Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter
editor: Francis Ames-Lewis
Issue 23, November 2004
Recent and forthcoming events
Annual Lecture 2004
The Society’s Annual Lecture for 2004 was held, thanks to the Courtauld Institute’s generous co-operation, in the Institute’s Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, on Thursday 17 June 2004. It was given by Marina Wallace (Central St Martin’s) and Cecilia Frosinini (Florence, Opificio delle Pietre Dure), who spoke about the two principal planks of the activities of the Universal Leonardo Project. Marina Wallace outlined the early history and the ambitions of the project. It has evolved out of an initial approach by Bill Gates, the current owner of the Codex Leicester, concerning future exhibitions around the Codex. Now established at the Innovations Centre of Central St Martin’s, the Universal Leonardo Bureau is funded by a Council of Europe grant. The first field of activity is a series of exhibitions to be held in a number of centres in Europe around holdings of works by Leonardo da Vinci. The principle is that the works of art remain in their holding institutions, while the viewing public travel to see the exhibitions; it is therefore intended that arrangements will be made for such a tour. Exhibitions are in plan for autumn 2006 in London (Victoria & Albert Museum), Oxford, Munich, Florence and Milan. A website will be set up for further dissemination of the exhibitions, their catalogues and other information resulting from them.
Before handing over to Cecilia Frosinini, Marina Wallace introduced Michael Stocking, of Armadillo, who demonstrated the results of work he has been doing with the British Library on methods for showing Leonardo notebooks on computer. A remarkable piece of software has been designed which incorporates a touch-screen page-turning mechanism, a magnifying glass for closer scrutiny, and a mirror to assist with reading Leonardo’s left-handed writing. Cecilia Frosinini spoke about the techniques and methods that have been developed by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence for the extensive, non-invasive scientific examination of Leonardo’s paintings. The ambition of this project is to take round to all the paintings (twenty-seven are included on the list) a single set of testing equipment so that an identical series of tests can be carried out, in order to eliminate variables created by different pieces of equipment in different institutions’ scientific laboratories.
The pilot study has been completed on a version, now in a private collection, of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Cecilia Frosinini demonstrated some of the spectacular results that have been achieved for this painting by the scientists of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Perhaps the most impressive results, which have enormous potential for future study of Leonardo’s painting practice, are those achieved with Infra-red reflectography (IRR). This technique can reveal much evidence of Leonardo’s underdrawings, the modifications he made at that stage of work, the use of cartoons, and the planning of perspective schemes (as for example in the Uffizi Annunciation). It will make possible the comparative study of the underdrawings of copies and replicas produced by the reuse of Leonardo cartoons. The IRR scan for the Madonna of the Yarnwinder shows numerous changes and variations in technique and handling which help to confirm the largely autograph status of the painting. Other equipment that will be exploited by the Opificio’s team of scientists are the laser line scanner, used to document surface condition, the high definition hyper-spectral scanner, for exploring pigment composition, and the CAT scanner, by which the layer by layer construction of Leonardo’s paintings can be charted. It is hoped that the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will soon be able to transport its equipment to St Petersburg, to examine the Leonardo da Vinci panels in the Hermitage.
Leonardo da Vinci Society AGM and Annual Lecture 2005
The AGM and Annual Lecture next year will be held on Friday 20 May; the venue is to be confirmed later. The Annual Lecture will be given by Professor Claire Farago (University of Colorado, Boulder), who will speak about Leonardo’s Trattato della Pittura in its cultural context. The abridging of the text of the Trattato and the redecoration of the Sala del Cinquecento under Vasari must have been simultaneous, or nearly so. This raises new questions about the effacing or erasing of Leonardo’s conceptual approach to painting. Full details of the venue, timing and title of the lecture will be circulated with the AGM papers.
In their Acknowledgements the editors of this book, one a current member of the Leonardo da Vinci Society’s executive committee and the other a former Hon Secretary/Treasurer, warmly thank the Leonardo da Vinci Society. Surprisingly however, nowhere is it observed that the book is the published outcome of a symposium arranged by the Society with the support of the Society for Renaissance Studies and held at the Warburg Institute on 7 May 1999 (see Newsletter issue 14). Subtitled ‘Essays on the History of the Illustrated Art Book’, this collection of eight papers sets out to show ‘how illustrations have come to play a primary part in books on art and architecture’.
