Motions of the mind
In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise "On Painting"
established a set of fundamental requirements for the creation of
narrative art. The portrayal of the figure according to its inner
feelings and emotional state was of paramount importance. Expressions,
gestures and motions should all be potent and declamatory, like those
of an orator. Alberti’s advice became a creed and manifesto for
Leonardo, which he took to new heights. Man must be portrayed as a
dynamic, responsive and expressive being in what is an unprecedented
vision of humanity for an artist.
- Diagrammatic drawing illustarting how sight works The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
- Diagrammatic drawing of the brachial plexus The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
- Study for the Last Supper (head of Judas) The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The seat of the soul
Leonardo’s conception of the
neurological functions of the body provided the foundation for his
artistic and scientific philosophy. In the Diagrammatic drawing illustrating how sight works, sensory information gathered in the Imprensiva travels to the sensus communis where fantasia (imagination), intelletto, and most importantly, the human soul reside. Elsewhere, Leonardo labels the sensus communis as volontà
- voluntary action or movement that includes overall motion such as
walking or running, and extends to small details of expression, such as
the raising of an eyebrow. The sensus communis
therefore, not only had receptive and analytical roles, but also
performed the dynamic function of transmitting the commands for human
In his Diagrammatic drawing of the brachial plexus,
Leonardo illustrates a system of “neurological plumbing”, whereby motor
impulses are transmitted from the brain throughout the body via the
spine. Tubular chords carry commands and sensations from the brain to
the limbs and command the movements of the muscles and sinews. Because
the soul instigates all physical movement in the body, in paintings,
the gestures and expressions of every figure must visually communicate
the concetto dell’anima or the “motions of their mind”.
advises that “if you wish to show a good man speaking make his
attitudes fitting accompaniments for good words; if you have to portray
a bestial man, make him with fierce movements”.
The Last Supper is a perfect demonstration of Leonardo’s obsession with the concetto dell’anima.
His understanding of the nervous system, muscles and tendons, “which
and how many nerves are the cause of movement”, is already evident in
the surviving preparatory drawings for the heads of the Apostles, for
example in the Study for the head of Judas.
In the painting, the ebb and flow of movement along the table is the
outward effect of the inner causes of motion and emotion, as the
individual movements of each disciple speak the body language of their
- Two busts of men facing each other © Soprintendenza Speciale Polo Museale Fiorentino
Legend has it that Leonardo searched Milan for expressive facial types to use for the disciples in the Last Supper. He stressed the importance of carrying a notebook at all times to record observations directly from nature to create an aide memoire
of faces. In line with the age-old tradition of physiognomy, he also
recommended to painters to use a physiognomic classification of
features. “Noses” for example, “are of ten kinds”.
subscribed to the general view that the signs of the face show the
nature of men, their vices and temperaments. Those who have facial
features of great relief and depth are “bestial and wrathful men with
little reason, and those who have strongly pronounced lines located
between the eyebrows are wrathful.
In Two busts of men facing each other
familiar types are juxtaposed in old age and youth. Both are
“idealized” to enhance the contrast and to highlight a favourite theme
of the transient nature of beauty – a mortal thing of beauty passes and
does not endure.
- Mona Lisa, Photo RMN - © Hervé Lewandowski / Thierry Le Mage
- Study of a dragon The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Emotions and Fantasia
For Leonardo, emotion was a “continuous quantity”. Ever-changing, feelings cannot be fixed at one point. In the Mona Lisa,
he created the equivalent of a mobile face in painting. The
physiognomic signs do not constitute a single, fixed definitive image.
The features of the face are difficult to read, the corners of the
mouth and the eyes veiled in a mist of translucent glazes, dissolve
According to Dante in the Convivio,
the soul operates largely in two places, the eyes and the mouth. “These
two places, by a beautiful smile, may be called the balconies of the
lady who dwells in the architecture of the body, that is to say the
soul, because she often shows herself there as if under a veil.” The
unknowable motions of Mona Lisa’s mind as the product of her very soul
do seem to be reflected in her face.
According to Leonardo, fantasia and intelletto also resided in the sensus communis.
Fantasia was a sort of active, combinatory imagination that could
combine and recombine sensory impressions to create new compounds.
Study of a Dragon
illustrates how realistic monsters could be created on the basis of
knowledge of real animal anatomy. The concept of fantasia was already
well established as a valuable artistic quality prior to Leonardo. The
Florentine inventor and architect Antonio Filarete, for example, was
well known for his ability to create fantasy buildings and ingenious
allegories. But Leonardo’s vision of the imaginative faculty as an
integral part of the inner senses was unique. It gave artistic
invention the status of a scientifically recognized process of the
human mind. It also gave artists a divine power to fabricate their own
- Two skirmishes between horses and foot soldiers © Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Polo Museale Veneziano
- The Sea God Neptune commanding his quadriga of sea horses The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
From imagination to image
The importance of an artist’s
creative faculty in Leonardo’s philosophy had a profound effect on his
approach to compositional drawing. He advised that an artist must
“first strive in drawing to give to the eye in indicative form the
notion and invention made first in your imagination, subsequently
taking away and adding on until you satisfy yourself”.
The surviving tiny sketch of Two skirmishes between horses and foot soldiers
are a perfect demonstration of his creative method. Beginning with “the
invention made originally in your imagination”…”composing roughly the
parts of the figures attending first to the movements appropriate to
the mental motions of the protagonists involved in the narrative.” The
definition of individual parts must be preceded by the fluent search
for narrative force in the composition as a whole.
In the preparatory sketch for The Sea God Neptune commanding his quadriga of sea horses
the fluidity of Leonardo’s creative process is equally astonishing. He
freely creates forms inspired by Classical antiquity to create a
coherent composition. Some of the rapidly worked black chalk lines
emphasise key elements. Others suggest alternative poses, performing a
creative role in their own right in the emergence of the most effective
- Codex Forster, Book 1 Fol 44r, detail © V&A Images, Victoria and Albert Museum
- Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo – The Martyrdom of St Sebastian © National Gallery, London
Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the
Artists of 1550 conceded that Leonardo had instigated a revolution in
the realm of art. By that time, Leonardo’s concept of the human figure
as the primary vehicle for expression had become an ideal for all
Renaissance artists. But Leonardo’s revolution was not merely a
question of style. It was an entire reform of the creative procedures
of the artist, based on the most profound understanding of nature.
A tiny archer, illustrated in the Codex Forster
Fol 44r illustrates the point perfectly. The sketch accompanies a
description of how “Someone who wishes to draw back his bow…must set
himself entirely on one foot, lifting the other so much higher than the
first that it makes it necessary to counterpoise the weight which is
thrown over the first foot”. When he wishes to let go of the bow “he
suddenly and simultaneously leaps forward and extends his arm and
releases the bowstring”.
A comparison between Leonardo’s archer and an archer from Antonio Pollaiuolo’s The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, painted in the 1470s, indicates the extent of the revolution that is Leonardo’s art.