Leonardo and the interpretation of paintings

Thomas DePasquale

University of California at Santa Barbara

In an interesting passage from the Paragone, Leonardo characterizes the difference between painting and poetry in terms of the need for 'comments' (comenti) and 'commentators' (comentatori). A painting, says Leonardo, "immediately presents to you the demonstrations its maker intended," is "immediately understood by its viewers," and "presents its essence to you in one moment." Poems, by contrast, "are often not understood, and therefore it is necessary to make many comments on them, and even the commentators rarely understand the mind of the poet." (Codex Urbinas 10v-11v). It is ironic that Leonardo should say this, given that his own paintings are perhaps the most commented-upon in all of art history. But hostility toward commentary—and by extension toward interpretation—is a perennial theme in the history of ideas, and one that may constitute the ground of another Leonardo "first", for he seems to be the first author to have brought the anti-interpretation principle to bear in a discussion of the visual arts.

If, as Hans-Georg Gadamer has said, interpretation "aims at causing someone to be rightly oriented toward something," Leonardo's claim is that a painting is itself a sufficient cause for right orientation, and that the interpretive work that commentary performs—description, explication, argumentation—is therefore extraneous (Gadamer 44). Variations on this hermeneutic ideal abound across disciplines. A familiar example from theology is Martin Luther's scriptura sui ipsius interpretes ("Scripture is most certain, most easily understood, most plain, it interprets itself"), which tried to dissolve the ancient problem that, as Tertullian put it, "arguments about Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache." But the ideal of absolute clarity is forever under threat from interpretation, as the subjunctive verb in the juridical principle in claris non fit interpretatio ("where the matter is clear, let there be no interpretation") tacitly admits. Leonardo's Paragone is an attempt to protect painting from just this threat.

The concept of necessity, to which Leonardo accords a suitably heroic status, provides one line of defense: "O wonderful, O stupendous necessity," he writes, "by your law you constrain every effect to be the direct result of its cause by the shortest path" (Codex Atlanticus 949v). The necessity that governs all natural processes also governs the experience of a painting—though the extension, albeit minimal, implied by "shortest path" is replaced and erased in his remarks on painting by the phrases "in one moment" and "immediately". The viewer is always already rightly oriented.

The negative valuation of commentary and the aestheticized view of necessity are in turn bound up with the notion that the goal in science and art is to enter an eternal realm of truth and certainty that exists apart from, and antithetically to, the historical realm of discourse and debate. "Where there are quarrels," Leonardo writes, "there true science is not; because truth can only end one way. Wherever it is known controversy is silenced for all time." With the 'sciences of the eye', to which painting belongs, "all argument is destroyed by eternal silence and these sciences can be enjoyed in peace." (Urb. 19v). The arguers will never argue their way to right orientation, just as, when Leonardo calls them commentators, they will never get there by commenting. As Plato wrote in the Protagoras, "some say the poet's meaning is one thing and some another, for the topic is one on which nobody can produce a conclusive argument. The best people avoid such discussions..." (Wilson, 21). Avoiding such discussions, Leonardo insists that painting is immune to them.

The nature of the threat becomes clearer if we compare Leonardo's position to the viewer-painting relationship that emerges in a remarkable treatise written around 1560 by the physician and botanist Bartolomeo Maranta on the topic of an altarpiece by Titian. At 12,000 words, Maranta's treatise appears to be the earliest essay-length commentary on an individual work of visual art, making Maranta both a figure of some distinction in the annals of commentary, and a symbol of all that Leonardo's hermeneutics of painting is arrayed against.

Maranta begins by posing a question—already a sign of trouble—about why Titian painted the angel of the Annunciation in the manner he did. After venturing a tentative explanation, Maranta cautions his readers,

should this solution not be accepted, we should not on that account criticize the artistry of the painting, as reason dictates that we consider whether one can find something better to say in explication of Titian's mind (Barocchi 867).

The fallibility and tentativeness implied here, and the notion of our being bound by obligation to find "something to say," correspond exactly to Leonardo's characterization of what happens with poetry, but not with painting.

Maranta himself becomes aware that something is wrong. As he approaches the end of his lengthy discussion of Titian's painting, he finds himself trapped between "two evils":

as soon as I finish saying one thing, I am assailed by infinite others, so that I find myself between two evils, one or the other of which I will never escape: if I speak of all that I am capable, I will go on for so long that [you] will not get through it without extreme annoyance; yet if I do not speak, since I have undertaken this task, it seems to me that leaving it imperfect would do wrong to Titian (Barocchi 893).

The commentator is stuck with a Sisyphean task: unavoidable, endless, annoying—a bad mix. Compare this to Leonardo's statement that a painting should "resemble the air which in hot weather draws men from their beds and detains them pleasurably as they partake of the coolness of a summer's night" (Urb. 130v-131r). The difference is between neurosis and euphoria.

Leonardo was not invulnerable to the 'two evils', however, and the problem generates some confusion and contradiction in his text. If it is true, for example, that "painting does not speak, but is self-evident and ends in facts, while poetry ends in words," why should Leonardo also tell us that "if painters were capable of praising their works in writing as poets have done with theirs I do not believe that painting would have such a bad name"? (Urb. 28v; 8v). Centuries later, Martin Heidegger suggested a solution to the dilemma as it manifests in poetry, where Leonardo had located it: "The elucidations of a poem must strive to make themselves superfluous. The last, but also most difficult step of every interpretation is this: to disappear with its elucidations before the pure presence of the poem (Kivy 118)."

But Leonardo knew nothing of disappearing interpretations, which anyway would probably entail too much compromise. Leonardo wanted to see the finished painting as the end of a process of deliberation, inquiry and problem solving, not the start of one. While his argument for the primacy of vision is grounded in scientific theory and "the facts" regarding entities such as the impressiva and senso comune, it draws its vigor and conviction from a desire for pure experience and aversion to explication that Leonardo shares with an intriguing constellation of authors from antiquity to the present, and that many of us are likely to know first-hand.

Fig. 1 Author drawing based on detail of Leonardo da Vinci, Vertical and Horizontal Sections of the Head to Show the Ventricles, Windsor Castle, 12603r, with insertion of the Mona Lisa.

Suggested reading

Barry A. Wilson. About Interpretation: From Plato to Dilthey—A Hermeneutic Anthology (New York, 1988).

Hans-Georg Gadamer. "Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics" in The Gadamer Reader. Ed. Richard E. Palmer (Evanston, 2007).

The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Ed. Peter Kivy (London & New York, 2004).

Bartolomeo Maranta. Discorso in materia di pittura, nel quale si difende il quadro della Cappella del Sig Cosimo Pinelli, fatto per Tiziano, da alcuni opposizioni fattegli da alcune persone, in Paola Barocchi, Scritti d'arte del Cinquecento, Vol I. (Milano & Napoli, 1971).