BooksWeekend

For the Love of Leonardo

A slew of new books rethinks the Renaissance in general and Leonardo da Vinci in particular.

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, “The Baptism of Christ” (1472-75), oil on wood, 177 x 151 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (image via Web Gallery of Art)

Fans of the Renaissance rarely lack for new reasons to rejoice. If blockbuster exhibitions like the recent Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at The Met, or last year’s special show of Bellini’s landscapes at The Getty, aren’t making their skin crawl with anxiousness and delight, then it’s the magically rediscovered hand of a much beloved master, in a work long not considered to have been executed by that hand, that quickens their pulse — even when certain such revised attributions seem a bit specious.

Regarding the latter matter, aggravated doubt and dissension are bound to set the heart racing just like dramatically demonstrated conviction, making the debate surrounding last year’s “Salvator Mundi” (ca 1500) revelation-cum-controversy at Christie’s a rather cardio-Formula-One-some affair. If you happen to be one of those captivated onlookers in the auction house’s very Abramovic-ian promotional video gaping, gawking, gazing, or weeping as you behold the so-called “last da Vinci,” then I must excuse myself for chuckling at your expense. This is not because I’m convinced that the whole thing was a hoax, but I am convinced that the painting itself and the supporting evidence offered are not convincing enough to decisively convince us. And to be clear, I find no humor at all in the act of looking at art leading to the shedding of tears. I’ve shed more than a fair share of them doing the same. That Christie’s video, however, is ridiculous.

So my heart raced about “Salvator Mundi” as well, even if I’m not persuaded that the work itself lives up to its billing. I feel rather the same about a more recent attribution by which surely many fans of Renaissance painting have been similarly intrigued, namely that of “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (1479) which, as reported here in Hyperallergic by Claire Voon, was long considered a work by Lorenzo di Credi, but is now attributed to Leonardo as well. If this story didn’t cross your radar, it is likely because, since it’s the property of the Worcester Art Museum, it’s not being hyper-promoted by an auction house for the enticement of an extraordinarily art-loving royal, for example, who might just happen to have half a billion dollars to spare.

Leonard da Vinci, detail of angel from Andrea del Verrocchio, “The Baptism of Christ” (1472–75), oil on wood, 177 x 151 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (image via Web Gallery of Art)

While the justifications for the new attribution in this case are again not entirely convincing, the lesser fanfare of it all does make the scholarly evidence here seem less dubious. That said, what initially troubled me most about this case is that I understood it to be, or to soon become, a fully revised attribution — that is, that the official attribution would, according to new evidence that conservators feel points to Leonardo as the primary painter of the work, shift from Lorenzo to Leonardo.* Instead, as several sources at or affiliated with the Worcester Museum have pointed out, it seems that the current dual attribution to both artists, Lorenzo and Leonardo, will stand.

As such, what I perceived to be a missed opportunity to celebrate the virtues of a dual attribution appears to represent, instead, precisely that, which I feel is a bolder, more intriguing way to move forward in just such cases.

I say this for a number of reasons, and with full awareness that there are plenty of motives to keep attributions to just one name, and to prefer greater masters over lesser ones. I also understand that, in instances where the ‘greater master’ is preferred over the ‘lesser’ one, eventual museum labels might well go into further particulars about who worked on which parts or stages.

What Leonardo scholars have known for a long time, and what several of the books reviewed below illustrate very clearly, is that multiple artists worked on most all of the paintings and other works that were produced in busy studios like Andrea del Verrocchio’s. With regard to the predella panel at the Worcester Art Museum, the researchers and curators seem to know with considerable certainty that both Leonardo and Lorenzo worked on it at various stages over time.

I realize that dual attributions are neither completely novel nor revolutionary. Indeed, we already find attributions in quite a range: single attributions, anonymous attributions, attributions to faux names like Il Maestro della Maddalena, and attributions to entire scuole or botteghe, e.g. Scuola Toscana or Studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. There are some multiple-name attributions out there as well, including one to both Verrocchio and Leonardo for “The Baptism of Christ” (1472-75), and now the dual attribution of “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” at the Worcester Art Museum.

