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Everything Is Illuminated

Reviewed by Alexander Nagel
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page BW10

LEONARDO DA VINCI: Flights of the Mind

By Charles Nicholl. Viking. 623 pp. $32.95


(From "leonardo Da Vinci: Flights Of The Mind")

By Martin Kemp. Oxford Univ. 286 pp. $26

"Mistresses pleasure pain love jealousy happiness envy fortune penitence." This stream of consciousness account of the roller coaster of desire, scribbled by a thirtysomething Leonardo da Vinci, is not just an inventory of the trials of love. In the thinking of Leonardo's time, desire is movement impelled by the urge to make up for a lack, and motion is, in Leonardo's words, "the cause of all life." For Leonardo, as for most thinkers of his time, the elements are restless, the sea roils, the wind gusts, rain falls, gravity pulls -- all because things are constantly seeking a place of rest and completeness and not finding it. In the Italian of his day, the same word, moti, described both motions and emotions. Psychology was an application of physics, and physics revealed the passionate life of nature.

Leonardo spent his whole life investigating these movements inside and around us. Since in his eyes everything was connected, there were no boundaries to his investigations. It is customary to treat Leonardo as a rare genius, and he was. But go and dip into his countless notebooks, many of which have been translated into English, and you will encounter a hearteningly flat-footed seeker, a man who doggedly asks "How?" again and again -- indeed, more frequently than he does the metaphysical "Why?" You will also recognize, with great sympathy and relief, the unmistakable symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

In his deeply researched, engaging and illuminating biography, Charles Nicholl is drawn again and again to Leonardo's preoccupation with flight -- his obsession, from his earliest infancy, with birds, as well as his designs for parachutes, hang-gliders, helicopters and planes. Nicholl will convince any reader that this fascination was a major, abiding concern of Leonardo's life, but he never tells us why this should be so. A very simple reason may be that levitation was the one thing that offered a reprieve from all that earthly movement. In the most fundamental sense, the aspiration to take flight deeply informed Leonardo's paintings, far beyond the depiction of birds and winged angels. Nicholl shows, for example, that the famous landscape drawing in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, proudly dated 1473 by a 21-year-old Leonardo, is not a sketch of any one view from a given spot, but a composite of various landscapes in the area around his hometown of Vinci -- a composite presented as if seen from the air. It is a bird's-eye view.

A certain quality of ethereal levitation pervades all of Leonardo's works. The untranslatable Italian word sfumato, which alludes to an effect like smoke disappearing into the air, well describes the characteristic atmosphere of Leonardo's painting. It was a technique devised to depict gradual transitions of light and shade, and its effect was to place objects into a surrounding atmosphere -- that is, into conditions that could have meaning only in the perceptual experience of a viewer. In fact, the paintings emerge looking like the result of a heightened visual experience, even a trancelike state. A fancy word for this process is sublimation -- literally, the transmutation of solids and liquids into airborne gas -- and it had real consequences for Leonardo's practical life as a painter. One by one, his works tended to untie themselves from the concrete circumstances of their commissions, remaining suspended in the more rarefied state of the work-in-progress or the autonomous work of art.

Martin Kemp begins his new book with a chapter entitled "A Strange Career," an entertaining account of the repeated failures to deliver that mark Leonardo's professional life. An Oxford art historian who has written extensively on Leonardo, Kemp here offers a synthetic introduction, written in a relaxed mode clearly intended to appeal to the lay reader. The heart of his book introduces us to some of the investigations that kept Leonardo from finishing paintings, ranging from optics, anatomy and engineering to geology and hydraulics. Chapter Four, entitled "The Living Earth," does the most to reveal the underlying unity of Leonardo's investigations, particularly his persistent belief that the earth is a macrocosm of the human organism: The earth's soil is its flesh, its rocky substructure is its bones, water runs through rivers like blood through veins, the tides are the earth's pulse (or, at other moments, its breathing).

If Kemp is at his best when elucidating Leonardo's scientific investigations, he is least compelling when dealing with Leonardo's paintings. Rather than offer a sustained analysis of particular works, Kemp runs through a sort of model of the painting process itself, from the preparatory drawing to the conditions of viewing it on location, drawing evidence from various projects as he goes. The result is that no work, with the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, receives anything close to its due.

Nicholl's strictly chronological account is a nice complement to Kemp's occasionally loose, thematic approach. Nicholl's book is pure biography, filled with carefully researched and sometimes little-known facts, masterfully woven together. From the initial visits to the places of Leonardo's earliest childhood to the account of his final years in France, Nicholl is acutely sensitive to anything that might bring us in touch with Leonardo the man. He wants to know the things that are now almost impossible to know and yet are basic to a person: How did he talk, how did he carry himself, how did he express love, what was his sense of humor like? (Leonardo did seem to like to tell jokes, some of which are rather flatly rendered in his notebooks, and Nicholl imagines that his delivery must have been "rather deadpan, false-solemn." I will admit to having no idea how Leonardo would have told them.) More biographer than art critic, Nicholl doesn't spend a lot of time with the paintings and drawings, primarily mining them for clues that relate to Leonardo's life. If sustained analysis of the art is what you are looking for, you will not find it in either of these books.

Both books excite the reader's admiration for the restless vitality of the man and his ideas, and so raise the irresistible question: What would Leonardo be doing if he were alive now? Well, he almost certainly wouldn't be hanging pictures -- or even making installations -- in art galleries. The inventor of the prototype of the robot, he would surely be fascinated by digital technology, and he would probably be working hard to move away from these clunky machines altogether and integrate computer technology with our bodies and brains. A linen-wearing vegan in his own life, he would likely be acutely aware of the impending disaster facing an overpopulated planet that is abusing its resources and disrupting its ecosystems. He would probably be supremely confident that he could devise new technologies to make life sustainable solely on the basis of renewable resources -- and at the same time wondering whether all this might require making some fairly radical improvements in the physiology of human beings themselves. In the end, one can imagine his investigations returning again and again to the possibilities opened up by genetic engineering, which is, after all, a spectacular meeting point of art and nature. To think of what he would do soon becomes alarming, almost as much as the thought of how we will manage without another one like him. •

Alexander Nagel is Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the National Gallery of Art's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.

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