[NetBehaviour] Dante and Leonardo

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sat Feb 27 20:25:55 CET 2021

Hi all,

Yesterday I found out that Dante (1265-1321) passed away five centuries to the year before Keats, making 2021 the 700th anniversary.

Even though I did graduate study in English I never read Dante until this year.  I knew fragments of course, the general outline, some commentary, and even had a paperback translation of Inferno.  However it was only after reading Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium -- a book that discusses the writing of both Dante and Leonardo -- in January 2018 that I got motivated to study Italian literature and painting more in depth.

Leonardo is not generally thought to have been much influenced by Dante, although he is known to have been an expert on Dante's work.  As research for a book on the Mona Lisa I studied a very interesting drawing dated 1517-18, one of Leonardo's last major works before his passing in 1519, known as Woman Standing in a Landscape:


This wonderful image seems somehow allegorical and is often compared to Botticelli's 1485 illustration of Matilda, Dante, and the river Lethe in Purgatorio XXVIII:


Leonardo did not title his drawing or explain anywhere in text what its subject might be.  Therefore as the Royal Collection Trust page above states, "The context and function of the drawing thus remain unknown."

Comparing the two drawings makes clear one major difference: Leonardo's image includes a bridge, but Botticelli's does not.  Furthermore, in Leonardo's image the woman is pointing downstream, toward the bridge, whereas Botticelli's Matilda is pointing upward.

Infrared scans of the Mona Lisa show that the bridge was added very late, as possibly the last element of the work:


Why would Leonardo have added a bridge at such a late stage of the composition?  Nothing whatsoever is mentioned in his notebooks, and no Leonardo scholar has ever addressed this question.  The bridge is assumed almost universally by Leonardo scholars to have no meaning or function in the painting, either visually or thematically.  This may be an oversight of significant proportions.

Therefore I'm writing another book about possible influences of Dante on Leonardo's writing, visual art, and overall thought.  If anyone on the list has good references to recommend they would be most welcome!  I know that the Commedia can seem terribly antique, dogmatic, patriarchal, and plain stodgy at times.  However I try to remember that in its day Dante's project was fairly radical.  It sought to integrate newly discovered art and literature from antiquity into medieval life, presaging the Renaissance; it was written in the vernacular Italian to expand access to a wider audience (over 200 years before Luther's 1534 translation of the Bible); Dante wrote it from political exile, commenting at significant personal risk on the politics of his day; and the work addresses many spheres of knowledge such as philosophy, astronomy, natural sciences, ethics, and history that at the time were strictly censored but are today considered modern and taken for granted.

There is a good digital version with multiple translations and commentary online at https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/

In general terms, I'm investigating whether the bridge in the Mona Lisa may symbolize a kind of evolution by Leonardo of some of Dante's ideas mixed with other influences and some of Leonardo's own unique perspectives on art and science.  In particular, the sitter may be a combination of Dante's Beatrice and Fortune into the principle which Leonardo personified as "Esperienza," meaning both experimental method in science and expressive action in art.  In such an interpretation the bridge and garment function as a structural metaphor about the flow of the history of art, science, and engineering (or what we might call technology) into their current form which is "worn" by humanity in the present day.  One can even interpret the left background as Inferno (with Styx or Acheron), the right background as Purgatorio (with Lethe), and the sitter as Paradiso (with Esperienza/Beatrice/Fortune "inhabiting" the higher realm).


Michelino's famous 1465 painting of Dante in Florence Cathedral could be a possible influence:


Below are a few quotations from Leonardo and Dante which are of course not conclusive in any way but do seem to evoke parallels which further research might help corroborate.

All best regards,



Leonardo: “Sound rules are the issue of sound experience — the common mother of all the sciences and arts."

Dante: "From this instance [of confusion] if you will do your part / you may escape by experiment, that being / the spring that feeds the rivers of man's art."  (Paradiso II.94-96)

The Italian "esperienza" is translated as "experiment":

94  Da questa instanza può deliberarti
95  esperïenza, se già mai la provi,
96  ch’esser suol fonte ai rivi di vostr’ arti.


Leonardo: “Men wrongly complain of Experience; with great abuse they accuse her of leading them astray…. Men are unjust in complaining of innocent Experience, constantly accusing her of error and of false evidence.”

Dante: "And this is she so railed at and reviled / that even her debtors in the joys of time / blaspheme her name.  Their oaths are bitter and wild, / but she in her beatitude does not hear. / … she breathes her blessedness and wheels her sphere."  (Inferno VII.91-96, on Fortune)


Leonardo: "Painting is poetry which is seen and not heard, and poetry is a painting which is heard but not seen. These two arts, you may call them both either poetry or painting, have here interchanged the senses by which they penetrate to the intellect."

Dante: "I yearned to know just how our image merges / into that circle, and how it there finds place; / but mine were not the wings for such a flight."  (Paradiso XXXIII.137-138)


Leonardo: "If you [the poet] would say: but I describe for you the Inferno, or Paradise, or other delights or terrors, the painter can beat you at your own game, because he will put it directly in front of you."

Dante: "When finally you stand before the ray / of that Sweet Lady whose bright eye sees all, / from her you will learn the turnings of your way."  (Inferno X.130-132)


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <https://lists.netbehaviour.org/pipermail/netbehaviour/attachments/20210227/6dc0af8f/attachment.htm>

More information about the NetBehaviour mailing list