- The Leonardo Series: Drawings by Anthony Panzera Based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Work on Human Proportion by Anthony Panzera
by Anthony Panzera. Translated by Jody Gladding. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, U.S.A., 2015. 256pp., illus. ISBN: 978-1-4384-5935-6.
Anthony Panzera’s elegant collection of fine, sepia-toned studies of the human figure derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) drawings and notes on human proportion known collectively as Leonardo’s Notebooks. In the canonic Western tradition of the nude, these Notebooks have for centuries offered reflections on proportion that serve as a venerable touchstone for artists and humanists alike. While countless treatises, formulas, books and articles have been written on the subject (from Vitruvius, Alberti and Cennini to Boime, Wittkower and Morselli), none compares with the empirical scrutiny, aestheticism and resonance of Leonardo’s folios. Replete with metaphysical connotations, Leonardo’s theory of human proportion epitomizes the universal harmony between microcosm and macrocosm as the foundational principle of beauty.
Panzera is closely attuned to the issue of proportion, both as an artist long committed to the human figure as a center of artistic expression and as a professor emeritus of art at Hunter College in New York whose classes in advanced figure drawing taught the importance of anatomy and proportion. He became deeply impressed with the consummate beauty of Leonardo’s pen-andink sketches in Florence, where he decided to more critically investigate the master’s theories on proportion as the basis of an artistic practicum. The task, he soon discovered, would be daunting given the enormous number of drawings, fragmentary annotations and notebook pages with conflicting numerical references (by last count slightly more than 7,000) scattered among over a dozen cities in Europe and America. He began by collecting individual notes that he tested empirically by creating isolated drawings of a model from units of measurement transcribed from Leonardo’s notations. The initial experiment gradually evolved into a 30-year project that led to the creation of 65 original artworks known as the Leonardo Series, a conceptual ensemble that joins High Renaissance classicism to contemporaneity. Additionally, Panzera identified, collected, tested and analyzed the entirety of Leonardo’s original drawings, notes and measurements on human proportion to serve as a future reference for artists and researchers investigating Leonardo’s theories. In this capacity, the text provides an exacting critical supplement to existing Leonardo scholarship, one that includes a brief history of proportional studies and academic instruction in life drawing; a chronology of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and artistic career; definitions of arcane units of measure; annotated lists of relevant ancient manuscripts and codices; concordances of drawing and notebook numerations in primary collections; and an extensive bibliography.
The collection as a whole is a stunning work of art and an impeccable contribution to art historical scholarship, as remarkable in its union of art and science as Leonardo’s own marriage of spirit and matter. Finely drawn in sanguine pencil, Panzera’s figures impart a sense of ethereal beauty unto themselves. Here a handlebar moustache, there a moptop haircut connote age and youth, bonded within a studio tradition that is at once contemporary and timeless. Superimpositions of ruled metrics over softly shaded contours contrast the corporeal substance of the flesh with essence, the geometric clarity of calculus with the indeterminacy of nature. This juxtaposition of the inanimate and the animate, of abstract grids and drawings from life, imbues the imagery with a subtle tension poised between mathematical perfection and post-photographic realism. Domenico Laurenza (Museo Galileo-Institute and Museum for the History of Science) alludes to the opposition of rationalism and subjectivity in his Preface to the series, where he associates Panzera’s “precision” with the scientific predilection of contemporary American art. Some of Panzera’s drawings confront the viewer with unexpected effects of time-lapse sequencing, scale disparity or contraposition, while others combine antipodal members such as the head and foot in startling apposition. This is not, however, a confrontation between naked verisimilitude and the idealized nude...