Page:EB1911 - Volume 16.djvu/473

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453
LEONARDO DA VINCI


had not dreamed. The result, though marvellous in quality, is in quantity lamentably meagre. Knowing and doing allured him equally, and in art, which consists in doing, his efforts were often paralysed by his strained desire to know. The thirst for knowledge had first been aroused in him by the desire of perfecting the images of beauty and power which it was his business to create.

Thence there grew upon him the passion of knowledge for its own sake. In the splendid balance of his nature the Virgilian longing, rerum cognoscere causas, could never indeed wholly silence the call to exercise his active powers. But the powers he cared most to exercise ceased by degree to be those of imaginative creation, and came to be those of turning to practical human use the mastery which his studies had taught him over the forces of nature. In science he was the first among modern men to set himself most of those problems which unnumbered searchers of later generations have laboured severally or in concert to solve. Florence had had other sons of comprehensive genius, artistic and mechanical, Leon Battista Alberti perhaps the chief. But the more the range and character of Leonardo's studies becomes ascertained the more his greatness dwarfs them all. A hundred years before Bacon, say those who can judge best, he showed a firmer grasp of the principles of experimental science than Bacon showed, fortified by a far wider range of actual experiment and observation. Not in his actual conclusions, though many of these point with surprising accuracy in the direction of truths established by later generations, but in the soundness, the wisdom, the tenacity of his methods lies his great title to glory. Had the Catholic reaction not fatally discouraged the pursuit of the natural sciences in Italy, had Leonardo even left behind him any one with zeal and knowledge enough to extract from the mass of his MSS. some portion of his labours in those sciences and give them to the world, an incalculable impulse would have been given to all those enquiries by which mankind has since been striving to understand the laws of its being and control the conditions of its environment, — to mathematics and astronomy, to mechanics, hydraulics, and physics generally, to geology, geography, and cosmology, to anatomy and the sciences of life. As it was, these studies of Leonardo — “studies intense of strong and stern delight” — seemed to his trivial followers and biographers merely his whims and fancies, ghiribizzi, things to be spoken of slightingly and with apology. The MSS., with the single exception of some of those relating to painting, lay unheeded and undivulged until the present generation; and it is only now that the true range of Leonardo's powers is beginning to be fully discerned.

So much for the intellectual side of Leonardo's character and career. As a moral being we are less able to discern what he was like. The man who carried in his brain so many images of subtle beauty, as well as so much of the hidden science of the future, must have lived spiritually, in the main, alone. Of things communicable he was at the same time, as we have said, communicative — a genial companion, a generous and loyal friend, ready and eloquent of discourse, impressing all with whom he was brought in contact by the power and the charm of genius, and inspiring fervent devotion and attachment in friends and pupils. We see him living on terms of constant affection with his father, and in disputes with his brothers not the aggressor but the sufferer from aggression. We see him full of tenderness to animals, a virtue not common in Italy in spite of the example of St Francis; open-handed in giving, not eager in getting — “poor,” he says, “is the man of many wants”; not prone to resentment — “the best shield against injustice is to double the cloak of long-suffering”; zealous in labour above all men — “as a day well spent gives joyful sleep, so does a life well spent give joyful death.” With these instincts and maxims, and with his strength, granting it almost more than human, spent ever tunnelling in abstruse mines of knowledge, his moral experience is not likely to have been deeply troubled. In religion, he regarded the faith of his age and country at least with imaginative sympathy and intellectual acquiescence, if no more. On the political storms which shook his country and drove him from one employment to another, he seems to have looked not with the passionate

participation of a Dante or a Michelangelo but rather with the serene detachment of a Goethe. In matters of the heart, if any consoling or any disturbing passion played a great part in his life, we do not know it; we know only (apart from a few passing shadows cast by calumny and envy) of affectionate and dignified relations with friends, patrons and pupils, of public and private regard mixed in the days of his youth with dazzled admiration, and in those of his age with something of reverential awe.

