Martin Kemp Analyzes Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings

Martin Kemp is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Oxford, and his book “Leonardo by Leonardo” presents a stunning gallery of the master’s paintings alongside Kemp’s own insights, as well as the reflections of Leonardo himself. Kemp sits with Walter Isaacson, who himself wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Leonardo, to compare notes about the great man.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Leonardo da Vinci certainly optimizes the renaissance man. And this year marks the 500th anniversary of his death and his genius. Martin Kemp, his professor emeritus of art history at Oxford University. And he’s one of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo. His book “Leonardo by Leonardo” is a stunning gallery of the master’s 27 existing paintings paired with Kemp’s lifetime of scholarship and insight. And it includes extensive reflections by Leonardo himself. Professor Kemp sat down with our Walter Isaacson who also panned a widely acclaimed biography. And they shared insights into the injuring brilliance of Leonardo over half a millennium.


WALTER ISAACSON, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You are of course the greatest Leonardo scholar in our time. You keep making new discoveries about Leonardo. But in this latest book “Leonardo by Leonardo,” wonderful art, beautiful art book. What you do is instead of trying to make new discoveries; you look at the paintings yet anew. Why did you decide to do that?

MARTIN KEMP, EMERITUS PROFESSOR AT UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: It’s an odd story in a way. It’s approached by (inaudible) arts and media. And they said — (inaudible) Roosevelt in particular said would I do a nook on Leonardo’s paintings. And I thought I’ve written enough about Leonardo. I’ve written about the paintings. But it was surprising in a way. I’d never done a book just about the paintings. So I thought it was a distinct advantage in doing a book about the paintings so I could look intensive with each one but also look at that in the context of all of them. And I never done that and look at it freshly and come to (inaudible) the primary sources vile the contracts, vile Leonardo’s words, vile (inaudible) words and to give it a freshness and directness. And above all, to make people look. We delegate acts looking to our phone these days. That’s (inaudible). People don’t look at Mona Lisa anymore; they just take a selfie or an image. So the point of the book above all visually is to have these absolutely striking plates where people have to look because it grabs you. You look at the place and you think oh, that’s just fantastic. So, it’s reinstating the acts of looking hard.

ISAACSON: Let’s start with Ginevra de’ Benci, a painting he does when he’s very young, the only painting that’s in the United States now. And just like the Mona Lisa, it’s the wife of a florentine cloth merchant done in three quarters profile. Tell me what you learned by looking intensely at that picture and then maybe we’ll contrast it to the Mona Lisa.

KEMP: Yes. Well looking at the picture, like all Leonardo’s has extraordinary presence. They’re kind if uncanny as you all know. In front of Leonardo, the pictures sort of do things. They’re not just sort of (inaudible) objects, a face map of Ginevra. And it’s very rare at that time for a woman to look at you and it slightly bad manners in a way. So, Ginevra must’ve been complicit in this way of portraying her so that she is looking at you. She’s not smiling but she’d definitely scrutinizing you. And it has that slightly uneasy quality.

ISAACSON: One of the things about the painting is it has a river that seems to come down from the ancient mountains of eons of time away and flow through civilization and almost connect to her as if Leonardo’s quest is saying how do we fit in to this cosmos. And of course you see the same thing with the “Mona Lisa.” To what extent was that a quest of Leonardo da Vinci?

KEMP: You’re absolutely right that the — the landscape is not just a backdrop, it’s not just sitting there as a scenic thing as it might do in a say a painting from the Netherlands, which Leonardo knew but he actually makes it a living thing. And there’s a parallel between — say look at her hair. Her hair is all these water seas or — and later he says the movement of water is like the curling of hair or the curling of hair is like the movement of water. You’ve got the weight of the hair, you’re got the impetus as he calls — the impetus of the currents and you’ve got the revolution, you get a helix. Now there’s no theoretical writing at that time but it’s instinctual, I think, very early on. He’s — he’s got that sense that the movement of water in the landscape is reflected in the very turbulent motion of her hair.

ISSACSON: Wow. And so we look at Ginevra de’ Benci, and as you say he understands the patterns of swirls and curls and vortexes. We see that pattern across all of nature; even in his studies of the human heart he looks at how a vortex works. How important is it that Leonardo sees patterns in so many different fields how they connect?

