There are not many works by Leonardo da Vinci at the Leonardo exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery; of the handful that are there, most are collaborations between Leonardo and others, primarily his mentor Verrocchio. But this is far from disappointing. Instead of being a straightforward visual depiction of da Vinci’s work, it is a historical and artistic exploration of his influences and the strands of art that weave through and from him. Unfortunately, I know a lot less about Leonardo da Vinci than I would like, so it was harder for me to grasp those influences. But even if the hugeness of what I was seeing eluded my understanding, the undercurrents of that meaning pervaded the exhibit. Not to mention that there were some absolutely beautiful pieces on display.
Verrocchio became a famed sculptor and painter over the course of his career, and I was particularly drawn to his sculpture Christ and St. Thomas. I felt like a small child looking up at giants, or at a sea of stars above me, and the sculpture was not even in the exhibit! Christ and St. Thomas is a sculpture on the exterior walls of the Orsanmichelle in Florence, so in the exhibit, there was simply a full-sized picture printed on the wall. This was enough, however, and the two men stood more than seven feet tall, taller than me. This height was balanced by the fineness of detail, so precise I assumed it was a small statue, and that the picture had been blown up. The curl of the hair, the flow of the robes, the perfect lines on the square gouges of Christ’s hands, the brilliant gold disk atop God’s head — all of it felt too perfect to be that tall. When I checked the explanation on the wall that said the picture was to scale, I was blown away.
There were other pieces that spoke to me as well. The Ruskin Madonna, a collaboration between Verocchio and da Vinci, is mesmerizing, with a background of an old Roman ruin so architecturally accurate that you can fall into an entire world just by looking. The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus, a collaboration between da Vinci and unnamed others, is pristinely detailed and alive. Fascinatingly, in both of his paintings you can see the varying craft of both artists, picking the da Vinci out of the rest. And the veil on Verrocchio’s Virgin and Child is as thin, silvery and awe inspiring as the veil between worlds.
There are other facets of the exhibit that one can get lost in; I would stand awkwardly close to my friends, all of us bent over to try to read the small script history of the works we were viewing. A lot of the material was a great lesson, and I learned more about the lives of Renaissance artists than I expected to. But the value of the exhibit and of art is more than just history or biography; there is a timelessness to the pieces that speaks to me independent of when and where they took place. I don’t consider myself a particular fan of Renaissance art, but a lot of the detail and the care that went into these pieces spoke to me. I am not Christian but the religious core of these pieces spoke to me of something divine. They were beautiful.
Studying the pieces, I also wondered at the craft, and what it means to be a better artist than another. The curators put two pieces next to each other, one by another of Verrocchio’s students named Lorenzo de Credi, the other Leonardo da Vinci. They were of the same scene, The Annunciation, and a statement on the wall explained how da Vinci’s was better. But I was much more drawn to Credi’s: to the vibrance of the color, to the expressions of the two figures that touched me more deeply, to the nearly three dimensional flowers and grass in the courtyard beneath Gabriel’s feet. This is likely in part because da Vinci’s painting seemed to be less well preserved, and the comparative grunginess of his colors may not have been true to the original piece. But it is refreshing to find two paintings, one by a globally renowned genius and another by his lesser-known contemporary, and to be drawn more to the overshadowed one.
Ultimately, this was not a demonstration of a single artist’s genius, born in a vacuum and expanding outward like a growing star. Da Vinci is just one link in a chain. All of the pieces are in conversation with each other, even within themselves at times, and within us. There are two sculptures mounted on the wall in the exhibit across from each other. The first is Verrocchio’s Virgin and Child with Angel, and the second was Simone Ferucci’s Virgin in Prayer. Ferucci’s piece is a nearly exact copy of the image of Mary in Verrocchio’s, what we would call plagiarism today. But it was not a demonstration of intellectual theft — it was a demonstration of the course of influence. These two stone carvings, staring back at each other, ping-ponged in my mind endlessly. The way that art stays with us endlessly.
Zak Rosen | firstname.lastname@example.org