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Deconstructing Leonardo (English)

Authors: Vincenzo Fuxa, Alessandra Melegatti, Dürer Project team.

There is no single work of Leonardo da Vinci of which we can say it has been fully and conclusively understood, and which has not given rise to a multitude of interpretations and speculations, often disproven by later critic, or triggering unanswerable controversies.

Approaching the quintessential genius poses a variety of issues, deriving for starters by the uniqueness of the artist from Anchiano, whose multi-faceted and versatile talent cannot be fenced in any category. The academic approaching him needs to possess a wealth of knowledge and skills accordingly wide and cross sectional, colliding with our extremely sectoral education system. In addition to this, the outstanding skills praised by Vasari in his Lives have fed a legend, creating a “character” arrayed in fictionalised elements, stereotypes, hyperbolas, putting a distance between the enjoyer and the truth. There is also a more general communication problem between present and past, due to “waves of oblivion” leading newer generations to ignore the symbolic and iconographic codes of earlier times, and subsequently to neglect those texts treasured in libraries for centuries, whereas reading them could disclose the keys to the interpretation of the works under consideration.

The difficulties mentioned above cannot be escaped in the analysis of the portrait held in the Royal Library of Turin, whose history is peculiar in itself. Upon the death of Leonardo the portrait, together with manuscripts and paintings, was inherited by his pupil Giovanni Francesco Melzi. After being moved to the family home first in Milan and then in Vaprio d’Adda, the drawing was soon lost (it was probably handed over to acquaintances, unbeknownst to Francesco). It reappeared in 1839 in the care of an antique dealer from Bassano del Grappa, Giovanni Volpato, and there was purchased by Prince Charles Albert of Sardinia.

The face of an elderly man appears in sanguine on the paper, partially compromised by oxydation processes; the expression marked by lines, he is bearded and long-haired. Allegedly dated back to the French period, when the artist was guest of Francis I at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, it is known to most as a self-portrait, with the complicity of the inscription on the lower margin of the sheet:

Leonardus Vincius, ritratto di se stesso assai vecchio
Leonardus Vincius, portrait of himself considerably old

But the right-handed script does not match Leonardo’s.

The documents describe Leonardo as an unconventional person, the idea that his hairstyle, even at an old age, was not in line with the fashion of the time, thus, is not surprising – he had drawn himself with long hair in a sketch outlining how to represent the shadows of a body hit by direct sunlight – ; but to establish if those features are an authentic self-portrait, we must proceed to a comparison with the works that captured him during several moments of his life.

The first artist to provide us an image in full relief was Verrocchio, the master of the workshop at the Bargello where Leonardo conducted his apprenticeship, and who found himself challenged by a pupil more gifted than himself, so much so that he resolved to abandon his career as a painter, devoting himself solely to sculpture. The young Da Vinci was probably the model for Verrocchio’s David (1472-1475) showing a lean and agile physique.

His face, surrounded by curly locks, bears a certain resemblance with the Portrait of a Musician (1485 ca.)in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

and with the young man behind mathematician Luca Pacioli in the mysterious painting in Capodimonte (1495 ca).

A twenty-year-old Leonardo is possibly recognisable in the likeness of Saint Michael in the Three Archangels (1471 ca.) at the Uffizi, work of his workshop colleague Francesco Botticini.

Leonardo may have included a self-portrait in the Adoration of the Magi (1482)  at the Uffizi, capturing himself in the three-quarter-profile figure on the right looking outside the panel.

Some also identify him in the Vitruvian Man (1490 ca.) at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

A book written from right to left could  show his identification with Democritus represented near Heraclitus in the painting of Bramante (1486) at the Pinacoteca di Brera.

An older Leonardo would appear as the philosopher Plato, in Raphael‘s School of Athens (1509-1511) in the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican Apostolic Palace

Another Leonardo’s signature drawing offers an interesting comparison; it is in haematite as well, and it was found by Carlo Pedretti under the notes on a page of the Codex on the Flight of Birds in the 70s. It has recently  made a comeback following the digital restoring by Piero Angela’s team, accounting it as a self-portrait.

