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Reading Leonardo's mind

A New York exhibition turns to drawings by the Renaissance genius for a better picture of his creative process.

January 05, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

New York — "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."

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