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Things That Have Interested Me

Da Vinci Notes

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
23 September 2006

Asked to say a few words about Leonardo the other day, at Christ Church in Oxford, I thought I might try one of his jokes. Leonardo wrote down a few, and it is interesting to see whether they still work (it's the same as asking whether his flying machines work). I had a kindly audience of Leonardo experts, some of whom laughed before the punch line, which comes rather before the end of the joke. The experiment passed off without undue embarrassment. Here is the joke I chose, in Leonardo's own words.

"A priest going the round of his parish on Saturday before Easter, sprinkling holy water in the houses as was his custom, came to a painter's room and there sprinkled water upon some of his pictures. The painter, turning round somewhat annoyed, asked him why this sprinkling had been bestowed on his pictures; then the priest said it was the custom and that it was his duty to do so, that he was doing good, and that whoever did a good deed might expect a return as good and better; for so God had promised that every good deed that was done on earth shall be rewarded a hundredfold from on high.

"Then the painter, having waited until the priest had walked out, stepped to the window above, and threw a large bucket of water on to his back, saying: Here is the reward a hundredfold from on high as you said would come from the good you did me with your holy water with which you have damaged half my pictures."

There's a splendid show of Leonardo drawings at the V&A, which includes handsome models - modern realisations of the artist's sketches. One shows a plan for a single-span bridge over the Golden Horn. Surprisingly, both Michelangelo and Leonardo were approached in connection with this project. Michelangelo later confirmed that he had not only been asked - he himself had made a model of such a bridge, probably some time around 1504-6. The Ottoman sultan making the request would have been Bajazet II.

Leonardo's drawing of the bridge, which is in a manuscript in Paris, is normally dated 1502. It is labelled "Ponte da Pera a Ghostantinopoli" (bridge from Pera to Constantinople). And in case the reader thinks this was just a daydream of Leonardo's, there is a letter from Leonardo in the Topkapi archive, translated into Turkish, discussing this bridge and some other projects.

Leonardo's single-span bridge has apparently been made out of wood in Norway, and seems to have been practicable. The chapter on models in Martin Kemp's V&A catalogue points out that, when you try to build one of Leonardo's designs today, your craftsmen may well lack the knowledge and experience of the behaviour of different kinds of wood. It is very hard to be sure you have executed a model in the way Leonardo would have intended. Failure of your model does not necessarily imply failure of the inventor's conception. But it is true that some of these drawings might have been executed more in the spirit of boasting - designs to wow a group of courtiers - than as credible projects for immediate realisation.

With the flying-machine designs, there being no single definitive drawing of such a machine extant, the best option would appear to be to build something in the spirit of what he was thinking about, and to use modern materials. After all, if Leonardo himself were on site, he would be (one assumes) continually modifying his instructions and experimenting with available materials.

In Oxford there are currently five small Leonardo shows. Christ Church is displaying its collection of drawings by Leonardo and his contemporaries, including the famous grotesque head that is sometimes called "Scaramuccia, King of the Gypsies". These bizarre faces were for a long time all that most people knew of Leonardo's drawings, because they were engraved in the 17th century. At that time, very few of Leonardo's paintings were on public display, with the exception of the already damaged Last Supper in Milan. It wasn't really until the Louvre opened to the public, after the French revolution, that it became possible for the public to get an idea of Leonardo as a painter.

For many years, students at the Royal Academy could study Leonardo's drawing technique from the famous cartoon, now in the National Gallery. It wasn't famous back then. It simply hung on the wall of the Cast Gallery, one of many teaching aids. There was also an early copy of the Last Supper fresco, and this has been placed on loan in Magdalen College Chapel, where it hangs in the antechapel.

There is a show for children at the Botanic Garden, opposite Magdalen. In the Museum of the History of Science, an exhibition draws your attention to mathematical books and instruments of Leonardo's day. When I dropped in, the museum's director was demonstrating some instruments, including a quadrant made by the abbot of the San Miniato monastery in Florence, a man of noble family whose name was Miniato Pitti. He was a friend of Michelangelo, and apparently well known for making his own scientific instruments. Michelangelo saved the tower of San Miniato during a siege by cunningly having mattresses hung all over it, to deaden the impact of projectiles.

Christ Church Picture Gallery and the Ashmolean Museum are where you will see original works by Leonardo - at the Ashmolean in an exhibition about the creation of the reputation or legend of the artist. I was reminded how recently this took its present form. For instance, the first anthology of Leonardo's literary works wasn't printed until 1883. Before then, he had been known for a treatise on the theory of painting which seems to derive indirectly from his teaching.

Until photography, it would have been hard to form any impression of a Leonardo drawing, apart from those that had been engraved, and the process of engraving would anyway have given the drawing its own engraved character. At the Louvre in the 19th century, the drawings department acquired a great album of over 300 drawings in the belief that they were by Leonardo. It took them around 20 years to admit that these works were not by Leonardo (1452-1519), but by a significantly earlier artist, Pisanello. That was not a matter of ignorance, but simply the state of knowledge at the time. And that knowledge is always changing.

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