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October 31, 2006

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: Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design at the V&A

Posted by Christie Davies

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

Rarely have I been so fed up with an exhibition as with Leonardo da Vinci, Experience, Experiment and Design at the V&A.

Leonardo was an interesting man, who created a limited number of great works of art. But his notebooks are of no interest except to the specialised scholar and the bulk of the exhibition is devoted to them. They are a mass of impenetrable squiggles and sketches and jottings in Italian in a handwriting that was already seen as ugly, unclear and archaic in his own day. Some of the time he even indulged in mirror-writing where everything is laterally inverted, as when I look up from my bath at the bathroom mirror and read TAM HTAЯ and at first assume it is Cyrillic.

This is not entirely unreasonable. The Rusyn-speaking immigrant plumbers from Krenycja are always generously donating things to the local charity shop and my wife is a thrifty squirrel. Seemingly strange vehicles often have a sign that reads Ambiwlans to passing pedestrians but it says Ambulance in the car mirror, so you get out of its way.

The curator suggests Leonardo did mirror-writing because he was left-handed and wanted to avoid smudging. No doubt the upholders of the da Vinci code will link it into their Churchillian V-sign mysteries. The real reason is that Leonardo was illegitimate, a homosexual and possibly a sado-masochist, exactly like H. M. Stanley and T. E. Lawrence.

The curators are coy about this. The word illegitimate is placed in brackets in a biographical note about Leonardo. They merely say of his sexual proclivities that "he preferred the company of young men to women", a euphemism rather like "not the marrying kind", "confirmed bachelor", "passing the love of women". This for Leonardo, the man who described the act of procreation, and anything that has any relation to it, as "disgusting", and who at the age of 24 was arrested and charged with sodomy.

The "Italian vice" was common in Florence, indeed the German word for a homosexual was Florenzer but it was also forbidden and punishable. He was not the flamboyant gay blade of silly fiction but one who had to hide his identity. That is why so little is known about his relationship with pretty boy Salai, Little Satan, whom he looked after, a minor painter often touched up by Leonardo - his work that is. Salai may well be the original for the androgynous image of St John, the disciple that Jesus loved, in Leonardo's The Last Supper on the walls of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Mary Magdalene it ain't.

Hence Leonardo's mirror writing and hence his notorious inability to finish projects he had started. He was always hiding, always moving on, always aware that he himself was unfinished and could not finish.

When I put this theory to my colleague Henry Jenkinson from Yorkshire, where such things do not happen, he replied:

Ay, 'e would do things backwards wouldn't 'e. 'E were a poof, a fairy, a pansy, a booger, an arse-bandit, a sodomite, a catamite, a practitioner of unnatural vice, that most horrid and detestable crime not to be named among Christians, a lateral invert. If I 'ad mah way, folk like that would be ….
I hasten to reassure our gay readers that I do not share these opinions. My thesis about Leonardo is to be found in my essay, "Stigma, Uncertain Identity and Skill in Disguise" [published in Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, (Ed.) Efrat Tsëelon, Routledge, 2001] based on a lecture on masks I gave in carnival week in Venice, that former haunt of Prince Phillipe zu Eulenburg and Gustav Aschenbach, those practioners of il visio tedesco, le vice Allemand.

But who wants to read Italian backwards? Why go to the V&A? In fairness there are good, large, well-displayed blow ups and also commentaries in English but these are not very interesting either. Leonardo was undoubtedly an exceptionally talented observer of nature and people, of anatomy and machines and when this was added to his superb intuitive understanding of space and structure, it made him a great artist and a talented engineer. But he was not a scientist, not a mathematician, not a philosopher, not the universal genius he is made out to be.

Indeed the Italian Renaissance and so called "Renaissance Man", the product of a vicious and debased society, are greatly over-rated. In Switzerland they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace - and they produced the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich, where the modern world began. In Italy for 30 years under the Borjas they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed and what did they produce – Leonardo. As George W. Bush would say: "Isn't that inspiring? Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful". Who on earth would ever choose to visit Florence rather than gemütlich Berne the city of Einstein's house and the feats of Klee?

