3.1. Shaping the Reality of Symbols
The participation of Leonardo da Vinci in the commission of the Virgin of the Rocks
starts, as we have already mentioned, on 25 April 1483, when the artist signed, in company of the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista De Predis,14
a contract for his first public work in Milan: the depiction of a Madonna and the Child surrounded by angels to be displayed in the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the (now destroyed) church of San Francesco Grande.15
The painting was part of a much larger altarpiece that included other panels—such as the two angels playing musical instruments, probably painted by Francesco Napoletano, as suggested by Marani16
—as well as a wooden carved sculpture made by Giacomo Del Maino.17
Unfortunately, no other images have survived from the original altarpiece, except for the painting executed by Leonardo and the ones attributed to Napoletano. Moreover, with the exception of few lines in the contract describing the wooden-made structure, there are no other records or evidence of what the actual altarpiece might have looked like. In the attempt to overcome such a tantalizing lack of information, scholars have provided different hypotheses regarding the general configuration of this devotional machinery, in whose center the Virgin of the Rocks
might have been plausibly displayed.18
According to Paolo Venturoli, Leonardo’s painting probably performed the function of a “painted cover” made to protect—and, simultaneously, hide from the sight of a daily audience—the most significant element within the entire altarpiece, at least from a devotional standpoint, that is, the full-rounded (lost) image carved by Del Maino, representing the Immaculate Virgin holding the Child.19
Plausibly, Leonardo’s work was a sort of panel able to open, thus showing—in particular occasions—the otherwise hidden statue of the Madonna with the Child. Venturoli suggested that the iconography elaborated by Leonardo and his patrons must have incorporated theological aspects of the cult of the Immaculate Conception that were particularly relevant to the commissioners of the work and were certainly conveyed by the wooden sculpture that used to occupy the center of this imposing altarpiece. Should this hypothesis prove correct, Leonardo’s panel would have performed, accordingly, the function of a visual, painted “prelude” in preparation of the actual object of public devotion, or the main pole of religious attraction of the entire altarpiece, that is, the carved statue of the Virgin holding her son created by Del Maino.
While this hypothesis provides a plausible clarification of the structural context in which Leonardo’s painting was commissioned, it does not explain the alterations made by the painter after having signed the contract. In other words, how could the cult of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin be associated with the inclusion of St John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel in the pictorial narrative? How do these characters contribute to the codification of a symbolic system directly subordinated to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception?
As recent scholarship has pointed out, the peculiar iconography of Leonardo’s panel—with the prominent presence of St. John the Baptist and the depiction of a staring, almost hypnotizing Archangel Gabriel—could be understood from a devotional perspective in connection with the preaching activities of one of the most influential religious figures of the time: Friar Amadeus Mendes da Silva, better known as Blessed Amadeus, a Franciscan monk who had started his mission as a preacher in Milan and, more specifically, at San Francesco Grande, the church where Leonardo’s work was originally intended to be displayed.20
Profoundly venerated and regarded as a prodigious miracle-maker even after his death, Blessed Amadeus was supported by the members of the Sforza family as well as respected by local authorities living in adjacent areas of Lombardy. Very soon, his fame as a venerable saint would cross the boundaries of Lombardy and reach other regions of Italy and, shortly afterwards, different kingdoms of Europe, such as Portugal and Spain. After having disseminated his word in Northern Italy, Blessed Amadeus was requested to go to Rome, around 1480, when he will become the private confessor of Franciscan pope Sixtus IV. While living in a grotto on the Janiculum Hill—in the area where stands now the superb Tempietto
designed by Donato Bramante,21
on which, according to the tradition, St Peter would have been crucified—Blessed Amadeus had eight mystic visions, during which the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to him and revealed decisive arcana fidei
, as described in the pages of a text known as Apocalypsis Nova
Both as an influential preacher as well as a fervid, visionary mystic, Blessed Amadeus has unfailingly sustained the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin and thus enhanced the position defended by the members of the Franciscan Order within the general debate of the time. In his public homilies, however, the friar introduces the—potentially problematic—idea that, together with Christ and the Madonna, also St John the Baptist had been conceived through a miraculous manifestation of God’s will and deprived of the sins of the Original Fall.23
The theme of St John sine macula
—and, consequently, the centrality of the baptism as a vehicle for salvation—has constituted a recurrent motif in Amadeus’ public preaching, as one can infer from the surviving manuscripts of his Sermones Johannis Baptistae
, in which those two religious themes—namely, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the sacrament of baptism—appear profoundly interwoven. Moreover, the existence of these sermons certify, beyond any reasonable doubt, that, prior to the opening of the Apocalypsis Nova
in a ceremony that took place in 1502—that is, many decades after Leonardo had created his painting—some of the most relevant points addressed in that text might have sounded familiar to a Milanese audience, for they had been already promoted by the friar many years earlier, through his ardent, systematic, and largely followed public preaching in places such as the church of San Francesco Grande.24
There is another significant element concerning the mystic predicaments of Blessed Amadeus and the irradiation of his theological ideas that should not be neglected given its connection with the agreement signed by Leonardo and De Predis: after having lived for several years in Rome, the preacher had asked the pope permission to visit, one last time, his community of followers and congregates in Lombardy, thus joining the so-called Amadeite brothers. Once arrived in Milan, however, the friar unexpectedly died on August 10, 1482. For an Amadeite-oriented group of believers—such as the members of the Confraternity who had commissioned the Virgin of the Rocks appeared to be—nothing could have sounded more appropriate than to ask the artists who were about to start their works to evoke, in a tangible way, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as it had been fervently described by one of his most venerable defenders: Blessed Amadeus. The scene imagined by Leonardo could be interpreted, therefore, as a visual representation that sums up and successfully condenses many aspects of Amadeus’ beliefs, paradigmatically embodied in the inclusion of St. John the Baptist as an infant, announced by the delicate, yet imposing gesture of Gabriel, which stands in intimate proximity with both the Virgin and the Child. In other words, it is plausible to argue that Leonardo might have been requested to depict, before the trusting eyes of his Amadeite-associated commissioners, an image that could express, in a powerful and palpable manner, the different, but equally important, roles played by Mary, Christ, and John in the path of humankind’s salvation as it had been explained by the archangel during Amadeus’ mystic revelations in Rome.
On the other hand, from a stylistic and formal standpoint, what Leonardo has materialized in this work is not only an image profoundly connected with these religious themes but also a painting that was significantly in line with the reflections the artist was undertaking in those same years on the theme of Paragone, as the following paragraphs intend to demonstrate.
In the Virgin of the Rocks
, Leonardo has created a pictorial discourse that was able to evoke—and provide palpable shapes to—a mystic event that had taken place in the past, within the visionary dimension of Amadeus’ spiritual experience. Despite the metaphysical origins of such an experience, Leonardo was capable to translate it in believable visual forms and set them right before the eyes of the spectator, elaborating a scene that seems to be happening in the very moment in which the beholder is observing it, while enjoying the benefits of its religious powers. The artist has formulated a visual narrative that fluidly unfolds itself like a tangible, real event happening in a very natural-looking setting. To put it another way, Leonardo’s painting does not simply convey or summarizes somebody else’s experience—such as Blessed Amadeus’ mystical vision—but reenacts it with such a convincing naturalism and persuasive verisimilitude that the image seems to be actually presenting
more than representing the event it depicts so that it could be perceived by the viewer with stunning immediacy and concreteness. The beholder becomes the witness of a (mystic) vision that keeps materializing itself through the (actual) process of seeing.25
Thanks to its mimetic components, the painting provides the opportunity to the spectator to conduct a first-hand experience of a metaphysical revelation. One could go so far as to claim that, on a metaphorical level, Leonardo’s image becomes the visual equivalent of a powerful prayer, in which past and present, ethereal and material, natural and spiritual appear inexorably intertwined.
