Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter

editor:  Francis Ames-Lewis


Issue 4,  May 1994

Recent and forthcoming events


Leonardo da Vinci Society and the Society for Renaissance Studies joint symposium on ‘Art and Science in the Italian Renaissance: Proportion’.

Ivor Grattan-Guinness (Middlesex University) writes:  The latest of the series of joint symposia, on ‘Proportion’ was held on 28 January 1994 at the Warburg Institute. J.V. Field (Birkbeck College, London) spoke on Luca Pacioli’s treatise On divine proportion (1509, Venice), which is chiefly famous for its illustrations of polyhedra drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Patrick Boyd (St John’s College, Cambridge) and Iain Fenlon (King’s College, Cambridge) spoke on Brunelleschi’s design for the crossing of Florence Cathedral and the motet ‘Nuper rosarum flores’ written by Guillaume Dufay for the consecration of the Cathedral in 1436. The motet is undoubtedly divided into the proportions 6:4:2:3, and uses the perfect numbers 6 and 28 (as 7x4) in various ways. More controversial is the role assigned by the architect to such proportions within the design of the Cathedral. Robert Tavernor (University of Edinburgh) dealt with the use of proportion by the architect Leonbattista Alberti, who adopted from Vitruvius the numbers 6, 10 and 16 in the formulation of measures and proportions. Using computer-generated graphics illustrations of buildings, the speaker argued that Alberti was much inspired by proportions from nature, especially the human body. Alex Keller (University of Leicester) explored aspects of hydrostatics in the Renaissance. The determination of specific weights of various metals relative to wax was discussed. Other studies included the uses of sunken weights with releasable floats as a possible means of determining the depths of waters, and proposed techniques involving hulks to lift sunken ships. Martin Kemp (University of St Andrews) surveyed the use of proportion by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo deployed proportions in a wide variety of contexts; for example, the arching of a bow as a function of loading weights, the stance of horses in equilibrium, apparent features of the Last Supper, the location of branches on trees, properties of blood flow, and the penetration into soil of arrows fired vertically upwards.



1994 Annual Lecture

The Society's 1993 Annual Lecture, entitled 'The Adoration of the Magi for San Donato a Scopeto', was given on Friday 6 May 1994 by Dr Paul Hills (University of Warwick). Alison Wright (University College, London) writes:

Returning to the subject of his MA thesis, Paul Hills began his discussion by indicating why Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi ended up, contrary to contract, in the hands of the Benci family whose connections with both San Donato and Leonardo were surely influential. While he concluded, as others have also observed, that the panel was ‘unfinishable’, this enabled him to analyse the development of the design, noting the different technical qualities of the paint as it was applied in successive phases. As so often in Leonardo’s work, changes in the design process also marked changes in iconography. A useful analysis of the Uffizi perspective drawing for the background in relation to the reflectographs of the panel, highlighted the transformation of the architectural support structure of the canopy into trees, while figures are clearly shown to be building part of the structure with the double ramp staircase on the left. In the first instance Hills proposed that the tree beneath which the Holy Family are seated (possibly a ‘Laurentian’ laurel) underlined the prophetic notion of Christ as emerging from the stem of Jesse (the Virgin). The architecturally advanced ‘temple’ recalls, perhaps coincidentally, Alberti’s San Sebastiano in Mantua, another church made for the Reformed Augustinian ‘Scopetini’. The destruction of San Donato a Scopeto, which was itself rebuilt in the fifteenth century, makes an attempt to relate the architecture of this structure to the church impossible, but the symbolic reference to the rebuilding of the Temple can at least be inferred. Hills also addressed Leonardo’s possible formal sources including his master Verrocchio, Ghiberti’s compositional structures, antique gems owned by the Medici and questionably the work of Luca della Robbia. While many of his proposals have to remain conjectural, the wide ranging scope of Hills’ lecture threw up the sort of provocative juxtapositions that Leonardo’s great 1481 concetto was itself struggling with and, like the painting, it is to a large extent in the irresolution of the struggle that the interest lies.


'Art and Science in the Renaissance' Symposium

The next in the series of joint Leonardo da Vinci Society and Society for Renaissance Studies symposia on the general theme of 'Art and Science in the Italian Renaissance' will be held on Friday 27 January 1995. The subject will be ‘Light’. Proposals for contributions to the proceedings are welcomed; further details of the programme will be included in the November 1994 issue of the Newsletter. 


