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A Memorandum of Leonardo Da Vinci (1490s)

A memorandum of Leonardo da Vinci is no ordinary to-do list: it is a map of mental search and intellectual development that illuminates the nature of genius

The Memorandum of Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve been writing my to-do lists religiously since 2010. Before that I  always used to make a list for groceries shopping (because you cannot possibly remember all the items you need to buy, especially when the respective shelves are scattered all over the store). And I had also made notes of what needed to be done, but I rarely set it up as a list. Then one day in 2010 I had to run 8 places for errands, so I wrote them all up in a list, grouped them by location… and by the end of the day I did visit them all! This was a real proof of the list-mania working, so I just carried on.

Frankly speaking, my lists mostly deal with work and errands. Work – because I do a lot of that, and unless I list and prioritise I won’t accomplish much. Errands – because I love doing my work, and I may genuinely forget paying that bill or buying that item. So, I have to be really exacting.

More seldom, unfortunately, I schedule breaks and rest and other activities, like sport or languages. I think this is where I need to up the level of my list-making.

Yet I’m sure very few of us follow in Leonardo’s footsteps, whose to-do list is in the photo. Strictly speaking, this list is called a “memorandum of Leonardo da Vinci”, and it’s not exactly a “to-do list” but rather a reminder of things one needs, or wants, to do, know, learn, and ask about. As I see it, there’s a difference between the two. A to-do list has a trait of immediacy; it’s usually a list of actions one needs to take in a more or less precise frame of time. That’s why it’s a list, and that’s why it may even have times added to it, to make it more like a timetable.

The memorandum of Leonardo da Vinci is of a different nature. It is a list of subjects for contemplation and investigation. Obviously, learning the size of the Sun isn’t the most important thing on anyone’s agenda, neither is the Lombard manner of repairing locks, or understanding why on Earth the Tower of Ferrara has the wall without a single loophole. This is a list of things a person wants to learn. I’d rather think of it as a map of a learning process, and as such it is far more valuable than a mere to-do list. How many of us jot down things they want to learn? Those little matters that tickle our curiosity, do you write them down or just let them die off? How many of us actually expand the learning process beyond an immediate field of specialisation?

The image is taken from a post by Robert Krulwich, Leonardo’s To-Do List.

Leonardo’s Self-Portrait on Display at Turin

Leonardo’s self-portrait is on display at Turin until January 2012, along with modern artists’ takes on his work, including Duchamp and Warhol.

Image: ArtDaily.org

Leonardo’s self-portrait is still making waves. While Caravaggio is visiting Moscow, those who wish to travel to Italy may consider going to Turin. The exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy explores the development and impact of Leonardo’s gift. “Leonardo. The Genuis. The Myth” runs at the Palace of Venaria from November 17, 2011 until January 29, 2012.

The contemporary section of exhibition that explores the fates of Leonardo in modern art opens with Marcel Duchamp’s parody on Mona Lisa and continues with the interpretation of Last Supper by Andy Warhol. Leonardo’s studies in physiognomy also inspired Lavater, and influenced Goya, Daumier, and Grosz.

On display is also Leonardo’s most famous self-portrait, with a long wavy beard.

2009: The Da Vinci Year

Update (30 December 2009): On December 25, 2009, it was announced that a team of Italian scientists were planning to exhume the remains of Leonardo da Vinci from his grave in Amboise in France. They want to establish if the remains are, indeed, Leonardo’s, and if he was indeed a vegetarian. And if his scull has survived and in a decent condition, there is a possibility that the master’s face will be restored.

Original (23 December 2009)

The end of the first decade of the new millennium was rightfully marked by several events and discoveries associated with the name of one of the genuine men of the past millennium: Leonardo da Vinci.

First, Nicola Barbatelli has discovered a portrait of Leonardo; it may also be by Leonardo, although this is contested, but it is certainly not that of Galileo.

(on the aside, Galileo’s fingers were discovered, so perhaps we may call 2009 the year of Italian discoveries).

