“A salient post David, and my kind regards and thanks to you for your generous time and earlier posts. Several decades ago I wrote to (Sir) Dr. Timothy Clifford, then Director of NGS, regarding Prof. Martin Kemp's yet to published findings on the two versions "The Madonna of the Yarnwinder", with some preliminary research findings suggesting Buccleuch version most probably by Melzi, (whilst the slightly superior New York version probably by Sodoma), as also when last auctioned at Sotheby's for about $9000. Both may well have had Leonardo's studio oversight, but subsequent VegaScans show little if any evidence Leonardo's active participation. Likewise the "Litta Madonna" appears predominantly the hand of Boltraffio similarly with his oversight. However, initial findings on the NG London's "Virgin of the Rocks" suggested a much closer collaborative effort between Leonardo and most probably Boltraffio, with the latter being the most predominant hand throughout the composition. I hope this may be of interest, prior to hearing other opinions expressed on the subject works.”
I was fascinated by Graeme Cameron’s comments on oversight and Leonardo because the word “oversight” has been on my mind of late. It turned up as an answer in the Times crossword quite recently; it also features quite a lot in those TV thrillers and films that assail you if you turn on late night TV, e.g., the Bourne series and that ilk. In the second case oversight refers to secret committees and organizations, oversight in a bureaucratic sense, More openly, it alludes to the checks and balances built into government structures, particularly in the USA, an idea that can be traced back to the Enlightenment where it arose in response to worries about the power of the judiciary. I suppose it’s most common use today though is to indicate an omission or a failing; something that is unnoticed or overlooked, mainly as a result of carelessness.
If you look up “oversight” in a dictionary you’ll find that it’s also a synonym for supervision. I’ve never considered oversight in this sense before; and certainly not in the context of the artist’s studio. So I was intrigued to read Graeme’s comments on oversight in relation to Leonardo’s studio and its significance for evaluating the contribution of Leonardo and his pupils to works produced in the Master’s atelier. One problem for me is that the word “supervision” reeks too much of the university and academic dissertations. However, an attempt has been made to use academic supervision to characterise the workings of a renaissance studio. The Raphael scholar Bette Talvacchia compared the young master’s interaction with his studio to that of a professor with a cohort of students. There is utility in using supervision to describe the overseeing of the renaissance studio, though I do prefer “oversight” because supervision in an academic sense isn’t about overseeing at all, not if my experiences as a doctoral students are anything to go by. Oversight shed of its modern connotations suggests a Godly presence hovering over all; a mentor with omniscient powers, not something found in modern universities.
|Buccleuch version||Lansdowne version.|
Take a famous case that GC mentions: the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. When I was researching this for a course on da Vinci last year, I discovered Martin Kemp’s theory about the evolution of the two versions- one in the NG of Scotland (the Buccleuch version), and shown in the Leonardo London NG show last year, and one in New York, the so-called “Lansdowne” version. Kemp conceived the theory that a large drawing, similar to the Virgin of the Rocks cartoon, had once existed and the two versions emerged from the study of this overseeing source; this hypothetical drawing also allowed adjustments commensurate with the detailed changes in both paintings to be made.
Kemp turned to genetics to make his point using the example of “fraternal twins” becoming “less identical as they reached a point of maturity” to describe the evolutionary path of this composition. For Kemp both versions were generated side by side and involved Leonardo’s direct participation. If this were true, the painting process could be seen as synoptic, well up to a point. Eventually as with fraternal twins, not identical twins, differences become apparent. This holistic view would be shattered and the intervention of the pupil, especially if not guided by Leonardo would lead to a non-synoptic view of the artwork within the studio.
“That Leonardo loitered over his own paintings, allowing no one else to work on them, and that he also permitted his own inventions to be travestied, only intervening intermittently to modify the results, seem more probable modes of behaviour for him than the close collaboration with his studio members which Kemp seems tentatively to propose. It seems to me more likely that Pietro da Novellara meant what he said: Leonardo was painting this subject himself without assistance. If the resulting work is to be identified with either the Buccleuch or the New York versions then it follows that it must have been abandoned by him and completed by his associates."
I could say more but I’ll end here. It would be good to see this issue of oversight considered more in the literature on Leonardo, especially what Penny calls “modes of behaviour” in the studio, but I suspect it still has to mature; scholarship focused on the problem of Leonardo’s studio only began at the start of the last century- it still has a long way to go. Still, as Luke Syson said in his catalogue entry on the “Buccleuch Madonna last year…
“ Some of its mildly disappointing aspects might be attributed to collaboration: but it also worth remembering that in Fra Pietro’s letter [the friar who observed Da Vinci’s workshop activity} there emerges a Leonardo grown somewhat idle, submerged in mathematical experiment and indifferent to painting. These too might be traits that found their way into the picture.”
Hardly promising qualities for the oversight or supervision of painting. Hopefully Syson might touch on this theme in his Edinburgh lecture; it would be an oversight- in the modern sense- not to do so.