Symposium Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
The Face as the Mirror of the Soul

International symposium accompanying the exhibition held on November 5th in Haarlem.

Eight experts on Leonardo da Vinci from the Netherlands and around the world discussed different facets of the most versatile artist of the Renaissance. Here you find the abstracts of the different talks.


  • Martin Clayton (The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) – The Evolution of Leonardo’s Drawing Techniques
  • Domenico Laurenza (Museo Galileo, Florence) – Physiognomy from Antiquity to Leonardo: An Introduction
  • Paula Nuttall (Victoria & Albert Museum, Londen) – The Sausage Woman & Co: the Comic-grotesque and Leonardo’s Florentine Roots
  • Michael W. Kwakkelstein (Guest curator of the exhibition, Utrecht University) – Leonardo against Humanity
  • Dennis Geronimus (New York University) – Fourteen at the Table: The Legacy of Leonardo’s Last Supper
  • Michiel Plomp (Teylers Museum) – Quinten Massijs and Leonardo
  • Bram de Klerck (Radboud University Nijmegen) – Leonardo da Vinci and Comic Painting in Sixteenth-Century Northern Italy
  • Joost Keizer (University of Groningen) – Leonardo on Culture

Photo: Wiebrig Krakau

Martin Clayton (The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

The Evolution of Leonardo’s Drawing Techniques

Leonardo used every drawing material available to the Renaissance artist, but his preferences changed over time, and according to the type of drawing that he was making. This talk will review the development of Leonardo’s techniques, beginning with metalpoint and pen and ink in his early years; his use of coloured grounds; the abandonment of metalpoint in the early 1490s in favour of red and black chalks; the highly colouristic drawings of the early 1500s, sometimes combining chalks with pen and wash, and his use of watercolour in his maps; and his rejection of colour in his final drawings, using ink and black chalk alone to explore the most subtle variations of tone. Naturally, this evolution of technique went hand in hand the evolution of his drawing style, and the interrelationship of the two will be discussed.

Domenico Laurenza (Museo Galileo, Florence)

Physiognomy from antiquity to Leonardo: an introduction

The most recent studies have clarified how Leonardo’s physiognomic research was not the starting point of a science that developed later, but an original chapter in a tradition of studies that arose centuries earlier. I will examine the context in which during the 3rd century BCE. the first known treatise on physiognomy was produced, its connections with the analogical Aristotelian scientific method, the three different methods of physiognomic investigation theorized in the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise, the connections with the anatomical notion of complexio and with the art of the same period. I will then look at how physiognomy developed during the Middle Ages, how it was connected with medicine in the Arab world and and how it was studied in the Latin world during the 13th century at a time when Aristotle’s biological works were being rediscovered. This will provide the general framework for an analysis of some examples of Leonardo's physiognomic drawings and studies. In particular, I aim to show how they are connected to his contemporary anatomical and artistic research, while seeking while seeking to understand what was new about them and what debts they owed to ancient and medieval physiognomy.

Paula Nuttall (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

The Sausage Woman & Co: the Comic-grotesque and Leonardo’s Florentine Roots

Leonardo’s interest in the comic-grotesque has long been recognized as rooted in a visual culture that flourished during his formative years in Florence, notably in the emergent print culture of the 1460s and 70s, and in the ambit of his master Verrocchio.  Three works in the current exhibition at the Teylers Museum exemplify this: two drawings of comic-grotesque morris dancers convincingly attributed to Verrocchio, and the large print known as the Sausage Woman or Carnival Dance, by an unknown contemporary Florentine engraver who used the monogram SE.  In this lecture, I shall focus on the imagery of these drawings and the Sausage Woman, together with that of some typologically related prints, in order to shine a light on this Florentine comic-grotesque visual culture, and on the genesis of Leonardo’s interest in the genre.   I demonstrate that this imagery is indebted to northern European art, and argue that Florentine artists in Verrocchio’s circle melded influences from the north with ideas that were embedded in their own visual and verbal culture.

Michael W. Kwakkelstein (Guest curator of the exhibition, Utrecht University)

Leonardo Against Humanity

Based on documentary evidence it is estimated that at his death Leonardo’s written legacy consisted of about 30.000 sheets of paper of which today only some 6000 sheets are known. As Martin Kemp noted, no one has ever used paper as a laboratory for thinking and recording observations and experiences on Leonardo’s kind of scale. Like his art, Leonardo’s writings reflect a great interest in human beings. He was fascinated by their anatomy, physiology, physiognomy, health, ageing, emotional behaviour, body language, moral character and ingenuity. It has therefore struck scholars that in his numerous writings Leonardo hardly ever speaks directly of his feelings, his daily activities or relationships to other people. They concluded that he preferred to keep his feelings and subjective judgements or values to himself.

