by Roderick Conway Morris

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Leonardo & Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 25 April 1992
Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1490



Leonardo is clearly reckoned to be a sure-fire crowd puller - but many who come to the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal to see 'Leonardo & Venice' will, I fear, go away both baffled and disappointed.

The only scrap of autograph evidence that Leonardo ever set foot in Venice is a brief note made in 1503 that he had lent his protege Salai ('a very attractive youth of unusual grace and looks, with very beautiful hair which he wore in curls', according to Da Vinci's biographer Vasari), some money to buy 'a pair of pink hose with their trimmings', and noted at the same time that he had lent the boy the same amount three years before 'in Venice'. What Leonardo did in Venice, whom he met and what he saw are, and are likely to remain, mysteries.

Why then a show devoted to Leonardo and Venice? The reason seems twofold: firstly because the Accademia, the city's principal gallery, has a collection of Leonardo drawings, which for the usual conservation reasons are not on permanent public display. One of these just happens to be 'Vitruvian Man', the most famous single Da Vinci drawing and a 20th-century icon. Secondly, because a group of art historians have got hooked on the idea that Leonardo must have exercised a powerful influence on Venetian artists. A cynic might find lurking behind this idea the notion that the Italian Renaissance was an almost exclusively Florentine affair.

In its enthusiasm to promote this show the Palazzo Grassi has not made clear enough how the Accademia drawings came to be in Venice, leaving the impression that they might have been done by the artist while he was here (which there is no reason whatsoever to believe), or that they have been in the city since the 16th century. In fact, they ended up here only in 1822, after the death of Giuseppe Bossi, the artist-connoisseur who collected them from various sources, and used them primarily as teaching aids. Neither exhibition nor catalogue gives Bossi sufficient recognition.

As for the thesis that Leonardo had a major impact on his Venetian contemporaries, despite the brevity of his stay and the lack of documentary and pictorial evidence to support it: this is something of an old chestnut, based on a claim made by the invaluable, but not infallible, Vasari, writing nearly half a century later, that Giorgione (?1478-1510) was much struck by Leonardo's works and learned to paint in the 'modern style' from them.

The first rooms of the exhibition are devoted to the Accademia drawings, eked out by Italian and foreign loans. There are some pleasing ones, but many are small, indistinct and by no means the best examples of their kind.

The subsequent rooms mix drawings and canvasses by Venetian and other artists, the only two undisputed autograph works by major artists being Giorgione's 'The Old Woman' and Giovanni Bellini's 'Virgin and Child with SS. Catherine and Mary Magdalene'. (Several pictures are undated, and others labeled tout court as Giorgione, without any mention that the attributions are hotly debated.) Afterwards there are sections on Leonardo's followers and imitators, both painters and sculptors, but by this time the show seems to have irrevocably lost its already tangled thread.

The explanatory panels on the walls of each section (in Italian and English), are often obfuscatory and contorted. The catalogue, the work of more than a dozen contributors, is better: far more circumspect about the show's claims, it is genuinely interesting in parts, though there are still too many weasely phrases - of the 'it seems not by chance', 'may have contributed in some way', 'it is difficult to imagine that he did not' and 'assuming he painted the picture or was responsible for the design' variety - not to set alarm bells ringing.

The worst aspect of this ill-conceived enterprise is that visitors may unjustly be made to feel that they are too dimwitted to understand a comparative art history argument (and they will not be helped, alas, by the English version of the catalogue with its chunks of untranslated Italian and Latin).

Clear thinking and unpretentious presentation can convey even a complex and multifaceted thesis to a wider public - as was shown only last year by the 'Before Leonardo' show in Siena (future versions of which are being planned). That exhibition, based on innovative, imaginative and scholarly research, portrayed Da Vinci as a man who dreamed the same dreams as his contemporaries and continually drew inspiration from them: it amplified and enriched our understanding of his world and his works, without belittling his unique contributions to art and science.

And herein probably lies the central flaw at the heart of 'Leonardo & Venice'. Regarding Leonardo as some superhuman, extraterrestial being, who was entirely original and self-generated, influencing others but learning nothing from them, is bound to be misleading. At least two of catalogue's contributors note that Tuscan and Venetian art of this period seem to have influenced each other, and one rightly points out that an artist of Giovanni Bellini's class was not in need of painting lessons, even from Leonardo (who indeed may have learnt much from Bellini).

There are some good things in this show, and it is fun to meet 'Vetruvian Man' face to face - but the final verdict must be the same as Dr Johnson's on the Giant's Causeway: 'Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023