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It seems fitting that the current Louvre exhibition has surrounded the Renaissance man who saw himself as a scientist with all the latest in new technologies to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of his death. Although the Mona Lisa is absent from the exhibition (it has remained on view in its usual display case for all to see in the Italian Renaissance galleries of the Louvre), access to the iconic painting is available by dint of a virtual reality headset. In some ways, it’s actually better than viewing the real painting behind its thick bullet-proof glass covering at a distance, usually behind a bustling throng of visitors. You get to see the painting released from its frame. You even get to experience the grain of the poplar wood panel underneath the paint. The VR documentary also showcases da Vinci’s sfumato technique, an approach which involved applying numerous thinned layers of paint that make the transition from light to shadow almost imperceptible. To round off the experience, you get to fly into the ghostly blue mountains that reach far behind the enigmatic sitter.
The virtual reality experience allows you to get as close as you would like to the painting while a soothing voice unpicks its secrets. You learn, for instance, that the reason why the Mona Lisa never travels abroad is that a single journey could be fatal to it. Da Vinci spent the last ten to fifteen years of his life painting it (alongside two other masterpieces) during his final stay in the employ of the French king François I. When he died, Leonardo gave his last three paintings to one of his pupils who promptly sold them at an exorbitant price to the king. François I cherished Leonardo’s work as much as Louis XII had, to the extent that he installed the paintings in his favourite room, his lavishly decorated bathroom.
As you can imagine, years of exposure to hot steam did little to strengthen the poplar panel on which the Mona Lisa is painted. It warped the painting into a permanent convex shape. It is currently so fragile that a split at the back of the wooden panel still threatens to break right through Mona Lisa’s face. Apparently, even a small temperature difference during a trip abroad could snap the whole piece in two. While the lapis lazuli paint underneath is still intact today, the coat of varnish that covers the painting has darkened over time, making the silk veil covering Mona Lisa’s dress seem opaque rather than translucent.
Another novelty in the exhibition’s scientific display apparatus is the widespread recourse to infrared reflectograms, a technique that makes the drawings underneath the painting visible to viewers. Reflectograms pick up on the carbon signatures of the drawings so that you can see the graphite without the overlying coat of paint. This allows the viewer to perceive any pentimenti, changes that Leonardo made to the drawings as he executed the paintings, but it also allows you to see the murkier parts of the paintings, those cast in shadow by the chiaroscuro technique that Leonardo used to such astounding effect. There were reflectograms of all the major paintings that could not be present at the exhibition but also of those on display. The only pity was that the reflectograms weren’t placed side by side with the finished paintings to make comparison easier.
There were a larger number of Leonardo’s scientific drawings and notebooks on display, including Vetruvian Man, probably the most famous drawing in the world. It almost didn’t make it into the exhibition, becoming the object of a polemic, France and Italy being at loggerheads in the current political climate. Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi was supposed to be delivered but hasn’t arrived yet. Another Renaissance version of the painting is on display though; ditto for The Last Supper which was of course impossible to present at the exhibition as it is painted onto a wall in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. (There was a tendency in the Renaissance to place themed works in appropriate places: The Last Supper was deemed ideally suitable for the church canteen. El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ was similarly painted for the ecclesiastical cloakroom of a church in Toledo.)
The French king Louis XII liked The Last Supper so much that he attempted to remove it from the wall of the refectory to bring it back to France. He failed to do so and the mural has remained in its original setting ever since, fading slowly year after year. The technique of fresco painting is something that Leonardo was entirely new to when he began the mural and he quickly discovered it didn’t suit his painstaking, slow-moving approach. To make the fresco adapt to his slow delivery, Leonardo used various chemicals which haven’t aged well. Leonardo’s scientific turn of mind pushed him to experiment relentlessly, proceeding by trial and error. There are errors in his military drawings too, those he drew for Lodovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. Some have argued that these mistakes were put in deliberately so that others would not steal his secrets and take the credit for his inventions. He also wrote from right to left, possibly as a way of perplexing spying eyes.
Although Leonardo is known today mostly for his paintings, historians argue that he was really more of an engineer who liked to paint. He tended to leave his paintings unfinished as soon as the prospect of an engineering position cropped up, leaving the commissioners of his paintings in the lurch. He left his first major commission in Florence unfinished to enter the employ of the Duke of Milan, a man who was mostly keen on waging war.
As a military engineer, Leonardo devised the most brutal military weapons alongside the first known tank, portable bridges and other strategic weaponry. He even invented a monster-sized crossbow that was 27 yards across. It was never built, however, and was probably designed to fire large stones or primitive bombs that would explode on impact.