To accomplish such an all-encompassing pictorial materialization of religious entities and ideas, Leonardo had to elaborate an image that could appear to a certain extent as tangible, appealing, and revealing as Blessed Amadeus’ own words and preaching skills. At the same time, Leonardo’s painting needed to look as palpable, imposing, and concretely present as the wooden carved statue made by Giacomo Del Maino. Finally, Leonardo had to formulate a visual narrative that could display its own forms as spontaneously, immediately, and realistically as Nature itself would have done, so that all elements represented in the panel—including spiritual beings and metaphysical bodies—could deceive the eyes of the believers and appear as if they were real, breathing, living figures like any other member of the audience standing right before them.
In order to come up with such a compelling iconic discourse, Leonardo had to interact, on the one hand, with a textual tradition and, on the other, with an actual sculpture, while dealing simultaneously with the essential quest for temporality and materiality in pictorial representations.26
Thanks to Leonardo’s incomparable ability to (re)present any painted form in a most appealing manner and his remarkable capacity to depict images that appear as vivid as if they were truly moving before one’s eyes—thus creating what Vasari has once described as “figure col moto e col fiato
,” that is, figures endowed “with motion and breath”(include footnote27
)—the Virgin of the Rocks
embodies and anticipates some of Leonardo’s most significant remarks regarding the theme of Paragone
. Through his paintings, in general, and the Virgin of the Rocks
, in particular, Leonardo has attempted to find effective ways to overcome what he considered the inherent limits of other fields of artistic investigation, such as Poetry, Music, and Sculpture. In order to do so, Leonardo had to investigate the cognitive as well as the experiential legitimacy of Painting as a visual discourse and its superiority over any other art-related procedure.
For a taxonomically driven mind such as Leonardo’s, always ready to set comparisons among the arts on the basis of a classifying-oriented method, the supremacy of Painting emerges as an unquestionable evidence. As a mode of representation, Painting has the power to convey thoughts, express ideas, and provoke emotions in a most immediate and yet long-lasting way, without ever requiring further translations or any kind of intermediation, unlike Poetry, Music, and Sculpture. Moreover, as a field of expression, Painting creates self-contained universes of forms and persuasive narratives, whose immediacy, inventiveness, multilayered temporality, and highly compelling resemblance with natural beings and phenomena cannot but capture the attention of every viewer, making them experience a new kind of reality: the fictional verisimilitude achieved throughthe pictorial discourse. No wonder, then, if Leonardo will systematically stress in his notes on Paragone five interconnected points that confirm, in his views, the supremacy of Painting over any other art.
3.2. The Sensorial Presence of Painting
Thanks to its mimetic ability to promote illusionism as a form of visual perception, Painting simulates a direct, immediate experience of natural forms in a prompt and faithful manner, thus reassessing the very notion of “simulacrum” and its—potentially limiting—status of “fictive representation”. The ultimate goal of Painting, according to Leonardo, is in fact to present
painted forms as if they were actual, tangible entities standing right before the eyes of the viewer: a reality among realities, a phenomenon amidst phenomena. In addition to being a mirror-like depiction of natural as well as invisible and even imaginary forms, Painting may provide believable visual shapes to beings, things, and events that have a particular ontological status—such as spiritual entities, allegorical embodiments, or mythological creatures—giving them a persuasive reality on their own, thanks to its capacity of rendering every element in a convincing way.28
In response to such a concrete sense of presence, spectators cannot help but feel immediately captured by those relatable, yet fictional images, which might include “invisible” or “impalpable” entities too, as Leonardo does not neglect to point out: “la pittura pare cosa miracolosa, a far parere palpabili le cose impalpabili, rilevate le cose piane, lontane le cose vicine
In line with this statement, the Virgin of the Rocks (re)presents a metaphysical event with the tangible materiality of a scene that seems to be taking place right in front of the spectator’s eyes. Thanks to Leonardo’s mastery in the domains of affetti (the representation of human emotions), ombre e lumi (the modeling of volume by means of a calculated calibration of shadows and light), and rilievo (the illusion of three-dimensionality attained through a well-balanced contrast between shading and lightning effects), the characters depicted in the panel seem to emerge out of the pictorial surface as if they were actual, full-rounded beings, thus creating on the beholder the misperception of solid bodies.
The persuasive modeling of volumes through a wise use of chiaroscuro
is, in Leonardo’s art theory, one of the truly defining features of Painting as a mimetic enterprise. By adopting these three components—namely, affetti
, ombre e luci
, and rilievo
—Painting is enabled to create convincing visual discourses. “La prima intenzione del pittore
,” Leonardo clearly postulates, “è fare ch’una superficie piana si dimostri corpo rilevato e spiccato da esso piano
This is, in fact, the optical result that an artist may achieve by undertaking a modelling procedure based on a carefully-measured variation of shades and light effects: “quello ch’in tal arte più eccede gli altri, quello merita maggior laude, e questa tale investigazione, anzi corona di tale sciencia [sic], nasce da l’ombre e lumi, o voi dire chiaro e scuro
In other words, rilievo
together with ombre e lumi
are considered by Leonardo the most powerful means with which one could provoke the illusion of volume upon the eyes of the beholder. Consequently, one’s mastery in those particular branches shall become the guarantee of one’s excellency in the art of painting as the Renaissance master proudly asserts: “Adonque chi fugge l’ombre fugge la Gloria de l’arte apresso alli nobili ingegni, e l’acquista presso l’ignorante vulgo, li quali nulla desiderano nelle pitture altro che bellezza di colori, dimenticando al tutto la bellezza e maraviglia del dimostrare di rilievo la cosa piana
While Painting is undoubtedly characterized by many other theoretical components and can be done according to a wide variety of working methods, the concept of rilievo stands, nonetheless, as one of its most distinctive features among all elements that constitute the domain of Painting, for it contributes to creating a sense of optical proximity between a painted image and the actual reality that might appear almost physical to the viewer. Thanks to the optical misperception of volumes induced by rilievo, the eyes of the spectator can nearly “touch” and, therefore, experience the pictorial composition as a concrete reality. Such a result cannot be achieved, according to Leonardo, by any other art.
