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Mona Lisa v ‘the monstrous’: the grotesque, surprising aspect of Leonardo da Vinci | Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa v ‘the monstrous’: the grotesque, surprising aspect of Leonardo da Vinci | Leonardo da Vinci

2023-03-22 10:00:51

Leonardo da Vinci feedback in his notebooks that whereas few are skilled in judging portraits, everybody feels entitled to criticise precise individuals: “whether or not somebody is a hunchback (gobbo), or has one shoulder greater or decrease than the opposite, or too massive a mouth or nostril, or different defects.” It’s a telling comment, however at first sight a few of his most annoying drawings counsel he shared these prejudices in opposition to individuals who look totally different.

We consider him portray the gorgeous: Ginevra de’ Benci, Cecilia Gallerani and Salai glow with shiny hair and good bone construction. But alongside his fascination with youth and loveliness Leonardo was obsessive about irregular, diseased and aged faces whose “monstrous” distortions he drew with daunting precision.

Francesco Melzi’s drawing of the bust of an old woman, another copy of Leonardo’s lost caricature.
Francesco Melzi’s drawing of the bust of an outdated girl, one other copy of Leonardo’s misplaced caricature. {Photograph}: Francesco Melzi/Royal Assortment Belief / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Leonardo’s caricatures, as they received referred to as within the 18th century, are a few of his most mind-bending and shockingly trendy drawings. Renaissance artwork is usually assumed to be orderly and reassuring however these faces anticipate the nervousness of Munch and the horror of Francis Bacon.

Their hypnotic energy could be glimpsed in a brand new exhibition on the Nationwide Gallery in London, The Ugly Duchess: Magnificence and Satire within the Renaissance. An Outdated Girl by Quinten Massys is nicknamed The Ugly Duchess as a result of it impressed a John Tenniel illustration in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Massys, working in Antwerp in 1513, depicts a face that’s a chaos of skeletal deformities underneath the pores and skin, huge structural distortions that stretch the girl’s higher lip, hole her cheeks and inflate her brow. But she is dressed to impress, together with bulbous headgear that heightens her uncommon options. Is she pleased with them? In truth she seems to be promoting herself on her appears, for she holds a flower, usually an advert for intercourse work in Renaissance artwork. The portray is being proven with its pendant – an accompanying portray – which depicts an outdated man whose attentions she solicits.

But this portray isn’t what it appears. Massys isn’t creating his personal surreal satire. He’s not even the true writer of this picture. It’s in reality a cautious copy of a misplaced caricature by Leonardo da Vinci. A pink chalk sketch by Leonardo’s pupil Francesco Melzi, which the National Gallery is exhibiting beside the portray, reproduces the identical vanished drawing: Melzi was a trustworthy scholar and his copy is definitely dependable. So Leonardo designed this distinctive particular person, even to the wrinkled bosom rising from her costume. All Massys did was enlarge her in oils.

This portray is a window on the startling strand of outrageous, “irregular” faces that Leonardo drew. One other of his caricatures within the present depicts an aged man and girl of their finery, greeting one another flirtatiously: he has the face of a mummified corpse and he or she barely has a nostril. May that be a results of syphilis? In one other of Leonardo’s disconcerting drawings, a person along with his again to us, caught in profile, has a mouth that stands out like a donkey’s, a thick turkey neck, a nostril that appears stitched on and, above these dislocated options, a spiral in his matted hair like a whirlpool, as if it had been a nicely sunk in his mind. Then there are a number of outdated males with chins jutting far out of their faces, noses pushed down into mouths or pressed upward piggishly.

Leonardo da Vinci’s A satire on aged lovers, around 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci’s A Satire on Aged Lovers, round 1490. {Photograph}: Leonardo da Vinci/Royal Assortment Belief / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

What are these drawings? Are they only merciless jokes? Each Leonardo and his pupil Melzi, who copied his caricatures, had been seemingly very handsome. A portrait by Melzi of his trainer as an outdated man confirms the declare of the Sixteenth-century author Vasari that Leonardo possessed “fantastic thing about physique”. Vasari additionally says Melzi, whom he met head to head, “was a really stunning boy”. So maybe it’s doable to image these two good specimens in Leonardo’s chateau in Amboise throughout his final years, laughing over drawings of ugly individuals.

