Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 3, 2011
Claire Farago, ed. Re-Reading Leonardo: The “Treatise on Painting” across Europe, 1550–1900 Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 652 pp.; 5 color ills.; 170 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754665328)

This impressive, generously illustrated collection of essays edited by Claire Farago developed from a symposium held in London in 2001 that focused on the historical reception of Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della pittura. Twenty-three studies, including introductory remarks and an annotated bibliography, by twenty authors (three scholars make multiple contributions) examine the transnational fortune of the treatise and consider Leonardo’s influence on the institutionalization of artistic production in early modern Europe. The focus on reception leads to consideration of fundamental issues regarding Leonardo’s legacy, such as the development of the modern conception of artistic genius, as well as broader concerns, such as the disciplinization of art history. By positing Leonardo’s influence instead of his reputation as the “historical phenomena” (3), the essays systematically problematize the constitution of that reputation. As Farago states: “An historical practice that focuses on the author’s identity without attending to the construction of identity per se, is blind to its own modes of knowledge production” (4).

Late Renaissance artists and amateurs were familiar with Leonardo’s ideas regarding artistic practice through a variety of sources, from apographs of his manuscripts to artists’ handbooks that quoted his opinions. It was not until 1651, however, that an edited compilation of his notes on painting was published. Selected and arranged by Leonardo’s student Francesco Melzi in the mid-sixteenth century and later abridged, the Trattato first appeared in an Italian edition coordinated by Raphaël Trichet Du Fresne of the Imprimerie royale in Paris and illustrated with engravings after Nicolas Poussin. This edition became known as the editio princeps, a sumptuous “art book” (as defined by Catherine M. Soussloff) that also incorporates a biography of Leonardo, a biography of Leon Battista Alberti and his treatises on painting and sculpture, and a bibliography. Later that year, a French translation by Roland Fréart de Chambray was published. In the following centuries, translations appeared in English (1721), German (1724), Spanish (1784), Dutch (1827), and Polish (1876), although selections from Leonardo’s writings had been featured before these dates in various publications in the vernacular, including Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck of 1604 and Vicente Carducho’s Dialogos de la pintura of 1633. The Trattato as presented in the twin editions of 1651 comprises 365 brief chapters discussing the training of young artists, color and its effects, and the representation of movement, gesture, light, drapery, and flora; topics traditionally associated with the Renaissance master, such as optics, mathematical perspective, anatomy, and the representation of physiognomic expression, are surprisingly summarized or omitted. The abridged Trattato remained the basis for any consideration of Leonardo’s artistic theory for generations; therefore, it is astonishing that an in-depth study of the influence of this seminal publication had not been undertaken earlier. A modern critical edition of the abridged Trattato currently is being prepared by several of the contributors to the present volume and certainly will become an indispensible tool for students of the artist. Re-Reading Leonardo: The “Treatise on Painting” across Europe, 1550–1900 thus complements this project while expanding the debate regarding Leonardo’s authority.

Recovering the history of the reception of an object or text is a difficult task. The series of case studies included in Re-Reading Leonardo offers an instructive solution that traces new paths through the extensive bibliography on the artist. Farago’s comprehensive introduction provides a welcome guide to the wide-ranging essays, which are organized by location. The first six analyze the Italian fortuna of the Trattato, balancing detailed reconstructions of the circumstances related to the publication of Leonardo’s abridged writings (in essays by Farago and Martin Kemp in collaboration with Juliana Barone) with subtle discussions of individual responses to this mediated text, including the seventeenth-century sculptor Giovanfrancesco Susini’s unorthodox reading of the Trattato as a collection of “figural inventions” (Michael Cole), Leonardo’s influence on sixteenth-century Florentine artists and the efforts of early Florentine academicians to explore the philosophical dimensions of painting (Robert Williams), and the history of the 1733 Neapolitan edition issued from the press of Francesco Ricciardi (or Ricciardo), which serves as an example of how editorial entrepreneurship could inspire cultural reform and shape local identity (Thomas Willette). Janis C. Bell’s examination of Matteo Zaccolini’s Prospettiva del colore (possibly produced between 1605 and 1618), which was indebted to the Trattato despite the fact that Zaccolini never acknowledged his source, reevaluates early modern concepts of appropriation, assimilation, and authorship, issues that are explored further in the following chapters.

