The works of Italian Renaissance Master Leonardo Leonardo (1452-1519) have enthralled the world for 500 years now. With advances in technology, new details of his methods continue to emerge. The latest edition of TASCHEN Book’s massive Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings by Frank Zollner coincides with the 550th anniversary of the Master’s birth, and is one of the most impressive studies of his work ever published.
For a man born in the 15th century, Leonardo lived a relatively long 67 year life. His accomplishments were so vast that scholars devote their entire lives to studying him. There are the masterpieces such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa of course, and his interest in science remains a topic of interest as well. It is science we have to thank for many of the revelations detailed in The Complete Paintings and Drawings.
With X-ray and infrared technology, scholars have discovered Leonardo treasures that have been literally “hidden” for centuries. These are the various “underdrawings” that were painted over. These abandoned pieces range from landscapes to human figures, painted over to produce the final works we are so familiar with.
These underdrawings have produced controversies of their own. Were they the work of the Master himself, or of his students? It is an ongoing question, and one which is certain to keep researchers busy for decades to come. With his interest in science, one can only imagine what Leonardo himself would have thought of this development. On one hand, he obviously did not intend for these preliminary efforts to be presented to the public, but on the other, he may have been impressed (on a purely scientific level) with the technology that made this possible.
One of the things that comes to mind when looking through The Complete Paintings and Drawings is how contemporary his art seems. Actually, “contemporary” is probably the wrong word, more to the point might be “timeless.” This may be because most of us have been exposed to his work all of our lives. In any introduction to art, children are shown such pieces such as the Mona Lisa as examples of the greatest art in history.
The term “coffee table book” is woefully inadequate in describing The Complete Paintings and Drawings. At 700 pages, and weighing nearly 20 pounds, the book almost qualifies as a coffee table itself. The first 200 of these pages are biographical, and his life is segmented into 10 chapters. I must confess as to never having read a biography of the Master, so I found this material very interesting. I found the first five chapters, which lead up to The Last Supper, to be particularly illuminating. What makes this biographical section even more impressive is the layout. By including reproductions of his work right next to the text, the book very skillfully illustrates exactly how his life and art blended together over time.
Certainly the detailed discussions of the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper are highlights. While each are reproduced in full, (reduced in size to fit the page), there are also close-up views of various segments of the paintings. In these parts, Zollner explains in depth what Leonardo accomplished. These are the “basics” of art, and I would guess that serious students learn about these elements early on in their education. For a layman such as myself however, this type of detailed look is highly appreciated.
“Catalogue Raissonne of the Paintings” follows the biographical section, and is a wonderfully concise discussion of Leonardo’s paintings. In this 40-page chapter, the author discusses 35 works, devoting a page to a page and a half, (depending on the piece) to each.
True to its title, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, also features in-depth analysis of the drawings of Leonardo. In fact, at 430 pages, “The Graphic Work“ occupies the majority of the book. This section is co-authored by Frank Zollner and Johannes Nathan, and contains 663 drawings in total.
“Drawings and Sketches for Surviving Paintings,” is the first of the 16 chapters in this portion. It is a fascinating opening for the segment, as it shows the preliminary drawings for such works as The Last Supper and the Adoration of the Magi, among others. Another chapter that I found to be highly intriguing is “Engineering and Machinery.” Although the name “Handles and Hinges for a Two-way-opening Door” may not sound particularly poetic, the drawing is absolutely beautiful.
Another element of “The Graphic Works” I found intriguing was Leonardo’s interest in military equipment. He was definitely not a pacifist. “Studies for Military Equipment” includes drawings of catapults and designs for giant crossbows. There is also a drawing of something called a “Scythed Chariot,” which looks straight out of Revelations.
Of his drawings, perhaps his most well-known is the one for his “flying machine.” Zollner prefaces each of the chapters with (approximately) 2,000-word essays. The one for “Flying Machines” is one of the book’s highlights. I should mention that I found all of the text to be well written. The authors are knowledgeable, without ever becoming too technical for a non-scholar such as myself. “Studies on Light and Shade” is the final chapter of the book. It is mostly text, with Zollner basically explaining the fundamentals of drawing.
The back cover quote was made by Dimitri S. Merezhkovsky in 1901. “[Leonardo] was like a man,” he says, “who woke up too early, in the darkness, while everyone else was still sleeping.” It is an elegant, and eloquent description of the reasons the work of Leonardo Leonardo continues to fascinate us.
With the discovery of the underdrawings, it seems as if the studies of Leonardo have only just begun in a way. TASCHEN has published a number of excellent, and informative books about various artists over the years, but I believe this to be their crowning achievement. Leonardo Leonardo: The Complete Paintings and Drawings is as beautiful a book as has ever been published about the Master.