Then, Piero Angelo armed himself with the help of the police forensic experts, art historians, and graphic artists to conclude with a degree of certainty that the faint image he found in the Codex on the Flight of Birds may be a self-portrait of Leonardo.

Before and during Barbatelli’s discovery, 10 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection were visiting Manchester Art GalleryDa Vinci – The Genius is currently attracting visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

And in October 2009, Martin Kemp, the Professor Emeritus in History of Art at the University of Oxford, has claimed that a portrait of a beautiful Italian girl, previously thought to be painted in the 19th c., in fact belongs to Leonardo’s hand. The Master’s fingerprint was revealed thanks to the revolutionary “multispectral” camera, and, by eliminating one historic figure after another, Professor Kemp was able to establish that the sitter is Bianca Sforza, the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and his mistress Bernardina de Corradis.

Leonardo da Vinci, La Bella Principessa

Kemp believes the portrait must date from around 1496 when, aged 13 or 14, Bianca married the Duke’s army captain, Galeazzo Sanseverino (a patron of Leonardo’s). Tragically, she died four months after the wedding.

This would be Leonardo’s first known Sforza ‘princess’ portrait, although he painted two of the Duke’s mistresses: Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine in the Czartoryski Museum, Cracov); and Lucrezia Crivelli (La Belle Ferronière in the Louvre).

The painting’s price rocketed from £19,000 to £100mln, and La Bella Principessa is hopefully displayed in March 2010 at a show called And There Was Light: The Masters of the Renaissance Seen in a New Light in the Eriksbergshallen, Gothenburg. The show’s artistic director is Alessandro Vezzosi, the Director of Museo Ideale in Vinci, Leonardo’s home town.

2009 is yet to end, and there may be another Leonardo discovery waiting. But even so, this has been a gigantic flood of exhibitions and new evidence shedding light on one of the most prodigious and enigmatic figures of the past.

Image credit: Antiques Trade Gazette.

Vasari and Ingres: The Death of Leonardo

The 1818 painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Death of Leonardo, was inspired by an extract from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Death of Leonardo, 1818

Recently I’ve been doing some research for my other projects and I came across this painting by the French master Ingres, The Death of Leonardo. I knew that the Renaissance Italian connoisseur Giorgio Vasari would surely have something on the subject, see below:

At last, having become old, he lay ill for many months, and seeing himself near death, he set himself to study the holy Christian religion, and though he could not stand, desired to leave his bed with the help of his friends and servants to receive the Holy Sacrament. Then the king, who used often and lovingly to visit him, came in, and he, raising himself respectfully to sit up in bed, spoke of his sickness, and how he had offended God and man by not working at his art as he ought. Then there came a paroxysm, a forerunner of death, and the king raised him and lifted his head to help him and lessen the pain, whereupon his spirit, knowing it could have no greater honour, passed away in the king’s arms in the seventyfifth year of his age.

The loss of Leonardo was mourned out of measure by all who had known him, for there was none who had done such honour to painting. The splendour of his great beauty could calm the saddest soul, and his words could move the most obdurate mind. His great strength could restrain the most violent fury, and he could bend an iron knocker or a horseshoe as if it were lead. He was liberal to his friends, rich and poor, if they had talent and worth; and indeed as Florence had the greatest of gifts in his birth, so she suffered an infinite loss in his death.

This passage from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists inspired Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (J.-A.-D. Ingres (French painter)) to paint his 1818 work, titled The Death of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo is depicted wearing a long beard, as in the Uffizi portrait.

Following Leonardo’s death, Francesco Melzi wrote to the painter’s brothers:

I understand that you have been informed of the death of Master Leonardo, your brother, who was like an excellent father to me. It is impossible to express the grief that I feel at his death, and as long as my bodily parts sustain me I will feel perpetual unhappiness, which is justified by the consuming and passionate love he bore daily towards me. Everyone is grieved by the loss of such a man whose like nature no longer has it in her power to produce…

View the excellent cover of 1568 edition of Vasari’s work; and read extracts at Fordham University’s website.