Moreover, in regards to the theme of Paragone
, through rilievo
, Painting can challenge the very materiality of Sculpture and, at the same time, confirm the superiority of pictorial discourses as intellectually driven results, since the mastery of chiaroscuro
implies a scientific knowledge of the complex phenomenology in which shadows interact with light effects and does not simply depend on the variable conditions that one may find in the natural world, as in the case of full-rounded statues or bas-reliefs. For this reason, painters must demonstrate their expertise in rilievo
-based modelling procedures and excell “in quella parte di che la pittura è tenuta arte eccellente, cioè del fare rilevato quel ch’è nulla in rilevo. E qui
,” Leonardo concludes, “’l pittore avanza lo scultore, il quale non dà meraviglia di sé in tale rilevo, essendo fatto dalla natura quel che ‘l pittore co’ la sua arte s’acquista
In addition to this illusion of three-dimensionality, Painting can also represent figures that convincingly express their inner states of mind and psychological reactions by means of affetti
. For Leonardo, it is essential that every character in a panel clearly convey “coll’atto la passione de l’animo suo
Motion and emotion are two entangled sides of a decisive mimetic notion. Moreover, every single member of a figure must echo—and visually embody—its emotional state: “Le mani e braccia in tutte le sue operazioni hanno da dimostrare la intenzione del loro motore quanto fia possibile, perché con quelle, chi ha affezzionato giudizio, s’accompagna l’intenti mentali in tutti li suoi movimenti
The making of the first version of the Virgin of the Rocks
anticipates, from a practical and experimental perspective, many stances that will eventually find a more elaborated theoretical explanation in the pages of the Libro di pittura
, which will become the basis for the 1651 publication of the Trattato della pittura
The use of affetti
, for instance, along with the rendering of rilievo
, are distinctive components of this painting. Likewise, affetti
characterize—as we have seen—Leonardo’s theoretical reflections in a very significant way. For the artist, every single part of a figure must appear persuasively tangible in its corporeal dynamics in order to express the specific mental state of a character, mapping out the geography of feelings, emotions, and psychological responses that dwell the vast lands of their bodies. Fused together, rilievo
increase the relatability of a figure, while stimulating a more intimate connection with the beholder. In the case of the Virgin of the Rocks
, the overall dark tones that inform the pictorial space—from the foreground to the fading mountains in the background, only sporadically interrupted by strategically-located highlighted areas—further emphasize the palpable physicality of the bodies without disrupting the mystic atmosphere of the sacred scene: rilievo
demonstrate, here, Leonardo’s extraordinary familiarity with problems related to the variations of ombre e luci
, enhancing the atmosphere of mystery and suspension that informs the whole painting as well as the well rendered affetti
of all figures in it.
It is useful to point out, however, that such a powerful sense of presence achieved by Leonardo in this painting is not only limited to the depiction of stunning rilievo
-oriented effects but informs the representation of every element or phenomenon depicted in the scene, such as the remarkable atmospheric appearance of the landscape, in which one can almost feel the density of the air that permeates the entire composition. The creation of a scene that appears immersed within such a tangible representation of the air—with the sensorial suggestion of humidity, fogginess, and air motion—transforms the pictorial surface into an enveloping simulation of a first-hand experience of reality, which seems to wipe out, at least for a moment, any separation between the painted panel and the actual space of the beholder.37
The pursuit of optical illusion is thus endorsed by the quest of a sensorial misperception that aims to capture the spectators’ attention and redefine their very status as active, engaged viewers of the scene, given their emotional, psychological, and intellectual involvement while moving their eyes across the painting. By strategically arranging the various elements in the composition in accordance with the criterion that Leonardo calls “copia e varietà
a painting such as the Virgin of the Rocks
offers a visual itinerary to the viewer, provided, however, that “lla novità e abbondanzia attragga a sé e diletti l’occhio d’esso riguardatore
In another passage of the Libro di pittura
, Leonardo further clarifies this point, briefly outlining what could be anachronistically referred to as the emerging draft of a “Renaissance Reception Theory”. By means of a curious comparison, the artist stresses how important it is to find ways, already during the image-making process, that could significantly expand the time later employed for the observation of the painting, dilating its duration for as long as possible:
E tu pittore, studia di fare le tue opere ch’abbino a tirare a sé gli suoi veditori, e quelli fermare con grande admirazione e dilettazione, e non tirarli e poi scacciarli, come fa l’aria a quel che nelli tempi notturni salta ignudo del letto a contemplare la qualità d’essa aria nubilosa o serena, che immediate, scacciato dal freddo di quella, ritorna nel letto, donde prima si tolse; ma fa l’opere tue simili a quell’aria, che ne’ tempi caldi tira gli uomini de li lor letti, e gli ritiene con dilettazione a possedere lo estivo fresco.40
In the artist’s views, no other form of art could ever compete with Painting’s ability to create narratives able to capture—and keep alive—the viewer’s attention in such a prolonged manner. Thanks to the tangibility of painted forms, the domain of pittura
may attain a degree of immediacy comparable only to that achieved by reality itself, thus attracting the eyes of their audiences and, at the same time, stimulating the devotional fervor of the believers, as the Virgin of the Rocks
might have surely done while it was displayed in the Confraternity’s chapel in Milan. As Claire Farago has suggestively described, “[i]n its setting in the chapel at San Francesco Grande, as part of an enormous gilded ancona of carved and painted elements lit by lamps and candles, the dramatic scene with its overpowering display of artistry constructed on the scientific principles of optical theory must have produced wonder and awe in its beholders”.41
The depiction of religious images is a genre particularly relevant to understand the impact of Leonardo’s art theory and its profound correlation with the artist’s working methods, for it requires the ability to elaborate a work that must provoke an immediate feeling of empathy on its beholder throughout the devotional process.42
To this end, Leonardo emphasizes how important it is to pay attention to the arrangement of the various elements within a compositions in order to move the eyes—and perceptually guide the mind—of the spectator across the pictorial surface. Visual components such as gestures, attitudes, and all sorts of naturalistically rendered forms must be carefully inserted by the artist in order to orient the process of contemplation of the painting, particularly in the case of religious images.43
Compared to the remarkable sense of presence encompassed by Painting, Poetry will appear quite limited in its means of expression (that is, oral speeches or written words), which inevitably requires the participation of an intermediary, otherwise, the sentences created by an author cannot be professed, heard, or read.44
Music, on the other hand, may certainly stimulate emotional responses in its audiences and help to create a particular psychological connection between work and public, but it cannot narrate any specific stories or clearly describe any particular episodes, scenes, and events in an immediately understandable way. It may only suggest vague associations and emotion-based reactions.45
Finally, Sculpture undeniably possesses a concrete, tangible reality, given its physical three-dimensionality. However, it cannot achieve a compelling mimetic depiction of every natural form, for it cannot represent transparent or ever-changing elements, such as evanescent lights and shape-shifting phenomena like clouds in motion, running waters, or stormy winds.46
In conclusion, Leonardo asserts Painting’s superiority and, accordingly, commends the supremacy of the painter for “setting before” the viewer forms and stories with the same immediacy and tangibility of nature: “il quale te ‘l pone inanti con quella verità ch’è possible in natura
Painting can simulate all sorts of natural phenomena, thus confirming itself as “vera imitatrice delle naturali figure de tutte le cose
Poetry can never achieve such a degree of universality and tangibility for it requires the constant presence of “interpreti de le diverse lingue
in order to be read, heard, and understood. Poetry is, therefore, an art of mediation. Music, on the other hand, is an art of limited, yet powerful, temporal development and emotional impact but cannot tell stories. Finally, Sculpture is an art of undeniable materiality and immediacy, but it cannot represent everything that pertains to the visible world.