Yet this theory was refuted by Luca Caricato, who notices a strong resemblance to the figure of the famous portrait by Altobello Melone depicting Cesare Borgia, for whom Leonardo worked in 1502-1503, drafting three portraits (profile, three-quarter, frontal).

Leonardo would seem to appear in profile in Melzi’s Windsor Drawing, bearded and long haired, as in the sanguine in Turin’s Library. Vasari would have taken the figure to make the engraving on the frontispiece of the Lifes dedicated to the artist. But according to Waldman, the Drawing in the English collection would depict his uncle Francesco da Vinci, very close to Leonardo.

The series of portraits mentioned above evidences that most of the hypotheses are not sufficiently backed in the written sources; in addition to that, the matching of the somatic traits is not fully congruent, especially for what concerns the shape of the nose (convexity of the bridge and tilt of the tip), an element to which Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting, devotes special attention, dwelling with precision on the description and depiction of the varieties (see, in particular, chapters De’ membri e descrizione d’effigie – On limbs and description of portrait- and Del fare un’effigie umana in profilo dopo averlo guardato una sola volta – On drawing a human portrait after seeing them only once ).

In conclusion, there is no certainty supporting the argument of the self-portrait, but it is far more likely that it is a preparatory sketch for the character of one of his works, or for one that was never been carried out due to the advancing years and the artist’s health conditions (a stroke would have compromised the use of his hand), or other not-yet-identified reason.

It is however undeniable that, notwithstanding the few traits, it shows the great psychological introspection ability of its author. In his Treatise on Painting it is stated that, according to Leonardo

illustrating what the figures have in their heart

is a fundamental requisite to make art worthy of admiration, and this ability is maybe one of the secrets of his success, outlasting space and time.

What pundits had never regarded before is that there is more beyond the frontally visible portrait: an anamorphosis transforming the human face into a macabre creature.

Then again, as suggested by Baltrušaitis over forty years ago, a number of anamorphic frameworks had already been attributed to Leonardo, confirmed by multiple studies, including Panofsky’s (1940) and White’s (1957). References can be tracked both in the Treatise on Painting (“Rules for the Painter“) and in the Codex Atlanticus, the widest and most extraordinary collection of Leonardo’s folios we possess: they include the extremely deformed drawings of the face of a child and of an eye (c.35, v.a.), adjustable observing them from a different angle (foreshortening), laying the eye on the right side of the sheet, about middle height.

In addition to that, the original paper displays a preparation with a bundle of lines traced with a metal tip, which cannot be seen in any reproduction. There is also a chapter in the Codex Arundel (c.62, 9r.) with the title “On natural perspective mixed with accidental perspective” where da Vinci explains how to apply this accidental viewpoint to that of a natural surface in order for the moving observer to obtain the vision of a “monstrous” figure. This was the procedure used to accomplish the Fight Between a Dragon and a Lion and Painting with Horses, so peculiar as to attract the attention of Francis I.

A number of authoritative treatises, among which Daniele Barbaro’s from Venice, Jacopo Barozzi’s from Emilia, and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s from Milan testify how strong the fascination with the anamorphic phenomenon and altered perspective was in Italy since the first decades of the XV century, so much so to become the object of meticulous study during the XVI century.

One paragraph of De Pictura by Leon Battista Alberti (Book I ,par.17) contains a reference to perspective aberration. The description lacks the scientific accuracy of other treatises written outside the Italian milieu (one notable example being Dürer’s description of a window), arising from a more robust wealth of mathematic and geometrical knowledge, but the interest of Italian artists for anamorphosis is undeniable.

