Met curator Carmen Bambach reveals what she has learned about the world’s most famous Renaissance man.
Carmen Bambach, curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, spent 23 years studying the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. The culmination of her research, a 2,200-page, four-volume book, Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, will be published by Yale University Press this summer.
Bambach spent 23 years researching her expansive four-volume book, Leonardo da Vinci
In an interview at the Met, Bambach described what she calls the “archaeological method” she used to excavate details about Leonardo: she studied the intricacies of his handwriting; transcribed and translated the artist’s words herself instead of relying on previously published translations; and read the same books Leonardo read in their original form. Rather than focus on a single theme (anatomy or engineering) or on a single aspect of Leonardo’s artistic legacy (drawing or painting), Bambach resolved to present the artist in his entirety through the lens of both art historian and biographer.
In addition to launching her book, Bambach is curating a display of Leonardo’s unfinished painting, St. Jerome in the Wilderness. The painting, on loan from the Vatican Museums, will be on view at the Met from July 15 to October 6, 2019. (Read why Leonardo’s brilliance endures 500 years after his death.)
How does your approach to studying Leonardo differ from other scholars?
There are art historians who are fixated on the manuscripts, on themes, or on the chronology of his work. There are those who are more fixated on him as a painter or on his drawings. I took on a kind of challenge and it’s pretty risk-taking: Who is this man and what happens when we incorporate this into a biographical framework? How can we integrate Leonardo the artist, Leonardo the thinker, Leonardo the author? This book is really meant to show why biography matters.
Who is the Leonardo that emerges for you?
He is an artist of his time and one that transcends his time. He is very ambitious. It’s important to remember that although Leonardo was a “disciple of experience,” as he called himself, he is also paying great attention to the sources of his time. After having devoured and looked at and bought many books, he realizes he can do better. He really wants to write books, but it’s a very steep learning curve. The way we should look at his notebooks and the manuscripts is that they are essentially the raw material for what he had intended to produce as treatises. His great contribution is being able to visualize knowledge in a way that had not been done before. (See what made Leonardo a genius.)
Why is Leonardo’s handwriting significant and how did it help you understand him?
One of the myths about Leonardo’s manner of writing, right to left, is that this is code. It really is not. It’s actually quite easy to read his handwriting without a mirror. Paleography, the study of handwriting in Leonardo’s manuscripts, is very important to me. You can see that he has a rhythm of the hand—he writes quite fast, all the letters have ligatures. The hand of the artist on paper is absolutely crucial, because as soon as you can see process on a sheet of paper—whether it’s handwriting or drawing—you know you’re looking at authentic work. I’m very interested in process, because that it is what allows you to get into the mind of the artist.
Determined to understand every fiber in the body, Leonardo dissected animal and human cadavers. On this sheet, he rendered the bones and muscles of the arm, shoulder, and foot. Leonardo intended to publish an anatomical treatise but never did. Had he succeeded, he might have been recognized as the founder of modern anatomy, a distinction later given to Andreas Vesalius.
In his exquisitely detailed sketches of dissected ox heart, depicted on this sheet, Leonardo scrutinized the organ’s morphology to better understand its mechanics. The larger drawings on this page (left) investigate the aorta and the superior and inferior venae cavae. The small circular drawings (lower right) show the tricuspid valve, both open and closed.
Leonardo not only observed and documented the natural world in his notebooks; he also… Read MoreFascinated by the principles of engineering, Leonardo devised plans for bridges, buildings, and military equipment. Above all, he yearned to outline a flying machine for humans, and thus spent more than two decades studying animal flight. On a page from the Codex Atlanticus, he sketched a design for a mechanical wing.
Leonardo’s engineering designs included everything from wheels and cranks to more lighthearted inventions, like a mechanical lion he devised for the king of France. In this drawing, circa 1485, he sketched a machine intended to lift heavy loads. His unusual ability to visualize his subject matter from multiple viewpoints in three dimensions allowed him to show the hoist in its assembled form (left) and when pulled apart into its components (right).
The aerial screw in Leonardo’s iconic pen-and-ink drawing—to be made from wire, cane, and linen—is often described as a precursor to the modern helicopter. The contraption was intended to lift vertically off the ground, so that it “will make its spiral in the air and rise high,” Leonardo wrote. Some scholars believe it was intended as an amusement or theatrical device rather than a serious flying machine.
Leonardo filled his notebooks with inventions that were never built, including this apparatus designed to allow divers to breathe underwater. A pacifist, Leonardo stated that he wouldn’t divulge how to make his underwater devices “by reason of the evil nature of men.” He feared that such contraptions might be used to destroy ships and kill the people aboard.
A gifted musician, Leonardo researched acoustics, sang, and improvised melodies on his lira da braccio (a bowed Renaissance stringed instrument). He also designed a range of musical instruments, including drums, bells, and woodwinds. Here, he brainstormed ideas for a keyboard-string combination known as a viola organista. Sławomir Zubrzycki, who later built a viola organista, says Leonardo “designed a perfect instrument.”
Leonardo was commissioned to design maps for civil and military purposes. This depiction of a region in Tuscany demonstrates his ability to communicate geographic information through artistry. Centuries before aerial photography and high-tech programming revolutionized cartography, Leonardo created bird’s-eye views of cities and landscapes.
What does the process in this drawing, Head of a Young Woman (“Study for the Angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”) reveal about Leonardo?
It’s one of my favorites. The psychological presence of the model is so vivid. Look at the control. He knows how to focus the eye of the viewer to what is important. Look at that incredible sideways gaze. The conventional way to portray portraits at the time was straight on, three quarters, or profile. Instead, Leonardo explores this elegant turn in space. Look at the tremendously economical way of sketching what is not of interest—the quickness of the hand, the modeling with parallel hatching, being able to extract something in just a few strokes. He creates this contrast between high polish and sketching. At all levels—as an image, as a work of technical virtuosity—it’s just amazing. A copyist or imitator could not do that. (Discover how to spot an authentic Leonardo painting.)
Despite his ambitions, Leonardo never published his treatises. What happened at the end of his life?
For me it was a bit of a human tragedy. The difference between his ambitions and his vision and what he’s able to actually encapsulate and make concrete is enormous. You realize that the world of the unrealized and what lies beyond is exponentially much larger than what he is able to produce. In the end, the most interesting part for me was the becoming of Leonardo. As soon as you are able to undertake this as a journey, you are following the artist in his development. I felt ultimately this humanized the genius.
What kind of impact do you hope your book will have?
It’s been a profoundly moving privilege to work on Leonardo in this very extended way and to be able to present this book at the anniversary of his death. It’s very humbling. There is a margin of error with everything one undertakes, but I would like to think that by studying his manuscripts, drawings, and paintings from the ground up, I have been able to achieve a level of authenticity that is refreshing for the literature. And I really hope that a generation of younger scholars will pick up the mantle. I see my four volumes as opening the door for future research, not the last word.