This essay exploring the genius of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
The Bias of Leonardo da Vinci
The debate over poetry and painting as seen through Leonardo da Vinci’s eyes was cut and dried. The quirky genius declared, “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.”
His challenge to those who write was a brash one: “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.”
I walked into the exhibition Leonardo 1452-1519 at the Palazzo Reale in Milan determined to see the art and his writings through this filter. Along with dozens of paintings, row upon row of display cases were filled with notebooks and loose sheets that amounted to more than 4,000 pieces of paper onto which he had poured his creative meanderings. The cabinets contained sketches illuminated by blocks of cursive that explored subjects as diverse as architecture and planning, inventions, perspective and visual perception, and the physical sciences and astronomy.
I had learned from the advance publicity that a painting I had always wanted to see in person was going to be on view. The version of Leda and the Swan was said to be the closest surviving imitation of da Vinci’s, which was last seen in the French royal château at Fontainebleau in 1625, and is considered lost. The studio copy on view, created by Francesco Melzi, is the version of the painting most often reproduced in post-card and poster form now. Melzi was one of da Vinci’s apprentices, though the artist’s biographers claim Melzi was more like a son than a mere studio helpmate. It makes sense that he would have been so intimately involved in da Vinci’s work he could have created a painting with the most likeness to his master’s.
I sat on a bench in the exhibition space for quite some time taking in the suggestively intimate composition. In person, it has a stronger sexual connotation than I had expected. 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, 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 too private for our eyes. This exaggerated carnal quality perfectly represents how commandingly Zeus always had his way with women in so many of the Greek myths, this example of his rampant libido stunning.
Using da Vinci’s premise about the greater power of painting over poetry, I pushed myself to see if I could articulate why the swan was the epitome of sexual tension. Studying his features, I saw it was his half-open beak and slightly squinting eye, not that of a god but of an animal giving in to lust, that defined his demeanor. Juxtaposed against this lasciviousness, Leda seems playfully sweet, smiling like a bemused girl as she demurely averts her gaze. Her cherub-like children have just hatched from shells the same silvered-gray as the swan. Are they gaping at her nudity or am I projecting? I wondered. In that moment, I truly understood da Vinci’s claim that painting could never be considered dumb poetry.
This happened to be the last painting on view but I wasn’t ready to leave. I walked back through the exhibition space to see Leonardo’s sketch Study for the head of Leda, which he drew in 1506 while in Milan. It was one of the many studies he completed as he worked out the composition for his version of the mythological tale. I had trekked to the Castello Sforzesco the day before because one of my favorite stories about da Vinci’s process as he was preparing to compose his version of the painting is how he spent hours drawing the swans gliding atop the water that filled the moat around the castle. The protective barrier is now dry but it’s easy to imagine the height to which the glassine surface would have reached, as it left a demarcation line by discoloring brick on the building.
Because so few of the paintings in the exhibition were actually da Vinci’s, I decided to take the press dossier the museum staff gave me to lunch at the Giacomo Caffé tucked into a corner of the palace. I was shown to a table on the terrace, the warm spring afternoon tempting me to stay for the better part of an hour as I went through the material in order to learn as much as I could about the works I’d just seen. The dossier listing the creators of each painting proved that of more than 100 of the artworks on view, a low percentage was created by da Vinci.
I pulled Giorgio Vasari’s Leonardo da Vinci from my bag because I had a hunch the answer as to why so few of his works have survived would be explained in it, and it was. Vasari wrote that many of the master’s works are not in his oeuvre because he didn’t have the patience to finish many of the projects he started. Da Vinci’s passion for experimentation also doomed him to fail because he used unproven materials he wished to explore, and one quirky story in particular had me chuckling. Da Vinci was keen to fashion a dragon he could use as a model for a painting so he concocted one by combining the body parts of lizards and insects he’d chopped up and reconfigured. It took him so long to complete the composition that the stench emitting from the dead animals in his studio was unbearable to most visitors, an odor he apparently didn’t notice or didn’t mind!
Vasari also says da Vinci’s dedication to refinement was one of his biggest downfalls: “…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 that hadn’t survived, he makes it clear that, in his eyes, the quality of those which are extant are unparalleled in their brilliance. Speaking about the first time he saw The Last Supper, 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.”
I left the café feeling gratitude that da Vinci had forced me to look closely at the give-and-take between poetry and painting, but I felt I was only half-way through the exercise: I had only tested his theory with painting and it was necessary to delve deeper into the debate by way of the poetic if I were to be fair. I chose several of my favorite poems based upon the myth of Leda to see if his premise held. As I digested them, I found myself wishing I could ask the poets who wrote them if they had created the poems after seeing paintings or whether they created them after merely reading the myth. It would make such a difference to know; unfortunately, each of them has passed into the mists of time.
W.B. Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan” opens with a powerful stanza:
“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.”
In “The Morning, Space for Leda,” Dylan Thomas places her at dawn with an interlude for violins. His muscular poem ends:
When Leda, on a toe of down,
Dances a measure with the swan
Who holds her clasped inside his strong, white wings;
And darkness, hand in hand with light,
Is blind with tears too frail to taste.
I am glad I went back to the poetry after seeing the painting because I can now say I don’t agree that the poems are more tedious to understand. Maybe it’s a matter of fortitude. Da Vinci was, first and foremost, a painter and inventor so this was his bias. Perhaps if he had been a poet, he would have taken the opposite stance. What was reaffirmed for me after this exercise is, as with any other subject, it is always about perspective, even for a mind as great as his.
* You can read each of the poems in full by clicking on the links before their poems.
Debating Da Vinci in Milan © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.