Renaissance man: The allure of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster ₹1,199  

They should make him ‘Man of the Year’.

Or at least declare Leonardo da Vinci ‘saviour’ of the world art market. Ever since his lost-and-found painting Salvator Mundi or Saviour of the World was sold by Christie’s for a staggering $450.3 million, the name Leonardo has been rocking. The generally dull world art market has twitched into a semblance of life.

It’s not just the highest price collected by an auction house that made the headlines, it was the tantalising mystery of a Leonardo image. Some experts allege that many different strokes had ravaged the canvas through the last five centuries.

The allure of Leonardo

Stare carefully into the Saviour’s eyes and you might find a strangely opaque watery quality to them. As for the globe that the figure holds holding in his left hand, only a close reading will reveal its flaws — or its secrets. For instance, the six-pointed star effect that points to a hidden code. And yet. And yet there is the smile playing around the Saviour’s lips. It is a signature Leonardo smile, bewitching, mysterious, ever so slightly androgynous, hinting at the most famous smile in art history — that of the Mona Lisa.

As though to add ammunition to the Leonardo mania this season, American scholars have created enough material to keep his name popping up once again, a star in the whirligig of time. Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo is a masterpiece of nuanced scholarship. He’s almost reverential as he urges the reader: “Look! Can you not see the glint of gold in those curling locks of hair? That’s a signature trait in the Master’s work.” Isaacson shows us how to recognise the left-handed Leonardo’s hatching style. Soon enough you know how to marvel at the delicacy and strength with which these slanting strokes of the pen, or stylus, are what give a roundedness to a young woman’s cheek, the firmness at the corners of the mouth, or the delicacy to a veil covering a braid of hair.

Notes to oneself

Leonardo gloried in finding spiral forms in a snail’s labyrinth, in fronds, in eddies of water swirling down a rock, in the thick curling hairs of a warrior. As Isaacson tells us, he made notes to himself to find out more about a woodpecker’s tongue, the jaw of a crocodile, every sinew and bone, leaf and seed structure that presented itself to his gaze. Leonardo’s curiosity was prodigious. Every time he opens a page from the extraordinary collection of the Leonardo notebooks, Isaacson metaphorically sucks in his breath in awe at what he beholds. Because of him, we too, the unsuspecting readers, tumble headlong into the labyrinth of curiosities and tiptoe past the extraordinary drawings of cadavers split open, the surgically sliced sections of the human head, or heart, or whole body, done with such precision that it’s hard to say whether these are scientific drawings, or artistic ones. Yet, the medical man side was only one aspect of Leonardo’s drawings. He was as rigorous in his explorations as engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician and naturalist, quite often combing two different disciplines to create a flying machine for instance.

In what is perhaps the most celebrated of his drawings, the encircled figure of a man spread-eagled within a geometric square, the Vitruvius Man, as it is known, Isaacson describes what makes Leonardo’s genius so unique. He was a mathematician who subscribed to the idea of the human body being an exact measure of the larger world around him.

Or listen to what Leonardo himself tells us: “Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.”

Ambitious retelling

If Isaacson helps us how to look at a Leonardo, Mike Lankford is more ambitious. He shows us how to feel about Leonardo and his extraordinary world — that of Renaissance Italy in the last years of the 15th century and the early years of the 16th. Both authors agree on the basics. For instance, that Leonardo was an illegitimate child; that he was left-handed, used a strange mirror writing script, was a vegetarian, that he was gay and regarded as handsome in his youth. Lankford, however, gives us much more. He speculates that Leonardo’s mother might have been a Turkish girl, sold into a rich Italian family as a slave. That Leonardo’s fondness for brilliantly coloured clothes in pink and purple may have been a part of his Turkish heritage. His Leonardo is a character-in-waiting for a Netflix reincarnation.

Despite their erudition to lay bare the secrets of his art, Leonardo da Vinci remains a mystery. Like the Mona Lisa who gazes serenely at us revealing nothing, Leonardo’s secret is hidden in that smile.

It could be as he reminds us: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography; Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, ₹1,199.

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci; Mike Lankford, Melville House, ₹1,416.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:33:06 AM |

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