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October 02, 2006

Viewing da Vinci's drawings will give you insight into a fevered and brilliant mind, but it will tell you nothing about science, argues Lilian Pizzichini: Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design at the V&A

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
14th September 2006 - 7th January 2007
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

Autism is always in the news, as researchers find new ways of talking about old problems. A neighbour of mine talks often of her daughter who has Asperger's Syndrome. One day, as I was being treated to yet another lengthy dissertation on the current state of play vis a vis her daughter's behavioural peculiarities, another neighbour's daughter chipped in:

That's what they call being badly behaved, isn't it?
The affronted mother replied:
No, it's Asperger's Syndrome.
The girl replied:
Yeah, but that's just being badly behaved, isn't it?
I had to struggle to stop myself from laughing. I am sure genetics play their part, but so, too, does environment. The facts are that this girl's mother is chronically garrulous and her father, whom she adores, can only grunt when he isn't given the chance to deliver lectures. There aren't many listening skills going spare in this family; there seems to be a daily word count that has to be reached; no wonder this child has problems communicating.

At any rate, the latest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's genius made me think of autism and its obsessive compulsive component.

The show's dominant theme is "the mathematical operation of all the powers of nature". I don't think we need any excuse to marvel at the fertility of da Vinci's brain, and no one seems bored with him, so we don't need a re-evaluation. But the V&A have gone to great lengths to show him in a new light.

The foyer is dominated by rickety, wooden mobiles assembled by some geek or other to bring da Vinci's drawings of flying machines to life. The effect is decidedly underwhelming. They look rather childish. Da Vinci was fascinated by flight and mechanics but these were private obsessions, private fantasies, and are more profitably seen as such.

The room which houses his drawings is dimly lit for reasons of preservation and arranged in cabinets jutting out from the walls. One joins a tremendously lengthy queue and makes a snail's progress around the room. It's like queuing in a Soviet state for a longed-for loaf of bread. Does enlightenment come when one is given the space to linger in front of one of his mad doodles and join the dots in one's own mind by applying oneself to his thought?

Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?
is one of the questions he asks himself in his back-to-front jottings. It is a fascinating question to ask, and as is always the case in a stream of consciousness, an example of the gold nuggets that are thrown up along the way. His answer is less satisfactory despite his investigation of the relationship of the eye to the brain. He came up with a doo-lalley system in which visual information is transmitted to the intellect via the receptor of impressions and the "common sense", an area where all sensory inputs are coordinated.

At least, I think that's it. It didn't make much sense to me, and I doubt, after all, that it did to him, as he was soon on to his next thing: horses in action.

These passing fancies are exciting distractions that occupied him for hours at a time but they were just that - a busy mind teeming with ideas. Even the way in which a horse can retract its muzzle to bare its teeth fascinated him. The drawing he produced to investigate this particular motion is remarkable for its expressiveness of a horse baring its teeth, but just that. It is not a bona fide scientific enquiry. Another beautiful drawing purports, so the catalogue says, to be:

a composite demonstration of turbulence in a pool.
It is entitled Water pouring from a culvert (c. 1516). Again, it is just that. Lovely to look at because the details that obsess a great artist are always intriguing and, in this case, miraculously rendered despite the subject's triviality. Another series, Studies of water swirling away from a concave surface is dated 1508, so it seems that these preoccupations haunted him. Like an autistic savant, he got stuck on details. Like an artist, he made them come to life. But they were not meant for public consumption. Importantly, the details of swirling water and grimacing horses did not overwhelm his major works. The overwhelming impression of this presentation of his work is that we are dealing with a man with major problems.

But these drawings are him relaxing, not making great claims for himself as a scientist. He was like a kid with a computer game and a console. In fact, the animations the V&A have produced of his funny little tanks going into battle (studies in force and motion) would make a great computer game. There are lots of explosions (force, I suppose) and lots of men running away (gotta be motion), so little boys would have a field day. And that is what these drawings show: he had an imagination that ran away with itself.

It is only in the Bust of a Warrior in Profile that one sees da Vinci's true magnificence. Here the superabundance of natural vitality that suffused da Vinci's untiring brain is reproduced in physical form, in a man's face, replete with virile beard. The character that exudes from this drawing is phenomenal - the charisma, the mystery that enchants us in da Vinci's paintings is what makes his reputation so unassailable. Not his scientific imaginings.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read Prof. Christie Davies' take on the V&A da Vinci exhibition, see: Christie Davies is seriously bored by the truly awful Leonardo exhibition at the V&A and concludes that both Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance are over-rated.

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Psychoanalysing Da Vinci is the final English buffoonery. Are we not already criticised enough in Rome and Florence? Why go further?
ironically I have just blogged on that matter, at

and ironically about Stephen Fry's determination to convince us he was 'not waving but drowning' when caught shoplifting ( list other boing revised small sins.)

Why this determination to get a diagnosis? It is reaching new heights, evidently....!

Posted by: fjl at October 3, 2006 12:19 PM

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is also currently hosting a special exhibition about 'the mind of Leonardo', with lots of cool computer graphics projected, writings deciphered, models rebuilt, etc...

Posted by: Benjamin Bilski at October 3, 2006 01:33 PM
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