Tuesday, January 17, 2006

everything painted after 1519 is a footnote.

Leonardo DaVinci was born in 1452 and died in 1519. By the time his light is extinguished America is discovered, old works of science are re-discovered and translated so that learning can proceed, and Roderigo Borgia has shit all over the face of Christendom.
But what a time to have been alive! And what a time to have had the quality of mind able to appreciate it!
The idea I get of Renaissance Florence is a mixture of Chicago during Prohibition and Enlightenment England. But all on a very intimate scale. All the major players knew each other in Florence and the surrounding area. Undoubtably most of the minor ones too. As in any city at any time in history, human society was a perpetual event, 24 hours a day, slaves out killing rats talking to washerwomen dodging the half-feral pigs and dogs that swarmed around eating the garbage, pimps talking to drovers, women and children carting in in produce before sunrise, everyones conversation overheard by everyone else and gossiped about from window to window across the streets, written on the alley walls of the church where people went to shit and repeated in the kitchens and on the stairs and finally at the tables of the great. Everyone knew everyone else, at least by sight, and every other person lived in on the same land their first Etruscan ancestor broke with his plow.

But for some reason-and I'll spare you my musings on that-the general feeling was no longer as conservative as it had been. This is not to say they all turned into rampaging hippies, because after all even Leonardo was a devout Catholic. But there was just a very subtle shift on the part of the average person away from the rigid fire and brimstone side of religion. Into that moment comes the greatest creative mind and the greatest visual artist the world has ever seen.

You'll just have to swallow that sweeping assertion.

DaVinci's work has been called the apotheosis of the art of the middle ages, and I think that's very apt. He mentions Giotto with great respect. He worshipped in churches painted with the art of the past and the past before that, learned his craft at the knee of a man very much bound by the conservative tastes of the rich. Although he pissed off a lot of people, it wasn't because of the quality of his work, it was because he was an asshole and a prima donna. DaVinci painted nothing you could call iconoclastic. What he did was paint what everyone else painted, but better, far better, and with unbearable truth.

Now, I am nobodies new age goofball. Honest, I'm not. Feel free to feel just as weirded out by the following passage as I still am, but I swear to you this is how it was. Bear in mind that what I am describing is an object well over 400 years old. It is generally a pretty thing but I wouldn't want it in my house to live with, though it was a painting I had always admired and so when the Leonardo DaVinci exhibit came to Vancouver I was there to see it.

I've been to a lot of museums; I've seen The Raft of the Medusa, I've stood in front of Picassos' Guernica, which is huge and powerful and everything its reputation says it is. But when I confronted one of DaVinci's paintings for the first time in person it went through me like a knife through the chest. Like I didn't exist.

I felt overawed. I felt like I was in the presence of nature instead of art. I still can't describe what I felt but it was bigger than me.

The painting was his Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Mary is seated on St. Anne's lap. She reaches down to pick up the infant Jesus, who plays with a lamb. I can take it apart into ingredients.

The subject of the painting is pretty standard; it's already been done hundreds and hundreds of times before Leonardo. The image of Mary the woman is taken from life, the studies he made of this woman and her child still exist though we don't know their names. The actual sitter, the one modelling the drapery and the pose was a young man. He probably sat for every adult figure. Marys' hands are the hands of DaVinci, which are the hands of his terracotta Lady with Primroses and his final St. John the Baptist too.

So those different elements come together in crafting this picture, pretty basic stuff. These follow after having met the demands of buying pigments and grinding them, and selecting a ground and preparing that, transferring the drawing using tissue pierced with a pin and a bag of soot, only being able to paint in details for minutes a day, carefully protecting the unfinished work from dust and smudging over weeks in a rural environment not terribly kind to delicate things, letting the painted areas cure, picking out hairs and dust with a needle and then having to patch up over that and match the tints, and always being a slave to the temperature and humidity and the angle of the sun and the time of day.

Let's step back a bit further yet. There was no electricity. Water was taken by hand and used and re-used until it was black. If you happened to let a minor abrasion become septic you could die from it. There was little or nothing that separated a person from the perils of the natural world.

That there was anyone with the leisure and inclination to paint, or to perfect the craft of portrayal is extraordinary, and that the same person was able to expand their genius into that goes past extraordinary no matter what the era. And yet there was this man who infinitely surpassed those boundaries, who took on a subject ridiculously beyond the grasp of anyone human and succeeded, who captured and revealed the image of perfect love.

And yes, everything after that is anticlimactic.


  1. Anonymous8:53 AM

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  2. I'm with you, except for the scholars who claim Mona Lisa was a self portrait. That scares me.

    Dan Brown, stylistically, is the worst millionaire writer imaginable.