He Drew Like An Angel

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da Vinci's Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right

Throughout his life Leonardo da Vinci was plagued by a sense of failure, incompletion and time wasted. His favorite phrase, unconsciously repeated in whole or in part whenever he scribbled something to see if a newly cut pen was working, was "Tell me, tell me if anything got finished." And indeed very little did. His big projects for sculpture were never completed — the huge clay model for one of them, meant to commemorate his patron Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, ended up a shapeless mound, shot to pieces by occupying French archers. His big mural commemorating a Florentine victory, the Battle of Anghiari, became a blistered wreck and was painted over. Little survives of his Last Supper in Milan. And so the melancholy catalog of ruin and loss goes on.

He never found time to edit the intriguing but amorphous mass of his writings into coherent treatises. His engineering and hydraulic projects either failed or were not started. Very few of his machines would have worked either, and, of course, the famous ornithopters, helicopters and gliders that made him, in the eyes of an earlier generation, a sort of quattrocento Orville Wright never moved an inch into the air. Probably not even the crank-propelled tanks that he hoped would creep like lethal cone snails across the battlefields of northern Italy would have harmed anyone, even assuming that their sweating and straining occupants could have got their wheels to go round at all, which is beyond probability.

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We remember Leonardo as a painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect and scientist. Yet if one is to judge by the self-advertising letter he sent to Sforza in Milan in 1481, he didn't rate his skills that way. Before anything else, he listed his strategic ingenuity: he could design portable bridges, drain moats, bombard strongholds, design and cast siege cannon, make fireproof ships, and so on and on. Not until item No. 10, the last on his list, did he get around to saying that in painting too he could "do everything possible as well as any other." There may have been a simple reason for this, since being a military engineer was probably more profitable than being a painter, but this image is still vastly unlike the aesthete we think of today as Leonardo.

Three things, however, can be said without hesitation about Leonardo. The first is that he was not a "Renaissance man." He did not typify his time. Many artists in the Renaissance worked, as Leonardo did, in a wide variety of media: drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture and so forth. None, however, not even the great Leon Battista Alberti, had Leonardo's astounding and insatiable curiosity about the makeup and governing laws of the physical world or spent so much time and energy speculating about them.

The second thing is, obviously, that he could draw like an angel. The idea that he was "the greatest" Italian draftsman of his time (born in 1452, he died at a considerable age in exile in France in 1519) is essentially meaningless, because the late 15th and early 16th centuries were full of astonishing performers on paper. But not even contemporaries like Michelangelo were able to exceed, or regularly rival, him as a master of the kind of expressive and descriptive line that one sees in such drawings of his as the studies for equestrian sculpture or in his astounding anatomical analyses of human bone and muscle structure — though some of them, of course, were artists with very different aims.

This is simply a fact, and anyone lucky enough to be in the vicinity of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art over the next nine weeks (through March 30) can readily check it out. "Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman" opened last week, with nearly 120 drawings and a single barely unfinished painting, the Vatican's anguished St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness. Assembled from collections all over Europe, Britain and the U.S., it is a prodigious curatorial achievement by Carmen Bambach and George Goldner, curator and chairman, respectively, of the Metropolitan's Department of Drawings and Prints. (Hercules himself could hardly be expected to go through the show on foot lugging its huge, 8-lb. catalog, but never mind: it's a major addition to the mass of Leonardo literature, which, at that weight, it should be.)

The third thing is that Leonardo was one of the least transparent artists who ever lived and, given the enormous losses and gaps in what we know about him, it is futile to hope that any exhibition could sum him up. He was conflicted, contradictory, almost incredibly hard to get at, to or around. It is not true, however, that his famous backward writing was an attempt to shield the secrets of his researches from prying eyes. This aspect of the Leonardo "mystery" is not a mystery at all, because he was left-handed, and it was natural for him to write that way.

Still, was there ever an artist in whom an obsession with destruction and apocalypse — and it was a real obsession, not just a vicarious "as if" interest — coexisted so vividly with a love of extreme delicacy, of febrile and evanescent beauty, of consolingly elegant effects? Not until Leonardo — and not after him either, one is tempted to add. He dwelt on chaos and social collapse with morbid delight: the end of the world was his private horror movie or would have been if the 15th century had had movies. In his descriptions of imagined catastrophes one reads Leonardo piling on the special effects to make concrete what neither he nor anyone else had seen, his language struggling to break the constraints of reality: weeping, wailing, cannibalism, the fury of the elements, the end of the world.

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