Page 1 (Chapter 1)
My purpose is to reveal Leonardo’s last great secret - the source of the images that he drew and painted. I call it a secret but it is the kind of secret that remains hidden in plain sight. It is there for all to see in the pages of his notebooks. It has been read countless numbers of times, and continues to be read countless numbers of times, yet no one is paying attention.
Imagine, the greatest of all artists tells the world where he gets the ideas for his paintings ..... AND NO ONE LISTENS.
Leonardo discovered a method which he used throughout his career to create many of the faces he drew and painted; and which gave to those faces the other-worldly beauty that he alone among artists achieved. He used his method to invent his backgrounds, his battle scenes, his landscapes. He did not keep his method secret. It was openly shared by him in his "Advice To Artists". When we read his method we can sense his enthusiasm. Far from being secretive about it, his manifest purpose seems to have been to persuade other artists to use it.
Today, after a space of five hundred years, the method has become much more than just a tool to aid in the inventiveness of artists. What it offers to us today is a pristine new vantage point from which all of us – artists, scholars, lovers of Leonardo's art, the simply curious, can look into Leonardo's mind and gain understanding of how his creative process worked; possibly thereby gaining new sympathy for his dilatoriness.
To follow his method is to walk in the world in which he daily walked. As we look at Leonardo's paintings from this new viewpoint, it is as if a whole new uncharted field of study has been opened up, and, like Cortez gazing for the first time at the Pacific Ocean, "silent, upon a peak in Darien." (John Keats), we shall see Leonardo's art as no-one has ever seen it before.
He begins the description of his method with the words "I cannot forbear to mention a new device for study " – suggesting that no artist before him has used this device – and, as we look over the last five hundred intervening years, it appears also that no artist has used it after him. The quotation suggests a certain pride and self-satisfaction in his discovery. He calls it a device. He describes it as "extremely useful ". It is a practical tool; something his immensely practical mind could relate to. It is not a philosophical concept. It is a tool; a do-it-yourself guide for the artist.
Really marvelous ideas.
In his "Advice", which we shall read shortly, he spells out the benefits of the method, evidently encouraging his fellow artists to try it - though we should probably exclude his contemporaries from this group, since his notebooks seem to have been intended for posthumous publication; and Vasari for example in his biography of Leonardo does not mention the method. But to those who follow his advice, he holds out the possibility of achieving worldly success.
In his own words, let us see some of the benefits he proposes;
Could any artist ask for any greater motivation for using this method than Leonardo da Vinci telling us that it offers a way of finding "really marvelous ideas "?
And yet his method, coming as it does from the greatest of all artists and which one would imagine would have been utilized by artists over the centuries, and included in the curricula of art schools and universities, and taught by art teachers and studied by art historians and scholars, has been routinely ignored down the centuries.
Imagined faces seen by Leonardo.
The art of the portrait consists in bringing to life the image of the person you are painting. Leonardo gave a second life to the women he painted in those marvelous portraits that the world admires - the Mona Lisa for example, or the Lady with the Ermine etc. But there is another side to Leonardo – the other faces, the faces that he saw in his imagination through the use of his method, and which he brought to life in his religious paintings and drawings.
Using his method he would find images of faces in the stains and discolorations of the walls around him as he walked the streets and alleys of Florence or of Milan, and he would then use his knowledge of physiognomy and of the anatomy and proportion of the face and head, and his great skill as a draughtsman, to flesh out these imagined faces and so bring them to life. These, as I shall show, are the faces of the Last Supper, the faces in the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizzi, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne.
In this website our purpose is to investigate how Leonardo utilized his method, and which of his paintings and drawings were created using the method. This is indeed the Columbus’ Egg of Leonardo studies - a new world waiting to be discovered
So what was once not only freely and generously given by Leonardo, and furthermore with the additional incentive of proffering on his fellow artists the possibility of worldly success and the respect of their contemporaries should they heed his advice, has either been ignored by them as if it were merely an idiosyncrasy of the master, or if used by them in their paintings then without crediting the source.
Either way it has become enveloped in mystery. A mystery or a secret? It has been ignored for centuries. But a secret is defined as something that is deliberately kept hidden. Reading and analyzing Leonardo’s method shows that quite frankly there is no secret. It is clearly evident that Leonardo did not hide his method. Quite the reverse. He offered it to anyone who should make the effort of reading it, and practice it diligently, and in effect with complete confidence place their trust in the mind of the greatest of all artists – hardly a misplaced trust.
Interlude - for your imagination.
As you read the following paragraphs in which Leonardo describes his method, remember that Leonardo is describing images; and despite all the words written in this blog, it’s not about the words. Our focus must be constantly on the images. If you choose to study, and possibly practice the method, and you discover for yourself those unique images that Leonardo describes, you will surely gain a new affinity for the master. If you do not have the time or inclination to practice his method, this website will show images found as a result of using the method. All the images on this website I photographed personally. They are organic, natural images - in the same state that Leonardo would have seen his wall images. They are imperfect, and require a little effort of the imagination. No excuses are required, for this is the same effort that Leonardo had to make.
For your imagination only. (FYIO).
Do you see castle walls on a cliff overhanging a stormy sea?
Now back to Leonardo ...
Page 5 (Chapter 2)
Here then is the method as it is described in Leonardo’s "Advice To Artists".
(It is reprinted from the Oxford edition of "Selections from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci", edited by Irma A. Richter.)
"I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine. "
"Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions. "
Dmitri Merezhkowsky, in his extraordinary book "The Romance Of Leonardo da Vinci", part novel, part biography, offers his own beautiful translation:
"It may be that many would consider such power of invention absurd but I, by my own experience, know how useful it is for arousing the mind to discoveries and projects. Not infrequently on walls in the confusion of different stones, in cracks, in the designs made by scum on stagnant water, in dying embers, covered over with a thin layer of ashes, in the outline of clouds, – it has happened to me to find a likeness of the most beautiful localities, with mountains, crags, rivers, plains and trees; also splendid battles, strange faces, full of inexplicable beauty; curious devils, monsters, and many astounding images. I chose from them what I needed and supplied the rest. Similarly, in listening closely to the distant ringing of bells, you can find in their mingled pealing, at your wish, every name and word that you may be thinking of.
Irma A. Richter offers a second version of the translation, which I include here for anyone who cares to read it,
..... or you can jump to page 6:
( ... "Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colors. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicolored stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose pealing you may find every name and word you that you can imagine. " )
Note: I placed the above paragraph in parentheses because, although it is in the Oxford edition of Leonardo’s Notebooks edited by Irma A. Richter, it is almost identical to the paragraph above it aside from some minor differences which are shown and compared below:
1 … wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones
1a… walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colors
2 … figures in action; or strange faces
2a… lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces
3 … figures in action; or strange faces
3a… an infinite number of things
4 … which you can reduce to good integrated form
4a… which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms.
5 … these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells
5a… This happens on such walls and varicolored stones, (which act) like the sound of bells…
I do not know if these are two separate manuscripts, or two different translations of the same manuscript. If the former, then Leonardo made the changes in the two separate paragraphs deliberately; revealing to us the nuances of meaning that his mind sifted through as he searched for the precise manner of expressing his thoughts.
Images from Leonardo’s wall.
This is Leonardo's method just as he wrote it, obscured by generations of neglect. It is too easy to assume that the neglect is its own self-justification; that there had to have been cogent reasons for ignoring Leonardo’s advice; that even if we don’t know what those reasons were, that others before us knew and felt justified in their neglect. Unless we can find good reason for ignoring Leonardo’s advice, we should not be influenced by any such assumption, but should take this as a starting point for further study, and with an open mind, follow the path wherever it may lead.
For your imagination only (FYIO) – wall image:
Enemy at the gates. 1.
Enemy at the gates. 2.
First image for our analysis.
It goes without saying that the fugitive images that Leonardo saw on the walls of 15th and 16th century Milan and Florence had vanished even during his lifetime. The images that follow were found using his method. They give an idea of the kind of image he would have seen and which he describes in his “Advice To Artists”.
