May 15, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Haunts “Game of Thrones” 500 Years Later

By Stuart Mitchner

The massive crossbow that felled a dragon in the final season of Game of Thrones was meant as “an homage to Leonardo da Vinci,” the show’s weapon designer told IndieWire. The “outer shape” of the scorpion has the “exact same look” as Leonardo’s drawings.

After watching the vengeful Mother of Dragons lay waste to King’s Landing on Mother’s Day, I knew it would be a challenge to launch a column about the man who died 500 years ago this month, May 2, 1519, without at least mentioning that apocalyptic spectacle, however absurdly out of proportion it is next to the pop song based on Leonardo’s most famous creation. Surely the fire and fury of HBO’s sensational series is a better fit with the 21st century than the legend that Nat King Cole’s manager strenuously advised him not to record “this off-beat thing about an old painting.”

When “Mona Lisa” was released in May of 1950, it went to the top of the charts, was number one for eight straight weeks, and dominated the hit parade for the rest of the year. The plaintive hymn to “the lady with the mystic smile” was heard over radios and on jukeboxes in bars and diners around the country.

While the banal fate of Leonardo’s masterpiece may conjure up the old “turning over in his grave” trope, evidence that he accepted art’s susceptibility to the lesser realities can be found in Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). The final words in Leonardo’s hand appear on “what may be the last page of his notebooks,” where after drawing four right triangles and fitting rectangles into each and making note of what he’s trying to accomplish, he abruptly “breaks off” to explain why he’s putting down his pen: “Perché la minestra si fredda.” 

Isaacson reimagines the event, “our last scene of him working”: Leonardo’s cook is in the kitchen, other members of the household are already at the table while “he is still stabbing away at geometry problems that have not yet yielded the world very much but have given him a profound appreciation of the patterns of nature. Now, however, the soup is getting cold.”

Nothing Is Banal

In his introduction, Isaacson implies that for a man interested in everything, nothing could be banal. Locating his biographical “starting point” in the notebooks also consulted by the designer of the scorpion in Game of Thrones, the biographer writes, “Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn,” from observing “the goose’s foot” or “the tongue of the woodpecker” to “why-is-the-sky-blue questions” so “commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them.”

Isaacson coached himself to look at the world as if through Leonardo’s eyes, to see “how light that was reflected from one object subtly colored the shadows of another” and how “the glint of a lustrous spot on a shiny surface” moved when he tilted his head: “When I looked at a distant tree and a near one, I tried to visualize the lines of perspective. When I saw an eddy of water, I compared it to a ringlet of hair. When I couldn’t understand a math concept, I did the best I was able to visualize it. When I saw people at supper, I studied the relationship of their motions to their emotions.”

He “Sang Divinely”

Walter Pater’s maxim “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” came to mind as I imagined Leonardo  listening to “Mona Lisa” with the benefit of headphones. Say what you will about the relative triviality of a hit song bearing the name of a world famous work of art, the smooth, intimate, yet raptuously unearthly voice of the man who sang it is one of the glories of Pater’s “condition of music,” a phenomenon surely as worthy of da Vinci’s attention as a woodpecker’s tongue or a woman’s smile. After all, it was as a 30-year-old musical envoy that Leonardo came to the court of the Duke of Milan bearing the gift of a lyre from Lorenzo de’ Medici. Not only could he play “with rare distinction,” he “sang masterfully to his own accompaniment” on an instrument he’d constructed himself. His early biographer Vasari claims that Leonardo “sang divinely,” hyperbole on the level inspired centuries later by King Cole. Of a performance da Vinci gave at the Milan court in 1494, Vasari reports that he “surpassed” the other musicians, as well as being “the best improviser of verses.”

Leonardo was also a master of stagecraft (“costumes, scenery, music, mechanisms, choreography, allegorical allusions, automatons, and gadgets”), producing pageants for a ruler who “thrived on plays and public entertainments.” Then there were the “literary amusements” he wrote to be read aloud or performed at court, including some 300 fables, facetious tales, prophecies, pranks, and riddles. The fables were “pithy moral tales involving animals or objects that take on a personality.” The notebooks also contain, shades of Game of Thrones, fantasy novellas, “sometimes in the form of letters describing mysterious lands and adventures” involving “deluge and destruction.”

Approaching Mona Lisa

The Lady with an Ermine is one of the most expressive portraits you’ll see on your way to The Mona Lisa, which is the subject of the penultimate chapter in Isaacson’s handsomely illustrated biography. Cecilia Gallerani  was 15 when the Duke of Milan commissioned Leonardo to paint a work that proved to be, in the biographer’s words, “so innovative, so emotionally charged and alive, that it helped to transform the art of portraiture.” Isaacson tells us if we look at Cecilia “a hundred times,” we’ll see “a hundred different emotions.” Although she’s being described in the light of Leonardo’s most famously suggestive and capricious work, Cecilia inhabits a more precisely defined element, set like a human medallion on a plush black background that brings out the detail in her gown and features. She’s distinctly in the moment, young, alive, and stunningly feminine, with no dusky, richly detailed landscape surrounding her, nothing to lead a renowned stylist like Pater (1839-1894) to wrap her in the rhetoric of “deep seas, vampires, and the secrets of the grave.”

It’s no wonder that Pater’s visionary account of The Mona Lisa in his book The Renaissance (1873) continues to be quoted over the years. English tourists of the time came to see her in the Louvre with Pater’s text in their hands, not unlike American tourists flocking there more than half a century later with Nat King Cole’s ballad in their ears. What a tribute to Leonardo’s power as a storyteller in images that he managed to inspire such extremes of response, from the Tin Pan Alley love-song sentiment of “broken hearts,” the “Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile,” and “Are you warm, are you real” or just “a cold and lonely lovely work of art,” to Pater’s  rhetorical extravagance, the most celebrated of the many failed attempts to describe Leonardo’s aesthetic soulmate:

“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.”

Gaze long enough at the reproduction of The Mona Lisa in Isaacson’s book and you can imagine that her sideways, almost-smiling look is in amused response to Pater’s dive into deep purple seas. Or you can tell yourself there’s nothing at all cold or lonely about her, that she’s as warm and real as only the genius who loved her and his own art could make her. Or you could think that she’s doing her best not to laugh in her mastered master’s face as she looks toward the kitchen where the voice of his cook is calling him back to the real world, “Perché la minestra si fredda!”

Probably the best way to come to terms with La Gioconda is to read Isaacson’s thoughtful, informed, nicely documented 15-page account of the making of a work of art on a thin-grained plank cut from the center of a trunk of poplar on which the painter “applied a thick primer coat of lead white rather than a more typical mix of gesso, chalk, and white pigment,” knowing that the undercoat would be “better at reflecting back the light that made it through his fine layers of translucent glazes,” thereby enhancing “the impression of depth, luminosity, and volume.”

“A Demon Imagination”

Finally, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan who has just seen what the Mother of Dragons did to Cersei’s fleet of scorpions, you should read Isaacson’s account of da Vinci the military engineer, where after describing an “especially vivid” drawing of the “scythed chariot” with its “truly frightening whirling blades,” the biographer laments, “Here is our gentle and beloved Leonardo, who became a vegetarian because of his fondness for all creatures, wallowing in horrifying depictions of death….Within his dark cave was a demon imagination.”

But if you’ve followed the demon imaginations of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss this far, you know all about “horrifying depictions of death” and will be looking for more of the same and possibly something much better next Sunday.

The Vatican Museums will lend da Vinci’s St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness to New York’sMetropolitan Museum for a special exhibition opening July 15. Check online for further information about 500th anniversary events and exhibits.