The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Judging Books By Their Covers – Cassia Price explores the Problems of Cover Design

Day by day, e-readers are making the trade of physical books more competitive, and though cut-outs and matte effects do not change a book’s content, cover art is becoming bolder and more experimental as a result of competition. There is a unique relationship between two art forms when a book is made which is perhaps relatable only to a film and its score, a reminder of just how necessary an attractive or striking cover is. The quality of the cover creates a distinct expectation of the writing inside, and so choosing a cover is one of the most important decisions a publisher makes in the process of a book’s release, especially in the ferocious fiction market.

 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - 2012 Cover by Rodrigo Corral

 

Books have been design objects for centuries, and are often bought in this capacity by those who have no interest in the content, but rather in their aesthetic effect. The Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, dating back to the 7th or 8th Century and now in the British Library, were encased in embellishment and never designed to be opened, despite the sacred words within. Cover art can often reach a state of independence from the words within, and, in some cases, cult status among those who have never read even the book. Examples include some of the most recognisable books of 20th Century, and many modern novels too: the cover of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (see above) have posters, pencil-cases, and all manner of other merchandise based on their covers.

 

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - 1925 Cover by Francis Cugat

 

Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott
Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott

 

The current trend for cover art seems to be simplicity, with advertising for factual books like Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott showing the public how effective an uncomplicated design can be. However, fiction remains a little more decorated, and this can lead to disastrous covers, especially in the teen fiction section, despite this genre recently occupying many top spots in best-seller lists. While the Twilight Saga has striking colours and images on its covers, similar books like Cassandra Clare’s present a series of messy, poorly composed covers. Both are what one might call (however fondly) “trashy” but the differences still definitely command one’s expectations of the inside. A similar effect can occur with classics, as seen below in the contrasting Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Great Gatsby. The gloomy figures have a very different effect to that of the vivid example above, and yet they have both been chosen to represent the same story. Judge the book for the words and the object for the art, but judging a book by its cover can clearly only get you so far.

 

The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen
The Great Gatsby, 1973 Penguin Modern Classics Edition, detail from Montparno's Blues by Kees Van Dongen

 

A problem with the increased pressure on a book’s appearance, its outer art, is that its contents can never be twinned exactly with a different medium. The pairing does not become a diptych, bonded by subject matter, however many editions are produced. They remain advertisements for the contents, just as full of untruths as adverts for anything else. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons simplicity has become so popular (see the new Penguin Hardcover Classics but risk a much lower bank balance), so that expectations are stripped away and abstract ideas can have precedence and judgement is reduced. Keep buying books for the reasons you always have, whether that means literature or design, because if you are reading this blog you probably care about the continuation of art for its own sake.

 

If you are interested in the best and worst of cover art, Flavorwire has an article on this subject, and a Dutch Booktuber, Sanne Vliegenhart, has a wonderful video on her favourite covers. I recommend both.

 

Photos thanks to:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gatsby_1925_jacket.gif

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Fault_in_Our_Stars.jpg

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/11/23/book-review-10-billion/

http://www.businessinsider.com/great-gatsby-book-covers-2013-5

 

Pick of the week: 13 high octane Instagrammers by AHA alum Helena Roy

Instagram may seem unoriginal and spammed with selfies, but the tainted jewel of an app has the potential to inject some artistic colour into the palm of your hand. Instagram’s artistic stars are overrun with photographers and street artists, whose rapid style suit Instagram’s pop aesthetic; but the plethora of visual bites from around the world paints a creative description of day-to-day life…

Best artists

Ai Weiwei (@aiww) – this Chinese artist is on nearly every channel of social media known to man. His feed is a mess of photographs, snaps of artistic process and excitable pictures of everyday life.

Sara Rahbar (@sara_rahbar_) – contemporary mixed media artist, born in Tehran, living in New York. Heavily political, her feed is littered with bullets, flags, limbs and relics of war. Confusing and brutal fusion of East and West.

'Land of Opportunity' by Sara Rahbar

Tanya Ling (@tanya_ling) – A fashion-illustrator-cross- Instragram-whiz, British Tanya Ling creates art in grid form to move and mesh with Instagram’s format. Using multiple snaps to build the bigger picture, look out for clever manipulation of the social media site and microscopic perspectives.

Tanya Ling's picture puzzle Instagram feed

Best for street art

BeirutPost – grafspace (@grafspace) – a charming window into the burgeoning world of street art in the Lebanese capital, occasionally roaming beyond its borders.

Street art in Beirut by grafspace

Gaia (@gaiastreetart) – This prolific street artist is known for his oversized, curious and creature-like concoctions on the street. Thrown in are energetic admirations from similar artists across the globe.

Patternity (@patternity) – Finding order out of chaos, Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham scour the streets and burst off them looking for natural repetitions that inspire materialistic motifs.

Best for virtual travel

Art History Abroad (@ahacourses) – couldn’t slip by without a mention! Follow to live a virtual life of architecture, art, and food in the heart of Italy.

Corners of Italy snapped by Art History Abroad

Sam Horine (@samhorine) – Photographer based in NYC who makes photographs ‘on the go’. Shoots the skyline to the sofa, showing New York in majestic, lit-up and downtown detail.

Borojaguchi (@borojaguchi) – Tokyo-based, globe-trotting web director, snaps the tourist-y to the kitsche in an endearing fashion. Follow to notice things you never knew were there.

Best photography

National Geographic (@natgeo) – without a doubt the most stunning Instagram feed there is, National Geographic collates world observations from an army of adventurous, insane and genius photographers. Shows a side of humanity and the environment rarely seen or noticed, from the Amazon to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Paul Nicklen for National Geographic

Hawkeye Huey (@hawkeyehuey) – 4-year-old analog photographer, depressingly (or unwittingly) talented. Account maintained by father and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who started it all by noticing his son’s playful shots. Follow for the first-time discoveries and Polaroid perspectives of a child.

Hawkeye Huey camera-ready

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (@nasagoddard) – When this world gets boring, move from National Geographic to NASA. Kaleidoscope views from space are an escape from the constant food-grams of someone else’s chocolate pudding.

Free-air gravity map of the moon by NASA

Simone Bramante (@brahmino) – surrealist photographer making use of fantastically filtered natural props and mundane habitats to bring storytelling to photography.

With thanks to Sara Rahbar, Tanya Ling, BeirutPost grafspace, Paul Nicklen for National Geographic, Hawkeye Huey, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Instagram for photography