If you had to name the icons or paragons who embody the idea of European culture for you, how many names would you come up with before remembering Leonardo da Vinci? Most people would certainly include him in their top ten, possibly five, and some would quite likely think of him first. Recently I read somewhere that an Italian researcher found out Leonardo was not in fact European to the bone. Having examined the master’s fingerprint, he determined that the whorling friction ridges followed much the same pattern as those typically seen on the fingerprints of Arab individuals. I have no idea of the size of the fingerprint sample professor Luigi Capasso of the University of Chieti–Pescara used in mounting his less than convincing statistical analysis – the specific spiral pattern in question characterises no more than 60 per cent of the total population of the Middle East – but the relevant database available today is undoubtedly vast. These days, refugees flocking from the East to the borders of our continent are fingerprinted and labelled as “migrants” by Leonardo’s Europe. I suppose there is no point in entertaining a direct analogy between the registering stations set up on Hungary’s southern border and the research into the provenance of the famous Florentine painter, and from now on I will resist the temptation to dabble in that dubious enterprise. Having said that, I wish to essay a few propositions in the belief that the artist’s life and work justify an inquiry along rather similar lines.
As is commonly known, Leonardo was a love-child. Unusually, however, we know more about the identity of his father than about that of his mother: he was one Ser Piero da Vinci, a gentleman who decided to accept in his own name the son born out of wedlock to his housemaid called Caterina. In those days, many women from the East found a new home in Tuscany, most of them baptised as Maria or Caterina on arrival. It is not inconceivable that Leonardo’s mother came to Ser Piero’s portal as a refugee migrant herself, possibly as a victim of the slave trade with Constantinople. We know very little if anything about her identity. It is instructive in this regard that the painter’s baptismal certificate does not deign to expressly identify the mother, when it mentions the priest and no fewer than ten witnesses by name.
We may not possess hard facts, but there are records at our disposal which nevertheless permit certain conclusions to be drawn. Leonardo’s childhood recollection of a raptor’s tail brushing him in his crib is widely known from Sigmund Freud’s essay. Freud identifies the vulture – Leonardo actually called it a kite – with the figure of the mother indulgently kissing her child. (In an adjacent page of Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo writes about a monkey that fondles a nestling to death.) Having grown up in Christian Italy, the artist found such excessive adoration revulsive at a time when the parent’s relationship with the child normally followed Christ’s teaching as recorded in Matthew: “… he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”. Furthermore, displays of parental affection also had to be suppressed because the child, as the fruit of corporeal abandon, was often seen as the incarnation of sin. There was another culture, however, in which the display of emotion was hardly inhibited by such hang-ups and conventions. Suffice it to recall the relationship between Muhammad and Halima, which was far more intimate and informal than that between Jesus and Mary.
Leonardo’s biography contains an intriguing blank spot on the map, perhaps related to a trip the artist allegedly made in Arabian lands. True enough, virtually no records or data survive about his dealings from 1483 to 1486, although it is reasonable to surmise that he did not stay in Milan, where a massive plague had broken out. What we do have extant is a number of letters dated from around this period, addressed to one Diodario di Soria, the Syrian defterdar or lieutenant of the Sultan of Babylon, providing an account of his lengthy travels in the Middle East. Even though the majority of historians regard these peregrinations as purely fictional and refuse to see Leonardo’s letters as anything other than part of his “literary efforts”, this line of inquiry may still be worth pursuing in some ways. Should we need more justification to do that than the interest in tracing down the master’s true extraction, we might as well remember that Syria, no less a “war zone” at the time than it is today, must have been a lucrative prospective purchaser of the kind of war machinery and stratagems which Leonardo preoccupied himself with and continually peddled in the courts of Italian condottieri.
I possess neither the requisite sources nor resources to research the provenance of the painter’s mother, or to collect data in an effort to prove the hypothesis that Leonardo set out for the East in search of his roots. Nor could DNA testing be trusted to yield reliable evidence, given that Leonardo’s grave was vandalised in the wake of the French Revolution, and his bones scattered around, so it is far from certain that those presently found behind the tombstone bearing his name are actually his. Instead of relying on such meagre tools and dubious evidence, I therefore choose to concentrate on the works themselves as the grounds for arriving at my conclusions.