The Visual Culture of Art and Science

An international conference on ‘The Visual Culture of Art and Science: from the Renaissance to the present’ will be held at the Royal Society, London, on 12-14 July 1995. Organised by the Association of Art Historians, the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), the joint committee of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The purpose of the meeting is to promote greater understanding of the changing boundaries and interactions between what contemporaries called Art (or Craft) and Natural Philosophy/Science in the period from about 1400 to the present day. The meeting will specifically examine the visual culture through which both artistic and scientific endeavours found their expression. This is an interdisciplinary study of scholarly concern to historians of art and science, and of concern to COPUS because it shows Science as an integral part of the culture of our time. Speakers will include William Ashworth (Kansas), Allan Chapman (Oxford), Sophie Forgan (Teesside), Steven J. Gould (Harvard). Richard Gregory (Bristol), Helen Haste (Bath), Tim Hunkin, Martin Kemp (St Andrews), Eileen Reeves (Princeton), Martin Rudwick (S. Diego), Larry Schaaf, Albert van Helden (Rice), and other distinguished art historians, historians of science, artists and scientists. There will be associated exhibitions and a full social programme. For further information, please contact the BSHS Executive Secretary, 31 High St., Stanford-in-the-Vale, Faringdon, Oxon. SN7.8LH, U.K. (tel. and FAX: 0387 718963).



Leonardesque News


The Royal Academy’s copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper on display at Magdalen College, Oxford

A little over a year ago, on 10 March 1993, the full-size, contemporary copy on canvas of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper was dedicated at an installation ceremony in the Ante-Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford. To commemorate the occasion the two lectures delivered that evening by Sir Ernst Gombrich and by Piers Rodgers, Secretary of the Royal Academy, have been published in the first Magdalen College Occasional Paper, edited by Dr Christine Ferdinand and with an introduction by the President of Magdalen College. The booklet Papers Given on the Occasion of the Dedication of The Last Supper (after Leonardo), Magdalen College, Oxford, 1993 (ISBN 0 9513747 1 0) may be obtained for £3.00 plus postage and packing from the Fellow Librarian, Magdalen College, Oxford OX1 4AU.                                                                                 Sir Ernst’s contribution considers primarily Leonardo’s response to the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels. Leonardo synthesised the descriptions of the most dramatic moments of the story retailed in all four Gospels, and especially those moments that provide the most telling gestures and expressive movements. This synthesis is compared with contemporary texts, including Leonardo’s own note on the apostles’ gestures, and the lecture ends with a lengthy quotation from Goethe’s sensitive discussion of the Last Supper in his journal Aus Kunst und Alterthum in 1817. Piers Rodgers’ brief talk recounts the history of the painting and its acquisition by the Royal Academy in 1821 as part of a concerted attempt to acquire suitable ‘models’ for imitation in the School of Painting. Restored by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and her team in conjunction with their work on Leonardo’s mural in the refectory of Sta. Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the copy now hangs in the ante-chapel at Magdalen College, in a position ‘high enough to correct the perspective and to lessen the rather over emphatic handling of dome of the figures’.                                                                                                   The canvas fits excellently into its space on the north wall of the ante-chapel, above the string-course and with only a slight visual intrusion from the group of Charity that crowns the tomb monument of William Langton (d.1626). The low, diffused side lighting provided through the dark grisaille glass in the windows is supplemented by a spotlight which throws a soft pool of light on the lower right edge, contrary to the assumed pictorial light from the left. Stronger lighting would, however, sharpen too greatly the already vivid colours especially of St Andrew’s bright golden-yellow robe which with its burnt orange shadows stands out forcefully against the surrounding greens, blues and dull red. The principal difficulty of visibility is created, however, by the two central piers which divide the ante-chapel into three bays: these mean that it is impossible to gain the view of the whole composition from a distance that Leonardo himself had while working on his mural, when ‘each day he would spend several hours examining it and criticising the figures to himself’, as Bandello relates. Nevertheless, the observer can admire how, following Leonardo, Giampetrino (if it is he) demands that we take note of the figures’ hands and hand-gestures which are often carefully silhouetted against dark tones to increase their dramatic effectiveness.