Unlike any of her sisters, Painting does not need intermediation to attract the viewers’ attention or to move their hearts, given its capacity to render every natural form thanks to the interaction of rilievo, ombre e lumi, chiaroscuro, and affetti. More importantly, Painting can create images able to preserve the appearances of any beings, stories, and phenomena far beyond the limits of their time-based lives or duration. This conclusive remark leads us to consider another essential aspect of Leonardo’s notes on Paragone, which will be discussed next.
3.3. The Multiple Temporalities of Pictorial Images
The sense of presence achieved by Painting is directly associated with another defining feature of this creative ambit, namely, its capacity to explore multiple temporalities and keep the viewer engaged in different kinds of interactions: optical, psychological, or narrative-related. The ways in which time is interwoven within the pictorial fabric seems to have a close relation with the very process of seeing as it is individually experienced by the beholder. According to Leonardo, Painting possesses, in fact, a communicative and emotional immediacy that no other form of art could ever compete with. In a very eloquent sentence, the Renaissance master asserts that painting “ti pone inanzi” every element it represents. In other words, pictorial images set any kind of forms right before one’s eyes as if they were real things or actual beings, provoking on the spectator the impression that reality itself is unfolding across the fictional space of Painting. The act of seeing becomes an example of—and no longer a substitute for—empirical experience.
For that reason, Leonardo advises painters to carefully plan their spatial features and choose different narrative strategies—creating, for instance, perspective-built stages or atmospherically rendered landscapes—in order to guide the temporally developed act of observation that will be later performed by the spectator. By expanding, suspending, provoking an acceleration or, on the contrary, inserting unexpected interruptions within the visual flow of a representation, painters may orient the viewer’s actual experience of seeing, so that the very act of contemplation becomes similar to—and, sometimes, even more powerful than—the involvement that a beholder could have or feel in real life. To put it another way, Painting entails the elaboration of optical illusions that reach such a level of verisimilitude to become able to manipulate different kinds of temporalities associated with the perception of a pictorial composition. Along with the time embedded by every element present in a work, it is important to also consider the variable amount of time employed by the spectator during the observation of a painting. Creation and perception, production and reception are examined by Leonardo as profoundly interconnected processes that every well-trained artist should take in account while preparing their fictional, yet immediate, tangible, and powerful visual discourses.
In the case of the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo adopts a compositional model and a narrative mode of development that clearly guides the actual process of observation of the image. The variety of poses and the touching naturalness of each character; the eloquent, yet somehow enigmatic network of gestures that unite all figures as if they were—and in fact they are—part of a larger narrative; the blazing gaze of the archangel and the mute dialogue between the infants; the meticulously painted fabrics and their nearly choreographic folds that visually increase the three-dimensional appearance of the image; the unexpected setting of the scene, located amidst powerful rocky formations; the breathing quality of the air and the atmospheric landscape in the background, filled with fading mountains, vanishing clouds, and suggestive aquatic elements; finally, the complex articulation of a symbolic space in which the artist combines familiar iconographies with sophisticated theological and devotional implications: all those components, set together, surely attract the attention of the viewer and imperceptibly guides their eyes across the painted surface, provoking rapid glances as well as meditative pauses. Without asserting that the dynamics of perception involved in the observation of this painting are rigidly conditioned by Leonardo’s compositional strategies, it is reasonable to suggest, however, that the visual components listed above—masterfully arranged by the artist across the pictorial plan—builds up an implied guideline that anticipates and, therefore, helps to organize the actual process of looking at the image, inviting the beholder to search for connections or, on the contrary, acknowledge pauses and disruptions.
To that end, Leonardo plays with the iconic—and temporal—power of two components that may appear at first in striking contrast: rilievo
guarantees a solid appearance of volume to all forms represented in the painting, sfumato
blurs any rigid contours and blends all elements within the composition in a smooth, nuanced, osmotic manner, thus increasing the illusion of an unified space by applying what Leonardo has described as “la grazzia d’ombra
,” that is, the grace of shadows. Through sfumato
, the sharp edges attained by means of rilievo
will subtly transition one into the other.51
Such a process of fusion of all elements in the painting will be further enhanced by the tangible representation of the air that informs the scene, which constitutes one of the defining features of Painting in comparison to the other arts.52
While the concept of rilievo
refers to the tangible physicality and the material stability of every form represented in the painting, the working procedure known as sfumato
indicates all technical and stylistic means employed by the artist to suggest motion, dynamism, and atmospheric values, thanks to a well-balanced use of shadows and lights. If rilievo
emphasizes the solidity of shapes, sfumato
increases the living appearance of the entire work. Thus combined, rilievo
enrich immeasurably the degree of verisimilitude of the scene, stimulating a process of observation that will be significantly similar, in Leonardo’s opinion, to the kind of first-hand experience that a viewer could have had while facing actual natural phenomena.
Moreover, the fusion of solid forms caused by the creation of these vague, enveloping atmospheric effects further contribute to alter the temporal experience of the image, since the viewer will be captured by this intriguing openness and indetermination of forms: due to the different degrees of definition of each element depicted in the work, with their contours variably blurred or sharply defined, the spectator will need to constantly readapt their focus of attention from meticulously rendered details to vaguely outlined shapes. Such an unpredictable variation of the modelling procedures used by the artist will have a significant impact on the process of observation of the painting and influence its temporal development as well, for it will incite the spectator to focus on individual, well-recognizable details—such as gestures, poses, and facial expressions—while experiencing, at the same time, the atmospheric, palpably naturalistic, and yet metaphysically suspended tone of the scene. No other art, aside from Painting, could render those atmospheric effects in such a perfect manner.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, if one of the most striking features used by Leonardo in the Virgin of the Rocks
—that is, the hypnotic gaze of the archangel—may be considered a visual as well as a symbolic gateway to access the entire composition. Attracted by this straightforward call, the spectators will follow the archangel’s gesture while moving their eyes across the pictorial surface in the attempt to make sense out of the visual data they are collecting throughout the process of observation. It is useful to recall, however, that the idea of introducing a character staring directly at the viewer had been already examined—from a theoretical perspective—by Leon Battista Alberti in the pages of De Pictura
in which the author had listed the advantages of inserting the so-called risguardatore
(also spelled riguardatore
) within a scene: a character powerfully embodied by the figure that has been identified as the archangel Gabriel in Leonardo’s panel, depicted with a vector-sounding gaze directed towards the beholder in the clear intent of establishing a mute, yet intense, connection with the audience.54
From a symbolic standpoint, this gaze may be considered a very promising starting point from which one could begin to explore the complex pictorial narrative, for it invites the viewers to move their eyes towards the opposite side of the panel, in the direction of St John the Baptist. While one cannot predict, with certainty, the various steps that may occur during the process of observation of an image, it is possible to argue, however, that the imposing, somehow inescapable gesture of the archangel echoes the eloquence of its gaze: together, gaze and gesture perform the functions of two mutually-supportive vectors that lead the spectator in the unfolding of the symbolic discourse conveyed by the painting. Those elements stimulate a more active participation of the beholder, who seems to be invited to follow the implied narratives enclosed in the image. The multilayered temporalities associated with this well-orchestrated pictorial composition increase the agency of the viewers, allocating them in the position of active observers.