The morally based argument of researchers rejecting Leonardo’s Middle Eastern travelogue as apocryphal – saying how could he, a citizen of Christian Europe, possibly enter the service of a sultan? – can be refuted easily. Case in point: in 1502, Leonardo accepted a commission from Constantinople. Indeed, he may have been the one who first approached Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in a letter penned in Turkish, with the proposal of designing a bridge over the Golden Horn. Albeit the ruler rejected the plan for the gigantic structure, envisioned for the precise location of today’s Galata Bridge, we are still left pondering whether Leonardo had visited the site before he set about drawing. (They say the Sultan later sought to hire Michelangelo for the job, but he declined the offer as a steadfast Papist – or perhaps because he learned he was only the second to be contacted for it.)
In his biography of Leonardo, Giorgio Vasari relates how the master “spent a great deal of time in making a pattern of a series of knots, so arranged that the connecting thread can be traced from one end to the other and the complete design fills a round space. There exists a splendid engraving of one of these fine intricate designs with these words in the centre: Leonardus Vinci Accademia.” The description seems to fit to a tee the design known as the Impresa (Emblem) of the Accademia, sometimes also referred to as the master’s signature knot. While the original cannot be dated precisely, we do know that a second copy of it had been made by 1507, which gives us a fairly good idea of the lost original. Indeed, I had better say copies and originals, in the plural, because the emblem survived in six woodcut versions by Albrecht Dürer and three copper engravings by an unknown artist. The inscription of the latter – LEONARDI.ACADEMIA VI.CI; ACADEMIA.LEONARDI.VIN – leaves no doubt that the original series of emblems was designed, or at least conceived, by Leonardo. As for the woodcuts, those are marked by the well-known initials of the plagiarist Albrecht Dürer.
Each tondo, resembling an intricately looped and knotted cord, can be thought of as the master’s personal logo, as we would call it today. The Italian infinitive vincire, which underlies Leonardo’s surname, means “to thread, to knot”. Fittingly, in lieu of a signature proper, Leonardo sometimes fitted his works, including Mona Lisa’s bodice or the ceiling fresco of the Sforza Castle, with convoluted loops, tendrils and coils, which art historians have come to see as a sort of signature-by-imagery. If we go searching for an antecedent of these sophisticated tangles that operate with hidden symmetries, we will come across oriental patterns before long. Arabesque is a term coined by European art historians to denote a type of surface decoration employing stylised, interleaving plant parts such as tendrils, scrolls and foliage, which cropped up in Europe courtesy of Arab influence. However, it is with somewhat better accuracy, or at least more vividness, that one can unravel the inception of the Leonardian tondo, on the basis of its association with the mandala and the kolam.
In the Orient, particularly India, the ancient custom still survives whereby magic labyrinths with purported powers of exorcism are drawn on the ground in front of the houses, typically by women. These labyrinths, called kolams, consist of a single, uninterrupted line in an undulating pattern frequently folding back upon itself, drawn by letting rice powder or plain sand trickle through the artist’s fingers. Since making the kolam was a daily routine, its practitioners soon attained remarkable mastery. There is no use denying that I am fond of fantasising about Caterina getting busy each morning drawing kolam tendrils in the clean-swept courtyard of Ser Piero’s villa. The geometrical distillation of the kolam, called mandala, has many uses and interpretations from being an accessory for meditation to a rendering of the universe. Leonardo’s knotty emblems of the Academia, as if following the tradition of the kolam and the mandala, have the capacity to simultaneously represent irregular fracturing and unity anchored in a centre. If we want to decipher their quintessential message, we could do worse than point to the recuperation of harmony from dispersed fragments or, if you will, the affirmation of the creative self entrapped in the gyratory context of the universe.
While it is impossible to precisely date the Academia logos, it is likely they were drawn in Milan around the mid-1490s. What we do know to the day is that the painter was visited on 16 July 1493 by Caterina, the mother he had not seen since childhood except on a few scattered occasions. This time, however, she came to stay, and she did, for the remaining few years of her life. It is tempting to whip up a nice romantic story by envisioning a palimpsest of mother, son, and the traces of kolam. Leonardo’s notes, however, only mention that “Caterina showed up on the 16th of July”. Yet I said romantic on purpose. What I have in mind here is the novel The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (1900), in which the author, Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky identifies the rather common female name as belonging to the artist’s mother. This fictional assumption was later embraced by scholars without reservation and has since come to be regarded as an established fact of art history.