It should not therefore be unsettling to learn that looking at the portrait in the Royal Library from a different angle, the lower lip where the beard falls turns into the lateral representation of a shoulder, the dent below the cheekbone widens to become an unsettling open mouth, and the left eye stretches out into a pointed ear. The down and the dotting of the paper – which cannot be fully attributed to wearing and oxidation – produce a three-dimensional space.

The plain figure of an old man turns into a freakish 3D being, in a sort of proto-animation.

Paola Salvi’s theory affirming that the man is looking into a mirror cannot be dismissed in full, although she does not see the anamorphic presence; it is in fact possible that he is revealing a side of himself through his reflection.

The anamorphosis generates an oxymoronic image, shows us a dual personality, a psychologically complex character fast forwarding us to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; showing the hidden nature of the individual, his alter ego, what Freud defined “the perturbing”, on which Leonardo had found himself to reflect upon. Among the authors of the books held in his library and inherited by Melzi, the name of Cecco d’Ascoli appears, for example, renowned for a heated debate with Dante on the relationship between nature and upbringing. According to Alighieri upbringing would be able to subdue instinct, whereas Cecco believed nature is always bound to emerge.

And there the temperament of the staid man portrayed in sanguine unveils itself, taking the shape of a demonic figure. Leonardo thereby proves not only to prefigure modernity, but more notably to be a man of his times, when the use of analogy, partly due to the impulse of new philosophical movements, becomes significant, taking the shape, as far as painting is concerned, of optical illusions and anamorphosis. A hermetic conception of man ensues for the modern viewer, understandable only through a synchronic analysis of its plurality.

The features taken by the face in the anamorphic distortion can be assimilated to those of a lupus hominarius or lycanthrope, a figure whose literary origins can be traced no less than in the Epic of Gilgamesh.The best known example of the classic period is undoubtedly Lycaon, whose story is told by Ovid in Book I of the Metamorphoses: becoming aware of the impiety of men, Jupiter descends on the Earth from the Olympus and dwells at the tyrant of Arcadia. He puts to test his divine nature, offering him the limbs of a hostage as food. The father of the gods, appalled, destroys the house and the Penates, while Lycaon.

territus ipse fugit nactusque silentia ruris exululat frustraque loqui conatur; ab ipso colligit os rabiem solitaeque cupidine caedis utitur in pecudes et nunc quoque sanguine gaudet. In villos abeunt vestes, in crura lacerti: fit lupus et veteris servat vestigia formae; canities eadem est, eadem violentia vultus, idem oculi lucent, eadem feritatis imago est

Metamorphosis – P. Ouidii
Translation
“He himself ran in terror, and reaching the silent fields howled aloud, frustrated of speech. Foaming at the mouth, and greedy as ever for killing, he turned against the sheep, still delighting in blood. His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs. He was a wolf, but kept some vestige of his former shape. There were the same grey hairs, the same violent face, the same glittering eyes, the same savage image.”, (vv.232-239).

Leonardo undoubtedly knew the Metamorphoses: as testified by the Codex Trivulzianus, he owned a copy;  his relations with Poggio Bracciolini, scholar and translator of Latin texts are documented as well; it is therefore very likely that we are in front of the Arcadian king’s portrait, depicting his twofold nature.

Lycanthropes can be also encountered in the works of other Latin authors back in vogue during the Renaissance. Standing out among them Petronius, with his Satyricon. In chapter 61, one of Trimalchio’s guests, Niceros, recounts in a flash-back a turbulent night journey to meet his lover, when one of the soldiers accompanying him, after a weird ritual, reveals himself as a lupus versipellis (the fur would grow under his clothes, to be revealed during the animal transformation).

et subito lupus factus est. Nolite me iocari putare; ut mentiar, nullius patrimonium tanti facio. Sed, quod coeperam dicere, postquam lupus factus est, ululare coepit et in silvas fugit”

Satyricon – Petronius

Translation: "and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods.”.

