IF YOU’RE lucky enough to get a ticket to the blockbuster Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London this winter, the very first work of art you will see is a small and markedly unsensational drawing from the Royal Collection dated between 1490 and 1494.
It shows a cross-section of the human head and the way the eye is attached to a series of three chambers or ventricles in the brain. Following anatomical conventions of the period, Leonardo understood the first ventricle was used for gathering data, the final one for memories. The central ventricle was known as the senso commune, the combined senses or, more colloquially, Common Sense. Here information was processed; it was the home of the intellect and the imagination. But it was also the home to something far more complex and unknowable: the human soul.
Anatomical drawings such as these, says American journalist Toby Lester in his new book on Leonardo’s most famous single drawing, Vitruvian Man, must be understood as acts of both empirical research and imagination. “With the confident precision of an architect and an engineer Leonardo imagined cutaway views of the skull’s interior and then coolly proposed coordinates for the seat of the human soul… It’s an astonishing moment: an act of visual speculation in which art, modern science, and medieval philosophy all come together in a statement of boundless investigative possibility.”
Leonardo’s drawing was, like much of his dizzyingly complex output, based on obsessive, minute observation and measurement, on centuries of learning, on careful scholasticism, but also on ancient mysticism, historical accident, Roman propaganda, messy translation and stultifying convention.
The same might be said for Vitruvian Man himself; the “perfectly” proportioned specimen, in whose muscle-bound body Leonardo inked a whole range of interlinked ideas. Vitruvian Man might most simply be described as Leonardo’s attempts to illustrate the ideas of the jobbing Roman architect Vitruvius, who summed up his experiences in a famous but incoherent treatise called The Ten Books. But behind this illustrative purpose lay the far deeper assertion that it was possible to read the whole structure of the universe in the human body and that this human analogy should be incorporated into the very fabric of the built environment.
Vitruvian Man therefore stands (or jumps in his 16 individual poses) on the threshold of two ideas: the ancient suggestion that God is an architect and the modern idea that the architect (or artist) is a god.
Lester, a contributing editor to American journal The Atlantic and author of The Fourth Part Of The World, a much-praised book on cartography, beautifully demonstrates the intellectual pedigree of Leonardo’s image.
The ideas that shaped the impressive body (perhaps based on Leonardo’s own likeness) took in the most ancient ideas of the structure of the cosmos, Augustan imperial propaganda, Roman temple architecture, medieval cathedral building and the latest knowledge from the dissection table.
It’s the conjunction of all of this which gets us in such a dreadful muddle when thinking about Leonardo himself. He was an artist, musician and rather restless polymath who was far from unique in his age or in his elite peer group of scholars and engineers.
His rather hopeless attitude to steady employment and failure to gain or complete commissions has left us with works of art that are priceless in their beauty and scarcity and sketches and notebooks that are dizzyingly heterogeneous. But our emphasis on him as mystic genius obscures his real genius which was to hoover up ideas, test them obsessively and express them visually as never before.
Lester’s sympathetic portrayal of Leonardo as a brilliant autodidact, with a “patchy education” and poor Latin, who was desperate to find work in a fluctuating economic and social landscape, does not do him a disservice. And in exploring his peer group, both actual and historical, Lester makes his subject more human but no less remarkable.
But while Lester is brilliantly coherent on the importance of classical and medieval thought, one longs for him to get a bit more medieval on the reader. Placing the body at the centre of imperial and religious thought and its building programmes had a dark side: the pressure that both institutions placed on the human body itself.
In Lester’s narrative the threat of war looms and then recedes. A plague comes and goes. In the broader span of the book empires rise and fall, but one can’t quite hear or smell the bloodshed.
What is also missing in this is a little bit of the author’s own soul. Despite the occasional direct address to the reader, Lester is perhaps just too cool a guide in a journey from modern Venice, where Vitruvian Man currently resides, back to Augustan Rome and Renaissance Milan.
Whilst few academic art historians could write a fraction as fluently, the best of the fashionable genre of popular intellectual and scientific histories place a crisis, a historical injustice, or an urgent personal mission at the centre of their narratives. This is a lucid and compelling exposition of a complex subject, but Da Vinci’s Ghost somehow lacks this engine or perhaps even its own divine spark. v
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Monday 20 May 2013
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