After Milan, he moved on to Venice and finally back to Florence where he became obsessed by a longing to invent flying machines, hundreds of years before the first engineers devised airplanes. Observing birds, he understood the way their wings worked through flapping but also using subtle feather movements that captured air. His later drawings show a willingness to devise flying machines that attempted to harness the forces of nature: using wind and air, rather than trying to counter the force of gravity.
Although few of his inventions ever saw the light, recent attempts to construct some of his drawings have been fruitful. Leonardo can be credited with having invented the ancestor of both the hand-glider and the helicopter. He also he invented what is called an ornithopter, a machine based on the working of bird wings.
Understandably, the exhibition at the Louvre tends to favour the painter in Leonardo, pointing out that he wanted to elevate painting to the level of the most prestigious sciences. In his day, poetry was placed as highly as mathematics in the hierarchy and there was no real distinction between the sciences and the humanities. Leonardo called painting “the divine science”.
The curators of the exhibition are at pains to emphasize Leonardo’s passion for painting, disqualifying the long-standing idea that Leonardo was interested mostly in conception to the detriment of execution. The small number of paintings attributed to Leonardo (between 15 and 20, according to most contemporary experts) does not reflect a dilettante approach to painting; on the contrary, it shows how slow, meticulous and earnest he was about the technicalities of the art. He often spent several years painting the same picture. The Mona Lisa, for instance, was started circa 1503 and “finished” circa 1517. Some experts argue that he didn’t see it as finished when he died in 1519. He would have agreed with E. M. Forster that a work of art is never finished, it is only abandoned. Most artists would agree in fact. The French painter Gustave Moreau used to add finishing touches to his paintings no less than thirty years after he first “finished” them. Henry James was known to modify the sentences in his published novels when he found copies of them in other people’s homes.
The curators of the exhibition in the Louvre are so keen to emphasize Leonardo’s devotion to painting that they opine that the unfinished paintings (those left half painted with the drawings left apparent) were part of his sprezzatura, his lightness of touch, his rumbustious spirit of endeavour, something which Leonardo called his “componimento inculto”, a sort of intuitive composition that included movement and unfinished sketch-like compositions.
Basing their point on the thousands of drawings and the tumultuous preparatory drawings on the panel of The Adoration of the Magi, the curators argue that Leonardo was an artist who constantly changed his mind, reworking compositions endlessly. But the theory really only works for The Adoration. As the reflectograms show, Leonardo’s other painted compositions vary little from the initial drawings sketched onto the wooden panels that support the paintings. There are a few pentimenti one or two other early paintings, such as The Annunciation or The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, but the other paintings follow the original drawn lines very faithfully, suggesting that Leonardo’s compositional quandaries plagued him mostly at the beginning of his career. He later painted two completed two substantially different versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, but only because his commissioners found the first one problematic on a theological and iconographic level: it was objected that the angel Uriel was pointing at Saint John the Baptist rather than Christ. His commissioners failed to appreciate the compositional originality of the first version (the one in the National Gallery in London): Leonardo used the pointing angel to draw the viewer in to the scene to indicate a model of devotion, Saint John addressing his prayer to Jesus.
Although the componimento inculto theory is enticing, making Leonardo a kind of anticipatory Renaissance Futurist who relied primarily on shifting impulsive intuitions, it’s ultimately more convincing to accept that Leonardo was a perfectionist who never managed to find the time to complete his paintings. He certainly had a whirlwind of swirling ideas on his mind, but he was also a man with no fixed social position at a time when political earthquakes were constantly sending out premonitory cautionary tremors that made Leonardo shift his professional and political allegiances at the drop of a hat. Leonardo was restless and footloose and eager to make a living wage wherever he could find it. He was often pulled away from his paintings by his desire to make it as a military scientist.
Whatever the case may be, the exhibition is certainly very successful in having brought together a large number of his masterpieces, the largest ever gathered: eleven out of around fifteen. It’s actually a world record – even Leonardo never saw that many of his greatest paintings reunited.
The three greatest visual treats on show, as far as I’m concerned, are the Louvre version of The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan and Andrea del Verrocchio’s amazingly beautiful sculpture, Christ and Saint Thomas. Verrocchio was the first major artist that Leonardo came into contact with when he joined his workshop as a very young apprentice. One of the greatest artists of his day, Verrocchio is supposed to have said that he would never paint again when he saw how exquisitely and accurately the young Leonardo had painted the angel on the left of his Baptism of Christ. The Leonardo workshop version of Leda and the Swan brims with erotic energy and playfulness. Its motifs and composition will have you spellbound for minutes. As I moved from masterpiece to masterpiece, I kept wanting to circle back to it.
Erik Martiny teaches literature, art and translation to students at Henri IV in Paris. He writes mostly about art, literature and fashion. His articles can be found in The Times Literary Supplement, The London Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, Whitewall Magazine, Fjords Review, World Literature Today and a number of others.