Here is the first wall image I propose we study:
What do you see in this image?
I see the face of a handsome young man. Or is it the face of a beautiful woman? Do you remember what Merezhkowsky said – "a face full of inexplicable beauty ". The face is in profile view, turned slightly in our direction. But look again. You may see the face, while still in profile, turned slightly away from you gazing into the rear distance.
You may think that the image is imperfect. Indeed it is imperfect. But it is the unmodified image, just as Leonardo would have seen it. He himself confirms this. He writes – "by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions." Note the word "indistinct". It is not ready-made for us. It is not handed to us on a plate. In nature we may search for perfection but we should not expect to find it. Nature merely provides us with the raw canvas - the random placement of mold stains on a wall, the haphazard patterns of colored stones in a terrazzo floor or within a sheet of granite, the momentary fleeting disposition of cloud patterns - those are the sources in which we search for our images. "Nothing straight ever grew on humanities crooked tree ", says Kant. So it is with Nature. The perfect image that needs no human improvement cannot exist in Nature’s randomness. It is for the mind to see beyond the chaos and create those marvelous images of which Leonardo speaks – and then to physically render them with pen and paper. "Which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms.", is how Leonardo describes the process.
Leonardo's method and his drawings.
Note that Leonardo specifically recommends that after we have found our image, we should then draw it. “Reduce to well drawn forms ” he says. The images are not intended to be used solely for entertainment – to be found and then ignored. He tells us to draw them, to record them, to use them as reference for our future painting. (Remember, he is addressing us as his fellow artists). Are we now to believe that he ignored his own advice, allowing his marvelous ideas to slip back into the void? Or did he himself in fact draw and record those "marvelous " images of which he speaks?
The question we should be asking is this – are Leonardo’s stained walls the source of some, possibly many, of his drawings? To my mind there can be no doubt, for if he believed his advice was important enough to be written into his notes, and to be intended to be published after his death so that future artists could follow in his footsteps, then surely he is describing what he himself practiced. It remains to be determined which of Leonardo's drawings are from life and which are from those spectral images that he found in his stained walls? A new challenge, and a new and fascinating, undoubtedly controversial yet potentially vastly fruitful field of study, never yet attempted, lies before us.
Now look a little to the right of the image. Do you see the face of a man, disproportionately small, gazing at the first image (highlighted in the rectangle)?
Looking at wall images.
We know that Leonardo would have used pen and ink or charcoal on paper as he developed his image. For us it is much easier since we have modern technology at our disposal. So let’s zoom out a bit and start here and see what can be done with the image:
Here is a quick sketch to indicate how Andy Warhol might have gone about it:
This is just one of a myriad of ways that the original wall image can be adapted. It was doodled by the author of this website using an Apple iPad Pro and a sketch pen.
Here is the original image cropped differently and with a tonal shift suggesting an androgynous image — a woman with flowing tresses, or possibly the face of an Alexander with his curling hair. The only limit is the limit of YOUR imagination.
The following wall image, which will be analyzed in chapter 5, page 26 (The Wondrous Shepherd Boy), demonstrates how Leonardo would have utilized his wall images. I have added lines to the third of the three images to sketch out a possible face.
We shall study this image further on page 26.
End of interlude.
How to use the method - a practical guide.
If you get around to trying Leonardo’s method you’ll see it’s not difficult. Just keep your eyes moving across a particular wall that has the marks of neglect. Do this in a kind of soft-focus until an image jumps out at you. Don’t belabor it. If you see nothing keep your eyes moving, constantly searching. Enjoy it. You’ve entered Leonardo’s world.
But it is so much easier for us than for Leonardo. All we have to do is find a nicely stained wall, perhaps under a highway where years of damp have created fascinating wall stains that the City Public Works Department through lack of zeal has not yet white-washed over; perhaps the deteriorating facades of houses in poorer neighborhoods painted long ago; or perhaps the moldering tombstones of antique cemeteries. Then with our camera we take lots of photos which we download onto our computer, and in the comfort of our studio or office we gaze at the images on our screen. At this point there are things we can do that Leonardo could not do. We can flip the image upside-down for example, or flip it 90 degrees left or right.
How Leonardo did it.
Leonardo has been walking down an alley. He feels quite safe. He is a tall man and very strong for the age in which he lives, and probably armed for self-defense. It is said that he can bend a horseshoe with his bare hands; and it is still daylight. It will be too dark to see the walls clearly after the sun goes down. Nobody will disturb him. He is studying the walls intently. He sees an image like our face above. The practical artist takes over. He takes out his chalk or charcoal, and records the image in his sketchbook as a reference for a future painting. Passers by ignore him. They see a man staring at a wall. They don’t even try to understand what he is doing. He’s from a higher social class, perhaps not quite right in the head, or simply an artist. He draws the image in his sketchbook as soon as he finds it. The image is ephemeral. He cannot wait till tomorrow. The first rain might wash it away; or a horse pulling a cart for example might scrape the wall in passing.
A similar scene as described by Merezhkowsky:
"This evening I saw him, standing under the rain in a narrow, dirty and stinking alley, attentively contemplating a wall of stone, with spots of dampness – apparently one with nothing curious about it. This lasted for a long while. Urchins were pointing their fingers at him and laughing. I asked what he had found in this wall.
‘Look Giovanni, what a splendid monster, – a chimaera with gaping maw; while here, alongside, is an angel with a gentle face and waving locks, who is fleeing from the monster. The whim of chance has here created images worthy of a great master.’
He drew the outlines of the spots with his fingers, and, to my amazement, I did actually perceive in them that of which he spoke."
Whether Merezhkowsky himself saw such images, or is simply using an author's prerogative to imagine them, I should make the point that there is an infinite number of such images out there in the world
Some mental effort.
But back to the image of the face above. We have agreed that it is imperfect and indistinct. Remember how it was formed – by the random positioning of stains on a wall. Leonardo says of such wall stains .... "if you consider them well "… by which I understand him to mean that to find his marvelous images some mental effort is required on our part - so that as well as studying the stains, we have to give free reign to our imagination, and to see beyond the imperfections. What does it matter if the lips are slightly distorted, the chin too large, the eyes not quite properly positioned. Our imagination allows us to see beyond the flaws, and see the image instantly as a face complete and perfect.
Question: Why is the particular image of the face above of some importance?
Answer: Because I found it in my basement… Let me explain.
How I did it .
I studied those paragraphs of Leonardo’s "Advice To Artists". I understood them to be intended to be taken literally. I took my camera and went down into my basement to look for images. I snapped some pictures, and put them up on my computer screen, and immediately the two images jumped out at me.
What is the importance of this image having been found in my basement?
My logic is this – if I can find an image like this at my first attempt and in my own basement, then there must be countless numbers of such images out there waiting to be discovered. And by the same logic, if I can find this image so easily, then Leonardo with his practiced eye would have found innumerable such images. You may think I am exaggerating so I call on Leonardo’s own words as corroboration – "You will see an infinite variety of things.", he says, and "an endless variety of objects," – words that show he had no doubt of the vast store of unique images awaiting any artist who would choose to practice his method.
Wall image (FYI):
I see a haunted druid forest – Germania. A.D. 12.
Page 10 (Chapter 3)
Judas and the Last Supper.
To begin my study of Leonardo’s wall images I propose to take a look at the Judas of Leonardo’s Last Supper. At the very least, I trust that my conclusions are not unoriginal.
All the faces of this extraordinary painting have deteriorated badly over the intervening centuries, not necessarily helped by successive restorations. Preparatory sketches go some way toward showing us how the faces looked five hundred years ago, when the painting was still in pristine condition.