And Once Again About Leonardo’s Portraits

Update: a National Geographic video report about Nicola Barbatelli’s discovered portrait of Leonardo.

Yes, again on the subject of Leonardo’s portraits, for there is an exhibition currently at Manchester Art Gallery showing ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci that are kept at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. The exhibition marks the 60th birthday of His Royal Highness Prince of Wales, and I will be coming back to it as a subject, although I shall duly express my commendations to MAG for treating Manchester residents and visitors to what can easily be compared to Raphael’s first exhibition in England back in 2004 at the National Gallery.

In addition to the ten drawings by Leonardo, there are two more reproductions. One is a binding of the artist’s disegni (drawings), and another is a red chalk portrait by Francesco Melzi, apparently completed around 1515, just four years before Leonardo’s death in 1519 (left). And it is the latter that got me standing in front of it for several minutes thinking….

… about the personality of the sitter, for example, as well as the artist’s skill. Melzi is known as the pupil of Leonardo, and had become the artist’s heir. Leonardo’s influence cannot be denied either when we look at Melzi’s own paintings, or when we consider certain similarities between Melzi’s chalk portrait of his master and Leonardo’s Portrait of a Young Woman (right). The attention to detail (hair, particularly) and the conveyance of eye expression are present in works of both master and student. The transition of a sitter’s character onto canvas is also impressive. The young woman’s contemplative regard shows her in the state of day-dreaming. In Melzi’s sitter, on another hand, we discover a truly intelligent man; Leonardo seems either to have been caught while turning around (=looking for something/at something, being curious, or responding to something or someone), or to have had his mind sparked by something of interest.

… and I was also thinking of how similar Melzi’s sitter is to the recently discovered portait of Leonardo (left). In spite of the obviously different depiction (which most likely means that the discovered picture isn’t a self-portrait by Leonardo), the main features are the same. But rather than helping with the puzzle, the portrait by Melzi only complicates it. For Melzi’s drawing is dated to be around 1515; and this well-known self-portrait by Leonardo (right; in Turin) is dated between 1512 and 1515, and the two men portrayed could hardly be any more different. It is possible, however, to conjure that what is kept at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin may be Leonardo’s self-caricature, much in the spirit of the drawing from the Royal Library at Windsor (below, left). Or perhaps, Turin holds the great man’s contemplation of himself as an old man, which may very well link Leonardo’s work to today’s techniques of aging an image.

In general, 2009 seems so far to be the year of Leonardo da Vinci related discoveries. After Nicola Barbatelli’s victorious visit to the village of Acerenza on which The Times reported, Telegraph has had its own share of news-making. The paper has reported that

the journalist, Piero Angela, enlisted the help of art historians, Carabinieri police forensic experts and graphic artists to tease out more detail from the ghostly image (right).

The image is thought to date back to 1480s and was found in da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds, composed between 1490 and 1505.

All the above conjectures can be faint and may even collapse, and then there’ll be a thunderstorm caused by Leonardo’s having a hearty laugh upstairs. It must really be good when you conjure your own legend in such way that 500 years after your death people still twist their brains trying to figure you out. The point is not that we shall never succeed at understanding Leonardo, at unlocking all of his mysteries. The point is that, whether willingly or not, he did create this legend. Some Mancunian folk can recall the framed quote from the late Tony Wilson that we can see at The Northern in Tib St: “when people ask me whether to choose the truth or the legend, I say: choose the legend“. As for me, I like to bring up The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (and Martin Scorsese). In one particular scene Jesus, already on the Cross, has a feverish vision of himself being saved from death, returning to life as a simple man, and one day walking in the market and seeing one of his pupils telling people about the Saviour who had died on the Cross and then resurrected. In Jesus’s vision, he was alive, so he called the pupil and asked, why he was telling the lie about Jesus, for Jesus hadn’t died. The answer of the pupil was short but clear: “they don’t need you alive“. The greatest thing about Jesus was that he resurrected after death; and even it had indeed been a lie, it wouldn’t have mattered for as long as it fed hopes and illusions.

