[NetBehaviour] Dante and Leonardo

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Wed Mar 17 20:06:11 CET 2021

Hi all,

Yesterday I found a couple of helpful articles about Leonardo's uses of allegory, and the impact of Dante on his overall work and development.

This excerpt is from a 2005 essay:


"If Dante’s narrative style had a perceptible influence on Leonardo the writer – an influence that found expression as early as 'La Caverna' and as late as Leonardo’s second Florentine period ca. 1505, when both the 'childhood memory' and the profezia
 of the Great Swan were composed – one may reasonably wonder whether that influence also left traces in his paintings, and perhaps especially in his later works. We have seen that the late, bewitching drawing of the Pointing Lady at Windsor Castle, along with a series of related drawings, can be persuasively associated with Dante’s Earthly Paradise episode.  She is Matelda and points the poet’s way forward. Her characteristic gesture and motion remind us of Leonardo’s striking concentration, in his late paintings, on single figures who similarly engage the beholder directly, through their glance and gestures, powerfully drawing the viewer into the painting.... These paintings are, in a meaningful sense, composed in the 'first person'; they make the beholder’s experience the real subject of the work" [italics mine].

I think this suggests some helpful corroboration about the allegorical underpinnings of my Esperienza hypothesis, even in the coincidental phrasing of the final sentence.

Other interesting excerpts include:

"The fable of 'La Caverna' is one of Leonardo’s earliest literary efforts, and its echoes of Dante’s Purgatorio are readily identifiable and, accordingly, relatively compelling. It reminds us again of Leonardo’s lost Dante drawings of the 1470s. To judge from the surviving copies, in these drawings Leonardo sought to render literally, for the eye, Dante’s poetic descriptions of natural phenomena, such as the movements of water, air and light. By the time when, nearly three decades later, Leonardo came to compose his “childhood memory” and his “prophecy” of the Great Swan, the deep impression left on his mind and imagination by Dante’s narrative style and by particular narratives like those we have been considering had been more fully assimilated. His allusions to Dante – in his notebooks and, as I will suggest below, in his art – have become correspondingly more difficult to identify with confidence, but no less significant for that, especially when we bear in mind the likelihood that Leonardo’s interest in Dante seems only to have grown with time."

"The literary evidence for Leonardo’s knowledge of Dante, assembled by Edmondo Solmi decades ago, is familiar to specialists. It takes the form of a series of echoes and close paraphrases of Dante, found throughout Leonardo’s manuscripts and notebooks; and it strongly suggests that Leonardo took an abiding and serious interest in Dante, particularly in the Divina Commedia, but also in the Convivio. Observing that 'quando lo studio di uno scrittore è assiduo corrono sotto la penna, anche inconsciamente, delle immagini e delle movenze tratte da quello,' Solmi proposes that this applies to Leonardo’s reading of Dante. Having laid out the evidence, he concludes that 'Leonardo da Vinci fu studioso appassionato delle opere dell’Alighieri.'”

All very best,


PS -- The following excerpts are also interesting from a 2012 essay by Joost Keizer with regards to allegory in Leonardo:


"Leonardo organises perception as the discovery of similitude, unveiling nature in its original connectedness with culture, and revealing culture as something similar to the things we observe in nature. Leonardo the fabulist did not imitate nature as we perceive it with our eyes; he organised the world for humanity by establishing analogies among unlike things, revealing for us the similarities between dissimilar things."

"Leonardo’s allegories in Oxford gather and recollect images, or parts of images.  They are fragments of things remembered – a scorpion, a snake, the way a horse moves on all four – that were combined on paper. Once combined, these fragments of things observed in nature do not rhyme with anything in the perceptible world. Leonardo in fact once explained the process by which such combined images could come into being. In a series of skull studies, made in the 1480s, he speculated that images entered the brain from the eyes and were then stored in the back of the brain, where the ‘memoria’ was located. A point in between the eyes and the memory, placed in the mathematical centre of the brain, functioned as a kind of image generator.  This so-called sensus communis ‘understood’ the images stored in the back of the brain and was able to regenerate them to the front, supposedly as new images, now informed by the intellect that created them.  For Leonardo, that moment of intellectually informed generation equalled ingegno. In common with the culture of text, Leonardo’s allegorical drawings do not add meaning to something that is already there. Meaning is instead what generates the image from the start, what determines its form."

"Leonardo’s allegories were a path back to a world in which the image operated like the word, a path past Landino’s splitting of the image in the two modalities of allegory and history, a path that led back to Dante. The allegories Dante encountered in Purgatory evidenced a remarkable unity between verba and res. They marked a moment before art had emancipated itself from text, when image and allegory still stood united."

"But Leonardo’s was not a backward-looking move. It was, instead, an attempt to think of allegory as a point of intersection, between word and image, formulated at a moment in time when images as carriers of meaning underwent a radical transformation.  At the time of the German Reformation, some artists admitted defeat, overloading their altar images with as much text as they could possibly bear in order to clarify as clearly as possible what they signified.  Until the time of the Baroque, when, according to Walter Benjamin, the image started to behave (behave again, the Oxford drawings show) ‘like a form of writing’ in need of decoding and ‘reading’.  Such was the result of the dialectics of seeing in modernity, produced at the moment when images found themselves at the forefront of religious, political, and social controversy, of social disruption and war – when the meaning delivered by images was the stuff of destruction.  And for Benjamin that moment was still with him when he was writing, as an almost unavoidable condition of modernity. Allegory is perhaps just an effect of the modern, autonomous image. You cannot have one without the other."

[Kiezer's note on Benjamin includes the following citations:  Bainard Cowan, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory’,
New German Critique, vol. 22, Winter 1981, pp. 109–22; Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA,1989), p. 178.]

From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: Wednesday, March 3, 2021 12:46 PM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: Dante and Leonardo

Hi all,

As usual I have added so many tangents that the key topic is obscured!  🙂

Mostly I wanted to ask if anyone sees a bridge in this drawing:  https://www.rct.uk/collection/912581/a-woman-in-a-landscape

All best regards,


From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: Saturday, February 27, 2021 1:25 PM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Dante and Leonardo

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)


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