Vasari in his "Lives of the Artists", published in 1550, thirty-one years after the death of Leonardo, describes the effect that the face of Judas would have had on a spectator: he writes, "The spectator is also struck by the determination, hatred, and treachery of Judas" . I believe it is safe to assume that Vasari’s description is based on his own first hand observation of the painting, and that his comments are those of one who is a very great artist in his own right, for in fact Vasari himself painted a very powerful if completely different version of the Last Supper, undoubtedly influenced by Leonardo’s painting. It would appear then from such first hand and professional evidence from one who saw the original before it’s deterioration that Leonardo had succeeded to his own satisfaction in creating a depiction of the wickedness of Judas. Sadly, we can imagine what the deterioration of the Last Supper has deprived us of, from the evidence of another of Vasari’s descriptions:
"Not to mention that every least part of the work displays an incredible diligence, seeing that even in the tablecloth the texture of the stuff is counterfeited in such a manner that linen itself could not seem more real ."
For the record let me quote Vasari’s description of Leonardo’s process in painting Judas; and of the little joke Leonardo made at the expense of the prior of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, who had commissioned the painting:
"It is said that the Prior of that place kept pressing Leonardo, in a most importunate manner, to finish the work; for it seemed strange to him to see Leonardo sometimes stand half a day at a time, lost in contemplation, and he would have liked him to go on like the labourers hoeing in his garden, without ever stopping his brush. And not content with this, he complained of it to the Duke (Lodovico), and that so warmly, that he was constrained to send for Leonardo and delicately urged him to work, contriving nevertheless to show him that he was doing all this because of the importunity of the Prior. Leonardo, knowing that the intellect of that Prince was acute and discerning, was pleased to discourse at large with the Duke on the subject, a thing which he had never done with the Prior: and he reasoned much with him about art, and made him understand that men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, seeking out inventions with the mind, and forming those perfect ideas which the hands afterwards express and reproduce from the images already conceived in the brain. And he added that two heads were still wanting for him to paint; that of Christ, which he did not wish to seek on earth; and he could not think that it was possible to conceive in the imagination that beauty and heavenly grace which should be the mark of God incarnate. Next, there was wanting that of Judas, which was also troubling him, not thinking himself capable of imagining features that should represent the countenance of him who, after so many benefits received, had a mind so cruel as to resolve to betray his Lord, the Creator of the world. However, he would seek out a model for the latter; but if in the end he could not find a better, he should not want that of the importunate and tactless Prior. This thing moved the Duke wondrously to laughter, and he said that Leonardo had a thousand reasons on his side. And so the poor Prior, in confusion, confined himself to urging on the work in the garden, and left Leonardo in peace, who finished only the head of Judas, which seems the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity."
Giovanni Battista Giraldi was an Italian playwright and poet, contemporary of Vasari, and probably the source of Vasari’s anecdote. Shakespeare’s Othello was based on Giraldi’s play of the same title. His information about Leonardo was passed on to him by his father who as a boy had known Leonardo. He writes in more detail than Vasari. The following paragraph in which Leonardo addresses the Duke is the part that is of most interest to me:
"It remains for me to do the head of Judas, who was the great betrayer, as you all know, and he deserves to be painted with a face that expresses all his wickedness… And so for a year now, perhaps more, I have been going every day, morning and evening, down to the Borghetto, where all the base and ignoble characters live, most of them evil and wicked, in the hope that I shall see a face which would be fit for this evil man. And to this day I have not found one… and if it turns out I cannot find one I will have to use the face of this reverend father, the prior."
Some have suggested that the Borghetto was a Jewish ghetto such as that established some decades earlier in Venice, and that furthermore Leonardo was looking for his face of Judas specifically in the Borghetto because he wanted to give the evil Judas a Jewish face, concluding thereby that Leonardo was anti-semitic. The argument does not hold up on examination, for if the Borghetto were indeed peopled by vile and depraved characters it could not have been a Jewish ghetto. It is as simple as that. The inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto while poor were nevertheless better educated than their Christian counterparts and imbued with a higher ethical sense. We do not associate houses of ill repute, and taverns, with a Jewish ghetto. We could make a joke here and say that in one year Leonardo could not find a single evil Jewish face - except that, since, as I surmise, the Borghetto was not Jewish, it would follow that in one year Leonardo could not likewise find any evil face, not even Gentile.
No, the Borghetto was a poor neighborhood outside the city walls, probably a kind of seedy slum, gaining it’s ill repute from the probable cluster of taverns and possibly baudy houses, and the people who were attracted to them. It was located in the northeast corner of Milan, roughly a mile as the crow flies from the Corte dell'Arengo, where Leonardo’s studio and living quarters were to be found.
One year and no evil face??
Surely in the course of a year spent searching among the dissolute, the depraved, the perverted, the debauched, the pimps, the hardened criminals, Leonardo would have found the face of an evil man. Of course he would have - if that were what he was looking for. But therein lies the rub. Behind that evil exterior might be the soul of a kind man, and a good provider to his family; a man kind to animals, honest in his dealings with others, a man beset by misfortune and deprivation. Leonardo would have been familiar with the story of Socrates and the physiognomist who, after inspecting Socrates' face had concluded that he was intemperate and given to sensuality and violent outbursts. Since this was not the Socrates that his students knew they accused the physiognomist of lying, but Socrates explained that the physiognomist’s assessment was correct, but through strong self-discipline he had overcome his vices.
As Socrates indicated, evil should not be confused with ugliness. For ugliness is innate, and cannot be avoided; whereas evil is the result of immoral and malevolent deeds, that over the years leave a characteristic and recognizable imprint on the face; or so Leonardo hoped as he surveyed the Borghetto.
One face as good as another.
"A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul. "
Merezhkowsky translates this as:
"The highest aim of the artist consists of expressing in the face, and in the movements of the body, the passion of the soul."
Leonardo was searching not just for a face that was evil-looking, but for one that conveyed the evil within. He was not interested in choosing one particular "evil" face from among the evil men of the Borghetto, or even choosing the most evil face he could find. A realistic depiction of the so-called evil face was not his objective, for in that case one evil face would have been as good as another, in that all would be simply different manifestations of that same evil, and Leonardo would have found a suitable model within a day, or a week of beginning his search.
Too evil-looking to be a disciple.
We might also ask the question how the disciples, such as those painted by Leonardo – all handsome, masculine specimens – would have accepted such an evil looking man as Judas into their midst, if that indeed were how Leonardo would have depicted him.
More than just an evil face.
No, what Leonardo was searching for was more profound. It was the depiction of the moral turpitude of a man who would betray his benefactor, his master, his Savior. As fashions in art changed, later realist painters such as Caravaggio could use the face of a particular prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary for example. But Leonardo was looking not for a particular evil face to use as a model, but for a face that would also be a universal expression of evil, familiar to all - perhaps in the form of a fleeting momentary manifestation of evil as it moves across a face; or a face turning away to hide the minds treachery.
So we have taken it for granted over the centuries that Leonardo went among the disreputable denizens of Milan for a whole year, searching fruitlessly for that image of a face that would combine these three aspects - the face "evil" per se, but not tastelessly so; the facial expression of evil; and the dramatic gesture of a man at the moment he realizes that his treachery has been discovered – or as Leonardo writes, the “ passion of the soul “.
Finding Judas using the “secret”method.
If Leonardo had succeeded in finding his Judas, the conversation with the Duke would not have taken place and no-one would be any the wiser. But in the circumstances, something very valuable has been afforded to us – a description of Leonardo’s artistic process, albeit one burdened with a negative, for indeed it ended in failure. It should have been successful. One year among the nefarious denizens of the Borghetto should have been long enough. Had Leonardo been successful, that would have been the end of it. Instead, his failure over the course of that year of searching for the face of Judas, opens up the possibility that he was looking for something quite different, but something as equally hard to find. What happened after this year of searching is the other half of the story; and this, for his own very good reasons, Leonardo chose not to reveal to the Duke.
The "secret" method.
