Essays on Art by A. Clutton-Brock


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Page 4

But they do not lose their wisdom in their wonder. When it passes into
wonder, when all the knowledge and skill and passion of mankind are
poured into the acknowledgment of something greater than themselves,
then that acknowledgment is art, and it has a beauty which may be envied
by the natural beauty of God Himself.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous men in history--as a man
more famous than Michelangelo or Shakespeare or Mozart--because
posterity has elected him the member for the Renaissance. Most great
artists live in what they did, and by that we know them; but what
Leonardo did gets much of its life from what he was, or rather from what
he is to us. Of all great men he is the most representative; we cannot
think of him as a mere individual, eating and drinking, living and
competing, on equal terms with other men. We see him magnified by his
own legend from the first, with people standing aside to watch and
whisper as he passed through the streets of Florence or Milan. "There he
goes to paint the Last Supper," they said to each other; and we think of
it as already the most famous picture in the world before it was begun.
Every one knew that he had the most famous picture in his brain, that he
was born to paint it, to initiate the High Renaissance; from Giotto
onwards all the painters had been preparing for that, Florence herself
had been preparing for it. It makes no difference that for centuries it
has been a shadow on the wall; it is still the most famous painting in
the world because it is the masterpiece of Leonardo. There was a fate
against the survival of his masterpieces, but he has survived them and
they are remembered because of him. We accept him for himself, like the
people of his own time, who, when he said he could perform
impossibilities, believed him. To them he meant the new age which could
do anything, and still to us he means the infinite capacities of man. He
is the Adam awakened whom Michelangelo only painted; and, if he
accomplished but little, we believe in him, as in mankind, for his
promise. If he did not fulfil it, neither has mankind; but he believed
that all things could be done and lived a great life in that faith.

Another Florentine almost equals him in renown. Men watched and
whispered when Dante passed through the streets of Florence; but Dante
lives in his achievement, Leonardo in himself. Dante means to us an
individual soul quivering through a system, a creed, inherited from the
past. Leonardo is a spirit unstraitened; not consenting to any past nor
rebelling against it, but newborn with a newborn universe around it,
seeing it without memories or superstitions, without inherited fears or
pieties, yet without impiety or irreverence. He is not an iconoclast,
since for him there are no images to be broken; whatever he sees is not
an image but itself, to be accepted or rejected by himself; what he
would do he does without the help or hindrance of tradition. In art and
in science he means the same thing, not a rebirth of any past, as the
word Renaissance seems to imply, but freedom from all the past, life
utterly in the present. He is concerned not with what has been thought,
or said, or done, but with his own immediate relation to all things,
with what he sees and feels and discovers. Authority is nothing to him,

he looks at the fact, in art at the object; nor will he allow either to
be hidden from him by the achievements of the dead. Giotto had struck
the first blow for freedom when he allowed the theme to dictate the
picture; Leonardo allowed the object to dictate the drawing. To him the
fact itself is sacred, and man fulfils himself in his own immediate
relation to fact.

All those who react and rebel against the Renaissance have an easy case
against its great representative. What did he do in thought compared
with St. Thomas, or in art compared with the builders of Chartres or
Bourges? He filled notebooks with sketches and conjectures; he modelled
a statue that was never cast; he painted a fresco on a wall, and with a
medium so unsuited to fresco that it was a ruin in a few years. Even in
his own day there was a doubt about him; it is expressed in the young
Michelangelo's sudden taunt that he could not cast the statue he had
modelled. Michelangelo was one of those who see in life always the great
task to be performed and who judge a man by his performance; to him
Leonardo was a dilettante, a talker; he made monuments, but Leonardo
remains his own monument, a prophecy of what man shall be when he comes
into his kingdom. With him, we must confess, it is more promise than
performance; he could paint "The Last Supper" because it means the
future; he could never, in good faith, have painted "The Last Judgment,"
for that means a judgment on the past, and to him the past is nothing;
to him man, in the future, is the judge, master, enjoyer of his own

reproach the reproach of one who cares for doing more than for being,
and certainly Michelangelo did a thousand times more; but from his own
day to ours the world has not judged Leonardo by his achievement. As
Johnson had his Boswell so he has had his legend; he means to us not
books or pictures, but himself. In his own day kings bid for him as if
he were a work of art; and he died magnificently in France, making
nothing but foretelling a race of men not yet fulfilled.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 29th Mar 2020, 23:36