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How to Celebrate the Genius of Leonardo, 500 Years After His Death

Visiting Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions is like eating chocolate, popcorn, or peanuts: the more you see, the more you desire...

Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Leonardo's first drawing.

It seems that in this year of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of his death, visiting Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions is like eating chocolate, popcorn, or peanuts: the more you see, the more you desire. At the end of my article “Celebrations for the 500th Anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci” published on January 16th, I listed several upcoming exhibitions in his honor to take place in the United States, France, England and most of all in Italy.

Since then, on March 22, my colleague Laura Aldoriso in her article “Leonardo, 500 anni dopo: le iniziative, tra cui una mostra digitale realizzata nei Paesi dell’America del Nord e del Sud. E in Italia…” (“Leonardo, 500 Years Afterwards, the Initiatives, Among them a Digital Exhibition in North and South America”) published a much longer, extensive and seemingly complete list.  I visited the exhibition she mentioned in Rome “Leonardo da Vinci: Scienza Prima della Scienza” (“Leonardo da Vinci: Science Before Science) at the Scuderie on until June 30 (Entrance fee: 15 euros) and one she did not mention “Leonardo: Il San Girolamo dei Musei Vaticani” (Leonardo: The Vatican Museums’ St. Jerome) on in the Braccio di Carlomagno in the left side of Bernini’s colonnade in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square until June 22 (Entrance free).

Except for “Leonardo da Vinci Parade”, a selection of models made in the 1950s based on Leonardo’s drawings, at Milan’s Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia from July 19 to October 13, “Science Before Science” seems to be the only exhibit which concentrates on Leonardo’s engineering and scientific talents and not on his artworks.  Its some 200 artifacts and books are divided into 10 sections, each concerning a different scientific subject of interest to Leonardo, and each with an appropriate drawing from Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, on loan from the Ambrosiana Library in Milan.  One of the treasures of the Ambrosiana, the Codex, the most complete collection of Leonardo’s manuscripts, gets its name not from the ocean but from the large Atlas-size of its paper.  Also on display are models on loan from Milan’s Museum of Science and Technology and books on loan from Milan’s Ambrosiana Library.    

A word about the lenders: The Museum of Science and Technology was founded by Guido Ucelli, an industrialist from Milan. “The Museum first opened to the public,” a wall panel tells us, “on February 15, 1953 with the exhibition ‘The Science and Technology of Leonardo’, timed to coincide with the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth.” The Museum’s collection of “Leonardo” models is the largest in the world, with more than 130 models documenting Leonardo’s diverse areas of study, from flying devices to military engineering, architecture, and industrial machines.

“Inaugurated by Cardinal Federico Borromeo on 8 December 1609,” recounts another wall panel, “the Ambrosiana Library was among the first to grant access to anyone able to read and write.  It was conceived as a center for humanist study and culture, comprising a Collegio di Dottori (Board of Fellows), a Pinacoteca (Art Gallery, founded 1618), and an Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Drawing, founded 1620).”

“With more than a million printed books,” continues the wall panel, “including thousands of incunabula and 16th-century works, almost 40,000 manuscripts in many languages, and 12,000 drawings by Raphael, Leonardo, and many others, the Ambrosiana is one of the world’s most important libraries.”

As for Codex Atlanticus, it was “compiled by the sculptor and collector Pompeo Leoni,” continues the wall panel, “at the end of the 16th century. Leoni brought together countless loose folios and large fragments, affixed them to 401 large format pages, and bound them together in a volume. Upon Leoni’s death the Codex Atlanticus was inherited by Polidori Calchi, and later by Count Galeazzo Arconati, who donated it to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1637.”

“Chronologically speaking, the content of the Codex covers a substantial period of time, from 1478 to 1518, dealing with hugely diverse areas of study, from hydraulics and the flight of birds to fortifications and military engineering, not to mention [Leonardo’s] copious theoretical annotations on mathematics, astronomy, geography, botany, and other topics. After recent restorations, the Codex drawings are now distributed on 1119 loose pages.”

