Garance Coggins
Sep 4, 2018 · 13 min read
“I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

Musings on the Imagined Autobiography of Leonardo da Vinci — “I, Leonardo da Vinci” by Ralph Steadman (1983)

This story was originally published in French in 2016. Translated from French to English by Illanga Itoua.

Leonardo da Vinci lived for sixty-seven years, producing approximately fifteen pieces of artwork. Raphaël lived for thirty-seven years, and left behind around eighty. In his eighty-eight years, Michelangelo produced forty sculptures, a dozen paintings (including his work inside the Sistine Chapel), and a dozen architectural works.

Why was da Vinci, a man considered to be the authentic genius of the Renaissance, so relatively unproductive?

This essay is no art history thesis: I wish, rather, to discuss Ralph Steadman’s speculative book on this most influential of artists and thinkers.

A British illustrator born in 1936, Steadman was so fascinated with the creative and scientific genius of Leonardo da Vinci, he decided to follow in his footsteps; he lived where Leonardo had lived; he redrew his aforementioned inventions. And finally, he wrote and illustrated this imagined autobiography.

I don’t know whether Steadman did in some small way become Leonardo da Vinci, but his book provides a fascinating insight into a creative mind on an endless quest, where the journeying for artistic truth and expression held far greater meaning than public recognition or acclaim.

In these pages, Leonardo da Vinci speaks as the narrator, in the first person. He tells the tale of his life, from his birth until his final hours, introducing his successive benefactors in Florence, Milan, Rome and Paris. This illustrated story of a 15th century genius seen through the eyes of a contemporary author with a flamboyant style is exhilarating.

[Luca Pacioli] gave me much and I in turn drew for him such wondrous shapes as geometry can describe. They thrilled my mind till I became intoxicated.” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

Throughout his life, he enjoyed friendships with some of the greatest minds of his generation — the mathematician Luca Pacioli, author of a treatise on Divine Proportions, the architect Bramante, Nicolas Machiavelli (with whom he kept a correspondence), and his rival Michelangelo, twenty years his junior.

Some of his creations were destroyed or disappeared, particularly during the catastrophic dictatorship of Savonarola in Florence. Many were never finished, or never actually undertaken in full.

Throughout the book, Steadman embarks upon a journey into the mind of a man constantly wondering about the world, curious about everything, experimenting, analyzing the rules of nature in his own environment. Such a man only accepts as true what he himself has experienced. He’s gifted in all things — singing, drawing, mathematics, engineering, and passionate about every facet of life.

“I talked at length to Luca Pacioli, a mathematical professor in the employ of my patron. (…) He too was full of interest in the wonders of geometry (…)” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

Therefore, at any moment in the book, the narrative may switch to a mathematical consideration or the observation of a natural phenomenon. Situations, some anecdotal, arise one after another, compelling the narrator to follow a regular practice of self-admonishment: “But I digress…”, he berates himself.

Ralph Steadman creates a surreal universe. At times magical (when Leonardo’s lost to mathematical abstractions), at times nightmarish, when he ponders the failings of his fellow humans. His style is absolutely unique and alternates between impeccable, fully rendered works of art to illustrations, and mere sketches with scrawls in the margins.

“I constructed a machine and bade all stand aside for I was certain that within a moment I would fly.” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

It is this mix of finished and unfinished, of work in progress that draws us into the effervescence of creation itself — that invites one to truly experience an organic, ever evolving work. A work to which one can never truly apply a final brushstroke. For the process, here, is of far greater import than the outcome.

The very kaleidoscope of compositions and techniques used by Steadman (from ink to collage, with a dash of photo manipulation) is a fitting echo of the workings of Leonardo’s mind. He who incessantly draws inspiration from every single thing he lays his eyes upon.

“I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

We learn from the back cover that the author had originally embarked upon a career in aviation that taught him the basics of draughtsmanship, an aptitude displayed here in the drawings of Leonardo’s inventions: a catapult for cats, a dramatic mechanical rendition of the solar system, a water-powered alarm, and, of course, his air-bound creations.

“I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

In character and appearance, his imagined Leonardo is exceedingly endearing: slim, awkward, extremely hairy, with utterly expressive, questioning eyes. Observing every detail, down to his toes.

Details “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

In contrast, the rest of the world is depicted as a distorted set of cringing faces, ugly mugs, self-absorbed and disfigured caricatures. The book opens with a quote from Freud that echoes this the dark setting:

Page after page, we follow Leonardo and his financial problems, his relationship with his followers, the commissions he secures, the ones he carries out or, more often than not, the ones he never starts or finishes.

The first time we see him quit is influenced by an intimate and ungraspable motive. One which dictates that only the creator can decide if and when a work is finally completed.

Ralph Steadman imagines Leonardo uttering the following words on the L’Adoration des mages commissioned by the San Donato monastery:

I find it oh so beautiful, this “one moment, filled with wondrous possibilities”, and how he leaves us with only a partial explanation. It isn’t Leonardo’s fault “something stopped him from finishing”. After all, what’s the point of creating if not because an inner force urges one to do so? And if that elusive something no longer provides inspiration towards finalizing an artistic project, why should one attempt to force it to?

This isn’t, of course, the kind of admission to endear an artist to sponsors or clients. For example, The Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception commissioned an altar. But Leonardo, bored to death by the endless list of their expectations, requests and restrictions, decides to execute the commission as he pleases. This is the end result:

(Leonardo da Vinci ends up painting a second, much more orthodox painting: these are the two renderings of the Virgin of the Rocks.)

