Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 23, 2003
Carmen C. Bambach, ed. Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2003. 800 pp.; 333 color ills.; 182 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300098782)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 22–March 30, 2003

Of all artists, Leonardo da Vinci is best understood through study of his drawings, as previous scholars such as Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Carlo Pedretti, Martin Kemp, and David Brown have amply demonstrated. Berenson went to the heart of the matter in The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (2 vols. [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1903]) when he wrote:

The quality of qualities, then, in Leonardo’s drawing is the feeling it gives of unimpeded, untroubled, unaltered transfer of the object in his vision to the paper, thence, to our eye; while, at the same time, this vision of his has such powers of penetrating, interpreting, even of transfiguring the actual, that, no matter how commonplace and indifferent his subject-matter would seem to ourselves, his presentation of it is fascinating and even enchanting. (1:148)

Leonardo’s drawings look different from those of his contemporaries not only because of the ways they are drawn, but also because they have an altogether different purpose: they go beyond functions of recording appearances and trying out different design ideas to become the tool—and manifestation—of Leonardo’s fertile intelligence. The recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed his prodigious resourcefulness as a draftsman and the dizzying richness of his intellectual life. Those of us who were privileged to see the show are indebted to George Goldner, Carmen C. Bambach, and the museum for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, while those who did not experience the exhibition now have a valuable record of it in the accompanying catalogue.

The exhibition organizers intended to offer a comprehensive picture of Leonardo as a draftsman, encompassing his activities as an artist, inventor, and theorist. To that end, 147 drawings (117 by Leonardo, 30 by his predecessors and followers) and one painting were displayed. Of the more than 4,000 extant drawings by Leonardo to choose from, groups of drawings relating to his major projects in painting, sculpture, engineering, cartography, and theory were exhibited, with many sheets that are less familiar preferred over more “famous” ones. While inevitably one might have missed a favorite drawing (more than one visitor commented to me on the omission of The Vitruvian Man [Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia, fig. 43]), the thrill of seeing groups of drawings related to the Adoration of the Magi or the Battle of Anghiari mitigated the disappointment of not viewing others. As it is, given the difficulties of organizing international loan shows in a post–September 11 world, it is miraculous that the Metropolitan Museum (and perhaps only the Metropolitan Museum) could succeed in securing the number and quality of loans that made up this exhibition. Especially generous were the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and the Louvre in Paris; Unfortunately, there were no loans from the Uffizi in Florence, and at several points one felt the lack keenly.

The exhibition was organized in a generally chronological fashion, with related drawings grouped together with appropriate wall text in addition to individual object labels. Many drawings, including eight double-sided Codex Leicester sheets, were displayed so that recto and verso were visible, revealing both the sequence of motif (Sketches of the Virgin and Child with a Cat, London, British Museum, cat. no. 19) and Leonardo’s procedure, which in some cases included tracing from the recto to the verso (Sketches for the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, also British Museum, cat. no. 96). The installation was stimulating: one could trace from drawing to drawing Leonardo’s thought process, compare his use of different media in pursuit of a particular motif, or observe his extraordinary range of drawing types—from the tiny, quick pen first thoughts for the Accademia Battle of Anghiari (cat. nos. 81, 82,) to the black chalk Windsor Cavalcade (cat. no. 84) to the red chalk Study for the Head of a Soldier from Budapest (cat. no. 90). In this context, issues of attribution were secondary to revealing process and function; in some cases, however, such as for the (relatively) recently attributed drawing of the Young Woman Bathing an Infant from Oporto (cat. no. 21) or the little-exhibited ink-and-wash drawing of the Virgin and Child Holding a Cat from a private collection (cat. no. 18), seeing the drawings in the midst of works of similar technique and date laid to rest lingering doubts of authenticity. The unfinished Saint Jerome panel from the Vatican, with its visible underdrawing as an example of the ultimate stage of graphic preparation in Leonardo’s procedure, was especially thought provoking in the light of the recent scrutiny by the Florentine scientist Maurizio Seracini of the unfinished Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. Groupings of drawings of anatomy, engineering, landscape, and maps (the maps from Windsor were a revelation in their pictorial quality) seen in the context of “artistic” projects brought to life Leonardo’s ability to visualize the structure and function of objects beneath appearances, and to create graphic equivalents of that vision. In the process he pioneered techniques such as perspectival rendering and cross-sectioning, and he entirely recast traditional graphic methods of description and invention. The exhibition showed that Leonardo’s ability to transcribe his singular vision to paper is the thread that links his diverse intellectual ventures.

