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Culture & Religion

Guiding Hands

When you hear the name Leonardo da Vinci you automatically think “Genius” with a capital “G.” Such Genius that he seemingly came from nowhere to walk among us. Science fiction writers love to imagine Leonardo as a brother from another planet or a time-traveling tourist from the future. The High Museum of Art’s exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius (open until February 21, 2010) restores the Genius to his own place and time without diminishing him, as if that were possible. We may stand upon the shoulders of giants such as da Vinci, but da Vinci had shoulders to stand on as well. This exhibition gives names to those guiding hands that helped da Vinci reach his first heights.

Of all the arts that Leonardo mastered, sculpture seems the last one in the list. As Gary M. Radke points out in the catalogue, Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture, much of that is due to the fact that Leonardo’s “sculptural ambitions—sometimes bigger than life, always pushing the limits of expression—largely remained objects of his imagination.” Politics, war, and sometimes just the technical limitations of the time often conspired to keep Leonardo’s sculptures on the drawing board. This exhibition gathers together many of those drawings to recreate the visions in da Vinci’s head that he never got to touch with his own hand.

It’s hard to make us look at an artist such as Leonardo in a new light, but this exhibition manages to do so by approaching all of his art from the perspective of sculpture. The amazing detail and texture of Leonardo’s drapery in his drawings and paintings finds its roots in sculpture. In addition to copying ancient statuary, as most artists of the time did, Leonardo would create his own clay models and then cover them with plaster-dipped rags. After physically arranging the folds with his hands, Leonardo would draw them. “The extraordinary range of grays and subtle transitions” in the drawings made from these models “document and reveal Leonardo’s fine touch,” Radke writes, “as both a modeler and a draftsman, a man for whom the simplest and humblest of materials could reveal a world full of fascinating variety and detail.” Edward Hopper once said that all he wanted to do was paint sunlight falling on a bare wall. You can imagine da Vinci saying the same think of fabric covering the human form.

Leonardo got his start studying under Andrea del Verrocchio, a master sculptor and painter. Donatello, another great sculptor, had just died when Leonardo came to Verrocchio’s workshop around 1464. Verrocchio may have apprenticed with Donatello, but regardless of whether he did or not, both men influenced how young Leonardo saw the world in three dimensions, even when drawing or painting in just two. Another mentor, Bertoldo di Giovanni, a confirmed student of Donatello who specialized in medals and coins, exposed Leonardo to the world of ancient sculpture, coins, and even sarcophagi. Bertoldo showed Leonardo “how to draw inspiration from and expand upon ancient models without being bound by them,” Radke explains. Leonardo unbound drank in all of these sources and soon brewed his own special brand of genius.

A silver sculpture by both da Vinci and Verrocchio shows how Leonardo took from the old while forming the new. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (pictured), one of several scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist done in 1477 or 1478, contains two figures believed to be by the hand of da Vinci—the youth standing to the far left and the second warrior from the right, who stands with his back to us. The catalogue shows in exquisite detail the near three-dimensional modeling of this seeming two-dimensional work. This three-dimensional treatment is the sign of the student surpassing the master, who worked mainly with line and incision to create illusory effects that were satisfactory enough to the purchaser. “Verrrocchio’s example, then, provided the scaffolding for Leonardo’s more detail-oriented and searching observation and rendering,” Radke concludes.

Even da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man looks different when argued as a sculptural drawing of proportions, as Pietro C. Marani does in his essay on the image in relation to a treatise by Leon Battista Alberti. Scholars long dismissed da Vinci’s sculptural interests in light of Leonardo’s own writings attacking the medium, but Martin Kemp, dean of da Vinci studies, explains in his essay how this may be just “verbal sport” on Leonardo’s part—an attempt both to elevate his painting in the eyes of prospective patrons over the sculpture of others as well as a cover-up of his own failures sculptural projects.

One of those “failed” projects—the mammoth equestrian statue now known as the Sforza Horse—comes to life through modern computer technology. Leonardo’s 24-foot-high, 70-ton bronze horse, which was to be cast in a single, daring pouring, graces the exhibition in a fiberglass, steel, and resin reproduction. Andrea Bernardoni’s study of the (not) making of the Sforza Horse demonstrates that even genius sometimes has to wait for the world to catch up. Military demands for bronze foiled Leonardo’s attempts to build even less daring sculptures almost to the end of his days. The bronze horse became Leonardo’s elusive “white whale.”

Just when you think you have Leonardo figured out, you don’t. But rather than make him more magical, Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius and Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture make him more human. We owe a debt to da Vinci, but we must also realize the debt he owed to those who went before him. This important exhibition adds a whole new dimension, not just a third, to the idea of Leonardo the Genius, still with a capital “G.”

[Image: Andrea del Verrocchio (Italian, 1435-1488) and Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519), Beheading of St. John the Baptist, from the altar of the Baptistery with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, 1477-1478 (payments until 1483), silver, 12 1/8 x 16 ½ inches. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Photo: Antonio Quattrone, 2009. Courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.]

[Many thanks to The High Museum of Art for providing me with the image above and to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture.]


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