Leonardo da Vinci: A giant of intellect, prone to distraction

In “Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered,” Carmen C. Bambach demonstrates how his digressions were fundamental to, and necessary for, the unfolding of his genius.

Courtesy of Yale University Press
“Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered” by Carmen C. Bambach, Yale University Press, four volumes, 2,350 pp.

Leonardo da Vinci was the master of digression. That’s one of the takeaways from a dazzling four-volume exploration of his work, “Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered,” by Carmen C. Bambach, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Bambach’s book was 23 years in the making, a 2,300-page rethinking of Leonardo’s life, work, and legacy. Using what she calls an archaeological approach, she uncovers layers of meaning by analyzing 4,100 pages of drawings, translating Leonardo’s handwritten notes, and consulting previous scholarship, contemporary accounts, and revelations yielded by technical examination of the paintings.

It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one Bambach hopes will enlighten both general and specialized readers. The main appeal will be to scholars and connoisseurs; the quartet of volumes, with 1,500 illustrations, costs $550. 

The volumes won’t necessarily make for a gripping biography, since her focus is on the drawings as “the portal to his mind,” as she describes it. Leonardo the human being never appears except as a giant of intellect prone to distraction. 

Bambach ties together the scientific drawings and Leonardo’s art. She shows how he incorporated a lifelong investigation of optics, light, anatomy, and the expressive potential of the human face and body into his paintings. 

As for the “Mona Lisa,” which Leonardo carried with him until his death, it had a “famously long, meditated period of gestation,” she writes. Which is another way of saying it remained, like so many of his projects, unfinished. Bambach argues that all of Leonardo’s paintings should be considered “works in progress” rather than incomplete. 

Pope Leo X, exasperated when Leonardo tinkered with a new recipe for varnish rather than tackling a commission, railed, “This man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking about the end of his work instead of the beginning.” Giorgio Vasari, his early biographer, wrote that Leonardo confessed before he died that “he had offended God and mankind by not working at his art as he should have.”

For Leonardo, Bambach writes, “Painting was the science of everything,” so every digression was crucial to his art. His masterpiece “The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” reflects “Leonardo’s ineffable transformation of scientific and optical principles into the materiality of paint.” The “Mona Lisa,” she explains, with its layers of color and rocky background of sedimentary strata and winding river, encompasses “the sum of all his knowledge of nature, the fruit of every scrap of drawing or note on paper he ever produced.”

To mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, museums in Europe and the United States are hosting exhibitions, including a spectacular show of his drawings at Buckingham Palace in London.  

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