The first six essays consider instances of the illustration of early modern books on art and architecture. Juliana Barone discusses Poussin’s illustrations to the Paris 1651 edition of the digest, in Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270, of Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della Pittura, and contrasts with some of these the engravings after sketches by Stefano della Bella that illustrated the 1792 edition of the Trattato published in Florence. Della Bella’s sketches are closer in style to Leonardo’s, but nevertheless ‘the crucial importance of the visual image in Leonardo’s Trattato was never fully respected by the editors of the printed editions’. Sharon Gregory analyses the woodcut portraits of Renaissance artists made after drawings by Giorgio Vasari to illustrate the 1568 edition of his Lives. These are the earliest images used in a book devoted to biographies of artists, and it is evident that they were intended ‘to provide insight into the character and social standing of the depicted artists’.
Vaughan Hart discusses the previously unpublished trial woodcuts made to illustrate Sebastiano Serlio’s Sixth Book, on domestic architecture, in which for the first time in architectural treatises the illustrations were intended to be printed on the right side of an opening facing the related text on the left. He shows that Serlio ‘was more free to express his architectural imagination in his book illustrations’ than in his designs for commissioned buildings. Robert Tavernor’s paper focuses on the illustrations in Daniele Barbaro’s 1556 edition of Vitruvius, the majority of which are attributed to Palladio, and in Palladio’s own I quattro Libri dell’Architettura (1570). The ‘new balance of word and image’ in Palladio’s treatise which ‘combined clarity and beauty of representation with brevity of textual description’ (as opposed to the lengthy descriptions of Serlio) was achieved in part as a result of his collaboration with Barbaro on the 1556 Vitruvius.
Thomas Frangenberg studies the interrelation of text and plates in one of the most lavishly illustrated books published in seventeenth-century Rome, Girolamo Teti’s 1642 Aedes Barberinae ad Quirinalem... descriptae, ‘through which the reader... is given access to [Pietro da] Cortona’s work’ on the ceiling of the Palazzo Barberini Salone. Teti himself described his book as a ‘second building’ to stand in for a visit to the Palazzo Barberini: its propagandistic function is emphasised by the ‘beauty and majesty’ of the high-quality fold-out engravings that reproduce Pietro da Cortona’s frescoes. Rodney Palmer’s paper discusses Andrea Pozzo’s Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum, published in Rome between 1693 and 1700: here Pozzo’s ‘dual role as designer for the engravings and author ensured the coherence... between image and text’, and the book had significant importance for ‘the development of art and architecture in Europe and further afield’.
The last two essays in the collection consider aspects of the use of photography in more recent illustrated art books. Anthony Hamber sets ‘illustrated books on Italian and other early modern art in the broader context of nineteenth-century photographic publishing’. He focuses on J. Charles Robinson’s illustrated books on parts of the collections of the South Kensington (now Victoria & Albert) Museum, launched in 1859 and illustrated with albumen prints. Finally Valerie Holman suggests that ‘the inclusion of copious reproductions has been the defining characteristic of the art book from the 1960s on; but ‘photography’s relationship to the extant imagery from which it derives is no less mediated [and] problematic’ than the woodcuts and engravings considered in earlier essays. As Rodney Palmer observes in his Introduction, the essays published in this book ‘tackle issues that have hardly ever been addressed but are important since illustrated books are a major factor in the dissemination of artistic ideas’.
The Rise of the Image, eds Rodney Palmer and Thomas Frangenberg, Aldershot (Ashgate), 2003. xv + 274 pp., 70 b/w plates. ISBN 0 7546 0559 0.
Rodney Palmer writes: This volume contains the papers read at the Leonardo da Vinci Society’s symposium ‘Poetry on Art’, convened by Thomas Frangenberg and held at the Warburg Institute on 12 June 1998. The editorial aim is to document some of the insights art history can glean from the study of poetry. As Frangenberg writes in his Introduction, men and women ‘resorted to poetry more than to any other literary genre’ when commenting on works of art; just one reason why poetry is put forward as ‘one of the most illuminating gauges of contemporary … attitudes towards the visual arts’.