In this paper I seek to revise this view by arguing that Leonardo did commit to paper his personal opinions and feelings, although not always in a direct manner. In commenting upon Leonardo’s personality, biographers and scholars have rarely considered a group of notes from which I believe we can infer aspects of his character because they reveal his opinion of others. I am thinking of those notes, scattered throughout Leonardo’s manuscripts, in which he makes critical comments about men who practice certain professions and about mankind. In these notes Leonardo often uses emotionally charged language and does not shun the use of harsh words. This suggests that negative or painful experiences with others had prompted him to vent his hurt feelings into writing. It is my view that, in addition to those critical comments he jotted down amidst his other notes, Leonardo also used drawing and literary vehicles, such as moralistic fables, jests and prophesies, to channel his feelings of resentment towards certain people and mankind in general.

Dennis Geronimus (New York University)

Fourteen at the Table: The Legacy of Leonardo’s Last Supper

Leonardo’s Last Supper is a work of many paradoxes. Chief among them is the reality that the more its legibility waned, as the image disappeared gradually from vision within only decades of its completion, the greater its fame waxed. It was not long before the fading relic became dependent on the written word (as well as second-hand copies) for the articulation of its guiding artistic principles – and its survival for posterity. The earliest written responses make clear that Leonardo’s mural belongs as much to the history of emotions as it does to the history of art, aligning as it does vision and faith with profound expressions of human feeling. The present talk addresses the Last Supper's afterlife. In what ways did the mural matter in the proceeding centuries and how does it continue to matter for us today, in the modern imagination? Our visual journey will trace the painting’s complex, often contradictory legacy, ranging from issues of conservation to its relevance as a source of inspiration for artists in the 20th-21st centuries in the work of artists such as Andy Warhol, Marisol, Vik Muniz, Damien Hirst, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Michiel Plomp (Teylers Museum, Haarlem)

Leonardo’s influence on Quinten Massijs

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) followed the tradition of his day by carefully preserving all his drawings and notebooks. In his will he left that vast paper archive to his pupil Francesco Melzi (1491/3-c. 1570). However, a group of drawings, mainly of caricature heads, somehow became separated from this ‘mother lode’ very early on, around 1510, while Leonardo was still alive, and ended up in Antwerp. Quinten Massijs (1465/6-1530) had access to those drawings there and used them in his religious and profane paintings. His decision to incorporate Leonardo’s idiom in his profane pictures may account for his special interest in the depiction of emotions and character traits. That is why Massijs is regarded as one of the pioneers of profane painting, so he probably owes much of that special position in Netherlandish art to his Italian colleague.

Bram de Klerck (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Leonardo da Vinci and Comic Painting in Sixteenth-Century Northern Italy

One of the many aspects of Leonardo da Vinci's inquisitive mind is his interest in humor and jest. He was famous for his practical jokes and funny stories, which he also deployed to study and depict the effects of laughter on the human face. In sixteenth-century Milan, this side of Leonardo's thought and artistic production fell on fertile ground. The Milanese painter and art-theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1592) described how Leonardo, with a facetious discourse, made a group of peasants laugh in order to draw their faces afterwards. Lomazzo, who claimed to have been acquainted with many of these drawings himself, was also one of the central figures in the ‘Accademia dei facchini della Val di Blenio’, a farcical society of poets and painters with a predilection for the humorous and the ridiculous in both language and image. This part of Leonardo’s legacy will be investigated in the, lecture by disusing some of his followers in Milan and elsewhere in Lombardy, who seem to have based images of laughing (and sometimes weeping) figures on the examples set by the painter from Vinci. Interestingly, in the course of the sixteenth century, this seemingly innocent type of comic imagery met with increasing criticism, especially from a religious point of view. But, although the Catholic Reformation (and later the Counter Reformation) opposed to the vane and morally objectionable connotations of carefree laughter, by a pragmatic twist comic images turn out to have been allowed in the end.

Joost Keizer (University of Groningen)

Leonardo on Culture

Painting is considered part of culture, not of nature. Listening to fashion, taste, the market and the whims of man, painting moves in step with what time and place demand of her. It has always been that way. One of Leonardo’s aims was to release picture-making from the grip of culture and to bring it back to nature. This led him to write an unprecedented critique of culture: of the speed of fashion, of man’s need to expand the known world westwards, of writing, printing, politics, cooking, war. This lecture explores Leonardo’s effort to define painting as a path that will bring culture back to nature.

The symposium is a joint venture of the Dutch University Institute for Art History (NIKI) in Florence and Teylers Museum.