Let us now return to Leonardo’s "secret" method – the one that is the object of our study. This of course is not the method described in Leonardo's conversation with the Duke, passed down to us through Vasari at third hand, but is the method that Leonardo describes in his own words, and in his own handwriting, in his "Advice To Artists". And if we are ready to accept that he himself followed the advice that he offered to others, then we shall also agree that he used this "secret" method in the Borghetto; and in fact whenever, and wherever, he walked in Milan, he would have been studying not only the people’s faces, but also the walls, or the ground at his feet, searching for those expressive and marvelous images he speaks of. The Borghetto, poor neighborhood that it was, with its deteriorating unkempt walls, presented a fertile ground for his search; and there among the multitude of images that he saw amid the splotches and stains of the walls, he may ultimately have found an image that would express to his satisfaction the obduracy and wickedness of Judas.
Comparing the “secret” method with the “traditional”method.
Let us make a comparison of the two methods used for creating the face of Judas - the traditional method as per Vasari, and Leonardo's secret method. In both of them we shall use the Borghetto as the backdrop for our study – the faces of the iniquitous residents of the Borghetto in the first method; the stained walls of its buildings in the second.
Among the multitude of faces that he studied among the habitues of the Borghetto, surely Leonardo would have seen some that, while not perfect for his purpose, at least would have had merit. He could have hired one or another of them and brought them to his studio to act as a model for his evil Judas face – working with them till he found a suitable gesture, and coaching them into an expression of evil, while he sketched them. This is how a realist figurative painter would do it today, and within a few hours, or possibly a few days, he/she would have a creditable painting. But this was not Leonardo's way. We know that he did not compromise his search and settle for one of these less than perfect faces, for after one year his quest still remained unsuccessful.
So we can conclude that Leonardo continued to look for that one face in the crowd that he would know was right at the instant he saw it; that would offer immediately all three aspects of the ideal face he sought – the evil features, the expression of evil and the dramatic gesture; just as a young man might fall in love, all in an instant, stricken by the beauty of a face in the crowd. And this is the first method – the search for the ideal evil face among the men of the Borghetto.
While Leonardo was studying the faces of the denizens of the Borghetto, his gaze was floating simultaneously over the walls behind them, seeking there for his ideal face amid the spectral images that his trained eye saw in the stains of the walls, the mud in the street, the mold on deteriorating plaster. As we saw earlier, he was not looking for a particular evil face but for one that conveyed a universal meaning to the face of Judas. A wall image by it’s very nature is universal, for the mind would not otherwise have recognized it out of a random splattering of stains - somewhat like those images that sometimes appear on the internet, which some people recognize immediately and cannot understand what all the fuss is about, while others look for the longest time and just cannot see it, and then they see all of a sudden, as if a blindfold had been removed. In THAT lies the universality of Leonardo's wall images. Everything is seen and recognized at once; which in the case of Judas would be a wall image that simultaneously encompassed those three aspects of his face that Leonardo sought – the facial features of evil per se, the expression of evil, and the dramatic gesture.
A new understanding.
We addressed earlier why for one year Leonardo's search among the lowlifes of Milan had proven unsuccessful. Why then did his search for his Judas image on the stained walls of Milan prove equally unsuccessful? It was not through lack of trying – after all he went out "every" day, morning and evening. But his choice of image had to meet certain criteria - the treachery, the evil, the obduracy in the face of Judas. Such an image when finally discovered would be exactly what Leonardo was looking for, but even among the multitude of images that he saw on his "walls", it would still be a rare find. Earlier, in "The Adoration Of The Magi" he had done marvelous things using his private method – (we shall come back to analyze this later). And so, given Leonardo’s uncompromising search for perfection, and his earlier successes, we can understand why he felt that the perfect Judas image was worth waiting for, and why he would not settle for a face from the crowd of the evil-doers of the Borghetto. His refusal to compromise meant that he would not cease from searching until he had found the perfect wall image. But despite the acuity of his search he remained vulnerable to the vagaries of chance, which could just as easily have brought him success after a few days as delayed it for over a year.
We have been expected to believe that Leonardo devoted one year exclusively to finding a likeness of Judas. This seems an awfully long time to devote to simply finding one face. But if we understand Leonardo's method, and we agree if only for the sake of argument, that he himself used his method, it follows that his time in the Borghetto was much more productively spent than previously imagined. For we can surmise that not only was his time spent studying the residents of that disreputable suburb, and the images of faces in its stained walls, but that that while searching for the evil face of Judas amid these wall stains, he was simultaneously looking for the beautiful, godlike face of Jesus, and possibly the faces of one or more of the other disciples as well.
This would go a long way towards justifying the length of time spent in the Borghetto. Leonardo certainly would not admit to his contemporaries what he in fact was doing there. He was justifiably very secretive about his private method and had intended it for posthumous publication. How inconvenient it would be if he had to explain and justify where he had been looking for the face of Jesus; and how incongruous, possibly blasphemous, to explain where he had found it – on the muddy, urine-stained stained walls of the Borghetto. What better cover story to explain his time spent in the Borghetto than the putative search for Judas.
The story is told that Leonardo visited various jails in his search for Judas. What finer tapestry of images could he find than the walls of jail cells stained with centuries of filth and graffiti, mold and damp. And indeed the same cover story would explain his visits.
The other half of the story.
Can we choose between the two methods and state with any certainty that one, and not the other produced the image of Judas. Indeed after one year neither method had proven successful, so the answer based on the limited evidence would have to be "no"; but let us after all these years of neglect agree that it is time to give equal weight to Leonardo’s other method - the one that comes down to us not through the words of others but through his own words, and in his own handwriting. If we are now paying attention, we can, with a new immediacy, join Leonardo as he walks through the streets and alleys of Milan. This is the other half of the story, that has been neglected for five hundred years.
Leonardo was pragmatic.
Should we in fact even make the attempt to choose between the two methods. That would surely be presumptuous, and attempting that choice on the evidence before us would also be futile. Leonardo was one of the world’s great dreamers; but allied to that was one of the most practical and disciplined minds of all time. A more pragmatic approach would probably best reflect his attitude - he would have done whatever worked for him. He would not have visited the Borghetto solely for the wall images or solely for the nefarious faces. He looked at the walls. He looked at the people. He gleaned information from all sides. A perfect gesture that he found in the form of a wall image may have been combined with a perfect real face, blending the two together. He may have found a less than complete wall image of a face and "fleshed" it out. He may have used several images and (as Merezhkowsky says) "chosen from them what I needed and supplied the rest." Or he may indeed have found a satisfactory face with a suitable accompanying facial gesture and expression among the iniquitous residents of the Borghetto.
Two questions we should ask:
Would Leonardo have spent so much time in the Borghetto if it had not been a town full of villainous faces, and his purpose were solely to search for his wall images? The question is moot. Without the low life it would be a normal town with ordinary people maintaining their properties and not permitting the kind of dilapidation to occur that is so conducive to stained walls with their wealth of imagery.
Second question – Surely Leonardo would have seen all the wall images that the Borghetto had to offer in much less time than one year? Indeed he would. But let us assume that there was some poetic license in the term "one year". Let us discard the rainy days, the very cold days, the days of snow. That would shorten the time period significantly. Let us consider also that a good rainfall would produce a whole series of new images. The bustle and jostle of the crowd and the animals and wagons brushing against the walls of narrow streets would be a constant source of renewal of the imagery. The dried mud in the streets would change daily. And finally there is the possibility that Leonardo may have exaggerated the time spent in the Borghetto.
Why was Leonardo so secretive?
Why was Leonardo averse to revealing to the Duke the “secret” method he describes in his notes? Much has changed in the intervening centuries but even today the method is not something to be revealed lightly. Imagine announcing in the middle of a party, "I see faces in walls". You might as well say "I see dead people" – quite inappropriate, even in today’s enlightened society. How much more so in Leonardo’s time. Seeing non-existent faces might be construed as consorting with evil spirits; seeing the image of Christ in a urine stain on a wall as blasphemy. Florence at this time was under the grip of Savonarola’s brand of religious fundamentalism. Need I say more. From the accusation of sodomy against him during his younger years Leonardo had learnt the value of circumspection and of secretiveness. Exceptional individuals have always appreciated the value of silence.
Morning and evening.
No-one has addressed Leonardo’s reason for going out in the morning and evening. Surely evil people are out all day. But if they need to rest, it would be in the morning, while they are recovering from their nighttime depravations – with the result that fewer of them would be available in the morning for Leonardo to study; and yet he went out in the morning.
