• U.S.

Art: Universal Mind

4 minute read

In 1894 Walter Horatio Pater died at Oxford, having contributed to the “PreRaphaelite” revival an ideal of Art for Art’s sake expressed in cloistral and cadenced prose. Young Englishmen by the score grew pale at his famous description of the Mona Lisa* of Leonardo da Vinci, who was in fact a precursor of Raphael by about 30 years.

In the year of Pater’s death, one Edward MacCurdy, an obscure student at Oxford’s Balliol College, was moved by the Paterian vogue to depart for Italy and the golden light of masterpieces, where he wrote a book of Pre-Raphaelite poems. Since then the English Pre-Raphaelites have died, been derided, been forgotten, but Edward MacCurdy has kept on studying the great original Pre-Raphaelite, Leonardo. Last week his lifetime’s work appeared in the first definitive English translation and arrangement of da Vinci’s mighty Notebooks.*

Regarded by his contemporaries as curious scribblings of no great value, da Vinci’s manuscripts led a haphazard life for about 350 years. Many were lost. Those that survive, now owned by a dozen European libraries, total more than 4,000 pages of tiny sketches, diagrams and minute script, mostly written from right to left, which scholars have deciphered with the aid of mirrors. Together with the da Vinci drawings, about 600 of which are in the Royal Collection at Windsor, these notes record probably the most brilliant marriage of science and art in the world’s history.

Possibly annoyed by da Vinci adorers, the late George Luks once growled: “Da Vinci is the bunk—a mathematician, a subway digger.” Leonardo was in fact almost everything but a subway digger: he was a mathematician, a musician, an engineer, a designer of masques, an expert on fortifications, an inventor, an anatomist, a botanist, a physicist, a geologist, an astronomer, an architect and an artist. In most of these pursuits he was a professional, admired and well paid by the toughest princes of his time, including Cesare Borgia, and though he disparaged poetry, his own jottings seldom lost literary clarity, even when he attacked problems for which no terminology existed.

Scholar MacCurdy, toiling in the British Museum or in a sea of photostats and translations in his little Surrey study, found it necessary to segregate the da Vinci notes into no less than 50 subjects. Leonardo had meant to order his writings in some such way as well as to complete them, but before he died in 1519 he never had time.

Readers and students of these well-printed, handsome volumes will find them additionally interesting in the light of dicta lately issued in Russia and Germany holding up Leonardo’s art as a model to modern painters. The notebooks prove that art to have been the fruit of a free, nonpolitical, intensely experimental and speculative mind. Ranging over the whole fresh face of Nature and knowledge in his century, his driving power of observation and induction led him not only to his famous inventions of a mechanical bird and an armored car, but to profounder presciences of the circulation of the blood, Newton’s conception of gravity, the turning of the earth.

*”She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. . . .”

* Reynal & Hitchcock, 2 vols. ($15 ) English readers previously possessed a relatively small selection, edited by MacCurdy in 1906.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com