True Leonardo did have one thing going for him. He was ignorant of the classical languages, that Greek and Latin nonsense that clogged up the minds of many of his contemporaries. How lucky we are to live in an age where they have finally been discarded. Leonardo was an empiricist, a man who wanted to learn directly from his observations of nature and not have them filtered through the absurd speculations of the classical world. Magis amica veritas. Yet this can only take you so far; besides Leonardo's ideals could get in the way of his understanding.

Leonardo believed that the human body was God's most perfect design and based on a complex set of proportions, such that it can be inscribed within a circle and within a square using ratios that are whole numbers. It is the absurd Vitruvian man who does Sokol gymnastics, so as first to fit himself inside one and then the other, touching the perimeter with his fingers and toes while keeping his privates stationary. He is squarely in the seventh circle.

Vitruvian man is now part of the logo of a dozen mediocre universities. So what? If he didn't fit comfortably and had to do contortions, would he be any the worse? If the ratios came out as fractions or irrational numbers (like pi) why would it matter? Is Leonardo guilty of shapeism, by excluding the disproportionate? Why should the ideal Darwinian man not be a phallopod, a being specialised for thought and reproduction? If you stuck him comfortably in an ellipse and a rhombus would it make any difference? Why not a Vitruvian chimpanzee or a Vitruvian fractal?

All this nonsense originally came out of ancient Rome and Greece - most nonsense did. Even Leonardo's ignorance of classical languages could not protect him from the malign influence of the ancients and their racist and militarist notions about proportion and perfection.

The whole point about the human body is that it is unintelligently designed, which is why there is so much work for orthopaedic surgeons (strong as an ox and twice as intelligent) and chiropractors. You can not evolve, from a quasi-lemur, close to avahi cleesei, to silly walks homo erectus without horrible things happening to your anatomy. The proof of Darwin's theory lies in the survival of the unfit. We are all transitional.

Even as I write this review, my back hurts and my feet are in pain because my piled up vertebrae have to carry my weight vertically and transmit it through my feet. My 85 year old (vet's table age) blind cat Pugh who is sitting arched-back on my knee while I juggle pen and paper and Leonardo catalogue has no such problems, even though I am younger, take more exercise and eat more fresh fruit and vegetables than the cat. When I get up to use the computer, Pugh will leap confidently to an unseen floor. Cat's have not evolved to stand upright and touch the sides of a tub or a box. Yet even Pugh is faulty by the standards of ideal catness. Pugh will no doubt live to be a feline centenarian, but if I outlive Pugh, my next cat will be a GM designer job.

To think as Leonardo did that nature is the great designer, that human invention can never beat it, that in nature's inventions nothing is lacking and nothing superfluous is nonsense, the kind of nonsense believed by Greenists or Steinerites or Prince Charles. A majority of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct. Their surroundings changed and they could not adapt fast enough. They were weighed down by their superfluous appendices, much as we are. Obviously Leonardo can not have known of the theories of that much greater empirical observer and true scientist Charles Darwin but that only shows that he, like all the Renaissance chaps, was trapped by the limitations of his time. He could know it all because there wasn't very much to know. How dreadful to have lived in Italy in that primitive era.

Leonardo could not even plead that he was an orthodox follower of revealed and institutional religion. There is something about the statements made by Leonardo to the effect that nature's inventions are perfect or that light is God's order that make one suspect he had the kind of heretical deist sympathies that led eventually to the revelation-free "Great Architect of the Universe" believed in by Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's present day disciple Antony Flew. Oh wretched Leonardo! In which circle are you to be found?

The V&A exhibition is studded with notes from and about Leonardo's scientific ideas that are odd and baffling such as:

The application of force was necessary for anything to move.

No-one argues that twice three is greater than six nor that a triangle has angles smaller than two right angles.

The curator adds on his own accord that if a perpetual motion were possible,
it would solve all our energy problems.
In the accompanying book by Martin Kemp it is further claimed that in Leonardo's Mona Lisa the:
rules of mountain formation, erosion and collapse which account for the presence of lakes at different heights are obeyed in the portrayal of the landscape.
I am neither a mathematician nor a scientist nor a historian of the science of Leonardo's time, so I can not comment accurately but something feels wrong. Is it wise to place such statements before the public as unchallengeable truth?

