January 22: Truly Marvelous and Celestial

2016/01/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2003 the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman” opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the draftsman of draftsmen.  No disrespect to the dozen or so of his paintings that survive (you can keep the Mona Lisa, but please don’t deny us the [even the potentially overcleaned] Virgin and St. Anne and Ginevra de’ Benci), but the Renaissance had a fair number of great painters.  But “draftsmen”?  Besides Albrecht Dürer, who could draw like Leonardo?  And while those two might technically be on par, Leonardo holds a unique place for his output and its diverse subject matter–portraits, anatomy, machines, building plans, water.  Leonardo is well known as an archetypal Renaissance man, with broad interests and great talent.  How beautiful and spot-on is Vasari’s description: “Truly marvelous and celestial was Leonardo.”

More than just the technical brilliance, sweeping subject matter, and emotional verve,  Leonardo’s drawings are significant as a means not just to record, but to discover.  In the sheet shown above, his backwards handwriting (effected to avoid smearing his left/writing hand with ink) records information taken from De Architectura by Vitruvius.  The drawing is his interpretation of that famous segment in Book III that describes the natural fit of a man, with arms and legs extended, in a circle and a square–the great Platonic shapes that were the ideal of so many great Renaissance buildings.  Many, many, many Renaissance artists and architects tried to get Vitruvius’ man to fit inside a concentric circle and square, usually leading to a stooped figure or one that is oddly extended.  It’s Leonardo who got the man in the shapes, and beautifully so.  But he did so by cheating: the square has slipped down.  But indeed this was itself an important discovery in the Renaissance: perfect shapes rarely work in the imperfect, terrestrial realm of men.  Squares, circles, cubes and spheres are tricky to realize when things like wall thicknesses get in the way–not to mention the natural oddities of people’s bodies.

Leonardo did not mask this deficiency, but worked with it, and realized a compelling and beautiful image–so compelling, in fact, it has been appropriated, utilized, worn out and caricatured all over the place.  But that should not detract from the centrality of this drawing to the history of architectural theory, and as one of a zillion likewise extraordinary drawings from the hand of this master.  So often today, architects allow their ideas the shelf-life of a shot of espresso.  Serve, stir, drain, it’s gone.  A disposable attitude is perhaps natural for lines that exist (so to speak) only as aligned indium tin oxide electrodes.  But does that attitude extend to the design process itself, or worse yet, the building?  Where does the architect’s thinking happen–for an architect cannot think only in the brain, she has to think with her hands, also–and where is the record of that intellectual work?  Does the personal history of the building design, its autobiography, matter, and if so, does it matter more or less than any other heritage?

Leonardo knew how to think, and to draw; and he knew those two things fit together.  We are better off if we absorb just a hint of his reflected genius as we peer into them, and find even a flicker of inspiration to take a little more care with our own efforts.

image: Leonardo’s drawing of the “Vitruvian Man,” ca. 1487, in the collection of the Gallerie dell’Accademia

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You are currently reading January 22: Truly Marvelous and Celestial at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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