KEMP: Yes. He sees analogist forms everywhere. He — he’s a lateral thinker, he’s a lateral seer we could say. He senses the commonality of force and form in nature in all these different areas and everything branches out from that. So far from doing lots of things, which he kind of relates, there’s a common core of understanding of how nature works and the human beings place in nature and all these things, whether it’s geology physics and anatomy. They all branch out from this common trunk.

ISSACSON: When you look at the “Mona Lisa” and you’ve had the great pleasure of seeing it out of the glass, when they’d take it out of the frame once a year, what do you see that the rest of us, when we go there instead of using our cell phones and do selfies, we should look at?

KEMP: We see the picture as a living thing and I’ve seen it with different illumination. One year when I was there with Pierre Rosenberg, the great former director of the Louvre, we looked at it under artificial light. We looked at it with the light coming through the window. And this sounds a bit like — a bit portentous in a way but the thing lives. It has a living presence. And a few artists can do that. Rembrandt can do that; Vermeer can do it, and so on. But there’s a catalog of artist who don’t just do vivid pictures but where the picture has a living presence and there’s no other way to describe it.

ISSACSON: And her smile is almost interactive and it seems, to me, connecting all he knows about optics and art and science and anatomy, with the beauty that he sees in the emotions of humans.

KEMP: That’s absolutely right. He’s using what I call the optics of uncertainty. As a young man he assumes that what you see is what you see. It’s a geometrical process and basically the eye is like a pair of compasses or dividers measuring nature. He then, partly through his knowledge of Islamic science, an author called Alhasan in the west. He knows and learns how complicated vision is. That it’s a very slippery thing.

ISSACSON: It doesn’t have sharp lines.

KEMP: He says at one point in — in the manuscripts, he said the eye does not know the edge of any body. And indeed “Mona Lisa” does that. Therefore, you’ve got an expression that you project into it and it relates very much to Renaissance poetry where the beloved ladies are always out of reach. (Inaudible) or these beloved ladies who the poet — poets always write about are always — some requited, their always divine — (inaudible) divine. They’re always out of reach. So there’s this odd combination of poesia or of poetry within Soleto and (inaudible) and somehow are the science, poetry, imagination, all these things come as one with Leonardo.

ISSACSON: When you look at “The Last Supper” you see the artificial perspective that Leonardo makes it looker deeper in the wall than it does. And all of these things from the gestures and emotion on the face to the narrative flow of the painting, it seems so much to come from every trick Leonardo has learned both from optics and the theater. When you write about it in this book, how do you deal with that?

KEMP: I look at it as exactly that. As taking all these elements and bringing it together in a great statement. And we know how carefully he thought about that picture, ranging from how do you create this illusion of the room without making it stick to the real room too carefully, he separates that bit of space as a kind of separate island, so it doesn’t become too vulnerable to our changes of viewpoint. So, that’s sort of a mechanical, optical thing to, what I’ve called the El Cheto — well, what he call the El Concheto Delanima, the concept or purpose of the soul of the people. So, each of those decuples he looks at, he thinks, how do they react. They say, is it me do the betrayal, one of you shall betray me —

ISAACSON: This is — this is — this is terrible.

KEMP: Another one goes — oh, I told you so, and they’re incredibly, beautifully I — characterized individual reactions, which he’s thought through. Judas, of course knows, and starts back, he’s rigid, his tendons in his neck are standing out. So —

ISAACSON: But he’s reaching to dip with his hand, do you feel like it’s a narrative.

KEMP: Absolutely. Yes, normally Judas is put on the other side of the table. Leonardo doesn’t want to do that. He starts doing that in a drawing and thinks, well, I can differentiate Judas physiologically. I don’t have to do it with this physical separation.

ISAACSON: It makes it feels like a stage narrative with everybody sort of facing the audience and then the narrative going through each emotion.

