Seeking a Leonardo Street Reference

‘On Beauty and being just’ by Elaine Scarry, makes reference to a Walter Pater claim that Leonardo Da Vinci walked the streets in search of human beauty: Pater tells us that Leonardo, as though half crazed, used to follow people around the streets of Florence once he got “glimpses of it [beauty] in the strange eyes or hair of chance people. Sometimes he persisted until Sunday.’  (Scarry.1999: 6) My contemporary portrait research includes a methodology of the taking of discreet smart phone images of subjects to initiate portraits and the thought that the renaissance master may have thought it valuable to follow people as subjects for his artistic representations is exciting and intriguing.  A search for detailed reference to this possibility through the pages, notes and references bore no results. An internet search revealed little more.

With the assistance of PhD Supervisor Dr Susan May an online library reference to the original book, Leonardo’s Vinci with an essay by Walter Pater, was located and requested through the inter library loan service. It arrived from the British library as a large, but thin hard backed tome with a 12page essay followed by full-page illustrations of many of the great works referred to in the text. The essay provides a number of valuable insights into Leonardo’s practice and motivations and in particular the: ‘Curiosity and the desire of beauty – these are the two elementary forces in Leonardo’s genius; curiosity often in conflict with the desire of beauty, but generating, in union with it, a type of subtle and curious Grace.’ And with even more force his desire beyond representing nature to plunge into:‘human personality, and became above all the painter of portraits; faces of a modeling more skillful than has been seen before or since, embodied with the reality which almost amounts to illusion, on dark air.’ (Pater, 1971: 5)

Pater’s insights are valuable, but they do not describe Leonardo’s seeking of beauty in the streets, as no reference has presented itself to suggest this was the case. Unlike another great draughtsman one hundred years hence, Rembrandt van Rijn who quite definitely ventured out to draw and reflect the ‘beauty’, in a documentary sense, of those in the streets complimenting the splendor and financial rewards of the Court.

Researching Pater’s essay notes it was written in 1869, when the author was thirty years old. Kenneth Clark in his 1961 edition of essays (The Renaissance, studies in Art and Poetry.) calls it the most effective and memorable of Pater’s essays.  Surprisingly Clark’s book was unavailable locally or through inter library loan. The last resort is the Google search engine. Opportunities to purchase appear on a number of sites inc amazon and eBay for sale at between £155 and £4. Not sure if this book might include the ‘ Leonardo following’ reference the cheaper version was ordered.

It quickly arrived and I urgently move straight to Pater’s essay on Leonardo. Two pages in and there is an indication of Leonardo’s street searchs:

‘Some of these are full of a curious beauty, that remote beauty which maybe apprehended only by those who have sought it carefully; who, starting with acknowledged types of beauty, have refined as far up on these, as these refine upon the world of common forms. . . . Legions of grotesques sweep under his hand; for has not nature too her grotesques – the rent rock, the distorting lights of evening on lonely roads, the unveiled structure of man in the embryo, or the skeleton. (Clark,1961:107)

These words and concepts are familiar and I check back to Pater from the British museum volume and yes there it is. It was there all along, hiding amongst the array of details of Leonardo’s practice and motivations:

‘Two ideas were especially fixed in him, as reflexes of things that had touched his brain in childhood beyond the measure of other impressions – the smiling of women and the motion of great waters. 

And in such studies some interfusion of the extremes of beauty and terror shaped itself, as an image that might be seen and touched, in the mind of this gracious youth, so fixed that for the rest of his life it never left him. As if catching glimpses of it (beauty) in the strange eyes or hair of chance people, he would follow such about the streets of Florence till the sun went down, of whom many sketches of his remain.’  (Pater,1971: 5)

The mystery of Leonardo’s following of subjects is fleetingly referenced here in less charged terms than by Scarry. It is the only short reference sourced. It would be valuable to access additional examples of this practice to establish how much the artist pursued ‘strange eyes and hair of chance people’ as opposed to the focused studio based approach with selected non strange sitters of the conventional renaissance beauty Leonardo subscribed to and in many ways helped create. There are a number of drawings between 1490-1508 of strange(rs) where Leonardo has studied the facial physicalities inc the grotesque heads and unlikely odd couples, however Pater focuses on the more beautiful paintings and drawings in his essay.

Leonardo’s rational for seeking out and drawing the strange and the beautiful can be understood through his advice: ‘I say that in narrative paintings you should closely intermingle direct opposites, because they offer a great contrast to each other, and more so the more they are adjacent. Thus have the ugly one next to the beautiful, the large next to the small, the old next to the young, the strong next to the weak.’ 

(Zoller, 2006: 60)

Martin Clayton, the keeper of the royal collection states. ‘Only a small proportion of Leonardo’s drawings are connected with his artistic projects. The remainder were his attempt to understand the infinite variety of experience, the theme of his whole career.’ (Clayton, 2019:11)

The majority of his drawings feel they are drawn with great attention to detail that must have demanded prolonged periods with the sitters and his drawings. No photographs here to assist the artist. They were not drawn quickly in streets where he might have followed strange and interesting subjects. Many were made with silverpoint on cream paper that similarly would not have been easy to handle in bustling streets. Apart from the grotesques, one pen and ink drawing of a corpulent man has a looser drawn style that could have been a subject made away from the controlled court or studio in a more public place. ‘It is not one of Leonardo’s stock types, and the evident speed with which he was drawn suggests this maybe a sketch of a specific individual.’  (Clayton, 2019: 80) This study is a singular, but useful example of quick drawing by Leonardo, of subjects potentially in the streets that he apprended in reality, or in his visual memory. 

The vast majority of his drawing was studied pursuit of knowledge of the human, animal, scientific, form and substance. The thrilling mention by Scarry of Leonardo’s following of glimpses of subjects of beauty for portraits has been accurately clarified for future research.

Scarry, E. 1999. On Beauty and being just. Chichester. Princeton University Press.

Clark, K. 1961. The Renaissance, studies in Art and PoetryLondon. Fontana, Collins.

Pater, W. 1971. Leonardo da Vinci essay. Oxford. Phaidon Press.

Zoller, F. 2006. Leonardo sketches and drawings. Los Angeles. Taschen.

Clayton, M. 2019. Leonardo da Vinci, a life in drawing. London. Royal Collection Trust.