There is another explanation. The light of morning and evening as it crosses the rough stone or stucco walls of the dwellings creates a myriad of gentle shadows that act just like stains on walls and effectively create Leonardo’s wall images; and of course as the sun sets in the west, the direction of the evening light is reversed from that of the morning light, giving a whole new set of images. Harsh, vertical midday sunlight would on the other hand be deleterious to seeing the fugitive images that Leonardo sought within his wall stains; and it would also create the wrong kind of shadows for his purposes.
Judas as monk?
Ross King in his excellent book "Leonardo And The Last Supper" proposes a still different model for Judas. I quote:
"Leonardo appears to have used one of the friars, at any rate, as his model for Judas: a red chalk study for Judas’s head clearly shows him with the clerical tonsure – that is, the shaven crown - worn by the Dominicans. Thus Leonardo had no need to frequent the slums of Milan to find a model: he may simply have cast his eye around Santa Maria delle Grazie."
He does not however state whether this is based on any historical evidence, or if it his own (highly interesting) suggestion. I cannot agree with it. No monk would have allowed his face to be used as a model for Judas; and if, because of his obligation of silence and obedience, the monk would have had no say in the matter, yet I cannot believe that any prior would have permitted one of his monks to be the model for Judas.
The joke again.
As for that joke about the prior, I believe that it was purely a joke, with there never being any intention of following through on it. It would be remarkable after all if the prior’s face were to coincidentally fit the criteria of evil that Leonardo was so relentlessly pursuing; and as we have shown, Leonardo was determined to find his Judas image elsewhere.
Page 19 (Chapter 4)
Did Leonardo use his own secret method ?
Leonardo describes his method in his “Advice to Artists” with a richness of detail that can only come from personal experience - (the various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; battles and figures in action; strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects), and note how he qualifies some of these, such as “beautified” with mountains, “strange” faces, and "monstrous" things. This is not written in the impersonal manner of a shopping list, or a report at second hand of someone else's method. If this were not his personal discovery he would not display that pride of ownership of calling it a "new device for study" ; or go to the trouble of defending it against the claim that it may seem “but trivial and almost ludicrous", and assert in it’s defense that it is “nevertheless extremely useful "? It is without doubt a deeply personal document.
He would not have offered his method to other artists if he did not use it himself. He did not, to coin a phrase say: "practice what I preach, even though I do not practice it myself." He would not have shared his method if he did not believe in it; and he would not have believed in it if he had not used it and tasted of it's benefits.
Marvelous ideas in a vacuum?
We have seen for ourselves the kinds of images he describes. We can sense his enthusiasm. It should be evident at this point just how important these apparitions, these wall images, were to him. Let us then proceed confidently to that one critical overriding question – Did Leonardo act on his discovery? Did he record and paint the images that he found on the walls of Milan and Florence? Even more to the point, let us rephrase the question and ask, "Is it even conceivable that he did not record them?"
We have seen how ardent he is in his description of the potential benefits of his device, and of the wonderful images to be found. Walter Isaacson in his biography of Leonardo quotes, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Let us accordingly ask ourselves of what use would these images/ideas have been to Leonardo if they had existed only in his mind; if they had not been drawn and recorded and used as references for paintings to be shown to the world, thereby bringing him the same "honor" and success that he proposed for other artists, and which he himself cherished. Those"really marvelous ideas " he talks of - how likely is it that a man who made and kept notes on everything, including something as mundane as household expenses, would not likewise have recorded something as important as "really marvelous ideas"? Leonardo's religious paintings have mysterious, unworldly backgrounds. Did he see them initially within his stained walls? And the action of the Battle of Anghiari - could that have been spotted on a wall in Florence? Are these some of the "marvelous ideas "?
A pleasant morning stroll.
Are we to believe that Leonardo, while promoting his method to others, being so solicitous of the success of other people, would not for himself treat it as something more than a gentle diversion to amuse his mind during a pleasant morning’s stroll or while staring into the embers of a fire on a cold evening? Is it conceivable of the mind of a man who engaged in titanic struggles to understand the natural world, to create new machines, to divert rivers, to master the science of flight, to create art brought to a pitch of perfection never again achieved by human hand, that such a mind would pass the time daydreaming over phantasmagorical images?
With no more ambivalence, but finally and unequivocably, let us accept that Leonardo used his method in his own paintings and drawings, and let us be grateful that he had the generosity of mind to describe his secret in his notes, and thus to share it with posterity, and with us today.
"Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you ...". This was Leonardo's adjuration to us in his “Advice To Artists”. Yet it is now five hundred years that his advice has been ignored. There can be no better time than now to finally take him at his word. The field is open. It remains only to determine which drawings and which paintings are of actual people and places, and which are copies of images from Leonardo’s wall.
Page 20 (Chapter 5)
The mystery of the wondrous Shepherd Boy - is it a self portrait ?
I propose now to begin my analysis of Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi, painted in 1481. It can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery.
First, however, let us look at Botticelli's Adoration painted in 1475. It was originally located in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where Leonardo would have seen it. It also hangs in the Uffizi.
In the bottom right of the painting we see the artist himself, Sandro Botticelli, looking out at us.
Leonardo's Adoration was painted in 1481, six years later.
Again, in the bottom right of this painting - (more appropriately termed an underpainting) - we see the standing figure of a young man, who has become known to posterity as the Shepherd Boy. Unlike the Botticelli self portrait, his head is turned away from us, and he is looking out beyond the confines of the painting. There is much speculation as to whether Leonardo, following the precedent of Botticelli, painted the Shepherd Boy as a self portrait.
Let's examine the image and determine if this might indeed be a self portrait of the young Leonardo. We shall study it from a variety of different angles.
First I propose to look at what "should be", and then compare it with "what is".
So, if Leonardo, possibly the greatest of all artists, and with his extraordinary powers of observation, chose to include a portrait of himself within the Adoration, it "should have been" recognizable to his contemporaries as a self portrait. It would have been commented on, and it would have been noted, in particular by Vasari in his "Lives of the Artists". It would be the kind of anecdote that Vasari would have needed to fill the pages of his book. Though Vasari, who was born eight years before Leonardo died, would not have been able to judge of the accuracy of the likeness, the anecdote would still have reached his ears. He makes no mention of it.
Let us consider the unlikely possibility that Leonardo painted a portrait of himself that nobody recognized - a portrait that was more symbolic than real. There would still be anecdotal evidence that this was a self portrait, particularly as the fame of Leonardo grew. Instead, the ambiguity of the Shepherd Boy stands as a rock against which the self portrait thesis breaks like a sea swell.
Furthermore, if Leonardo had chosen to make an appearance in one of his paintings, it “should be” an appearance that mattered; it "should be" significant; it "should" make a statement within the context of the painting. Instead we see an anonymous shepherd boy, with ambiguous face, caught in a candid moment, distracted by something happening outside the confines of the painting - perhaps a sound, perhaps a movement. Is this the way Leonardo would have chosen to depict himself - not momentous, but mundane - in the minor role of a lowly shepherd boy distracted by some slight diversion? It would indeed be surprising if Leonardo had chosen to paint his only self portrait of himself as a young man in this less than meaningful role.
But notwithstanding, let us give credit to the wonderful image that Leonardo created with his Shepherd Boy. The spontaneity of the Shepherd Boy’s gesture brings an immediacy to the painting, turning us into participants in the action. The two versions of the Adoration could not be more unalike. Botticelli's Adoration is a set theatrical piece with statuesque figures in a stage-managed setting, in the middle of a blank desert space, with no suggestion of anyone beyond - there is no-one behind and beyond Botticelli. Leonardo's version on the other hand is fluid, and full of motion. His figures and faces are caught in the moment of expressing various emotions; their gestures frozen in a moment in time. The Shepherd Boy serves a special function - his distraction attesting to the presence of other people beyond the frame of the painting. Leonardo's Adoration is a kind of snapshot, capturing part of a much larger panorama. It is a work of immense scope and ambition.
