Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leonardo never stops fascinating us

I shall never forget my first vision of the valley of the Bourne, on a sunny Saturday morning in August 1993. Residing in the monastic village of St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, I had driven down into Grenoble and then up onto the Vercors plateau through St-Nizier-du-Moucherotte, the ski-jump site for the 1968 Winter Olympics. The old ramp, no longer in use, still exists alongside the stone needles of the Trois Pucelles [Three Virgins], whose  towering silhouettes are familiar to the citizens of Grenoble.

The drive across the Vercors plateau, alongside the communes of Lans-en-Vercors and Villard-de-Lans, takes no more than 20 minutes. These delightful communes are often designated as "blue/green" by tourist people, because they attract all kinds of snow enthusiasts in the winter season, before becoming a paradise for hikers during the warm months, when the skies of the Vercors are often studded with colorful parachutes.

Driving down through the narrow gorges of the Bourne, on that first day of contact with my future homeland, I was intrigued by the subtle but rapid transition of the landscape from an alpine setting into the essentially Mediterranean environment of the lower valley. In the middle of that wonderful initiatory excursion, I halted, breathless with wonder, at the level of Rencurel, whose aspect reminded me suddenly of the Aosta Valley in Italy (where I had once slid off the road on my aging Lambretta scooter, resulting in a minor foot wound, on the way back from a trip to Greece in 1964). Above me, during those magical moments at Rencurel, no less than a dozen giant birds were circling in a slow visual symphony, devoid of sound. The spectacle of the great birds, gliding slowly and silently above the green slopes, was stunning. I was instantly captivated by the splendor of the Vercors.

I know today (having lived in this marvelous valley for the last two decades) that the birds I observed that day at Rencurel were probably Black Kites [Milvus migrans].

I say "probably" because they might well have been Red Kites [Milvus milvus], which also frequent this Vercors zone (frequent sightings at Choranche), but more rarely.

When I was a kid in my native South Grafton, I could never understand the dumb adult joke (and I still don't) that consisted of telling kids that they could trap birds by putting salt on their tails. Here in the Vercors, experts inform us that the obvious way of distinguishing ordinary Black Kites and the rarer Red Kites is to observe their tails. The tail zone of the Black Kite is rigorously triangular, whereas that of the Red Kite has a slightly concave lower perimeter. I invite you to judge for yourselves, while realizing that these magnificent birds evolve normally a few hundred meters above our heads, where an observer can't simply take out a ruler and evaluate the respective linearity of tail feathers.

Now, let's look at Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings and notes have been assembled into a set of 12 cardboard boxes known as the Codex Atlanticus.

These fragile documents are housed in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, where attempts have been made to halt their yellowing brought about by age and unexpected chemical pollution.

In the Codex, Leonardo reveals a curious personal anecdote:
I recall as one of my very earliest memories that, while I was in my cradle, a kite came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.
This anecdote fascinated an imaginative reader named Sigmund Freud. He was convinced that a little boy who dreams that a big bird has come down and struck its tail against his lips is surely of a homosexual disposition. There was a slight misunderstanding, however, in Freud's discovery of this anecdote. A German translator of Leonardo's Codex had designated the bird, not as a kite, but as a vulture. Consequently, Freud started searching for the theme of vultures in the life of Leonardo. In 1910, Freud even wrote a short study on Leonardo, in which he placed a great emphasis upon the theme of a "vulture" (I'm tempted to use Aussie baby talk, and call it a dicky bird) in Leonardo's childhood memories.

Freud was greatly preoccupied with Leonardo's painting, The Virgin and Child with St Anne, which happens to have been recently restored by the Louvre.

It's a fact that the bodies of Anne (in the background) and her daughter Mary (reaching out rapturously towards the baby Jesus) are so curiously intertwined that they almost form a pair of conjoined twins, and they certainly do not appear to be a generation apart. Freud claimed that the women taking care of Jesus represented Leonardo's "two mothers": that's to say, his biological mother Caterina, in the beginning, and then his stepmother, Donna Albiera. Later, Freud was overjoyed when a scholar, Oskar Pfister, detected in the painting the actual silhouette of a vulture, turned anticlockwise through an angle of 90 degrees. And, amazingly, the giant bird has a corner of its tail entering the child's mouth.

Personally, I read Freud's little book long ago (you can see that I bought it in London for three shillings and six pence), with amusement, and it was my first and last attempt to tackle anything written by the distinguished doctor, who has never been one of my intellectual heroes.

Another painting inspired by Leonardo has been in the news these days: the copy of Mona Lisa from the Prado museum in Madrid.

It has just emerged from a vast restoration process, which removed an ugly 18th-century layer of black paint that hid most of the all-important background features. Various technical details (such as minor corrections carried out by the copyist) strongly suggest that the copyist was actually working alongside Leonardo himself when the authentic Mona Lisa was being painted. Once again, the delicate question of the pros and cons of in-depth "cleaning" of great paintings has been brought into the news... to such an extent that most observers seem to be more interested in restoration techniques than in Freud's "dicky bird" theory.

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