By Matthew Kangas

THIS YEAR AN OBJECT of extraordinary cultural significance comes to the Pacific Northwest: Leonardo da Vinci's manuscript known as the Codex Leicester, named after the English earl who purchased the scientific and artistic document in 1717. On view at the Seattle Art Museum through January 4, 1998, the Codex shows first-hand the ceaseless imagination of the man often called the smartest artist of all time. As pages in the manuscript prove, Leonardo had a far-reaching speculative mind that went beyond the narrow religious views of the day and touched on profound inquiries into hydrodynamics, astronomy, aviation, geology, anatomy, engineering, optics, and painting and architecture. In it, he asks (and answers) questions like "Why is the sky blue?" "Why does water flow?" and "How do birds fly?"

Purchased by Microsoft, Inc. co-founder William H. Gates III in 1994 from Christie's auction house, this priceless manuscript is the centerpiece of an exhibition combining artworks, computers, and reconstructions. They all remind us that the term "Renaissance Man" was applied to Leonardo first.

Best known for Mona Lisa (1503) and The Last Supper (1495), Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a notary public and a peasant woman in Vinci, Italy (hence his name). After apprenticing to the ex-goldsmith-turned-painter-and-sculptor Andrea del Verrochio and learning the new art of oil painting, the young man found favor and patronage with a long line of supporters including Ludovico Sforza, Cesare Borgia, Giuliano de Medici, and finally Francis I of France.

This exhibition is actually Seattle's second encounter with the greatest genius of the Italian Renaissance. In 1982, University of Washington professor of art history, Joanne Snow-Smith, arranged for the Henry Art Gallery to display Salvator Mundi (c. 1512), a ravishingly beautiful portrait of Christ giving a blessing with one hand and holding a globe of the world with the other. No less an authority than the head of the conservation laboratory of the Louvre Museum informed Smith that the pigment, walnut support and technique all matched that in the Louvre's own late-period Leonardo, St. John, the Baptist (c. 1513). Long a leading authority on the Italian Renaissance, Snow-Smith is lecturing November 3 at the Seattle Public Library Downtown Branch on Leonardo's library, a new view of his works based on his learning.

This time around, no painting of comparable stature by Leonardo will be seen but, instead, drapery studies (c. 1470) and drawings (c. 1489 - 90) will join the Codex Leicester (pronounced Lester).

With his motto as "Sapere Vedere" (Know how to look), Leonardo used ancient Greek and Roman thinkers to fuse art and science proposing a skeptical, empirical and experimental view of the world. This became the scientific method of the 18th-century Age of Reason; in this sense, Leonardo was at least 300 years ahead of his time when he wrote: "It seems to me that those sciences are vain and full of error which are not born of. . .first-hand experience, which in its origins...has passed through the five senses. And if we doubt the certainty of everything that passes through the senses, how much more ought we to doubt. . .the existence of God or of the soul. . .over which there is always dispute and contention." Coming from the man who painted some of the most sublime religious paintings of all time, such a statement embodied the growing clash between faith and reason that typified the Renaissance.

SAM curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Trevor Fairbrother have collaborated again to assemble a marvelous tribute to the "Universal Man," Leonardo. Joining the Codex Leicester will be artworks of the 15th through 20th centuries, all of which revere, copy, re-invent, and satirize the art and thought of the greatest figure in Italian art history. No less than Rembrandt's own Last Supper (1635), a chalk drawing based on Leonardo's original, will be on view, along with earlier tributes by Birago, Melzi, Pacioli and Predis.

Thanks partly to Walter Pater's Victorian-era Studies in the Renaissance, Mona Lisa became the most famous painting of all time, so much so that, by 1919, French painter Marcel Duchamp outraged the art world by drawing a moustache on a reproduction of Mona Lisa and entered it in an exhibition. After that, Leonardo's reputation was so high that artists up to the present competed with one another to honor or ridicule the great genius.

While Ishikawa painstakingly sought out related works including pages from other books, other portraits of Leonardo, and examples of his influence on other artists in the centuries following his 1591 death in France, Fairbrother concentrates on our own day, borrowing important responses by Duchamp, Man Ray, Pavel Tchelitchev, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Arneson, Kiki Smith, among others.

All this centers on the specially designed temperature-controlled cases holding the pages of the Codex, thought to be written between 1508 and 1510. The mirror handwriting will be unraveled and translated into English at the nearby 24 computer stations. Gate's Corbis Corporation made possible the decoding of the Codex.

Despite all we know about Leonardo da Vinci, many questions still remain. Did he marry? Why were none of his architecture plans ever built? Why were some of his largest commissions left unfinished? And most importantly, how did he do so much?
With all the supporting lectures and concerts at SAM and many other museums and institutions throughout the Puget Sound area, the enigma of Leonardo will be explored and discussed over and over. Unlike Salvator Mundi, which traveled to six other U.S. university museums before heading home to Chateau de Courances, the ancestral home of its owner, Charles, Marquis de Ganay, Codex Leicester will remain in the Seattle area. It has already been seen in Italy and New York.
Home to the fulfillment of many of Leonardo's ideas on aviation (Boeing), hydrodynamics (floating bridges), and the organization of knowledge (Microsoft), Seattle could not be a more appropriate site. As Professor Snow-Smith concluded, "Leonardo generates so much interest that we are only now beginning to understand the depth of his knowledge in every area. It's ever increasing and will continue to for centuries into the future."

MATTHEW KANGAS, independent art critic and curator, organized "Four in Glass," opening in Texas this October, and wrote Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection for the Oakland Museum in California.

Engraving of Leonardo da Vinci,
Hulton Deutsch Collection / Corbis.

Other sites on this exhibit:

Exhibition Schedule

'Magical' da Vinci manuscript is a sight to behold

Figure 7, Jasper Johns, 1969, Lithograph, Jane & David R. Davis Collection.

Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol, 1963, 125 3/4" x 82 1/2"

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