I’m often amazed at how serendipity flows through life. This past April, I traveled to Europe to attend the Salone del Mobile in Milan and The Decorative Fair in London, never imagining my tale of these two cities would intertwine within one blog post given the furnishings in Milan were as modern as modern can be and the wares in London were anything but. In the end, it wasn’t design that intermingled them; it was literary history, as is often the case with me, and a man named Leonardo da Vinci.
The Anecdotal Leonardo da Vinci
While in Milan, I had the opportunity to visit Leonardo 1452-1519 at the Palazzo Reale, an exhibition devoted to the genius of the Renaissance artist and inventor. It was interesting to walk through the historical design of the palace hung with tapestrie , an Italian architectural gem on my way to see a painting I have always wanted to experience in person. Titled Leda, the composition in the exhibition wasn’t the original work by da Vinci—his version has been lost—but it is said to be the most similar extant copy of the master’s composition.
The fact that Leonardo didn’t paint the Leda on view didn’t diminish its importance in my eyes because the composition has always appealed to me regardless who created it. I sat on a bench for quite some time taking in the fact that a painting I had admired from afar for so long was right in front of me, and I was glad I was seeing it in the palace because there was something more personal about the experience than seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, the main reason being the exhibition space is a built environment tucked into the more grandly scaled rooms of the palazzo, making the experience more intimate.
Intimate is the word I have always used to describe this particular work but seeing it in person makes me realize it has a stronger presence than that. The way Zeus, in the form of a swan, is embracing Leda, his giant wing curving amorously along the arc of her hip and thigh as babies look on from the scattered broken shells of the eggs they have eclipsed, is much more explicit up close. It’s lustful to the point that it felt as if those of us viewing the painting had happened upon a seductive moment not meant for our eyes. This added carnal quality reaffirmed why the painting has remained one of my favorite mythological renderings since I first came across it decades ago—Zeus did have his way with the woman, after all! Like all of the works gathered within the exhibition, it was powerful as an individual piece and quite stunning included within the collected whole.
I left the museum feeling as if an electrical current was sizzling through me so I decided to have lunch at the quiet café tucked into the palace to process all I had seen. It was a beautiful spring afternoon so I dined al fresco while going through the press dossier the museum staff had given me in order to learn as much as I could about the works I’d just seen. Of more than 100 artifacts and artworks on view, only a small percentage of the paintings were actually da Vinci’s, which made me wonder why so few of his works were included in such an important survey of what is known to be a deluge of accomplishment during his lifetime. I knew the museum wouldn’t have been able to pull everything attributed to him, but aren’t there more of da Vinci’s paintings at their disposal than this? I questioned. I would find the answer in London three days later.
I never pass up a chance to duck into a bookstore, and my first day walking around Chelsea was no different. While I was combing the shelves of a bookseller on Kings Road, I came across a small book containing three of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists—one of them Leonardo’s. Vasari offered a more entertaining view of da Vinci than any other biographer I’ve read. He paints a picture of a quick-minded savant who didn’t have the patience to finish many of the things he began and such an experimenter that many of his projects were doomed to fail due to his use of unproven materials he wished to explore.
A Passionate Leonardo da Vinci
The quirky details in the profile had me laughing aloud, unexpected considering how seriously I view the legacy of this mental giant. The story about da Vinci’s quest to fashion a dragon he could use as a model for a painting, which he’d concocted by combining the body parts of lizards and insects he’d chopped up and reconfigured, concludes with the fact that it took him so long to complete the painting the stench emitting from the dead animals in his studio was unbearable to most visitors, an odor he’d hardly noticed because he was so involved in the creative process!
Another anecdote “paints” him in an equally passionate light: “I must mention another habit of Leonardo’s,” Vasari wrote: “he was always fascinated when he saw a man of striking appearance, with a strange head of hair or beard; and anyone who attracted him he would follow about all day long and end up seeing so clearly in his mind’s eye that when he got home he could draw him as if he were standing there in the flesh.”
Given the presumed self-portrait of da Vinci (above), I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a creepy experience to be scrutinized by this ur-stalker skulking around corners and ducking behind pilasters! These weren’t the only anecdotes that brought the painter to life and I highly recommend the tiny book, which also includes portraits of Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli, as a great summer read to tuck into your beach bag. Vasari’s more comprehensive version, which features 200-years worth of Italian artists stretching back into time from his era, is also available in paperback but it is substantially heavier to lug to your favorite spot on the sand.
Back to the theme of why many of da Vinci’s works didn’t survive, Vasari explains that one of the artist’s greatest assets—his dedication to refinement—was also his biggest downfall: “…the reason he failed was because he endeavored to add excellence to excellence and perfection to perfection. As our Petrarch has said, the design outran the performance.”
Though Vasari lamented the percentage of works that were not completed or hadn’t survived, he makes it clear that, in his eyes, the quality of those which did are unparalleled in their brilliance. Speaking about seeing The Last Supper for the first time, for instance, Vasari said, “The texture of the very cloth on the table is counterfeited so cunningly that the linen itself could not look more realistic.”
Among my favorite artifacts in the exhibition were da Vinci’s sketches surrounded by his scrawling handwriting in the pages of his notebooks, his brand of journaling exhilarating to see in person. I wish I could have been the stalker during his time when he became so fascinated with the swans in the moat around Milan’s Castello Sforzesco that he was said to have spent hours there sketching them as he worked out the composition for his version of the Leda painting, which he did finish but was last seen in the French royal chateau at Fontainebleau in 1625, a gem of the Baroque Era.
The creator of the version I saw in the exhibition can only be surmised—an attractive young Milanese “servant” of da Vinci’s who Vasari mentions, perhaps? His name was Salai and he was known to have replicated a number of the maestro’s works as a way to learn. “Leonardo taught Salai a great deal about painting,” Vasari stated, “and some of the works in Milan which are attributed to him were retouched by Leonardo.”
Or perhaps not, I thought as I left the café, regretting that history can’t always be written the way we’d like it to be, as it would have been remarkable if all of da Vinci’s art had survived whether completed or not.
The last of Vasari’s anecdotes that I’ll share today offers a glimpse into the painter’s hospitable nature. He contends the model for the Mona Lisa seems so alive because da Vinci hired singers, musicians and jesters to entertain the subject as she posed for him. Considering her famous smile is so demure, I have to wonder if the jesters were really worth the added expense! Vasari raves about the dubious grin: “the lips appeared to be living flesh rather than paint.” And of her realness, he notes, “On looking closely at the pit of her throat one could swear that the pulses were beating.”
Da Vinci’s Notebooks
I’ve been making my way through the published version of da Vinci’s notebooks since I returned from Europe, not nearly all of the pages that he left to the world but enough of them, and one of my favorite sections is the master’s thoughts about the difference between poetry and painting:
The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature; and the ear is the second, which acquires dignity by hearing of the things the eye has seen. If you, historians, or poets, or mathematicians had not seen things with your eyes you could not report of them in writing. And if you, O poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness and less tedious to be understood. And if you call painting dumb poetry, the painter may call poetry blind painting.”
Brilliant, isn’t it?
Leonardo’s writings are comprised of some 4,000 pieces of paper, and they cover subjects as diverse as architecture and planning, inventions, perspective and visual perception, and the physical sciences and astronomy. If you want to see some of these observations in person within the exhibition in Milan, you’d best hurry—it closes next Sunday, July 19, 2015. Leda is one of those pieces of art that I’d give anything to live with day-to-day so I’m including this entry in my Living With Art series.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this Literary Design Adventure © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by