The anatomy of a genius

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the great figures of the Renaissance, or of any age. But was he really such a great artist?; EXHIBITIONS

Tim Hilton
Saturday 13 April 1996 23:02

AS IS too seldom remarked, Leonardo da Vinci was a great man but not necessarily a great artist. We don't usually make this distinction - because, quite properly, we are overwhelmed by the nobility of his mind. It's still true, however, that his few paintings and many drawings do not match the best work of the Renaissance. Suppose there were an exhibition in which we saw Leonardo side by side with, say, Titian. There could then be no doubt that Titian had the more creative personality, and a more ample and generous attitude towards the world.

Such thoughts are prompted by a visit to the new exhibition of drawings by Leonardo at the Queen's Gallery. The collection is the most important anywhere. It was first recorded at Kensington Palace in 1690 but, curiously enough, we do not know how or when it became royal property. We do know that all the drawings were originally mounted in an album. More recently they have been put through conservation processes and are now pressed between ultraviolet-filtered Perspex sheets. Many of the drawings included in the present exhibition are seen in this "new" condition for the first time.

Because the light levels are so low one has to peer into these drawings. Furthermore, they are all small, book-sized, so one approaches them as though in expectation of secrets preserved in some precious and arcane volume. Well, that's exactly what the original album was, so the feeling is legitimate. It's difficult not to be awed in the reverential atmosphere of the Queen's Gallery. But aesthetic efforts must be made. Some drawings are much better than others; the interest of the lesser drawings is documentary. There is no sheet that does not carry a special message about the nature of Leonardo's intellect; on the other hand, not every sheet gives the limpid satisfaction of pure and achieved art.

I recommend Martin Clayton's catalogue - and with a paperback version at pounds 12.95 it's not too expensive for anyone who wants to study and understand Leonardo. Clayton's work is not full of easeful delights: rather the opposite. Anyway, he is a good guide: he's a curator at Windsor so probably had to hold back from personal views. I wish he'd written a longer introduction. He might then have explained what he means by the subtitle of his book: Leonardo da Vinci: a Curious Vision.

Of course we all know in a general sense what Clayton is suggesting, but I would go further - as follows. Leonardo had a weird and even sinister sense of beauty. It was his alone. Many people tried to copy his manner, but they could never reproduce the svelte, evasive undercurrent of evil. Leonardo himself could not eradicate the part of his art that makes us so uneasy when contemplating it, and perhaps he left so few finished works precisely because he feared the nature of his genius. Is not fear the real subject of the four final drawings here, all called The Deluge, in which the aged master confronted not only nature but his own mind?

I first notice the "curious" Leonardo in the early St John the Baptist, done while he was apprenticed to Verrocchio in Florence in the mid-1470s. Probably it's a study for a picture that was never painted, or it might have been a drawing done for practice. Yet what personality it possesses, and how impossible it would have been to incorporate such personality in a Verrocchio painting. We realise that this naked youth must have been observed from life. But he seems to belong to the underworld rather than to the light of Christian revolution.

Light as such is indeed a crucial point. The subject divides Leonardo's admirers from those who have reservations. Some people believe that because he studied light scientifically his sfumato, that shady chiaroscuro, was an advance in naturalism. I think that it belongs in the caves of the human spirit. It's conceivable that Leonardo preferred to draw by lamplight, though plant studies like the beautiful A Tree were obviously begun, if not concluded, in the open air. Somehow I cannot believe that the studies of flowing water were made by the river-banks of Arosa. The handwriting that occupies most of each sheet suggests they were done in the study.

What marvellous handwriting it is, so precise and firm. I add that the script is commanding. Its own size, which is unvaried, tends to set the scale for any drawing that illustrates the thoughts in the writing. This was so habitual to Leonardo that he often did things out of scale, like all those tiny horses that were projections for a big monument. The Deluges are also out of scale, but that doesn't matter because they are really images of Leonardo's brain. As art, Leonardo's maps have a lovely flavour. Maps by their nature have their own scale and it was good for Leonardo's mind to survey distant terrain, rather than tendons and suchlike.

Personally I do not experience the anatomical drawings as art, though I recognise that they were made by an exceptional artist. And I think it's more likely that visitors will come away haunted by the "curious" rather than the scientific Leonardo. Few people will easily forget the Head of Judas (another underworld character), or the Head of Leda - an image so easily confused with that of the Christian Virgin, though as we know Leda was seduced by Jupiter in the shape of a swan. A myth that's curious in the extreme.

! Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, SW1 (0171 839 1377), to 12 Jan 1997.

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