Especially intriguing to this reviewer was the decision to exhibit drawings by Leonardo’s master Andrea del Verrocchio and his Florentine contemporaries. Too often Leonardo is treated as if he emerged fully formed out of nowhere. Verrocchio’s chalk drawings, the Oxford cartoon (cat. no. 1), loosely related to the Berlin Madonna and Child 104A (fig. 116), and the double-sided sheets from Berlin and London (cat. nos. 2, 3) dazzle with their virtuoso play of light and shade, line and tone, boldness and delicacy—undeniable precedents for Leonardo’s sfumato technique and the drawing style of his finished chalk drawings. It begs the question of where Verrocchio learned to draw with chalk; but certainly the answer lies in the Florentine tradition of monumental painting, with precedents in Andrea del Castagno’s sinopie and in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Lippi drawings. Verrocchio’s pen drawings, the Louvre sheet of putti (cat. no. 4) and (I believe) the verso of the Edinburgh sheet (cat. no. 8) reveal in their fluid penwork of interlocking arcs and parallel diagonal hatching, as well as the repetition of motif on the page, a model for Leonardo’s almost cinematographic sequences—what Kemp has called the graphic equivalent to Verrocchio’s sculpture. The page from the “Verrocchio sketch-book” (cat. no. 12) exhibited in the next room showed the pedestrian lesson drawn from Verrocchio’s example by a far less gifted artist, while Lorenzo di Credi’s drawings (cat. no. 7 and, I believe, 6) show the fate of Verrocchio’s innovations in the hands of a technically superb but uninspired talent.

The group of drapery studies on linen (cat. nos. 13–17) that has fascinated drawing scholars since Giorgio Vasari was also a welcome section, especially since the Louvre exhibition of 1989–90, when most of the extant works in this medium were brought together, generated a lively debate about their attribution and function. In New York, the lack of Uffizi loans was regrettable; one longed to see Uffizi 433E (fig. 58; related to the Verrocchio Christ and Saint Thomas) included in this group, which was drawn entirely from the Louvre. Françoise Viatte’s essay and entries for these drawings suggest they were retouched at a later date—yet I failed to be convinced. In the case of the Drapery for a Seated Figure (cat. no. 17), the only one of the drapery studies that can be linked to a finished painting—by Domenico Ghirlandaio—and that Everett Fahy, David Brown, and I attribute to Ghirlandaio, I would note that the highlighting in the background, here said to be retouching, is seen also in a similar drawing in Berlin for a figure in Ghirlandaio’s Santa Fina chapel in San Gimignano and in other drapery studies that he executed on paper. Highlighting outside of contour characteristically for Ghirlandaio accentuates the plasticity of the form; indeed, viewed from across the gallery this drawing leapt forward from the others, which instead denote minute actions of light falling on textured forms without reference to spatial context. Ghirlandaio’s pragmatic approach—he seems never to have made a drawing he could not use—distinguishes him from Leonardo’s habit of pure exploration.

In a brief review, however, one cannot hope to pursue the many issues to which this brilliantly conceived and superbly executed show gives rise. The catalogue’s introductory essays are informative and stimulate new avenues of inquiry. Essays by Bambach on Leonardo’s left-handedness and by Kemp on the implications of the framed motifs of many sheets show that no aspect of Leonardo’s graphic procedure is without significance. The contribution by Carlo Vecce, “Word and Image in Leonardo’s Writings,” considers Leonardo’s script in the context of classical, humanist, scientific, and commercial writing, while Claire Farago’s essay on the Codex Leicester, his draft for a treatise on the action of water, probes in depth his procedures of compilation and organization in this treatise. Essays on Leonardo’s Florentine patrons (by Alessandro Cecchi), the fortuna critica of his graphic oeuvre (by Pedretti), the grotesques (by Varena Forcione), the drapery studies (Viatte), and the Milanese legacy (Pietro Marani) are also included. The catalogue entries, the lion’s share of which were written by Bambach, show her customary meticulous scholarship, while including many actual size, high-quality color reproductions of the exhibited drawings as well as ample comparative illustrations, many of macrodetails, radiographs, infrared photographs, and other documentation of great interest to the specialist and general public alike.

This is an exhibition to which one wished to return many times; once, to feast on the visual splendor of the drawings, and again, after having read the catalogue, to look more deeply at individual works and pursue their relationship to other drawings, following the themes raised by the catalogue essays. Unfortunately, the show was a victim of its own success; for much of its run, the galleries were so crowded the viewer had to summon extremes of patience and concentration to mine the riches displayed. Now that the works have been dispersed, the catalogue will serve as a potent aide-mémoire as well as a testament to the power of exhibitions to instruct as well as to delight.

Jean K. Cadogan
Professor of Fine Arts, Trinity College