Leonardo and Miracles

Over the last week I’ve been writing about Leonardo da Vinci, ahead of the exhibition opening at the National Gallery in London on 9 November. Like everyone who gets interested in Leonardo, I’ve been puzzling over him, and wondering in particular where his heart lay. It’s been known for a long time that he was gay, and that he filled his studio with beautiful and talented youths. But there’s a school of thought (led by Sigmund Freud) that he was mainly, even exclusively, celibate.


In his book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, Freud argued that there was a multiplicity of things that interested Leonardo far more than sex, and that he ‘sublimated’ his sexual drive into these. One was his art – his religious paintings, for example, or those hypnotic portraits of women such as Mona Lisa, Ginevra de’ Benci and the coolly erotic Lady with the Ermine. Then there were his intellectual pursuits. He planned to write a bookshelf-full of learned tomes on anatomy, painting, optics and perspective, among others. Some of these arose from his more general curiosity about nature, which he observed, drew, described and thought about all his life.  


Yet the evidence is that, despite (or maybe because of) the preternatural ease with which Leonardo could draw and paint, he wasn’t much enamoured  of painting.  He lived to the age of 67, yet he’s known to have actually finished fewer than ten paintings. The Mona Lisa, which he worked over for 14 years, was never finally signed off; the painting for which he made the National Gallery’s great cartoon did not materialise; and half a dozen other works were abandoned well short of completion. Even worse, the two largest and most prestigious commissions of his life, Milan’s Last Supper and Florence’s Battle of Anghiari, were ruined by gross technical incompetence of a kind that one has every right not to expect from a universal genius.


As a writer, Leonardo was no better at finishing things. None of his projected treatises on art, or nature, were written. The notebooks’ notes, drafts and illustrations, though brilliant, are piecemeal and disorganised. The Treatise on Painting that appeared posthumously under his name was quarried by his pupil Melzi from these notes.


There is, however, another subject that occupied Leonardo’s mind: magic.  Again and again his notebooks pursue ideas that tried to transcend contemporary ideas about both art and nature: human flight, squaring the circle and perpetual motion – schemes so fantastic that, were he to pull just one of them off, he would be classed not as a universal man, but as some kind of god. The notebooks, which he used primarily for sketching, thought experiments, observations of nature and aides memoires, contain very little personal information. But, at one point, a confession bursts out of him: “I want to work miracles”.


Leonardo was well aware that he possessed more than the usual ration of creative power. But he was too intelligent to believe that he really had divine powers, and he goes on to say ruefully that these supernatural desires of his are really crazy fantasies, like the dreams that drive enchanters, necromancers and alchemists, whom he calls “those supreme fools”.  Yet he seems to be telling us that he could not help himself. These ideas possessed him, distracted him, threatened him with ruin, but he could not leave them alone.

Posted on October 24th, 2011


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