Saturday, August 15, 2015

Leonardo and the Leicester Codex

If you happen to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this August, you'll have the opportunity to see something most people never get a chance to see—some pages full of writing, with drawings in the margins, by Leonardo Da Vinci. A few years ago Bill Gates paid thirty million dollars for these eighteen sheets of paper, and since then he's allowed them to go on display from time to time.

The pages are encased in Plexiglas (or some such thing), mounted in free-standing kiosks scattered amid four low-lit exhibition rooms, and carefully illuminated to make it possible for you to see both sides. Most viewers won't be able to read anything Leonardo wrote because he wrote in Italian—and in the "wrong" direction, moving from right to left. But the drawings in the margins are interesting and the interpretive signs under each display explain the gist of what Leonardo is exploring on any given two-page spread.

It  would be easy to look at three or four of these pages and say, "This would be  a lot easier if I were sitting in a chair, holding a Dover reprint in my lap." It takes a bit of effort to take a step back and see the "thing"—the sheet of paper that Leonardo actually dragged his pen across five-hundred years ago. Yes, there it is, right before your eyes, albeit tucked safely behind a few thick panes of transparent protective material.

This is the "aura" that Walter Benjamin made such a big deal about with regard to original works of art as opposed to reproductions. It's a form of sympathetic magic. You see,  I never met Leonardo personally, but I have examined the very sheets of paper upon which he recorded his passing thoughts. Cool.

Leonardo crossed out some things, and he sometimes wrote additional comments above and below the lines, but the sheets are remarkable "clean," as if he usually wrote precisely what he was thinking, or was adept at modifying and qualifying his thoughts on the fly, rather than crossing them out and beginning anew.

The drawings, though invariably small, are also remarkably clean. The lines are straight, the shading delicate.

In the last room of kiosks, half-hidden by a couple of protruding walls, there are two illuminated displays with benches in front of them. They add  immeasurably to the impact of the exhibit. You can sit in front of either display and flip electronically through the pages of the codex, reading them in English with the aid of a lens that magically translates the lines into English as you drag it across the screen. This is very cool.

Is the text interesting? Not really, unless you're wondering how water eddies around obstacles or how light bounces off the moon. Leonardo was interested in a great many things, such as how spring water can issue forth from the earth high up in the mountains, and how aquatic shells reached those elevations. Is there water on the moon, and if so, why doesn't fall down to earth? It's fun to see a fertile mind at work, examining various hypotheses, rejecting this one, accepting that one, and giving us the reason why.

But we now know the answers to most of the questions Leonardo pondered. And we know that many of the answers he came up with were wrong. Sure, he got lucky every now and then, with ideas like earthshine, and plate techtonics, and helicopters. Still.

It would be pointless to deny Leonardo's remarkable industry and perhaps unparalleled curiosity. But to portray him as a "genius" of the first order seem like a publicity ploy and doesn't tell us much about him. Aristotle, to take a comparable example, wrote works on aesthetics, formal logic, ethics, and metaphysics each of which forms the bedrock of its respective discipline. I don't think anything similar could be said of Leonardo. He was basically an artist of the first rank and a speculative engineer. He observed, analyzed, and imagined things, and drew many of them with great precision, but he seldom turned any of his work along this line into genuine poetry. I, for one, find it hard to warm to him as a painter, a scientist, or a person.

What I liked best about the Leicester Codex is the note-taking effort itself. Page after page, we find ourselves in the presence of a mind in the act of uninhibited description, analysis, and speculation.  The thought is right there on the page. Leonardo tended to overwork his paintings, but when he jotted down his seemingly boundless ideas he just kept moving ahead.

A stroke of genius on the part of the exhibition curators was to cap the multi-room display of Leonardo's incomprehensible writing with a room filled with huge reproductions of coral reefs made out of colored yarn by members of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring. The pairing is irreverent and gutsy, yet it makes a certain amount of sense, in so far as the intricacy of the crocheting patterns gives the created forms a natural and organic look—just the sort of thing that might have fascinated Leonardo. And the garish colors provide a refreshing contrast to the dimly lit pages of the monotone codex.

The final room of the exhibit is even further removed from the spirit of Leonardo...but it also happens to be engaging. It exhibits a video, projected on an enormous screen, called "The Raft" by Bill Viola that runs perhaps fifteen minutes. For much of the time we watch a group of people who seem to be waiting for a bus. No one talks, no one moves. One by one, a few other individuals show up and muscle their way into the crowd without too much effort or resistance.m(The man reading a book barged his way in a few minutes ago; the woman in red and blue on the right is starting to weaver her way through the crowd.)  The only sound is an ominous off-stage rumbling.
Everything changes when enormous blasts of water appear from either side and continue to pour over the waiting people for several minutes, battering them brutally. Some fall to the floor almost immediately, others hold their own impassively as best they can.

Finally the deluge comes to an end and the individuals either try to help one another up, or don't. Viola claims to have been inspired by Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa," and in the final panel above you can see a faint resemblance.

It's a bizarre scenario, but for some reason I found it mesmerizing.  

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