The curators have an odd faith in the education and sophistication of the young They speak elsewhere of Renaissance works on Euclid being illustrated with:

figures of the kind that still adorn school textbooks.
But how many of the gormless London teenagers, whether dehooded or hijabed, who will be dragged to the exhibition by weary, downtrodden, worn-out, inner city school teachers will ever have seen said textbooks? I doubt if most of them know what a circle is or why it is better to be a square than two short planks. You can not let them use a compass, let alone dividers in school because there would be fatal stabbings. Yet Euclid only permits ruler (light plastic ones will do) and compass.

Even in good textbooks the manner of presentation has long been different from Euclid's, something that bothered that arch-traditionalist, Charles L. Dodgson, another mirror writer and man of disguise.

In retrospect we can see that the Renaissance was not the beginning of an accelerating progress in knowledge and technique but a continuation of late Medieval improvements which had already produced advanced levers, gears and pumps, the basis of Leonardo's machines and of course sophisticated usury, from which all good things stem. The truly new world had to wait for Britain's long seventeenth century. Leonardo's understandings are as nothing to Newton's who stood on the shoulders of Renaissance pygmies, his pumps are not innovative compared to Newcomen's, his number patterns are primitive by the standards of Napier. Modernity begins with the three N's, Napier, Newcomen and Newton, not with the Renaissance.

Do not waste your money going into the Renaissance exhibition. Sneak through the front doors of the V&A and look up at the reconstructed Leonardo machines hanging from the roof or sitting in corners; this bit is free. Then travel to Ronda in Andalucia and visit the exhibition Las Maquinas de Leonardo da Vinci in the Sala de Exposiciones, "Colegiata".

The Spaniards do these things so much better than we do. Besides Ronda is a more attractive little Renaissance town than anything in Italy. And it's cheaper.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, an account of illegitimacy, homosexuality, sadomasochism and the law in Britain and of the essay "Stigma, Uncertain Identity and Skill in Disguise" in Efrat Tsëelon (ed) Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, London, Routledge, 2001.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on the V&A da Vinci exhibition, see: 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.


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What an excellent article! There is some very serious stuff in amongst all that Welsh Hiwmor.

In retrospect we can see that the Renaissance was not the beginning of an accelerating progress in knowledge and technique but a continuation of late Medieval improvements which had already produced advanced levers, gears and pumps, the basis of Leonardo's machines

If one reads A History of Mechanics by René Dugas, the most scholarly (in the good sense) book ever on the subject, one will find that the Renaissance was in fact a bit of a setback to the Science of Mechanics, because the work of the Oxford and Paris schools of the 14th century, sadly interrupted by the Black Death, was almost lost by the Italian Humanists with their excessive regard for Aristotle and his physics. Enough of their written work did survive, though, to reach Galileo. Now we come to

the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, where the modern world began.

Indeed it did, in more senses than one. In an on-line biography of Hermann Weyl, it says

The special circle in which they lived in Zurich had enjoyed the sexual revolution a generation before [the United States]. Extramarital affairs were not only condoned, they were expected, and they seemed to occasion little anxiety.

The “special circle” also included Einstein and Schrödinger. It has recently emerged into the common domain that Einstein was a love rat whose personal life would have made him a soap opera villain. What irks me about this is that Uncle Albert would pontificate from his intellectual heights how he could not believe in a personal God. Wouldn’t, rather, believe in the God of his ancestors who says “Thou shalt not commit adultery”?

As for Schrödinger, a read of his biography will reveal that your average tomcat has more morals than he had. At least we know now where Schrödinger’s Cat is – neither alive nor dead in the box, but out on the tiles! I wonder if Heisenberg got his insight into quantum indistinguishability of particles from seeing how these Gnomes of Zürich swapped women.

One final note on this article – I always felt somehow that I did not properly appreciate all those nudes in Renaissance and later art. People rave about Michelangelo’s David, but to me it’s rather poncey. I don’t know how the people of Florence thought about it, but considering the context:

Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.

it doesn’t really seem appropriate.


Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 3, 2006 07:48 PM
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