Introduction to Leonardo da Vinci's method

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIX, 1977


Commentary on the book by Paul Valery

A Introduction to Leonardo da Vinci's method perfectly illustrates the idea that it is the essayist who builds the object of his essay. The pure artist of the mind, the genius of exact fantasy erected by Paul Valéry as the supreme ideal of his own art as a writer, is one of the possible Leonardos that the memory of the Italian Renaissance bequeathed us. Understanding this image of Leonardo is the royal road to understanding Valéry's poetics.

The poet-critic was only 23 years old, in 1894, when he wrote the first version of this text, which, however, manages to raise original problems around a myth literally submerged by 300 years of great praise and petty curiosities. Valéry, with a stroke of accurate intuition, went right to the heart of the matter, ignoring the mass of anecdotal writings that obstructed the vision of the genius. It was important to him to discover how Leonardo thought about his own way of knowing and creating. And the essay faithfully fulfilled its purpose.

the poet of Charms already revealed itself, in these first writings, to be refractory to that intellectual habit that our irreverent José Paulo Paes called “bibliographic obnubilation”, which is the tedious thing of only seeing your object through the lens of other readers, which results in a row of quote pedantic. Like Leonardo, Paul Valéry wanted to start by looking at the world with his own eyes.

What Valery reaps in Treaty of painting it is, first of all, the artist's vibrant praise of the image and, therefore, of vision as the path of knowledge par excellence. It is known to what extremes Leonardo reached in his comparison of the plastic arts with the arts of speech, relegating the latter to the modest Platonic place of second-hand copies, shadows of objects that the painter -and only the painter- transposes and fixes with his ingenuity at the same time mimetic and constructive.

Valéry, freely echoing Leonardo, says: “Most people see with their intellect much more often than with their eyes. Instead of colorful spaces, they become aware of concepts. A whitish cubic shape, seen from a height, and pierced with glass reflections, is, for them, immediately a house: the House! Complex idea, chord of abstract qualities. If they move, the movement of the rows of windows and the translation of surfaces that continually disfigure their sensations escape them -because the concept does not change”. And further: “But people delight in a concept that swarms with words”.

The infinitely varied field of the visible with its modulations of light and shadow (how can one not think of the master of sfumato?) or the incessant movement of sea waves, which the horizontal line of abstract thought ignores, are for the artist the true objects of his plastic invention. This is what Valéry suggests in his notes on the sidelines of the Introduction to Leonardo da Vinci's method: "A work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see". And at a higher level of generalization: “Profound education consists of undoing the first education”. It is about a renewed discipline of the look and for the look.

Valéry, attentive to the adventure of the creative mind, seems not to be interested in the cultural genesis of Leonardo's ideas. It is the inner process of bold thinking that attracts you. However, ideas have their history and function within each moment of Western art. In Florence at the end of the 15th century, Leonardo came to know the tense coexistence of the idealism of the prestigious Neoplatonists in the circle of Lorenzo de Medici and the vigorous naturalism of the new ethos renaissance.

Anyone who closely examines his fragments – at times concise as riddles – can pick out passages in which the human mind is exalted in itself as infinitely richer than nature, and sometimes enthusiastic descriptions of the human body, of which he was one of the first anatomists, or the Tuscan or Alpine landscape, where everything is color, movement, life.

In the first case, the painting is mental thing: object of intelligence elaborated with hostinato rigore ( "hostinato", with "h", instead of the correct "stubborn“, has to do with a Leonardo alien to the literate erudition of his time…). This is about the geometric rigor of perspective, a recent creation that subordinated the matter of vision to the rationality of a centralizing eye. Perspective was, for Leonardo, the bridge that united art and science.

In the second case, painting is technique in a perennial state of experience and invention, expertise in the use of materials in order to figure and transfigure the variety of bodily forms, hues, the play of light and shadow. Leonardo, in the words of Valéry, is the “master of faces, anatomies, machines, the one who knows what a smile is made of”.

In any case, Valéry managed to reconstitute an intellectually cohesive model artist, a thinker who not only experiments incessantly, but also reflects on the meaning of his work.

It is neither possible nor desirable to summarize the subtle observations that multiply along the Introduction or in the “Note and Digression”, from 1919; or finally in the letter to Léo Ferrero, published in 1929 under the title of “Leonardo and the Philosophers”. This last text is particularly rich in reflections that are still quite up-to-date on the reductive and standardizing character of aesthetics that are intended to be universal. In contrast, the critic values ​​the discoveries that poets and painters themselves make when they talk about their art.

* Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021) was Emeritus Professor at FFLCH-USP and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). Author, among other books, of Art and Knowledge in Leonardo da Vinci (Edusp).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo / Journal of Reviews no. 34, on 10/01/1998.


Paul Valery. Introduction to Leonardo da Vinci's method. Translated by Geraldo Gérson de Souza. São Paulo, Publisher 34.


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