Papers deriving from those given at the Society’s symposium in June 1998 are: Giovanna Perini on poems by Bolognese painters from the Renaissance to the late Baroque; Paul Holberton on Giorgione’s Self-Portrait as David as a paragone demonstration; Franćois Quiviger on Agnolo Bronzino’s Capitolo del pennello; Mary Rogers on the chapter in Veronica Franco’s poetical account of the Villa della Torre at Fumane; Charles Ford on poetry as one of the ingredients in Karel van Mander’s Het Schilderboeck; Henry Keazor on Pierre Le Moyne’s Poussin Sonnet of 1643; and Thomas Frangenberg on the book of poems celebrating Gian Domenico Cerrini’s decoration of the dome of S. Maria della Vittoria. Further essays commissioned especially for this volume are: Wolf-Dietrich Löhr on poetical texts in books held by sitters for portraits by Andrea Del Sarto and by Bronzino; Tomaso Montanari on unpublished poems about Bernini’s ‘Maraviglioso Composto’, and Alison Yarrington and Nigel Wood on British Romantic poetry and sculptural form – with particular attention to Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold on the Capitoline Museum.
Readers interested principally in Leonardo will enjoy Holberton’s essay. Holberton’s point of departure is a passage from the Codex Urbinas in which Leonardo contrasts the factual painting with wordy poetry. Having established Giorgione’s interest in paragone debates, Holberton argues that Giorgione’s Laura’ was also intended to function in the terms of a paragone … as a challenge to poetry’. Together, the essays trace key developments in poetry on art in the Italian Renaissance and European post-Renaissance.
Poetry on Art: Renaissance to Romanticism, ed. Thomas Frangenberg, Donington (Shaun Tyas), 2003. ix + 235 pp., 51 b/w plates, ISBN 900 289 56 3.
Two new books on Leonardo da Vinci
Martin Kemp, Leonardo, Oxford (OUP) 2004 ISBN 0-19-280546-0, £14.99
Charles Nicholl, Leonardo da Vinci: the Flights of the Mind London (Allen Lane), £25.00), ISBN 0-713-99493-2, £25.00
Caroline Brooke (Birkbeck College) writes: In his compact little book Martin Kemp draws on his considerable knowledge and experience of Leonardo da Vinci and his work in order to investigate the creative processes of the artist’s mind. For Kemp, it is Leonardo’s drawings that best illustrate these processes, and he argues his case with great clarity and insight through a range of carefully chosen and illustrated examples. Paintings are not discussed at length, but a useful, illustrated appendix or ‘Gallery’ of all works attributed to the artist has been included for reference.
Kemp begins his analysis by emphasising the primacy of sight for Leonardo, pointing out how he limited his investigations to the ‘tangible facts of the physical world as perceived through the senses.’ For Leonardo, ‘to see’ necessitated ‘to understand’ and drawing was the primary method of investigation of the visual appearance of forms. In this succinct analysis, Kemp demonstrates how through the act of drawing, Leonardo investigated an almost infinite variety of natural phenomena, which he viewed as the results or effects of ‘a limited range of causes’ found in nature. In his notebooks, he explored the ways in which a series of underlying principles appeared to govern all natural forms. Systems of proportion were found to underlie forms as diverse as the human body, the structure of trees, rivers and architecture. The motion of human hair and the swirling waters of swollen rivers were seen as disparate symptoms of the same inexplicable natural forces. From this unique vision of all things in nature as interconnected arose the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, where the human body in particular could be seen as analogous to the wider world. The silting up of rivers provides a basis for understanding the effects of ageing on the circulatory system and the subsequent blocking of arteries. According to Kemp, Leonardo’s drawings and paintings can be seen as manifestations of this all-encompassing natural philosophy; works as disparate in type as the celebrated flying machine or the Mona Lisa, can all be seen as the visual effects of ‘causes’ or ‘remakings of nature’.
Kemp’s exploration of the dominant themes of Leonardo’s drawings is sandwiched between two chapters that consider the artist in the broader sense. He begins by providing a summary of Leonardo’s career, based solely on the evidence as it stands, and concludes with a consideration of the ways in which the artist’s reputation has grown to enormous proportions over the years since his death. This serves to illustrate the extent of the anomaly between how little is known about the material circumstances of Leonardo’s life and the scale of the legend that lives on today. In the quest to resolve this strange enigma, Kemp’s return to and analysis of Leonardo’s drawings, which he sees as the best and most revealing source of evidence, provides a useful framework for attempting to understand the artist and the extent of his reputation. In seeking to identify the ‘underlying causes’ behind Leonardo’s art it is an approach that nicely echoes Leonardo’s own thought processes.
