Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter

editor:  Francis Ames-Lewis


Issue 15,  November 1999


Recent and forthcoming events


Year 2000 Annual Lecture

The Society’s Year 2000 lecture will be given by Professor Pietro Marani (Politecnico di Milano), formerly Soprintendente delle Belle Arti for Lombardy and co-Director of the programme of conservation on Leonardo’s Last Supper in the Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. The lecture, entitled ‘Leonardo’s Last Supper: the Restoration and the New Findings’, will be given in association with the National Gallery, in the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing lecture theatre, on Wednesday 17 May 2000, at 6.00 pm. In the Society’s Annual Lecture in 1989, held at the Italian Cultural Institute, Dr Marani gave a progress report on the condition of the mural that had revealed the need for conservation, what had up to that time been done, and the new information about Leonardo’s work that was beginning to be revealed. Now that the conservation campaign has been completed, Professor Marani will review the whole programme and point out the importance of what has been revealed for our understanding of the art of Leonardo da Vinci.



Leonardesque News


The Last Supper newly conserved


Your editor writes: Despite the intense public demand for the opportunity to see the Last Supper in its cleaned state, I was fortunate enough in July to be able to visit the Refectory and to study the mural. The results of the conservation campaign are, it must be said, somewhat mixed. In my view, however, the benefits of the removal of many centuries of later repainting and of the revelation of what remains of Leonardo’s original  work  more than outweigh the disadvantages created by the extensive losses. The process of ‘integration’ — of watercolour ‘infilling’ of areas of loss with easily removable, light-toned pigments — has left many areas very light in tonality (contrary to the effects that Leonardo is likely to have sought), and this increases the overall tonal blondness of the whole mural. This intervention on the part of the conservators is of course deliberately ‘tactful’, respecting as it does the need to ensure that the areas of Leonardo’s original paint are readily distinguishable from the infilling. It cannot therefore vary in tone according to the chiaroscuro modelling by which Leonardo would originally have defined the forms.

            It is in the draperies in poarticular where much of Leonardo’s paint surface has been lost. The formerly olive-green robe of St James the Great, for example, is now disconcertingly blank: the lack of modelling and of tonal variation in this area makes it difficult to understand the anatomical bases of his hand gestures. Another area left rather stridently high-key through loss of paint is the robe of St James the Less (second from the left) which contrasts with the better preserved and deeply shadowed dark green worn by St Bartholomew at the left-hand end. This saint’s draperies offer a particularly good idea of the tonal richness that Leonardo’s original paint surface may have possessed. Much of the vibrant richness of the blues — perhaps ultramarine? — on St Peter’s right sleeve and on Christ’s mantle, for example, has also be lost, so that the contrast with the lighter, less resonant blue — perhaps azurite? — of Judas’ robe is less telling than Leonardo probably intended it to be.

            Broad areas of the draperies therefore show heavy losses of paint, resulting both in loss of legibility of fold forms and underlying anatomical forms, and in areas of watercolour ‘integration’ that are tonally lighter than Leonardo would have left them. But fine details have survived much better under the centuries of overpaint. The metal plates and bowls, glass tumblers and carafes, and bread and other consumables, and the complex pattern embroidered into the freshly-ironed tablecloth, show Leonardo’s sure sense of precision both in representing materials and still-life details, and textures and in the placement of highlights to clarify both shapes and textures. The lunettes, not previously visible at all, now reveal the rich naturalism of Leonbardo’s treatmetn of leaves, fruit and flowers.

            Most impressive of all, however, are the flesh parts, which have survived as much as the draperies have deteriorated. Almost all of the apostles’ hands are completely legible, and the meanings of the all-important hand gestures, shorn of their bluntening repaints, are more readily intelligible than before. Most of the heads, too, are well preserved: only St Simon, at the very right-hand end, preserves so little definition of feature as not to be comprehensible. Removal of distorting repaint has clarified Leonardo’s intentions with regard to facial features, proportions and emotional expressions in response to Christ’s words. Here the losses to Leonardo’s original paint surface are relatively low: in heads like that of St Philip (fourth from the right) some 90% of Leonardo’s surface survives. If the losses elsewhere have led to loss of legibility and tonal contrast, more is now revealed to us than most thought possible at the outset of the conservation campaign of Leonardo’s expressive intentions and achievement. And it is these, of course, that are more crucial than any other factors to the historical importance and artistic value of the Last Supper.


Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the National Gallery’s Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s exhibition


A group of early drawings by Leonardo da Vinci is included in the beautiful and thoughtfully presented exhibition to be seen at the National Gallery until 16 January 2000. These drawings date from the time he spent as an assistant in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, and from his period as an independent master in Florence before his move to Milan in the early 1480s. They include the British Museum’s refined silverpoint Head of a Warrior, tellingly compared with other derivations from Verrocchio’s reliefs of Alexander and Darius given by Lorenzo the Magnificent to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, two pen and ink sheets of studies for a ‘Madonna and Child with a Cat’ composition, two of the early cast drapery studies in brush on linen, and the celebrated study at Windsor Castle of Hands, made in connection with the Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. Amongst many other achievements, this exhibition offers the visitor an unusual insight into Leonardo’s activity as an apprentice, and the links between his work and that of his fellow assistants in Verrocchio’s workshop. It is a highly important exhibition for all interested in Florentine art in the halcyon decade of the 1470s, and in Leonardo’s artistic origins in particular.


An important new publication on Leonardo da Vinci


Robert Zwijnenberg, The Writings and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Order and Chaos in Early Modern Thought. Translated by Caroline A. van Eck. Cambridge (Cambridge University Press), 1999. ISBN 0-521-63239-0.


Despite (or perhaps because of) their disorderly and chaotic appearance, for Leonardo his notebooks ‘were useful and functional instruments with which to acquire knowledge of the world’. This study by Robert Zwijnenberg (Lecturer in Aesthetics at the Univeristy of Groningen) is an enquiry into the character and contents of the 1,500 or so pages covered by Leonardo da Vinci with text and images in his surviving motebooks. A few of these books, such as Codex Madrid I, are elegantly written and seek to present a clear and orderly treatment of the subjects under consideration. Most, however, were used randomely to record observations, ideas and speculations on the natural world — reminiscent, as Zwijnenberg suggests, of the ways in which sketchbooks were used in painters’ workshops.

            Leonardo seldom used entries in his note-books as the starting points for the practical realisation of artistic projects: the fragmentary naure of the manuscripts must, Zwijnenberg contends, have had some other functional value for Leonardo, in initiating the process of giving form to, and elaborating, his ideas and thoughts about science and art.

            In chapter 1, on ‘Rhetoric’, Zwijnenberg associates the ways in which Leonardo used his notebooks with conventional rhetoric notebook techniques. He notes the critical importance of Quintilian’s notebook technique for Renaissance writers generally, and that Leonardo’s writings on the paragone were in particular based on the tradition of epideictic rhetoric. Guided by Ciceronian principles of argument and rhetorical freedom, Leonardo made his notebooks ‘open spaces’ in which earlier notes might stimulate new insights and unexpected ‘bright ideas’. The physical activities of writing and drawing, Zwijnenberg suggests, played an independent and integral role in Leonardo’s intellectual process: ‘Incessant drawing and writing were the activities that enabled him to capture the infinite complexity of the world in images and words... in order to understand it’.

            Zwijnenberg investigates Leonardo’s under-standing of the role of the hand in writing and in art production, developing the link (if only an ‘evocative’ one) previously proposed between Leonardo and the early quattrocento philosopher Nicholas Cusanus. In his De ludo globi Cusanus contends that ‘every man is free to think whatever he wants’, and Zwijnenberg relates this to Leonardo’s freedom of hand and mind in his innovatory drawing practice. ‘For Leonardo, a thought became a real thought... only after it had been noted down. Thinking needed the hand... without writing and drawing no science is possible’. Analysing the Vitruvian Man drawing, Zwijnenberg shows that ‘word and image are not elements with independent significance. Rather, in and through their graphic involvement with each other meaning is evoked that is not present in either of these elements alone’.

