Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter

editor:  Francis Ames-Lewis


Issue 7,  November 1995

Recent and forthcoming events


1995 Annual Lecture

The Society’s 1995 Annual Lecture was given at Birkbeck College, University of London, on Friday 20 October 1995. Dr Michael Kwakkelstein, of the University of Leiden, gave the lecture on ‘Leonardo as a physiognomist. Theory and drawing practice’ Edward Saywell (Birkbeck College) writes:  Despite Leonardo’s apparent rejection of physiognomics when he noted how ‘I will not enlarge upon false physiognomy and chiromancy, because there is no truth in them’,* a preoccupation with the physiognomic characterisation of the human face is evident in some of his other writings and drawings, particularly the grotesque heads. These drawings have fascinated critics from Vasari onward, and have stimulated many more recent attempts, most notably by Gombrich in 1954,** to try and explain the meaning of these works. However, until Michael Kwakkelstein’s book, Leonardo da Vinci as a physiognomist. Theory and drawing practice (Leiden, 1994; see the review in this Newsletter, issue 6, May 1995), the grotesque heads have never been the subject of a monograph. It was with his recent publication in mind that Michael Kwakkelstein gave the annual lecture to the Society on the same subject of Leonardo and physiognomy. In his discussion, Kwakkelstein brought to these disparate drawings of striking heads an order and rationality that would argue for the existence of a libriccino of Leonardo’s physiognomic heads. Such a point of view reflects that of E. Müntz, who noted in 1899 that these drawings ‘sont les fragments - des fragments gigantesques - d’un traité de physiognomie’.*** Throughout the lecture Kwakkelstein confirmed Leonardo’s interest in physiognomy by arguing that although Leonardo rejected physiognomics as a science, he did, nevertheless, accept  the  traditional  notion of the interrelation of body and soul. He demanded in his writings that the artist should not only depict the emotions and mental states of a figure through bodily and facial movements, but also that the character of the person should be revealed by the portrayal of appropriate physiognomic features. In order to impose some degree of systematic order onto the drawings in question, Kwakkelstein  placed the works into different categories of purpose by considering them either as records of visual impressions, or as intentionally comical types, or as physiognomic experiments arising from his concern with mental and physical variety within painting.                                                                            The ‘ideal’ warrior heads (Windsor 12502, for example), and their connection to the leonine type as described in the pseudo-Aristotle Physiognomonica, were discussed first. These were followed by illustrations of those drawings which could be ascribed to Leonardo’s emphatic advice to record nature in all its variety from normal experience and observation. Although the interpreter of these works is faced with the problem of where invention takes over from empirical observation of reality, Kwakkelstein showed how a quite distinct category of intentionally comic and utterly ridiculous heads can also be distinguished (the busts in the Chatsworth collection, for example). The general intention of these drawings becomes clear when we take note of Lomazzo’s comment that, according to Leonardo, the emotive power of a painting takes its source from the power of laughter, and for this reason he recorded many ‘vecchi e villani e villane difformi che ridessero’.               As a final category, Kwakkelstein suggested that as an aspect of Leonardo’s systematic investigation of facial expressions and types, a few drawings can be considered as attempts on Leonardo’s part to push the physiognomic mould in painting to its extremes, but lacking the comic and ridiculous attributes of the previous examples (Windsor 12490, for example). The comic heads evolved out of these initial methodical studies of the relationship between man’s inner states and his outward appearance.  These comic heads were copied by other artists very quickly; and there are occasional adaptations of them in near contemporary painting. This led Kwakkelstein  to postulate in the conclusion to his cogent and fascinating lecture that this spread was facilitated by the presence and circulation of some form of model- book containing copies of these images. Leonardo did indeed undertake an ordered and systematic exploration of the physiognomic make-up of various human types. Kwakkelstein thus re-established in a convincing manner Leonardo’s former reputation as a physiognomist.

----------------------------------------------                * M. Kemp, ed., Leonardo On painting, New Haven 1989, 147.                                                                                                     ** E. H. Gombrich, ‘Leonardo’s grotesque heads: prolegomena to their study’, in Leonardo. Saggi e Ricerche, Rome 1954, 199-219.                                                          ***  E. Müntz, Léonard da Vinci. L’artiste, le penseur, le savant, Paris 1899, 256.   

