Leonardo’s Shortcomings

Charles Hope

  • Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man by Martin Kemp
    Dent, 384 pp, £14.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 460 04354 4

The career of Leonardo da Vinci must be the most intimidating subject in the history of art. The paintings and preparatory drawings are a major topic in themselves, and any monograph on Leonardo the artist invites comparison with Kenneth Clark’s classic study, one of the best books of its type. Then there are the notebooks, a written legacy unparalleled in scale and range among surviving records of the Renaissance. The secondary literature is no less formidable, even excluding the many banal hagiographies and such eccentricities as the tedious claims of collectors to possess the original Mona Lisa. Simply to consult the facsimile of Leonardo’s largest manuscript, the aptly named Codex Atlanticus, in 12 vast and unwieldy volumes with an equally extensive commentary, is a major undertaking. Moreover, the recent scholarship on Leonardo, often of high quality, abounds with detailed observations and a mass of cross-references to one codex or another, but contains much less in the way of synthesis. To come to terms with this material requires not just time, but also the energy to master a whole range of subjects quite outside the bounds of conventional art history.

The sheer size of the notebooks is daunting enough. They amount to some two thousand pages, mostly covered with densely-packed jottings in mirror writing. Fortunately these texts have all been transcribed. The problem is to impose some kind of order on their content, since they are exactly what their name implies, a series of notes, often random and disorganised. Leonardo himself frequently recorded that he had begun a new book on some topic, but in practice any scheme that he may have had which involved arranging his thoughts in a coherent way was always abandoned after a few pages. It is no accident that the most carefully organised body of his statements on any subject, the so-called Treatise on Painting, preserved in a manuscript in Rome, is actually the work of an exceptionally diligent and knowledgable follower who went through the master’s papers collecting what he thought relevant. Despite his truly heroic efforts the result is still very far from a proper treatise; and it is a sobering thought that three-quarters of the material he transcribed cannot be found in Leonardo’s extant writings. What we know today, extensive as it is, must be no more than a fragment of what he set down.

The character of the notebooks makes it extraordinarily difficult to establish Leonardo’s views on any subject. To do so involves making a synthesis of countless scattered remarks, though the task has admittedly been simplified by the researches of Carlo Pedretti and others on the chronology of the manuscripts. Moreover, there is always a temptation to minimise the essentially inconclusive and speculative character of Leonardo’s observations. One has to reconstruct his habits of thought rather than his theories, which were usually in a state of flux. There is also the more serious danger of crediting Leonardo with an originality which is largely unjustified. Much of his scientific work was an attempt to master an existing body of knowledge to which he had incomplete access. His knowledge of Latin was at best rudimentary, so he had to extract what he could from popularising texts in the volgare. Leonardo’s disparaging remarks about established ideas are for this reason frequently defensive in tone, as well as misleading about his attitude to ancient authorities. Time and again, as Kemp points out, he made problems for himself by failing to take adequate account of observations and arguments available in standard Classical sources.

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