            In chapter 5, Zwijnenberg considers Leonardo’s contribution to the development of linear perspective. In MS A, in around 1492, Leonardo had taken perspective theory further than had Leon Battista Alberti, so that ‘the emotional and rhetorical aspects of linear perspective are clearly present in the Last Supper.’ Because of its capacity to impose visual order, perspective enabled Leonardo to fuse ‘two fundamental ways of looking at the world — the synoptic and the micrologic’. Leonardo’s reconciliation of these ways of seeing is best presented in his anatomical studies, which are analysed in chapter 6. In this field of his work, the writings and drawings do for once show ‘systematic and detailed’ ordering. The late anatomical drawings in particular show Leonardo developing a ‘static aspect of order’, alongside the dynamic quality of texts serving ‘as starting points for new thoughts and ideas’ that characterises the bulk of his notebook pages.

            Zwijnenberg concludes that ‘the discrepancy between Leonardo’s great number of texts and drawings and the small number of works resulting from these is connected with his manner of thought and action... Only continual drawing and writing... made him capable of acquiring knowledge of the sort that, in his view, could do justice to the complexities of nature’. In this book, which approaches Leonardo’s work and thought from the standpoint of a philosopher, Zwijnenberg shows how Leonardo used his notebooks to keep his mind ever on the move. This unusual and stimulating discussion does indeed reveal much about Leonardo’s methods of thought, and about his techniques of recording his observations of nature in both text and image.

            The publishers, Cambridge University Press, are offering Robert Zwijnenberg’s important book to members of the Leonardo da Vinci Society at a 20% discounted price of £ 28.00. Please order your copy on the green form included with this issue of the Newsletter.


‘The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance engineers’


An exhibition with this title is on view at the Science Museum, London, until 24 April 2000. J.V. Field writes: This exhibition has been organised and designed by the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza of Florence. It follows on from the Leonardo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (London) in 1989 and the exhibition on Renaissance engineering held in Siena in 1991. Both these exhibitions were hugely successful, in scholarly terms and in attracting a large public. It is fitting that they should have a successor, which uses some material from each, and will find a permanent home in Italy in 2002. The exhibition has already been seen in Florence, Paris and New York. After leaving London it will move to Stockholm and Munich and then to Japan.

            It is perhaps inevitable that the catalogue cover should feature a reconstruction of Leonardo’s flying machine, looking science fictional as ever. But the exhibition starts with the dome of Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi did a good stage management job on site, but credit should go to the organisers for providing excellent photographs and models. The cutaway of Brunelleschi’s dome is echoed in the final exhibit, a model of a domed church based on one of Leonardo’s sketches.

            I am an inveterate non-reader of labels, much inclined to treat any exhibition as an art show. In this case, my comparison was with this year’s Venice Biennale, and I am happy to report that models based on drawings by Taccola, Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio and Leonardo measured up very well as sculpture - with the additional fun of there being little metal models with handles to turn (though alas so well-engineered that there was no clunking sound). Further discouragement from reading the labels was provided by enlarged photographs of the original drawings displayed on the walls. Many of these are of independent interest as works of art.

            The juxtaposition of primary sources (the drawings) with the models made from them was revealing. One could see very easily that in many models the modelmaker had introduced changes. Occasionally these were to the structure, as in Francesco di Giorgio’s machine for raising a column, where the support for the capital had been altered in a way that avoided a snag for large columns but introduced possible mechanical weaknesses. Moreover, some features designed to minimise the effect of the mechanical failure of one part had been removed. Having worked in a museum, I can assure my readers that the craftsmen who make working models or reconstructions frequently suggest such modifications. Creativity by craftsmen, based on their own experience, was probably what Francesco expected of his own workmen. Most commonly the twentieth-century changes were to gearing. In some of the large wooden models, the drawings had been interpreted in a way that pushed them towards impracticality. For instance, crown wheels had been given excessively long peg teeth (which in use would be subject to more torque and would thus be more liable to shear off). For a mud extracting machine, also by Francesco di Giorgio, we have just such a crown wheel engaging a lantern pinion with long wooden spokes. I felt I could hear the workmen’s comments: ‘right bit of clockmakery, turns fine, but what about it taking load, them gears’ll bust soon as shovel meets mud’. I noticed with no surprise that the metal model whose handle I was allowed to turn had gearing of a much more robust design (which I think could not have been scaled up for use in the real machine in Francesco’s time). In fact many of the metal models, designed to withstand actual use in the exhibition, had gears that were different from those of the wooden models. Some of the wooden models have electric motors attached, but they are not subjected to continuous use.