Kemp’s work is also important in that it provides a corrective view of the ‘renaissance genius’ by highlighting the extent to which Leonardo’s thinking was conditioned by the intellectual and philosophical traditions of his own time. He points out that what makes Leonardo unique is the unparalleled creativity and extraordinary breadth of his all-encompassing vision which ‘allow every generation to make of him what they will.’ It is perhaps also these aspects of his work that ensure his enduring appeal.
Charles Nicholl embarks on a very different quest in search of the persona of the artist. In this substantial volume, Nicholl draws on an impressive range of sources, including contemporary and posthumous accounts which he wisely treats with a good deal of caution, in an endeavour to trace the course and events of Leonardo da Vinci’s life. Historical research has been combined with a painstaking reading of Leonardo’s copious notes in order not only to piece together the poorly documented events of his life and career, but also to provide insights into the workings of his mind. Even the minutiae of Leonardo’s daily existence are considered as potentially revealing. Nicholl sets out to draw the reader in by pointing out one such seemingly incidental detail found on a sheet of complex geometrical notes, where Leonardo breaks unexpectedly with an abrupt ‘etcetera’, because, in his own words, ‘the soup is getting cold’: the quest is at once intriguing. What is the true nature of the man who lies behind the familiar image of Leonardo the ‘bearded sage,’ as seen in his so-called self-portrait in Turin?
Undaunted by the lack of documentary evidence, Nicholl leaps over the all-too-numerous gaps in our knowledge of Leonardo’s life with vivid imaginings of places, people and events, to produce an almost seamless blend of fact and fiction. Leonardo’s departure from Florence sometime in 1482 (according to Nicholl), his subsequent arrival in Milan and his later three-year sojourn in Rome are amongst many of the events described in the book for which little documentation exists, but which come to life through the power of Nicholl’s imagination. Thankfully the writer is aware of the inherent dangers of such an approach and tempers his enthusiasm by conceding the all-too-often-speculative nature of his more imaginative discourses.
One of the most interesting and ambitious aspects of Nicholl’s work is his attempt to give personae to some of the little-known members of Leonardo’s constantly changing entourage. An entire section is dedicated to a little-known character called Zoroastro (Tommaso di Giovanni Masini) – vegetarian, jester, magician and engineer. Nicholl’s fascination with this character is manifest in Zoroastro’s repeated appearances in the writer’s account of Leonardo’s life, at times without documentary authority. We appear to be on slightly firmer ground with the light-fingered Salaď (Giovanni Giacomo di Pietro Caprotti), whose wayward behaviour is noted by Leonardo on more than one occasion. But while Leonardo’s lavish expenditure on Salai, and his appearance as a beneficiary in his master’s will, might be seen as evidence of Leonardo’s affection for his young assistant, the nature of such relationships between Leonardo and those around him remains eusive. In his enthusiasm to get to the heart of this aspect of his subject, Nicholl is at times prone to his own ‘flights of mind,’ and his rather implausible forays into the realm of Freudian analysis are amongst the least convincing digressions in the text that do little to enhance the integrity of the work.
Nonetheless, there is much in this book that renders it a valuable contribution to the study of Leonardo – not least in that it manages to highlight the importance of the lesser-known aspects of the artist’s life and career. Leonardo’s activities as a consultant engineer for important patrons such as the Venetian state and Cesare Borgia, and his role as choreographer of spectacles and theatrical designer at the Sforza court, are all creative enterprises in which Leonardo was keenly involved, but for which little evidence exists today. The book is also a valuable source of reference, containing numerous quotes from the sources and from Leonardo’s notes. Documents such the correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Fra Pietro da Novellara, her agent in Florence, regarding her fruitless quest for a painting by Leonardo are included. A wealth of information is provided regarding artistic practices during the period and the subsequent fortunes of Leonardo’s paintings after his death, together with succinct accounts of the current state of research regarding the artist’s surviving paintings. Thoroughly referenced, with a comprehensive bibliography, and beautifully illustrated with colour plates and black and white reproductions of drawings throughout, this is a book that no student or scholar of Leonardo should be without.
