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Leonardo Da Vinci!

By (April 8, 2014) No Comment

penguin leonardoOur book today is Kenneth Clark’s slim 1939 monograph Leonardo Da Vinci, here presented in the very pretty 1989 Penguin reprint in an extra-sized paperback with loads of illustrations. The old Pelican mass market paperback of the book also had loads of illustrations, mind you, but for binding reasons they were all lumped together in the middle of the volume rather than scattered through the text popping up as they’re being discussed. I’ve mentioned before how much I like these larger, illustrated paperbacks when they’re done well, and this Penguin volume is done really well – until a holographic version comes along in which readers can feel like they’re walking around looking at these masterpieces while having Lord Clark’s narrative read to them by John Glover (extra points to anybody who can trace the labyrinth of that Steve-connection correctly), this will probably stand as the best presentation possible of this little book.

Of course, the little book would be equally good even if there were no illustrations at all. Clark was a great explainer, a fine, lively writer on his chosen subject of art and art history. He comes to one of the pinnacles of art and art history, the always-problematic legacy of Leonardo Da Vinci, with a formidably bristling amount of learning at his fingertips, and even his most casual-seeming observations therefore get the leetle grey cells working – as when he thinks for a moment why Leonardo wasn’t more highly prized by the most famous art patron of his day:

Nor is there anything surprising in the fact that Lorenzo de’ Medici allowed him to leave Florence, for, although an enlightened patron of literature, Lorenzo took small interest in art, and cannot be given credit for commissioning any of the great paintings of his day. It is, perhaps, surprising that later, when Leonardo’s real greatness was established, Lorenzo made no effort to bring him back to Florence. And this, I think, can only be due to the lack of sympathy which existed between Leonardo and the Medicean circle. He was essentially a scientist and mathematician; the Mediceans were of course Platonists to an almost religious ardour.

He then starts quoting Latin, God help us all, but he soon settles himself down and resumes talking about the artist and his work, and it’s the acute lady with erminediscussions of individual works that I find myself re-reading the most in this book. I love how pointed and fresh Clark manages to be, especially when dealing with the much-vexed Da Vincean question of attribution. When it comes to the “Portrait of Cecelia Gallerani,” for example (the “lady with the ermine” to us groundlings), he finds the proof to be in the rodent:

The hand shows an understanding of anatomical structure and a power of particularization none of Leonardo’s pupils possessed. But most convincing of all is the beast. The modelling of its head is a miracle; we can feel the structure of the skull, the quality of the skin, the lie of the fur. None but Leonardo could have conveyed its stoatish character, sleek, predatory, alert, yet with a kind of heraldic dignity.

Actually, the sheer familiarity of so many of Leonardo’s small array of surviving works presents a problem in itself for the docent and explicator, and Clark sums it up well when he comes to discuss “The Last Supper”:

How can we criticize a work which we have all known from childhood? We have come to regard Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ more as a work of nature than a work of man, and we no more think of questioning its shape than we should question the shape of the British Isles on the map. Before such a picture the difficulty is not so much to analyze our feelings as to have any feelings at all.

mona lisaThat’s extremely well put, and Clark gets around it by delving immediately into the specifics of composition and workmanship that were always his first love. And if over-familiarity was a problem with “The Last Supper,” we can just imagine how much bigger a problem it is for the single most famous painting ever made, what Clark refers to as “the submarine goddess of the Louvre” – the Mona Lisa, whose likeness and parodies are known everywhere, to everybody, and have been for centuries? Clark quotes the tantalizing passage where Vasari describes seeing the work back when it was just an astonishing painting, and here our guide, no doubt thinking of bulletproof plate-glass and harsh, antiseptic ceiling lights, gets a bit wistful:

How exquisitely lovely the Mona Lisa must have been when Vasari saw her; for of course his description of her fresh rosy colouring must be perfectly accurate. She is beautiful enough even now, heaven knows, if we could see her properly. Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing the Mona Lisa taken down, out of the deep well in which she hangs, and carried to the light will remember the wonderful transformation that takes place. The presence that rises before one, so much larger and more majestical than one had imagined, is no longer a diver in deep seas. In the sunshine something of the warm life which Vasari admired comes back to her, and tinges her cheeks and lips, and we lucy reading leonardocan understand how he saw her as being primarily a masterpiece of naturalism.

I’ve actually seen the Mona Lisa outside of its “deep well” – in fact, I’ve seen it in the bright, direct sunlight, and I can attest to the near-miraculous transformation Clark describes here: it becomes almost a different painting.

But something of that perspective-shift happens all throughout this book even while you’re sitting on your reading-couch: you start to see these great and familiar works a bit differently, and it’s a very nice experience. Great explainers have that gift; they can take something you thought you knew – or thought you didn’t care to know – and make it vital and immediate. Many dozens of Leonardo Da Vinci books have appeared since this one, but I don’t know many of them that can manage even for a few paragraphs what Lord Clark does so effortlessly throughout the whole thing. And this bigger, more ornate paperback (a recent find at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course!) seems more fitting somehow to so visual a subject. It was a joy to read it again.