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January 2003

A Work in Progress
Scholars are arguing over attributions, translating texts, and using scientific tools to learn more about Leonardo's techniques
By Melinda Henneberger

L eonardo da Vinci was far more prolific as a writer than as a painter. He filled stacks of notebooks with observations on his various obsessions—the flow of water, the structure of bird wings—yet his musings are hardly the stuff of the modern memoir, leaving huge gaps in what they reveal of his work and his life. For nearly 500 years, writers from Vasari to Freud have happily tried to fill in the blanks, leaving the artist himself something of a work in progress.

As recently as a century ago, not one of Leonardo’s early paintings had been widely attributed to him. In some instances this was simply because he was thought incapable of making a beginner’s errors, even when he was a beginner. In the popular imagination, Leonardo became not just a genius but the father of all Western science. To safeguard his reputation, historians tended to dismiss the sodomy allegations against him as slander and generally argued against the idea that he was homosexual.

Our Leonardo, not surprisingly, is more human, perhaps a bit less shrouded in sfumato. While his early artistic efforts are now understood for what they are, his scientific contributions are considered less far-reaching these days. Modern scholars say their view takes nothing away from Leonardo but, on the contrary, allows his true accomplishments to come into clearer focus.

"There’s been this fuzz of romantic legend between you and him," says Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford University, a leading scholar in the field. "But if you sweep away the idea that he invented the flying machine and the car, then his role in visual communications looks even more extraordinary."

Today, Leonardo’s homosexuality is generally taken for granted. (In his writings, he does seem to take an obvious interest in the boy Salai, who at age ten came to live with him. And he notes that the male form is not only more beautiful than the female, in the way any ancient Greek would have seen it, but writes explicitly that he is disgusted by women’s sex organs. He argues that the penis, by contrast, is so fine that it is practically a crime against nature to hide it.) In a larger sense, though, Leonardo was not a lover of his fellow men, whom he characterized as "sacks for food" and "fillers-up of privies." As Frederick Hartt notes in his History of Italian Renaissance Art, "In thousands of pages there is not a line to show that he ever cared deeply for any other human being."

On a variety of other subjects, scholars admit that Leonardo’s words aren’t always easy to interpret. When he comments that the "medici" made him and then unmade him, is he referring to his patrons, the Medici family, or to medici, the Italian word for doctors? Or, when he insists that painting is in every way superior to sculpture, is he sniping at his rival Michelangelo or merely recalling his exertions as an apprentice to sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio?

Sometimes, the biographical gaps still get spackled over by scholars. Leonardo, who was the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl named Caterina, wrote relatively little about his parents, although he did record the expenses connected with his mother’s burial.

And it remains true that, as the English critic Walter Pater wrote in 1869, "Leonardo’s nature had a kind of spell in it" that not only holds our fascination but sometimes leads to wild flights of fancy. As one prominent art historian of our day says, there is still just "something about Leonardo that brings out the crazies."

The recent claim of a researcher at the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, near where the artist was born, that Leonardo’s mother may have been a slave of Middle Eastern descent, has been widely disputed. "The museum in Vinci seems to feel it has to come out with one new discovery a week," says Rome-based art historian Frank Dabell. "Recently they sent me something about finding a recipe for a cocktail"—libations by Leonardo. "I like whimsy, but Leonardo does get pushed a bit too far."

Alessandro Vezzosi, the museum’s director, insists that while there’s no one definitive proof for his theory about Leonardo’s mother, "it makes sense and would explain so much." It isn’t that the evolving view of Leonardo is whimsical, he says, but that "there’s so much that’s been found recently that’s new that we understand it’s difficult for some people."

David Alan Brown, the longtime curator of Italian Renaissance painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., says he has lost patience with new theories that are not rooted in the visual record. Of the Mona Lisa, for instance, he notes that "everything has been said about that painting"—that it is a self-portrait, a mistress portrait, a male lover, a woman who had breast cancer or who was bereaved or pregnant or both. "I was amused by these things in the beginning," Brown says. "But now I find them tedious."

The centuries of speculation have left an enormous amount of serious work yet to be done. Right now Brown and others are engaged in what is generally regarded as an important period of research, particularly as they apply technology to probe beneath layers of varnish and paint to better understand Leonardo’s experimental methods. Kemp is leading a particularly ambitious effort, known as the Universal Leonardo Project, to have all of the artist’s major works submitted to scientific testing by 2006.

Some museums, such as the Uffizi, have done extensive testing already, while others, notably the Louvre, have done little. And the results of the testing that has been done have never been synthesized. "This is an attempt to take the scattered scholarship, bring everything together, and get the primary material on the Web," Kemp said. Leonardo’s "methods were so variable, unraveling his procedures is fascinating."

Pietro Marani, who was a codirector of the controversial restoration of the Last Supper in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and has written extensively about the project, is also regarded as an important contributor to a growing understanding of Leonardo’s unusual techniques. Leonardo rejected the traditional fresco methods of his era, for example, using instead a mixture of tempera and oil paints that he applied onto the wet plaster as if he were working on a panel. This allowed him to rework the strokes, but caused the scene he was depicting to begin deteriorating almost immediately.