Art as Institution: Leonardo da Vinci's Abridged Treatise on Painting, c. 1560-1900. A study in the history of reception
Claire Farago (University of Colorado, Boulder) writes: Since the conference on the fortuna of Leonardo's Trattato held on September 13 and 14, 2001, at the Warburg Institute, London, work on the modern critical edition of the abridged treatise published in 1651, and its historical reception, has continued to make progress. This is the first update on the project since Rodney Palmer reported on the conference in this Newsletter in November 2001.
Funding from the Getty Research Institute concluded in June 2003. By that time, project co-director Thomas Frangenberg and I had autopsied the most relevant pre-publication manuscripts in Florence. This fieldwork enabled us to corroborate our working hypothesis that Carlo Pedretti’s genealogy of the manuscripts does not fully explain the process of transmission and circulation of Leonardo’s ideas in manuscript form from 1560 to 1585. The number of editorial interventions in orthography and syntax, for example, is enormous, suggesting that each copyist made decisions based on his own needs. Francesca Fiorani, a specialist on Ignazio Danti, the mathematician and editor of perspective treatises who was definitely involved in producing some of these early copies, was able to join us for several days in Florence to compare two intriguing manuscripts. These bind together in a single volume Danti’s pre-publication text for his edition of Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola’s Le due Regole della prospettiva practica and Leonardo’s abridged treatise on painting. Intriguingly, the subjects and their sequence in a bound volume recall the first two parts of Alberti’s treatise on painting (1435) on which both Leonardo’s writings and later academic theory depend substantially.
We invited Professor Fiorani to join us in the investigation, particularly to make sense of the complex evidence internal to the important early manuscript copies. She has since received a generous grant from the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at her home institution the University of Virginia, that will enable us to compare the text and illustrations of relevant pre-publication manuscripts electronically. The as-yet-unidentified compilers of the abridged Trattato systematically deleted Leonardo’s expansive praise of the imagination and reduced his scientific observations significantly in length and complexity, thus transforming a theoretical, self-reflexive work into a prescriptive handbook for training novices. IATH is in the early stages of helping us identify patterns, consistency, and alterations in the text and images, thus providing the groundwork for the detailed interpretation, beyond the scope of a word-by-word comparison conducted by hand, that the variations among the early manuscript copies demand.
Other experts have also joined the project: Professor Carlo Vecce, a leading philological authority on Leonardo’s manuscripts, and his assistant Anna Sconza are providing a transcription and parts of the critical apparatus comparing the printed 1651 Italian text with the Codex Urbinas, as well as with extant sources in Leonardo’s holograph writings. Professor Zygmunt Wazbinski is investigating the cultural milieu of mid-sixteenth-century Florentine humanists and their contacts elsewhere, based on his extensive familiarity with archival sources, especially correspondence related to the Accademia fiorentina and the Accademia del disegno, to help to identify the actual editors and/or the aims of their work.
The case studies of the historical reception of the Trattato in various institutional and national settings have continued to grow in number since 2001 as we learn of ongoing research projects by dissertation students and other scholars. In addition to the project directors, the twenty-six confirmed contributors to the volume on the historical reception of the Trattato prior to 1900 are: Juliana Barone, Janis Bell, Chrysa Damianaki-Romano, Marcin Fabianski, Frank Fehrenbach, J. V. Field, Francesca Fiorani, Kaari Frilander, Caroline Heck, Martin Kemp, Thomas Kirchner, Michael Kwakkelstein, Javier Navarro de Zuvillaga, Geoff Quilley, Polly Maguire Robison, Stella Rudolph, Paola Salvi, Catherine Soussloff, Donatella Sparti, Zygmunt Wazbinski, Thijs Westein, Thomas Willette, Richard Woodfield, and Michael Zimmermann.
The Warburg Institute, of the School for Advanced Studies at the University of London, plans to publish the study. We are primarily investigating the institutionalization of art in Europe and beyond for nearly four centuries through the chief text that laid the foundation for and contributed to the success of academies of art – institutions that not only guaranteed a high intellectual level of artistic training, but also facilitated the state’s control over, and use of, the visual arts. We invite advanced scholars working on the Trattato and its historical reception to contact us.