One may not neglect, on the other hand, that Leonardo has extensively reflected upon these different kinds of perceptive matters in relation to compositional procedures and has described, in various notes, potential ways in which the spectator’s eyes might be effectively guided by the elements represented in a painting. In a passage of the Libro di pittura
, for instance, Leonardo criticizes certain methods of composition diffused among fifteenth-century painters and provides concrete suggestions as to how improve their pointlessly dispersive ways of organizing the narrative space, lamenting, in particular, the fact that those artists used to represent “una storia in un piano col suo paese ed edifice, poi s’alzano un altro grado e fanno una storia, e variano il punto dal primo, e poi la terza e la quarta, in modo che una facciata si vede fatta con quattro punti
In other words, those painters had created spaces that were not accurately ruled by the laws of a mathematically-calculated perspective, nor did they consider the actual position of the beholder while preparing their compositions. For this reason, Leonardo asserts that a knowledgeable painter must “porre il primo piano col punto a l’altezza de l’occhio de’ risguardatori d’essa storia, e in sul detto piano figura la prima storia grande; e poi diminuendo di mano in mano le figure e casamenti, in su diversi colli e pianure, farai tutto il fornimento d’essa storia
As this remark clearly stresses, Leonardo has devoted particular attention to examining the potential connections between pictorial elements and visual experiences, suggesting the idea that there might be some kind of connection between the way in which forms are painted and placed within a certain composition and the ways in which paintings might be perceived during the actual process of observation.
When looking at the mountains depicted in the background of the Virgin of the Rocks
, for example, the spectator can enjoy the view of their vanishing shapes again and again, endlessly observing the dynamics of the process of natural transformations of the various elements tangibly represented in the panel, from the movement of the clouds to the haziness caused by the rising fog in the upper side of the composition. The transient nature of these phenomena can acquire, in the painting, an ever-lasting configuration. The cyclical dynamics of natural processes are thus captured and convincingly evoked by Leonardo in an image that gives the beholder the opportunity to observe their endless transformations in a more reflective and gradual pace. Such a temporal dilation allows the painter to represent—by means of stable yet fluid forms—natural phenomena as well as metaphysical events that, otherwise, would have vanished or dematerialized themselves in a second. As we will examine shortly, the painting provides what could be called an “iconic stability” to those ephemeral, shape-shifting phenomena and may also represent past events as though they were still present. In this path of pictorial stability and temporal dilation, it is particularly important to learn, according to Leonardo, how to properly render all sorts of atmospheric effects and weather conditions by means of sfumato
, without ever losing the solid materiality of rilievo
In line with these comments, there is another significant time-related component of Painting examined by Leonardo in his notes that is also noticeable in the making of the Virgin of the Rocks
: I am referring to the phenomenon known as “reification” or, to use Leonardo’s lexicon, the “macchia
” effect. Reification describes a psychological process through which a viewer may perceive the emergence of figures, forms, or patterns coming out of an amorphous shape, thus seeing well-defined figures amidst irregular, or chaotic, elements.58
Good examples of this phenomenon include the emergence of figures that one may notice within the clouds and the perception of forms in the visual test called “Rorschach”. Leonardo has touched upon this psychological process, emphasizing its incomparable validity as a stimulus for artistic inventions, outlining what could be referred to as his “theory of macchia
” or “stain-method”:
Non resterò di mettere infra questi precetti una nuova invenzione di speculazione, la quale, benché paia piccola e quasi degna di riso, nondimeno è di grande utilità nel destare lo ingegno a varie invenzioni. E quest’è se tu riguarderai in alcuni muri imbrattati di varie macchie o pietre di varii misti. Se arai a invenzionare qualche sito, potrai lì vedere similitudini de diversi paesi, ornati di montagne, fiumi, sassi, alberi, pianure grande, valli e colli in diversi modi; ancora vi potrai vedere diverse battaglie et atti pronti di figure, strane arie di volti e abiti et infinite cose, le quali tu potrai ridurre in integra e bona forma.59
Thanks to this reifying experience, spectators will not so much look at a painting as they will look through it, actively contributing, in this way, to the making of the image as a meaningful opportunity to feel and reflect upon phenomena—as well as spiritual messages—that could otherwise escape them. The pictorial panel captures the beholders’ attention and, simultaneously, stimulates their senses and intellectual faculties.
With regard to the symbolic meanings conveyed by the Virgin of the Rocks
, it is worth noting that the amount of time that a spectator might potentially spend in the recognition of the various figures represented in the panel, in order to identify their religious roles, largely depends on the strategic way in which their poses, attitudes, and attributes are displayed. While one can immediately acknowledges the presence of the Virgin, for example, due to her well-established iconography, a different kind of attention will be required to identify the angelic figure as well as to correctly distinguish – between the two infants – who is (the blessing) Christ and (the praying) St John the Baptist. Interestingly, Leonardo has depicted the infants in a rather resembling manner, almost as though they could be exchanged one with the other, at least in a first moment. Once the beholders realize, however, which devotional contents are displayed in the scene—and the particular evangelical message associated with ideas professed by Blessed Amadeus—they will be able to correctly name these central characters, on the basis of iconographic codes and theological principles.60
The observation of the panel will thus require forms of attention and, accordingly, the unfolding of multiple temporalities, which will accompany—and somehow guide—the sensorial, emotional as well as religious experience of the scene.
It is important to clarify, however, that Leonardo’s remarks on macchie and other similarly metamorphic elements such as clouds—indicated above as his “stain-method”—refer to concrete, material, optically-conducted exercises based on the experience of the viewer during the observation of those potentially amorphous forms and figures, while the identification of the characters within a religious painting such as the Virgin of the Rocks depends primarily on well-established iconographic factors and stimulates, first and foremost, a symbolic level of interaction with the beholder. Nevertheless, it appears very significant in Leonardo’s mimetic pursuits that the artist has adopted optical (material) principles in order to make more believable the sacred (immaterial) aura that characterizes the protagonists of the panel. In other words, it is possible to connect, from a critical perspective, Leonardo’s enduring interest for perceptual issues and optical effects with his systematic attention towards visual persuasion and narrative unfolding in painting, in general, and in religious representations in particular. To that end, the master explores the different, yet possibly connectable, temporalities of seeing and recognizing, perceiving and evoking. In the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo demonstrates in fact how important it is to play with the different temporalities condensed in, or provoked by, a painting. In addition to these time-related aspects of narrative identification and sensorial perception, which ultimately lead the viewer to the construction of the symbolic meanings of the painting, there is also another temporal dimension associated with the devotional function of this work that must be examined: that is to say, its ability to suggest a tangible and immediate connection between material and spiritual worlds and establish a subtle continuity between the visual experience of the viewer and the visionary dimension of the scene. The categories of past and present not only refer to different temporalities but also entail different kinds of experiences: in this painting, Leonardo transforms the mystic revelations of an individual (Blessed Amadeus) into a visual experience that could be shared and reenacted by many (spectators) thanks to the exquisite degree of verisimilitude displayed in the image. Past events become present visualizations, almost as though they could cancel the very distance between memory and perception, recollection and experience.