As many of the studies out there on Verrocchio and Leonardo — not to mention all the studies out there of other artists who directed or apprenticed in similarly star-studded studios — have attested, it’s likely that even more than just a couple of artists played at least some role in the production of significant commissions, even if only at the level of panel preparation, drawing-transfers, imprimatura and maybe some initial color layering. Perugino and Botticelli worked in Verrocchio’s studio as well, so although panel preparation or similarly early painting stages aren’t likely to leave identifiable traces, it’s awfully compelling to imagine that one of those notable apprentices might also have had a hand in the making of, say, “The Baptism of Christ,” since some scholars see more than two artists at work in that painting.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (ca 1479), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi (courtesy the Worcester Art Museum)

No, I don’t mean to say that the names of those gessoing the panel should also factor into such attributions. What I do mean is that if there is a real and readily describable reason to attribute a work to more than one artist, then granting it more than one name is not only the more honest and in some ways simpler manner of labeling it, but also tremendously more interesting. It offers excellent opportunities for instruction for all viewers, from those who know quite a lot about the involved artists to those who don’t — and to underscore how the idea of single-author artworks changed and developed over time, and how important workshops like Verrocchio’s used to operate, and how much more involved the ‘simple’ practice of making a painting used to be.

One might even go a step further to imagine that multiple attributions are what many artists might’ve preferred. So famous for his vanity concerning his work and reputation, Leonardo in particular might not have wanted his name featured as the primary author of a ‘lesser’ work.

If single-attribution traditions were modified such that more researchers, curators and restorers began to seek out works to re-attribute to multiple names — is there a Botticelli out there that has a fair share of Perugino’s hand in it, or vice-versa? — then the opportunities for special exhibitions of multiple-master masterpieces, all featuring revisited or furthered attributions, become intriguing indeed. This would also give ample opportunity for non-expert lovers of certain artists to become more familiar with and appreciate the ‘lesser’ artists they worked for or alongside, or who ended up working for them. This seems to be the partial intent of the current exhibition at The Worcester Art Museum.

Deepening, enriching and extending the contemporary dialogue of art history, or rather art histories is something that’s difficult to find fault with. Might there be a work by the Baroque artist Orazio Gentileschi, for example, that features an angel or landscape that was in fact painted by his extraordinarily talented daughter, Artemisia? That’s clearly taking the notion beyond the scope of the Renaissance, but that is also the point. The same or very similar workshop model was common well before the Renaissance and well after. Many of the most notable artists of the Mannerist and Baroque periods worked for, with, and alongside one another too.

And now the thought of a series of works newly labeled as by both Pontormo and Bronzino, for instance, has captivated me such that I should stop imagining how possible that might be.

(image via Amazon)

But enough about attributions. Renaissance lovers might also have their hearts’ ardors stoked by a number of recent and forthcoming books. Regarding Leonardo alone, more than a few new titles have appeared in the past year or so. Most notable among them is Leonardo: A Restless Genius by Antonio Forcellino, which was published in Italy a couple years ago and just this month became available in English, courtesy Lucinda Byatt’s overall very fine translation. Forcellino’s book is outstanding not merely because of the extent to which he incorporates a wealth of new insights on and research pertaining to Leonardo’s life at all stages, and to the constantly roiling social and political climate in which the artist lived and worked, but also because of the profundity of detail he so ably provides to lure readers deep beneath the surfaces of Leonardo’s works — paintings, unfinished paintings, and drawings alike. Where he does so thematically or allegorically as an art historian might not always shed novel light on matters of interpretation, but his prose and pacing are by and large so casually gripping that those details are no less irresistible than the true gifts he provides his readers — punctilious, scrutinizing descriptions of process and materials. This is where Forcellino’s book truly shines, and where his work as a restorer of artworks informs his analysis in penetrating ways, allowing readers to feel that they’re learning key aspects of the secrets of the trade.

Forcellino’s eye for particulars isn’t limited to process and materials. His manner of leaving no stone unturned, as it were, leads him to analyze stones geologically and metaphorically by way of talking about Leonardo’s passions for perfection and scrupulously scientific research, for example, and to note that Leonardo’s childhood access to plentiful paper scraps and ink was far from normal at the time for a poor, illegitimate, unschooled boy living somewhat freely with his uncle in the countryside. The paper and ink lingered about because Leonardo’s father, who lived elsewhere with his ‘legitimate’ family, was a notary. In a way, young Leonardo taught himself about the world around him by drawing it, and it was his drawings that caught his uncle’s eye, and his father’s eye, and later Verrocchio’s, well, occhio. Those drawings almost shouldn’t have existed even materially, but exist they did, and Leonardo’s practice of drawing and note-taking on paper became one of his greatest assets and modes of exploration. Forcellino portrays a Leonardo who more or less remains, from the cradle to the grave, weird, fortunate, driven, and brilliant, but also flawed on plenty of fronts — a ‘restless genius’ with a restless soul.

