At Large  September 16, 2019  Jeremy Howell

Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered

Yale University Press

Leonardo, study for the unfinished Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1481, 16.4 x 29.1 cm. "The artist drew the architecture first, based on a preliminary construction done with pin pricks for measurements, compass work, leadpoint, stylus-ruled and pen-and-ink ruling as an underdrawing. This was followed by the figures and animals drawn in pen with medium and dark brown inks, brush and grayish-brown wash, with partial reworkings by the artist in black chalk, over an extensive freehand lead point under drawing; on the overall design some traces of white gouache used to correct forms especially in the foreground."

As this year marks the quincentennial of Leonardo da Vinci's death, there has been no shortage of books, exhibits, and documentaries celebrating the life and times of Renaissance Italy's greatest polymath. The anniversary of course comes on the heels of Christie's 2017 $450 million Salvator Mundi mega-sale. The sale, which remains the largest ever for a painting, and the subsequent doubts about the painting's authenticity, have generated mass public interest.

While it is never a bad thing for the general population to take an interest in high culture, this serge in da Vinci interest does have the unfortunate consequence in that enterprising individuals flood the market with kitsch Leonardo goods and poorly researched popular biographies that caricature and cloud the public's understanding of the real da Vinci. It is for this reason that a new study of da Vinci's life and works by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach is so important. In a world of da Vinci biographical sketches, Bambach's four-volume tome, Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered, is a masterpiece.

Yale University Press

Leonardo, study for the head of the Virgin, ca. 1510–15. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yale University Press

Leonardo, Cecilia Gallerani (“The Lady with an Ermine”), ca. 1488–90. Oil on walnut wood, 54.8 x40.3 cm. Kraków, National Museum / the Princes Czartoryski Museum 134 (laboratory StockNational Museum in Krakow).

Published in July by Yale University Press, Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered comes in a box set and is bound in attractive red cloth bindings. In giving one of the work's volumes an initial flip through, what first becomes evident is that the book is lavishly illustrated. The book boasts some 1,500 images from the breadth of Leonardo's career. This is a massive book, and it is quite dense. At first these facts are a bit intimidating, however, the book strikes the perfect balance between being both scholarly and engrossing. 

The book's author, Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, is the Curator of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bambach's approach to reconsidering da Vinci's life and work was one through her own area of expertise. One of her guiding principles for the study was that da Vinci can be best understood by examining his drawings, sketches, and manuscripts. Her expertise shines through, as the most interesting sections are those dealing with these topics.

The final volume of Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered contains Bambach's research notes and is a treasure trove of information. Academics and bookworms alike will find that volume particularly fascinating. Bambach's research process involved analyzing 4,000 pages of da Vinci manuscripts and drawings. The research Bambach did to bring this study together is astounding. The book took her almost a quarter century to complete. That effort, much to the benefit of readers, enabled her to clearly and authoritatively articulate the development da Vinci's career.

To anyone who thinks that everything worth saying about da Vinci has been said, Art & Object would direct them to read Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered. Since his death in 1519, da Vinci's life and work have been unceasingly pored over by scholars. It seems that almost every generation has their definitive work of scholarship on the artist. Leonardo Da Vinci Rediscovered will not be the last great work on da Vinci, but it is undoubtedly destined to be this generation's greatest contribution to his study.

About the Author

Jeremy Howell

Jeremy Howell is the Co-Creator and Editor-In-Chief of Art & Object.

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