But it is always interesting to speculate; so let me suggest a possible scenario in which Leonardo might indeed be the Shepherd Boy:
He has painted himself as a kind of artist's signature. His right arm is extended in the direction of the Christ Child, and his head is turned away facing to the left as if looking out of the painting at someone standing beyond it's confines - inviting them to enter the painting and to bear witness to the miraculous event in the center of the Adoration. Who could this unseen entity be? It is not one of us, the spectators, for we are standing in front of the painting; and more to the point, it is not Leonardo's patrons, who were his employers and had commissioned the painting, because they likewise would be standing in front with us, not off to the side. But surely if it were Leonardo's intent to play the role of artist as host he would be looking directly out at us and at his patrons in the traditional self portrait pose.
Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Leonardo, suggests that in the “Virgin of the Rocks” in the Louvre, the androgynous figure of the angel looking out at us is a proxy for Leonardo. He writes: “...especially since the positioning and outward gaze of the disturbingly alluring angel make him seem a proxy for the artist”.
The only reason that the author would suggest that the angel is Leonardo’s proxy is that the outward looking gaze of the angel is precisely how an artist would paint himself - looking directly out of the painting.
Or does it mean that Leonardo, by looking off to the side is deliberately spurning his patrons and, like Sir Francis Bacon, offering his masterpiece to the rest of the world and to future generations.
And let us not ignore the power of vanity. Leonardo would want to differentiate himself from Botticelli. He would not necessarily follow Botticelli’s precedent of looking out of the painting frontally.
While it is pleasant to speculate, and the suggestions may be of some interest, yet it is all something of a stretch.
Let’s get back to solid ground, and undertake a technical analysis in which we shall study both the pose of the "Shepherd Boy" and the drawing style in which the image is rendered. From this angle we shall continue to try to determine if this could be the face of Leonardo.
The miraculous Shepherd Boy.
It is a face that is almost miraculous in it's vitality and expressiveness:
Were ever lips drawn with so much expression, with such minimal effort? The eyes are roughed in as two shadow shapes, yet the face is so evocative as to be almost alive. It speaks to us across the centuries. Nothing more could be added, and nothing subtracted. It is the work of a genius.
It reminds me of Lord Byron’s poem, She Walks In Beauty:
“And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;”
That is what Leonardo has done in this image. He has brought together all that is best of light and shade - the two main tools that he as a painter had at his disposal. And he has used these tools with a wonderful economy; neither too much of one or the other; or too little.
“One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace"
How to pose for a self portrait.
To better understand if this is indeed a self portrait of the young Leonardo we need to understand how a self portrait is created:
When we look at a self portrait of an artist in an art museum we notice that the artist is looking out of the painting and into our eyes. This occurs because the artist was standing in front of a mirror as he painted himself. The painting hanging in the museum is in effect the mirror with the reflection of the artist in it. So, as we stand in front of an artist’s self portrait in a museum, we are standing where the artist stood as he painted himself; and just as he looked into his own eyes in the mirror, so we are looking into his eyes in the museum. Most self portraits painted by the great masters, (Rubens, Velazquez, Raphael,Rembrandt), are done in this manner, with the artist looking straight out of the painting, usually with head turned slightly into a three quarter view, or looking forward in the en face position - for the simple reason that the artist has to be able to see himself while he is painting a self portrait.
If the Shepherd Boy is a self portrait of Leonardo, it is a remarkable and contorted pose, with the artist tilting his head and looking sideways out of the painting instead of at himself. I do not know if it is even possible for an artist to paint himself from this position since he is not looking at himself. But even if it were possible, there would still have to be a significant reason for choosing such a difficult pose; and since no one has as yet found such a reason, nor yet explained the pose within the context of the painting and of the story told by the painting, then there is no overriding justification for such a strangely posed self portrait.
Just as earlier we were unable to find a storyline about the Shepherd Boy’s presence within the painting that might have justified Leonardo painting himself in that role, so we can find nothing so significant in the Shepherd Boy’s pose - the sideways glance, the turning away - that would justify Leonardo attempting such an unnatural self portrait.
At this point we shall utilize an old trick that portrait painters use. It will enable us to see how true to life the Shepherd Boy’s face is. This useful little trick was espoused by Leonardo himself in his “Advice to Artists”. You take a hand mirror and hold it up to the painting (which in our case means the computer screen) and look at the reverse image that you see in the mirror. if you do not have a mirror to hold up to the screen, I shall show a reverse image of the Shepherd Boy to simulate the effect of a mirror. But first let us read what Leonardo says about using a mirror;
"...I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter's work, so you will be better able to judge of it's faults than in any other way."
When a painter is painting a portrait, the mind becomes hypnotized by what the hand is doing and is constantly compensating mentally for every error, with the result that the artist sees only what she wants to see, and fails to see those errors which are immediately obvious to any spectator - for example the eyes in the portrait may be misaligned, or the angle of the mouth is not parallel with the angle of the eyes; or the space between the bottom of the nose and the top of the mouth is too great or too small; and so the list goes on. But when the artist looks at her work through a mirror and sees the face in reverse, she sees the truth of the image just as an unbiased onlooker would see it. It is as if looking into the mirror has the effect of switching on the critical faculty that had become switched off in the mind of the artist when he/she look at their own work; which might explain why artists are so often enamored of their art - like the child that only a mother could love.
This is the image in reverse as if seen through a mirror:
We can see that the contour of the shadowed cheek is too drastically inclined, the eyebrow above this cheek is angled upward too severely, the eye is too high, the rim of the nose is too vertical. Two lines, one drawn through the line of the eyebrows, the other along the line of the lips, should converge toward a distant vanishing point. Instead they are almost parallel, with the result that the shadow side seems to be sweeping upwards as if we are seeing it through a distorted lens.
The two lines should converge toward the shadow side of the face. Leonardo was aware of this. He was intimately familiar with the laws of perspective. Yet the lines converge very slightly in the opposite direction, resulting in an optical distortion.
In order to paint a self portrait Leonardo would have had to look at himself in a mirror. The optical distortion is not something that he could possibly have seen in the mirror. So when he painted the optical distortion he could not possibly have been painting what he saw in the mirror (namely,his own face). The same goes for the face of any other young man that Leonardo might have used as a model for the Shepherd Boy. That face would not have appeared to him as distorted either. So at this point we can take our thesis a step further and say that the Shepherd Boy is neither a self portrait, nor done from a live model posing for Leonardo in his studio. The optical distortion becomes another rock on which the sea swell breaks.
Could Leonardo have deliberately distorted the face of the shepherd boy? A definition of the art of the portrait might prove useful here:
It is the accurate depiction in two dimensional format either of one's own or of another’s face, while striving at the same time to bring out something of the sitter’s soul – a perfect likeness with a sense of the soul being the ultimate objective. In the BBC series, The Crown, a depiction of the life of Queen Elizabeth II, the artist Graham Sutherland is painting a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. He makes the observation that "truth is accuracy", which seems a worthy definition of the portrait artist's art. (Perhaps Sutherland's portrait was a little too accurate, for Churchill hated it and had it destroyed.) In other words, it’s all about accuracy.
It is contrary to all he has learned for the artist to deliberately distort the likeness. In fact, in furtherance of accuracy the artist may use various tools, such as a plumb line to align for example the inside edges of the eyes with the edges of the mouth, or to check the tilt of the head. How can we say that an artist on the one hand strives to depict an accurate likeness and on the other hand simultaneously distorts it? The two are incompatible. Where and when during the painting process would the artist cease to strive for accuracy and begin the process of distortion?
Leonardo recommended the mirror technique precisely as a means of confirming that the portrait being painted is true to life; and as a tool for detecting any distortion that may have occurred. Looking at a portrait through a mirror enables an artist to see it through someone else’s eyes, and thus be better able "to judge of it's faults ". Leonardo would have considered any distortion to be a "fault "; and If he had created this optical distortion deliberately, while painting himself or a live model, he would be acting contrary to his own advice. So again the self-portrait thesis fails.
