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Leonardo: “The laws of the Italian Renaissance, and the geometry of universal beauty”.

A profound savant and an incomparable creator, Leonardo was the only artist in the history of mankind who has delved into the most radiant beauty and who has united the science of Aristotle with the art of Phidias.

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The text below is the excerpt of the book Leonardo Da Vinci, written by Eugène Müntz, published by Parkstone International.

In Leonardo da Vinci we have the perfect embodiment of the modern intellect, the highest expression of the marriage of art and science: the thinker, the poet, the wizard whose fascination is unrivalled. Studying his art, in its incomparable variety, we find in his very caprices, to use Edgar Quinet’s happy phrase with a slight modification, “the laws of the Italian Renaissance, and the geometry of universal beauty”.

It is true, unhappily, that setting aside his few completed works – the Virgin of the Rocks, the Last Supper, the Saint Anne, and the Mona Lisa – Leonardo’s achievements as painter and sculptor are mainly presented to us in marvellous fragments. It is to his drawings we must turn to understand all the tenderness of his heart, all the wealth of his imagination. To his drawings, therefore, we must first call attention.

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Leonardo da Vinci Self-portrait younger years

Two periods of human life seem to have specially fixed Leonardo’s attention: adolescence and old age; childhood and maturity had less interest for him. He has left us a whole series of adolescent types, some dreamy, some ardent.

In all modern art, I can think of no creations so free, superb, spontaneous, in a word, divine, to oppose to the marvels of antiquity. Thanks to the genius of Leonardo, these figures, winged, diaphanous, yet true in the highest sense, evoke a region of perfection to which it is their mission to transport us. Let us take two heads that make a pair in the Louvre; unless I am mistaken, they illustrate Classic Beauty, and the Beauty of the Renaissance period. The first represents a youth with a profile pure and correct as that of a Greek cameo, his neck bare, his long, artistically curled hair bound with a wreath of laurel. The second has the same type, but it is treated in the Italian manner, with greater vigour and animation; the hair is covered by a small cap, set daintily on the head; about the shoulders there are indications of a doublet, buttoned to the throat; the curls fall in natural, untrained locks. Who cannot see in these two heads the contrast between classic art, an art essentially ideal and devoted to form, and modern art, freer, more spontaneous, more living.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Self-Portrait, c. 1512. Red chalk on paper, 33.3 x 21.3 cm. Biblioteca Reale, Turin.

When he depicted maturity, Leonardo displayed vigour, energy, an implacable determination; his ideal was a man like an oak tree. Such is the person in profile in the Royal Library at Windsor, whose massive features are so firmly modelled. This drawing should be compared with the other of the same head, at an earlier age.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498. Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498. Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm.
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Old age in its turn passes before us in all its diverse aspects of majesty or decrepitude. Some faces are reduced to the mere bony substructure; in others, we note the deterioration of the features; the hooked nose, the chin drawn up to the mouth, the relaxed muscles, the bald head. Foremost among these types is the master’s self-portrait; a powerful head with piercing eyes under puckered eyelids, a mocking mouth, almost bitter in expression, a delicate, well-proportioned nose, long hair, and a long disordered beard; the whole suggestive of the magus, not to say the magician.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (La Joconde), 1503-1506.
Öl auf Pappelholz, 77 x 53 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

If we turn to smiles. his evocations of the feminine ideal, the same freshness and variety delight us here. His women are now candid, now enigmatic, now proud, now tender, their eyes misty with languor, or brilliant with indefinable Yet, like Donatello, he was one of those exceptionally great artists in whose life the love of woman seems to have played no part. While Eros showered his arrows all around the master in the epicurean world of the Renaissance; while Giorgione and Raphael died victims of passions too fervently reciprocated; while Andrea del Sarto sacrificed his honour for the love of his capricious wife, Lucrezia Fedi; while Michelangelo, the sombre misanthrope, cherished an affection no less ardent than respectful for Vittoria Colonna, Leonardo, in contrast, consecrated himself without reserve to art and science, and soared above all human weaknesses, the delights of the mind sufficing him. He proclaimed it in plain terms: “Fair humanity passes, but art endures” (Cosa bella mortal passa e non arte).

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