Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci
A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.
By Maria Popova
Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.
Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.
In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.
Steadman writes in the introduction:
In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.
Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.
Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:
The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.
The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.
Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?
All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.
Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.
If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.
O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.
Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.
Published July 11, 2014