The Spirit of the Renaissance

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Flora, Detail from the Primavera, c.1478

In the summer of 1508 Leonardo returned to Milan, which was to be his headquarters for the next five years. His chief patron was still Charles d’Amboise, Lord of Chaumont, who remained governor of Milan till his death in 1511. Early in his life d’Amboise had been touched by the spirit of the Renaissance, and in Milan he tried to revive or maintain the civilisation of the Sforzas. Of this civilisation Leonardo had been the greatest glory, and we know that d’Amboise treated him with the utmost consideration. As with the Sforzas he was not simply court painter, but architect, engineer and general artistic adviser. A few designs for architecture, dating from about this period, are in the Codice Atlantico and at Windsor.

Among them are plans and elevations of a town house with classical orders and various suggestions for wells and fountains. The British Museum MS. of 1508 also contains his longest writings on architecture, a study of fissures in walls and vaults, which suggest that he was employed in restoring and conserving as well as building. One day he would be deciding on the form of the choir stalls in the Duomo; another, acting as military engineer in the war against Venice; another, arranging pageants for the entry of Louis XII into Milan. It was a variety of employment which Leonardo enjoyed, but which has left posterity the poorer.

In these years he also travelled extensively, and although we have many clues as to the course of these journeys we have no hint as to their purpose. They do not seem to be connected with any recorded commission, and it is possible that they were undertaken solely in order to make those observations of nature which were one of the chief interests of his later years. MS. F, dated 22 September 1508 and entitled Di mondo ed acque, is the first of a series containing notes on geology, botany, atmosphere and kindred subjects. Although Leonardo’s approach has become more scientific, he still sees with the eye of a painter. His notes on botany describe the ramifications of a tree and the disposition of its leaves, in much the same spirit as Ruskin in the fifth book of Modern Painters. Many pages of MS. G are concerned with light striking on trees, the various greens of transparent leaves, and the blue sheen which they reflect from the sky.

The same book contains valuable notes of what Leonardo called la prospettiva di colore, the modification of colour by atmosphere; in fact, such observations seem to have been one of the chief motives of his mountaineering expeditions. A drawing of the Alps at Windsor, 1 one of a beautiful series in red chalk on red paper, contains an elaborate note of the colour of mountain flowers when seen through a great gulf of intervening air at a considerable height. There are also notes on the colour of smoke and mist which remind us of Goethe, and only his dislike of formulas prevented him from anticipating Goethe’s principle of translucency. In these writings Leonardo anticipated the impressionist doctrine that everything is more or less reflected in everything else and that there are no such things as black shadows. Meanwhile, his paintings were growing more and more shadowy, so that his last work, the equivocal St John in the Louvre, only just emerges from a welter of darkness.

During these expeditions into the mountains he became interested in problems of geology, and in particular the question of why shells and fossilised marine life can be found high up in mountains many miles inland. The thoroughness, tenacity and candour with which in several pages of the Trivulzian MS. he deals with this problem is an admirable example of his mind at work. He never for a moment admits the idea of a special creation, and he advances decisive arguments against the idea that the shells were carried there by the Flood. Ultimately he assumes that the country has been covered by the sea and sets to work to discover how this can have taken place. Thus his geological observations, taken in conjunction with his studies of embryology and comparative anatomy, show him ready to entertain the whole idea of evolution with a scientific open-mindedness in advance of many distinguished scientists of the nineteenth century.

This study of geology is sometimes quoted as evidence of Leonardo’s drift away from art to science; but I need hardly repeat that Leonardo’s researches, however austere, became fused with the texture of his imagination. His study of the earth’s bones is no exception. He had always been interested in rock formations, and to about the years 1508-10 belong a series of drawings at Windsor which show him studying outcrops and disturbed stratification, where the rock has broken through the comfortable humus, and reveals the ancient, grim foundations on which living things have their precarious existence.

This sense of the world as a planet, seen from a point of distance at which human life is no longer visible, is given final expression in the background of the Virgin and St Anne, now in the Louvre. There are no documents for this work, but the studies for it which have come down to us, no less than the whole character of the composition, suggests a date after Leonardo’s return to Milan and perhaps as late as is 1510. Only the vast and delicate landscape was coloured by Leonardo’s own hand. The painting of the heads is insensitive and without the fine texture of the Mona Lisa.

Parts of it are unfinished–the drapery covering the Virgin’s legs, for example, which is no more than an outline. Yet we know how subtle, musical and close-knit this passage could have been from drawings in the Louvre and at Windsor, showing the elaborate preparations he made for all his work, although when the time came to use these studies in a picture his inborn distaste for finality forced him to leave it unfinished. Even more interesting than these drapery studies is Leonardo’s own drawing for the St Anne’s head. The differences between it and the head in the painting are no doubt partly due to Leonardo himself.

It was he, for instance, who changed the head-dress in order to give a sharper accent to the pyramidal group, and he may have done something to make her type more regular. But the difference must also be due to the head being painted by a pupil and is an example of a well-known truth, that a great man’s pupils are plus royaliste que le roi. The conventionally Leonardesque expression of the painted St Anne has a certain charm and an artificial air of mystery, but the human mystery of the drawing is deeper and more subtle.

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