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Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone: A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in the Codex Urbinas.

Although the two books under review share a central concern with Leonardo's place within the history of ideas, they differ radically in approach, interests and style. In stances more contradictory than complementary, they demonstrate the diversity of specialized Leonardo studies and the continued provocativeness of Leonardo's pictorial and literary work for speculative interpretation. Farago's edition and study of the Paragone is a piece of straightforward intellectual history, tracing the sources of this area of Leonardo's thought in texts ranging through classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the earlier Renaissance, and singling out certain aspects of his later influence. Maiorino's is a wide-ranging speculative - often ruminative - assesment of Leonardo's lifework and of the implications of his work and image. Both books reveal, within their limits, the complex nature of their subject.

Thanks largely to the research of Carlo Pedretti, Richter's and Macurdy's classic anthologies of Leonardo's writings, which still perform valuable service, are gradually being refined. And since McMahon's edition of the Codex Urbinas, and Pedretti's reconstruction of Libro A, it has increasingly been realized that the Codex, a general book on painting, although neither assembled by Leonardo nor reliably reflecting his intentions, preserves much material not found in surviving manuscripts and deserves fuller study than it has yet received. Farago's attention is concentrated on the first 46 sections of the Codex, of which only four survive in holograph. These constitute what was subsequently titled the Paragone, a polemical preamble about the relative status of the arts, pitched to make painting the superior. Included in Richter's anthology, the Paragone was reprinted in a separate volume with a commentary by his daughter Irma. The new edition/translation presented here corrects Richter's in a few details, but the overall change is more of mood than substance: it roughens rather than smooths, emphasizing the lack of finish and the repetitiveness of Leonardo's expression.

The text of the Paragone is preceded by a long introduction analyzing and setting in context the main themes in Leonardo's essay, and succeeded by an elaborate commentary which charts in detail its sources and components. As with most intellectual history of this kind - which is not to denigrate its value - the reader sometimes wonders whether the writer studied was incapable of working out anything for himself, when even the most commonplace remarks are traced back to formulations by Galen or Aristotle. Farago is, of course, aware of this problem, but does not fully exploit one of the ways in which a potentially endless regression may be controlled. Although enlightening in relating some aspects of the Paragone to "courtly performance", and thus social relations, little attempt is made to reconstruct, from the imagery produced by Leonardo himself, by his predecessors (especially Verrocchio) and contemporaries, the visual problematic within which Leonardo's discourse was situated. Theory does not cease to exist merely because it is not written down, and imagery and anecdote can provide valuable instruments to measure and elucidate the implications of the theoretical writing that does survive.

The Paragone is also strangely inadequate. Leonardo, as Farago makes clear, rests painting's claims to supremacy over other arts - but particularly poetry and sculpture - on its superior "scientific" content and the intellectual effort involved in, especially, the employment of the perspectives of space, color and atmosphere. Leonardo repeatedly emphasizes painting's capacity to represent details of the visual world - landscape, fish swimming through water, mountains seen through smoke etc - but avoids entirely the central subject of his and his contemporaries' art: human psychology and the human figure as a unit of expression. Reading Leonardo's praise of painting, one could fancy oneself reading a disquisition by Jan van Eyck, and it is a pity, in this context, that Farago makes no reference to De Hollanda's report of Michelangelo's critique of Netherlandish art, for, in essence, what Michelangelo admits the attraction of, but derides for its lack of rational and poetic selection, is the capacity for representation on which Leonardo founds his elevation of painting. From a painter who produced some of the most profound and resonant images in western art, Leonardo's omission in the Paragone of any discussion of painting's capacity to represent the soul, as a factor in its superiority, is deeply surprising. And such omissions, of which more might have been made, are a warning that statements of explicit theory, in this as other periods, are often strikingly banal when compared with the theoretical subtleties which can be inferred from consideration of the major artistic products.

An insight of this nature animated Maiorino's book. It is organized on the dialectical premise that Leonardo, although a scientist and a rationalist, is simultaneously an "anti-humanist", fascinated by the ambivalent image of Daedalus, immersed in the mysterious, the irrational, the archetypal. There is in this more than an echo of Pater, for whom, indeed, Malorino expresses admiration. Leonardo emerges as, like Whitman, large enough to contain contradictions. Maiorino contrasts him with Alberti, invoked as the emblematic humanist, whose opposition to Leonardo, while by no means complete, is still telling. To demonstrate Leonardo's mythic complexity Maiorino adopts an approach which is allusive and associative, moving rapidly from science to art to cultural theory to philosophy to psychoanalytical symbolism, among other things, sometimes within a paragraph. The historian may find the book exasperating, for it places Leonardo in excessive isolation for the art and world around him, with conflicts intellectual and political, aesthetic and social largely ignored; Maiorino no sooner raises a subject than he darts off to ancient myths or modem apocalypses. And art historians will be surprised that he takes no account of differences of function, commission, etc, imputes to paintings independent life, plays havoc with categories and allows himself no conventional restraints on method. But, in compensation, Maiorino's passages of artistic criticism, which often substantiate his arguments, are of high quality in their subtlety and sensitivity and succeed in giving some paintings - like the Vatican St. Jerome - a new density of meaning and revelatory value.

Unfortunately the book is tough going. It is jumpy, association frequently degenerates into free-association, a torrent of references suggest imprecision of focus, and there is a lack of fastidiousness in the choice of authorities cited. It is also sloppily produced. Publishers being what they are, one is reluctant to blame an author for what might be the blunders of a tyro picture-researcher, but that two copy drawings should be reproduced as originals figs. i and 48), Bellini's late St. Jerome in Washington (fig. 5) as his early version in the Barber Institute, and El Greco's Resurrection as his Baptism (fig. 22) suggests something like carelessness. The intelligence, imagination and real enthusiasm which animate this book, from which Leonardo emerges as a magus who might have felt at home in the court of Rudolph II, make this reader regret that it was not constructed more rigorously or written more accessibly.
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Author:Joannides, Paul
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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