J’accuse Brian Sewell

In a recent television programme, Brian Sewell, the art critic of the London Evening Standard, accused Leonardo da Vinci of having ‘betrayed his talent, and in betraying it [he] betrayed posterity’. Presumably intended to be provocative, the programme turned out to be merely silly; and readers may wonder whether it really deserves to be taken seriously enough to warrant this review. But since Sewell has a certain populist appeal, some of the wilful misconceptions that he advanced should be answered.                                                                                                      The underlying assumption of the programme was that Leonardo’s single-minded aspiration was to be recognised for his genius as a painter; or if it was not, that it ought to have been. It is probably true to say, as Sewell did, that Leonardo was ‘interested in ideas and inventions almost to the exclusion of the finished picture’, but absurd for him to conclude from this that Leonardo was therefore a failure. Sewell took no account of the outstanding qualities of Leonardo’s thought: that many of Leonardo’s ideas and inventions had no published outcome and little immediate influence - remaining, as Sewell disparagingly put it, a ‘pile of dusty notebooks’ - does not invalidate them as the results of an exceptionally vigorous creative imagination. Nor did Sewell acknowledge the profound influence that Leonardo’s artistic ideas had: ‘it was only in the backwater of Milan that Leonardo had his followers’, he tendentiously stated, and then astonishingly (and manifestly wrongly) he declared ‘In the great centres of the Renaissance - Florence, Rome and Venice - he had no influence’. He totally failed to understand or therefore to acknowledge Leonardo’s crucial contribution to artistic activity in Florence and Rome early in the 16th century.                                                                By accusing Leonardo of being a dilletante, ‘contemptuous of the society to which he did not quite belong’, Sewell showed that he has no real conception of the range of activities expected of the Renaissance court artist. His view of what a painter has to produce to earn the accolade of ‘universal genius’ is hopelessly anachronistic. Some of the things he said - about Leonardo’s wall-painting techniques, for instance - are fair comment, however disagreeable was the manner and vocabulary he used to make his points; but his understanding and interpretation of Leonardo’s career and output is fundamentally flawed by an insistent failure to understand that it is entirely inappropriate to criticise a Renaissance artist as though he were a late 20th-century one.  Finally, Sewell raised again the tired red herrings of Leonardo’s illegitimacy and homosexuality which ‘introduced into his character the insecurity, instability and waywardness that undid him...’. Perhaps it was the recourse to this psychoanalytical explanation for a ‘wasted talent’ that ‘cheated posterity’ that led the programme’s self-indulgent producers to design the grotesquely camp settings that the viewer had to endure when not focused on Sewell himself. Pretty young men languorously played the lute and pretended to draw or paint - with the right hand, despite the fact that (at times at least) they were apparently impersonating Leonardo. Gratuitously, specialists in various fields, invited in to offer apparent validation of Sewell’s misunderstandings of Leonardo’s career, spoke from behind a laden, candle-lit banqueting table. Your editor too might have been one of these speakers, had it not become clear to the producers at an early stage that he was too well informed, or rather, too sympathetically inclined towards Leonardo da Vinci to be a suitable contributor to a programme that set out wilfully to distort and to malign.


The Anthony J. and Frances A. Guzzetta Collection of Leonardo da Vinci

An exhibition of books by and about Leonardo da Vinci in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University of Rochester Library at Rochester, New York, was held earlier this year. The exhibition focused around 69 volumes from the collection donated to the Library in 1962 by Dr Anthony J. and Frances A. Guzzetta. Their son, Dr Louis R. Guzzetta, provided an endowment that enabled the collection to grow from 700 volumes to more than 1,300. The core of the Guzzetta collection is a group of 34 editions of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, including the first edition published in Paris in 1651. Volume XXXXIV (1994) of the University of Rochester Library Bulletin is devoted to the catalogue of the exhibition, including brief essays on the Life of Leonardo and on Leonardo’s Notebooks, which was written by Bernard Barryte, Chief Curator and Assistant Director of the Stanford University Museum of Art.


Recent Publications

Achademia Leonardi Vinci

Volume VI of Achademia Leonardi Vinci, edited by Carlo Pedretti, appeared recently. The  following articles make up its principal contents :                                           I. Leonardo Studies. Maria Rzepinska, ‘Leonardo’s colour theory’; Carlo Pedretti, ‘Three texts on colour’; Claire J. Farago, ‘Fractal geometry in the organisation of Madrid MS. II’; Michael W. Kwakkelstein, ‘The lost book on “moti mentali”’; John Cunnally, ‘Numismatic sources for Leonardo’s equestrian monuments’, Jean-Pierre Maēdani Gerard, ‘Alter ego 1501: l’agneau et le dévidoir’; Franco Moro, ‘Divinitą femminili del Giampetrino’; Marco Pistoia, ‘Luchino Visconti e la Pointing Lady’.                                           II. Bibliography and Documents. Miranda B. MacPhail, ‘The Sforza Horse on the Lagoon’; Janis C. Bell, ‘Leonardo and Alhazen: the cloth on the mountain top’; Carlo Vecce, ‘Dieci postille al Paragone’ and ‘Gerson in San Marco’; Hans Henrik Brummer, ‘The editio princeps of Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting dedicated to Queen Christina’; Carlo Pedretti, ‘“De tentatione in asse”’, ‘A.D. 1493’, ‘Luca Michele’, ‘Heraclitus and Democritus’, ‘Daniello Barbaro e le ricerche fisiognomiche di Leonardo’, and ‘“li medici mi crearono e desstrussono”’; Roberta Panzanelli Clignett, ‘The Arona Altarpiece’; Francesco P. di Teodoro, ‘Gustavo Uzielli e la “terza” Vergine delle Rocce’, ‘Carteggio Uzielli, II: il Codice Atlantico’, and ‘The 3-D puzzle’.


The Leonardo da Vinci Society


               President: Professor Martin Kemp, Department of Art History, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, KY16.9AL.

                   Vice-President: Dr Francis Ames-Lewis, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H.0PD, UK.

                   Secretary/Treasurer: Dr Richard Schofield, Department of Art History, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK.                                                                                                                         Please send items for publication to the editor of the Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter, Francis Ames-Lewis, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, 43, Gordon Square, London WC1H.0PD, UK.