Lead book review

The codes and codswallop surrounding Leonardo da Vinci

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

‘If you look at walls soiled with a variety of stains or at stones with variegated patterns,’ Leonardo da Vinci advised fellow painters, ‘you will therein be able to see a resemblance to various landscapes graced with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and hills in many combinations.’ By an irony of history, Leonardo (1452–1519) has come to resemble that stained wall: a Rorschach blot in which viewers discern phantoms of their own imagination.

This is, of course, to some extent the fate of all celebrities, and Leonardo was the first true artist celeb — the forerunner of a long line descending through his younger contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael down to Picasso, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.

The same is true of his works: they too have attained superstar status. Last year, the recently rediscovered and attributed panel of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ was auctioned at Christie’s in New York. The bidding rose from under $100 million to $450 million, making it by a huge margin the most expensive work of art ever sold. And this picture — damaged, heavily restored and unattractively weird to begin with — is not even a very good Leonardo. It has, however, those extra ingredients — enigma, mystery, the sense that there is more to discover — which always boost fame.

Professor Martin Kemp has spent half a century immersed in the mysteries of Leonardo. He has organised exhibitions of his works, written a shelf of books about him, and presided over the construction of a human-powered flying machine and parachute according to the Florentine master’s sketches (both successfully tested by brave volunteers).

In Living with Leonardo, he has come up with an unusual combination. It is partly a series of essays on Leonardo-esque themes, which sounds conventional enough, but also a memoir of his own adventures with the artist — sometimes exciting, sometimes bruising.

After so much time spent in the ‘sanity and insanity’ of the Da Vinci business, Kemp has in turn affected how we think about Leonardo — as he did in the case of the ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’. Received wisdom presumes that there can only be one version of a picture by a master, any others being ‘workshop’. But Kemp convincingly argued that there were two equally authentic ‘Madonnas’. Parts of each were by Leonardo himself, other sections by his assistants. This conclusion tells us that even when working on a rather bread-and-butter little picture such as this, he was constantly trying out fresh ideas. But in the end someone else had to tidy the thing up and make it saleable. Leonardo was the first to have that characteristically modern worry: how do you finish a painting? For him there was always another way of designing the composition and yet more information to discover about the objects he was depicting.


Another of Kemp’s ventures into the minefield of attribution had more mixed success. In 2010 he published a book attributing a coloured drawing on vellum, dubbed ‘La Bella Principessa’, to the great man. This suggestion received a raucous drubbing from a chorus of art world connoisseurs. Evidently Kemp still feels battered by the experience and returns to the question here — stoutly making the case for this portrait.

The episode leads him into reflections on the question of how attributions are made. This is, to be sure, a mysterious matter in which subjective judgment by eye, group-think and scholarly rivalries play a part, as well as ‘scientific’ evidence. But this discussion still takes place in the rational world; some readers will find the insanity of the Leonardo business more entertaining.

In a chapter entitled ‘Codes and Codswallop’, Kemp relates how the master and his works have become a happy hunting ground for eccentrics and conspiracy theorists. In this respect, among the great artists of the past only Van Gogh comes close — and then only when it comes to the question of how and why he might have amputated his ear. With Leonardo, improbable speculations are abundant and never-ending.

In Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code — and the inevitable film of the book — he is revealed as the 12th Master of the Priory of Zion (others allegedly included Isaac Newton and Claude Debussy). This society apparently preserved the secret that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and their descendents became the kings of France. Leonardo, it is claimed, left clues to this in his work. Thus St John the Apostle in ‘The Last Supper’ — less hirsute and masculine than the other disciples — is the Magdalene hiding in plain sight. (In fact, in Renaissance Italian art St John is often portrayed as youthful and a little girlish.)

These days, fake history has spread far beyond the realms of popular fiction. Others believe Leonardo was ‘super-charged’ by invaders from outer space and filled the background of the ‘Mona Lisa’ with cryptic hints regarding these extraterrestrial beings and their influence on the Catholic Church. An alternative theory holds that the same landscape is filled with 40 separate symbols from the Book of Zechariah prophesying Christ’s Second Coming.

Admittedly, the scenery behind the ‘Mona Lisa’ — at once specific and ethereally vague — seems to invite interpretation. Numerous attempts, none successful, have been made to locate a real terrain Leonardo was depicting. It’s the same with the man himself. You get so far in identifying the features of his personality, then certainties dissolve into mist.

A vast quantity of Leonardo’s notes and manuscripts survives, filled with his thoughts on such themes as the motion of water and human anatomy. But there are no intimate letters; there is no emotional self-revelation. The question of his parentage is typical. Leonardo was illegitimate. Of his mother, Caterina, almost nothing is known; his father, Piero, was a prominent lawyer who later married several times and had legitimate heirs.

Sigmund Freud once produced a posthumous diagnosis of Leonardo on the basis of a dream. In his notes, the artist describes dreaming while in his cradle: a great bird swooped down and ‘struck me many times with its tail within my lips’. Freud argued that this was a fantasy about fellatio and proposed that the species — a vulture — meant that Leonardo’s homosexuality was connected with his love for his mother, the vulture being an ancient Egyptian symbol for maternity. Unfortunately, the German text Freud used mistranslated the bird: in fact, Leonardo had dreamt of a kite.

In Leonardo: A Restless Genius, Antonio Forcellino seizes on this to suggest that the dream was connected with his father. Leonardo noted that when the kite, ‘sees its offspring grow too fat in the nest, it pecks at their sides and keeps them without food’. Of course, it may be, as Forcellino argues, that the artist had a ‘very difficult’ relationship with his father. But all Leonardo recorded about Piero was a terse note of his death. In contrast, Michelangelo — Leonardo’s great rival and temperamental opposite — left a pile of documents recording paternal and filial love, rage, mutual recrimination and, in one instance, a fist fight between himself and his own father, Lodovico.

Forcellino — a well-known restorer as well as the author of lives of Raphael and Michelangelo — is on firmer ground when analysing the techniques Leonardo used on his few surviving paintings. His section on the unfinished ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1480–1) is revealing in much the same way as Kemp’s is on the ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’. Forcellino describes the astonishingly laborious process of gestation the painting had undergone before the artist abandoned it. In the time it took Leonardo to get this single picture to a stage of monochrome underpainting, another painter would have completed several such altarpieces.

Much later, when commissioned to paint a picture by Pope Leo X, Leonardo began by distilling varnishes to put on the completed oil. ‘Oh dear,’ the Pope exclaimed, according to the 16th-century artist and historian Vasari, ‘this man will never do anything. Here he is thinking about finishing the work before he even starts it!’ But then, it was just this tendency to stray from the immediate task into a labyrinth of endless possibilities that makes Leonardo so fascinating.

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