[NetBehaviour] Bridge as metaphor in a recent book on the environmental humanities and Leonardo

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Wed Apr 13 20:21:24 CEST 2022

Hi all,

As I continue my research about Leonardo I've looked more closely at Leslie Geddes' commentary on the bridge in her 2020 book Watermarks: Leonardo da Vinci and the Mastery of Nature.  (The title is partly ironic, I'm sure.)

Excerpted below, the scope and extent of her evaluation of the bridge as a central theme and metaphor is more evident to me now.  I do not concur with her interpretation in all details but the overall approach is, I think, on the right track.  Several of her references will be helpful I think, as is her discussion of another 1473 drawing by Leonardo depicting a bridge in a landscape.

All of which leads me to believe even more hopefully that the bridge could very well serve as a powerful new launch-point into new interpretations of both the Mona Lisa and Leonardo's work overall for the 21st century.

All best,



p. 138:

"This correspondence between man's habitation and the natural landscape is made visible through his inclusion of a stone bridge, pictured in the landscape of the Mona Lisa just beyond the figure's left shoulder (Fig. 97).  Unlike mobile bridges, this bridge has a fixed location; its three semicircular masonry arches span a broad river channel.  The sole man-made element in the landscape, it signals technical ingenuity, man's stake in the land, and access to travel across variable natural environments.  As the natural world underwent constant change, the process of building and navigating its terrain was hardly static.  To master nature was not a one-time enterprise but rather an unrelieved process of upkeep and adjustment.  The stone bridge recalls ancient Roman designs and references both the durable and the potentially -- even persistently -- useful.  The bridge tapers off at the riverbanks, seeming to touch Lisa Gherardini's shoulder on the bare flesh just above the fold of her dress.  The structure forms a symbolic link between the sitter and the background (italics mine), connecting the personal and human to the wild and natural landscape.67  The motif appears on the verso of the early landscape, where an arch suggesting a bridge connects a steeply inclined hill with a low-lying, flatter plain (see Fig. 83).  Beyond this detail, quickly drawn ribbons of ink squiggle back and forth, supporting the notion that Leonardo was quickly sketching a bridge spanning a broad watercourse, itself dividing the composition.68  While unfinished, the landscape as it is rendered in black chalk with an ink overlay preserves a sense of nature's uneven, untamed terrain.  In the Mona Lisa, the difficulties of physical passage are encoded in the landscape even as Leonardo renders it from a bird's eye view.  The background calls upon the viewer to navigate heterogeneous terrain and wending, even obfuscating passages.69  In a way, close observation of the landscape of the Mona Lisa correlates with the early modern experience of traversing land, where roads are comprised of switchbacks and overgrowth, waterways rendered poorly navigable by flooding and erosion.70"

[The early landscape referenced as Fig. 83 also with a bridge (compare to Woman Standing in Landscape RCIN 912581) is Landscape and Figure Studies, 1473, black chalk, pen with brown ink, 194x285 mm (7 3/5 x 11 1/5 in.), Gabinetto dei Designi e delle Stampe, Uffizi, Florence, Inv. 8 P verso.]

>From notes 67-70, p. 220:

67  My interpretation of the bridge detail is complementary with other readings of the painting, which seek to frame a similar exchange between the sitter and the landscape.  For example, Rosand offers:  "On one level of interpretation we might read this neat contrast as a simple binary structure: flesh and rock, soft and hard, feminine and masculine...[but] his art acknowledged instead relationships that were more open, complex, and dynamic" ("The Portrait, Courtier, and Death," 112).  Pedretti presents an overview of the historical documentation of the painting in Studi vinciani, 132-41.  For an account of the early sources on the painting, see Jack M. Greenstein, "Leonardo, Mona Lisa, and 'La Gioconda': Reviewing the Evidence," Artibus et Historiae 25, no. 50 (January 1, 2004): 17-38.   For an account of the painting and its recent technical examinations, see Bambach, Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, 2:262-70.  On the afterlife of the painting, see Andre Chastel, L'illustre incomprise: Mona Lisa (Paris, Gallimand, 1988).  Chastel begins his book with the remark: "Le litterature sur La Joconde est, comme sa renommee, sans limites" (7), which sums up well the challenge of presenting a comprehensive bibliography of the painting.
68  If indeed depicting a bridge, this detail does not make an appearance on the recto, which, as already discussed, renders water with greater attentiveness.
69  The paths on either side of the sitter in the Mona Lisa obviously do not match up.  The landscapes of Joachim Patinir (c.1480-before 1524) feature similarly bifurcated geographical territories.  On how their symbolic meaning relates to the pilgrimage and life's two paths (the sinful and the virtuous) see Reindert Leonard Falkenburg, Joachim Patinir: Landscape as an Image of the Pilgrimage of Life (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1988), 61-112.
70  Joseph Leo Koerner's assessment of viewing Pieter Breughel's printed landscapes is salient:  "Our eye travels among the local details, discerning in each the outline of an operation or experience."  Joseph Leo Koerner, "Humanism and Faith in the Prints of Pieter Breughel the Elder," in The Printed World of Pieter Brueghel, ed. Barbara Butts and Joseph Leo Koerner, (St. Louis: St. Louis Art Museum, 1995), 24.


A couple of points on which I differ somewhat from Geddes' reading:

  *   Although the bridge does lead the eye to the sitter's shoulder, its primary connective point is not "bare flesh," but rather, it aligns with and connects the composition to the garment thus infusing the sitter's dress with and carrying further forward the metaphorical, compositional, and thematic content of the bridge.
  *   Regarding the s-shape in the left background and the roughly mirror-symmetrical shape in the right background of the Mona Lisa, I do not see two paths or roads (an interpretation which is fairly common but I believe mistaken based on physical details as well as parallels to many other drawings in Leonardo's notebooks) but two rivers, the left one shallow or dry and older.


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