BIL : Bibliografia internazionale leonardiana on CD-Rom
We have received a copy of the CD-Rom if the new on-line catalogue of the Biblioteca Communale Leonardiana at Vinci. This database includes both records of all works held in the Biblioteca at Vinci, and systematic updates of the bibliographical repertory of works by and on Leonardo da Vinci. Edited by the Biblioteca Leonardiana, the CD-Rom holds bibliographical records of works published in Italy and abroad; it is complete up to May 2003. It is one part of the on-line archive if the International Bibliography of Vinciana. This includes also the catalogue of the Biblioteca’s Centre for Research and Documentation for Studies on Leonardo; a growing reference section on the sources of Leonardo’s works, on the Renaissance in general, and on the history of technology, science and art; some collections of books and letters by scholars of Leonardo and related fields; the catalogue of the material held until 1989 by the Ente Raccolta Vinciana of Milan, and of the Carlo Viganė colection of Vinciana held at the Universitą Cattolica del Sacro Cuore at Brescia; and the bibliographical records of the best-known holdings of Leonardo literature which are integrated and updated by the Biblioteca’s researchers abd scholarly collaborators. The complete on-line database of the International Bibliography of Vinciana may be found on the Biblioteca Leonardiana’s website at http://www.bibliotecaleonardiana.it.
Lettura Vinciana XLIV : Professor Carlo Pedretti on ‘Le macchie di Leonardo’
The forty-fourth annual Lettura Vinciana was delivered at the Biblioteca Communale Leonardiana on 17 April 2004 by Carlo Pedretti For his fourth contribution to the series annually delivered at Vinci, Preofessor Pedretti spoke on ‘Le macchie di Leonardo’ – ‘Leonardo’s stains’. This is a reference to Leonardo’s celebrated niote that Botticelli had once said that ‘by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape. He was indeed right that in such a stain various inventions are to be seen. I say that a man may seek out in such a stain heads of men, various animals, battles, rocks, seas, clouds, woods and other similar things’. The lecture has been published by the Biblioteca Leonarfdiana, in association with Giunti editore, Firenze-Milano 2004 (ISBN 88-09-03761-8), and this publication includes appendices devoted to related pictorial practices in the work of Goya and Segantini, and a brief note on Mornadi and Leonardo’s Trattato. Proferssor Pedretti’s wide-ranging lecture opened with discussion of the critical fortune of the notion of Leonardo’s in enlightenment Europe, focussing on Alexander Cozens’ A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (London 1785). There follows a section on the ‘invented’ landscapes of Leonardo, in relation to his further advice to painters that ‘if you look at any walls soiled with a variety of stains... when you have to invent some location, you will therein be able to see a resemblance to various landscapes graced with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and hills in many combinations’. The third section of the lecture is devoted to ‘stains and clouds in literature, art and psychoanalysis’. Professor Pedretti discusses and illustrates an extraordinary series of ‘stain’ drawings in ink and watercolour made around 1875 by the novelist Victor Hugo. These anticipate the celebrated Rorschach test blots, which were themselves inspired by Leonardo’s writings on stains. The lecture ends with a quotation from Benedetto Croce, who wrote in an essaay on Leonardo filosofo (1910) that ‘from a fantastic stain... was born the harmonious grouping of the figures in the Louvre Sant’Anna, or the Gioconda’s smile’.
Notes for publication in the Newsletter
Stephen Grenier [<email@example.com>] writes: First, I have recently joined the Leonardo da Vinci Society and should like to make contact with other members interested in the iconography of Leonardo’s paintings and of those of the painters who influenced him. I am particularly interested in the Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. Second, I wish to advance an artist’s view of the Universal Leonardo Project. In principle I am in favour of anything that contributes to our understanding of Leonardo da Vinci and his work, in matters of science or art. All the same, as a painter myself, there are some points I should like to raise. The Universal Leonardo Project involves scientific examinations of all the works that are, wholly or in part, ascribed to Leonardo. The examinations will use infrared, ultraviolet and X-radiation, and scanning electron microscopy. My question as a painter is ‘Would Leonardo da Vinci himself agree to this?’ I am consequently attempting to speak on his behalf, saying what I would say if my own paintings were involved. My queries and comments [and responses that the Newsletter has obtained from the scientist and conservator Libby Sheldon (University College, London)] are as follows:
SG: Has it been proved that the examinations you propose will not harm the pictures?
LS: This cannot be definitively proved one way or the other, but no evidence of any harm done to any painting through scientific examination has yet been discovered or published. X-ray and other examinations damage human cells and soft tissue, but paintings are almost entirely inorganic and not susceptible to damage in the way that organic matter is.
SG: After five centuries, Leonardo’s paintings are very fragile.