Leonardo’s drawing in the Codex Atlanticus of Brunelleschi’s crane.

To return to “Science Before Science”, Section 1 “Tuscan Engineers”: Leonardo’s first encounter with engineering took place between 1469-71.  As an apprentice in Verrocchio’s workshop, he collaborated with creating and placing the gold-plated copper ball at the summit of Brunelleschi dome’s lantern.  He was also able to observe first-hand the cranes that Brunelleschi had created and used to build this dome of Florence’s Cathedral, one of the most revolutionary building sites of the Renaissance.

On display in Section 2 “The Study of the Ancient World” is Leonardo’s personal copy of Francisco di Giorgio Martini’s Trattato di Architettura, an analysis of the relationship between the proportions of buildings and those of the human body.  On loan from the Laurentian Library in Florence, complete with Leonardo’s handwritten annotations, it’s the only book we know with certainty belonged to Leonardo.

Leonardo’s drawing of the spinning wheel and spindle in the Codex Atlanticus.

Two leaves from the Codex Atlanticus in Section 3: “Drawing and Perspective” feature perspective studies by Leonardo.  One is of a gear, the other a small sketch of an artist drawing an amillary sphere or celestial globe with a perspectograph.

Leonardo lived in Milan from 1482 to 1502. It’s difficult to determine if his drawings on display in Section Four: “Ideal Cities and Waterways” are of already existing waterways or represent original proposals for improving Milan’s waterways.

Between 1495 and 1497, while painting his Last Supper, Leonardo studied textiles and metallurgy.  One of his most beautiful drawings on display in Section 5: “Ingenuity at Work “ is of a spinning wheel with spindle.

Leonardo’s drawing of a glider in the Codex Atlanticus.

Sections 6, 8, and 9 concern his “machines” for theatrical scenery and ephemeral celebrations, for war, and for flying. Among his illustrations here are cannons, a catapult, crossbows and a glider.  His “entertainment” drawings are all lost. These would have concerned temporary structures for the wedding between Giangaleazzo Sforza and Isabella of Aragon in 1489, scenery for the festa on January 13, 1490 known as Paradise with a libretto by Bernardo Bellincioni, and Scythian and Tartar costumes for the wedding of Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este in 1492.

A model of Leonardo’s catapult.

My favorite two sections are 7: “Leonardo’s Library” and 10: “His Myth”. Due to his exclusively practical training Leonardo defined himself as a “omo sanza lettere” (“an illiterate man”), yet, at his death he owned an exceptional library of 150 titles, which sadly have been dispersed.  Nonetheless, we know many of the titles he owned from lists he made in his Codices. Until he moved to Milan in 1482, where he was eventually obliged to learn Latin and mathematics, he could not read Latin, so he read in the vernacular; Dante’s Divine Comedy or translations of Ovid and Pliny, for example. On display in Section 7 are a number of titles that might have been in his library and a number of illuminated manuscripts that he could not have afforded, but were associated with courts like those of his patrons, the Sforza, so he probably consulted some.

The myth of Leonardo as an engineer and scientist began in 1796 after centuries of oblivion. That year Napoleon requisitioned Leonardo’s manuscripts from the Ambrosiana Library and brought them to Paris. Finally, beginning in 1881, Leonardo’s manuscripts were gradually made available in print, transforming their author into “a universal genius”. Hence the 1939 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci e delle Invenzioni italiane” served as a primer of Italian genius and “proudly displayed the scientific and technological successes of an Italy that no longer needed the help of foreign nations.”

