It began one lazy evening, tired from schoolwork and unwilling to subject myself to vegetable mode in front of that most useless of all fatuities the television. I went surfing on the Internet, looking for something that I could plagiarise - I mean something that I could use as a source of inspiration for serious artistic endeavour. I wanted something black-and-white that I could colour in, and thought of Leonardo, though actually most of his drawings turned out to be in red chalk. But one drawing in particular fascinated me, as I know it has fascinated artists and art critics and art historians and architects and many others for the past five hundred years. The work is believed to be a perspectival study for his painting "The Adoration of the Magi", which he completed in 1481, though the connections between the two are very difficult to discern: an arch here, a horse-and-rider there, but not much more.
What is especially intriguing is the sense one has that Leonardo had run out of drawing paper, but needed to get the sketch drawn while it was still clearly in his head, and either he had an architectural drawing for some tomb or palace that a Sforza or a Medici had commissioned, on top of which he drew the animals and other parts of the Magi piece, or vice versa, that he had the Magi cartoon but there was Medici, or perhaps Sforza, insisting he show him now, right now, what he intended, and so the cartoon had to go. Or is it possible that this was only ever one single drawing? It seems implausible, because the camel is inside the wall of the staircase, where camels do not usually manage to get, and the sword-wielding skeleton on the left is far too ghostly for the sword ever to be useful in this life.
And then there is the architectural dimension, this very early example of perspective drawing, which was probably invented by Filippo Brunelleschi in around 1413. So many horizontal and perpendicular lines in this Leonardo, seemingly drawn with the help of a mediaeval ruler; but why so many, and do you notice how the heights change even though the lines remain flat (the steps at the front for example, which are obviously steps at the left but not towards the right)?
I decided to deconstruct it, downloading a digital copy, mapping it inside a painting software programme to understand it architecturally, needing to remove the Magi cartoons in order to be able to work on just one of the two pieces. This was the first phase, a simple calculation, using Leonardo's own lines, of where the vanishing point must be, which interestingly is dead centre of the vertical, where you would expect it, but slightly to the right of centre in the horizontal, which infers a second vanishing point and helps explain the geometry of the left hand side of the drawing:
The second phase was the removal of as many of the cartoons as I could without undermining the detail of the architectural drawing; this is why some of the cartoon remains, but also why the blanking-out was done in shades of Leonardo's browns and oranges.
Phase 3 contains an error, though whether it is mine or Leonardo's is not that easy to determine. It ought to be mine, given that he's the genius and I'm just some nobody trying to figure him out; but I remain unconvinced by this hypothesis. The vanishing lines that are inferred as well as the parallel lines that are drawn, if they are unravelled backwards from the vanishing point, force the painting to flatten out towards the front, as the drawing below shows; but the very front portion of the drawing is clearly lower, and the steps on the left confirm it. I was, and remain, unable to resolve this.
Phase 4 continued the process of discerning the architectural features, but the very method that I was employing, amateurish and dilettante though it was, also revealed an unexpected idea, that what I was deconstructing this drawing into was in fact an abstract painting, and why should an abstract painting not be evinced?
Phase 5 extended phase 4, beginning to recognise some extraordinarily complex geometrical constructions, in the arches especially, which clarified that this could not have been a hasty sketch by the artist, but would have been worked out over a period of time - days for most humans, probably just hours for Leonardo; and that it would have needed geometrical instruments, most of which had either not yet been invented, or had been, but were proscribed because science was anathema to the ruling clerics.
At which point I realised I could go no further, but that the idea of an abstract painting might be a fun way to fill in some of the empty spaces, and add another piece to my series "The Artist Was Bored". I have called it "Deconstructing Leonardo", and it is available for you to download here, and finish colouring in yourself, next time you find yourself simultaneously bored and creative.
And if you are not interested in doing that,
but have read and looked this far,
well, at least I gave you an excuse
to look more closely than you might otherwise
at one of Art's great mysteries!
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