(image via Amazon)

Walter Isaacson offers a very similar Leonardo in his beautifully produced, deeply researched Leonardo da Vinci, which also appeared last year. It’s an exceptional book for its enormous scope, thorough contextualization, wonderful images, and relatively quick clip of its prose, and for the way in which it breaks down and reconstructs Leonardo’s almost peculiarly boundless creativity and inventiveness. When it comes to technical particulars of artworks, however, and knowing descriptions of process, Isaacson, whose other lengthy biographies include books on Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, doesn’t quite measure up to Forcellino, who has also written biographies of Michelangelo and Raphael. Still, Isaacson’s estimable volume will not disappoint.

I would say precisely the opposite about Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Mike Lankford, which also came out last year. There is essentially nothing to recommend about this book. Lankford’s claim to analyze aspects of Leonardo’s life that others have left unexamined — because, according to Lankford, they didn’t want to soil the image of the great Renaissance genius — is fundamentally false. Lankford is hardly the first biographer to discuss Leonardo’s homosexuality, sodomy charges, and probable physical rapport with his young assistant Salai, and he’s not the only biographer addressing it all anew. The several other Leonardo books discussed here do so as well. Moreover, what really makes Lankford’s book so particularly bad is the constantly conjectural, uselessly rhetorical, and often redundant quality of his prose, which in effect has almost no quality to it at all — from his “Reader Beware” segment at the beginning to the prefatory note to his endnotes. Although the book’s sequencing and chapter titles are cleverly concocted, and although the many timelines featured are full of compelling if not always very relevant events — and although it’s imaginable that some readers might find Lankford’s flippantly slangy prose style bearable for a few pages — I remain baffled that Melville House published this almost completely insufferable volume. Lankford’s earlier book, however, a memoir about the author touring around the US as a drummer in a blues band, is supposed to be pretty good. Go figure.

Niccolò dell’Arca, “Mourning of the Marias over the Dead Christ” (1462–63, detail), terra-cotta with traces of polychromy, Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna (image via Web Gallery of Art)

On a very different critical note, there are several other Renaissance-related titles to keep an eye out for. Richard Stemp’s The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art does an impressive job of living up to its ambitious title. Textbook-like with splendid layouts, and brimming with stunning reproductions and informative graphic interventions, this book is a treasure for fans of the Renaissance, for sure, but also for instructors of art history. It might not exactly be full of newly revelatory information on every page, but its themed sections display a great deal of meticulous detail and creative scholarship. In addition, the artworks Stemp chooses to portray his points are not always the most obvious ones. Readers are as likely to encounter works with which they’re familiar as they are to be introduced to artists and works that are new to them, all of which makes the images and Stemp’s analysis all the more interesting. To note just a few examples, Stemp features “Portrait of Luca Pacioli” (1495) by Jacopo de’ Barberi for the section “Sacred Geometry”; “Portrait of Andrea Odoni” (1527) by Lorenzo Lotto for the section “Old & New”; and in one of his most brilliant selections, a subsection for “Emotional Extremes” is illustrated by “Lamentation” (ca 1463), a spectacular group of terra-cotta sculptures by Niccolò dell’Arca. Also, given the era and geographical region in question, imagine how many Renaissance works might be fitting for scrutinizing analysis in a section titled “Gesture & Body Language.” What’s so splendid about Stemp’s choice here is that one of the image’s most allegorically crucial gestures is a shared one between Saint Francis of Assisi and a compunctious wolf.

It’s hard to be a fan of the Renaissance without also being a fan of Giorgio Vasari, if not for his art then at least for his major importance as an art historian, so a brand new book you might want to look out for is The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art, by Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney. That’s out now, as is Martin Kemp’s new Leonardo biography, Living With Leonardo. Coming later this year is yet another Leonardo title, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, by Laurence Kanter. Kanter is one of the art historians involved with the Worcester Art Museum attribution discussed above, so it’s sure to provide plenty of additional material related to the authorship of that work and many another.

It might be a stretch to say that the Renaissance is having something of a rebirth, but there certainly is a great deal of new or renewed Renaissance interest and discourse of late. And maybe some of it has gotten fans’ hearts racing. If so, then their engines won’t cool anytime soon. Next year is the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, and special exhibitions are being planned in a number of museums. The presumed biggest blockbuster of them all will be at the Louvre in Paris next fall.

And it will feature the “Salvator Mundi.” Bring your most winning gaze and plenty of tissues.

* I stated differently the status of this particular attribution in a previous version of this article. Apologies to the Worcester Art Museum for any inconvenience, and to Hyperallergic readers for any misunderstandings. — P.D.

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