Leonardo da Vinci: After 500 Years, Still a Man in Full

For the quincentenary of his 1519 death, a dazzling display of exhibitions and new books honor the master's capacious vision.

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The master in winter. All images courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

In a note for an unfinished book giving tips on painting, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “The same pose will display infinite variety, because it can be seen from infinite places.” The insight is true for the Renaissance genius himself, whose probing mind flashed from topic to topic like a prism with infinite facets. Today, upon the quincentenary of his 1519 death, a dazzling display of art exhibitions and new books are honoring the master’s capacious vision. Most notable are Carmen Bambach’s four-volume Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered and, at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London, “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawings,” featuring more than 200 sketches from Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection.

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“The Head of Leda,” c. 1505-08 is a study for a lost painting, “Leda and the Swan.” The sketch likens Leda’s complicated, coiled braids to the whorls of water that fascinated da Vinci.

Other art exhibitions marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death are popping up elsewhere in the UK as well as France and Italy. The show of drawings at Buckingham Palace (the largest exhibition in more than 65 years) closes Oct. 13, traveling to Edinburgh November 22. The British Library’s “Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion” displays notebook pages with written observations and scientific drawings until Sept. 8. On Oct. 24, Paris mounts “Leonardo da Vinci,” a comprehensive exhibition 10 years in the making at the Louvre, which boasts five of the master’s 15 or so extant paintings. Italy hosts exhibitions in cities most associated with Leonardo — Florence and Milan — as well as in Turin, Venice and the artist’s Tuscan hometown, Vinci. The US gets in on the act when a retrospective of Leonardo’s teacher, Florentine sculptor Verrocchio, comes to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art on Sept. 15. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science presents “Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius” until Aug. 25.

Bambach, a curator at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, documents her monumental exploration of the artist — the fruit of 23 years of research — in exhaustive, authoritative detail. She writes that she intends her 2,300-page treatise as a “rethinking of Leonardo’s life, work, and legacy” that shows the self-educated polymath in endless variety. In a chronological account starting when Leonardo began his apprenticeship at age 15 in 1465, we see him honing his talent into brilliance, moving from Florence to Milan and back, and ending up in France as the resident pet genius for the 22-year-old King Francis I.

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“Study of a Woman’s Hands,” c. 1490. The artist excelled at drawing long, slender, elegant hands.

Admittedly, part of the fascination with Leonardo’s art stems from the high prices paid when a work attributed to him is uncovered. The sale at auction of Salvador Mundi (Savior of the World) for $450 million (with fees) set a new record in 2017, and Bambach has something to say about it. Having closely studied the severely damaged painting, she believes it was painted by the artist’s student, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. She surmises that Leonardo may have only added retouches on Christ’s right hand and sleeve, and a left hand holding a crystal orb. One wonders — since the painting has disappeared from view, despite promises to exhibit it publicly — whether reported purchaser Mohammed bin Salman, effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, has buyer’s remorse. (And is it more remorse than he’s shown for his alleged role in ordering the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi?)

Bambach’s scholarly quartet of volumes — priced by Yale University Press at a formidable $550 — will not make for a compelling biopic. She hails the young Leonardo’s “inordinate physical beauty,” but Giorgio Vasari, his first biographer, better described him back in 1550. Indeed, and by all accounts, the artist was an unrepentant dandy flouncing about in an elegant, rose-colored tunic; Vasari claims that he could sing and play the lyre superbly, improvise verses effortlessly, bend metal bars with his bare hands, and seduce VIPs with grace and charm.

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“The Head of Judas,” c. 1495 or later, is a study for “The Last Supper.” The artist did not portray the betrayer as grotesque or evil; his expression instead registers mild surprise.

For those familiar with Leonardo’s paintings — two of the best-known being, of course, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper — the wide-ranging extent of his scientific inquiries will be a discovery. Art historian Kenneth Clark called Leonardo the “most relentlessly curious man in history,” and his drawings document a compulsive quest for knowledge — of hydrology, of the mechanics of flight, of anatomy, of physiognomy, of astronomy and of geometry — to name a few. Lazy he was not.

Walter Isaacson began his excellent 2017 biography, Leonardo da Vinci, by observing that the artist was lucky to be illegitimate. He makes the point that, as a boy, Leonardo wasn’t subjected to the usual classical, humanist education. He never learned to read Latin — the lingua franca for transmitting conventional knowledge. Rather, the autodidact based his learning on fastidious observation of nature and proof by experiment rather than on accepted dogma, which boosted his originality. His drawings had the unique power to make his peripatetic thoughts visible.

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“The Head of St Anne,” c. 1510-15. In this charcoal study for a painting in the Louvre, Leonardo focused on St. Anne’s elaborately twisted headdress.

A major innovation evident in the Buckingham Palace exhibit is Leonardo’s transformation of the art of portraiture. Instead of stiff portrayals of aristocrats, often in unrevealing profile, he used his study of expressions, pose, gesture and anatomy to present the interior workings of a subject’s emotions and personality. The Last Supper exposes the psychology of Jesus’ disciples after he announces “One of you will betray me.” Each reacts with surprise or horror, revealing his thoughts through body language. This dynamic, narrative dimension changed visual art from a static recording of exterior resemblance into a moving penetration of character.

The objective of painting, Leonardo claimed, was to capture “motions” of the mind and spirit — he called it “passions of the soul.” His frenzied, quick-sketch drawing technique — an attempt to freeze movement and to brainstorm possibilities — altered the course of art. One sheet of drawings shows 20 images of a cat pouncing, licking its haunches, stretching, rolling about. Even its tail seems to flick. He sketched incessantly, thinking and inventing on paper, improvising to capture the flux of life and to generate strategies for future paintings.

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“The Fetus in the Womb,” c. 1511. The artist intended to publish an illustrated treatise on human anatomy based on 20 cadavers he dissected.

Fusing the quicksilver torrent of ideas that poured from his fingers to his painterly virtuosity produced a new standard. He animated images with charged individuality, demanding a response from the viewer. “The interaction with the beholder’s gaze is the major energizing force of his mature portraits,” Bambach writes. As for Mona Lisa, which Leonardo carried with him until his death, adding refinements and subtle glazes from year to year, it had a “famously long, meditated period of gestation,” she admits. Although Vasari tsk-tsked the artist’s meandering multitasking, the tedium of closure held no attraction for a mind that moved so fast. It was always Avanti! — onward to the next idea.

Indeed, Leonardo’s whole life and career were a nonstop quest for truth: the truth of the body and the truth of the spirit. His inventions and scientific theories, as well as his painstaking painting technique, were all of a piece: science and art were not separate modes of thinking. His investigations into geology and botany were not digressions but crucial to understand universal principles that he incorporated in his paintings. Multidisciplinary and boundlessly inquisitive, Leonardo used all that he learned to create sublime art that still captivates.

What it means is that half a millennium after Leonardo’s death, we are unable to say, “Rest in Peace.” For this man’s restless and voluminous mind, passion — not the final graveyard of peace — was the goal.