The second section investigates the reception of the treatise in France and offers valuable insight into French academic painting. The abridged Trattato was published in Paris only three years after the foundation of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture and its crucial role in the organization and regulation of artistic practice and the formation of a national artistic identity within France is elucidated by a series of informative essays: Soussloff analyzes Trichet Du Fresne’s biography of Leonardo included in the editio princeps and demonstrates how the writer presents his subject as the transmitter of the Italian artistic tradition to France; Barone traces the complex working process behind Poussin’s illustrations for the Trattato and determines that he used templates to create his figures, a remarkable conclusion that expands current understanding of Poussin’s response to Leonardo’s teachings; Pauline Maguire Robison outlines the application of Leonardo’s theory of aerial perspective in Poussin’s paintings and the distillation of this theory in André Félibien’s Entretien 5 published in 1679; and Thomas Kirchner discusses the appropriation of the Trattato, especially Leonardo’s reference to empirical study, by eighteenth-century critics committed to reforming the academic style, which they insisted had become mannered. Additionally, two chapters address the “Perspective Wars” of the nascent academy, a scandal that foregrounds the Trattato’s importance to the development of the curriculum and character of the institution. Kemp’s reconstruction from 1987 of the events leading to the expulsion in 1661 of the engraver Abraham Bosse, the inflexible teacher of perspective who became the unlucky advocate of controversial perspectival laws based on the work of the engineer, designer, and mathematician Girard Desargues, is reprinted and supplemented by J. V. Field’s study of the Académie’s turn from the rigorous mathematical systems championed by Bosse to the more qualitative, and practical, method recommended in the Trattato.

Sections 3 through 6 consider the influence of the Trattato in the rest of Europe. Essays by Javier Navarro de Zuvillaga and Charlene Villaseñor Black examine the Spanish reception of Leonardo’s writings and reconsider “the perceived dichotomy between craft and liberal art” among artists working in that country (367). Navarro de Zuvillaga observes how the Trattato was reframed by Spanish masters as a set of rules for training painters while Black concludes that Francisco Pacheco’s El arte de la pintura (published in 1649) essentially privileged practice over theory, an innovative reading that revises traditional opinion that early modern Spanish artists sought to advance their profession primarily by establishing painting as a liberal art. Black suggests that Pacheco repositioned the concept of ingenio, aligning it with habilidad, or skill, as situated in hand and brush, thus valorizing the artist’s technical proficiency and celebrating the artist’s tools as loci of divine inspiration. Thijs Weststeijn’s chapter surveying Samuel van Hoogstraten’s 1678 treatise balances this reevaluation. According to Weststeijn, Van Hoogstraten promoted painting’s position among the arts and sciences through theory, arguing that painting’s ability to “encompass the entire visible world” (419) and reflect the glory of Creation (in addition to the universality and learning of the painter) ensured this honor. Expanding on the topic of empiricism in artistic practice, as well as readdressing issues of compilation, adaptation, and originality introduced in previous chapters, Michèle-Caroline Heck provides a comprehensive survey of Leonardo’s influence on the writings of Van Mander and Joachim von Sandrart. A third contribution by Barone reassesses Peter Paul Rubens’s knowledge of Leonardo’s literary and artistic production and demonstrates Leonardo’s impact on the development of the Flemish artist’s theoretical investigations, particularly those regarding motion and emotion. Richard Woodfield and Geoff Quilley further reevaluate issues of appropriation, establishing that the Trattato was not employed as a teaching tool in eighteenth-century England but instead functioned as a barometer of public interest in scientific writings (Woodfield notes that the Trattato served not only as an exemplum for English artists interested in redefining themselves as supporters of Newtonian science and sophisticated practitioners of naturalistic painting but also as a means to advance freemasonry), and as the site of tensions between public and private conceptions of artistic genius. Less familiar topics, such as the reception of Leonardo’s writings in Greece and Poland, are of special interest. The contributions of Chrysa Damianaki and Marcin Fabiański introduce the association of Leonardo’s concept of the intellectual independence of the artist with cultural and educational reform. Damianaki convincingly argues that unpublished translations of Leonardo’s writings were disseminated across Greece and the Balkans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and played a central role in the adoption of Western painting styles and practices among painters in the Ionian islands struggling to define themselves against Orthodox factions, while Fabiański outlines the efforts of a few nineteenth-century Polish artists and intellectuals to introduce the Trattato to the local scholarly community and national fine arts curriculum, often during periods of political repression.

Mario Valentino Guffanti’s bibliography of printed editions and excerpts of the Trattato and the Paragone (Leonardo’s comparison of the arts presented in the first part of the Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library), which includes a chronological catalog for quick reference, substantially updates Kate Trauman Steinitz’s fundamental resource of 1958. A thorough index allows the reader to navigate the volume easily. As a companion to the forthcoming critical edition of the abridged Trattato, this book is a significant achievement. On its own, it is a rich analysis of art instruction, the rise of academies, and conflicting concepts of artistic authority and integrity during the early modern period.

Ellen Prokop
Associate Head of Research, Frick Art Reference Library

Please send comments about this review to