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Reviewed by:
  • Leonardo on Painting
  • David Topper
Leonardo on Painting edited and translated by Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT, U.S.A., 2001. 320 pp., illus. Paper. $16.95. ISBN: 0-300-09095-1.

I am no artist (to speak of) but ever since I can remember, I liked to draw. I recall that I was often told that one of the hardest things to draw is the human hand, so I spent copious time drawing my hand—the left one, to be exact, since I am right-handed. But I never knew (or noticed), until now, this: "The fingers thicken at their joints from all sides when they are bent, and they are more thickened to the extent that they are more bent, and accordingly diminish to the extent that they are straightened. The same thing happens with the toes." This quotation from Leonardo da Vinci appears on page 137 of Kemp and Walker's anthology, accompanied by Leonardo's drawing of a finger both straight and bent. I read this passage while recently riding on a plane, verifying it by looking at my fingers as I straightened and bent them. While doing this, I received a peculiar look from the passenger next to me; given the disposition of people on planes of late, I did not try to explain what I was doing but just buried myself back into the book. The verification about the toes, needless to say, had to wait.

Upon his death in 1519, Leonardo left about 6,500 pages of notes and drawings. Today these precious pages from notebooks, miscellaneous sheets and pocket books are scattered among manuscript collections in cities such as Paris, Milan, London, Windsor, Turin and Madrid. One manuscript purchased by Bill Gates is, I believe, in Seattle. Of these pages, Leonardo once wrote that it is "a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping later to arrange them in their place, according to the subjects of which they may treat." Two famous anthologies attempting to organize some of this collection are The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (1883, 1938, 1969) by Jean-Paul Richter and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1906, 1939, 1956) by Edward MacCurdy. Both were major achievements in the dissemination of Leonardo's work, previously available only to those having access to the manuscripts.

Throughout Leonardo's manuscript pages, there are perhaps 100,000 drawings (sketches and diagrams), making him one of the most prolific visual artists of all time. Nevertheless, most studies of these pages focus more on the texts than the drawings, as clearly betrayed in the very title of Richter's volume. This literary bias is also seen in MacCurdy's anthology, with almost 1,200 pages of text and a mere eight illustrations. I am pleased to say, therefore, that there is a proliferation of illustrations in Kemp and Walker's anthology, Leonardo on Painting. As recent Leonardo scholars have pointed out, the drawings are essential to understanding his mind as, to use Rudolf Arnheim's phrase, he was a "visual thinker." Indeed, Leonardo is a major figure in the history of the visualization of knowledge—something that neither historians of art nor (until recently) historians of science have fully appreciated (see, for example, Kim Veltman, Linear Perspective and the Visual Dimensions of Science and Art [Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1986]).

In the introduction, Kemp and Walker put their work into perspective as follows: "Anyone who goes to the anthologies by Richter or MacCurdy hoping to read and understand Leonardo's views in a sequential and cumulative manner will be disappointed. The present edition is designed to overcome this problem—at least as far as it can be overcome, given the character of the sources" (p. 4). They later add, "Thus, the text that follows is organized as a series of chapters or 'books,' with systematic subdivisions, within which thematic sections of text of varied length are each introduced by a heading in the form of a proposition or question." Accordingly, "the strength of the present method is to present a coherent, cumulative picture of Leonardo's aspirations for his beloved...


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