Arts: Leonardo on Painting vs Sculpture and Poetry… and a Famous Myth

Here are two brief statements from Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) about why painting is superior to sculpture and poetry. They make good points.

That Sculpture is Less Intellectual than Painting, and Lacks Many Characteristics of Nature

I myself, having exercised myself no less in sculpture than in painting and doing both one and the other in the same degree, it seems to me that I can, without invidiousness, pronounce an opinion as to which of the two is of the greatest merit and difficulty and perfection. In the first place sculpture requires a certain light, that is from above, a picture carries everywhere with it its own light and shade. Thus sculpture owes its importance to light and shade, and the sculptor is aided in this by the nature, of the relief which is inherent in it, while the painter whose art expresses the accidental aspects of nature, places his effects in the spots where nature must necessarily produce them. The sculptor cannot diversify his work by the various natural colours of objects; painting is not defective in any particular. The sculptor when he uses perspective cannot make it in any way appear true; that of the painter can appear like a hundred miles beyond the picture itself. Their works have no aerial perspective whatever, they cannot represent transparent bodies, they cannot represent luminous bodies, nor reflected lights, nor lustrous bodies—as mirrors and the like polished surfaces, nor mists, nor dark skies, nor an infinite number of things which need not be told for fear of tedium. As regards the power of resisting time, though they have this resistance, a picture painted on thick copper covered with white enamel on which it is painted with enamel colours and then put into the fire again and baked, far exceeds sculpture in permanence. It may be said that if a mistake is made it is not easy to remedy it; it is but a poor argument to try to prove that a work be the nobler because oversights are irremediable; I should rather say that it will be more difficult to improve the mind of the master who makes such mistakes than to repair the work he has spoilt.

Taken from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880.

On the superiority of painting over poetry:

And if the poet gratifies the sense by means of the ear, the painter does so by the eye—the worthier sense; but I will say no more of this but that, if a good painter represents the fury of a battle, and if a poet describes one, and they are both together put before the public, you will see where most of the spectators will stop, to which they will pay most attention, on which they will bestow most praise, and which will satisfy them best. Undoubtedly painting being by a long way the more intelligible and beautiful, will please most. Write up the name of God [Christ] in some spot and setup His image opposite and you will see which will be most reverenced. Painting comprehends in itself all the forms of nature, while you have nothing but words, which are not universal as form is, and if you have the effects of the representation, we have the representation of the effects. Take a poet who describes the beauty of a lady to her lover and a painter who represents her and you will see to which nature guides the enamoured critic. Certainly the proof should be allowed to rest on the verdict of experience. You have ranked painting among the mechanical arts but, in truth, if painters were as apt at praising their own works in writing as you are, it would not lie under the stigma of so base a name. If you call it mechanical because it is, in the first place, manual, and that it is the hand which produces what is to be found in the imagination, you too writers, who set down manually with the pen what is devised in your mind. And if you say it is mechanical because it is done for money, who falls into this error—if error it can be called—more than you? If you lecture in the schools do you not go to whoever pays you most? Do you do any work without pay? Still, I do not say this as blaming such views, for every form of labour looks for its reward. And if a poet should say: “I will invent a fiction with a great purpose,” the painter can do the same, as Apelles painted Calumny. If you were to say that poetry is more eternal, I say the works of a coppersmith are more eternal still, for time preserves them longer than your works or ours; nevertheless they have not much imagination. And a picture, if painted on copper with enamel colours may be yet more permanent. We, by our arts may be called the grandsons of God. If poetry deals with moral philosophy, painting deals with natural philosophy. Poetry describes the action of the mind, painting considers what the mind may effect by the motions [of the body]. If poetry can terrify people by hideous fictions, painting can do as much by depicting the same things in action. Supposing that a poet applies himself to represent beauty, ferocity, or a base, a foul or a monstrous thing, as against a painter, he may in his ways bring forth a variety of forms; but will the painter not satisfy more? are there not pictures to be seen, so like the actual things, that they deceive men and animals?

Additional note: The famous “Self-Portrait of Leonardo” that you see over and over – the red chalk drawing of the grizzled old man with long hair and a beard – is not Leonardo da Vinci. It is a portrait of his father, drawn by Leonardo himself. It is here:

Portrait of Leonardo’s father by Leonardo (Turin, Palazzo Reale)

That is how it is described in the excellent and well-researched book Leonardo, by Robert Payne (Doubleday, 1978).

Now here is a very famous portrait of Leonardo from 1510:

Portrait of Leonardo by Francesco Melzi or by Leonardo (Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)

How can we be sure that what we thought was a “Leonardo portrait” is really his father?

Well, first, many experts say so. And second the Melzi drawing is from 1510 when Leonardo was 58. Since he died at 67, the portrait of his father appears that it could never be Leonardo; it is a much older man. His father died at 78. And the nose is the wrong shape. Leonardo’s nose is more pointed while his father’s nose is much more bulbous on the end.

Finally, here’s a trick question: Who is the lady in the painting below? For the answer, scroll further down (but try to guess first, OK?)









It is Isabella of Aragon, also known as Mona Lisa. This is Leonardo’s “other portrait” of her.

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