Claudius Galenus in his “De Locis Affectis” (Book III) defines lycanthropy a “Speciem Malinconiae”; his works more strictly on medicine describe this ailment more realistically, with the prescription of some remedies:

«Those caught by the wolfish or canine disease leave their homes at night in the month of February and imitate wolves or dogs in all respects; they prefer to open graves until the raise of dawn. They can be recognized by these symptoms. They are pale and look sickly, their eyes are dry and lack teardrops. Their eyes are also sunken and the tongue is parched, they do not secrete any saliva at all. They are also thirsting, their shinbones are hopelessly wounded because of repeated falls and dog bites; these are the symptoms. It is worth knowing indeed that this ailment is of the melancholic species: it can be cured incising the vein during the abscess allowing the blood to pour until the loss of senses, the infirm will then be nourished with very succulent foods. Fresh water baths can be also beneficial: then buttermilk for a period of three days, for the same length of time purging with Rufus’ or Archigenes’ or Justus’ colocynth, taken repeatedly at intervals. After the purgation theriac extracted from vipers and the other medicaments previously mentioned for melancholia can be used as well»

That the image of the wolf can have inspired Leonardo is also substantiated by the aversion the Western world felt for the animal, in an age imbued with superstitions leading to downright mass hysteria. Dominican clergyman Heinrick Kramer’s treatise Malleus Maleficarum and the recording of hundreds of death sentences for lycanthropy inflicted to innocents of both sexes bear witness to this.

The geographical discoveries of the period played a role in igniting tempers, bringing to the fore the profile of the wild man, inhabitant of the New World, described in the accounts of the explorers as lacking rational capability, addicted to human sacrifices, cannibalism, distant from civilization, basically overlapping the wildness of the wolf. 

Juan Gines de Sepulveda, chronicler for King Charles V, disputing with Bartolomé de Las Casas, goes so far as to affirm that precisely in consideration of their devilish and inhuman character, wild people deserve to be submitted (by Europeans), backing his view with a quote from the Proverbs “And the foolish will be a servant to the wise-hearted”. It was clearly a dialectic scheme to justify the European colonization through violence and force.

Leonardo was undoubtedly influenced by this cultural climate when he introduced the demonic element in the portrait, where a projection of the author can be also read, captured in a feeling of rage and disappointment. As a matter of fact, before accepting the invitation to France by Francis I, he had experienced the exclusion from the Roman workshop of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the straining of his relationship with the House of Medici (Pope Leo X forbade him to keep dissecting corpses for anatomical studies, an exercise that also got him a charge of witchcraft). The artist vented in one of his many notes, affirming that the Medici, just as they had created him, were determining his destruction.

The genius from Vinci was able to draw upon the world of icons (mirror image of the Platonic world of ideas) and extract a character of the collective subconscious out of it. Its horrifying moderness and its vitality outshine the cinematic representation efforts of Golden Age Hollywood. Leonardo da Vinci’s Werewolf was long lost just as Henry Mac Rae’s silent film The Werewolf (1913), clouded from our subconscious and still pulsing in our right temple, actualization of a Freudian Craniopagus parasiticus. Not even 1941 The Wolf Man could match its perfect contemporaneity, notwithstanding the unending similarities. Is the wolf man eternal? What iconographic junctures bring today’s special effects creators to know Leonardo’s Werewolf without actually knowing it? It can be questioned if the fantastic accomplishment of Turin self-portrait has ever been reached or surpassed yet, for instance with The Howling by Joe Dante, or with An American Werewolf in London by John Landis. Leonardo could virtually be crowned as the undisputed king of B-movie, too.

Ultimately it is only approaching Leonardo’s painting with the awareness that it is “the most philosophical of arts” – and that using perspective it can overcome limits in space and time, showing us reality in all its facets and nuances (“tutte e’ parti porta seco” – “it takes along all parts”) that we can heal from the aphasia that has been plaguing us for centuries, and fully enjoy his incomparable genius. 

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