Decoding Leonardo

With a spate of suggested new attributions and a theme park devoted to his work, Leonardo da Vinci remains a source of speculation, mystery, and popular appeal.

In Parc Leonardo da Vinci, a re-creation of the artist’s design for a machine to scoop up and carry water.


Ever a source of fascination and speculation, Leonardo da Vinci has been much in the news in recent months. Last December, a curator at the Louvre announced that he had found three sketches possibly by the hand of the master on the back of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, completed by Leonardo around 1510. In March an Italian science journalist claimed to have discovered a self-portrait of Leonardo as a young man in the artist’s Codex on the Flight of Birds. And April saw a flurry of Leonardo finds: a terra-cotta bust, possibly of Saint Jerome, went on display in Florence with a tentative ascription to the master; an Italian scholar claimed to have found a portrait of him in a stained-glass window in Arezzo; and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta announced that it was attributing two small silver figures from an altar panel for the Baptistery in Florence, previously thought to be wholly the work of Andrea del Verrocchio, to the young genius, then still in his 20s and toiling as a workshop apprentice.

“I know all about those,” says Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of art history at Oxford University and one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo. “I get bombarded with things on a regular basis, and those are some of the less daft ones. They range from completely insane to somebody who’s claiming the Mona Lisa was painted by Titian. I call them the Leonardo loonies.”

The drawings on the back of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, adds Kemp, are “absolutely fine” but still in need of technical examination. As for the codex portrait, he believes it’s a case of “a journalist pumping up something.” The stained-glass portrait is a possibility, as is the bust of Saint Jerome, though Kemp believes authenticating them will be “much more difficult.”

But the figures from the altar panel, which will be exhibited in October as part of “Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius” at the High, could well be early efforts by the master. “I’ve looked at them as best I could” from high-resolution images, Kemp says, “and my feeling is they have that almost obsessive naturalism that’s characteristic of Leonardo. He never drew anything from a pattern book, as it were.”

The High’s guest curator Gary Radke, Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University, had his eureka moment when he realized that the two figures, a youth with a salver and a turbaned officer, show a greater vigor of expression than the five others in the relief. “Verrocchio’s sense of physiognomy was much more skeletal,” says Radke, who examined the panel after restorers cleaned it. “He favored stylized, repetitive forms. Leonardo demonstrates a greater sense of observation”—particularly in details like epaulets, an asymmetrical haircut, and a flare to the skirt on the back of one figure (which would not even have been visible in the final relief).

Kemp also points to what he terms the “painterly quality” of the figures. “Leonardo always had a sense of how light comes off surfaces.” Verrocchio, on the other hand, “was not particularly interested in the elusive effects of light on things. Even as a painter, he was very sculptural.”

Leonardo was nearing the end of a ten-year apprenticeship with Verrocchio before the relief was completed, in 1478, and because the figures were modeled separately and later inserted into the scene, it’s entirely plausible that the two might have been made by him, Radke says. “He was at the end of a decade in Verrocchio’s workshop. He would have learned everything there was to learn. Four years later we also have evidence that he was applying for a job in Milan and claiming that he was proficient in a variety of mediums.” If the attribution is accepted, the two figures—eight and nine inches tall—would represent the only extant sculptures by Leonardo. Radke said he would have to see the terra-cotta bust in Florence in person before making any comment.

Other claims for the master’s authorship—that he imprinted his own portrait on the Shroud of Turin, for example—rest on shakier ground. But no matter what the occasion or the artifact, the artist whips up more curiosity than any other Renaissance master, or possibly any artist in history. He may be the only artist to have his own “theme park”—still a work in progress in the tiny town of Amboise, France, where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life, from 1516 to 1519.

The Parc Leonardo da Vinci, which opened to the public four years ago, is built around the Château du Clos Lucé, the house King Francis I gave Leonardo after the 64-year-old artist made the 500-mile journey on foot and by mule across the Alps. The bedroom, kitchen, study, and a reception hall are open for visitors (though there are no original works anywhere in the house or on the grounds). Beneath a nearby chapel built for a former queen, Anne of Brittany, is a basement museum dedicated to Leonardo the engineer, and the seven-acre park provides room to explore his inventions. This summer an exhibition devoted to Leonardo’s relationship to French culture will include a re-creation of the famous clockwork lion that could walk, move its head, and open its chest to cast out fleurs-de-lis, the French royal flower. The park has been a hit, attracting 300,000 visitors a year.

No doubt some of the recent Leomania stems from the blockbuster success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Filled with howlers like the notion that Leonardo enjoyed “hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions” (his output was relatively meager and he spent little time in Rome), the book nonetheless sold more than 40 million copies and went on to become a hit movie with Tom Hanks. “I’ve been asked to lecture more on Leonardo and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code than even on Michelangelo,” says William Wallace, a professor of art history at Washington University in Saint Louis, whose biography of Michelangelo will be published in October. Adds Jonathan Nelson, coordinator of the art history department at Syracuse University in Florence, “In my course on the High Renaissance, 100 percent of my students have read The Da Vinci Code and, though they realize the book is a novel, they still think that some of the so-called facts in the book are true, and that’s very dangerous.”

With or without Dan Brown, however, scholars say that the appeal of Leonardo has nothing to do with murdered curators or the Mona Lisa as a self-portrait in drag. “Our fascination still rests with the absolutely spine-tingling, extraordinary quality of the works themselves,” says Kemp. “And like Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe, they are just so damned good they keep engaging different generations.”

Radke believes it’s the riddle of the man himself that continues to enthrall. “One of the reasons people get really excited is that, in spite of the thousands of sheaves of notes and drawings, and in spite of the beautiful works of art, he remains a cipher because he did not for the most part write about himself,” he says. “Every time we find something that is by his hand, we hope that tells us a little more about who he might have been. Unlike Michelangelo, where we’ve got a great deal of surviving correspondence, where we have his poetry, and we sense the struggle in the art, with Leonardo we seem to be in the middle looking out. And we’re looking for that core because we see him seeing the world.

But we’re always asking, ‘Who is the guy? Who is this person that’s making those observations?’ And that is the great mystery of Leonardo.”

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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