KEMP: It’s a very artificial construction. As you know, Walter, there’s not room for them all to sit down behind the table. They’re standing up and moving, so he didn’t want it to get too diffused and spread out, which is the problem with the “Last Supper,” if you do each of the decuples with lots of space and between them and then it becomes a really diffused narrative. So, he’s compacted this compacted this and you don’t realize how artificial it is until you actually start to analyze it.

ISAACSON: And, of course, one of the most beautiful things is John looking beautiful, sort of leaning a bit and you have the Dan Brown thesis that this is Mary Magdalene —

KEMP: Yes, yes.

ISAACSON: There’s a lot of people come up with all sorts of thesis. They must all write to you, because you’re the world’s expert on it.

KEMP: Yes.

ISAACSON: One who wrote you, said, oh, I found another Leonardo and it was La Bella Principessa. And at first you react. I read your — say, OK, I get hundreds of these things, I’m not going to look at this one.

KEMP: Yes, yes.

ISAACSON: And you ended up being the lead person who helps authenticate that as a lost Leonardo drawing really.

KEMP: Sure. In the case of — see, when I named La Bella Princepessa, you think, well, you know, it looked — it looked almost too good to be true, so I thought that this peculiar, there’s something wrong with it. And I waited until I was due to go to Geneva anyway, which is where it was in store and I thought it was worth looking at, by the file I was sent, a nice high resolution to digital file looked pretty good. And, yes, you see — wow, you see this, it came up in this Freeport, it came up from downstairs wand was put on a sponge wedgy so that we could see it at the proper angle. And it’s just amazing.

ISAACSON: The most controversial and interesting present day question about a Leonardo painting and whether it’s authentic is Salvator Mundi. And I think over the past two years, my own feelings have gone in waves about how much of that is truly Leonardo’s brush strokes, how much of it was by his studio, whether it’s really a Leonardo. Give me your thoughts.

KEMP: Well, I think it’s — it’s undoubtedly Leonardo. It has been said that it’s a conventional subject frontal and Leonardo wouldn’t have done that, but if you’re doing a Salvator Mundi, that’s what it is. Salvator Mundi has three things, it has to have the direct look, which is the whole idea is you can’t escape. You’ve got the blessing, and we know that Leonardo altered all the painter, let’s say, at the moment, altered the position of one of the fingers, which is — which is different from the copies. And we know that he’s got to hold a globe, and the globe is normally, what in Latin is called the Obis Terrarum, the orb of the earth. And what Leonardo has done, he’s portrayed this as rock, crystal sphere. I did some geology at Cambridge when I was doing science, so I — when I saw it, I thought, oh, that’s not glass.

ISAACSON: It’s got the inclusions in it.

KEMP: With little inclusions, these little air spaces. They’re not bubbles, nice little round bubbles like you get in glass or you probably don’t want round bubbles in glass. And that then, if it’s crystal lined sphere it alters the meaning of it. So, this very conventional subject, the crystal line sphere is the crystal line sphere of the fixed stars, which was thought to be a crystal line sphere in which all the fixed stars revolved the earth. That’s the limits of the finite universe, outside that is God the spiritual realm, in a realm which Leonardo believes we can’t enter because it’s infinite realm, not encompassable, so he’s saying that Christ is the Savior of the cosmos, not just the savior of the earth. And within a subject, which is very conventional, this is very smart.

ISAACSON: There’s always something new to learn about Leonardo, and you’re life has been doing that. One of the most fascinating to me is when you and a couple of other researchers finally discovered the background of his mother who had been lost to history.

KEMP: Now, this was exciting. It was discovered by my co-author of the book on the Mona Lisa, Duceppe Palanti, who’d been unearthing documents relating to Mona Lisa and the family. And so, I said to him Vinci is a small place. Certainly Caterina – you know the mother was called Caterina who was married off soon after producing Leonardo. There must be a trace of Caterina in the record. And Duceppe sleuthed out this substory of Caterina, the – her father was an ne’er-do-well who just appeared. Her mother died. She was brought up by members of the family as an orphan basically, and her on a summer evening in 1451, her Ser Piero, the rising young notary who produced lots of children later –


ISAACSON: Yes. Ser Piero da Vinci from (inaudible).