The question, of course, is: had it not been for all those mysteries, would we have really been interested in Leonardo da Vinci? I have already heard some critical comments about his drawings. A point to remember, of course, is that we often approach the past on our terms rather than on the terms of the past. The age of Renaissance showed great aptitude as in conveying one’s individual character, as in concealing it under the layers of symbols. The fact that we’re now trying to process all this kaleidoscope of meanings into something that can be easily digested in the age of celebrity gossip is, well, sad.

The previous post about Leonardo’s portraits on this blog (and many thanks to Sheila Lennon for findings it useful and including it in her report). Also, speaking of various representations of Leonardo, check out this article. It suggests, in particular, that the Turin self-portrait may be a portrait of Leonardo’s father or uncle. Without disputing this possibility, I think we may really have the situation when Leonardo had drawn his would-be self-portrait at the late age.

Images are the couresy of The Times, Telegraph, Wikipedia, Manchester Art Gallery, and About.com.

The Da Vinci Portraits: Facts, Mysteries, and Chances

The Arts world was all shook up on Monday 23rd of February 2009 with the news that a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci was discovered by historian Nicola Barbatelli in the village of Acerenza in Basilicata region in the south of Italy.

The portrait (left) was previously thought to be that of Galileo Galilei, but while this portrait or its copy (right) aren’t likely to be contemporary with the scientist, it hardly suggests much similarity between the sitters. Among the facts that helped to authenticate the portrait were the initial examination which stated that the picture was produced in the Renaissance period and wasn’t a later copy. Further, the back of the oil panel bears the inscription ‘pinxit mea’ written from right to left. This by far has been the strongest evidence that the painting depicted Leonardo and could even be by the artist himself. A possibility still exists that the portrait was executed by Cristofano dell’Altissimo who also mastered the Uffizi portrait of the great Renaissance man.

(if you read this article previously, skip to the end of the post for an update on the ‘pinxit mea’ inscription).

Either way, the region where the discovery was made shouldn’t surprise anyone: Leonardo had had some ties with the Segni family who owned property in Acerenza. If the investigation does prove that this IS Leonardo’s portrait, then, in the words of Alessandro Vezzosi of Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, this will shed tons of light not only on Leonardo’s appearance, but also on his ties to Southern and Northern Italy. And, of course, as we know, Leonardo had spent his last years at the French court and died in the hands of the unconsolable Francis I de Valois. The story was commemorated by Giorgio Vasari and later pictorially eulogised by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (right).

What may be interesting to note, looking at Ingres’ painting, is Leonardo’s black beret and the kind of beard we’re used to see on his best-known self-portrait in red chalk (left). Leonardo’s portrait at the Uffizi gallery is by far the one that seems to seal the accuracy of identification of the sitter, in that there is the beard, but there is also a beret (right). Leonardo painted by Raphael in The School of Athens (where he is disguised as Plato, pointing to the sky and holding the book of Timaeus) once again depicts a bearded man (below, left). And so does the engraving that I found on Wiki Commons (below, right). Potentially quoting from the 1885 book, the image description states that the engraving was made after the painting by an unknown artist which in turn was based on the red chalk drawing. Chances are, thanks to the recent discovery, that the engraving was made precisely after the discovered painting, or its copy. Not without an interest is also the portrait by Francesco Melzi, the pupil, friend and heir of Leonardo, who around 1515 had drawn this portrait (left). Compared to the newly-discovered portrait, the similarity is rather striking, even though the angle at which the seater is portrayed is different.

Back in 2006, Victoria and Albert Museum in London hosted an extensive exhibition of Leonardo’s work. This year, on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’s 60th birthday, 10 Leonardo’s drawings from the Royal Collection are on display at Manchester Art Gallery until Monday 4th May 2009. I haven’t yet been to see them but per chance there may be more drawings that could support the seminal discovery?

