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Thoughts on Art and Life by Leonardo da Vinci

The painter can call poetry blind painting


The arts which admit of exact reproduction are such that the disciple is on the same level as the creator, and so it is with their fruits. These are useful to the imitator, but are not of such high excellence as those which cannot be transmitted as an inheritance like other substances. Among these painting is the first. Painting cannot be taught to him on whom nature has not conferred the gift of receiving such knowledge, as mathematics can be taught, of which the disciple receives as much as the master gives him; it cannot be copied, as letters can be, in which the copy equals the original; it cannot be stamped, in the same way as sculpture, in which the impression is in proportion to the source as regards the quality of the work; it does not generate countless children, as do printed books. It alone remains noble, it alone confers honour on its author and remains precious {63} and unique, and does not beget children equal to itself. And it is more excellent by reason of this quality than by reason of those which are everywhere proclaimed. Now do we not see the great monarchs of the East going about veiled and covered up from the fear of diminishing their glory by the manifestation and the divulgation of their presence? and do we not see that the pictures which represent the divine deity are kept covered up with inestimable veils? their unveiling is preceded by great sacred solemnities with various chants and diverse music, and when

they are unveiled, the vast multitude of people who are there flocked together, immediately prostrate themselves and worship and invoke those whom such pictures represent that they may regain their lost holiness and win eternal salvation, just as if the deity were present in the flesh. This does not occur in any other art or work of man. And if you say that is owing to the nature of the subject depicted rather than to the genius of the painter, the answer is that the mind of man could satisfy itself equally well in this case, were the man to remain in bed and not make pilgrimages to places which are perilous and hard of access, as we so often see is the case. But if such pilgrimages continually exist, what is then their unnecessary cause? You will certainly admit that it is an image of this kind, and all the writings in the world could not succeed in representing the {64} semblance and the power of such a deity. Therefore it appears that this deity takes pleasure in the pictures and is pleased that it should be loved and revered, and takes a greater delight in being worshipped in that rather than in any other semblance of itself, and by reason of this it bestows grace and gifts of salvation according to the belief of those who meet together in such a place.

[Sidenote: Painting excels all the Works of Man]


The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the brain can most abundantly and splendidly contemplate the infinite works of nature; and the ear is the next in order, which is ennobled by hearing the recital of the things seen by the eye. If you, historians and poets, or mathematicians, had not seen things with the eyes, you could not report of them in writing. If thou, O poet, dost tell a story with thy painting pen, the painter will more easily give satisfaction in telling it with his brush and in a manner less tedious and more easily understood. And if thou callest painting mute poetry, the painter can call poetry blind painting. Now consider which is the greater loss, to be blind or dumb? Though the poet is as free as the painter in his creations and compositions, they are not so satisfactory to men as paintings, because if poetry is able to describe forms, actions and places in words, the painter deals with the very {65} semblance of forms in order to represent them. Now consider which is nearer to man, the name of man or the image of man? The name of man varies in diverse countries, but death alone changes his form. If thou wast to say that painting is more lasting, I answer that the works of a coppersmith, which time preserves longer than thine or ours, are more eternal still. Nevertheless there is but little invention in it, and painting on copper with colours of enamel is far more lasting.

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