Leonardo da Vinci has been a mysterious and fascinating subject for many generations, ever since he walked as a living man through Italy and France. His painting has often inspired wonder and surprise, awe and admiration, even when their subject matter remained somewhat under question or of a dubious nature. He always seemed to be playing a joke on the rest of humanity, although what that joke was has remained as mysterious as the character of the man himself. Although numerous manuscripts and folios of Leonardo’s have been preserved, the life of this particular artist remains hidden in shadows that few publications have been able to illuminate. Rather than attempting to discover everything there is to know about Leonardo, in the late 1800s, Walter Pater tackled the difficult subject of Leonardo’s vision. In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Pater attempts to prove to his audience that Leonardo’s genius, sprung from a close affinity with nature, was of an unusual and highly observant variety. Removed somewhat from the more refined beliefs of his time, heavily laden with Christian overtones and rules of propriety, perhaps springing from his earliest experiences as the illegitimate child of a prosperous member of the gentry, Pater also argues that Leonardo’s work had a touch of the sinister or mocking within it as well as an affinity for the sublimely beautiful, creating a compelling composition that fascinates to the present day. It is a point he makes quite well through his flowing descriptions of Leonardo’s artwork, but an argument that seems ill-organized, thus losing some of its effectiveness.
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The article begins by introducing the characterization of da Vinci provided thus far in history primarily as the result of Vasari’s biography of the man and the contradictions therein. It is a characterization not significantly compromised until 1804 by Carlo Amoretti, a mere 65 years before the publication of the article under examination to provide some perspective. With this background established, Pater attempts to discover “the chief elements of Leonardo’s genius” (Pater, 1869, p. 100), through an examination of his activities and artifacts produced during the three primary divisions of his life: “thirty years at Florence, nearly twenty years at Milan, then nineteen years of wandering, till he sinks to rest under the protection of Francis the First at the Chateau de Clou” (100).
Pater uses descriptions of Leonardo’s angel in Verrocchio’s Baptism of the Christ to illustrate the early genius of the boy in Florence who seemed to instinctively resent the superficial miniature perfection of the masters of the old style and strive toward a more accurate representation of the meaning or purpose found within the natural world. Pater then indicates that this fascination with nature was developed through a series of sketches to culminate in the Medusa of the Uffizi, which is again described to illustrate the combined force of natural expression and a sinister mockery that was developing.
While discussing Leonardo’s period in Milan, the second of his three life stages, Pater indicates that “the two elementary forces in Leonardo’s genius; curiosity often in conflict with the desire of beauty, but generating, in union with it, a type of subtle and curious grace” (109). Pater illustrates, again through descriptions of Leonardo’s sketches surviving from this time, the increasing fascination Leonardo held for the strange and the obscure – in nature, personality, and lighting among other things. Another key element of his personality that is characterized in his art of this period is “his restlessness, his endless retouchings, his odd experiments with color” (112). While the third period of his life is characterized by restless wandering, Pater points out that Leonardo’s most ‘authentic’ work was produced during this period, illustrating his point by tracing the features of the Mona Lisa through Leonardo’s lifetime corpus.
It is particularly in the descriptions of Leonardo’s artwork, and how various elements contribute to the emotion of the piece, that makes this article beneficial to the reader. By tracing Leonardo’s developing artistic vision through the paintings and sketches that have survived time, Pater can ‘show’ his reader how depictions of nature when he was a boy spurred Leonardo to find a truer representation of what he grew up loving as well as how the mysterious, partially malevolent smile found in the Mona Lisa developed from an earlier period. Rather than simply analyzing the works discussed in terms of artistic elements such as foreshortening or chiaroscuro, Pater links the art to the artist, illustrating how his life experiences became reflected in his art and how his art reflects the unique vision he took of the world around him. The article moves beyond the strict confines of a biography, in which life events are listed in order and only occasionally linked with psychological effects seen in later years. It also moves beyond the strict confines of art criticism, in which elements such as color, line, stroke, composition, and shading are discussed with some examination into the history of the making of the piece. Instead, Pater makes it clear that the art is the result of the artist and his life experiences and unique viewpoints, as much as the artist is the result of his art, continuously affected by it and his response to what is produced.
It is in these depictions of the artwork provided that I began to understand what the author was attempting to accomplish as he highlighted those elements of Leonardo’s character that distinguished him from other artists. Pater says of this painting, “We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea … In that inestimable folio of drawing, once in the possession of Vasari, were certain designs by Verrocchio, faces of such impressive beauty that Leonardo in his boyhood copied them many times. It is hard not to connect with these designs of the elder, by-past master, as with its germinal principle, the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work” (124). In this quote, it can be seen how Pater can link Leonardo’s personality and individual interests with his development from the young apprentice to an old master and how these interests culminate in the painting widely acknowledged to be his greatest masterpiece. The artist has been shaped by his art as he grew from Verrocchio to Leonardo – this growth, once stimulated, explored numerous means of capturing the enigmatic smile that is eventually created to represent all of his work in the figure of one small and demure yet strangely compelling and enticing woman.
Because of these types of descriptions, I enjoyed the essay and feel it was well worth the time spent reading it. The descriptions immediately forced my mind to move into a more pictorial framework, picturing the various paintings under discussion and occasionally even seeking illustrated examples of the sketches mentioned to have a greater understanding of what was being said. My mind slipped among the remembered images of Leonardo’s paintings for the evidence that Peter was pointing out in the words of his article and began to gain a much deeper understanding of these elements than I had had previously. Although many of the concepts Pater was attempting to bring forward were themselves ambiguous, such as the concept of the sinister, by illustrating how these emerged within the sketches of Leonardo, the idea eventually won out. The approach used, linking the artist’s biography with his development and his produced art was very effective in making many of the concepts under discussion meaningful and clear eventually.
However, because of the flowery language, something we don’t often encounter in the 21st century of bullet points and blurbs, it was often easy to lose track of the general argument. I would get lost in the imagery painted in my mind’s eye as an imaginary pointer glossed over several concepts within each remembered work and forget what the author was originally trying to say. Only by reading over the article several times, to get the mental images cleared away and focus on the main points of the argument, was the argument clear. I suspect, though, that this is an issue of the time period and societal customs rather than a fault on the part of the author. The reason I suspect this is because once the main argument was finally clear, a final re-reading of the article brought the descriptive language and the argument into cohesion, blending it in my mind and allowing each to accentuate the other, presenting an examination into the genius of da Vinci I had never considered before but am likely never to forget again.
Pater, Walter. “Leonardo da Vinci: Homo Minister et Interpres Naturae.” (1869). Reprinted in Biography and Early Art Criticism of Leonardo da Vinci. Claire Farago (Ed.). New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1999: 266-298.