Another hugely ambitious project is under way as Carlo Pedretti, director emeritus of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at UCLA, continues to translate primary Leonardo sources from Italian into English for Giunti, the Florence-based publishing house. "If you’re thinking about what’s still going to be important 100 years from now, what Pedretti’s doing is in that category," Kemp says. "He is the great commentator on the primary sources, with his close focus on the written and drawn legacy."

Most arguments over attribution have been settled since early works such as the Annunciation in the Uffizi were rejected even by Bernard Berenson, who later "exercised the privilege of the connoisseur and changed his mind," Brown wrote in his 1998 book, Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius. The artist’s early works were reattributed by Berenson in 1932, ending an era in which his Ginevra de’Benci, now in the National Gallery, was generally thought to have been painted by Verrocchio. Art historian Kenneth Clark brought a new rigor to the study of Leonardo with his classic 1939 work based on a series of lectures delivered at Yale in 1936. "Clark’s biography, for me, is still the best ever written on Leonardo," says Andrew Butterfield, a Verrocchio scholar and senior vice-president at Salander and O’Reilly Galleries in New York. "It was the first book in English that was based on historical evidence and not romantic notions."

Yet even as Verrocchio has been stripped of unearned credit for some of Leonardo’s work, he has gained stature as Leonardo’s teacher. In recent years, Brown’s work in particular has helped us see Leonardo as his pupil, an artist very much influenced by the leading sculptor of his day rather than a mythic genius whose first brushstroke so shamed his mentor that Verrocchio gave up painting altogether. Brown’s 1998 book also made a splash by attributing new portions of Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel to Leonardo. The work, previously credited to Verrocchio alone, is now accepted as having been painted by both men.

Not every attribution has been settled, though, and Brown and Marani do differ on Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate in the National Gallery. Marani believes the work is by Leonardo, while Brown believes it is more likely by Leonardo’s friend Lorenzo di Credi. Scientific tests done a decade ago show that the work was subtly altered, and "Leonardized"—made to look more like his work—in the last century, according to Brown. "This charming but conventional little panel lacks any evidence of the sine qua non of all Leonardo’s early works—his passionate absorption in nature," Brown wrote.

Marani, meanwhile, goes so far as to call the use of color in the painting "proto-Leonardesque." And he reminds us that science, too, is open to interpretation, citing X rays that, he says, show that white paint was used here much the same way as in Leonardo’s Annunciation.

Leonardo completed only 12 paintings. One of them, Lady with an Ermine (1490–91), is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in the exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland" (through February 17). The exhibition, which was organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, will travel to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (March 8 through May 18).

By far the most serious sparring over Leonardo today involves the conservation of his work. Art historians are divided, with a group of scholars led by James Beck, professor of Italian Renaissance art at Columbia, having successfully made even routine cleanings controversial by arguing that the risk of damaging the works outweighs the benefits. The restoration of the Last Supper is still widely criticized, for example, by those who feel that restorers stripped away centuries of history and damaged the work, essentially tarting it up rather than restoring it.

The Louvre has no plans to clean the Mona Lisa, according to a spokeswoman for the museum, who quoted a stiffly worded statement put out by the head of the museum’s painting department in 1998, saying any restoration of the work was unnecessary and out of the question. The Uffizi, meanwhile, has endured harsh criticism from some art historians over its recent work on both Leonardo’s Annuciation and the Baptism of Christ by Leonardo and Verrocchio. And though the arguments against restoration are in no way unique to works by Leonardo, they do take on special urgency in his case because his experimental techniques make such efforts somewhat riskier. At this point, "there’s a kind of stalemate even though there’s an understanding they should be cleaned," Brown says, "and the ones in the Louvre are hard to see properly because of the darkened varnish."

Scholars are also closely following attempts to find Leonardo’s lost fresco, the Battle of Anghiari, amid an ongoing historical debate over whether or not it has survived. The fresco, begun in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in 1505 as part of an aborted competition with Michelangelo, is generally thought to have been destroyed when the Medici commissioned Vasari to redecorate the Hall of the 500 in 1563. Yet there are several tantalizing clues that the work may still exist on a wall behind Vasari’s frescoes, and a team led by Maurizio Seracini, an independent art diagnostician in Florence, is working on a complete sonic exploration of the room where the fresco was once displayed. Eventually, Seracini hopes to use adapted medical technology to see through Vasari’s wall without damaging it.

For years, Seracini has argued that Vasari, who so admired Leonardo and especially this widely copied battle scene, could never have destroyed what Kenneth Clark referred to as "in some ways, Leonardo’s most important commission." But, Brown says, "I don’t think you can eliminate that as a possibility in the past. Leda and the Swan was destroyed in the 18th century out of prudery, and Ginevra’s hands were cut off, whereas we value every centimeter" of Leonardo’s work. His conclusion: "They thought differently." Though the current betting is that the Battle of Anghiari is long gone, even the most conservative scholars are positioning themselves in case the work is recovered. "That’s the other big thing now, Seracini in Florence," Kemp says. "Leonardo was working with an experimental medium, so the chance of it still adhering is pretty small. But I would never say don’t look."

Melinda Henneberger is a writer living in Rome.

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