This explains why Leonardo emphasizes so much the role of Painting as a Custodian of Memory. Painting may in fact preserve the physiognomy of a person as well as capture forever the most distinctive moment of an event, extending the duration of a particular subject and, consequently, contributing to its conservation over time like an archive-based form of knowledge. Unlike Music,61
which ceases to create its melodies and sounds as soon as voices or instruments are put to a halt, and unlike Poetry,62
which requires being continually activated by a reader, a listener, and a speaker in order to convey its contents through word- or sound-based signs, Painting, on the contrary, is a fully autonomous and self-contained universe of fictional expression.63
Due to its multifaceted treatment of temporal components, Painting can immeasurably expand the duration of events, phenomena, and beings thanks to its unique means of representation, thus ensuring the maintenance of their appearances, values, and messages, long after those same events, phenomena, and beings have ceased to exist. Leonardo emphasizes this point in a lapidary note, in which he praises Painting above any other kind of art: “O maravigliosa scienzia, tu riservi in vita le caduche bellezze de’ mortali
In relation to the conservative value of Painting, it could be argued that Sculpture, too, could provide durable monuments and other long-lasting images, thanks to the use of particularly resilient materials, such as bronze, marble, and silver. For this very reason, however, Leonardo commends the intellectual supremacy of Painting over any form of temporality that might depend exclusively on external factors, such as the physical durability of the materials applied by sculptors. While the duration of a carved image, for example, depends primarily on the resistance of the material used by the sculptor, the time embodied by a painting, on the opposite, depends on the specific means of representation employed by the artist. In other words, the multiple temporalities vehiculated by Painting are related to its morphological ductility, stylistic inventiveness, and technical expertise, and not just subordinated to the very materials used by a master. “Dirà lo scultore far opera più etterne che ‘l pittore
,” Leonardo interjects, “qui si risponde esser virtù della materia sculta e non dello scultore, che la sculpisce; e se ‘l pittore dipinge in terra cotta con vetri, essa sarà più etterna che la scultura
In conclusion, Painting is superior to Sculpture even in the creation of memorials and monuments.
As we have discussed so far, Painting offers a long-lasting depiction of beings, events, and phenomena, which does not end, such as in Music, once the score has stopped being performed. By providing more durable results than any song could ever accomplish, Painting plays with both immediacy and duration, thus overcoming the temporal limitations of musical compositions. As a matter of fact, immediacy is a central concept in Leonardo’s definition of Painting as an ambit of verisimilar fiction, which distinguishes it also from the creations of Poetry. As the Renaissance master vehemently points out, the amount of time required to a poet to properly describe a scene or to a reader to read it is drastically different—in its linear progression—from the simultaneity attained by a painting depicting the same scene.66
The sequential nature of a literary narrative as well as the mediated duration of a musical score cannot compete, therefore, with the striking simultaneity and long-lasting results achieved by a pictorial representation.
Hic et nunc, Painting makes every form look as if they were present, tangible, and frozen in time, without jeopardizing their living and dynamic appearances. Among all of the arts, the only field of expression that could somehow compete with Painting in this particular regard—that is, the preservation of illustrious identities or significant events through the creation of portraits, monuments, and memorials—is Sculpture, due to its resilient and durable materials. However, as it has been already explained, Sculpture cannot fully embody the remarkable variety of natural phenomena—and depict, for example, thundering weathers or stormy skies—as Leonardo has argued. This last comment leads us to consider another important aspect of Leonardo’s comments on the theme of Paragone.
3.4. The Incomparable Value of Variety
According to the Renaissance master, the wide range of natural forms can be represented only by Painting, thanks to the unique degree of naturalness, tangibility, and immediacy it may attain. More than any other field of representation, Painting can render all sorts of visual shapes, even beyond the strict realm of natural elements that may occur within the boundaries of the phenomenological world. To put it differently, Painting can also provide convincing visual shapes to abstract ideas. On the one hand, it can represent forms directly borrowed from nature (such as mountains, foggy landscapes, or human beings) and, on the other, it can equally well represent forms inspired by one’s imagination or collective memory (as in the case of mythological figures and religious scenes). It should come, therefore, as no surprise if Leonardo devotes many notes on the “universality” of Painting and claims that a painter should be praised first and foremost for being “universale
Thanks to the (theoretically unlimited) variety of subjects that Painting could embrace, Leonardo asserts that the experience one could reach through the observation of a pictorial image could be even more powerful than the knowledge one could get out of philosophical disquisitions.68
Coherently, Painting is presented as the optimal medium with which one could successfully emulate all sorts of visual manifestations and, for that very reason, it must be proclaimed superior to any other kind of art or reasoning, for it does not simply incorporate materials received from first-hand experiences, but reenacts them right in front of the viewer, without ever losing the freshness or the spontaneity of their original manifestation.69
Ultimately, the degree of bellezza
achieved by a painting will be proportionally related to its capacity of rendering the immediacy of the actual esperienzia
of any phenomena. It is correct to conclude, therefore, that the main aspiration of Painting is to become a “world-sized mirror” and appear as natural-looking as nature itself so that “la tua pittura parrà ancora lei una cosa naturale vista in un grande specchio
While Painting aims to become universal and represent the entire spectrum of visual phenomena, Sculpture, on the contrary, tends to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the depiction of human bodies, and it is seldom devoted to the representation of any other aspects involved in a narrative, such as settings, landscapes, clothing, or weather conditions as one could see in certain bas-reliefs created by masters of the caliber of Ghiberti and Donatello.71
Contrarily to the mimetic limits of Sculpture, Painting can depict literally everything that pertains to the domain of visual perception, including effects of transparency as well as shapeless or shape-shifting elements, such as thunders, clouds, water, and air.
The variety of forms that Painting can emulate—through rilievo
, ombre e luci
, and affetti
—is indeed astonishing, for it encompasses not just the natural world but the entire realm of visuality. Thanks to the palpable naturalness that only pictorial representations can achieve, even when the artist is providing convincing forms to beings, things, or phenomena that cannot be found in nature, Painting is commended by Leonardo as a mirror-like double of the phenomenological reality, in general, and the visual phenomenology, in particular: Painting is the living mirror through which viewers can enhance their own experiences of reality.72
This statement leads us to consider another important side of the Paragone debate, which confirms once again, according to Leonardo, the superiority of Painting over all other arts: along with its incomparable mimetic possibilities, Painting has the unparalleled capacity of reinterpreting, reconfiguring, and even reinventing models borrowed from or inspired by nature, thus giving concrete, life-like appearances to all sorts of fictional as well as imaginary figures and spiritual entities. In a nutshell, Painting renders visible even what is intangible, offering plausible forms to imaginary or metaphysical beings as Leonardo paradigmatically demonstrates in the Virgin of the Rocks. To that end, it is essential for a painter to be able to make up forms that might have never existed or seen before, which leads us to investigate the next distinctive feature of Painting: its ceaseless inventiveness.
