March 28, 2017
Leonardo da Vinci discovers his left hand
by Melville House
There are plenty of biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, but nothing quite so fresh and incendiary as Mike Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci, out today. Skipping the usual hagiography, it’s a book that peels back the gloss of history to find the true Leonardo, a mysterious loner who walked through pristine hillsides and stinking streets, whose milieu included backstabbing colleagues, overbearing authorities, and tyrants with impeccable taste in art. By examining the facts of Leonardo’s life and looking closely at his work, Becoming Leonardo offers us a view of Leonardo as we’ve rarely seen him: a human being, wild with talent, beset by challenges, and riding tides of remarkable cultural ferment.
In this early passage, Lankford looks to one of Leonardo’s most remarkable tools — the hand that have led some to call him history’s greatest draughtsman.
One of Leonardo’s greatest discoveries as a child had to be the power of his own left hand. It must’ve seemed magical to him at first — and to everyone else. Not only could it capture reality and put it on paper, but the effort of drawing a thing seemed to inform him as well, as if he knew it better afterwards. As if he owned it afterwards. As if to study something closely enough to draw accurately was to also learn it deeply all over its surface, to absorb the thing through visual touch. For him, drawing was a way of knowing the world, and he learned that as a child. Self-taught, it seems clear.
And knowing the world was a defense against it. Drawing would provide him with his role and his disguise. Drawing was central to his identity all his adult life, until he lost it near the end — but by then he was living with a king and coasting, putting on the occasional pageant, otherwise studying his toes a lot.
The micro events leading up to Leonardo’s discovery of what he had at the end of his left arm must be one of the great untold tales of Renaissance art. In a sense, that hand led him through life and was his most valuable possession. It no doubt produced a flood of fantasies by the age of ten or twelve. My guess would be naked angels and devils and dragons. His later dragons, drawn as an adult, are terrific and show his familiarity with the genre. There were surely family stories about the first time the boy picked up a piece of charcoal and drew on a flat rock. Leonardo’s life seemed to generate tales like that, but they too are lost.
It’s equally likely that Leonardo first saw art in the local pottery industry where his family had a financial interest as property owners. Designs on the sides of piss-pots and jars and their repetitious pattern were something even a child could learn to do — not to mention the joy of shaping the pot itself. It might’ve been his very first spark, watching that old potter bend over his wheel, scratching his design on the side with a stick, it all blurring together as the pot spun. Early animation.
We know he loved to walk and Leonardo in his childhood rambles would’ve learned the nuts and vegetables growing around him, like wild asparagus and mushrooms and pears. Learning nature was a huge and complex task which required years of study. He learned that everything had its uses, and even its secrets. Foraging was part of village life then, as was collecting recipes. Herbs were collected for medicinal and maybe entertainment purposes. Did his grandmother keep a garden? Collect recipes? His mother Caterina? Uncle Francesco? Nature was an open book of knowledge, endlessly complex and varied to him who had the eyes to read it. Leonardo learned to see by looking ever more closely at those things around him. The discovery process had to do with revisiting a thing over and over until it revealed itself. Any bee or snake was its own little world of complexity and well worth study. Vinci in the 1460s was a very quiet place at times. A lizard crossing the road could draw a crowd.
We know he was curious, we know he was bright, and that he could draw like a demon, and that he lived in the country for about fifteen years, attentive to the clouds and birds around him. His was a long childhood for the time. Was this delay in becoming an apprentice a result of his self-directedness, his willfulness? His reluctance? His apparent uniqueness in all things mental, like writing? Leonardo, being left-handed and apparently self-taught, learned to write his native Tuscan from right to left instead of the traditional left to right. Not actually reversed writing so much as mirrored writing: normal writing running the wrong direction — thus readable with a mirror. He may have started writing this way as a child to keep his left hand out of the ink, and because a quill pen requires you to drag it, not push it. And probably, at some level, it just made more sense to him. It was easier. And apparently there was no teacher around to slap his wrist and make him do it right. According to some neuroscientists Leo- nardo’s backward writing shows evidence of a rather severe dyslexia. As a solitary child he’d likely developed the habit before anyone fully noticed, and then found it impossible to change. There were consequences though, all through his life. What could he be trained to do?