A good number of the technical inventions described in extant manuscripts by Leonardo, or at least reconstructable on the basis of recollections and reports by others, are closely linked to an Arab inventor named Badī az-Zaman Abū l-'Izz ibn Ismā'īl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī, or Ismail al-Jazari for short. His oft-repeated, bombastic epithet “the Arab Leonardo” should perhaps be reversed, if for no other reason than for that of chronology, to the effect of referring to Leonardo as the “Italian al-Jazari” instead. Al-Jazari himself completed his illustrated book on the theory and practice of mechanical devices in 1206. His descriptions and illustrations are so meticulous and vivid that they easily lend themselves to the actual reconstruction of various contraptions such as water-raising machines, water clocks, water dispensers, musical devices, pumps, camshafts, crankshafts and, most notably, his various automata, which earned him the title “the father of robotics”, and employ many similar, often identical, solutions to those found in the inventions of the Italian master some ten generations later. Of course, one remains free to conclude that Leonardo and his Muslim forerunner arrived at near identical results incidentally, simply because each approached his subject from a similar technical vantage point and possessed a comparable knowledge base.
Experimenting with optics, mirrors and other aspects of imaging, Leonardo could not possibly have circumvented the Arab Alhazen and his seminal work, Book of Optics. It was in honour of the thousandth anniversary of this book, translated into Latin as early as in the 12th century, that the UNESCO declared 2015 the Year of Light. The Arab scientist, credited with developing the idea of the camera obscura, among other inventions, is often referred to as Leonardo’s master. Most of the optical problems that preoccupied Alhazen are so obviously addressed in due course in Leonardo’s sketchbooks that there can be no doubt about the latter’s fascination with, and inspiration by, the Arab scientist’s work. For instance, both pondered the laws governing the correlation between the original image and its reflection in a curved mirror, particularly of the concave kind. I personally believe that it was these reflections that ultimately led Leonardo to experiment with catoptric representation, even if none of his extant works could be regarded as an example of anamorphosis proper.
Since Arab medicine was less subject to restrictions by religious guidelines, physicians there did not feel their hands tied by doctrine in studying the structure of the human body, and their findings clearly encouraged Leonardo’s own anatomical inquiries. In this field, the master was most profoundly influenced by Ibn Sina, better known to us by his Latinised name Avicenna.
The knowledge accumulated in Ancient Greece was for the most part handed down to the Renaissance via the workshops of Medieval monks, although in the process many texts underwent fundamental revisions thanks to theologically informed censorship. The other channel led through Arab mediation, specifically through the works of the authors of Antiquity as reworked, expanded and elaborated upon by Arab scholars and scientists. While these also had to conform to ecclesiastical criteria, more often than not they represented a more accurate and more authentic corpus – at least one that Leonardo found more comfortable to work with and draw upon.
If Leonardo may be declared a Catholic artist on the evidence of the pious portraits he painted on commission, the seasoned eye will not miss the numerous features scattered across the oeuvre that seem to imply a downright heretic ethos, or certainly one that did not readily align itself with the teachings of the Holy Church. Further proof for this assumption comes from Leonardo’s apocryphal subjects, his portrayals of John the Baptist, and his tendency to give precedence over Christ to the prophet John the Baptist, equally revered in the Islam by the name of Yahya. Leonardo’s surviving notes, which run to some seven thousand pages, do not contain a single admonition to concede one view or another solely on the grounds of faith. Instead, he is only willing to accept knowledge obtained through personal experience, along with the conclusions and inferences drawn from that empirical substance. Anticipating Copernicus by forty years, his famous assertion Il sole non si muove (“The sun does not move”) was considered thoroughly anticlerical, and as such could easily have put his person in danger had he chosen to propagate his observation or explain it in deeper detail.
