In Leonardo da Vinci, we have the perfect embodiment of the modern intellect, the highestexpression 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”.
No artist was ever so absorbed as he, on the one hand by the search after truth, on the other, by the pursuit of an ideal that should satisfy the exquisite delicacy of his taste. No one ever made fewer sacrifices to perishable emotions. In the five thousand sheets of manuscript he left us, never once does he mention a woman’s name, except to note, with the dryness of a professed naturalist, some trait that has struck him in her person: “Giovannina has a fantastic face; she is in the hospital, at Santa Catarina.” This is typical of his tantalising brevity.
From the very first, we are struck by the care with which Leonardo chose his models. He was no advocate for the frank acceptance of nature as such, beautiful or ugly, interesting or insignificant. For months together he applied himself to the discovery of some remarkable specimen of humanity. When once he had laid hands on this Phoenix, we know from the portrait of the Gioconda with what tenacity he set to work to reproduce it. It is regrettable that he should not have shown the same ardour in the pursuit of feminine types, really beautiful and sympathetic, seductive or radiant, that he showed in that of types of youths and old men, or of types verging on caricature.
It would have been so interesting to have had, even in a series of sketches, a whole iconography by his hand, in addition to the three or four masterpieces on which he concentrated his powers; the unknown Princess of the Ambrosiana, Isabella d’Este, the Belle Ferronière, and the Gioconda. How was it that all the great women of the Italian Renaissance did not aspire to be immortalised by that magic brush? Leonardo’s subtlety and penetration marked him out as the interpreter par excellence of woman; no other could have fixed her features and analysed her character with a like comeliness of delicacy and distinction.
Yet, strange to say, by some curious and violent revulsion, the artist who had celebrated woman in such exquisite transcriptions took pleasure in noting the extremes of deformity in the sex whose most precious apanage is beauty. In a word, the man of science came into conflict with the artist; to types delicious in their youthful freshness, he opposes the heads of shrews and imbeciles, every variety of repulsive distortion. It would almost seem – to borrow an idea from Champfleury – as if he sought to indemnify himself for having idealised so much in his pictures. “The Italian master,” adds Champfleury, “has treated womankind more harshly than the professed caricaturists, for most of these, while pursuing man with their sarcasms, seem to protest their love for the beautiful by respecting woman.”
As a sculptor, Leonardo distinguished himself by the revival and the recreation – after Verrocchio and after Donatello – of the monumental treatment of the horse.
Painter and sculptor, Leonardo was also a poet, and not among the least of these. He is, indeed, pre-eminently a poet; first of all, in his pictures, which evoke a whole world of delicious impressions; and secondly, in his prose writings, notably in his Trattato della Pittura, which has only lately been given to the world in its integrity. When he consented to silence the analytic faculty so strongly developed in him, his imagination took flight with incomparable freedom and exuberance. In default of that professional skill, which degenerates too easily into routine, we find emotion, fancy, wealth, and originality of images – qualities that also count for much. If Leonardo knows nothing of current formulae, of winged and striking words, of the art of condensation, he acts upon us by some indwelling charm, by some magic outburst of genius.
The thinker and the moralist are allied to the poet. Leonardo’s aphorisms and maxims form a veritable treasury of Italian wisdom at the time of the Renaissance. They are instinctive with an evangelic gentleness, an infinite sweetness and serenity. At one time, he advises us to neglect studies, the results of which die with us; at another, he declares that he who wishes to become rich in a day, runs the risk of being hanged in a year. The eloquence of certain other thoughts is only equalled by their profundity: “Where there is most feeling, there will also be most suffering”, and “Tears come from the heart, not from the brain.” It is the physiologist who speaks, but what thinker would not have been proud of this admirable definition?
The man of science, in his turn, demands our homage. It is no longer a secret to anyone that Leonardo was a savant of the highest order; that he discovered twenty laws, a single one of which has sufficed for the glory of his successors. What am I saying? He invented the very method of modern science, and his latest biographer, Séailles, has justly shown in him to be the true precursor of Bacon. The names of certain men of genius, Archimedes, Christopher Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo, Harvey, Pascal, Newton, Lavoisier, and Cuvier are associated with discoveries of greater renown. Nevertheless, is there one who united such a multitude of innate gifts, who brought a curiosity so passionate, an ardour so penetrating to bear on such various branches of knowledge?
Or who had such illuminating flashes of genius, and such an intuition of the unknown links connecting things capable of being harmonised? Had his writings been published, they would have advanced the march of science by a whole century. We cannot sufficiently deplore his modesty, or the sort of horror he had of printing. Whereas a scribbler like his friend Fra Luca Pacioli comes before the public with several volumes in fine type, Leonardo, either by pride or timidity, never published a single line…
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