Special Guest Lecture, 6 October 1995

The Leonardo da Vinci Society was honoured to welcome Professor Carlo Pedretti, Director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, to deliver a Special Guest Lecture on 6 October 1995. The lecture was given in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, thanks to the generous cooperation of the Director of the Courtauld Institute and his colleagues. This venue was particularly appropriate, given Professor Pedretti’s close collaboration with Kenneth Clark on the second edition of the monumental catalogue of The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle (3 vols., London 1968-69). Professor Pedretti’s theme was ‘Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari: From Story-board to Production’, and as a leitmotif running throughout the lecture was the proposal that we might see Leonardo as a precursor of today’s Hollywood film director. Opening with quotations from Dante, Leonardo himself and Noel Coward (‘all done with mirrors’), Carlo Pedretti outlined the three principal issues that Leonardo had to consider as he planned his Battle of Anghiari composition: the setting for the battle scene, the movement and action of the figures, and the question of how best to suggest the tempo of the narrative. Although the contract was signed only on 4 May 1504, Leonardo had already gained access to his working quarters in the former papal apartments at Sta Maria Novella in October 1503. During 1504 payments were made for a scaffolding ‘per disegnare il cartone’, for paper and sheets of reinforcing fabric for the cartoon, and for screens to be placed over the windows of the Sala del Cinquecento (suggesting Leonardo’s recognition, comparable with today’s movie director, of the need to have control over the lighting). Using linseed oil as their medium, as opposed to the traditional buon fresco technique, Leonardo and two assistants were at work in April 1505 from the special scaffolding (based on a design of Francesco di Giorgio) that could be raised and lowered at will.                                                                                  Perspective, Professor Pedretti suggested, was Leonardo’s film camera: the painter ‘...must learn perspective first, then the “measure of all things”’, as he wrote in his Trattato. Evidence suggests that Leonardo also wrote a treatise on perspective; and it seems possible that the Battle of Anghiari composition marked a turning point in Renaissance perspectival practice. Once the perspectival setting had been established, Leonardo peopled it with his fighting soldiers. Professor Pedretti suggested that to study these energetic figures, and to achieve continuity in narrative action, Leonardo made wax models of his soldiers (which numbered perhaps 50 or 60 figures) and moved them around his model battlefield much as military strategists do today. Light and shadow could be prearranged using artificial light sources, and special atmospheric effects might even have been simulated using smoke. Later Vasari referred to the practice of formulating designs using clay models, and Benvenuto Cellini wrote that Leonardo had employed this method ‘in some beautiful things in Milan and Florence’ - a reference perhaps to the Last Supper and to the Battle of Anghiari.          Professor Pedretti’s lecture contained provoking suggestions about Leonardo’s working practice: the innovatory ways in which he used perspective, drew from his battlefield model using a graticola or squared grille, and checked his figure-group designs for vigorous and convincing movement by looking at their mirror-images, before enlarging the whole design to the full scale of the cartoon for transfer to the wall surface. For all these procedures parallels can be found in the working methods of the film director, justifying the use of the subtitle ‘from story-board to production’ for Leonardo’s design process. The lecture is to be published in a forthcoming issue of Carlo Pedretti’s journal Achademia Leonardi Vinci. Both the large audience present at the lecture and other members of the Leonardo da Vinci Society will therefore have the chance in due course to read and to ponder at greater leisure on the stimulating proposals and interpretations of Leonardo’s practice that Professor Pedretti presented.

The Visual Culture of Art and Science: from the Renaissance to the present.                                                                 

This international Conference, organised by the Association of Art Historians (AAH), the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), was held at the Royal Society, London, on 12-14 July 1995. Dr J.V. Field writes: The purpose of the conference was to provide a meeting place for historians of art and of science, and scientists and artists, working in areas that touched upon each others’ disciplines. The period covered was from the sixteenth century to the present. Nearly 200 people attended. The atmosphere was both friendly and lively, suggesting very strongly that talk of ‘two cultures’ (implied to be incommensurable) is pretty misguided even when applied to our own century.

            The conference programme is given on the Internet: http://www.soas.ac.uk/Temp/vcas.html.  Further information may be had from J. V. Field, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD.


A symposium on ‘Art and Science in the Italian Renaissance: Botany.’

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 26 January 1996, at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London WC1, starting at 10.15 am. The subject will be ‘Botany’. Speakers so far confirmed are: Dr Catherine Reynolds (London), on the problem of flower symbolism in 15th-century paintings; Professor W.T. Stearn (London), on Leonardo da Vinci as a botanist; Dr Francis Ames-Lewis (Birkbeck College, London), on the artistic concerns shown in botanical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries; and Gill Saunders (Victoria & Albert Museum) on 16th-century botanical illustrations.


1996 Annual Lecture

The Leonardo da Vinci Society Annual Lecture for 1996 will be given on Friday 17 May 1996 by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt (New York University, Institute of Fine Arts). The title of her lecture is ‘Leonardo and Sculpture’.

‘Leonardo da Vinci: Inventor, scientist and artist’

The large international exhibition of this title, previously mounted in Sweden and Germany, will be on view at the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, from 26 November 1995 to 17 March 1996. It comprises principally facsimiles of Leonardo notebooks and drawings, contemporary copies after Leonardo’s works, and a group of twenty models of his mechanical inventions.

‘Leonardo da Vinci: 100 drawings’ at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

A selection of 100 drawings of all types and from all periods of Leonardo’s career will be displayed at the Queen’s Gallery from 1 March to 12 January 1997. The intention is to offer an overview of Leonardo’s career as a draughtsman, with as little overlap as possible with the drawings displayed in the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. There will be a 160 page catalogue, written by Martin Clayton, with colour reproductions of all the drawings exhibited.

