What sort of man was this prince of art? There are several alleged portraits of him, but none before fifty. Vasari speaks with unusual fervor of “the never adequately praised beauty of his body,” and “the splendor of his appearance, which was extremely beautiful, and made every sorrowful soul serene”; but Vasari spoke from hearsay, and we have no representation of this godlike stage. Even in middle age Leonardo wore a long beard, carefully perfumed and curled. A portrait of Leonardo by himself, in the Royal Library at Windsor, shows a broad and benign face, with long flowing hair and a vast white beard. A magnificent painting in the Uffizi Gallery, by an unknown artist, pictures him with a strong face, searching eyes, white hair and beard, and soft black hat. The noble figure of Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens (1509) has by tradition and some scholars been called a portrait of Leonardo.24a A self-portrait in chalk, in the Turin Gallery, shows him bald to the mid-pate, wrinkled in forehead, cheeks, and nose, and almost lost in hair. He seems to have grown old before his time, and died at sixty-seven, despite a careful vegetarian regimen, while Michelangelo, who scorned hygiene and entertained one ailment after another, reached eighty-nine. He dressed in luxurious clothing, while Michelangelo lived in his boots. Yet Leonardo in his prime was known for his strength, bending a horseshoe with his hands; he was an expert fencer, and skilled in riding and managing horses, which he loved as the noblest and fairest of animals. Apparently he drew, painted, and wrote with his left hand; this, rather than a desire to be illegible, made him write from right to left.
We have suggested that his homosexuality was not innate, but grew out of the unpleasant relation of a burdened stepmother with a bastard stepson. His need for receiving and returning affection found satisfaction with the handsome youths whom he later collected. He drew women much less frequently than men; he acknowledged their beauty, but seems to have shared Socrates’ preference for boys. In all the jungle of his manuscripts there is no word of love or tenderness for women. Yet he understood well many phases of woman’s nature; no one has surpassed him in representing virginal delicacy, motherly solicitude, or feminine subtlety. It may be that his sensitiveness, his secretive anagrams and codes, his double locking of his studio at night, had a root in his consciousness of abnormality as well as in his fear of being charged with heresy. He was not anxious to be read by the many. “The truth of things,” he wrote, “is a supreme food for fine intelligences, but not for wandering wits.”25
His sexual inversion may have influenced other elements of his character. He was the soul of gentle kindness to his friends. He protested against killing animals, “would not allow anyone to hurt any living thing”;26 he bought caged birds to free them.27 In other aspects he seemed morally insensitive. He was apparently fascinated by the problem of designing instruments of war. He appears to have felt no strong resentment against the French for condemning to a dungeon the Lodovico who for sixteen years had maintained him handsomely in Milan. He went off without visible qualm to serve a Borgia whom Florence feared as a threat to her liberty. Like every artist, every author, and every homosexual, he was unusually self-conscious, sensitive, and vain. Se tu sarai solo tu sarai tutto tuo, he wrote; “if you are alone, you are all your own; with a companion you are half yourself; so you squander yourself according to the indiscretion of your company.”28 He could shine in company as a musician or a conversationalist, but he liked rather to isolate himself in rapt concentration on his tasks. “The chief gift of nature,” he said (never having starved), “is liberty.”29
His virtues were the better side of his faults. His aversion to sexual behavior may have left him free to spend his blood upon his work. His painful sensitivity opened up to him a thousand facets of reality unseen by the common eye. He would follow through a dozen streets, or all day long, some unusual face, and then, in his studio, draw it as well as if he had brought the model with him. His mind leaped at peculiarities—strange forms, actions, ideas. “The Nile,” he wrote, “has discharged more water into the sea than is at present contained in all the waters of the earth”; consequently “all the sea and the rivers have passed through the mouth of the Nile an infinite number of times.”30 By a kindred bent he indulged himself in queer pranks; so one day he hid the cleaned gut of a ram in a room, and when his friends had gathered there, he inflated the gut by a bellows in an adjoining chamber, until the swelling skin crowded his guests against the walls. He recorded in his notebooks a variety of second-class fables and jokes.
His curiosity, his inversion, his sensitivity, his passion for perfection, all entered into his most fatal defect—the inability or unwillingess to complete what he had begun. Perhaps he entered upon each work of art with a view to solve a technical problem of composition, color, or design, and lost interest in the work when the solution had been found. Art, he said, lies in conceiving and designing, not in the actual execution; this was labor for lesser minds. Or he pictured to himself some subtlety, significance, or perfection that his patient, and at last impatient, hand could not realize, and he abandoned the effort in despair, as in the case of the face of Christ.31 He passed too quickly from one task or subject to another; he was interested in too many things; he lacked a unifying purpose, a dominating idea; this “universal man” was a medley of brilliant fragments; he was possessed of and by too many abilities to harness them to one goal. In the end he mourned, “I have wasted my hours.”32
He wrote five thousand pages, but never completed one book. Quantitatively he was more an author than an artist. He speaks of having composed 120 manuscripts; fifty remain. They are written from right to left in a half-Oriental script that almost lends color to the legend that at one time he traveled in the Near East, served the Egyptian sultan, and embraced the Mohammedan faith.33 His grammar is poor, his spelling is individualistic. His reading was varied and desultory. He had a little library of thirty-seven volumes: the Bible, Aesop, Diogenes Laertius, Ovid, Livy, Pliny the Elder, Dante, Petrarch, Poggio, Filelfo, Ficino, Pulci, the Travels of “Mandeville,” and treatises on mathematics, cosmography, anatomy, medicine, agriculture, palmistry, and the art of war. He remarked that “the knowledge of past times and of geography adorns and nourishes the intellect,”34 but his many anachronisms show only a scattering acquaintance with history. He aspired to be a good writer; made several attempts at eloquence, as in his repeated descriptions of a flood;35 and wrote vivid accounts of a tempest and a battle.36 He clearly intended to publish some of his writings, and often began to put his notes into order for this purpose. So far as we know he published nothing during his lifetime; but he must have allowed somefriends to see selected manuscripts, for there are references to his writings in Flavio Biondo, Jerome Cardan, and Cellini.