Images in the post are courtesy of Times Online, Corbis, The University of Notre Dame, Wiki Commons, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Update: I noticed that quite a few people were searching for the meaning of ‘pinxit mea’. Well, we probably got too carried away with the news of the discovery and not paid attention to the inscription itself. It is in medieval Latin and means, literally, ‘painted me’. This ‘me’, however, is a feminine pronoun; it refers to the word ‘pinctura’ (picture). The possibility of Leonardo’s being the painter still remains, and perhaps even becomes more probable. However, the inscription is akin to other similar autographs, and doesn’t point to the identity of the sitter or indeed, the painter.

Another interesting discussion about Leonardo’s self-portaits.

Of the Selling of Paradise: Leonardo to Genesis

As if to once again ascertain the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, here is one of his Prophecies:

Of the selling of Paradise: “A countless multitude will sell publicly and without hindrance things of the very greatest value, without licence from the Lord of these things, which were never theirs nor in their power; and human justice will take no account of this“.

Have I not heard this elsewhere? Ah yes! “You buy a piece of Paradise, you buy a piece of me!” Phil Collins would sing in the 1980s Genesis song “Jesus He Knows Me“. Conclusion? Leonardo was right, alas; while Genesis were more insightful than they probably thought!

Male Self-Portraits (Philip Scott Johnson)

A year ago I wrote about Women in Art, an artwork by the American digital artist Philip Scott Johnson (aka Eggman913). The artwork has taken the Internet by storm, producing a string of posts, analyses, and – alas – a few pirate versions, as well. Undoubtedly, though, this was one of the most creative works we’ve all seen, and, for one, it showed that all that social media stuff is not just for kids. It is a huge artistic and creative medium and milieu.

In the post in which I observed some obvious peculiarities of the way the Western art has portrayed women I also said:

“unless EggMan is already in the process of doing this, may we kindly ask him to make a film about men in Western art. This subject is no less beautiful, and the controversy that often surrounds it will only expand our perception of Beauty”.

I wrote this in May 2007. There was no communication between Philip and me, so you can imagine my surprise when I have just discovered that he actually produced a video on the subject. But – and this is what makes an artist what he/she is – he didn’t just make a morph of diverse and sundry male faces the Western artists painted over 500 years. This new video is about “500 Years of Male Self-Portraits in Western Art“.
Accompanied by Bach’s Bouree 1 and 2 from Suite for Solo Cello No. 3, this is a breathtaking study of Western vision of the artistic self throughout half a millennium. Opened and closed by the portraits of Leonardo and Picasso, respectively (the two men whose genius no-one seems to doubt), the sequence is visually stunning. Most importantly, however, the visual work penetrates deep into our thinking. It is by itself amazing to see how easily Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) diffuses into Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), or how deftly Jan van Eyck (1395-1441) blends into Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). But when you see Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) grey locks becoming Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) famous white crop of hair, the story takes a completely different turn.

And the story isn’t just about troubled geniuses, the great eccentrics, the talents that continue to inspire virtually everyone up until now. The story is once again about their vision of themselves, and in this respect this video by Philip is an even greater achievement than Women in Art. I wrote about the latter that it was possible to make it partly because the artists were looking at their females from the more or less same angle. Now to see that the artists painted themselves in the more or less same manner makes the difference.

And I can’t help but speak about the merge of Rembrandt and Andy Warhol once again. Even taken on its own, it manifests the continuity in artistic expression, on the one hand, and the impossibility to pin an individual (let alone an artist) down to a certain image, on the other. If we can diffuse a smiling Rembrandt into an intense Warhol, the whole process can be inverted, and we can see Warhol becoming Rembrandt. This means – as far as I am concerned, at least – that there is little difference between a troubled genius and a happy genius. Each of them is an ocean of experience, thoughts and emotions, and thankfully, we have artists like Philip Scott Johnson to let us observe this.

For the list of artists and to leave a comment for Philip, please visit the YouTube page for the video.