KEMP: Yes, Ser Piero da Vinci, the lawyer and this young peasant girl, and they produced Leonardo. She is married off very quickly to get her out of the way, but Leonardo is a welcomed child. It’s just the lack of – a lot of people were born illegitimately in Italy at this time.

ISAACSON: Was he lucky to be born illegitimate meaning he didn’t have to become a notary, he didn’t have to go to college and get the scholastic wisdom of the middle ages stuffed into his brain?

KEMP: Yes, I think what we know of Leonardo’s temperament, the idea of him sitting and grasping the arcane facts of Latin law is probably not quite his mateo.

ISAACSON: One of the few personal things that’s in the notebooks is Salai, sort of scampsih (ph) companion. What do you make of Salai?

KEMP: Salai is a fascinating figure. He’s always been subject to a film or a novel (ph), he should be. This young man, (inaudible) — who wasn’t from a bad family. He’s not a peasant – arrived in Leonardo’s studio in the 1490s and was a rouge. He was obviously incredibly beguiling but very rougeish, and he stole anything that wasn’t tied down in a way. He stole silver points which were valuable. These were drawing instruments made out of silver from (inaudible) that –


ISAACSON: But he becomes Leonardo’s companion – life companion.

KEMP: He becomes one of the companions, yes.

ISAACSON: But the primary one, right?

KEMP: Yes. Leonardo writes at one point (inaudible) glutton. He’s absolutely irritated by Salai beyond belief and he talks up all the things he’s stolen, makes a total of it.

ISAACSON: Right, but he takes him to dinner parties. We know that, and buys things for him.

KEMP: Yes. No, he’s obviously a very – very –


ISAACSON: Buys very expensive socks.

KEMP: — very beguiling figure. He claims to be able to paint and we now do have a painting by Salai from 1511 of Christ. (inaudible). But the other companion is of a different order. It’s Francesco Melzi – younger than the aristocratic family, the counts of Melzi who live outside Milan – and this is an educated man and this is the man who becomes the guardian of Leonardo’s posthumous treasures, particularly the notebooks. You know, he liked attractive young men.

ISAACSON: And is it a problem for him? Is he OK with being gay in the late 1400s in Florence and Milan?

KEMP: I think it’s not quite thought of in our contemporary terms, but I think it’s very clear overall his sexual orientation was homosexual rather than straight.

ISAACSON: You keep discovering new things about him. Who his mother was, La Bella Principessa, a drawing Salvator Mundi, you know, controversial but looks like it was from his hand. What are we going to discover next? Are we going to find some new notebook? Are we going to get Leda and the Swan which I’ve always wanted to pop up?


KEMP: Yes.

ISAACSON: Because we know he did one, but we haven’t ever seen it, right?

KEMP: Yes. There are two dimensions to these act of discovery. One is obviously works of art appearing. Now there’s only since the Madonna Benois and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg which appeared around 1900, there’s been one painting. Salvator Mundi, so it’s not frequent. They don’t come up –


ISAACSON: But we have a couple of drawings.

KEMP: We have a couple of drawings. We had the Madrid manuscripts – these amazing volumes in Madrid which came up in 1966, so I think –

ISAACSON: It shows all of the mechanics and all –


KEMP: Mechanics and –


ISAACSON: — engineering.

KEMP: — engineering and the casting techniques for the bronze horse he was doing in honor of Ludovico (inaudible) the Duke of Milan’s father. So there’s that element, and you can’t tell. Something may come up. I think it gets less and less likely because people are much more alert now. The other aspect of the discovery is like with the great figures with Dante, with Shakespeare and so on. They put so much in, they put so much of their knowledge, their emotion into the works that there’s always more to get out of it. So, there’s always that — that fresh insight, which I — I hope I managed some in the book at least, which is a discovery, but it’s a — it’s adjusting our way of looking at things.

ISAACSON: Martin Kemp, thanks for all you’ve done and thanks for being with us.

KEMP: It’s my pleasure, Walter, thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company Bob Iger joins Christiane Amanpour to discuss his new memoir “The Ride of a Lifetime,” and art historian Martin Kemp sits down with Walter Isaacson to explain how his book “Leonardo by Leonardo” unpacks the meaning behind da Vinci’s paintings.