He wrote equally well on science and art, and divided his time almost evenly between them. The most substantial of his manuscripts is the Trattato della pittura, or Treatise on Painting, first published in 1651. Despite devoted modern editing, it is still a loose aggregation of fragments, in poor array, and often repetitious. Leonardo anticipates those who argue that painting can be learned only by painting; he thinks a sound knowledge of theory helps; and he laughs off his critics as being like “those of whom Demetrius declared that he took no more account of the wind that came from their mouths than of that which they expelled from their lower parts.”37 His basic precept is that the student of art should study nature rather than copy the works of other artists. “See to it, O painter, that when you go into the fields you give your attention to the various objects, looking carefully in turn first at one object then at another, making a bundle of different things selected among those of less value.”38 Of course the painter must study anatomy, perspective, modeling by light and shade; boundaries sharply defined make a picture seem wooden. “Always make the figure so that the bosom is not turned in the same direction as the head”;39 here is one secret of the grace in Leonardo’s own compositions. Finally he urges: “Make figures with such action as may suffice to show what the figure has in mind.”40 Did he forget to do this with Mona Lisa, or did he exaggerate our ability to read the soul in the eyes and the lips?
Leonardo the man appears more clearly and variously in his drawings than in his paintings or his notes. Their number is legion; one manuscript alone—the Codice Atlantico in Milan—has seventeen hundred. Many are hasty sketches; many are such masterpieces that we must rank Leonardo as the ablest, subtlest, profoundest draughtsman of the Renaissance; there is nothing in the drawings of Michelangelo or Rembrandt that can match the amazing Virgin, Christ, and St. Anne in Burlington House. Leonardo used silverpoint, charcoal, red chalk, or pen and ink to draw almost every phase of physical, many of spiritual life. A hundred putti or bambini spread their fat and dimpled legs in his sketches; a hundred youths, half Greek in profile, half woman in soul; a hundred pretty maidens, of demure and tender mien, hair waving in the wind; athletes proud of their muscles, and warriors breathing battle or gleaming with armor and arms; saints from the soft beauty of Sebastian to the haggard skin of Jerome; gentle madonnas seeing the world redeemed in their babes; complex drawings of costumes for masquerades; and studies of shawls and scarves and laces and robes caressing the head or the neck, curling on the arm, or falling from shoulder or knee in folds that catch the light, invite the touch, and seem more real than the garments on our flesh. All these forms sing the zest and marvel of life; but scattered among them are horrible grotesques and caricatures—deformed heads, leering imbeciles, bestial faces, crippled bodies, shrews contorted with fury, a Medusa with snakes for hair, men desiccated and corrugated with age, women in the last stages of decay; this was another side of reality, and Leonardo’s impartial universal eye caught it, fixed it, put it down resolutely on his sheets, as if to look ugly evil squarely in the face. He kept these horrors out of his paintings, which owed some loyalty to beauty, but he had to find room for them in his philosophy.
Perhaps nature pleased him more than man did, for nature was neutral, and could not be accused of evil as malice; everything in her was forgivable to an unbiased eye. So Leonardo drew many landscapes, and scolded Botticelli for ignoring them; he followed the tendrils of flowers faithfully with his pen; he hardly painted a picture without giving it added magic and depth by a background of trees, streams, rocks, mountains, clouds, and sea. He almost banished architectural forms from his art so that he might leave more room for nature to enter and absorb the painted individual or group into the reconciling totality of things.
Sometimes Leonardo tried his hand at architectural design, but with chastening unsuccess. There are architectural fantasies among his drawings, quaint and half Syrian. He liked domes, and made a pretty sketch for a kind of St. Sophia that Lodovico might build in Milan; it never rose from the ground. Lodovico sent him to Pavia to help redesign the cathedral there, but Leonardo found the mathematicians and anatomists of Pavia more interesting than the cathedral. He mourned the noise, filth, and narrow congestion of Italian towns, studied town planning, and submitted to Lodovico a sketch for a city of two levels. On the lower level would move all commercial traffic, “and loads for the service and convenience of the common people”; the upper level would be a roadway twentybraccia (some forty feet) wide, upheld by colonnaded arcades, and “not to be used by vehicles, but solely for the convenience of the gentlefolk”; spiral staircases would occasionally connect the two levels, and every here and there a fountain would cool and cleanse the air.41 Lodovico had no funds for such an upheaval, and the Milanese aristocracy remained on the earth.