Leonardesque News

A recent analysis of the so-called ‘Tavola Doria’

In the same issue as our report on Professor Pedretti’s special lecture on the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated lost mural, Dr Thomas Frangenberg (University of Leicester) reviews a recent contribution* to the debate on this work:

Friedrich Piel’s study is devoted to a panel painting commonly referred to as the ‘Fight for the Standard’. Most writers - plausibly - assume it to be one of the copies after the lost fragment of the mural that Leonardo painted in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, and/or after its cartoon. Piel seeks to prove that the panel in question is in fact Leonardo’s original modello, according to which both the cartoon and the mural were to be completed. However, Piel never seriously adresses the question of how likely it is that a panel painting, albeit unfinished, would have been referred to as a disegnio.                                          In its present form Piel’s study is no more than a fragment of a larger project. The present book considers arguments extraneous to the panel itself, and a more fully art-historical treatment is promised for the future. This limitation of the book’s scope leaves some of the text unsatisfactorily undocumented - such as statements about artistic quality - or unclear, such as references to optical correction. More importantly, it excludes any in-depth analysis of Leonardo’s manuscripts (for a very interesting recent discussion, see C.J. Farago, ‘Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari: a study in the exchange between theory and practice’, Art Bulletin 76, 1994, pp. 301-30). The book consists of two parts of approximately equal length: a repetitive text, and a comprehensive set of appendices.            Piel’s assumption that the Tavola Doria is the original modello for the Battle of Anghiari leads him to conclude that nothing else of importance was to appear in Leonardo’s mural - even though he shares the commonly held view that the pictorial field was much wider than high. However, it is unclear how this belief relates to Piel’s further assumption that Leonardo did not in fact begin the mural with the ‘Fight for the Standard’, but with some lateral figures. In the light of these two premises Piel studies the textual sources at great length, pursuing two principal goals. He tries to prove that none of the references to what Leonardo executed on the wall refer to horses and riders; he furthermore reads specific references to the Tavola Doria into a maximum number of texts. Since at least some of the sources to my mind clearly resist any such interpretation, Piel’s readings are on occasion extremely implausible (see, for example, his statements about F. Albertini’s Memoriale and A.F. Doni’s letter to A. Lollius). Much too much weight is placed on Zacchia’s attribution of his model, referred to as a tabella, to Leonardo himself; but written in 1558, this attribution is less than fully reliable.                               Because of its appendices, this book will certainly be useful to readers who do not enjoy easy access to large libraries. Piel’s discussions also pertinently remind the reader of the intriguing variety of research issues surrounding Leonardo’s lost work, in equal measure notorious and little-known.

--------------------------------------------                   * Friedrich Piel, Leonardos Disegnio der Anghiarischlacht. Materialien und Dokumente zur Tavola Doria, Falkenberg (Mäander Verlag) 1994, 200 pp., one insert with colour plate; ISBN 3-88219-401-4.                                        

The Leonardo da Vinci Award

In 1975 the Rotary Club of Florence established an annual international prize named after Leonardo da Vinci, to be presented to young people involved in the study of the sciences, technology, literature and the arts. Among the disciplines recognised and rewarded so far have been painting, sculpture, music, geology, architecture, medicine and nuclear physics. The 21st Leonardo da Vinci Prize was recently presented to the brilliant young pianist Johan Schmidt. The prize-giving event has been hosted by other European Rotary Clubs in cities such as Tours, Vienna, Athens, Madrid, Würzburg, Brussels and Amsterdam.                                                 This event was last held in London in 1987, when the prize was awarded to the internationally recognised percussionist Evelyn Glennie. In 1996 the Rotary Club of London will again be responsible for hosting the prize-giving ceremony: the field in which the competitors are working is ‘Animation’, in recognition both of Leonardo’s interest in ‘sequence drawing’ and of the world-wide renown of London’s film industry. The panel of experts who will recommend the criteria for the nomination of candidates and will select the winner of the 1996 award will include Sir Sydney Samuelson (President of the British Film Institute), Claire Kitson (Channel 4 television), Brian Sibley (BBC Kaleidoscope), Christopher Mullen (University of Sussex), Tony White (animator and author), and the critic Neville Shulman.


The Leonardo da Vinci Society


Proposals for future events - conferences, symposia, lectures, or other activities that the Society might sponsor or undertake - are always welcomed by the Committee. Please write to any of the officers listed below if you have any suggestions to offer. The Committee is also anxious to recruit new blood to its membership, so if any readers have ideas to contribute and would be interested in serving, please will they let us know of them.


            President: Professor Martin Kemp, Department of History of Art, University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1.2PH

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

            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; FAX 0171.631.6107; Email: f.ames-lewis@hart.bbk.ac.uk