“I had accepted then to do a portrait of a lady of unearthly countenance.” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

The Madonna Lisa’s husband is another unlucky patron. Steadman’s Leonardo agrees to paint this particular portrait because the model is so exquisitely beautiful. Little by little, he becomes amazed at what he succeeds in capturing with his brush.

Indeed, as long as the work remains unfinished, it belongs exclusively to the artist, who can sit in endless contemplation, enamoured (maybe obsessed) with a creation far greater than himself.

What makes a painting a work of art? In his life, Da Vinci perhaps encapsulated in a single sentence what he requires from a work of art when he reflects upon one of his last pieces, John the Baptist, that leaves him dissatisfied (the arm, he wondered, how can I show that this arm doesn’t belong to a mere mortal, but that it hails from God?).

John the Baptist (c. 1513–16), Louvre. Oil on walnut wood, 69x57 cm, Louvre, Paris

Procrastination, arbitrary decision-making, disrespect for authority — all these things can be levelled at da Vinci with complete justification. For he was passionate about fundamental questions (how do birds fly? why don’t water circles break when they meet/cross? where do these rainbow air bubbles in a water glass come from? how can an artist avoid revealing to much of himself in his work, in each of the models he paints?), he’s simply incapable of conforming to the external constraint of a commission he dislikes, or worse, of a commission that bores him to death.

And yet he waited his entire life for the opportunity to prove himself. He was unlucky with the giant bronze horse he intended to cast for the Sforza but which was left in clay, destroyed after the assault given by French soldiers; or with the great battle of Anghiari.

He was to paint the latter on the wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) du Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. As it transpired, Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint the battle of Cascina on the opposite wall. Both works remain unfinished, and this episode, as narrated by Ralph Steadman, has become part of the legend surrounding the rivalry between the two artists. As Leonardo had started a few months before, Michelangelo went into a frenzy to demonstrate his stylistic as well as technical superiority. But the moment da Vinci is about to lay his brush onto the wall to start painting:

Michelangelo lays into Leonardo, stitting on the opposite scaffolding. “I fear we came to speak of one another in derogatory fashion urged on by those who would regard us as two starving dogs out on the street who fought upon a bone.” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

And yet, when the subject, the place or the moment are favourable, Steadman reveals a Leonardo da Vinci able to confront and defy any doubt and all adversity. This ability is most detailed in the episode recalling the making of The Last Supper. It’s the moment that best allows Steadman to fully immerse himself in the mind of Leonardo da Vinci at the very moment when painting begins, and to follow him step by step — defining and shaping the subject, building up the excitement, making composition choices, painting the first brushstroke.

For once, the task seems congruent with what Leonardo is able and willing to do: decorate the back wall of the Bramante designed refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He is so exalted by this project that he’s nearly too anxious to start. It’s much worse than writer’s block — a white-wall painting block!

“Perhaps too it was because of the fear engendered by the white wall that its power rendered me impotent before it.” I, Leonardo da Vinci, Ralph Steadman (detail) — I so adore the coloured paintbrushes taunting the blank canvas, at the bottom right.

Later in the book, we shadow Leonardo in the turmoil of his expectation, vision and near-paralyzing stringency:

Where to start? What should be the first stroke the artist paints on a work of such magnitude? This question is mysterious and fascinating for Ralph Steadman and the reader alike. But it’s harrowingly distressful for the narrator.

“I decided that the Christ’s right eye would be the point at which all things in the room converged.” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

When he finally does make a start, he begins in front of a bevy of nosy onlookers watching him as they would a juggler, waiting for his skittle to drop.

“Those who came stood for long periods behind me and observed what I was doing as though I was a juggler about to drop a club.” I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

While his students watch him prepare his palette, he lets his mind wander, hoping that the sheer uniqueness of this particular piece, one before which he finds himself nearly impotent, would give them the longing for exceptional things.

Leonardo da Vinci does complete The Last Supper — it is one of the most famous pieces in art history. But even in his lifetime, it suffered flood damage and had to be restored (the church was built on a swamp). Yet another source of despondency for a character that found it so hard to bring both his ideas to fruition and work to completion.

In fact, some of the book’s most beautiful illustrations are devoted to intrinsically fugacious inventions: automatons to amuse the court, devices for theatre, chimeras.

“I was charged to create a fantasy of paradise to delight the whims of a foreign brood of noble whores and men of wealth (…)” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

Yes, simultaneously, throughout his entire life, Leonardo da Vinci stockpiled notes. He dissects corpses, and takes notes. He analyses bird flight, and takes notes. He studies science and painting, and takes notes. But what is one to do, then, with all these notes, the knowledge within, an entire life’s work?

The very last pages repeat this litany:

“My papers, I must file my papers…” “I, Leonardo” — Ralph Steadman, 1983

These words are accompanied by a poignant illustration. We can see Leonardo kneeling over the thousands of sheets he annotated, clutching them with both hands. His last, unfinished work. His face is drawn four times, his head swivelling. Turning towards his stack, his profile stares intensely at the sheets he’s gripping. Turning towards us, his eyes bore into ours.

Does he hope that we can take over this overflowing, abundant knowledge — that we can help him file them across the centuries? Is Steadman’s book his own contribution to an invidious task, a desire to give a unified view of the tumultuous life of Leonardo da Vinci, whilst preserving its mysterious allure and intricacy?

Garance Coggins

STEADMAN Ralph, I, Leonardo da Vinci. 1983

All illustrations rights reserved © Ralph Steadman

Translated from French to English by Illanga Itoua

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Garance Coggins

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