What Made Leonardo Such a Great Artist? Science, Says a New Book

“Book of Optics” gathered all the available knowledge of the field at the time: Galen’s study of the eye, Euclid’s and Ptolemy’s treatises on geometry, Aristotle’s suppositions about the soul. What Alhacen theorized, Leonardo put into practice.

Roland Barthes once wrote that the photographs that compel us never overpower or coerce; they attract us because they are pensive, they think. Leonardo’s paintings are stuffed with ideas, with suppositions on perspective and distortion, on how the rounded surface of the eye influences perception. They were living laboratories — which is Fiorani’s explanation for the unfinished paintings. Process simply became more alluring to Leonardo than a final product.

One wishes only that Fiorani felt freer to think alongside this work. Her approach is admiring but oddly withdrawn. She is prone to parroting her thesis and lapsing into somnolent praise. Leonardo’s youthful paintings are “stunning.” His skull drawings are “stunning.” His landscapes are “stunning.” So too are his anatomical drawings, his portrait of Ginevra Benci, his treatment of drapery and too many other techniques to mention.

The patness of this description is striking; its laziness borders on indifference. Does it bespeak the challenges of writing about Leonardo — how to make a fresh case for his obvious genius? How to write in the wake of so many others? One recent example, published just last year, is Carmen Bambach’s monumental four-part biography, which Fiorani herself calls “unsurpassed.”

Dimmi, I wanted to say to the writer, tell me not what has been seen before but what you have seen. Sometimes Fiorani does exactly that, and in such passages, when she loses herself in looking, the book achieves fluency and power. She notes the traces of the azure paint on the throat of the “Mona Lisa” and wonders if it is responsible for giving us the sense of seeing her pulse. Or take the bravura section on “The Last Supper,” in which she explains how the painting exists in two time frames, with several characters making gestures that will mark them in the future. Thomas, for example, is shown raising the very finger he will later use to prod Christ’s wounds.

“The Shadow Drawing” doesn’t offer the conventional satisfactions of biography: the evocation of Leonardo’s world, his paradoxes and idiosyncrasies, that famous fondness for solitude and rose-pink tunics. The book trains its gaze on his technical and philosophical obsessions. Its focus may feel narrow at times, and yet its pleasures often prove surprisingly wide. The book reorients our perspective, distills a life and brings it into focus — the very work of revision and refining that its subject loved best.

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