There is one circumstance in Leonardo’s biography that is difficult to account for. In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV asked Lorenzo de Medici to recruit a handful of the finest artists in Florence for the job of painting his chapel in Rome, the Sistine. Leonardo somehow did not make it to the list, even though he should have been the top candidate to pick. Indeed, he never received a well-paid commission from the Pope – something that all of his colleagues coveted – then, before or thereafter. Was it because everybody knew he was hardly comme il faut when it came to matters of faith?
One cannot help but wonder why Vasari, his biographer, set such great store by emphasising the moribund Leonardo’s conversion, why he went into such vivid detail depicting his contrite confession and zealous acceptance of the host on his death bed. Undoubtedly, in light of his oeuvre, it was at that point no longer feasible to withhold recognition from Leonardo, to persist in symbolically quarantining him as an enemy of the Holy Church based on the stigma inflicted upon him by his sheer atheism or, what is even more likely, by his flirtation with Islam. That something like a “Muslim blemish” did indeed tarnish his otherwise immaculate curriculum vitae is a view I can only attempt to corroborate obliquely, by means of some rather vague propositions.
A recently much hyped claim by the Iranian researcher Morteza Khalaj Amirhosseini that Leonardo actually converted to the Muslim faith has thus far been rejected by all forums that can be taken seriously, and the “19th-century source” the author invokes as testimony but consistently fails to identify is impossible to verify and therefore doubtful, to say the least. Perhaps it would have been wisest not to bother with this contention any further. Yet I felt compelled to try to track down the identity of the mysterious Frenchman whom Amirhosseini claims has been deliberately swept under the carpet in Europe, for fear of “losing” the greatest artist ever reared by the continent. At first I thought of the Swiss Jean Louis Burckhardt, who wrote in French and in fact converted to the Islam himself – probably not out of conviction so much as to gain freedom of movement since he sought to explore the corners of the Arab world off limits for infidels. I myself would not put such a ruse past Leonardo, who was never averse to make-believe. For instance, he did not have any qualms about acting the turncoat in a Milan alternately occupied and reoccupied by the House of Sforza and the French, whenever the other side held out the hope of a more lucrative commission. I have turned every page Burckhardt ever wrote in vain; I have not come across a single reference to Leonardo’s alleged conversion. Nor have I been able to determine whether the author was related to the art historian Jacob Burckhardt, another Swiss but one who preferred to write in German, and who devoted much effort to studying Leonardo and, more generally, the Muslim influence in Italy. Needless to say, this other Burckhardt never said anything about Leonardo’s conversion, either. Incidentally, the greatest French Leonardo-specialist of the 19th century was Gabriel Séailles, the author of Léonard de Vinci, l’artiste et le savant (1892). Séailles made no more mention of Leonardo’s conversion than his colleagues, but he dropped an ironic bon mot that I cannot bring myself to pass over in silence, if only for its relevance to our day and age. He said that Leonardo was the kind of artist whose legend keeps more people busy than do the facts of his life and work.
At long last, I came upon the German Jean Paul Richter, one of the foremost 19thcentury authorities on Leonardo, widely recognised as the translator and publisher of the master’s notes and diaries. Lo and behold, in a study published in 1881, Richter did venture the assumption that Leonardo converted to the Prophet’s faith. His hypothesis was ardently opposed by many at the time, as it has been since then. Yet Richter stood fast against the attempts at refutation. He never had a doubt about the reality of Leonardo’s Oriental outing. He believed every word the artist wrote about his visits to Cyprus, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Armenia, all the way to witnessing the sky-high peaks of the Caucasus and the Taurus.
Conjectures, vague assumptions, half-finished thoughts – possibly none of this would have made it worth my while to embark on this project were it not for the poignant relevance of the subject today, when thousands of migrants are marching to Europe. Do they all know who Leonardo da Vinci was? I suspect not. Then again, familiarity with the artist in the West these days relies more on trendy mystifications à la Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) than on facts verified by art history. I might as well leave this essay hanging in the air, as it were, content to admit my failure to unearth conclusive evidence regarding Leonardo’s extraction and faith. But that would be beside the point. The point I want to make in closing is that his background of origin can or should not have any bearing on our judgement and appreciation of the painterscientist’s oeuvre. Was he European or Arab? Who cares, really?
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel