A short report on Martin Kemp’s Leonardo lecture which I attended yesterday. This is gleaned from my rapid scribbling during the course of the talk- any mistakes are the fault of yours truly.
Kemp stressed the importance of the microcosm and the body as an analogue to the world. Kemp illustrated this with Leonardo’s map-making, such as the sheet of the Pontine Marshes and drawings of the Arno which had correlations with Leonardo’s mapping of the human body; the geophysical representation of waterways was analogised in Leonardo’s drawings of the systems of the body. He spoke of the way Leonardo used bifurcation, and the “mathematics of fluid flow” in a practical way: just as water systems need free flow, so too did the vascular system which was liable to become silted up with age. Kemp emphasised the predictive nature of Leonardo’s thinking with a wry observation on the effects of age on the workings of the body, which Leonardo had deduced from the observation of nature just as much as the human body. Kemp considered Leonardo’s anatomy philosophical, not aimed at doctors.
Kemp showed some of Leonardo’s Deluge illustrations to reinforce his points about Leonardo as a “water-engineer”, but he added the dimension of poetry: the concentric rings in the tumultuous drawings reflected Leonardo’s knowledge of Dante’s circles of Hell. Here, I couldn’t help thinking of Michelangelo’s supposed remark that Leonardo should be consulted on Dante, not just a throw away comment after all. Kemp talked about Leonardo’s interest in valves, and informed us how he had worked with scientists, one a heart surgeon, in order to design models of the valve. Such model visualisations and re-inventions proved that Leonardo always had a strong sense of the solution, though sometimes he got things wrong. Kemp showed drawings of Leda, suggesting that the fluidity in her hair betrayed Leonardo’s interest in motion- he mentioned vortex motion and the helix. At this point Kemp made the interesting observation that Leonardo was mindful of the rear of his drawings; he works out the back as well as the front, which must be unique in renaissance art. We were also shown a sheet with a human body shown next to staircases shown in transparency, which Kemp used to underline the fact that everything is connected in Leonardo.
Moving towards the Mona Lisa, Kemp brought in observations by the 19th century aesthetic writer Walter Pater, who Kemp thought very perceptive in his description of the Mona Lisa. Pater said that the Mona Lisa “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.” This wasn’t just poetic effusion but a shrewd grasp of Leonardo’s interest in time. In one of his notebooks Leonardo mentioned Helen of Troy contemplating her face in the mirror; once abducted, and then raped by time. This line of thought led to poetry in science and the renaissance concept of fantasia in relation to science. Portraiture was concerned with optics and the act of seeing, which Kemp demonstrated by showing some of Leonardo’s drawings of optics and the use of light in the Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine) portrait. He also mentioned visual description and mathematical ratio in relation to the Last Supper.
After this, drawings of engines of war were shown such as the fiendish chariots with flails, as well as the crossbow. Kemp talked of mechanical analysis and “continuous quantity.” Mechanical analysis led on to Leonardo’s knowledge of comparative anatomy, particularly the operation of the human hand, whose applicability to painting was shown with reference to the flexor tendons and the pointing hand in the Virgin of the Rocks. Following on from this consideration of mechanics, we were shown a drawing of a bird’s wing, which was obviously leading us to the flying machine. Kemp and others had designed a flying machine for the Leonardo exhibition at the V&A in 2003. He talked of how a company that restored ancient planes, Sky Sport- not the TV- had expressed interests in Leonardo’s designs. Kemp had even gone to the South Downs to test a flying machine piloted by a hang-gliding expert; the machine had had to be adjusted to stop the hang-glider being swept into the English Channel!
Congratulations to Professor Kemp on such a stimulating lecture. I came away with my head ringing with ideas and very respectful of an art historian who is able to integrate both science and art together in such a seamless way. Such a rollercoaster ride of ideas imparted with wit and erudition. And only £6! I hope BMAG paid Kemp more than the London National Gallery for his expertise and time!