Leonardo’s drawing style.
The face of the Shepherd Boy has been rendered with a marvelous economy of means - a process of including only what was necessary to achieve the pure expression, and foregoing anything extraneous.
A poem, "Autumn", written by Roy Campbell, describes a similar process occurring in nature when leaves fall as autumn arrives.
"I love to see, when leaves depart
The clear anatomy arrive."
Only the essence of the Shepherd Boy remains; the bare anatomy of the soul; an expression and a moment in time, captured for all time; all detail removed. But when an artist paints from life, whether painting a self portrait or the face of another, it is precisely the details that create the likeness – the precise and accurate placement of line; the delineation of the delicate curvature of the lips; the careful drawing of the eye showing the pupil, the iris, the precise thicknesses of the upper and lower eyelids; the proper placement of the features relative to each other etc. Note the care, precision, and detail with which Leonardo drew himself thirty years later:
How then did Leonardo, who more than any other artist had that infinite capacity for attention to detail, or to quote correctly, of "taking pains", manage to achieve the august simplicity of the Shepherd Boy's face – a style that is the antithesis of this later self portrait and of all his other highly detailed commissioned portraits?
Realist artists squint.
There is a method that realist painters use in order to simplify their portraits and to give them a greater feeling of authenticity. It is possible Leonardo could have achieved his bare bones style by using the same method. It entails squinting. You look at the person, or the landscape, or still life, that you are painting, and squint. This has the effect of reducing whatever you are looking at to dark and light values - a pattern of light and shade which in a face would be seen as two dark patches for the eyes, a shadow under the nose and the lower lip, a dark shape for the upper lip. This is very similar for example to what you would see of a friend's face as she/he approaches you from a distance. Even though you can see none of the details of the face, you would recognize your friend from the pattern of the dark and light patches, which are all that is visible at that distance.
Leonardo does not mention this method in his “Advice to Artists”. He may have used it despite not mentioning it; but he would still have painted what he saw, and one thing he certainly did not see is the optical distortion we looked at earlier. Again we conclude that the Shepherd Boy could not have been drawn from life.
But if Leonardo did not draw the Shepherd Boy from life, either in the form of a self portrait, or a portrait of some other young man, the only other possible explanation is that he drew the image from his imagination; for he certainly did not copy the work of another artist. It is either the one or the other – from life or from imagination. Which is it?
In order to be fully confident in our conclusion, the answer to this question must resolve the following contradictions:
1. Leonardo had a genius for detail. How did he reconcile his love of detail with the sublime simplicity of the Shepherd Boy?
2. Leonardo had an enormously practical mind. He studied the laws of nature. He was a passionate and meticulous observer of the natural world. He created wonderfully detailed drawings of the inner anatomy of the human body; and yet we suggest that he entered the unreal world of his imagination to draw the Shepherd Boy.
3. He achieved perfection in his paintings of women's faces, yet he distorted the face of the Shepherd Boy and evidently did not feel it needed correcting.
4. Portrait artists use a process of addition – adding line to line, gradually building up the light and shade as the face takes form, much like constructing a building, one step following the other. The simplicity of the drawing of the Shepherd Boy suggests a process of removing all unnecessary detail. Yet a brick mason, to continue our analogy, builds a house by adding not by removing bricks.
The painting of the Shepherd Boy is done in a style that seems foreign to what we know of Leonardo. It all comes down to this - how did he reduce the face of his Shepherd Boy to it's bare elements, while simultaneously building up the form and features?
The answer, while focusing particularly on the face of the Shepherd Boy, will encompass, as we shall see later, the whole multitude of other faces in the Adoration, as well as the faces in Leonardo’s religious paintings, and indeed all faces that were not specifically commissioned portraits.
The answer I propose is this: that in his religious paintings, and in the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo created a world of people and faces which was purely imaginary; that his images of figures and faces were found amid the blotches and stains of the walls of Florence and Milan; that he fleshed out these ghostly, spectral images into beautiful and unworldly human faces; and that this great realist painter, who copied from nature with an unparalleled diligence, when he was not constrained by the need to paint perfect likenesses, as in his commissioned portraits, chose instead to create the world of his paintings, with their faces and figures and backgrounds, out of his imagination.
But to attempt to create the drawing of a face, particularly a face of great beauty, solely out of the imagination, the only tools a piece of charcoal and a sheet of paper, is a mind-numbing, soul-destroying task. I am not talking here of a cartoon artist laying down a few lines and creating a cartoon character. Even Leonardo would have been hard put to create the face of a Madonna using only his imagination. We who are spoiled by the special effects we see in movies and commercials should keep in mind that Leonardo’s majestic images and infinitely beautiful Madonnas are the effects of nature, and were created five hundred years before the digital age.
The secret method.
The answer lies in Leonardo’s method. It took his imagination to a new dimension. He did not start with a blank sheet of paper and add line to line until he had created a satisfactory image. His imagination, instead, worked in conjunction with his secret method. He found images as he walked – so much more pleasant than sitting over a blank sheet of paper and waiting for inspiration – and he saw the face he was going to draw before he had put pen to paper. His imagination would flow over the walls around him and, when he saw an intriguing image in the pattern of the stains, he would record it. He saw with great clarity, and he drew what he saw.
It is very probable that he was the only person in Milan or Florence who saw these images but that does not make them any less real. To him they were real – as real as the walls on which he saw them, or as the ground he was standing on. So when Leonardo found an image on a wall and drew it, he was not drawing from his imagination; he was drawing something real from the material world around him, and he rendered it with the same care and precision with which he drew a real human face or a real human figure – the main difference being that nature had already made many of the artistic decisions that an artist needs to make when converting a three-dimensional human face into a two-dimensional image. Nature had already decided on the correct shapes and proportions, and in some instances, even the correct tones and values of the image. Nature had simplified the image to it's bare essentials. The images of faces that he found, though imperfect, offered gestures and expressions that were of a quality ready to be copied into his sketchbook.
Conclusion of Shepherd Boy - the answer.
We have reached our conclusion - the face of the Shepherd Boy is not a self portrait; and neither is it the face of some other young man whom Leonardo used as a model. I suggest that it is the image of a face that he found amid the stains of the walls of Florence. And with this in mind let us now address the four paradoxes:
1. When Leonardo found the image that he would use for the Shepherd Boy, Nature had already simplified it to its bare elements. It remained only for him to copy it; and he copied it with the same care, precision and love of detail with which he drew his commissioned portraits.
2. Once Leonardo had found his image, that image now had a real existence in the real world, not just in the world of his imagination. It was there for anyone to see once it was pointed out to them. When Leonardo copied the image, he was copying something that was real, not something that existed solely in his imagination.
3, The face in the image that Leonardo had found was slightly distorted. He did not, and would not, have created it distorted in this way. But he had not created it; he had “found” it. It already had an existence of its own, and it worked perfectly just the way he had found it. There would be no benefit to improving what Nature had created. The image expressed all that needed to be expressed, and any attempt to “correct” it would diminish it. Leonardo drew it without changing or correcting - faults and all.
4. Leonardo did not draw the Shepherd Boy as he would a commissioned portrait, building up the face step by step. It would be impossible to create the "august simplicity" of the Shepherd Boy’s face using a process of building up and taking down at the same time - like adding and subtracting simultaneously. Instead, with the process of simplification already achieved by Nature, it only remained for Leonardo to copy the ready-made image that he saw before him.
So it is that when we understand Leonardo's “secret” method, we see how the workings of a mind of genius can be reduced to their pragmatic elements:
Leonardo found an image that he liked. He painted it into the Adoration because he wanted to use it. He placed it in the bottom right of the painting, perhaps to create a sense of balance, perhaps as a nod to Botticelli. The face looks to the side because that is the way it was when he found it as a wall stain; and so, that which was initially mundane and of little moment has taken on a deep significance, and, through the process of the centuries, has become enshrouded in mystery.
Page 32 (chapter 6).
Stained-wall images of Shepherd Boy.