As I wrote in my article “Leonardo and Rome: The Special Relationship” published on April 6, 2017, Leonardo came to Rome in 1513 at the behest of Giuliano de Medici–Pope Leo X’s younger brother and commander of the papal troops– and stayed three years living in the Vatican’s Belvedere. By clicking on La Voce’s website and inserting “Leonardo” in the search window, it’s possible to learn how he spent his time in Rome, although he was unhappy there because Pope Leo X preferred Michelangelo’s work.  This may help to explain why Rome is possibly home to only one of his works, The Adoration of the Christ Child, only recently attributed to him, (due to a fingerprint exactly the same as one found on The Lady with an Ermine in Krakow), and not yet confirmed, in the Villa Borghese Museum.  Another, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, in the Vatican Museums, is the subject of the “Leonardo: il San Girolamo del Musei Vaticani (“Leonardo: St. Jerome in the Vatican Museums”).

Leonardo’s Thumbprint.

In my earlier article I wrote: “Dating back to c. 1480, Leonardo’s “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” was not painted in Rome and was left unfinished…It probably remained in the artist’s possession until his death.  According to the Vatican Museums’ website, it was first mentioned and attributed to Leonardo in the painter Angelica Kauffmann’s will (1741-1807). “On Kauffmann’s death, all traces of the painting disappeared, until it was found by chance and purchased by Napoleon’s uncle, the Cardinal Joseph Fesch. According to legend, the cardinal discovered the painting divided into two parts: the lower part in the shop of a Roman second-hand dealer where it formed the cover of a box or [cupboard].  The top part, with the head of the saint, was at the shop of his shoemaker who had used it to make the cover of a stool.  Regardless of the story, the painting can actually be seen to be cut into five parts.  On the death of the Cardinal, the picture was sold a number of times until it was identified and purchased by Pius IX (pontiff from 1846 to 1878) for the Vatican Pinoteca (1856).”

St. Jerome.

Verrocchio’s St. Jerome.

Although there are no documents about who commissioned the painting or where it was destined, the painting has elements that are typical of Leonardo’s techniques: the landscape here and in the Virgin of the Rocks, the color scheme: greens and ocher here and in the Adoration of the Magi, the details of the neck and shoulder muscles here and in his anatomical drawings, and lastly, his painting of St. Jerome as the hermit, not Father of the Church as in Verrocchio’s very similar St. Jerome on display in Florence.

The majority of the exhibition consists of bilingual (Italian and English) wall panels explaining the reason for the exhibition, and illustrating the life of Leonardo with a time-chart, his life in Rome, the history of the painting, the construction of its frame, and the discoveries made during its restoration. Aside from the painting in its custom-built frame, the only other artifact in the exhibition is a document on loan from the Historical Archives of the Fabbrica di San Pietro attesting to Leonardo’s apartment in the Belvedere. “The presence among the furnishings intended for Leonardo,” explains a wall panel, “of a bench for grinding colors, perhaps indicates that Cardinal Medici expected some paintings from the artist, but, according to Vasari, Leonardo only created two pictures for Bishop Turini, the apostolic Datary and close friend of the Pope…Leonardo stayed in the Vatican until Cardinal Giuliano died (17 March 1516) before moving to Castel Sant’Angelo and then leaving Rome for France (May 1517).”   

In its hermetically sealed, temperature- and humidity-controlled, “travelling frame”, (its construction illustrated with text and images in another wall panel) it will travel first to the Metropolitan in New York from July 8 to October 6 and then to the contested blockbuster exhibition at the Louvre from October 24-February 24, 2020.

Leonardo British Stamps 2019,

In addition to the many exhibitions on February 13, the United Kingdom issued a series of 12 stamps showing a selection of drawings by Leonardo in the Royal Collection, which includes more than 550 da Vinci drawings acquired by King Charles II around 1670. Italy has minted a 2-euro coin with a detail of “The Lady with an Ermine” in Krakow and on May 2, the anniversary of Leonardo’s death, will issue four stamps, each with a different Leonardo artwork: the painting, “The Head of a Woman” (also known as “La Scapigliata” because of her disheveled hair) in Parma; the unfinished painting “Adoration of the Magi” in Florence; “Study of the Eye”, a drawing in Milan,  (not many people know that Leonardo suffered from a rare form of strabismus); and “Portrait of a Musician”, also in Milan.

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