Leonardo, Satan, and the Mystery of Modern Art

By Barolsky, Paul | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Leonardo, Satan, and the Mystery of Modern Art


Barolsky, Paul, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Ever since Homer told the tale of the shield made by Hephaistos for Achilles nearly three millennia ago, writers and artists have been telling stories or writing fables about art. Sometimes such fables are passed on as matters of fact, as when Picasso, born at 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 25, 1881, according to birth records, told the charming tale of his nativity at midnight. This seemingly casual alteration of the facts, a mere rounding off of numbers, is not so innocent and not without poetic significance, since, according to legend, midnight was the very hour of Christ's birth. We cannot forget here that when Vasari described the nativity of Michelangelo, he pictured the advent of the messiah of art. "Seldom a splendid story," Dr. Johnson once said, "is wholly true." Or, if it is wholly true, we might add, its "truth" rises above the condition of mere "fact."

Sometimes the fable of art has been carried to the pitch of high farce and fantasy, as in William Beckford's largely forgotten, late 18th-century Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, the mock-heroic "lives" of imaginary artists. Of all these artists, the greatest was Aldovrandus Magnus, the epic painter whose labors on a heroic cycle of painting were tragically terminated when his supply of canvas vanished in a great conflagration, which, singeing the beards of his disciples, caused the painter to die of grief. His epitaph, written by Professor Clod Lumpewitz or "Dim Wit" and rendered in English by John Ogilby, who was immortalized in Pope's Dunciad, likened Aldovrandus to Alexander the Great: the one who died for want of worlds to conquer, the other "for lack of canvas." Here in a peak of parody, a summit of satire, the whole Renaissance tradition of the heroic artist goes up, you might say, in smoke.

That tradition is epitomized in the monumental 16th-century Lives of the artists by Giorgio Vasari, unarguably the single greatest writer about art in the entire history of literature, one of the great novelistic authors of the modern period, whose accomplishment has sometimes been trivialized by those who call him the "father" of the modern art history. For art history as a modern academic discipline, modeled on a fragile comparison to science, turned away from poetic fable to the more abstract and astringent analysis of art as a problem, written in a decidedly anti-poetic fashion, in a voice alien to the very art it aspires to explain.

As Ovid's myth of Pygmalion and Pliny's fables of Apelles became legendary, so eventually did Vasari's fables, those of Giotto, who drew a perfect O with a single flourish, of Fra Filippo Lippi, who fled the Medici palace to pursue his carnal urges, of Paolo Uccello, so enamored of his "sweet perspective" that he refused to come to bed when called by his wife. Such stories entered into the global imagination of literature, where they merged with the tale of Don Quixote, the greatest illusionist of them all, tilting at windmills. As his niece observed and as he himself later said, Quixote was himself a poet. In other words, Quixote was himself an artist, whose romantic "picture" of the world is one of the masterpieces of art history. Although Vasari's artists were real people, not imaginary characters like Quixote, our sense of their reality is vivified, indeed magnified, by his fables in much the same way that Quixote is made "real" to us, comes to life, thanks to Cervantes' fictive powers.

The story-telling impulse in Vasari is nowhere finer than in his biography of Leonardo, where he tells us unforgettably that as a boy the young artist was called upon by his father to paint a shield, which he did with astonishing results, for he depicted a marvelous Medusalike monster based on the close study of bats, crickets, lizards, butterflies, and serpents. Although there is no persuasive reason to believe Leonardo ever made this painting, which is part of what Walter Pater called Leonardo's "legend," the monster is nonetheless true to the painter's fantasy as we know it, a fantasy matched only by Shakespeare's fabrication of Queen Mab's chariot out of hazel nut, cricket bone, spider web, and wings of grasshoppers. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Leonardo, Satan, and the Mystery of Modern Art
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.