            Most of Leonardo’s machines appeared less impressive than the earlier ones, and one noticed the same type of modifications had been made in constructing working models. Thus here too one was given an interesting insight into the relation between the drawings and a working object, a clear reminder that we are in the world of creative extensions of rule of thumb not rigorous preliminary calculations and precise engineering drawings.

            Leonardo was allowed to steal the show at the very end, with the elegant polished wood model of the domed church, its chapels clustering round like bubbles, and with some anatomical drawings (‘the body is a machine’), including that powerful memento mori, his drawing of a human skull, partly sectioned. Maybe it was only an accident that the photograph had made it life-size.

            This exhibition will do fine as art. And it also has interesting things to say about Renaissance engineering. You are strongly advised to see it. The bibliographical information for the catalogue, which is thoroughly scholarly, very informative and beautifully illustrated, is: Galluzzi, Paolo,  The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance Engineers, trans. M. Mandelbaum, M. Gorman, L. Otten and K. Singleton, Florence: Giunti, 1999 (Original Italian edition 1996), pp. 252, illus., bibl.; ISBN 88-09-01482-0. Further information may be found on the websit:



Leonardo’s Horse is unveiled in Milan


In what will presumably be the final chapter of the saga of ‘Leonardo’s Horse’, on many stages of which we have reported in this Newsletter, the full-scale bronze cast was given a ‘Buon Viaggio’ gala send-off on 26 June, and thanks to the generosity of Alitalia its seven sections were flown from the USA to Milan, where they arrived on 11 July. Meanwhile, after several months of further debate it was finally decided to erect the Horse not in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco, where Leonardo’s own clay model was installed at the time that it was destroyed by the invading French crossbowmen, nor in the Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, the site intended by Lodovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, for Leonardo’s equestrian monument to his father. Rather, perhaps appropriately, the site chosen is the Ippodromo del Galappo race-course at San Siro on the outskirts of the city.

            Another alternative that had been considered was the piazza outside the Museo della Scienza e della Technica, whose collection includes a number of models constructed on the basis of technical and mechanical drawings by Leonardo, but this proposal was apparently not favoured by the American donors. A fourth was Malpensa Airport, proposed because it is one of the principal approaches to the city, so that the Horse would have served the same function of greeting visitors arriving at Milan by air as does the Statue of Liberty greeting those arriving at New York by sea. However, the Horse was unveiled on 10 September, exactly 500 years after the destruction of its forerunner, at San Siro in an area that has been designated by the comune as a ‘cultural park’. A second casting has been installed at the Meijer Sculpture Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI, to ‘serve as a constant reminder in [the USA] of Leonardo’s genius and Charles Dent’s dream’ (The Scribe: Journal of Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc., IX/3, July 1999, p.3). The LDVHI web site may be visited on >http://www.leonardoshorse.org<.


The Leonardo da Vinci Society


website: >http://giorgio.hart.bbk.ac.uk/davinci/<


            President: Dr J.V. Field, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD;

e-mail: jv.field@hart.bbk.ac.uk

            Vice-President and editor of the Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter: Professor Francis Ames-Lewis, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD; tel.: 020.7631.6108; fax: 020.7631.6107;

e-mail: f.ames-lewis@hart.bbk.ac.uk

            Secretary/Treasurer: Dr Thomas Frangen-berg, Department of Art History, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK;  tel.: 01533 522522;  fax: 01533 522220;

e-mail: tf6@leicester.ac.uk