Raphael, Degas, and the 16th c. music

2004 saw the first exhibition of Raphael in England. In November I happened to be in London, and my first visit to the National Gallery naturally included a voyage to the Sainsbury Wing. I had mere half an hour to enjoy some 40 works of one of the Titans of Renaissance. To see them, I had to gently if politely wriggle past some visitors, or queue up where it was impossible to squeeze through. Everyone who knows the Sainsbury Wing will recall its catacomb-like interior: low ceilings, dim light, rather small rooms with dark walls – hardly a backdrop for the rich Italian masterpieces.

At exactly the same time they were exhibiting Edgar Degas upstairs. The works of French artist resided in two or three well lit halls with tall ceilings and light pastel-colour walls, there were not many visitors (it was one of the first days of exhibition, I should note). Most paintings were of medium size, in front of every second or third of which there stood a Far-Eastern girl with a pad and some crayons, copying the works of one of the greatest Impressionists. To this day I cannot fathom why these two exhibitions could not be swapped places.

I wrote a lengthy text about it in Russian in the same 2004, contemplating on how these two exhibitions manifested our attitude to art. I was probably a bit harsh to suggest that it was easy to admire the classical art because then no-one would find a fault in your taste, but on second thoughts this is hardly far from the truth. Indeed, one would rather be ridiculed if they admitted liking pop music than if they admitted liking Mozart. Same with Raphael. As Henry James put it, Raphael was a happy genius, and by looking and admiring his Madonnas we seek to find happiness, too. Raphael is also easier to comprehend, unlike his contemporaries. Leonardo is very intellectual, to which La Gioconda is a good proof. Michelangelo’s devotion to the physique is sometimes baffling, as can be seen, for instance, in the figures on the Medici monument. Raphael, on the contrary, is always pleasant, always radiant, always rich in colour, and even if his end may not be as happy as his paintings, we probably shall still forget about it when we observe his work.

It is different with Degas. Degas was known for his perfectionism, and many times in his life he turned to rework his own paintings, as the examination of certain works, e.g. Portrait of Elena Carafa, shows. The name of the exhibition – “Art in the Making” – further highlights Degas’s critical, intellectual approach to his work. The British art historian Kenneth Clark in his book “The Nude: A Study in the Ideal Form” (N.Y., 1956) says, in particular, that Degas excelled at what the Florentine artists of the 16th c. would call “disegno” (i.e. a drawing, a sketch). He focused on a human figure as his main theme, but aimed to capture the ideal image of the movement of this figure, and especially the energy of this movement. Degas’s painting is more vigorous than Raphael’s, and his Madonnas are not only nude, they are also depicted in the poses or at such activity that many of us would still deem inappropriate. Still, again in the words of Clark, had the figures painted by Michelangelo come to life, they would have scared us to a far bigger extent than Degas’s naked women.

Thanks to his colour palette, techniques, and themes, Degas appears more disturbing, almost revolutionary, compared to Raphael. I noted in my text that in the three centuries, from Raphael to Degas, the very attitude to art had changed. As far as Madonnas are concerned, after the European revolutions of the 19th c. and on the eve of the First World War they became more emancipated, they drank absinthe and spent evenings in the Parisian cafes. Their blurred faces, loose hair and outrageous nudity were the symbols of their time, the sign of the fear of changes and of the vulnerability in the face of the outer world. Their movement and individuality were more prominently expressed in comparison to their Renaissance predecessors. Like many other Impressionists, Degas is much more “relevant” to our time, but as it happens we prefer to turn to what gives us hope and faith, and Raphael seemed to be a perfect saviour. Apparently, I concluded, when people turn to the classical art, they seek peace; and when they find peace, they’ll think of a revolution.

Nevertheless, I bought a wonderful CD at the Raphael’s exhibition, The Music of the Courtier, which contained several beautifully performed pieces by the late 15th – 16th cc. composers. One of this, Dilla da l’acqua, by Francesco Patavino (1497?-1556?), performed by I Fagiolini, has become an instant favourite, and I hope you enjoy it too.