But that doesn’t actually evoke the temper of those drawings. They aren’t actually humorous, for one factor. They’ve a despairing, even scary, energy. And if Leonardo typically seems revolted by outdated individuals pretending to be younger lovers, different caricatures are tragic and compassionate. The person with a mad whirlpool in his hair, trying on the world from a bulging eye, is a determine of loneliness and isolation: Leonardo feels for him. Even identifies with him. Removed from merciless mockery, this can be a sympathetic research of an outsider.

It additionally seems to be a drawing from life. Leonardo sees the person from behind, as if sketching him surreptitiously. It appears very possible this portrait was labored up from a sketch he did on the street. He suggested artists to all the time carry a pocket book to attract individuals round city, “quarrelling or laughing or combating”. So are his caricatures truly observations of actual individuals? He definitely took be aware of outlandish faces on the piazza, as a result of in one other be aware recommending sketching strangers, he provides: “Of monstrous faces I shall say nothing as a result of they naturally keep within the thoughts.” He even had daydreams about such faces. If you happen to stare lengthy sufficient on the stains and cracks in a wall, he suggests, you’ll begin to see issues together with “every kind of unusual faces”.

One superb be aware reveals how far he’d go to feed his fascination. Amid observations on The Final Supper he information: “Giovannina, fantastical face (viso fantastico); lives at Santa Caterina on the hospital.”

The phrase he makes use of for her face, fantastico, is the closest we get to figuring out what Leonardo himself referred to as these drawings. The time period “unbelievable or fantastical face” suggests the sorts of faces he may see in a wall: Giovannina makes his daydreams actual.

There may be one other clue on this transient be aware as to what Leonardo was as much as. Giovannina is within the hospital – and Leonardo had a behavior of haunting hospitals. He went there to satisfy the sick and, after they died, dissect them. Presumably Giovannina was underneath medical look after what could have been a disabling in addition to disfiguring situation, like Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, in Victorian London. And Leonardo’s be aware on her suggests the true which means of his so-called caricatures. They’re intimately related along with his bloody dissections and daring analysis into human anatomy.

Trying once more at The Ugly Duchess you may see how that is a lot greater than a random caricature: Leonardo has designed her from the within out, imagining – or observing – distorted, oddly related facial bones. In Melzi’s copy the bulges from her head should not a coiffure or headdress however look extra like tumorous bony growths: she has a “unbelievable” cranium. Leonardo’s very first hands-on research of human anatomy embody detailed drawings of human skulls, which he sliced in half and excavated to disclose the internal anatomy of the face. In his caricatures he applies this data and lets it metamorphosise: what if the facial bones had been to develop an excessive amount of, or too little? What if the cranium saved increasing?

See Also

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Leonardo’s most well-known caricature … the Mona Lisa. {Photograph}: World Historical past Archive/Alamy

However a number of the modifications he attracts should not uncommon or diseased. They’re simply the impact of ageing. The ageing physique was considered one of his driving pursuits in anatomy. The outdated, he wrote, have flesh like wooden. Their faces sink, their chins protrude, his caricatures add. The final word theme of those drawings is human decay.

It’s a organic view of humanity. We’re born, we get sick and we die. Removed from laughing at others, he portrays the common human situation in these drawings, within the bleakest manner doable. We’re all in the identical boat as a result of we’re organic machines whose vitality will run down.

Leonardo’s most well-known caricature isn’t often regarded as “ugly” in any respect. The Mona Lisa is considered one of artwork’s final beauties – isn’t she? But the way in which he created his most hypnotic portrait grows instantly out of his caricatures. In truth the Mona Lisa usually strikes onlookers as a bit odd-looking. Is her shadow-mapped face male or feminine? If you happen to look intently you appear to see a heavy, rectangular face within the golden, oval one.

Leonardo provides this purportedly good face its disruptive undertow to make it keep in your thoughts for ever. He subverts the very opposition of “magnificence” and “ugliness”. As an alternative of perfection the Mona Lisa possesses uniqueness. She has a viso fantastico like Giovannina within the hospital, even like The Ugly Duchess.

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