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BOOK REVIEW: ART : The Enduring Fascination With Leonardo : INVENTING LEONARDO by A. Richard Turner ; Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50, 220 pages

December 10, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Mona Lisa, possibly the world's best-known painting . . . is as much or more the creation of a succession of interpreters as she is of Leonardo himself," writes A. Richard Turner in "Inventing Leonardo."

The author of this thoughtful study is convinced that Leonardo da Vinci's 16th-Century portrait of a Tuscan woman is re-created every half-century or so to suit the needs and accumulated knowledge of the time.

For 400 years, he suggests, each generation has produced a Mona Lisa of its own, freshly perceived by observers who find a special relevance in her tranquil brow, hooded eyes, and particularly in those mysterious lips, turned faintly upward in that inimitable half-smile.

Whatever she may have been--dutiful wife, pampered mistress, devoted mother--all of these or none--she continues to beckon and tease, drawing throngs of spectators who stream past the portrait in a never-ending parade. The floor of her corridor in the Louvre sags perceptibly from the concentrated weight of the millions who have come to pay homage. The Mona Lisa is never alone.

According to Turner's definition, all masterpieces "have something sufficiently provocative to sustain continuing interpretations, but also the resilience and toughness to withstand the deluge of words" written about them.

In the rarest cases, the artifact and the words meld happily, and you have phenomena like the Mona Lisa and Leonardo's "Last Supper"--both survivors of a verbal barrage unprecedented in the history of art. In the select company of masterpieces embodying "enduring values that transcend historical particularity," these two works remain supreme.

Leonardo was not a prolific painter. By Renaissance production standards, he could almost be called a dilettante, filling book after book with sketches for ambitious projects only partly imagined and seldom produced. Perhaps a dozen indisputable Leonardos survive, and some scholars question even those.

He was celebrated as an inventor, but many of his most creative designs were unworkable fantasies: marvelously conceived but impossible to build even with the technology of later centuries. He devised war machines so complex that Turner suspects Leonardo of being a secret pacifist, dazzling the warring Italian dukes with plans he knew were unfeasible.

Though Leonardo called himself "an unlettered man," surviving fragments show that he could write with grace, lucidity and considerable intensity.

Even when his geographical descriptions begin with straightforward empirical observation, the prose soon soars beyond the actual to the realm of pure fancy, creating landscapes of the mind that scholars would later find duplicated in the paintings. These literary passages continue to tantalize the reader because there is no definite proof Leonardo ever actually visited the places that inspired him to these literary tours de force.

Because so much of Leonardo's life is ambiguous, succeeding generations of artists and scholars have been unusually free to reinvent him according to their own preferences and prejudices. As Turner so convincingly demonstrates, each "new" Leonardo begins with bits and pieces of received wisdom and extrapolates from there.

Though never universally admired, he remains impervious even to ridicule. When Marcel Duchamp gave the Mona Lisa a gratuitous mustache in an attempt to show the absurdity of such awe, the lines before her portrait only lengthened.

Dante saw Leonardo as a master of the occult, but by the Age of Enlightenment, he was regarded as a remarkably prescient scientist. The Romantics extravagantly praised his use of chiaroscuro , the combination of light and shade, beauty and terror, which figured so largely in their own achievements.

Wordsworth wrote a sonnet on "The Last Supper"; Shelley produced five laudatory stanzas to Leonardo's Medusa, and Walter Pater's reputation rests heavily upon his essays, as central to the Leonardo legend as the drawings and paintings themselves.

He fascinated minds as diverse as Goethe, Paul Valery and Sigmund Freud; the Freudian interpretation was perhaps the most astonishing of the lot.

"Inventing Leonardo" is clearly meant for readers who share the author's great curiosity about the man.

However, the fact that artists, like other historical figures, are subject to revisionist interpretations remains an arresting idea.

Few painters can withstand such intensive scrutiny as well as Leonardo, and fewer critics have ever examined the transitions as meticulously as Turner has done here.

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