3.5. The Infinite Inventiveness of Painting
The concept of naturalism that emerges from Leonardo’s art theory is far from being limited to the emulation of physical, phenomenological appearances and seems to entail de facto a continuous process of invention based on previous, empirically conducted observations, so that a master can always produce new forms, verisimilar figures, and appropriate settings. The highest goal that an artist could possibly aim to reach is to create an all-encompassing example of verisimilitude beyond the mirror-like replica of the natural world. As a “mental discourse,” Painting can go beyond the variety of elements, entities, and shapes that one may find in nature and explore an infinity of other possible worlds, creating, for instance, grotesque heads and goliardic monsters or, on a different range of topics, compelling celestial figures and relatable religious characters. Thanks to the “naturalness” of these “invented” forms, Painting reaches a new level of immediacy, relatability, and persuasion—exemplary demonstrated in the depiction of sacred scenes—as no other art could possibly compare with. In the Virgin of the Rocks, in fact, Leonardo displays before the eyes of his spectators a scene that could not have been seen or experienced in any other way, given its miraculous status and visionary origins. The painting makes it possible for the beholder to contemplate—and have the visual equivalent of a first-hand experience of—an unrepeatable, yet constantly reenacted, event. Paintings such as the Virgin of the Rocks may show, therefore, what cannot be otherwise represented or experienced. They visualize the invisible, touch the untouchable, and speak the unspoken as well as the unspeakable,
Through a highly calculated interplay of mimesis, selection, and reinvention of natural models, a painter can modify or rearrange any forms previously observed in life for the sake of a particular purpose, such as the evocation of a prayer or the depiction of a miraculous event. Not only does Painting provide believable visual expressions to beings or things that may not even exist—or manifest themselves—in nature, but it also gives natural-looking shapes to metaphysical manifestations, such as the scene evoked in the Virgin of the Rocks.
The essential point for a painter is to maintain a compelling level of verisimilitude in the depiction of no matter what forms or elements. Inventiveness must be measured, therefore, in relation to the degree of verisimilitude and relatability reached by a painting. Such a fundamental balance between naturalism and invention is well summarized by Leonardo in a very eloquent sentence, in which he urges the artist to “fare di fantasia appresso alli effetti di natura
In a painting, everything must appear not only tangible but alive—from lightening thunders to monstrous faces, falling waterfalls to enigmatic gazes—in a perfect amalgamation of fantasy and naturalism. The paradigm of verisimilitude will ultimately dictate the boundaries of a successful visual representation, which must be born out of “esperienzia, madre d’ogni certezza
To confirm this remark, it suffices to recall a note by Leonardo, in which the superiority of eye-witnessed experiences is proclaimed over any process of imagination:
Non vede la immaginazione cotal eccellenzia qual vede l’occhio, perché l’occhio riceve le specie, overo similitudini de li obbietti, e dalli alla impressive, e da essa impressive al senso commune, e lì è giudicata. Ma la immaginazione non esce fuori d’esso senso commune, se non in quanto essa va alla memoria, e lì si ferma e lì muore, se la cosa immaginata non è de molta eccellenzia.75
In other words, the experience achieved through the eyes is considered superior by Leonardo because it expands the mental boundaries of the viewer, connecting the mental processes of an individual to all sorts of external phenomena displayed in nature. This kind of eye-based experience—embodied by Painting—dilates the human faculties of apprehension and perception. On the other hand, Leonardo also claims that, however brilliant an imagine created by the imagination of an artist might be, it will always be the result of a circumscribed and somehow circular mode of knowledge, since it takes place exclusively within the boundaries of one’s own mind, with no expansion of one’s mental faculties or perceptual habits. While images created on the basis of a direct esperienzia
of reality will trigger a process of interpretation and analysis, paintings executed solely on the basis of one’s imagination may become self-referential and potentially repetitive since they do not interact with the whole variety of natural forms.76
In conclusion, Painting provides a mirroring visual translation of first-hand experiences, so it can rescue its audiences from the darkness of an “occhio tenebroso
,” that is to say, an eye that has not been properly exposed to the observation of natural phenomena.77
One may then plausibly infer that, in Leonardo’s views, Painting brings to the table further clarification, enlightenment, improvement: in other words, it transforms the “tenebrous eyes” into a “luminescent agent”. Moreover, Painting does not invent out of nothing: it further enlightens aspects of the phenomenological reality and, while doing so, it increases the level of the audience’s understanding as well as its capacity of imagination. Consequently, the most effective examples of inventiveness in art are those in which forms of nature are captured in their inner dynamism, in their internal processes, without altering, however, their external appearances. As the most praiseworthy field of art, Painting truly reaches its highest heights and offer its most compelling results when it represents, in a persuasive, verisimilar manner, the inner processes that lead to the formation of the outward appearances of natural phenomena.
The ultimate perfection of a pictorial representation—as an art capable of attaining infinite inventions—may be then measured on the basis of the impact that it might have on the spectator and the degree with which it will stimulate their agency and imagination. Interestingly, Leonardo seems to reverse the factors usually mentioned in the comparison between art and nature, imagination and naturalism, asserting that, paradoxically as it may sound, the more naturalistic an image will appear, the more it will increase the level of participation, emotional involvement, and mental engagement of the viewers, thus dilating their imagination in unprecedented ways. On the other hand, the unbridled liberty of an artist could lead to the creation of implausible forms, which would lead, in turn, to the potential disintegration of Painting as a form of knowledge, for such an unrestrained approach would inevitably alter one of the basic principles of Painting as a mode of inquiry: for Leonardo, the imitation of nature achieved by a pictorial representation on the basis of empirical experiences is done with the intent of better understanding and endlessly perpetuating the relevance of those very experiences.
In this regard, Leonardo’s “stain method” or theory of macchia
—which triggers, as we have seen, a psychological process known as “reification”—shifts the location of imagination as a distinctive factor of the artistic domain, setting it, primarily, on the mind of the viewer.78
The concepts of “inventiveness” and “ingenuity” will characterize the master who is able to provoke such a reifying perception on the beholder. Neither Poetry nor Music and not even Sculpture can seriously compete with the all-encompassing universality of Painting and its unstoppable—yet nature-measured—inventiveness.
In the case of the Virgin of the Rocks, spectators will recognize a wide range of natural forms depicted in the panel: solid mountains, ethereal clouds, atmospheric setting. At the same time, they will acknowledge the tangible presence of characters that require a religious background to be identified: Mary, the archangel, and the two infants, Jesus and St John the Baptist. However familiar and promptly recognizable these figures might appear, there is a high chance that the viewers may not immediately follow the overall narrative upon which the scene is orchestrated and grasp even less the symbolic implications of such a metaphysical encounter.