The paintings used (from top, left to right, clockwise):

Raphael, La Donna Velata (c. 1514-1516)
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Elena Carafa (c. 1875)
Raphael, Madonna of the Pinks (c. 1506-1507)
Michelangelo, The Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici (1526-1531)
Leonardo da Vinci, La Gioconda (c. 1503-1506)
Raphael, Madonna Connestabile (c. 1502)
Edgar Degas, La Coiffure (Combing Her Hair) (c. 1896)
Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers (c. 1899)
Raphael, Ansidei Madonna (1505)
Raphael, Lady with a Unicorn (c. 1505-1506)
Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (c. 1879)
Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising (c. 1860)
Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1890-1895)
Raphael, St Catherine (c. 1507)

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The Saddest Work of Art in the World (Leonardo, Last Supper)

In the recent years we’ve heard a lot about Last Supper – a large mural by Leonardo created for his patron, which can be seen at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Cenacolo (Last Supper) featured prominently in The Da Vinci Code and in many subsequent publications and TV programmes that aimed at “decoding” the novel by Dan Brown.

I wanted to quote, however, two passages from the works of Henry James, in which he contemplates on this work by the great painter. As we know, the mural has been in the state of decay for centuries, but James seems to have interpreted the reason for its survival in beautiful and passionate narrative. There is much more to one of Da Vinci’s great works than a quasi-female head, and the two passages below explain this.

“… the prime treasure of Milan at the present hour is the beautiful, tragical Leonardo. The cathedral is good for another thousand years, but we ask whether our children will find in the most majestic and most luckless of frescoes much more than the shadow of a shadow. Its fame has been for a century or two that, as one may say, of an illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions. The picture needs not another scar or stain, now, to be the saddest work of art in the world; and battered, defaced, ruined as it is, it remains one of the greatest. We may really compare its anguish of decay to the slow conscious ebb of life in a human organism. The production of the prodigy was a breath from the infinite, and the painter’s conception not immeasurably less complex than the scheme, say, of his own mortal constitution. There has been much talk lately of the irony of fate, but I suspect fate was never more ironical than when she led the most scientific, the most calculating of all painters to spend fifteen long years in building his goodly house upon the sand. And yet, after all, may not the playing of that trick represent but a deeper wisdom, since if the thing enjoyed the immortal health and bloom of a first-rate Titian we should have lost one of the most pertinent lessons in the history of art? We know it as hearsay, but here is the plain proof, that there is no limit to the amount of “stuff” an artist may put into his work. Every painter ought once in his life to stand before the Cenacolo and decipher its moral. Mix with your colours and mess on your palette every particle of the very substance of your soul, and this lest perchance your “prepared surface” shall play you a trick! Then, and only then, it will fight to the last – it will resist even in death” (Henry James, Italian Hours: From Chambery to Milan, 1872).

“…I have seen all great art treasures in Italy;… but I have looked at no other picture with an emotion equal to that which rose within me as this great creation of Leonardo slowly began to dawn upon my intelligence from the tragical twilight of its ruin. A work so nobly conceived can never utterly die, so long as the half-dozen lines of its design remain. Neglect and malice are less cunning than the genius of the great painter. It has stored away with masterly skill such a wealth of beauty as only perfect love and sympathy can fully detect. So, under my eyes, the restless ghost of the dead fresco returned to its mortal abode. From the beautiful central image of Christ I perceived its radiation right and left along the sadly broken line of the disciples. One by one, out of the depths of their grim dismemberment, the figures trembled into meaning and life, and the vast, serious beauty of the work stood revealed. What is the ruling force of this magnificent design? Is it art? is it science? is it sentiment? is it knowledge? I’m sure I can’t say; but in moments of doubt and depression I find it of excellent use to recall the great work with all possible distinctness. Of all the works of man’s hand it is the least superficial” (Henry James, Complete Tales: Travelling Companions, 1870).

Citation is from Henry James, Italian Hours. Penguin Classics, 1992.

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