Reading Leonardo's mind

Special to The Times

"TRULY marvelous and celestial was Leonardo," wrote Renaissance art biographer Giorgio Vasari only 30 years after Leonardo da Vinci's death in 1519. A little more than 450 years later, the man's celebrity has only increased.

"He seems like an untouchable genius," says Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and lead organizer of "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman," which opens at the Met on Jan. 22. Consider Vasari's conclusion: "To whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease." And added to that are the notebooks that presage flight and examine all manner of observable phenomena. Not to mention the paintings, including "Mona Lisa" and the "Last Supper," two of the most famous images in the world.

"His paintings are icons suspended in history," Bambach says, a summary of an artist so great that "we might shy away from learning more about Leonardo's creative process."

Bambach, however, was not intimidated, and in 1996, she began putting together a show meant to do just that, by looking not at the paintings -- of which there are only 15 extant -- but at the thousands and thousands of drawings he left behind. The idea was to reveal process, but what also emerges is the fluid multidimensionality of the man.

Bambach, and the Met's drawing-and-print department chairman, George R. Goldner, chose 119 of Leonardo's drawings, and one painting, as well as 30 works by his teacher Andrea del Verrocchio and several of his followers. At best, most institutions own only a handful of Leonardo's works -- the Met owns fewer than 10 -- and they culled the works from 25 lenders, including the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the Vatican in Rome and, in the case of the eight double-sided sheets of the Codex Leicester (once owned by the UCLA Hammer Museum), the collection of Bill and Melinda Gates.

Bambach emphasizes that she wanted breadth and depth. "In terms of numbers, it's among the largest [Leonardo] exhibitions ever," she says, "and we've attempted to give an integrated portrait of Leonardo as an artist, scientist, inventor, theorist, author and teacher."

Past exhibitions have tended to be thematic, focusing on one aspect of the artist's output, a course that "has led to fragmented discussions of his oeuvre," Bambach writes in the exhibition catalog. She went after drawings of animals and human anatomy, weaponry and military defenses, geometric proofs and hydraulics, and the portraits and studies that seem to us to be pure art.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically. Leonardo's earliest drawings are displayed in contrast to works by Verrocchio and his circle; later works are grouped by date. The eclecticism is astounding: Hydraulics studies and designs for a device to make waterproof cloth, for example, hang with a portrait of the Virgin and other Virgin and Child sketches.

"What we've tried to do is to reconstruct Leonardo's development as an artist," she says. "He doesn't seem to maintain these big boundaries between science and art. In his mind he unifies a lot of what may seem like disparate endeavors."

A young apprentice

Born in 1452 in Vinci, 20 miles west of Florence, Leonardo began his apprenticeship perhaps as early as age 12 in the Florentine workshop of the noted artist Verrocchio. In his 20s, he had become Verrocchio's collaborator and was winning his own commissions for portraits and altarpieces. By the early 1480s, he had found a patron in Duke Ludovico Sforza in Milan, who made use of Leonardo's architectural and engineering skills as much as his artistry.

After Sforza's fall from power in 1499, Leonardo moved where patronage took him -- back to Florence, again to Milan, to Rome, and, finally, in 1517, to France to become the royal painter in the court of Francis I. There he also designed irrigation canals and theatrical sets, and made studies of anatomy, perspective, architecture and Loire Valley topography. He died there two years later.

He defined the term "Renaissance man," although he called himself unlettered ("senza lettere"). That was because he had no gift for Latin, the accepted language of Renaissance intellectuals, says Bambach, and so instead of studying books, "he really tried to look at nature and experience as the fountain of all knowledge." But his genius seems to have had a flaw -- he was loath to finish anything, from paintings, sculpture and murals to construction projects. Even Vasari had to temper his praise of Leonardo by adding, "[I]n learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficience, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them."

The reasons? Vasari suggests that he was too busy and too exacting -- that "so many were his caprices" that Leonardo had little time or energy for finishing things, or that he believed his hand would fail to match the perfection of his imagination.

For an artist so famous, it is astonishing that only 15 of his paintings are extant, and some of these are collaborations while others are unfinished, including "Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness" from the Vatican. It is included in the exhibition because it illustrates the preparatory techniques that underlie a finished work -- with only a part of the wood panel painted over a detailed sketch of the subject. The drawings then -- almost 4,000 sheets of them survive -- are where to look for the details that explain Leonardo.