The Drawings of Leonardo. — These are among the greatest treasures ever given to the world by the human spirit expressing itself in pen and pencil. Apart from the many hundreds of illustrative pen-sketches scattered through his autobiographic and scientific MSS., the principal collection is at Windsor Castle (partly derived from the Arundel collection); others of importance are in the British Museum; at Christ Church, Oxford; in the Louvre, at Chantilly, in the Uffizi, the Venice Academy, the Royal Library at Turin, the Museum of Budapest, and in the collections of M. Bonnat, Mrs Mond, and Captain Holford. Leonardo's chief implements were pen, silver-point, and red and black chalk (red chalk especially). In silver-point there are many beautiful drawings of his earlier time, and some of his later; but of the charming heads of women and young men in this material attributed to him in various collections, comparatively few are his own work, the majority being drawings in his spirit by his pupils Ambrogio Preda or Boltraffio. Leonardo appears to have been left-handed. There is some doubt on the point; but a contemporary and intimate friend, Luca Pacioli, speaks of his “ineffable left hand”; all the best of his drawings are shaded downward from left to right, which would be the readiest way for a left-handed man; and his habitual eccentric practice of writing from right to left is much more likely to have been due to natural left-handedness than to any desire of mystery or concealment. A full critical discussion and catalogue of the extant drawings of Leonardo are to be found in Berenson's Drawings of the Florentine Painters.

The Writings of Leonardo. — The only printed book bearing Leonardo's name until the recent issues of transcripts from his MSS. was the celebrated Treatise on Painting (Trattato della pittura, Traité de la peinture). This consists of brief didactic chapters, or more properly paragraphs, of practical direction or critical remark on all the branches and conditions of a painter's practice. The original MS. draft of Leonardo has been lost, though a great number of notes for it are scattered through the various extant volumes of his MSS. The work has been printed in two different forms; one of these is an abridged version consisting of 365 sections; the first edition of it was published in Paris in 1551, by Raphael Dufresne, from a MS. which he found in the Barberini library; the last, translated into English by J. F. Rigaud, in London, 1877. The other is a more extended version, in 912 sections, divided into eight books; this was printed in 1817 by Guglielmo Manzi at Rome, from two MSS. which he had discovered in the Vatican library; a German translation from the same MS. has been edited by G. H. Ludwig in Eitelberger's series of Quellenschriften für Kunstgeschichte (Vienna, 1882; Stuttgart, 1885). On the history of the book in general see Max Jordan, Das Malerbuch des Leonardo da Vinci (Leipzig, 1873). The unknown compilers of the Vatican MSS. must have had before them much more of Leonardo's original text than is now extant. Only about a quarter of the total number of paragraphs are identical with passages to be found in the master's existing autograph notebooks. It is indeed doubtful whether Leonardo himself ever completed the MS. treatise (or treatises) on painting and kindred subjects mentioned by Fra Luca Pacioli and by Vasari, and probable that the form and order, and perhaps some of the substance, of the Trattato as we have it was due to compilers and not to the master himself.

In recent years a whole body of scholars and editors have been engaged in giving to the world the texts of Leonardo's existing MSS. The history of these is too complicated to be told here in any detail. Francesco Melzi (d. 1570) kept the greater part of his master's bequest together as a sacred trust as long as he lived, though even in his time some MSS. on the art of painting seem to have passed into other hands. But his descendants suffered the treasure to be recklessly dispersed. The chief agents in their dispersal were the Doctor Orazio Melzi who possessed them in the last quarter of the 16th century; the members of a Milanese family called Mazzenta, into whose hands they passed in Orazio Melzi's lifetime; and the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who at one time entertained the design of procuring their presentation to Philip II. of Spain, and who cut up a number of the note-books to form the great miscellaneous single volume called the Codice Atlantico, now at Milan. This volume, with a large proportion of the total number of other Leonardo MSS. then existing, passed into the hands of a Count Arconati, who presented them to the Ambrosian library at Milan in 1636. In the meantime the earl of Arundel had made a vain attempt to purchase one of these volumes (the Codice Atlantico?) at a great price for the king of England. Some stray parts of the collection, including the MSS. now at Windsor, did evidently come into Lord Arundel's possession, and the history of some other parts can be