Moreover, the highly expressive use of particular gestures, specific poses, and powerful gazes clearly seem to imply the existence of a—tangible, yet mysterious—network of physical, and accordingly symbolic, connections among those characters and their peculiar location. By looking through
the image and connecting its various elements among themselves, the beholder may realize that the yellow fabric that covers the area corresponding to the womb of Mary is depicted in a strikingly bright, luminous, almost reverberating fashion. Could it carry an allusion to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin? Why does the archangel point towards the kneeling figure of St John, who is represented in a position undeniably higher than the one occupied by Christ, who appears sitting in the foreground? Could one infer any implications out of these elements and their extremely natural-looking arrangement within the composition? At which point does the process of seeing become an experience of looking through
the forms in the attempt to understand the implied narratives and the unfolding stories associated with the painting? Could any other form of art render such a scene with similar immediacy and tangibility, while evoking symbolic allusions and multiple theological implications? The naturalness of the painting, in which a variety of elements are represented, plays with the different temporalities embedded in the pictorial surface and attracts the viewers’ attention and emotional responses, while simultaneously inciting their imagination.79
According to Leonardo, Painting possesses, in fact, the incomparable ability to render all forms of nature and provide the necessary means for the viewer to re-experience them again and again. Even more importantly, Painting has the capacity to continually stimulate the agency of the beholders and, thanks to this active process of engaged observation, it will enhance the viewers’ faculty of imagination: while looking at a painting, the spectators might feel compelled to look through the forms represented in the pictorial surface, noticing new shapes, discovering unexplored relations, mapping out new territories of esperienza. This process leads us to examine, in the conclusive part of this essay, two intertwined aspects of Painting that definitely confirm its supremacy in Leonardo’s art theory.
3.6. The Simultaneous Quest for Iconic Stability and Semiotic Openness
In his reflections on the theme of Paragone
, Leonardo adopts a system of binary categories and tries to find a balance between them. While clearly fictional and man-made, Painting aims to provide, nevertheless, images that could suggest reality and emulate the never-ending dynamism of nature.80
By tangibly depicting all sorts of visual phenomena, Painting aspires to open up further layers of realities and explore new directions of sensorial experiences, in which the viewer’s participation is an essential factor. The naturalistic agenda of Painting is directly associated, therefore, with the levels of agency displayed by the beholder. Thanks to the distinctive set of practical tools, theoretical principles, and working procedures that characterizes Painting as a field of visual elaboration—employing means such as rilievo
, along with the calculated contrast between ombre e luci
and the use of empathy-inspiring affetti
—it can create infinite forms and multiple narratives through which the members of the audiences could be exposed to the astounding variety of nature or dive into the endless inventiveness of imagination. Unlike any other science or art, Painting can offer an unparalleled experience to the viewer by putting together naturalism and fantasy and thus propitiating a more articulated and self-conscious way of experiencing reality, thanks also to the multi-layered temporalities involved in the production as well as in the reception of any pictorial discourse. In that regard, Painting emerges as a self-contained universe in Leonardo’s art theory, reflecting both the forces of nature as well as the power of human’s mind.
For this reason, Leonardo stresses the fact that Painting carries all its distinctive elements—namely, rilievo
, perspective, ombre e luci
, and many others—within the internal boundaries of the pictorial representation itself.81
In order to create the illusion of three-dimensionality by means of rilievo
, for example, Painting must explicitly carry those elements within its very surface, without having the possibility of counting on any external help, such as actual sources of light like candles and lamps. To effectively represent a particular form, Painting must display, within itself, every element involved in the making of a visual representation: shading, modeling, poses, affetti, perspective-based settings or atmospheric landscapes, and many more. In other words, Painting must display what could be called an “iconic stability” in order to successfully achieve its illusionistic goals. Sculpture, on the contrary, is not characterized by such a self-contained universe of morphological stability since the actual appearance of its shapes will largely depend on the variable impact of external factors, such as sources of light and points of view. Depending on the interaction of all those external elements, the actual forms of a sculpture may change quite drastically. To confirm this point, it suffices to mention the examples created by Donatello’s stiacciato
, whose bas-relief shapes vary continually in accordance with the intensity, direction, and typology of the light sources that are materially striking the surface of the work. For this reason, Leonardo argues that the shape of a sculpture is never completely stable and compact within the physical boundaries of the sculpture itself but depends on external conditions.82
Painting, on the opposite, contains its inalterable forms within its own pictorial borders: only the viewers, with their imagination and through the process of reification, may expand the iconic stability of a painted image.83
However, even in those cases, spectators must undertake such processes by following the prescriptions or the visual clues represented within the painting itself. Should a beholder claim to be seeing faces in a cloud, or a mystical lightening in a rock, he, she, or they would be just continuing to play the very “reifying game” that Leonardo has written so eloquently about. Painting incites further explorations, but those explorations take place, significantly, in the minds of the viewers, without altering the actual forms present in a painting. One might see beyond the images created by a painter, but the iconic stability of the pictorial discourse is never truly compromised. To put it in theoretical terms, one could claim that the balance between rilievo
(which contributes to enhance the solidity of a volume) and sfumato
(which, on the contrary, emphasizes the blending smoothness of forms) culminates in a visual paradox: Painting should guarantee, on the one hand, the “iconic stability” of a representation, while allowing, on the other, a “semiotic openness” of its various shapes, so that viewers may not just recognize a mountain, a saint, or a sacred conversation but simultaneously push forward the (potentially endless) process of reification and symbolic construction inaugurated by the painting itself. While the concept of rilievo
stresses the iconic stability of the elements depicted in an image, emphasizing how important it is, in a painting, to achieve the optical (mis)perception of volume, notions such as sfumato
, and ombre e luci
indicate the equally necessary openness of those same forms, in a process that will take place, however, in the eyes and in the minds of the beholders.
To conclude: unlike Poetry, which is based on a culturally-variable systems of signs—the language of words and sounds—which requires a continuous process of translation in order to be understood across different audiences, Painting possesses a universal language—that is, the immediacy of nature itself—that does not need to be encoded before being perceived or understood by any community. In the case of Sculpture, it is possible to mention cases of “semiotic openness,” such as the already mentioned example of Donatello’s stiacciato. However, the potential ambiguity of forms in those cases is not incorporated within the representation itself, but depends on the actual intervention of external factors, such as the variation of source lights. Therefore, while Leonardo certainly commends these features in a sculpture, he clearly differentiates them from the “semiotic openness” that characterizes Painting, since they are not associated with the “iconic stability” of the sculpted image. In a sculpture the semiotic openness is reached in detriment of the iconic stability of the representation, while in a painting, the semiotic openness is always achieved without altering the iconic stability of the image.
For its unparalleled capacity of rendering the sensorial presence of images as if they were actual things; for its unreachable ability to depict multiple time-based experiences; for the incomparable variety of its subjects; for the infinite inventiveness it stimulates on the viewers; and, finally, for its unique ways of providing stable forms, while suggesting, at the same time, the emergence of countless shapes and stories in the mind of the beholders, Painting is—indisputably according to Leonardo—the most effective, perfect, and complete of all arts. The Virgin of the Rocks
offers an excellent case study to analyze Leonardo’s reflections on the theme of Paragone
. By putting together divina bellezza
and natural essempio,
this painting provides tangible forms to spiritual entities, thus confirming the precept according to which Painting may give concrete shapes to any iddea
In line with such a stunning capacity to emulate all cose corporee
, Painting may also capture the ethereal manifestations of all sorts of cose invisibili
, which further validates its supremacy in Leonardo’s art theory. Leonardo’s explorations on the theme of Paragone
leads to the conviction that Painting is the most stimulating form of visual-based scienzia
for it generously offers to its spectators endless opportunities to undertake new esperienzie
. Paraphrasing Martin Heidegger, one could assert that, for Leonardo da Vinci, Painting is indeed the house of experience.