"The drawings offer us an intimate glimpse into his thought process," Bambach says. And the more of them you see, the more you understand Leonardo's feverish creativity.

"He's constantly beginning, correcting and beginning again on the same sheet," Bambach says, "trying out his ideas in a very simultaneous way."

Methods and achievements

Among the works in the exhibition is a small sheet of framed paper, about 7 5/8 inches by 6 3/8 inches, filled with several ideas for a depiction of the adoration of the Christ child. On the reading table in the drawing department, the work, a piece from the Metropolitan's collection, stands propped on a desk easel, and Bambach uses it as a prime example of Leonardo's methods and achievements.

At lower left, contained in an arch, Mary kneels with her body slightly twisted and her arms outstretched, hovering over her son. "She's kneeling, so technically it's a static position, but he animates even that," Bambach says of the tension in the figure's stance. "Notice here that he tries a similar composition faced the other way." Her finger lifts to the slightly smaller version of the composition just above, with the orientation reversed. "This is probably part of the multivalent way he has of being able to think."

It might have been his way of checking the overall impact of his composition -- reversal is still a test used by some contemporary artists -- and also whether it might look better in reverse. "There are quite a few cases of preliminary composition sketches where he tries out a similar compositional motif, facing left and facing right, like a mirror image." Two more versions of the scene -- one with two infants at Mary's feet, another with a variation in her arm position -- plus several baby sketches fill out the page.

The "flopped" sketches, Bambach also says, may have "something to do with his left-handedness, as well." Leonardo was well-known as a southpaw, despite negative attitudes about it in his time. His left-handedness is the subject of Bambach's essay in the exhibition catalog (there are 10 essays in all, from an analysis of Leonardo's early drapery studies to a general description and history of the Codex Leicester). She says that unlike other lefty artists, such as his sometime rival Michelangelo, Leonardo persisted in writing and drawing with his left hand, and it is particularly evident in his habit of drawing parallel hatching lines from lower right to upper left. The famous mirror writing that accompanies his technical drawings and that covers pages of the Codex Leicester wasn't meant to be secretive, according to Bambach, but was simply a comfortable way for him to write -- right to left -- "letting the hand stay ahead of the ink and not smearing." Leonardo's drawings not only show him working out compositions backward and forward, but also jumping tracks from subject to subject. In the catalog, Bambach turns to another sheet of multiple sketches and notes that it will be in the show. This one is about the size of a sheet of typing paper, and it will be displayed between two pieces of Plexiglass set on a pedestal so that viewers can see both sides.

"This way we can have a sense of how Leonardo used the page," she says. She points first to a grouping of men seated at a long table in the upper quarter of the recto, or front, side of the sheet. Below are other notes and sketches. "And you begin to see that the ideas for the 'Last Supper' were like an afterthought."

It seems sacrilegious that one of the most famous frescoes in the world, in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, should be born as a doodle amid the swirl of his preoccupations with geometry (a circle made into the beginning of an octagon), architecture (studies of arches) and even a set of numbers that may be a reckoning of his household expenses.

Not all of the drawings in the exhibition are quick sketches or meant primarily as prep work. Some are highly finished presentation drawings or designs. In these works in particular, Bambach says, it's not just the methods of genius but its artistry that shines through.

She brings out a late drawing, a "Head of the Virgin," from between 1508 and 1510, another work that's part of the Metropolitan's collection. It's an example of Leonardo's mature style. Done in wispy threads of black and red chalk, the serenely lovely Madonna has her head turned three-quarters to the right, eyes cast downward and lips adorned with what could only be called a Mona Lisa smile.

Bambach praises "the extraordinary use of the black chalk for blended effects -- sfumato is what it's called. In Leonardo's own notes he says it is to blend your shadows seamlessly, in the manner of smoke."

"What is striking in a drawing such as this one is the magic of what he's able to achieve," Bambach says at last. "Simply discussing the ingredients doesn't get you to the magic of this final image."


"Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman"

When: Opens Jan. 22

Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York

Ends: March 30; museum is closed Mondays

Contact: (212) 535-7710

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World