Back to my unlovely basement where I found the following wall image, which I offer as an example of the kind of image that Leonardo would have used to paint his Shepherd Boy.
Leonardo's Shepherd Boy:
Fallibility of human memory. ( The importance of taking notes. )
Leonardo wrote of human memory: "Any master who should venture to boast that he could remember all the forms and effects of nature would certainly appear to me to be graced with great ignorance, in as much as these effects are infinite and our memory is not of so great capacity as to suffice thereto". Leonardo is warning us to be assiduous in note keeping; not trusting to our memory. May we not assume from this that Leonardo was speaking of his own memory also – that he himself did not have an infallible photographic memory, and drew copious sketches as memory aids? To quote further from Advice To Artists, "you should first strive in drawing to present to the eye in expressive form the purpose and invention created originally in your imagination, then proceed by taking off and putting on until you satisfy yourself ". He is recommending that we make a preliminary sketch of an idea conceived in our imagination - remembering that to Leonardo the word "imagination" also encompasses those marvelous images that he saw in the stains and blotches on walls. Sketch it, improve it, add, erase, bring it to perfection. How do we improve it and bring it to perfection?
Leonardo tells us how in his "Advice To Artists" - "Look about you and take the best parts of many beautiful faces". I understand the word "take" in this sentence to mean that we should draw rather than simply memorize those features that we have found best in a variety of attractive faces, for we have just read Leonardo's opinion on the fallibility of human memory. Drawing these attractive features would serve a dual purpose – it would create a reference library of sketches, or it could serve as a mnemonic device to help remember the particular features. "Select beautiful faces as I tell you and fix them in your mind" .
In this way, from an amalgam of all that was best in faces that he had observed, Leonardo was able to create the imaginary faces of his paintings – molding the rough wall image into its final form by making delicate, nuanced changes, most particularly to the lips. The final image, ready to be transferred on to an underpainting, became the Shepherd Boy, the Jesus, Judas or Virgin Mary of his masterpieces. Thus Leonardo was able to indulge in his preferred technique of copying directly from the natural world - the source of his wall images - and simultaneously creating his imaginary world; and seeming with effortless ease to create perfection.
500 years in obscurity.
Only now after 500 years is Leonardo's secret being uncovered. In past centuries, if an artist using Leonardo's method had found an interesting image, he/she would perhaps have drawn it; but at this point it would have ceased to be the image and would have become an artist’s rendering of it – an artist’s interpretation – and all connection with it’s source would have been lost. Today, however, an artist could for example take a photo of a found image and put it side by side with a drawing of the same image to reveal the method in action. But historically no such evidence can exist, and no artist till the modern era has laid claim to having used Leonardo's method.
No smoking gun.
It is not known when scholars first began to take an interest in Leonardo. But they have always been removed at two levels of separation from an understanding of the value of Leonardo’s wall images to his art. Nothing has ever been recorded of any particular image being used by him as a source for any drawing or painting – no smoking gun to show his use of his method to which they could turn for proof. And secondly they have never seen images such as we show here in LeonardosWall, for indeed it is not in their purview to go out in the street in search of Leonardo’s mysterious images. It is the province of the artist not the scholar to wander in alleys, under bridges, in old ruins and cemeteries, searching for exotic stained wall images.
The age of photography.
Later we enter the age of photography. The opportunity was there to create a record of Leonardo’s wall images. Unfortunately no one thought of creating an anthology of such photographs – which might have reawakened interest in Leonardo's method. The German artist Max Ernst, in his book Beyond Painting, tells that after reading Leonardo’s treatise on painting he got into the habit of staring at stained walls and floors, and the images he found there became the source of his style of art.
Surrealism notwithstanding, the method has remained in obscurity until now. The internet is the ideal vehicle to resurrect Leonardo’s ideas and thereby gain a new and deeper understanding of his art. The first appearances of wall images today have served only to trivialize Leonardo's "marvelous ideas". Faces of a bearded man are found, and worshipped as images of Jesus. A few dark patches strategically placed are all it takes to suggest a pair of eyes and a beard. Or the suggestion of a draped figure becomes the Mother of God.
It now remains for LeonardosWall.com to reveal the incredible wealth of imagery that Nature has offered to those who are willing to "see".
Image of bearded man outside the Art Institute of Chicago:
Did Leonardo da Vinci have Parkinson's disease?
We know very little about Leonardo's last years. What little we know comes down to us from two Renaissance writers, Antonio de Beatis and Giorgio Vasari.
On October 10, 1517, some eighteen months before Leonardo died, Antonio de Beatis, in the company of Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona, paid a visit to the master at the Chateau du Clos Luce in Amboise, France, where Leonardo spent the last years of his life. Beatis writes:
"A certain paralysis has attacked his right hand, which forbids the expecting of any more good work from him, ... and although Leonardo can no longer color with that sweetness with which he was wont, he is able to make drawings and teach others."
It is fortunate that the paralysis was of the right hand, and Leonardo was left handed. It is hard however to know what to make of the description. It lacks any of those additional details that could have facilitated a diagnosis. What is missing for example is any mention of tremors in Leonardo’s right hand - which would immediately have suggested Parkinson's disease. However, while it is normal for one arm to atrophy in Parkinson’s patients - seen as an inability to swing one arm while walking for example - yet when the arm is kept immobile there need be no sign of tremor. The useless arm of a Parkinson’s patient could certainly be described as “paralyzed” by the casual observer, particularly five hundred years ago; and the presence or absence of tremors is not definitive.
On the other hand neither is any mention made by the writer of any further paralysis - which would have pointed toward a stroke diagnosis - as, for example, of one side of Leonardo's body being more or less paralyzed; nor even of partial paralysis of one side of Leonardo’s face such as commonly occurs with stroke victims.
Let us take a look at the self portrait of Leonardo as an old man:
(image of self portrait)
We see no indication of paralysis, albeit the portrait shows weariness and premature aging, even disappointment and resignation. In all fairness however, this drawing may have been drawn prior to the paralysis.
The absence of any corroborative evidence, such as tremors, or further paralysis, makes it well nigh impossible to choose between Parkinson's disease, or stroke, or, indeed, another ailment.
The only other evidence we have concerning Leonardo’s condition comes from Giorgio Vasari in his "Lives of the Artists". He writes of Leonardo that as the end approached .....
"... he could not raise himself well on his feet, supporting himself on the arms of his friends and servants".
Vasari adds that as the King of France held him, Leonardo expired in his arms. Scholars have cast doubt on the latter part of this description. Vasari loved Leonardo greatly and may have wished to honor him with such a momentous passing - though today most would argue that the honor was in the other direction.
Also Vasari was not an eyewitness. He wrote forty years after Leonardo had died. He offers no information about his sources so his evidence was probably anecdotal.
The description suggests that in his last eighteen months Leonardo's condition became greatly aggravated, possibly from the progression of Parkinson's, or from having suffered another powerful stroke.
The above two writers’ descriptions represent all we know of Leonardo's last years. The rest is speculation.
We have seen that the evidence at our disposal is insufficient to determine the cause of Leonardo’s affliction. Likewise, if we try to prove a negative - namely that it was not Parkinson’s or not a stroke - we again find that we do not have enough information.
The above two writers’ descriptions represent all we know of Leonardo's last years. The rest is speculation. I propose therefore that we look elsewhere for evidence:
In Leonardo's notes under the heading "Advice to Artists", he recommended that artists should look at walls spotted with stains, and in those stains they would learn to see images of faces, figures, battles, landscapes etc.; and he compared seeing those images to "the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine."
The ability to see images in stained walls is not a hallucination, for the images have an actual existence in the real world, and the eye can be trained to find them. But the words that formed in Leonardo's imagination when he heard the jangle of bells have no existence in the real world, and as such may be considered borderline hallucinatory. This could be a symptom of lowered Dopamine levels in the brain, which could eventually turn into full blown Parkinson's.
So when we add this new evidence to the evidence of paralysis of Leonardo's right hand, we might indeed be looking at a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
"I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you can then reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine. "