En route to Milan: more musings about Leonardo

How better to follow a post about Leonardo da Vinci than with a trip to Milan? I am not actually going to Milan itself, but landing at the airport and then travelling about 50 km north of Milan to the shore of Lago di Maggiore and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. I’ve been here about half a dozen times in total and, so far, other commitments have always conspired to prevent me from having time to travel into Milan itself. The one time I did have the opportunity to fulfil a long-held desire to see the Last Supper, I did not realise until too late that it was necessary to book weeks or even months in advance. There was a happy ending of sorts because a month or so after this abortive trip, I saw a contemporary copy of the Last Supper in an exhibition at the National Gallery. Ironically, this full-size oil on canvas copy had survived rather better than Leonardo’s original fresco, so I had the last laugh.

The Last Supper encapsulates the reasons why the borderlands between art and science fascinate me. The exhbition at the National Gallery had many of Leonardo’s preliminary sketches and these, along with his anatomical sketches, show how his finished works are built on a foundation of understanding, borne out of observation, of the human form. Behind a large work such as the Last Supper there is also a deep understanding of the mathematical principles of perspective. Add in a knowledge of pigments and we have three distinct areas of science combining in Leonardo’s mind to inform the finished work.

But why? The Last Supper fills one wall of the refectory at the Convent of Santa Maria fella Grazie. The monks saw lifesize and anatomically-accurate depictions of Jesus and his disciples eating as they ate. Leonardo had brought all that science and art together to evoke the presence of Christ, with all the complex symbolism of the eucharist. This is not “fine art” that exists in a vacumn, but a work with a very clear function: an ever-present reminder to the monks of their vocation.

Ours may be a less superstitious world, but it is no less mysterious and one of the roles art can still play is to fill in some of the gaps when the “hard” evidence upon which science depends runs out. Some of the best examples are the reconstructions of the worlds inhabited by dinosaurs, when the meagre anatomical evidence is extrapolated into plausible entities. Just as the monks were pulled into the Last Supper as they ate their meals, so we can use these “imagined but not imaginary” landscapes as ways to enter (or, at least, come closer to) prehistoric worlds or, in my case, microscopic ones.

Postscript: I didn’t make it to Milan today after all. An air traffic control strike in France disrupted flights all over Europe and I’m writing this from a hotel close to the airport at Amsterdam. It’s not just me: go to heatherkellyblog.wordpress.com for more travelling misadventures today.

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