cecchi) and the impact of Leonardo’s drawings in Milan on the graphic work of Milanese artists (Pietro C. Marani). Martin Kemp explores the significance of indicating boundaries for Leonardo’s process of sketching out compositions, while Claire Farago looks more closely at the Codex Leicester, Leonardo’s most advanced preliminary draft for planned treatise on the dynamics of water. The final chapter of introductory essays offers a documented chronology of Leonardo’s life and work and is followed by 138 detailed entries on the drawings shown in New York. Taken together, this impressive work opens up new inroads for Leonardo scholarship, as the catalogue not only explores some of the technical aspects of Leonardo’s drawings, but seeks to place him much more firmly in the context of what differing functions this extensive œuvre of drawings might have served, from playful sketches to records of experiments to drawings executed to meet the demands of anxious patrons wanting to ensure that they were going to get value for their money. Placing Leonardo’s drawings against this backdrop of practical enquiry into the context of production, starts to address a conspicuous gap in the Leonardo scholarship of the last 20 years. In contrast to the sumptuous Taschen volume, the emphasis of this scholarly catalogue lies less on the celebration of the abstract and aesthetic beauty of Leonardo’s drawings and visuals, than in placing them in the mainstream of current trends of historiographical study. The drawings, while beautifully reproduced, are shown as close as possible in scale to the size of the originals, so rather than a celebration of Leonardo as the larger-than-life-size genius of the Taschen volume, the New York catalogue emphasises the more human side of Leonardo’s output.

o Frank Zöllner and Johannes Nathan, Leonardo da Vinci: the complete paintings and drawings (Taschen, Cologne, 2003), 696 pp, 3 b/w ills, 735 col. ills, £100, $150, e150, ¥20,000, in English ISBN 3822817341, in French ISBN 3822817333, in German ISBN 3822857262, in Spanish ISBN 3822823198

o Carmen C. Bambach (ed.), Leonardo da Vinci: master draftsman (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003) 786 pp, 50 b/w ills, 200 col. ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 0300098782

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 138 July 2003