Hi all,

Out of curiosity, is anyone familiar with Emerson's poem "Experience"?  The accompanying essay quotes Galileo's "pero si muove" and mentions Dante in ways that may relate to Leonardo's own philosophy of experience (esperienza). 


My novelty speculation re Leonardo is that he took Dante's treatment of esperienza (as in Paradiso I and II, below) and evolved it into a universal principle allegorized both in his writings and visually in the Mona Lisa.  

Emerson's poem and essay seem clearly to be aware of Dante's use of the principle and its central relevance to both science (in Paradiso II) and poetry (in Paradiso I).  

The term of course means in Italian both experience and experiment, and Emerson's essay speaks in detail about experiment in science as well as social progress.  He also highlights the necessity to leaven science with experience, specifically literary experience, which if we follow Dante's sequence in Paradiso I and II is represented by poetry as a spiritual activity connecting human consciousness to the world of all things (which Emerson terms "Nature").  That poetry precedes and in turn informs science with due proportion is shown in Canto II's demonstration of scientific method, setting forth the fundamental dialogue of the rest of Paradiso.

As eyes can be ruined by too much reading in poor light, my literary lenses see from too much searching Leonardo when he is not there.  Thus I have to try to do a crash study of Emerson to find out if he ever read Leonardo's notebooks (Richter's translation appeared the year after Emerson's death), saw Leonardo's paintings (he saw some on a visit to France and Italy), or saw any connections between Leonardo and Dante vis-a-vis esperienza (so far I've found only the briefest reference by Emerson to Leonardo, saying only that he saw and liked his paintings).  

I also should probably sort through Emerson's writings on Dante and any potential influence by Blakes's works on the Commedia.

In any case, a great part of my interest in Emerson's poem and essay is to find contexts of relevance between Leonardo's allegory of Esperienza and the American Mind of Today (to use two cliches at once).  We know Frost and Stevens had reasonable regard for Emerson, of course with many caveats, as did Whitman, and all are of at least some modern relevance.  That my own sense of how the twin strands of direct perception and individual action pervade American poetry and culture writ large aligns with what I see in Leonardo's philosophy gives me some hope of articulating the comparison with some degree of coherence.

Yet this hope, pero si muove ðŸ™‚

All very best,



Leonardo's personification of esperienza as a Beatrice-like figure:

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."

Here he somewhat re-phrased the above (rewriting key fragments being a habit in his journals):

"Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy — on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own."

And from his treatise on painting:

"[S]ound rules are the issue of sound experience â€” the common mother of all the sciences and arts."

Finally this:

"Experience, the interpreter between formative nature and the human race, teaches how that nature acts among mortals."

Further interesting fragments by Leonardo on experience are at https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci.


For comparison, this is from the Emerson poem:

"They marched from east to west:
Little man, least of all,
Among the legs of his guardians tall,
Walked about with puzzled look: —
Him by the hand dear nature took;
Dearest nature, strong and kind,
Whispered, 'Darling, never mind!
Tomorrow they will wear another face,
The founder thou! these are thy race!'"

Emerson's skepticism in the essay toward visual experience (as in paintings) however is worth noting:

"So with pictures; each will bear an emphasis of attention once, which it cannot retain, though we fain would continue to be pleased in that manner. How strongly I have felt of pictures, that when you have seen one well, you must take your leave of it; you shall never see it again. I have had good lessons from pictures, which I have since seen without emotion or remark."

His skepticism is leavened however by an intense optimism reminiscent of Dante's "visibile parlare" (visible speech) from Purgatorio X, 94-96 as well as his early poetic manifesto La Vita Nuova (The New Life):

"In liberated moments, we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible; the elements already exist in many minds around you, of a doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have."

A hint, perhaps, of reference by Emerson to Dante is here:

"I think I will never read any but the commonest books, — the Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton."

Here he hints yet further at parallels to his conception of Experience in all ages and traditions (note the mention of Fortune or Fortuna, whom Dante prominently praises in the Inferno VII, 91-96):

"Fortune, Minerva, Muse, Holy Ghost, — these are quaint names, too narrow to cover this unbounded substance. The baffled intellect must still kneel before this cause, which refuses to be named, — ineffable cause, which [many have] essayed to represent by some emphatic symbol, as, Thales by water, Anaximenes by air, Anaxagoras by (Nous) thought, Zoroaster by fire, Jesus and the moderns by love: and the metaphor of each has become a national religion."

Here is Dante on Fortune in the Inferno VII:

"She is the one so frequently maligned
even by those who should give praise to her—
they blame her wrongfully with words of scorn.

But she is blessed and does not hear these things;
for with the other primal beings, happy,
she turns her sphere and glories in her bliss."

Regarding visual art's ties to poetry, in Dante's lines about "paintings" of divine origin found carved in stone in Purgatorio X:

94 Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
95 produsse esto visibile parlare,
96 novello a noi perché qui non si trova.

In Longfellow's translation:

He who on no new thing has ever looked
Was the creator of this visible language,
Novel to us, for here it is not found.

On experiment, from Paradiso II, 94-96, spoken by Beatrice:

Yet an experiment, were you to try it,
could free you from your cavil—and the source
of your arts’ course springs from experiment. [esperienza].

Or as I would translate it:

Your path out of this instance of debate's
Experiment, if you would only try,
Which is the source of all the rivers of art.

The original is:

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

And spoken by Dante in Paradiso I, 70-72, of the change that poetry may work in us: 

70   Trasumanar significar per verba
71   non si poria; però l’essemplo basti
72   a cui esperïenza grazia serba.

In Longfellow's ornate translation:

To represent transhumanise in words
Impossible were; the example, then, suffice
Him for whom Grace the experience reserves.

Or my attempt:

Transhuman change cannot be shown in words
Although example can and will suffice
To whom experience does grace provide.

Very handy and searchable Dante texts, with multiple translations, can be found at Columbia's Digital Dante site:  https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/