LS: Fragile, yes; but no more fragile than many others. Had they been more so, their special fragility would have shown up within the first fifty years of their existence rather than in the next 450-plus years. Like other paintings, Leonardo’s would only become increasingly fragile if subjected to changes in environmental conditions such as humidity.
SG: Are you sure that the radiation to which the examinations will expose them will not accelerate ageing, increase the fragility of the paint or change the colours?
LS: Paintings have been the subject of X-ray and other analysis since the 1930s: no evidence of harm has surfaced. It must be remembered that the radiation lasts for a microsecond, not for any extensive period of time.
SG: Might the damage caused not appear until later?
LS: Since no known damage has been caused to paintings already examined, or would be caused to Leonardo’s paintings under the Project’s examinations, no such damage could appear later.
SG: Is it more important to know how many layers of varnish Leonardo used on his pictures than to make sure they are properly conserved?
LS: We can be confident that paintings as valuable as Leonardo’s are always properly conserved. Varnish layers may themselves be damaging to the painting, and yellowing or cracking varnish layers distort the image of the painting that we receive. There are almost certain to be later layers of varnish on Leonardo’s paintings: it would be valuable to know how many later additions of varnish there have been and if they are causing any harm. However, ultra-violet examination can tell us how thick the varnish layer is but not how many layers there are: this can only be ascertained by invasive techniques such as paint-layer cross-section analysis.
SG: Can you give cast-iron guarantees about this?
LS: No, cast-iron guarantees cannot be given, but the overwhelming weight of evidence is that these tests are perfectly safe.
SG: I am not sure that Leonardo would have expressed himself in exactly these terms but I am sure that is the substance of what he would have said. He would, of course, have been very interested in the scientific investigations. After all, he carried some out himself. But can one really guarantee that the investigations will do no harm? What is the basis for saying so? When I was very young, in the early 1950s, I enjoyed putting my feet into the X-ray machines that shops provided for customers who were trying on shoes. One could see the bones in the foot ... I was fascinated. Was it dangerous? ‘No’, the shop assistants always said ‘That’s a scientific fact’. But all the same we have now known for many years that it was dangerous. No more such machines are found in shops.
LS: To reiterate: X-rays are dangerous and harmful for human tissue, but not for inorganic materials.
SG: A painting is in some respects as fragile as our own bodies. One shudders to think what would happen if sunlight suddenly became a hundred or a thousand times brighter. It may be objected that this is not comparable, but I am not convinced. Should the investigations really be carried out on all Leonardo’s pictures, rather than at first on a few and then, after a few years, if the passage of time showed there had been no ill effect, on a few more?
LS: A large amount of research on the question of the effects of different light levels on paintings has been carried out: to repeat, microsecond exposures show no ill effects. All scientists working on painting analysis are well versed in how much light, and for how long, paintings can bear. Conservators are almost always considerably more cautious on all these questions than are curators or historians. We can be confident that no conservator would allow paintings in his charge to be thus analysed if there were any evidence that the proposed non-invasive tests might put them at risk.
SG: I should like to end by reminding you that as regards the art of painting the essential thing is the beauty of the work. This comes from the surface, animated by the ‘breath of life’ given equally by the technique and the subject and by the perfect balance that unites them.
The Leonardo da Vinci Society
We would always be grateful for suggestions of material, such as forthcoming conferences, symposia and other events, exhibitions, publications and so on, that would be of interest to members of the Society for inclusion in this Newsletter or on the Society’s webpage, which can be visited at <http://giorgio.hart.bbk.ac.uk/davinci/>
President: Dr J.V. Field, School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H.0PD; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vice-President: Professor Francis Ames-Lewis, School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H.0PD; 020.7631.6108; e-mail: email@example.com
Secretary/Treasurer: Dr Tony Mann, School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, Park Row, London SE10 9LS; 020.8331.8709; e-mail: A.Mann@gre.ac.uk
Rodney Palmer, 88 Ifield Road, London SW10.9AD; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Frank A.J.L. James, Royal Institution Centre for the History of Science and Technology, Royal Institution of Great Britain, 21 Albemarle Street, London W1X.4BS; e-mail: email@example.com
Matthew Landrus, Wolfson College, Oxford; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send items for publication to the editor of the Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter, Francis Ames-Lewis, School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD; fax: 020.7631.6107; e-mail: email@example.com