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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Flights of the Mind

Well. I finally finished the 2004 biography of Leonardo da Vinci subtitled Flights of the Mind: A Biography by Charles Nicholl. I say finally because I received the book as a gift for Christmas 2004 and had been working my way through its' 500 pages very slowly the last six months. Until recently it was the book that sat by my bedside table and as a result, which I read a page or two at a time before falling asleep each night.

I had never read any biographies of Leonardo (1452-1519) before (although I did catch the recent show on his life on The History Channel) and so many of the biographical details were new to me. For example, I hadn't realized how much Leonardo moved around; from his early days as an apprentice in the studio of Verrochio in Florence (1467), to working for the Sforza ruler Ludovico in Milan (1482) for almost 20 years, from there to Mantua and back to Florence (1499), to Milan at the behest of the French governor (1506), to Rome (1513), and finally to France (1516) where he dies in 1519. I also had some inclination but didn't understand how much his career was shaped by the politics of the time, principally in the powerplay between the Medicis in Florence, the Sforzas in Milan, the French aristocracy, and the Papacy.

What he leaves behind in all of these moves are just a dozen or so completed works with many more apparently begun and never finished complete with various legal squabbles and half-promises he had to get out of. And while he fancied himself a military engineer, and sold himself as such to the Sforza's in Milan, he never actually got around to building anything of military import. He also seemed to shift his allegiances easily and didn't mind doing the bidding of less than sterling characters. One gets the impression that he was a man who couldn't stay focused on one task for long and so split his time and extraordinary intellect and talents between so many different projects that he rarely completed any of them. In fact, one is left to wonder whether if he hadn't been paid for his paintings, whether he would have finished even the ones he did. In one sense, then, I found the book a little sad in that while Leonardo certainly left a legacy in his painting, he could have had a much larger impact with his studies of paleontology, optics, flight, and especially anatomy had he simply seen fit to complete and publish his work - work that survived his death as several thousand hand-written pages in notebooks that were then scattered to the winds and not generally known or published until the 1800s.

I remember viewing one of the folios at a traveling exhibit at the Houston Museum of Art in the early 1990s and was enthralled with Leonardo's sketches of futuristic devices including a kind of helicopter I believe. At the time I couldn't get my mind around how such an intellectual giant couldn't have influenced his time and ours more than he did. Reading Nicholl's biography helps me understand just how it happened. By the way, some may be wondering as I did about the origin and use of Leonardo's mirror writing. Nicholl disposes of this topic in one sentence and notes that most scholars simply think that Leonardo, who enjoyed no formal schooling, taught himself to write this way and being left-handed found it more natural to do so backwards.

As to the book itself, Nicholl is clearly at heart an art historian and spends much time on the composition, background, and history of each of the authenticated Leonardo works and on many of the studies in his notebooks. His descriptions of the materials used in the creation of the work along with the details of the context in which each was painted are prodigious. He's clearly most comfortable when pointing out the similarities of one work to another and tracing the evolution of Leonardo's works such as the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist, sometimes decades before they actually made it onto canvas. He also does a masterful job of piecing together clues from biographies of Leonardo starting with Vasari's done in the mid 1500s and seemingly every letter or official document that mentions Leonardo during his lifetime. He uses these clues to piece together Leonardo's activities and whereabouts at almost anytime and seems to make plausible assumptions where the data is missing. The level of detail in these areas makes the book worth reading.

I also liked the fact that he did not delve into the various conspiracies or mysteries surrounding Leonardo. For example, he examines the evidence and concludes that the subject of the Mona Lisa is indeed the young mother Lisa Giaconda from Florence, as early biographers insisted. This no-nonsense approach was refreshing and gave the book an air of authority that would, for my anyway, would have been otherwise lacking.

Where the book suffers in my opinion is the lack of analysis regarding anything Leonardo did outside of art and his penchant for putting Leonardo on his couch and performing his Freudian analysis.

Regarding the first area, although the book is subtitled "Flights of the Mind" and Nicholl mentions that Leonardo felt that to fly was "his destiny", Nicholl spends precious little time, just 15 pages, on Leonardo's drawings and contemplation of flight. He mentions that there is some evidence based on a passage in one of the notebooks and one external source, that Leonardo actually built and attempted to fly one of his machines while in Milan but includes little analysis of the actual machines themselves. He tantalizingly mentions that Leonardo was moving towards a fixed-wing design (all of Leonardo's designs had flapping wings) but leaves us hanging as to the evidence for such a move. He similarly is almost silent on Leonardo's military machines including the famous submarine and tank, not to mention the catapults and other devices.

In fact, after finishing the book this morning I re-read the essay "The Upwardly Mobile Fossils of Leonardo's Living Earth" by Stephen Jay Gould published in his 1998 compilation Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. I would have to say that in Gould's 28 page essay I learned more about the content of the Codex Leceister (the notebook that contains Leonardo's view of geophysics compiled in the period 1507-1510 and purchased by Bill Gates in the late 1990s) than in Nicholl's book. Gould does an excellent job of putting Leonardo in the context of his time and showing that Leonardo's correct interpretation of what fossils are, how strata can be correlated across river valleys, how to interpret fossils clam evidence and more relate to his desire to validate his theory of the earth as a macrocosm of the human body. This view is entirely medieval and shows how Leonardo was indeed a product of his time. In any case, the essay succinctly describes Leonardo's views and arguments in the Codex Leceister that Nicholl doesn't even begin to touch on. In fact, I'm surprised that Nicholl doesn't reference Gould since Gould's analysis of Leonardo's theory of the earth, I believe, was unique.

Finally, Nicholl is most disappointing in his treatment of Leonardo's studies of anatomy. It would seem from the book that Leonardo felt as if publishing a book of anatomy such as the one Vesalius (1514-1564) published 25 years after Leonardo's death (1543, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum or "On the fabric of the human body in seven books") was to be his Magnum Opus. Unfortunately, Nicholl leaves us wondering just how much and to what level of detail Leonardo had developed this work (I since learned that he made over 750 anatomical drawings and correctly portrayed the structure of the heart, including the valves and the coronary vessels). Nicholl does mention repeatedly that Leonardo engaged in dissections (at least 30 according to a visitor of Leonardo's during his final year) and how this may have been viewed by others. But aside from showing some of the drawings we never discover, for example, whether Leonardo presaged the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey in his 1628 book De motu cordis et sanguinis. It would seem from Leonardo's theory of the earth explicated by Gould that Leonardo would have had at least a strong suspicion of this fact. In any case, the entire subject is poorly treated in Nicholl's book.

As an aside I was able to view copies of both Vesalius and Harvey's work in the John Martin Rare Book Room at the health sciences library at the University of Iowa. Doing so was an absolute treat.

But probably more disturbing, since I can forgive an author for going with his strength, is Nicholl's constant Freudian over-analysis. It starts early with a dream that Leonardo recounts of a bird near his crib all the way to the painting of St. John the Baptist near the end of this life and doesn't let up in between. Applying pop-psychology to a man who has been dead 500 years and from another culture seems a little bit presumptuous if you ask me. And yes, he treats Leonardo's supposed homosexually and throws it into the mix.

To give you a feel for some of this, the following is a passage where Nicholl's is describing the painting of John the Baptist and it's connection with a later picture of the god Bacchus and a drawing in one of the notebooks known as Angelo incarnato.

"The Lourve painting [St. John] retains an almost poignant trace of the homosexual come-hither - and the likeness of the face to an idealized image of Salai [Leonardo's longtime assistant] anchors this to Leonardo's personal life - but it is subsumed into the numinous lustre of the painting. The tone of malady and corruption in the Angelo incarnato has been healed bu those magical 'oils and plants' distilled at the Belvedere [the location of the painting in Rome]. Slowly, soothingly, repeatedly, they are applied to the panel, layer by superfine layer, until the figure we see there - at once sexual and spiritual, masculine and feminine, sinner and saint - seems to resolve all the conflicts of our divided and irresolute lives."


Well, if you can look past such drivel you just might enjoy the book as well.


unca said...

You write: "But probably more disturbing, since I can forgive an author for going with his strength, is Nicholl's constant Freudian over-analysis. It starts early with a dream that Leonardo recounts of a bird near his crib all the way to the painting of St. John the Baptist near the end of this life and doesn't let up in between. Applying pop-psychology to a man who has been dead 500 years and from another culture seems a little bit presumptuous if you ask me. And yes, he treats Leonardo's supposed homosexually and throws it into the mix."
Yes, seems to me quite a disturbing trend in many recent biographies. And to make it worse, the authors seem to make Freudian observations when the subject lived a long time ago. It's as if they feel that using now discredited psychological theories is OK as long as the object of their analysis lived over two hundred years ago. Weird.

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